The 118th Christmas Bird Count was one for the record books! The number of counts completed online for the season soared to an all-time high, shattering the 117th Season’s one-year-wonder high. The number of participants also reached an all-time high, breaking the previously standing record from the 116th CBC. And roughly one-quarter of the species of birds in the world were tallied, yet another amazing feat.
However, many people in several regions won’t remember the 118th CBC season for *any* of the aforementioned reasons, but instead because they were able to participate at all. While most of the weather in the fall and early winter period leading up to the 118th CBC was rather average, a few events that hit in early fall were anything but—massive wildfires burned in California, and three of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded slammed the Gulf Coast and Caribbean Islands. These catastrophic events were well covered by the media in terms of their destructive impact on both habitat and human lives, and yet in December nearly every single Christmas Bird Count circle in the affected areas was still covered by the fantastically dedicated cadre of CBC participants in all the regions. Even in the face of burned and flooded homes and towns, catastrophic destruction of habitat, and lack of power and basic services, birders went out and tallied species in their usual areas, even in such unusual circumstances. This immediate coverage of affected areas, and continued monitoring in those areas for seasons to come, will be critical as we track the recovery of both natural processes and human lives.
When it was all said and done, 2,585 Christmas Bird Counts were submitted to the 118th CBC database, breaking last season’s record of 2,536 by 49 counts! Of that grand total, 463 counts were submitted from Canada, 1,957 from the United States, and 165 from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. One reason the number of counts continues to grow of course is that Audubon receives a plethora of new count applications each season, and Table 1 lists the 48 new counts included this season (5 from Canada, 24 from the U.S., and a whopping 19 new counts from Latin America). We extend a hearty welcome to all, and we look forward to many more successful seasons.
The number of observers in the 118th Christmas Bird Count again set new records, breaking the old record of 76,669 in the 116th CBC with a grand total of 76,987 CBC participants (14,264 in Canada, 58,719 in the US, and 4,004 in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands)! Of that total, 66,438 (10,560 in Canada, 51,978 in the US, and 3,900 elsewhere) covered the forests, fields, and waterways, while 10,549 (3,704 in Canada, 6,741 in the US, and 104 elsewhere) counted birds at their feeders. Organizing CBCs with all those participants in so many far-flung regions take quite a bit logistical savvy, and it’s the thousands of dedicated compilers and co-compilers who masterfully manage the job. One benchmark measuring how large that task is on any given count is the total number of participants attending for a given season, and Table 2 is the complete roster of all Christmas Bird Counts in the 118th season with 100 participants or more.
With all those birders out there for 23 days over such a huge geographic area, it’s pretty much assured that we will find lots of birds of an incredible variety of species. The 118th CBC was no exception, and a total of 59,242,067 individual birds of 2,673 species and 426 additional forms and hybrids were tallied. In total 287 species were tallied in Canada, and 666 countable species (plus 44 identifiable forms and 44 exotic species) were tallied in the US. The Miramichi, New Brunswick count in Canada added an all-time first for the CBC database—and the American Birding Association area—with their long-staying Mistle Thrush! In the United States, Nazca Booby was added when three birds were located on the San Diego, California CBC. We *almost* added another species to the overall CBC roster—Citrine Wagtail—but unfortunately the bird did not cooperate on count day for the folks at Sacramento, California and it was listed as a count week only species. The other 2,000 or so species tallied were avian gems from the rest of the incredibly diverse area covered by CBC participants.
Interestingly, the number of species tallied overall by all counters everywhere remains relatively constant, sometimes bumping slightly upward as new counts are added in new areas, especially those in new regions of South America. But the number of *birds* counted can vary widely, and is quite dependent upon whether concentrations of roosting species were tallied within circles. Blackbirds, crows, robins, and waterfowl can be highly concentrated in the winter, and when a roost of tens of million of birds happens to be in a circle (as can occasionally happen with blackbirds) the overall species count remains the same—but the number of birds jumps dramatically! It appears that few mega-roosts were within CBC circles during the 118th CBC.
