Two more counts were added to the Virginia-Washington DC region this year, breaking all previous records. Rappahannock was brand new to the roster, and Clifton Forge was resurrected after a 20-year hiatus. This brings the total number of active counts to 51. Five other counts are also conducted in the region each year, but are not included in this summary as they do not meet the requirements of Audubon-sponsored counts.
The new Rappahannock count is centered at the junction of Rts. 627 & 626, about 2 ½ miles south of Rose Hill in Rappahannock County. Even though coverage of the circle was very limited, and conducted all on foot, 32 observers, led by organizer/compiler Victoria Fortuna, did an admiral job of finding 58 species. Hopefully, coverage in the future will expand to include more of the count circle.
It was gratifying to see the Clifton Forge count back in the line-up. The circle lies due west of the Lexington count circle and encompasses parts of Bath, Alleghany, and Botetourt counties, and a very small section of Rockbridge County. Running continuously from 1973 through 1996, observers in those years, led by compiler/organizer Dr. Allen LeHew, turned up some very interesting species, including Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Canvasback, and one hummingbird sp., all birds that are rarely found in that part of Virginia. The count is now headed up by Ed Haverlack, a long-time birder on the Virginia scene.
Weather leading up to the 2017-18 count season was reasonably mild in the region and birders were anticipating comfortable days in the field, but that was not to be. Quite a few counts experienced rainy, cloudy, and colder conditions. Only six counts registered temperatures above 50o. Last year more than 50% recorded temperatures above 50o F, several reporting as high as 70o. This year’s highest temperature recording was 63o at Nokesville. Many observers were hampered by rain and strong winds, especially in the eastern section of the region.
There were several changes in the compiler roster: Jen Wright at Dismal Swamp replaced Laura Mae; William Boehn replaced Nancy Gruttman-Tyler at Newport News; Steven Hillburger replaced Odette James at Brooke, and Donna Finnegan replaced Michael Boatwright at Lake Anna. Compilers heading up the two new counts are Victoria Fortuna at Rappahannock and Ed Haverlack at Clifton Forge.
No new species to the region were found this year. Nevertheless, birders found some very unusual species and several impressive all-time high counts.
Greater White-fronted Geese were found in various locations around the region, although none were spotted on the Coastal Plain. Augusta County birders chalked up 13 individuals, the largest flock ever recorded on a count. Other unusual occurrences of this species were three at Chatham, one at Warren, and five at Glade Spring, first sightings for all three sites. Waynesboro birders found their second count record of three individuals. In all 26 White-fronteds on the six counts far surpassed the previous high of nine set in 2016.
Ross’s Goose continues to appear in the region in good numbers. This year one bird at Little Creek was its first record, four were at Hopewell where this species occur almost every year, one visited Northern Shenandoah Valley, and one was at Augusta County for that count’s third record.
Roanoke had its first record of a Cackling Goose. Augusta had 10, surpassing previous records there, and record highs were also set at Mathews County (5); Hopewell (23); and The Plains (12). Altogether, 63 individuals comprise the highest regional total, surpassing the previous record of 43 set in 2008.
Alas, Mute Swan numbers are creeping upwards again. Brooke birders found 29, Chancellorsville had 25, and seven other counts had a total of 21, bringing the overall total to 75, the most since 2007. Happily, Chincoteague has been successful in keeping this species at bay for 15 years or more. When populations get out of control, the destruction of shoreline habitat these birds can inflict makes it a very undesirable species to have around.
The majestic Trumpeter Swan is a far different story. A greatly welcomed sight was one that appeared on Mathews County, and Waynesboro observers also photographed three, first-time sightings for both counts. In fact, a couple other individuals appeared during the count season, but they were not in count circles or on count days. Nevertheless, it was a stunning sight for many birders who rarely have the opportunity to see such rarities.
Tundra Swans were present in higher numbers than usual. The regional total of more than 6750 birds was the highest since 1998. Most showed up at their usual haunts on the Coastal Plain and up around the Northern Virginia area. One individual each at Charlottesville and Blacksburg were nice finds for them. The 3195 at Back Bay were the highest count there since 1980, and Fort Belvoir’s tally of 1432 individuals was the second highest number for that count.
Wood Ducks numbers increased noticeably this year, especially in the mountain region where they were seen on 11 counts. On the Coastal Plain, Nansemond River and Williamsburg enjoyed record numbers with 21 and 43 respectively.
