The 117th CBC in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

In contrast to the previous year, the weather leading up to the 117th Christmas Bird Count period was only slightly warmer than average, with some early December cold spells causing many inland lakes and reservoirs to be frozen. More than half of the counts were conducted during the first weekend of the period when most of the Pennsylvania counts experienced terrible weather.  New Jersey counts fared much better, with many enjoying temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s on that Sunday. It was not a particularly good year for rarities, although there were a few surprises and good numbers of lingering half-hardy species, but northern birds were again notable for their absence.

Thirty CBCs were submitted from New Jersey, with Marmora returning after a year’s absence,

but Belleplain still lacking a new compiler. The 196 species recorded was the same number as last year and still six below the 20-year average. Cape May improved slightly over the previous season to lead the state with 151 species. Long Branch (122) jumped to second, narrowly edging out Cumberland (121), followed by Barnegat (118) and Oceanville (117). The seven year-old Mizpah count reached a new high of 82 despite rainy weather and fewer participants.

An impressive 38 species of waterfowl were detected, including the state’s second CBC Pink-footed Goose, a Ross’s Goose, a Trumpeter Swan, four Greater White-fronted Geese plus a count week pair of Barnacle Geese. Long Branch had two Eurasian Wigeon, Sandy Hook one, and Cape May had the only Blue-winged Teal.  Only 4498 Greater Scaup were counted, the lowest total since 1978 and a far cry from the 20 – 30 thousand found one some counts in the 1990’s. Barnegat found 443 of the 459 Common Eiders reported, as well as the only two King Eiders, and six of the 10 Harlequin Ducks.

A single Ruffed Grouse at Lakehurst was a surprise, as this species has been seen in the Pine Barrens only a few times in the past 25 years and is now rare even in the northwestern counties of the state. Five Northern Bobwhite in Salem and one at Mizpah may have been survivors of the recently begun reintroduction program. Only two Red-necked Grebes were located, as the waters of the Great Lakes remained mostly open. Six American Bitterns included three in Cape May, two at Sandy Hook, and one at Oceanville. Cape May had the only two Snowy Egrets and Barnegat the only Little Blue Heron. 

Barnegat has the season’s only Osprey, a species that has now been seen on seven of the last 11 counts. Northern Goshawks at Cape May and Hackensack-Ridgewood were a sign of things to come later in the winter, while the tally of 546 Bald Eagles was just shy of last year’s record number. A total of seven Rough-legged Hawks at six different locations around the state was an increase over last season’s pair, but still far short of an invasion year. Sandhill Cranes were found on four different CBCs, including seven wintering in Somerset County, but Cumberland could find the local nesting flock and tallied only one.

The 19 species of shorebirds included several not seen every year, such as a well-photographed Spotted Sandpiper at Warren-Northampton County, eight Lesser Yellowlegs, and three Least Sandpipers. Absecon Inlet’s wintering flock in the Oceanville CBC circle held a near-record 103 (Western) Willets, but just eight Marbled Godwits, the fewest in 10 years. Individual Razorbills at Island Beach and Long Branch were the only alcids of the season. A total of only 22 Bonaparte’s Gulls were found on five CBC’s the lowest number since 1928, when there were far fewer counts and counters. In contrast, the 116th CBC produce 5459, but the 115th only 72. White-winged gulls were scarce again, with just three Iceland and two Glaucous Gulls; changes in landfill practices, among other possible causes, have made both species much harder to find in the two decades. Cape May had all 10 of the Forster’s Terns reported.

The only Snowy Owl of the season was at Cape May, as was the only hummingbird, a surprising Ruby-throated that stayed into early January. All of the woodpeckers were reported in good numbers, including 24 Red-headed Woodpeckers, a decent tally for an off year. The 98 American Kestrels were a slight improvement over last year’s 79, but Merlins set a new high count of 62. Only 48 Monk Parakeets were found, the second lowest since the Hackensack-Ridgewood CBC started counting them in 2003. The total of 61 Common Ravens was down a bit from last season’s record high, but included birds on 15 different CBCs, a new high. Cape May had 50 of the 51 Tree Swallows, with Barnegat adding the other, while Trenton Marsh tallied six Northern Rough-winged Swallows, their first in 10 years. All three CBC occurrences of the latter species in New Jersey have been at Trenton Marsh, although the Pennypack Valley, Pennsylvania, CBC, downstream on the Delaware River has recorded as many as 152 every year but one since 2005. Red-breasted Nuthatches staged a modest invasion, with the 381 birds being the highest number in five years.

