A chilly early December included a moderate snowfall on the 9th, followed by two smaller events at the beginning of the Christmas Count Period. Counts conducted early in the period fared better than those run after Christmas, when the weather turned sharply colder. Unlike last year, there was no heat wave with temperatures soaring into the 50’s and 60’s. The number of individuals was low, especially for passerines, but there was a good variety of rarities. Once again, irruptive northern species were mostly absent.
Twenty-nine CBCs were submitted from New Jersey, with Island Beach weathered out; Belleplain has a new compiler but was also weathered out. The 196 species recorded was the same number as two previous years and still six below the 20-year average. Cape May had an excellent count to lead the state with 159 species. Barnegat (131) returned to second, followed by Long Branch (116), Oceanville (115), and Cumberland (113).
The 37 species of waterfowl detected including the state’s third CBC Pink-footed Goose at Somerset County, a Ross’s Goose at Elmer, and a Barrow’s Goldeneye on the Delaware River in Warren - Northampton. Four different coastal counts had single Eurasian Wigeon, while Blue-winged Teal were found at Oceanville (2) and Warren – Northampton. Barnegat and Oceanville each had a King Eider and Barnegat also added 138 Common Eiders and 29 Harlequin Ducks.
For the second time in three years, no Ruffed Grouse were reported – this species has shown no sign of recovery in more than two decades. Five Northern Bobwhite in Salem and three at Mizpah appear to be survivors of the recently begun reintroduction program. Only two Red-necked Grebes were located, but many more arrived after the end of the count period. The total of 2314 Red-throated Loons was the second highest tally of this species (2948 in 2015). Two American White Pelicans were the highlight of the Lakehurst CBC, only the third occurrence on a New Jersey CBC (three were at Sandy Hook in 2015). Only 36 Great Cormorants were located, far below average and the lowest total in almost 40 years. Single American Bitterns were at Cape May and Hackensack-Ridgewood. Cape May had the one Snowy Egret and Oceanville had three.
Cape May and NW Hunterdon County each had an Osprey, a species that has not been missed in the past eight years, but Golden Eagle went undetected again, in contrast to a high count in Pennsylvania. The tally of 618 Bald Eagles easily surpassed the previous high of 569 set in 2015. It included 137 on the Cumberland Count CBC and a minimum of four on all 29 state CBCs. An all-time high of 151 Red-shouldered Hawks (59 at Cape May) was recorded, but only three Rough-legged Hawks could be found in what was clearly not an invasion year. Just seven Clapper Rails were detected for the second year in a row, a far cry from the 123 found on the 114th CBC four years earlier. On the other hand, a record 46 Virginia Rails were reported, 35 from Cape May, topping the 1997 high by one bird. Three counts, Cumberland, Salem, and Somerset, produced a record total of 60 Sandhill Cranes, more than double the previous high.
Just 15 species of shorebirds were tallied, with Semipalmated Plover and Red Knot among the missing. The Absecon Inlet flock in the Oceanville CBC circle had a record 116 (Western) Willets and 11 Marbled Godwits, a slight improvement over last year. A single Razorbill at Cape May was the only alcid of the season, although others appeared after the count period. The 62 Bonaparte’s Gulls was an improvement over last year’s 22, but still the second lowest total in many decades. The other gulls were in normal numbers except for Great Black-backed Gull, whose totals have declined significantly in the past decade. The tally of 2685 was the lowest since 1965. Cape May had the only Forster’s Tern.
The influx of Snowy Owls produced an excellent 12 birds, second only to the 27 found during the massive invasion in the winter of 2013 – 2014. A long-staying Allen’s Hummingbird was the highlight of the Tuckerton CBC and the fifth confirmed record for the state. Amazingly, four of the five have been present for Christmas Bird Counts. Cape May added a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Just six Red-headed Woodpeckers were found, typical for an off-year, but the other woodpeckers were present in good numbers, including a record 481 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that outnumbered Hairy Woodpecker for the first time ever. A Least Flycatcher at Cape May, identity confirmed by vocalizations, was present for several days, and that count also had two White-eyed Vireos.