Speaking of counting birds as we are, it’s worth giving thought to whether or not we do actually count every bird we see or hear on a CBC. That’s the goal—but do we really? Or do we have some mental filters that may come into play with non-native, common, or dare we say “trash” birds? I know that there are times when I’ve said out loud at a countdown that the day was a real success—no pigeons, no starlings, and no House Sparrows! But were there really none, or did I just gloss over them while looking for something more exciting like a Fox Sparrow or a lingering warbler? Mike Busam, in his Ohio CBC regional summary for this season, has some very interesting thoughts:
“The European Starling is not a species of interest on counts. A friend of mine once complained at a tally that “starlings ruin counts” and suggested we shouldn’t bother counting them. This friend is obviously not a compiler! But starlings are, indeed, out there, and they do certainly count, as do many other “boring” species such as Canada Goose, Mallard, House Sparrow, etc. A curious problem compilers face when considering coverage of their CBC circles is how to manage coverage of the “best” areas that are likely to attract the most species and the “worst” areas that might be plagued by starlings or Rock Pigeons, and little else. Sometimes odd pockets of habitat must be checked for relatively small numbers of birds—that retention pond by Walmart that somehow always has a Swamp Sparrow and once had a Common Yellowthroat, too, for example. On the other hand, sometimes odd pockets of terrible habitat have to be checked for large numbers of very few birds. But when one is running out of time and people, that enormous starling roost in the middle of the industrial park is probably going to be cut before the “honey hole” behind Walmart or the out-of-the-way private wetland you have permission to visit. We naturally favor the more interesting species and probably put less effort into going out of our way to count the dull ones. So… with absolutely no scientific evidence to back this up, here are the “hardest working” counts of the 2017-2018 CBC season based on the number of European Starlings they reported: Cincinnati (19,658), Columbus (19,538), Caesar Creek-Spring Valley (18,952), Cuyahoga Falls (17,851), Western Hamilton County (17,469), Lake Erie Islands (16,013). As the compiler of a CBC almost in the middle of three of these counts, I question how we didn’t even reach 6,000 starlings on the Hamilton-Fairfield count. Someone will have to drive through those industrial parks this December. Any volunteers?”
Mike’s point is very well taken; the Christmas Bird Count database is widely used by researchers studying the long-term trend status of hundreds of species of birds in North America, including non-native species like starlings. It’s important that we try to be accurate counting the less-appreciated species as well as the ones we look forward to finding!
The species total on count day is often (well, usually…) considered to be one measure of success of a CBC each season. But the most important thing is to get out and count, no matter how many birds or species are around or what the weather may bring. The comparison of results over time on a given CBC adds fuel to the fire that drives us to do Christmas Bird Counts. Whether we find two species on the Arctic Bay, Nunavut CBC or 502 on the Yanayacu, Ecuador count, the birds and birders continue to draw us out. Top species total honors for the 118th CBC go to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada with 144 species; reigning champion Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh, Texas in the United States at 220 species (in their 25th running!), and the aforementioned Yanayacu, Napo, Ecuador in Latin America at 502 species. There have been counts in the past where no birds at all were tallied (yes, all in the Arctic, both in Alaska and in Canada) but the excitement each year is to go out and see what we can see. For circles blessed with the latitude, diversity of habitat, and geographic location to host many, many species, the 150-species mark is the one we try to beat. Table 3 lists the 83 counts in the United States and 53 counts in Latin America that broke the 150 species barrier in the 118th Christmas Bird Count.
We compete with ourselves for the species tally mark each season; we hope for our own personal best, the best in our sector, and our count’s best tally every year. So many factors come into play—not only our birding luck on count day, but the weather we’re dealt with to count in as well as the conditions in the preceding weeks and months. Is it snowy and frozen, or open and warm? How was the wild food crop this fall? Are we in a drought? These are all factors that are likely to affect not only our own count, but those neighboring our area in the region. So having a look at where we stand in our region species-wise can sometimes be an important perspective on how our particular results for a season stand. Table 4 presents the list of regional high species totals from the 118th CBC.
As mentioned earlier in this summary, there were major environmental events that affected a number of different regions where a good number of Christmas Bird Counts were conducted during the 118th CBC. Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast of Texas as a Category 4 storm in August 2017, flailing the coastal areas (including that of the Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh CBC) with sustained 120+ mph winds on the coast and dumping over 50 inches of rain in the Houston area. Shortly thereafter in September, Hurricane Irma swept through the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean as a Category 5 hurricane with 185 mph winds, especially impacting both the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. Immediately following Irma, Hurricane Maria made a direct hit on the island of Puerto Rico also as a Category 5 hurricane, with winds of 175 mph.
