A major snowfall event across the region in mid-November and a generally poor food crop may have contributed to the low numbers of individuals encountered on many of the Christmas Counts, with my counts reporting record or near-record lows of some species, especially passerines. In both states, counts run during the first weekend of the period suffered through miserable weather, while later counts fared better.
Twenty-nine CBCs were submitted from New Jersey, with the return of Belleplain after a three-year absence. The Lakehurst count, which had been run continuously since 1942, was not conducted. Hopefully, a new compiler can be found to revive this long-standing CBC. The 197 species recorded was one more than the total found the three previous years and five below the 20-year average. Cape May had a fair day despite gale-force winds to lead the state with 154 species. Barnegat (129) was again second, followed by Cumberland (116), Long Branch (110) and Oceanville (110).
The 37 species of waterfowl detected included no real rarities, but included a single Ross’s Goose in Salem, four Trumpeter Swans at Assunpink, single Eurasian Wigeon at Cape May and Long Branch, and two King Eider at Oceanville. Blue-winged Teal were seen at Cape May (1) and Oceanville (2). Just six Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat was the lowest number in many years, while Cape May added three more. Barnegat did add a healthy 402 Common Eiders.
For the third time in four years, there were no reports of Ruffed Grouse; 1999 was the last time this species was recorded in double digits (10), while the average count during the 1980s was 44. Both Pied-billed Grebe (44) and Horned Grebe (58) were found in near record low numbers, although this may reflect local conditions and not a long-term trend. Individual Red-necked Grebes were at Long Branch, NW Hunterdon, and Sandy Hook. Only 30 Great Cormorants were found on eight different counts, the lowest total in 40 years. Is this species declining or just wintering farther north? Cape May had five American Bitterns, while Barnegat added two and Oceanville one. Barnegat had the only Snowy Egret, the only three Little Blue Herons, all four Tricolored Herons, and the only two Green Herons.
Black Vultures set a new high of 2212 and Turkey Vultures were also well-represented at 3685. A Golden Eagle at Barnegat was the first on a CBC in three years, while totals of other raptors were down 20 – 30%, probably because of poor weather during many of the counts. Although the Bald Eagle tally of 546 was down from last year’s record 618, the species was recorded on every CBC but Trenton Marsh. Clapper Rail (35) and Virginia Rail (25) were the only Rallids detected, and the 23 Sandhill Cranes on the Cumberland count were the only ones found this year.
Seventeen species of shorebirds were tallied, but the total of American Oystercatchers (147) was the lowest in thirty years and the 14 Killdeer (12 at Cape May) was the lowest since 1946. Other shorebirds in low numbers included Sanderling (860), the fewest since 1960 and Dunlin (3781), the fewest since 1949. The Absecon Inlet flock on the Oceanville CBC tallied 54 of the 55 Western Willets and all 20 Marbled Godwits. A single Long-billed Dowitcher was reported from Oceanville. Razorbills were much in evidence along the coast at Sandy Hook (324), Long Branch (42), and Barnegat (169), anticipating the massive flight of this species in early January. Barnegat and Cape May each had a Laughing Gull and five different counts had a total of seven Iceland Gulls. Lower Hudson produced the only Glaucous Gull and Cape May had all 58 of the reported Forster’s Terns, one of the highest counts in recent years.
Boonton and Belleplain each had a Barn Owl, while the totals for Eastern Screech-Owl (217) and Great Horned Owl (160) were the lowest in 18 years. This is probably largely due to the poor weather, but Great Horneds have suffered from the West Nile virus. Barnegat had the only two Snowy Owls and just three counts tallied single Long-eared Owls, another species that has been in long-term decline. For the first time in eight years, there were no reports of any hummingbird species. Twenty Red-headed Woodpeckers was up from last year’s six, but still not an invasion year total; numbers of all the other woodpecker species were down, presumably due to weather conditions. Red-bellied Woodpecker, a state-wide rarity just 60 years ago, continues to be the most common woodpecker.
Princeton had a continuing Ash-throated Flycatcher and Cape May recorded a White-eyed Vireo, but there were no Northern Shrikes for the third year in a row. Cape May and Trenton Marsh each had a pair of Tree Swallows, but the 23 Northern Rough-winged Swallows represented a new state CBC high. Only 8117 American Crows were counted, the lowest number since 1964 for this species seriously affected by West Nile disease, while Common Ravens continue to do well – 84 being just 10 fewer than last year’s record total. Red-breasted Nuthatches were widespread with 297 found on 26 of the 29 CBCs. Cumberland and Oceanville each recorded a Sedge Wren.