Blue Jay numbers held steady, but American Crows were down to the lowest total since 1972, perhaps due to continuing problems with West Nile disease. Common Raven, on the other hand, set an all-time record with 94 birds reported on 15 counts. The first modern record was only in 1991 and the first double-digit tally was in 2003. The total of 367 Tree Swallows, all at Cape May, was the second highest number ever on a New Jersey CBC. Cape May also added a Cave Swallow, just the third time that species has been found on a CBC in the state. It was clearly not an invasion year for Red-breasted Nuthatch as only 18 were reported, the lowest number in more than 50 years.
Barnegat and Cape May each produced a Sedge Wren, while Moorestown recorded the only Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, making it three years in a row for this species on a CBC. It was a banner year for American Robins, with the total of 269,000 having been exceeded only once, in 1999. Gray Catbirds and Brown Thrashers were seen in above-average numbers, and five Lapland Longspurs (4 at Barnegat and 1 at NW Gloucester) was also better than normal.
Nine species of warblers were found, including Ovenbird and Black-and-white Warbler on the New York City side of the Lower Hudson CBC, and two Nashville Warblers at Cape May. The highlight of the season for New Jersey, however, was the MacGillivray’s Warbler discovered on the Sandy Hook CBC, where it remained for several days. This was just the second of its kind ever recorded in the state and also the second CBC record. Thirty-four Orange-crowned Warblers was just shy of last years record 36, but the 14,806 Yellow-rumped Warblers easily surpassed the previous all-time high. Three Yellow-breasted Chats, no longer considered warblers, were also reported.
A LeConte’s Sparrow was discovered on the Long Branch CBC at a county park, where it remained for weeks. One Clay-colored Sparrow, a species now being reported annually, was seen on the Lower Hudson count. Six Lincoln’s Sparrows, a species that appears to be increasing in winter, was a new high for the state. Cape May had count-week Summer Tanager and Western Tanager in the same location as the Least Flycatcher. A male Painted Bunting lingering at a Highland Park feeder was a highlight of the Raritan Estuary CBC. Just five Baltimore Orioles were located this year, one at Barnegat and four at Cape May, but winter finches were almost non-existent. The total of 26 Purple Finches was the lowest number in more that a decade and only 32 Pine Siskins were reported. There were no reports of crossbills, redpolls, or Evening Grosbeaks.
Seventy-four counts were submitted from Pennsylvania, with Scranton returning, but Harrisburg missing for the first time since 1948. As noted above, counts run earlier in the period generally had better weather than those run later. The total of 160 species recorded was near the recent average and included several rarities. Southern Lancaster County led the state with 107 species, followed by Southern Bucks County with 101, Upper Bucks County with 97, and Delaware County with 86.
The 30 species of waterfowl included a Pennsylvania high 25 Greater White-fronted Geese, with 14 at Reading, eight at Lancaster, two at Indiana, and one at Lehigh Valley. Among the 53,000 Snow Geese, mainly at Bethlehem-Easton and Lehigh Valley, were single Ross’s Geese on four different counts. Two Brant at Lehigh Valley was the first CBC report in six years. Mute Swan numbers have shown a slow decline over the past several years, an encouraging sign, but Tundra Swans (655) were at the lowest level since 2009.
Nick Bolgiano has called attention to the continuing decline in both Mallard and American Black Duck, the former over the past two decades, the latter for much longer. The numbers of Mallard are less than half what they were during the 1990s, while black ducks are down by more than 80%. Among the less common ducks, scoters were scarce – Erie had a Surf Scoter and a White-winged Scoter but found Black Scoter only during the count week. Warren also added a White-winged Scoter. Common Merganser was again well represented, with 57 counts tallying a total of 8714, the highest number since 2002.
Only 38 Ruffed Grouse were detected, the lowest total since 1959, as the species’ steady decline continues. A single Northern Bobwhite at Pleasantville was probably a captive-raised bird. Erie had the only Red-throated Loon and only 14 Common Loons were reported, perhaps due to the poor weather. Red-necked Grebe was missed completely except for a count-week bird at Southern Bucks County. Small numbers of Great Cormorants were at their usual sites along the Delaware River, Pennypack Valley (10) and Southern Bucks County. Dingman’s Ferry and Southern Bucks County each had a Black-crowned Night-Heron.