Then there were the October wildfires in California—the Tubbs Fire devastated Santa Rosa and surrounding areas, including several CBC circles in the lovely wine regions of California.
Incredibly, nearly every existing Christmas Bird Count in these areas were conducted during the 118th CBC—mere weeks after the catastrophic effects of all these events. Counters in California slogged through burned habitats searching for birds; birders in Texas put down their chain saws and shovels and went out and counted birds; participants in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands put their recovery efforts on hold (even in the face of no electricity) and searched the wind-stripped forests in the hopes of finding some of their avian neighbors.
It can’t be over-stated how important these efforts were in this first season following all these disasters. Our understanding of how habitats and birds recover—and how humans recover—in the face of such events depends upon regular monitoring, as the CBC has done for 118 years. We will now be able to track the immediate effects of such events in the short-term, and the long-term recovery for the future. My highest kudos go to all involved; even after three decades of managing the Christmas Bird Count program, the dedication and passion of the folks who participate on counts continues to amaze me.
Once the season was completed, it gradually became clear that the most notable thing about the period from December 14th, 2017 through January 5th, 2018 was that things were pretty much normal all around! The continental weather (passing lightly over the above-mentioned events) was average; no early arctic blasts, nor December shots of warm tropical air. The early part of the count period was relatively snow-free, and with no more than average winter storms, followed not surprisingly by colder weather with more snow in the later days of the 118th count period.
Overall the birds were found in average numbers and diversity as well. There was a modest push of Snowy Owls into south-central Canada and down into Indiana, but it was neither a huge flight nor a complete dearth across the continent. Rough-legged Hawks made a similar push into the north-central states, but again nothing record-breaking. Winter finches stayed north in droves across the board; Common Redpolls were found in good numbers in their usual northern and western haunts, and Red Crossbills moved downslope in the mountains of the west and into the Dakotas, but there were no big flights. The same was true of the winter frugivores; Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks were found in decent numbers—right where they are normally expected on CBCs.
Continuing trends of species mentioned in recent seasons were also clear. Northern Bobwhite continues its precipitous decline in the northern and eastern portions of its range; many counts where this species was formerly relatively common mentioned the only ones tallied were captive-bred birds released in the fall. Loggerhead Shrike continues to decline over much of its range, for reasons that are still not well understood.
On a brighter note, several upward trends continue. The Eurasian Collared-Dove consolidated its march northwestward across the continent; eight counts in Alaska tallied this species in the 118th CBC! Interestingly though, it is declining in Florida, where the original colonization of North America by this species began. It will be interesting to follow this seesaw pattern in future CBC seasons. Also on the upward swing is Anna’s Hummingbird; numbers continue to increase along the West Coast, especially to the north. Again in Alaska, seven counts tallied this species (several of those also hosting the collared-doves). And the recovery of Bald Eagles continues in full swing; numbers were mentioned as up for this majestic species across the continent—a very good news story.
Another species on the upswing is Common Raven. While always common to abundant in the north and west (and in fact the *only* species ever tallied on the Prudhoe Bay, Alaska count!), ravens had essentially disappeared from much of the central and eastern part of the continent outside the Appalachians by the mid-1900s, likely as a result of human encroachment and loss of habitat. Over the past few decades, however, ravens have made a comeback, and are colonizing areas southward along the east coast, and even down to the coast from the mountainous areas that were formerly this species’ stronghold. Interestingly, one thing that is greatly assisting Common Ravens is an inadvertent human assist—they have taken readily to nesting on cell phone towers!
Of note in the world of “big chickens,” both Attwater’s Greater Prairie-Chicken and Gunnison Sage-Grouse were tallied on CBCs this season in their highly localized ranges. Both birds are greatly at risk and challenging to locate in the winter; the prairie-chickens show a boom-or-bust cycle, with peaks in the 104th, 112th, and 116th seasons, while the Gunnison Sage-Grouse has only been found in four of the 14 seasons since this species was recognized. The Attwater’s was drastically affected by flooding from Hurricane Harvey; we can hope for some recovery of both of these beleaguered species.
As the 118th Christmas Bird Count period approached I was very much anticipating my two visits to Rhode Island. It’s always great to see my friends down there, and these days the CBC season is often the only time I get to bird in Rhode Island, which has amazing avian diversity for such a tiny state! My first count of the season, in lovely Newport County, was on a surprisingly cold and blustery day. Clear, yes—but the wind made it hard to find many things. We did manage some nice birds for a CBC in the Northeast—Eurasian Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, and a skulky but very rewarding White-eyed Vireo; there were many times during the day when it was a real challenge to find any birds at all. But hey, this is the CBC, and we found some great stuff and shared stories of the day at the compilation.