With few exceptions, most songbird species were tallied in well-below-average numbers, including chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, and Northern Mockingbird, among others. The total of American Pipits was the lowest since 1987, while the 893 Cedar Waxwings was the fewest since 1989. Cape May had a Nashville Warbler and Trenton Marsh a wintering Prairie Warbler. A Black-throated Blue Warbler that wintered at a feeder in the Pinelands circle was only the third CBC record for New Jersey, all coming in the past five years. The most striking total of all species was the scarcity of Yellow-rumped Warblers, a trend that continued downward after the count period. Although the species was missed on only four CBCs, the 453 individuals tallied was the lowest statewide total since 1931, when there were far fewer counts and observers.
Cape May had the only Yellow-breasted Chat, while the LeConte’s Sparrow photographed on the Sandy Hook count was an excellent find. Winter numbers of American Tree Sparrow have been declining for a number of years, but the 438 was the lowest total since 1922 (the average tally during the 1990’s was over three thousand.) For the first time ever, Chipping Sparrows (673) outnumbered the Tree Sparrows. In a similar trend, the number of Slate-colored Juncos (11,579) was the lowest in 30 years, and the tally of White-throated Sparrows was down 15% from the average for the previous ten years. Cumberland and Cape May each had a Dickcissel.
Rusty Blackbird numbers can fluctuate widely during the course of the winter, but the 27 individuals reported on this year’s CBCs was the fewest since 1950 of this seriously declining species. A total of five Baltimore Orioles was found on three counts, Assunpink (2), Belleplain (2), and Great Swamp (1). House Finch populations seemed to have stabilized in recent years following a ca. 75% drop from the numbers of the late 1980’s – early 1990’s, but the 1770 recorded this year was the smallest total since 1966. Purple Finches (133) were up sharply from last year, but still not at invasion year totals. Other winter finches were scarce once again, with two Red Crossbills at Cape May and another at Mizpah, a Common Redpoll at Great Swamp, and three Evening Grosbeaks, two at Cape May and another at Ramsey. This was only the second occurrence in the past ten years of the grosbeak, a species once found in the hundreds or low thousands on CBCs, until they disappeared abruptly in the early 1990’s.
Seventy-eight counts were submitted from Pennsylvania, with the return of Harrisburg and the addition of new counts at Cowanesque Lake, Montrose Area, and Ohiopyle. Temperatures were near normal, but heavy rain played havoc with many of the counts run on the first weekend, which usually has most of the highest totals. This year, counts run on the second weekend produced several of the top tallies. A statewide total of 161 species was near the average and one more than the previous year and included several outstanding rarities. Lititz had a count record 102 species to top the list for the first time since 1924. Southern Bucks County was second with 100, Harrisburg third with 95, and Western Chester County fourth with 93.
The 32 species of waterfowl detected included an impressive 178,000 Snow Geese, almost three-quarters of them at Bethlehem-Easton, which also held the only two Ross’s Geese. A Barnacle Goose was seen during the count week at Western Chester. Six Trumpeter Swans was a new statewide high, with two each at Indian and Johnstown and individuals at Dubois and Southern Lancaster. Eight Surf Scoters were at Erie and one at Southern Bucks, six White-winged Scoters were counted at Harrisburg and one at Johnstown, while the only two Black Scoters were at Southern Bucks.
Forty-two Ruffed Grouse was just four more than the historical low recorded in 2017. Erie had the only two Red-throated Loons, while two Red-necked Grebes were tallied at Southern Bucks County and another was at Bushy Run S.P. Great Cormorant numbers remain at modest levels, with 16 at Southern Bucks and two at Pennypack Valley, which was for many years the center of the species’ winter distribution. Delaware County and Lehigh Valley each had an American Bittern, the first on a Pennsylvania CBC since 2007. A Great Egret was an excellent find on the very successful Lititz CBC.
Black Vulture numbers continue to increase with a new statewide high of 2962 and the Turkey Vulture tally was a third-highest 4438. Individual Ospreys were at Pennypack Valley and Williamsport, the eighth year of the past nine with at least one in the state. Cooper’s Hawks continue to outnumber Sharp-shinned Hawks by about two-to-one, as the latter species has been declining since 2001. Meanwhile, Bald Eagle totals continue to increase, with the count of 899 being 94 more than last year’s record count as all but five of the CBC’s recorded the species.
Seven Virginia Rails, two each at Central Bucks County, Lancaster, and West Chester and one at Upper Bucks County, was a new state high, surpassing the five recorded in 1974. The tally of 221 Sandhill Cranes was down from last year’s record 374, but still the third highest statewide total. American Coots, on the other hand, showed a dramatic decline to just 123 individuals, a drop of 94% from the average for the previous ten years. Wilson’s Snipe numbers have been also been declining in recent years, and the 10 recorded on five CBC’s was the fewest since 1951.
