The 118th Christmas Bird Count in Minnesota

Mild conditions for the first week of the count period with a large numbers of Canada Geese and Mallards resulted in one of the highest number of birds ever tallied. Forty-nine of 80 species with over 20 individuals counted last year increased this year, a stark contrast to last year's count, when cold weather resulted in decrease in three quarters of those most common species. With 137 species the count compared well to the 140 of two years ago, and far above last year's 126. There were no new species for the count and few rarities. A Lincoln's Sparrow on the St. Paul (North) count, was the 3rd reported on a Minnesota count. Many of the winter arriving species showed high numbers indicative of irruption years including Snowy Owls, Northern Shrike, redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, and Red Crossbills. In addition, Rough-legged Hawk and woodpecker numbers were strong. In contrast, it was a poor year for gulls, American Robins, House Sparrows, juncos, and goldfinches. Overall, a very satisfactory count year.

Eighty-one of 82 circles collected and reported data, a new high number. Only the Hendricks count was not run due to issues not related to local conditions. The Pelican Rapids count was conducted as an introductory test run and the results were not reported to the National Audubon Society.

The total number of participants (about 1900) bounced back from last year's cold and poorly attended count season to almost 4% above the participation of two years ago. Feeder watcher numbers (about 500) were lower than last year, as participants were more comfortable to be out birding away from their warm windows.  Average participation returned to the level of two years ago: almost 24/count. Eleven counts had more than 40 participants, down from last year's 14. Henderson had the most participants with 114 (60 in the field and 54 watching feeders). As in the last two years, St. Paul (North) had the most surveyors in the field with 69, while Owatonna had 85 feeder watchers. Those were considerably higher than the average number of field surveyors (17.5) and feeder watchers (6.1) for all the counts.

During the first five days of the count season, two thirds of the counts were conducted. In sharp contrast to last year, when adverse weather during the first weekend disrupted the count, the first five days of this year were relatively mild with benign weather with average low temperature of 22º and a high of 30º. Eighteen of the 19 counts with highs above freezing were in this period. Three counts in the southwest had highs in the forties, all on the second or third day of the period. The last 15 days of the count period, when one third of the counts were conducted, had an average low of -15º and an average high of -1º. The seven counts with temperatures -25º and below were all in this second period. The lowest temperature -35º and deepest snow (14 inches) were at Eagle's Nest Lakes in Northern St. Louis County. While 63 of the counts had snow on the ground, compared to last year's 72, only 11 counts had six or more inches. When many of the 27 participants (only 11 counts had more in the field) tied on their skis and snowshoes at the Isabella count, the second lowest temperature of -31º tied the record for the coldest day in the history of the count. There are few roads in this count circle and the trails were covered with eight inches of snow, among the deepest on any count. Still, this is one of the most popular although severest counts in the state.    

The total count of birds (397,682) was twice last year's total and the fourth highest count after 2011, 2002, and 2006.  The high numbers of birds is a result this year and in past years of large flocks of Canada Geese still being present, primarily early in the count in western counties. Whereas in the last two counts six species account for half the total, for the 118th count, Canada Geese and Mallards alone accounted for 54% of the total. The top six species accounted for almost three-quarters of the total. The species count (137) was much better than last year's (126), but not as good as two years ago (140).  Of the sightings that were reviewed, 14 sightings on count day were not accepted, mostly because of inadequate or missing documentation. Only two of the non-accepted sightings were of a species not found elsewhere in the state. A reported American Woodcock was almost definitely a Wilson's Snipe, and was finally categorized as “shorebird sp.”.  A report of silent meadowlark was changed to Meadowlark sp.  Four sparrows, three swans, two accipiters, and one finch were contested and changed to a species category. A reported Muscovy Duck was not accepted as it was of obvious domestic origin and possibly not even feral.