The following weekend was the other CBC I do in Rhode Island—the one we’d had such spectacular luck on during the 117th CBC. But this season freezing rain lengthened my drive to the coast, and conditions were horrid when I met my birding partner Doug. While the frozen precipitation was “just” rain on the coast, it was just above freezing, windy, and drenching mist to moderate rain. Just lovely to be outside looking for birds.
Needless to say we didn’t have the most fun, and it was far more challenging to find birds on this count than it had been the week before. Everything was hunkered down or hiding; no Northern Waterthrush, Winter Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker, Barrow’s Goldeneye, or Western Tanager this season! Mercifully—we thought—the wind and rain let up slightly and the temperatures spiked in mid-afternoon, just as we arrived in the parking lot at the Ninigret Refuge. But just as we grabbed our scopes to go check out the pond for waterfowl and hopefully our friend the Lesser Black-backed Gull, the inevitable happened—pea soup fog rolled in. Doug and I trudged out to the point anyway, desperately searching for anything moving in the limited distance we could see through the fog. No waterfowl appeared, and only a phantom glimpse of a Herring Gull ghosted by through the mist.
Just as we turned to head back to the parking lot, a bird appeared out of the fog, flew by at eye level, and disappeared into the cove. A gull? No, it was *the* gull; our Lesser Black-back friend we’ve seen for so many seasons. The fog lifted slightly and there the bird was—right on the rock where we’d first found it 16 years ago. The day was a resounding success after all!
Birds have an amazing site tenacity; where does this gull go for the summer? I’m sure we’ll never know, but it knows where it’s been, and right where it wants to be each winter. Birders are pretty much the same; we may make uncharted journeys during the year, but so many of us return to the same spots each winter to do our traditional Christmas Bird Counts. That’s what makes the CBC database so amazingly important—the efforts and dedication of Christmas Bird Count participants who keep counting the same areas each season, and maybe even some of the same birds. Many thanks to you all; whether this was your first CBC or your 50th, your efforts combine to make a meaningful positive difference to the birds we all know and love.
Table 1. New counts in the 118th (2017-2018) Christmas Bird Count
|Count Code||Count Name|
|NBMC||Minto/Chipman, New Brunswick|
|NBSJ||Saint John, New Brunswick|
|SKMJ||Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan|
|SKSH||Shell Lake, Saskatchewan|
|AROU||Lake Ouachita S.P., Arkansas|
|AZTO||Tonto N.M.-Theodore Roosevelt Lake, Arizona|
|CALY||Lake Yosemite-Merced, California|
|CAPX||Pixley N.W.R., California|
|FLGS||Green Swamp, Florida|
|FLOS||Okaloacoochee Slough-Spirit of the Wild W.M.A., Florida|
|GALS||Little St. Simons Island, Georgia|
|ILLC||Lee Center, Illinois|
|INPI||Pike County, Indiana|
|INPT||Putnam County, Indiana|
|KYBR||Barren River Lake, Kentucky|
|KYHE||Henry County, Kentucky|
|NELP||Lower Platte River, Nebraska|
|NYDE||Upper Delaware River, New York|
|WALC||Lewis County, Washington|
|CARIBBEAN, LATIN AMERICA|