Even though their numbers do not begin to approach the huge totals of thousands that were routinely found in the late 1960s, this year’s total of more than 900 Wood Ducks on 33 count circles added up to the most counted in 26 years. All three of the region’s newest counts (Northumberland-Lancaster, Rappahannock, and Clifton Forge) contributed to that higher total.
If it hadn’t been for the 3000 Canvasbacks at Williamsburg, the total regional tally for this species would have been dismal. The only other count with any significant numbers was Fort Belvoir with 883. Hopefully, with the current herculean attempts to restore health to the Chesapeake Bay, Canvasbacks may again grace the shorelines of the states that border one of the world’s greatest estuaries.
Walkerton’s 14 Redheads was an unusual find. That species rarely occurs there. Augusta County broke its record high with six individuals. As usual, Fort Belvoir surpassed all counts with 465, the third highest total for that count.
A great gathering of Lesser Scaup (over 15,000) at Fort Belvoir helped augment rather lack-luster numbers of this species found on other counts. No other circle comes close to the numbers of Lesser Scaup seen at Fort Belvoir every year.
A King Eider at Nassawaddox was a first for that count, and the only one recorded on any count for the past five years. The only Harlequin Ducks reported were two at Cape Charles.
Even though Nassawaddox recorded a record high of 10 White-winged Scoters, this species continues to be present in very low numbers during the count period. From around 1951 through 1997 White-wings showed up on Southside Virginia and Eastern Shore counts by the hundreds, and even thousands sometimes, but since then, numbers have plummeted to double-digits almost every year.
Black Scoter numbers dropped. Only 825 were found on eight counts, whereas they had been counted in the thousands the past five years. Observers at Wachapreague, Nansemond River, Walkerton, Chancellorsville, Banister River, Chatham, and Lexington all saw record high numbers of Hooded Mergansers, contributing to the new regional total of nearly 5000 individuals.
Record highs of 419 Bufflehead at Williamsburg, and four at Waynesboro were nice finds, but the 42 that appeared on the newly revived Clifton Forge count were especially noteworthy as that comprises a first for there. Both Wachapreague and Nokesville had all-time high Ruddy Duck counts of 470 and 171, respectively.
There is still no good news concerning the Northern Bobwhite. Only five counts reported this species for a total of 56 birds. From 1966 thru 1989, bobwhite totals for the Washington DC/Virginia region were in quadruple numbers almost every year, with the all-time high of 2119 attained in 1976. In the past 11 years, however, total numbers of bobwhites in the region have never risen above double digits. It has been a steady downhill slide, with this year’s aggregate total of 25 bird found on only five of 52 counts. The Washington DC count mirrors those depressing totals. From 1959 through 1976, Northern Bobwhites were recorded in triple digits almost every year. Starting in 1977, however, numbers began to decline, and from 2001 to the present, not a single bobwhite has been seen in that circle.
Another depressing situation is that of the Ruffed Grouse. In 2017, that species reached the next to lowest number ever, with just one bird each at Big Flat Mountain, Tazewell, and Glade Spring. On the other end of the scale, Wild Turkeys continue to flourish, with a total of 875 individuals.
Red-throated Loons continue to swarm along the East Coast and this year was no exception. Nassawaddox had a record 2050 of this species. Remarkable numbers were also reported on other southeastern Virginia circles.
Brown Pelican numbers were significantly lower this year, probably due to adverse weather conditions on the counts where this species is usually found. Still, it was surprising that birders saw only one pelican at Little Creek, whereas, in years past, this species has occurred in triple digit figures. One Double-crested Cormorant at Shenandoah-Luray was a first record for that count.
Only two American Bitterns appeared this year, one at Back Bay where they are present almost every year, the other was on the Newport News count. That count used to find them almost every year in the 1970s, but the bird spotted this year was the first occurrence since 1995. Only two counts found Snowy Egrets. Three were at Chincoteague, and six were spotted at Back Bay. Usually recorded in double digits, the cold, windy weather probably had a great deal to do with their absence.
Little Blue Herons were also scarce. One at Chincoteague and one at Cape Charles were the only ones seen this year. On the other hand, Tricolored Herons were much more in evidence with three southeastern counts reporting a total of 53 birds. That is the highest state-wide total since 2001. In the early 1970s, this species was much more plentiful, Often up to two hundred Tricoloreds were reported back then.
Cattle Egrets were completely absent in the region on the 2016-17 counts, but 12 showed up at Back Bay this year. That is the most seen on CBCs since the early 1990s. Green Herons were absent except for one individual spotted during count week at Northern Shenandoah Valley.
