We had a record total of 124 counts in Ontario this year, up four from last year with the addition of some new counts: Bon Echo, Cape Chin, Desbarats, and Munster-Richmond-Manotick. We also welcomed back two counts that were missing last year (and in some cases longer): Ear Falls and Moscow. Unfortunately, Presqu’ile and Renfrew were both missed this year (at least their data were) and Strathroy was missed for the second straight year, but we hope they can return next season!
As is usual for Ontario, the weather leading up to count day plays a big role and this year was no different. Like the past two years, we had a very warm fall, but unlike those years, most of Ontario was hit with very wintery conditions in early December, so many counts resembled “the good old days”. This had both positive and negative impacts on counts. On the positive side, it seemed as though the snow concentrated many land birds, which made for some high counts. On the negative side, waterbird numbers were lower as open water was at a premium. As it turned out, December was the most wintery weather most of the province got all winter as it warmed up in January after count period.
The impact of the wintery weather made itself apparent on many counts, with an average low of -9.1 and high of -3.6 degrees Celsius (both about 4 degrees colder than last year), and only six counts reporting no snow on count day (vs nearly 50% of counts last year!) Similarly, only five counts reported completely open still water. A more striking difference was the 74 counts reporting completely frozen still water compared to just eleven last year. The Hamilton count was the warmest, at 11 degrees Celsius, and St. Thomas was the only other count to break into the positive double digits. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Hearst was the coldest, with a starting temperature of just -42 degrees Celsius, rising to only -34 – that’s dedication! With an average max snow depth of 28 centimetres (up considerably from the 12 and 6 of count years 115 and 116, respectively), walking conditions were tough. A whopping 88 counts (vs 19 last year) reported 15 centimetres (6 inches) or more of snow, with Moonbeam and Kapuskasing both reporting 91 cm, more than double the maximum on a count last year.
There were at least 3336 observers in the field this year, down 136 from last year’s high. Ottawa-Gatineau wrestled the top honours from Toronto this year with the highest number of field observers (129). Toronto, with 123, was the only other count to break the 100 observer barrier this year. All those observers put in an impressive 8052 party hours, down 120 from last year, and 72,587 party km (45,103 miles), down about 1000 from last year. On top of the field observers, 1108 feeder counters also helped collect data – up by more than 100 from last year and probably a new record high.
A total of 174 species were reported from all counts, down 13 from last year, and the lowest in the past five years. An additional three species (Brant, Wilson's Warbler, and Nelson’s Sparrow) were reported during count week but not on count day. Despite the lower total species for the province, many counts surpassed last year’s totals. Long Point led with 112, followed closely by Blenheim with 111. Sandbanks, Hamilton, Toronto, Point Pelee, and Kingston were the only other counts to crack 90. London (74 species) led the way for inland counts, followed by Ottawa-Gatineau and Guelph (both 67). As usual, Thunder Bay, with 50 species, had the highest total amongst northern Ontario counts.
A total of 1,274,814 individual birds were counted, down almost 250,000 from last year. The top five species this year were American Crow (202,437), Canada Goose (159,739), European Starling (147,195), Mallard (77,824), and Black-capped Chickadee (56,020). The Ring-billed Gull count, down almost 85% from last year, was indicative of the lack of waterbirds in general.
The story of the year was the absolute amazing abundance of berry-eating birds. Some people attributed this to the bumper crop of grape and other berry crops produced by the long, hot summer. Several species were found in well-above average numbers including Yellow-shafted Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Cedar Waxwing, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Bluebird, and Fox Sparrow. Some of these records were particularly impressive. American Robins were recorded on 95 counts (vs previous high of 87) with a total of 39,958 individuals, smashing the previous record total of 14,106. Fox Sparrow was recorded on 29 counts (vs previous high of 19) with a total of 190, more than doubling the previous record total of 76. Northern Flicker (310 vs previous high of 177), Eastern Bluebird (926 vs previous high of 779), and Cedar Waxwing (12,468 vs previous high of 11,255) also set new highs.
There were a couple of other surprising high counts for the province with different stories. Tufted Titmouse seemed to have a very good fall and dispersed widely, resulting in a record high of 290 individuals (vs previous high of 246) on a record high 32 counts (vs previous high of 23). American Pipit on the other hand seemed to be caught lingering in the province and then dramatically concentrated on a few Lake Erie counts thanks to some timely snow. This resulted in a count of 1694 individuals (previous high of 438). The same cause might have been the explanation for the record high count of Dark-eyed Juncos at 45,325, besting the previous high of 25,411.
Some very low counts included Canvasback (267; lowest since 1985/86), Common Redpoll (2094; lowest since 2013/14, but one of the lowest in the past 20 years), plus American Wigeon, Lesser Scaup, and Ruddy Duck all less than 25% of their recent average counts. Gray Partridge was the biggest miss this year; you have to go back to 1948/49 to find another year without one! House Wren (not missed since 2000/01) and Purple Sandpiper (not missed since 2007/08) were probably the next biggest misses.
As far as winter finches go, count year 117 was a bit all over the map, but with overall below-average totals. Purple Finch, Red Crossbill, and Evening Grosbeak were all pretty close to their recent averages while White-winged Crossbill, both redpolls, and Pine Siskin were low and American Goldfinch numbers were high.
No matter what happens there are always some very interesting finds and this year was no different. Highlights were two firsts for Ontario CBCs: a Smith’s Longspur at Long Point and a Western Meadowlark at Woodstock. Other very good finds were a Nelson’s Sparrow (count week only) on the St. Clair N.W.A. count, a Yellow Palm Warbler and a Spotted Sandpiper on the Blenheim count, and a Western/Clark’s Grebe and a Lark Sparrow on the Toronto count. Thunder Bay also had a probable Slaty-backed Gull, but due to conditions the observers were not able to obtain sufficient documentation to satisfy the Ontario Bird Records Committee, so it will have to go down as one that got away.
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. Looking forward to another good year in count year 118 – it’s just around the corner!