A single Osprey at Pocono Mountain was the only one of the season, but an impressive 12 Golden Eagles found on seven CBCs set a new record for Pennsylvania CBCs. Both Northern Harriers and Cooper’s Hawks made strong showings again, and the Bald Eagle total at 804 surpassed the 2015 record of 793. Red-shouldered Hawks tied the state CBC high at 197 from 2016.
As I noted last year, 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 374 was 50% higher than last year’s record 246 birds. Grove City (205) and Linesville (164) were again the major contributors. Erie had the only Virginia Rail, while Delaware County and Johnstown each had an American Woodcock.
Only 17 Bonaparte’s Gulls were found on four CBCs, the second lowest total in the past 22 years, but a Black-headed Gull at Delaware County was just the 4th ever recorded on a Pennsylvania CBC. Southern Bucks again produced a continent-wide high of 53,500 Herring Gulls, plus 22 of the 27 Iceland Gulls and all three Glaucous Gulls. The tally of Lesser Black-backed Gulls dropped off this year to 461, led by Southern Bucks (183) and Upper Bucks (148), while Bethlehem-Easton had a new high of 103. A totally lost Caspian Tern at Pocono Mountain was a first for a Pennsylvania CBC.
A Eurasian Collared-Dove at Chambersburg was only the fourth state CBC report of this regional rarity. Just two Barn Owls were located, one each at Lewistown and Penn’s Creek, but the impressive total of 843 Eastern Screech-Owls was led by Upper Bucks County’s 229, only eight shy of their 2010 North American record. Six Snowy Owls, four at Erie, one each at Linesville and State College, was the second highest total for a Pennsylvania CBC, one less than in the banner year of 2013. The 270 Great Horned Owls was a slight improvement over last year, but numbers remain far below those of the pre-West Nile virus years.
An unidentified hummingbird was seen at Warren, but Rufous Hummingbird was missed for the first time in eight years. Sixty-three Red-headed Woodpeckers was the second best showing in the past decade, but the 850 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers far outstripped the previous high of 548 in 2007. All of the woodpeckers were recorded in excellent numbers and Red-bellied Woodpecker and Pileated Woodpecker set new highs when totals are adjusted for observer hours. American Kestrel (672) numbers remain far below those of 1980s, but 62 Merlin was ten more than last year’s record high. A lingering Ash-throated Flycatcher at Upper Bucks County was only the fourth for a Pennsylvania CBC. Northern Shrikes were scarce one again, with two at Gordon Glen Belsano and singles at Grove City and Huntingdon.
The 541 Common Ravens was the second highest on record (and highest when adjusted for observer hours) after the 557 in 2015. Northern Rough-winged Swallows (60) again put in an appearance at Pennypack Valley, where they have been recorded on 12 of the past 13 CBCs. Red-breasted Nuthatches (149) were scarce again, but nowhere near as rare as in neighboring New Jersey. Pocono Mountain and Southern Lancaster each had a House Wren, while Delaware County produced the only Marsh Wren. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was an excellent find at Southern Lancaster.
Six species of warblers were recorded again this year, with a Nashville Warbler in Western Chester County the only unusual one. More than 32,000 White-throated Sparrows were tallied, the highest count ever for a Pennsylvania CBC, while a Harris’s Sparrow in Central Bucks County was the seventh state CBC record. Four Lincoln’s Sparrows, one each at Curtin, Lebanon County, Lehigh Valley, and Southern Bucks County, were part of a continuing trend that finds this species more frequently lingering into early winter. A Western Tanager was at Lititz for a sixth state CBC record and an adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak visited a Washington area feeder for most of the month of December. This marks the third time in four years that the Washington CBC has had a Pheucticus grosbeak.
Blackbird flocks come and go, but this year’s total of 6500 Red-winged Blackbirds was the lowest number since 1995, while the 10,700 Common Grackles was the fewest since 1992. Brightening up the blackbird scene, however, were a Bullock’s Oriole at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s fourth CBC record, and a Baltimore Oriole at New Bloomfield. As elsewhere, winter finches were scarce to non-existent. Chambersburg had two White-winged Crossbills and Pennypack Valley had a single Common Redpoll, but Red Crossbill and Evening Grosbeak went unreported. Once again, I thank Nick Bolgiano for sharing some of his insights into the Pennsylvania CBCs in advance of publication.