Black-crowned Night-Herons made a good showing in the southeastern corner of the state. The only sighting away from the coast was of two birds at Waynesboro where they have been reported every year since 2010. Surprisingly, none were seen on the Shenandoah-Luray count where they are usually found every year.
After six years of triple-digit totals, Back Bay had only 79 White Ibis and Cape Charles one, making the state total of 80 a very low number compared to the previous five years when their numbers ranged from 155 to over 730 individuals.
Washington DC, Williamsburg, and Chancellorsville all had record numbers of Black Vultures, while Wachapreague racked up an all-time high of 897 Turkey Vultures, almost doubling last year’s total. Of the 13 Ospreys reported, the only unusual sighting was one at Central Loudoun, a first for that count.
Usually Blackford chalks up the most Golden Eagles, but this year Tazewell took the prize when birders found three in that circle. None were seen on any of the Coastal Plains counts, The Bald Eagle numbers continue to soar, breaking records everywhere. Washington DC’s 53 individuals equaled their record high set in 2002. Breaks Interstate Park had its first count-day record.
A real surprise was a well-described Broad-winged Hawk observed by experienced birders on the Augusta count. This rare winter visitor is difficult to accurately identify, but the observers carefully noted all essential field marks. Manassas-Bull Run had its first sighting of a Rough-legged Hawk since 1993. Other circles where this species was found were Tazewell, where it occurs fairly regularly, Warren, and the usual stronghold of Shenandoah NP-Luray. Three were there this year.
All rail species were down, probably due to weather and tides. The one unusual report was of a Sora at Washington’s Birthplace. It was that count’s second record. American Coot totals were also down considerably, compared to those of the past three years. Even Fort Belvoir birders experienced a dramatic drop in numbers, but birders on the newly-resurrected Clifton Forge count tallied a single coot, their fourth record. Sandhill Cranes were back again this year. Gordonsville observers found three birds and Nassawaddox had its first record of two birds.
The 230 Black-bellied Plovers at Chincoteague were that count’s highest number since 1994. From 1969 to 1986, this species gathered by the hundreds at the refuge, but in 1987 the count suddenly dropped to double digits, and there it has remained until this year. The all-time high for Chincoteague was attained in 1977 with a total of 1479.
Back Bay, Nansemond River, and Walkerton observers cornered the market on Killdeer. Back Bay’s 639 individuals was an all-time high count for there, and Nansemond River followed with 208 birds. Walkerton reported 149. The only Spotted Sandpipers reported were individual birds at Wachapreague and Little Creek.
Sanderlings were scarce, but Dunlin certainly were not. Northumberland-Lancaster and Washington’s Birthplace counts on the western side of the Bay helped add to the state total of almost 20,000 birds.
American Woodcocks appeared on three counts that were rather unusual. One was at Danville, where woodcocks haven’t been recorded since 2001; one at Gordonsville was that count’s ninth record in its 42-year history; and one was present on the newly reestablished Clifton Forge count.
In the past few years, Banister River birders have been finding rather high numbers of Bonaparte’s Gulls. This year was no exception as their tally of 325 broke the previous record of 256 birds set in 2012.
In the unusual gull department, Little Creek had its first Black-legged Kittiwake in 11 years. Two Iceland Gulls were a first for Central Loudoun and one was in the Fort Belvoir circle during count week, but not on count day. The only Glaucous Gull found was at Fort Belvoir.
Lexington birders found one Barn Owl, the first record for there since 2005. Eleven Great Horned Owls were present on the Wachapreague count, That tally equals their all-time high set in 1982. Ten Barred Owls were found on the Washington’s Birthplace count, doubling their previous record high. One Long-eared Owl was seen at Wachapreague, the only record for there since 1998.
Short-eared Owl numbers were considerably higher than usual. Augusta County had a record-high of nine; The Plains also had a record high of six. All these, along with reports from four other circles, added up to 27 individuals, the highest state total since 1990.
An unprecedented five Ruby-throated Hummingbirds appeared on five different counts. Cape Charles, Little Creek, and Nansemond River had reported sightings of this species in previous years, but the individuals at Williamsburg and Waynesboro represented a first-time occurrence for those counts. Surprisingly, no other hummingbird species were detected except for an individual at Nansemond River which was listed as “hummingbird sp.”