|CLAT||Armero, Tolima, Colombia|
|CLLI||Líbano, Tolima, Colombia|
|CLMU||Murillo, Tolima, Colombia|
|CLNT||Pueblo Nasa Toribio, Cauca, Colombia|
|CLPY||Popayán, Cauca, Colombia|
|CLUC||P.N.N. Utria, Chocó, Colombia|
|ECGP||Galbula Pastaza, Fatima, Pastaza, Ecuador|
|ECLI||Reserva Biológica Limoncocha, Sucumbíos, Ecuador|
|ECMA||Machalilla-Ayampe, Manabí, Ecuador|
|MXCA||Cacahoatán, Chiapas, Mexico|
|MXHE||Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico|
|MXPC||Pijijiapan, Chiapas, México|
|MXSA||Sierra del Águila, Jalisco, México|
|MXTC||Tapachula-Cabildo, Chiapas, Mexico|
|MXTV||Tuxpan, Veracruz, México|
|MXVM||Vado de Meoqui, Chihuahua, Mexico|
|NICV||Complejo Volcánico Casitas, Chinandega, Nicaragua|
|PYBA||Benjamin Aceval, Presidente Hayes, Paraguay|
Table 2. Counts with 100 or more participants in the 118th (2017-2018) CBC
|Code||Count Name||# Observers||(Field + Feeder)|
|ABED||Edmonton, AB||450||(178 + 272)|
|ORPD||Portland, OR||371||(241 + 130)|
|CAOA||Oakland, CA||321||(284 + 37)|
|BCVI||Victoria, BC||311||(265 + 46)|
|WASE||Seattle, WA||311||(236 + 75)|
|SCHH||Hilton Head Island, SC||292||(213 + 79)|
|MACO||Concord, MA||274||(158 + 116)|
|DCDC||Washington, DC||226||(224 + 2)|
|OREU||Eugene, OR||225||(149 + 76)|
|ECCH||Chiles-Chical, Carchi, Ecuador||224||(204 + 20)|
|ABCA||Calgary, AB||221||(136 + 85)|
|SCSC||Sun City-Okatie, SC||212||(211 + 1)|
|CASB||Santa Barbara, CA||210||(197 + 13)|
|CAPR||Point Reyes Peninsula, CA||200||(200 + 0)|
|ECNM||Mindo-Tandayapa, Ecuador||196||(184 + 12)|
|MANO||Northampton, MA||191||(155 + 36)|
|PAPI||Pittsburgh, PA||190||(125 + 65)|
|CODE||Denver, CO||183||(169 + 14)|
|WAED||Edmonds, WA||183||(87 + 96)|
|AKAN||Anchorage, AK||176||(118 + 58)|
|BCVA||Vancouver, BC||176||(173 + 3)|
|COCS||Colorado Springs, CO||167||(138 + 29)|
|VAFB||Fort Belvoir, VA||164||(152 + 12)|
|ONOH||Ottawa-Gatineau, ON||161||(133 + 28)|
|BCPI||Pender Islands, BC||160||(127 + 33)|
|OHCF||Cuyahoga Falls, OH||160||(125 + 35)|
|CAOC||Orange County (coastal), CA||154||(154 + 0)|
|WASD||Sequim-Dungeness, WA||153||(118 + 35)|
|FLSC||Sanibel – Captiva, FL||150||(149 + 1)|
|CAMR||Morro Bay, CA||148||(142 + 6)|
|CRLS||La Selva, Lower Braulio Carillo N.P., Costa Rica||147||(147 + 0)|
|QCQU||Quebec, QC||146||(123 + 23)|
|RIBI||Block Island, RI||140||(140 + 0)|
|CASD||San Diego, CA||139||(139 + 0)|
|NYIT||Ithaca, NY||139||(125 + 14)|
|MDSE||Seneca, MD||138||(124 + 14)|
|CAPA||Palo Alto, CA||136||(136 + 0)|
|CODV||Denver (urban), CO||136||(122 + 14)|
|COBO||Boulder, CO||135||(129 + 6)|
|NJLH||Lower Hudson, NJ-NY||134||(134 + 0)|
|ECYY||Yanayacu, Napo, Ecuador||133||(133 + 0)|
|FLGA||Gainesville, FL||132||(126 + 6)|
|ONTO||Toronto, ON||131||(126 + 5)|
|VAWI||Williamsburg, VA||131||(71 + 60)|
|CAWS||Western Sonoma County, CA||130||(128 + 2)|
|NSHD||Halifax-Dartmouth, NS||130||(86 + 44)|
|ONLO||London, ON||128||(95 + 33)|
|UTSL||Salt Lake City, UT||128||(115 + 13)|
|COGJ||Grand Junction, CO||126||(121 + 5)|
|BCPM||Pitt Meadows, BC||125||(118 + 7)|
|CAMC||Marin County (southern), CA||125||(125 + 0)|
|BCGS||Galiano-North Saltspring, BC||123||(106 + 17)|
|WATA||Tacoma, WA||123||(122 + 1)|
|MAGB||Greater Boston, MA||122||(122 + 0)|
|CASF||San Francisco, CA||121||(120 + 1)|
|FLVE||Venice-Englewood, FL||121||(120 + 1)|
|ORSA||Salem, OR||121||(76 + 45)|