We had a record total of 120 counts in Ontario this year, up eight from last year with the addition of six new counts: Frontenac, Matachewan, Pike Bay, Peach Tree, Rainy River, and Sandbanks. We also welcomed back four counts that were missing last year (and in some cases longer): Burk's Falls, Marathon, Rideau Ferry, and Sharbot Lake. Unfortunately, Ear Falls and Strathroy were both missed this year, but we hope they can return next!
As is usual for Ontario, the weather leading up to count day plays a big role and this year was no different. To say it was a warm December was an understatement; Environment Canada, in their monthly weather review, referred to it as “scorching” and “balmy”. In fact, this December was not only the warmest on record for the province, but the average monthly temperature was five to ten degrees above the most recent 30-year average!! Unlike some years with a warm spell only hitting a part of the province, this was the case for the entire province this year.
The impact of the warm December was apparent on most counts, with an average low of just -5 and high of 0 degrees Celsius, and nearly half of counts reporting zero snow on count day. Many counts also reported an abundance of open water, especially where it is normally frozen on inland counts. In fact, only 11 counts reported standing water to be completely frozen, and only a single count (Moonbeam) reported moving water to be completely frozen. The Lakeshore count was the warmest, at 18 degrees Celsius, while three other counts also broke 10 degrees Celsius. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kapuskasing was the coldest, with a start temperature of just -21, rising to -13 degrees Celsius. With an average max snow depth of just 6 centimetres (down from 12 last year), walking conditions were ideal. Only 19 counts reported 15 centimetres or more (6 inches) of snow, with Gravenhurst-Bracebridge’s 40 cm being the highest reported in the entire province.
There were at least 3472 observers in the field this year, up nearly 400 from last year’s excellent count. Toronto, as usual, took top honours with the highest number of field observers (150) but Ottawa-Gatineau (133), Algonquin (110), Hamilton (107), and London (100) all cracked the 100-mark. Those observers put in an impressive 8188 party hours, up 80 from last year, and 73,670 party km (45,776 miles), up about 8000 from last year. On top of the field observers, 986 feeder counters also helped collect data – down about 100 from last year.
A total of 187 species were reported from all counts, up four from last year, ten from 2013/2014 and just three shy of the 113th season total. An additional three species (American Woodcock, Wilson's Warbler, and Yellow-headed Blackbird) were reported during count week. Perhaps strange for such a mild winter, only a single count (Blenheim) surpassed the 100 species threshold this year with 109 and only Hamilton and Long Point even cracked 90 species (both with 94). Some speculated that the mild conditions meant many species were still lingering in Central Ontario and those that had come south were very dispersed across the landscape. Ottawa (86 species) led the way for inland counts, and in fact had the fourth highest species total of all Ontario counts, a feat almost certainly never before accomplished by an inland count. Thunder Bay, with 48 species, had the highest total amongst northern Ontario counts. In general, most counts along the Great Lakes were down from their average, while inland counts were way up.
A total of 1,559,310 individual birds were counted, up almost 15% from last few years. The top five species this year were Canada Goose (261,011), American Crow (252,921), European Starling (132,769), Ring-billed Gull (101,382), and Mallard (89,797). The Ring-billed Gull count, up almost three times the 2014/2014 count, was indicative of the warm conditions and representative of many lingering waterbirds counted this year. Some very high counts included 8721 White-winged and 907 Surf Scoters on the newly-formed Peach Tree count, 203 Red-necked Grebes in Barrie, and 10,870 Tundra Swans on the St. Clair N.W.A. count.
As previously mentioned, the ice-free conditions on inland counts made for some great results in the waterbird department. To illustrate this, here are some species with huge year over year gains on the number of counts they were recorded on this year compared to last: Hooded Merganser (83 vs 48), Bufflehead (82 vs 52), Ring-billed Gull (95 vs 72), Canvasback (30 vs 8), Common Goldeneye (100 vs 80), Common Merganser (97 vs 78), American Black Duck (87 vs 70), Ring-necked Duck (31 vs 15), Common Loon (41 vs 25), Sandhill Crane (22 vs 6), and Double-crested Cormorant (27 vs 12).
The warm weather and snow/ice free conditions also seemed to result in land birds not being concentrated at feeding stations or anywhere in particular. As a result, many normally easy to find species were recorded in lower numbers than last year, despite increased effort. For example, Swamp, White-throated, Song, Field, Chipping and Savannah sparrows were all down more than 30% from last year’s counts. While still quite impressive, with 124 individuals on 30 counts, the Snowy Owl numbers this year were down sharply after two very big flights. It was another mediocre year for winter finches in the province with most species actually down from last year
Not surprisingly with the warm weather there were some real highlights to talk about in the rare bird department. Highlighting the list were two flycatcher species, a Vermilion Flycatcher at Wallaceburg and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher at Cedar Creek, both representing first Canadian CBC records. There were several other lingering insectivores reported including well-photographed Swainson’s and Wood thrushes on the Ottawa-Gatineau count; the Wood Thrush is the first count-day record for an Ontario CBC and the Swainson’s Thrush (on the Quebec side of the circle) is one of very few (if any) well-photographed records of this frequently misidentified species. The American White Pelican at Belleville and the Black-throated Gray Warbler on the Pembroke count (on the Quebec side of the circle) were both second provincial CBC records. Surprisingly, the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch on the Atikokan CBC, despite showing up virtually annually each winter in Ontario, was a first Ontario CBC record. The Bullock’s Oriole on the Pakenham-Arnprior count was the third such record for an Ontario count, but just the seventh overall record for the province. Likewise, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow on the Pike Bay count was the second Ontario CBC record (following the first last year) and only the eleventh overall for the province.
All in all, it was another excellent CBC season here in Ontario with highs, lows, and everything in between. Here’s to all the hard work the huge team of volunteers put in to making the count a success and for another good year in count year 117-it’s just around the corner!