The fourth highest number ever of Canada Geese (almost 185,000) and above-average Mallards (31,729), both mostly found in the first days of the count, accounted for over 95% of the total waterfowl.  In addition Cackling Goose (443) set a record, and Trumpeter Swans (3924) were the second highest on record. Common Goldeneye were more plentiful than Common Merganser, which though quite unusual, probably reflected local conditions rather than any trend.  Most other species, usually found in small numbers were scarce. Tundra Swans, Greater Scaup, Ruddy Ducks, and Pied-billed Grebe, all usually found, were not confirmed on any of the counts. Only Gadwall were above-average. Unusual finds included a Harlequin Duck and a count week Long-tailed Duck at St. Cloud, and a Hooded Merganser on the Fargo-Moorhead count. A first count record of a Cackling Goose on the Granite Falls count was probably more an artifact of this being only the second year of the count. Only three species (American White Pelican, Great Blue Heron, and Belted Kingfisher) of water dependent birds (cormorants. pelicans, herons, and kingfishers) were reported. And, only the kingfisher in above-average numbers. This was only the sixth time in 25 years that cormorants were missed.

Most upland game birds were above average, but below peaks in the last year or two. Wild Turkey and Ring-necked Pheasant were below-average, while Sharp-tailed Grouse peaked at a record level, due to large numbers in the northwestern counties. Diurnal raptors were above average because of high numbers of the three most common raptors. Rough-legged Hawks were found in record numbers (300), Bald Eagles (1513) second highest number, and Red-tailed Hawks (878) third highest report. The other six species representing less than 5% of the total numbers were all at about average numbers. The Bald Eagles were concentrated along the southern Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. The other hawks were widely dispersed. All owl species were found at above-average numbers, although only two were remarkably high. Even though this was not an irruptive year, 32 Snowy Owls was by far the highest number reported in any year's counts in the state. The 95 Barred Owls was the second highest count. With the exception of the 17 Barred Owls on the Excelsior count, owl sightings were well dispersed.

Falcon numbers were good in comparison to the last decade. Kestrel numbers were the highest in the last 11 years. The 14 Merlins were the third highest with a first ever report of a prairie race of Merlin.  Peregrine numbers edged up to a modest record of 12.

Herring and Ring-billed gulls were twice as numerous as last year, but overall gull numbers were quite low. Over 92% of the Herring Gulls were found on the Duluth count and almost all the rest were along Lake Superior. Over 92% of the Ring-billed Gulls were found on the Bloomington count. The handful of the other four species of gulls were all found along Lake Superior.

Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves were at about average numbers for the last 10 years. Eurasian Collared-Doves continue to strongly expand in numbers and territory. All nine species of woodpeckers were well represented this year. A well-documented Red-shafted Flicker was reported on the Morris count. The common woodpeckers (Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy) were close to the record or near records of two years ago. Pileated had an all-time high of 737. Red-headed Woodpeckers hit a record of 84 birds, all but one from the Cedar Creek Bog colony. This was after last year's 50-year low of one bird.

Winter field birds were well represented. Horned Lark numbers came almost completely from the southern counts in the state. Lapland Longspurs were more common in the grassland southern and western counts. Snow Buntings, while in similar numbers, were more widely spread and less concentrated.

Corvid numbers were strong, although their numbers have not yet rebounded from the peaks in the 1990's as indicated by numbers when compared to the number of participants. American Crows and Blue Jays are found in almost every count. Black-billed Magpies are expanding their range, but not nearly as much as Common Ravens. Gray (or Canada Jays, as they are now called) small numbers bounce around, not showing a clear trend. This season they were somewhat below average. Northern Shrike numbers were among the highest ever. While they are being found on more counts across the state, numbers are too low to determine any trends. Chickadees, nuthatches, and creepers for the most part continue to show strong stable numbers, although Red-breasted Nuthatches are more variable from year to year. Tufted Titmice are increasing in numbers and range over the last ten years, but are not near to overcoming the range contraction of about 50 years ago. More (84) Golden-crowned Kinglets were reported than in almost 20 years. They were found in ten counts, all outside the Metro Area. Three Carolina Wrens (plus 2 more count week birds) were found. The most unusual was one found in Duluth. One Winter Wren was found in Red Wing. One Yellow-rumped Warbler was found on each of the Rochester and Bloomington counts.

