After a relatively mild, early fall and as winter neared, the region was pummelled with very significant wind events from the south. These winds interrupted migrating birds over the southern states and brought in significant numbers of storm-blown passerines. These unfortunates had little choice but to make-do with what the Atlantic coast could offer for food and warmth as mid-December approached. The phenomenon primarily affected mainland Nova Scotia and southern New Brunswick and brought unprecedented numbers of Summer and Scarlet tanagers, Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Yellow-throated Warblers, and Gray Catbirds among the most notable.
As if to mimic last year, we had a repeat of severe, frigidly cold temperatures coupled with very strong winds that began from the very first day of the count period and lasted well into January. The average low temperatures of -9 to -15 degrees Celsius and debilitating wind chill were hard to manage. Not surprisingly, and understandably, kilometers driven while birding increased while kilometers on foot decreased. Despite this, there were 175 species identified during count days and an additional five species occurring within the count period.
A total of 69 counts took place, the same as last year, with 34 in Nova Scotia, 24 in New Brunswick, seven in Newfoundland and Labrador, three in Prince Edward Island and we welcome back a single count at Saint Pierre after a miss last year. There were just fewer than 1800 observers of which 1167 braved the elements in the field.
Although most freshwater was frozen, the Atlantic, with its abundance of perfect birding promontories and calmer inlets and bays, had no short supply of species of waterfowl, auks, and gulls. A very rare winter Pink-footed Goose was found at Glace Bay, NS, and a Greater White-fronted Goose during count week on Grand Manan Island, NB. Although the number of Harlequin Ducks more than doubled from last year's total of 215, with Saint Pierre's CBC back in and its 252 birds, the numbers increased to 479 of these spectacular ducks.
Diurnal raptors are always a treat to find during a CBC and some were quite notable. There were two Golden Eagles in New Brunswick, one at Sackville (3rd year) and another, this time in Memramcook/Hillsborough. Cooper's Hawks are still very uncommon here at any time of year but this time, seven were quite well documented with four records in NS and three in NB. A single Gyrfalcon appeared in Glace Bay, NS after sporadic sightings prior to count day.
It may be worth following with renewed interest the numbers of Bald Eagles in the region as they continue to increase. With a large feeding area established in Nova Scotia over the last 26 years to boost the local economy, it seems there are new concerns about the resulting concentration and its effect on regional breeding birds like Common Loon and Osprey plus cormorants and auks on island rookeries. Of the 1211 Bald Eagles counted this time, 767 were in Nova Scotia.
In almost any year we can expect small numbers of over-wintering shorebirds and among them, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Dunlin, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, and Wilson's Snipe are regular here but other less common included both Lesser and Greater yellowlegs, singles of Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone, plus for the second year in a row, a Willet (Western). This bird seems to have become a year-round resident now since the fall of 2016 in the Lunenburg area of Nova Scotia.
Probably the biggest news in region might well be the arrival of a Mistle Thrush to Peter Gadd's property in Miramichi, New Brunswick. The European Mountain Ash trees were laden with fruit, especially throughout New Brunswick this year and this bird chose the one tree that happened to be in a birder's backyard! Hundreds of people from all over the continent were all but assured to see it throughout the winter as it defended its food source. This is the first record of this species in North America and came on queue to be counted on count day there.
Over the last 20 years of Christmas Bird Counts, the region has added Gray Catbird regularly, but numbering just one or two individuals per year. Other than the exception 11 years ago when 37 were found, it may be a much longer time before we see numbers like we did this year. Ninety-three birds were counted: five in New Brunswick and 87 in Nova Scotia.
Associated with the catbird movement, Yellow-throated Warblers arrived in numbers as well, but again, only in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Four counts in Nova Scotia recorded two each of these remarkably hardy warblers and in all a total of 10 species of warblers plus Yellow-breasted Chat and Blue-headed Vireo found their way onto lists in the region. Of note was a Black-throated Green Warbler in Saint John, NB which becomes only the second confirmed record for the region during CBCs.
There were a total of five Summer Tanagers counted during the period after dozens were reported prior to that time. Four occurred in Nova Scotia plus one in New Brunswick and interesting that although Scarlet Tanagers arrived at the same time in November as Summer Tanagers, there were no records of that species on any of the counts.
Noteworthy sparrows included a long-staying Harris's Sparrow at Black's Harbour, NB, a total of six Clay-coloured Sparrows, all in Nova Scotia, a Field Sparrow at Moncton, NB, and two Grasshopper Sparrows, one at Brier Island, NS and one during count week at Shediac, NB.
After a protracted outbreak of Trichomoniasis which primarily affected Purple Finches during summer in all areas of the Atlantic, you might wonder if the CBCs would reflect any decrease. We would expect about 500 Purple Finches in a normal year here, but with a count of 485 there was nothing dramatic at least. Our "winter finches" group of Common Redpoll, Pine Siskin, and Pine Grosbeak were all but non-existent and crossbills of both species appeared in small flocks throughout New Brunswick, Northern Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.
A very modest increase was noted for House Sparrows after decades of significant losses in the Atlantic. Today's numbers are only about 20% of the numbers from 40 years ago.