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were present on every count, resulting in the highest total ever for that species. On the other hand, Northern Flickers have shown very little fluctuation in numbers over the years. The average regional total for the past 13 years has been 2800 birds. Another woodpecker species that also demonstrates a rather stable population is the Pileated Woodpecker. Regional totals have dropped below 1000 only five times in the last 25 years.
For the second year in a row, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are still holding forth in Dismal Swamp. One bird was spotted during the count. Biologists are closely monitoring these birds that were transplanted to the Swamp about three years ago.
Peregrine Falcons topped all expectations when a record 41 individuals were recorded on 17 counts. The second highest total (32) was attained in 2013. For Lexington, Waynesboro, and Chancelorsville, the appearance of a Peregrine on count day was a first for all three counts.
Although it wasn’t the highest total ever, this year’s 400+ Eastern Phoebes was the second highest number recorded for Virginia. The number was augmented by the inexplicable total of 87 individuals recorded on the Walkerton count.
Walkerton seems to have a strange attraction for flycatchers. Along with a Vermilion Flycatcher in 2013, and the extremely high count of Eastern Phoebes this year, birders also found, and photographed, a Say’s Phoebe. The only other sightings of this species on CBCs in this region is one at Little Creek in 1956, and another on the Blackford count in 2015.
On the other side of the coin is the dismal total of seven Loggerhead Shrikes region-wide. This marks the third time the Loggerhead has been tallied in single digits on Virginia counts since 1946! It’s hard to imagine birders in 1974 finding 170 Loggerheads on 25 of the 33 counts conducted that year.
For the third year in a row, Northern Shrikes were around, one at Manassas-Bull Run and another on the Washington’s Birthplace count. Good photographs were obtained of both birds. Northern Shrikes have scantily dotted the CBC map over the years. The first record was one individual at Lynchburg in 1950; then one appeared at Danville in 1970; a count-week bird was verified [n the Shenandoah NP-Luray circle in 1975; one was recorded at Calmes Neck in 1997; one was at Cape Charles in 2004; in 2006 an individual was photographed on the Rockingham County count; and now, mentioned above, the two sightings this year. Interestingly enough, there is a very old count record on the books of a Northern Shrike recorded on a count conducted at Culpeper in 1915. No written records are available to validate its authenticity.
Blue-headed Vireos were spotted on three counts around the Bay, and on three other counts a little further inland. The one in Rockingham County was their third record. Previous sightings there were in 1977 and 1998.
This year the record for a first-time occurrence of Common Ravens goes to Hopewell, where two birds were observed. Three other counts had record highs: eight for Fort Belvoir; four for Chancellorsville, and 21 for Lyncbhurg. This year’s total count equals the all-time high of 390 individuals set in 2011.
Fort Belvoir’s 692 Carolina Chickadees were the lowest for that count since 1977. Black-capped Chickadee numbers were about average, with a nice count of 16 at Clifton Forge for the highest count of the season. Roanoke’s 12 were a high count for there.
This just didn’t seem to be the year for the usual Red-breasted Nuthatch winter invasion. Only 30 were seen on 13 counts. That’s the lowest regional total since 1984. Except for six at Mathews and one at Williamsburg, the Coastal Plain region seemed to be completely devoid of Red-breasteds. Another Brown-headed Nuthatch showed up at Blacksburg this year. That is the 6th occurrence in 12 years.
The tally of Sedge Wrens sinks lower as the years go by. This year only 11 were spotted. The same can be said about the Marsh Wren with a total count of 22 region-wide. The Carolina Wren is a different story. From year to year, its total count usually hovers between four thousand to six thousand birds annually. Unlike other wrens, numbers of this species have slowly increased over the past two decades.
The only Blue-gray Gnatcatcher recorded was one individual photographed on the Washington DC count.
A very rare Swainson’s Thrush was identified at Cape Charles. The bird was observed by several experienced birders and a good photograph was obtained. This is the first verified sighting since 1982.
Waynesboro was the only count that missed a Hermit Thrush. That is very unusual because Waynesboro birders have recorded Hermit Thrushes every year that count has been conducted, except 1983. Another species of thrush that was very much in evidence was the American Robin. Several counts around the region chalked up numbers in the thousands.
The most Gray Catbirds (274) were seen in the region since 2002. Brown Thrasher numbers were also much higher than usual. The total of 302 individuals broke the previous regional high of 280 recorded in 2010. Nansemond River, Central Loudoun, and Charlottesville all registered record-breaking highs.