The highlight of the season was surely the Rock Wren, New Jersey’s second, found at a construction site in Somerset County on Christmas Day, a week before the CBC. Fortunately, it stayed around for two weeks, was located on count day, and enjoyed by hundreds of birders. The state’s first Rock Wren, which spent several months at Cape May in the winter of 1992 – 1993, was also recorded on the local CBC. Cumberland County recorded the only Sedge Wren, while Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was seen for the second year in a row, this time at Cape May. A single Lapland Longspur was discovered on the Lower Hudson CBC, which also had the only Ovenbird, this one on the New York City side of the count. Among the seven other species of warbler found this season were 36 Orange-crowned Warblers, by the far the highest ever state total, Nashville Warblers at Cape May (2), Great Swamp (1), and Moorestown (1), and a Yellow-breasted Chat on the New Jersey side of the Lower Hudson CBC.

Clay-colored Sparrow, a species reported with increasing frequency on New Jersey CBCs, was at Cumberland and Long Branch, while a Lark Sparrow was a highlight of the Sandy Hook count. One Dickcissel, a species not recorded every year, was at Cape May, and a record 21 Baltimore Orioles were tallied, 11 of them at Cape May. It was once again a poor year for winter finches, with just 60 Purple Finches, one Red Crossbill (at Ramsey), and 113 Pine Siskins.

Seventy-four counts were submitted from Pennsylvania, with Phillipsburg returning and a new one at Grove City, but South Butler, Imperial, and the long-standing Scranton CBC missing. As noted above, many counts experience terrible weather, including rain, ice and snow, during the first weekend, when 35 counts were run (another 10 were rescheduled for later dates). The total of 152 species recorded was far below the recent average of 164, and contained few rarities. Harrisburg led the state with 100 species, their fourth top total in the past ten years, followed by Southern Lancaster County with 97 and Southern Bucks County with 95. Bethlehem-Easton and Upper Bucks County each had 90 species.

The 31 species of waterfowl included five Greater White-fronted Geese and just two Ross’s Geese. One Trumpeter Swan, a species that is now almost annual, was found at Dallas Area, while Bloomsburg added the only Blue-winged Teal. Among the less common ducks, Erie had nine White-winged Scoters and five Black Scoters, but added Surf Scoter only during the count week. Common Merganser was well represented, with 50 counts tallying a total of 7255, the highest number in ten years.

Only 57 Ruffed Grouse were detected, the second lowest total (51 in 2013) in the past 50 years, as the species shows no signs of recovering its former numbers. Wild Turkeys, on the other hand, continue to do well, with a near record 4379 tallied despite reduced effort due to the poor weather. Northern Bobwhite, however, was missed for the sixth consecutive year.

Erie and Pennypack Valley each had a Red-throated Loon, but only 25 Common Loons were reported, perhaps due to the poor weather. Red-necked Grebe was missed completely, but an Eared Grebe at York was only the 11th for a Pennsylvania CBC. Sixteen Great Cormorants were at three sites along the southern Delaware River, while Great Blue Heron (571) was the only member of its family found this year. A single Osprey at Lewisburg was the only one of the season, but an impressive 11 Golden Eagles found on eight CBCs tied the record set in 2001. Norther Harriers (182) made their best showing since 2008, Cooper’s Hawks set a new high of 476, almost doubling the count of Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Northern Goshawks were at Tunkhannock (2), Audubon, and Lititz. The Bald Eagle total at 665 was down from last year’s record 793, but still impressive given the inclement weather. Red-shouldered Hawks set a new state CBC high at 197, topping the 171 recorded in 2014, while the 25 Rough-legged Hawks was better than the previous two seasons, but still not a real invasion.

