The 116th CBC in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

The weather leading up to the 116th Christmas Count Period was some of the warmest on record, with both states averaging 13 degrees above normal during December and temperatures reaching the high 60’s around Christmas Day. There were a few more rarities than usual and good numbers of lingering half-hardy species, but northern birds were notable for their absence.

Only 29 CBCs were submitted from New Jersey, as Belleplain and Marmora dropped out. It is unfortunate to lose these long-standing counts, which had been run for 28 and 42 years, respectively.  The 196 species recorded was well below last year’s 208 and six below the 20-year average. Cape May again led the state with 147 species, its lowest total in 23 years.  Cumberland (130) beat out Barnegat (121) for second place and Oceanville (115) was again fourth. No new count highs were achieved.

The 36 species of waterfowl included single Greater White-fronted Goose at Princeton, Ross’s Goose in Cumberland, and a Barnacle Goose at Sandy Hook.  The only Eurasian Wigeon were at Cape May and Long Branch, while Cape May and Pinelands each had a Blue-winged Teal. Fifteen Common Eiders were at Barnegat, but King Eider went undetected. Ruffed Grouse was missed completely for the first time in eight years, as this species has never recovered from the population crash of the mid-1990s. Only three Red-necked Grebes could be found, but a nice flight of Northern Gannets along the coast produced a near-record 11,293 birds.

Double-crested Cormorants continue to increase in winter, with 18 counts tallying a record 2211; as recently as 25 years ago a count of a few hundred was the norm.  One of the outstanding finds of the period was the three American White Pelicans at Sandy Hook, only the second New Jersey CBC record, the first coming in 1978, although there have been a couple of count-week sightings in recent years. Cape May tallied a count-record 127 Great Egrets, and had the only Snowy Egret and a Little Blue Heron; Pinelands also located a Little Blue Heron. The long-staying White-faced Ibis at Cape May put in an appearance on count day to become the first of its kind to be recorded on a New Jersey CBC.

Cumberland County had the only two Ospreys of the season and one of the Golden Eagles; Walnut Valley had the other four. For the first time since the 1960s, there were no reports of Northern Goshawk, but Bald Eagle numbers continue to increase to a new record of 569 birds, as only one count failed to report the species.  Only two reports of Rough-legged Hawk confirmed that it was an off year for this northern visitor. Cumberland had a Sora and Trenton Marsh a Common Gallinule, both seldom reported on CBCs.  A total of 27 Sandhill Cranes from four different counts was a new state high.

Single Razorbills at Cape May and Island Beach were the only alcids of the season.  Cape May also added the only Black-legged Kittiwake and Little Gull, and all but ten of the record 5484 Bonaparte’s Gulls. A total of ten Laughing Gulls was found on four counts, but there were no Forster’s Terns for the first time in six years. The single Snowy Owl at Barnegat was more typical after the big invasion of 2013-2014 and the smaller echo flight last season, while the only hummingbird was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Cape May, rather than the more expected Rufous.

All of the woodpeckers were reported in good numbers, including an excellent 52 Red-headed Woodpeckers. Only 79 American Kestrels could be found, the second lowest total in recent decades, but 58 Merlins was a record high number. A well-documented Least Flycatcher was the highlight of the Elmer CBC and the first ever recorded on a New Jersey count.  Cumberland, Cape May and Raritan Estuary each had an Ash-throated Flycatcher, the highest total since 2007 when four were tallied. A single shrike, most likely Northern, at NW Gloucester County was the only one of the season.

A record 81 Common Ravens were found on 10 CBCs, as this species continues to increase and expand its range into the southern half of the state.  Just five Tree Swallows were tallied, a dramatic drop from last year’s 211, but three Cave Swallows at Cape May represented just the second occurrence on a New Jersey CBC, the first being in Cape May in 1999. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at Raritan Estuary was the first in several years. Unusual warblers included a Black-and-white in Lower Hudson, single Wilson’s Warblers in Lower Hudson and Moorestown, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler at Princeton, the first ever in New Jersey on a CBC, although there have been two records from the New York City side of the Lower Hudson count.  Count-week species included Nashville Warbler, Yellow Warbler, and Yellow-throated Warbler, all at Trenton Marsh, where they remained for weeks.

Cape May had the only Nelson’s Sparrow, but a Clay-colored Sparrow at Long Branch represented the third year in a row that this species has been found in the state on a CBC. Single Vesper Sparrow at Mizpah and Lincoln’s Sparrow at Boonton were the only ones of their kind, but a male Painted Bunting, present for weeks, was the highlight of the Boonton count. Modest numbers of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins were found around the state, but the single Common Redpoll at Cape May was the only other winter finch reported.