Washington’s Birthplace was the only count reporting Lapland Longspurs (3) this year. Rockingham County was one of only four counts reporting Snow Buntings.
There are always a few unusual warblers around and this year was no exception. Two Black-and-white Warblers were recorded, one at Newport News for the second year in a row, and one at Hopewell, its third record in four years. Orange-crowned Warblers were all over the map, with nine counts racking up 45 individuals, one more than last year’s record high. Both Little Creek (10) and Cape Charles (11) were record high totals. A Nashville Warbler was at Cape Charles for the second year in a row. A Yellow Warbler was at Fort Belvoir for their first record.
Palm Warblers were downright abundant. Both Wachapreague and Cape Charles each counted over 100 birds. And birders on several other counts posted high numbers. A Yellow-throated Warbler was at Little Creek, its third record of that species, and Chincoteague birders found a Yellow-breasted Chat for the second year in a row.
Nelson’s Sparrows were very scarce. Only five were found, all at Chincoteague. No Saltmarsh Sparrows were found anywhere. Seaside Sparrow numbers were also way down, with only four found at Cape Charles.
American Tree Sparrows continue to slowly disappear from the region. This year only 27 were reported. That’s the lowest regional total since 1932! An unprecedented six Clay-colored Sparrows showed up this year. Although no photographs were obtained, three well-described birds comprised Charlottesville’s first count record. Other single individuals were present at Walkerton, Fort Belvoir, and Calmes Neck. In the past several years, this species has been turning up on counts more frequently.
Washington DC had its very first Lark Sparrow record, the only one in the region this year. A good photograph was obtained. The first Harris’s Sparrow seen on any DC/VA count in 14 years was photographed on the Shenandoah NP-Luray count. There are only three other count records in the region.
Vesper Sparrows were present in higher-than-usual numbers, thanks to the 21 individuals at Cape Charles and one other at Chincoteague. Single Lincoln’s Sparrows were spotted at Fort Belvoir, The Plains, and Waynesboro.
Chincoteague birders photographed a banded Savannah (Ipswich) Sparrow. The arrangement of bands on its legs allowed observers to track down the site where the bird had been captured and banded.
The Western Tanager again arrived at the same feeder in Williamsburg for the 7th year in a row. Not only that, but another Western Tanager appeared during count week in the Little Creek circle. Painted Buntings were back again this year, one at Back Bay for its third record, and one at Williamsburg for their second record.
Back Bay had a high count of eight Baltimore Orioles; seven were at Williamsburg; and Lynchburg chalked up its second record of this species. The third occurrence of a Rusty Blackbird at Nokesville was a nice sighting for that count.
Fewer and fewer Purple Finches appear in Virginia as the years go by. This year’s 86 individuals is the fourth-lowest count in the past decade. Pine Siskins numbers wax and wane, but a definite downward trend of this species is evident. This year only 91 birds were seen. The Piedmont was completely devoid of siskins.
House Sparrow populations seem to have stabilized somewhat with regional totals hovering between two thousand and five thousand birds each year. In a far more rural American landscape of past decades, the House Sparrow’s favorite habitats were farms, feed lots, and other undeveloped country haunts, where they could easily be found in abundance. Now, however, their favorite places are the parking lots of fast-food joints, Wal-Mart, and in the rafters of urban home improvement centers. They might be characterized as avian version of the modern-day urban cowboy!
The completion of this summary marks my conclusion as editor of the Virginia-Washington DC region Xmas counts. In 1990, I was immensely honored to be asked to assume the editorship from Claudia Wilds. It was a daunting task to take up a job that was so ably accomplished by a world-renowned birder, researcher, author, photographer, and world traveler, just to name a few of Claudia’s areas of accomplishment. With her guiding hand and gentle encouragement, I slowly learned the ropes and began to understand the complexities of the winter bird populations in the region.
These 27 years have been a fascinating and rewarding experience, and have, quite honestly, taken up quite a chunk of my life each year. Some moments have been long, hard, frustrating, and grueling, but the rewards, the contact with so many people, the opportunity to experience the changes and advances in the world of birding has enriched my life beyond measure. I would like to thank my anonymous “vetting committee” of three who, for the past 10 years have helped me make some very tough decisions involving rarities and other situations involving the editing process.
Yes, it has been a hard job, but the rewards have been many and I shall always be grateful that I had the opportunity to be involved in the very heart of Virginia-Washington DC Audubon Christmas Bird Counts.