No more than one Sandhill Crane had been reported on a Pennsylvania CBC prior to 2005, but the numbers have increased dramatically since then. This year’s total of 246 birds almost tripled the previous high of 88 in 2015, led by 127 at Linesville and 83 at Grove City. Only 23 Wilson’s Snipe were located, the lowest total since 1957, and a single American Woodcock was at Pennypack Valley. Mirroring the situation in New Jersey, only 61 Bonaparte Gulls were seen, 55 of them at Erie, following last season’s nationwide high of 13,326. Southern Bucks again produced a continent-wide high of 44,000 Herring Gulls, as well as 14 of the 16 Iceland Gulls, five of the six Glaucous Gulls and the state’s only Thayer’s Gull. They also added 325 of the state’s 715 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a total second only to last year’s 847. Central Bucks contributed 285 Lesser Black-backed, Upper Bucks had 58, Bethlehem-Easton 28, and Wild Creek-Little Gap 17.

Just two Barn Owls were found, one each at Lewistown and Penns Creek, the lowest statewide total since 1966. The weather put a damper on owling, but this only partially explains the mere 240 Great Horned Owls, the lowest total in almost 40 years; numbers in recent years have been less than half those of the 1990s, probably a consequence of the West Nile virus. The Snowy Owl at Bloomsburg was the only one during the count period, although Lehigh Valley had one during the week. All of the other owls were reported in good numbers. Lititz and Williamsport each had a Rufous Hummingbird, the seventh year in a row for this species on a Pennsylvania CBC, and count week birds were at Bloomsburg and Southern Lancaster County.

The 26 Red-headed Woodpeckers was the lowest total since 1990, but may reflect reduced coverage due to the weather. American Kestrels (747) were up 103 over last year, but still far below the average totals during the 1980s. Merlin and Peregrine Falcon both set new statewide highs, however, with 52 of the former and 45 of the latter. Pittsburgh mad a strong showing with seven Merlins and five Peregrines. Three Northern Shrikes, one each at Bald Eagle State Park, Grove City, and White Mills, was a slight improvement over the previous two years, but well below the average of 11 reported during the preceding decade. The near-annual flock of Northern Rough-winged Swallows at Pennypack Valley numbered 60, down from last year’s 125; this species has now been recorded in 11 of the past 12 years and the flock is the only sizeable one of its kind north of the southernmost tier of states.

After three quiet years, Red-breasted Nuthatches irrupted in good numbers across the state, with 69 of the 74 CBCs recording a total of 738 birds. House Wren went undetected for the first time since 1981, and the Marsh Wren at Lancaster was only a count-week sighting. The new Grove City count had all 20 of the Lapland Longspurs and 148 of the 364 Snow Buntings. Warblers were scarce, with only six species reported, although there were a couple of rarities. Five Orange-crowned Warblers, four at Southern Bucks, was one more than the previous statewide high set in 1994, a Nashville Warbler at Southern Bucks was the eighth Pennsylvania CBC record, and the Yellow-throated Warbler at Bloomsburg was just the fifth. Yellow-rumped Warbler (212), Pine Warbler (4), and Common Yellowthroat (3) rounded out the list. 

The tally of 6952 American Tree Sparrows, the highest number since 2003, was aided by the 1625 reported by the new Grove City CBC. Among the less common sparrows were two Vesper Sparrows at Chambersburg, a Lincoln’s Sparrow at Wyncote, and a count-week Lark Sparrow in Western Chester County. The usual huge flocks of blackbirds, numbering in the hundreds of thousands were in Southern Lancaster County, but neither Brewer’s Blackbird nor Yellow-headed Blackbird were reported. Twenty Eastern Meadowlarks, the fewest recorded since 1947, were further evidence of the problems facing this seriously declining species. A Bullock’s Oriole, only the third for a Pennsylvania CBC, was at Lititz, but there were no Baltimore Orioles for the first time since 2002, despite the record high count of the species in neighboring New Jersey.

As elsewhere in the Northeast, winter finches were poorly represented. The 193 Purple Finches was the lowest total in many decades, while 20 Red Crossbills at Tamaqua and three at Lake Raystown were the only crossbills detected. A single Common Redpoll was at Lock Haven-Jersey Shore, 92 Pine Siskins were at scattered places around the state, and three Evening Grosbeaks at Pleasantville with another at Williamsport.

Once again, I thank Nick Bolgiano for sharing some of his insights into the Pennsylvania CBCs in advance of publication.

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