Seventy-five counts were contributed from Pennsylvania, with the addition of Imperial, but without Duck Harbor Pond and Phillipsburg. The 168 species reported was about average, but six more than last year, including some outstanding rarities. Southern Lancaster County with 103 species edged out Harrisburg (102) for the top spot, followed by Southern Bucks County (96) and Upper Bucks County (92). Of the long-running counts, only Huntingdon, with 76 species, reached a new high.

Among the 31 species of waterfowl reported were seven Greater White-fronted Geese, a bit above average, and six Ross’s Geese, typical of recent years. A Trumpeter Swan at Lake Raystown was presumably from the established reintroductions to the north, while a Blue-winged Teal at Erie was unexpected. New Bloomfield had six Surf Scoters and Erie found 18 White-winged Scoters, but Black Scoter was missed for the first time in five years. Erie also had a count-week King Eider.

Lancaster and Erie each had a Red-throated Loon, but Erie also located a Pacific Loon, the first ever for a Pennsylvania CBC. Two Red-necked Grebes at Erie and another at Indiana comprise the highest statewide total since 1993. Southern Bucks County had the only Great Egret of the season. Black Vultures reached a new high of 2801, while the ten Golden Eagles from nine different counts was the second highest total after the 11 in 2001. Bald Eagles soared to a new high of 793, a 29% increase from last year’s record total; as recently as 1999, the CBC total was less than 100 birds.

Two Virginia Rails were at Lancaster and the record 88 Sandhill Cranes included 85 at Linesville and three more at Bald Eagle State Park.  A count-week Sanderling at Erie narrowly missed being the first ever recorded on a Pennsylvania CBC. Erie (6837) and Linesville (6460) contributed most of the 13,326 Bonaparte’s Gulls tallied, giving Pennsylvania the highest statewide total of this species on the continent.  Likewise, Southern Bucks’ total of almost 45,000 Herring Gulls was easily the highest total of any CBC; that count also contributed the only Thayer’s Gull. The three Bucks County CBCs plus Bethlehem-Easton combined for most of the 485 Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the state, a drop from last year’s record 847, but more in line with other recent years.

Upper Bucks County located 136 Eastern Screech-Owls, easily the highest total on the continent, but the statewide tally of 300 Great Horned Owls was the second lowest since 1978; West Nile virus is suspected as the culprit in the decline of this species. The single Short-eared Owl made the lowest number since 1955. Curtin and Gettysburg each reported a Rufous Hummingbird, making it ten out of the past 13 years that one or more has been found on a Pennsylvania CBC.  An Empidonax flycatcher found on the Reading CBC was identified three days later as a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, the third ever in the state and the third CBC record; the bird remained for several weeks.

A single Northern Shrike at Huntingdon was the only report of the season. The flock of Northern Rough-winged Swallows over-wintering along the Delaware River at Pennypack Valley numbered 125 on count day; they were joined by the state’s only Tree Swallow and Barn Swallow. Red-breasted Nuthatches were scarce for the third year in a row, the 91 tallied being the fewest since 1967. Four counts recorded a total of six House Wrens, but only Delaware County could find a Marsh Wren, while Elverson and State College each contributed a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

One of the birds of the year was the male Mountain Bluebird discovered during the Central Bucks CBC for the third appearance on a Pennsylvania Christmas Count; fortunately, it remained for weeks for others to enjoy. American Robins were present in abundance, with almost 73,000 being tallied. One has to look back to 2001 and 1999 to find similar numbers. One of the outstanding finds of the period was a beautifully photographed male Blue-winged Warbler, a first for a state CBC and a winter rarity anywhere north of south Texas or south Florida. Other unusual warblers were a Black-and-white Warbler at Pennypack Valley, an American Redstart at Delaware County and a Wilson’s Warbler in Wyncote.

A well-described Scarlet Tanager, only the second ever on a Pennsylvania CBC, was a highlight of the Washington count, while a Western Tanager at State College represented the fifth CBC record and the first in almost 20 years. Two adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks visited a Washington feeder for weeks, including count day. The Dickcissel discovered at Wild Creek-Little Gap was the first CBC report since 2004. An estimated two million blackbirds were found on the Western Chester County CBC, comprised of mainly Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds, but with a couple of Yellow-headed Blackbirds thrown in. Southern Lancaster also had two Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a Brewer’s Blackbird, while the only Baltimore Oriole was at Lancaster.

Winter finches were in short supply, as elsewhere in the region, with only Pine Siskins (846) putting in a notable appearance. Three Red Crossbills were at Rector and another at Hamburg, and the only White-winged Crossbill was a single at Emporium. Once again, I thank Nick Bolgiano for sharing some of his insights into the Pennsylvania CBCs in advance of publication.

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