Just 11 Bonaparte’s Gulls were located, while a Black-headed Gull at Delaware County was only the fifth ever for a Pennsylvania CBC. Southern Bucks once again led the continent with 36,000 Herring Gulls and also tallied 13 of the 16 Iceland Gulls and 12 of the 13 Glaucous Gulls. The 586 Lesser Black-backed Gulls was the fourth highest state total, led by Central Bucks (241) and Bethlehem-Easton (128). Southern Bucks had 120 and Upper Bucks 80 as the center of their winter distribution has shifted north from Southern Bucks County.
Lititz led the state with the highest number of owls (78), including 51 Eastern Screech-Owls, as perennial leader Upper Bucks was washed out by rain and wind. No Snowy Owls were reported and just three Short-eared Owls, one each at Clarion, Grove City, and Lititz, were a big drop from last year’s impressive 29. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker numbers (281) were down 40% from the ten-year average after setting a new state high in 2017. Red-bellied Woodpecker and Pileated Woodpecker also dropped about 15% following years of steady increase, but these counts may only reflect poor weather conditions at many sites. The tally of American Kestrels (617) was the lowest since 2009, but Merlins continue to increase as wintering birds, setting at new state high at 69.
An Empidonax, sp., was found at Newville, but could not be positively identified as to species. Northern Shrikes were scarce for the fourth year in a row, with singles at Cowanesque Lake, Dingman’s Ferry, Johnstown, and Lehigh Valley, while Gettysburg had a count-week Loggerhead Shrike, a species not recorded on a Pennsylvania CBC since 2007. A Blue-headed Vireo, a tenth for a PA CBC, was a highlight of the Lititz count. American Crow numbers were down again to 50,899, the fewest since 2000 for this West Nile virus susceptible species, but Common Raven (549) came in just eight short of the 2015 record. Although Horned Lark numbers fluctuate considerably from year-to-year, the 1836 recorded this season was the lowest tally since 1965 and down 75% from the ten-year average. Pennypack Valley hosted the usual flock of Northern Rough-winged Swallows (60) and Audubon added another 10. A single unidentified swallow was at Huntingdon.
The total of 471 Red-breasted Nuthatches indicated a modest irruption. House Wrens were reported from Curtin (2), Delaware County, and Lititz, while single Marsh Wrens were at Delaware County and Penns Creek. One of the outstanding rarities of the season was a Townsend’s Solitaire at Indiana, only the second ever on a Pennsylvania CBC; the first was at Butler in 1993. Four Brown Thrashers was the fewest since 2001, while the steady decline in Northern Mockingbird seen in recent years reached a modern day low of 1463 from a peak of 4199 in 2006. Thirty-six American Pipits were found on three counts, the lowest total since 1989, of a species usually tallied in the hundreds. No Lapland Longspurs were encountered for just the second time since 1972 and only 16 Snow Buntings could be located, 13 in Lebanon County and three at Penn’s Creek.
Eight species of warbler were reported, including the first Black-throated Gray Warblers ever recorded on a Pennsylvania CBC, one at Lancaster and another at State College. A Black-and-white Warbler was found at Lititz, an Orange-crowned Warbler at State College, and a Cape May Warbler at Pennypack Valley, only the seventh CBC record for the latter species. As in New Jersey, Yellow-rumped Warblers were in short supply – the tally of 180 individuals was the lowest since 1966. West Chester had a Yellow-breasted Chat.
American Tree Sparrows have been gradually declining from a peak of more than 15,000 in 1998, but the 1780 counted this year was the fewest since 1937. A Clay-colored Sparrow, the seventh for a state CBC, was a highlight of the Central Bucks County count, as was a LeConte’s Sparrow at York Springs, only the fourth for a Pennsylvania CBC. The Dark-eyed Junco total was down 40% from the 10-year average and they were outnumbered by White-throated Sparrows for the first time. On the other hand, the 675 Swamp Sparrows provided a new high for that species on a statewide CBC.
The long-term decline in the numbers of Eastern Meadowlark, like many other grassland species, was evident in the tally of just seven birds, the fewest since 1929. Western Chester County reported the vast majority (96%) of the 275,000 blackbirds, mainly Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, found in the state. Several species of winter finch recorded modest irruptions. The count of 483 Purple Finches was nearly triple last season’s tally and the highest total since 2007. Forty-five Common Redpolls (40 at Pocono Manor) was the most in six years, while a Hoary Redpoll was a count-week bird at Erie. No crossbills were encountered, but the 81 Evening Grosbeaks is the most since 2012; Pleasantville (30) and Benezette (17) had the highest counts. Pine Siskins were widespread and reached a respectable total of 707, well above average but far below the massive invasion of 2008, when 11,600 were reported. Once again, I thank Nick Bolgiano for sharing some of his insights into the Pennsylvania CBCs in advance of publication.