American Robin numbers (410) crashed to levels not seen in over 20 years. No flocks of over 100 birds were found anywhere in the state. Almost 50% of the Robins were in five central Metro counts.  The seven other species of thrushes, thrashers, and mimics were found in small numbers. The most abundant were the 51 Eastern Bluebirds found in ten southern counts. The most unexpected was the Northern Mockingbird found in Duluth, the first found in 14 years. Some of the rarer species, which are found in small numbers in the state during the winter, were unusual finds for their counts.

Bohemian Waxwing numbers were down, and Cedar Waxwing numbers, at more than four times greater than average, were up. Almost 80% of the Bohemians were found in the arrowhead area of NE Minnesota. Cedar Waxwings were found in almost half the counts throughout the state.  European Starlings and House Sparrows, among the most abundant and widespread species in the state, both declined for the second year in a row. House Sparrow numbers were the lowest seen in over 50 years when count and counter numbers were significantly lower. Both species have been trending down for the last 20 years.

Dark-eyed Juncos numbers decreased, while American Tree Sparrows increased. The two species, which account for over 99% of the 11 species of sparrows (8 last year) reported, were for the second year below the ten year average. Junco numbers were the lowest in 12 years. A Lincoln’s Sparrow was found for only the third time on a count. The two Spotted Towhees represent the fourth time in 20 years that species was found. The other seven species (Eastern Towhee, and Fox, Song, Swamp, White-throated, White-crowned, and Harris’s sparrows) were, for the most part, tallied in lower than average numbers. 

Red-winged Blackbirds were found in 27 counts in the highest numbers (2092) in 17 years. Almost half the birds were from the Lac qui Parle count. Common Grackles (401), similarly widespread, were the highest in more than 40 years. Three-quarters of the grackles were found in Jackson County. Only one Brown-headed Cowbird was found, compared to 177 two years ago. The 93 Rusty Blackbirds was one of the highest counts in recent years. Two silent meadowlarks found on opposite sides of the state were probably one of each of the two species found in the state. 

Northern Cardinals continued for the fifth year in a row of reduced numbers. The cardinal population has been trending down for approximately the last 20 years. During that same period, the percentage of counts reporting Northern Cardinals has risen (see graph below). We have not noticed this population decline in anecdotal reports and have no hypothesis to explain this phenomenon. “Southern finch” (American Goldfinch and House Finch) numbers were mixed after three years of suppressed numbers. Goldfinch numbers were the lowest in 20 years, whereas House Finch numbers bounced back to levels before this period. Both finches were found in almost all southern counts, but were missed in a number of northern counts. “Northern finch” populations, which are the most variable of any group in the state, showed mixed results. Common Redpolls (13,309) along with their rare cousins, Hoary Redpolls (40) were at irruptive levels. Common Redpolls were the seventh most common bird on the count and their numbers exceeded all but an irruption five years ago. They were found on more than 90% of the counts, missing a few counties in the south. Most other finches in this group, including Evening Grosbeak, Purple Finch, White-winged Crossbill, and Pine Siskin had low numbers. Pine Grosbeaks (2025) and Red Crossbills (249) bucked this trend and had very strong showings, indicative of peak population years.  Pine Grosbeaks (except for a couple of wanders that made it down to the Metro Area), Evening Grosbeaks, and White-winged Crossbills only showed up in the northern counts, whereas the others showed up in small numbers all around the state.

Gyrfalcon abundance Photo: Steve Weston

A complete table of the results of the 118th Christmas Bird Count in Minnesota (includes data from outside of Minnesota from border counts) is available at: https://moumn.org/CBC/coordinator_yearend_table.php?year=2017&main 

A table showing what sightings were reviewed, what documentation was received, and whether reports were accepted is available at:

http://moumn.org/CBC/documents/MN%20CBC%20118%20Birds%20for%20Review.xls

 

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