The 119th Christmas Bird Count, despite some significant obstacles thrown in our way by both Mother Nature (but what else is new) and the United States Federal Government (more on that later, of course), in the end result again broke records across the board!  While the weather continentally for much of the count period was quite favorable, only lapsing into true winter toward the turn of the New Year, it was the fall season leading up to the 119th Count period that played a major role it this season’s results.

Across much of Canada and the northern tier of states a series of powerful cold fronts dropped down from the Arctic in mid- to late November, producing mid-winter like temperatures during the November holidays.  Record low temperatures and howling winds, though with little precipitation, put much of the northern two-thirds of North America into the deep freeze well before the count period.  Most lingering waterfowl and other open water dependent birds were forced south early, and any lingering migrants that may have otherwise survived into the December 119th Count period were forced out or perished.

Then, in December, the cold let up, and conditions during count day across much of the CBC area were relatively pleasant.  But even this was a double-edged sword; while it was pleasant to be outside, what birds that remained around were scattered across the countryside rather than concentrated in the usual birdy spots where CBC participants expect the objects of their attention to be found.  Most lingering migrants and out-of-range rarities had disappeared with the November cold, and even common and expected species were tallied in generally low numbers.  From coast to coast, many CBC participants (and birders in general) were wondering where all the birds had gone.

Then, smack in the middle of the 119th CBC, the United States Government shut-down began at midnight on Saturday, December 22nd.

The shut-down posed a major impediment to the Christmas Bird Count because many CBCs are conducted on Federal property, including National Wildlife Refuges and National Parks.  Many compilers of these counts are required to have Federal employees along while on the property, especially if special arrangements have been made to access areas generally not available to the birding public.  Many such counts are run on weekdays just for this reason; Refuge and Park personnel participate as part of their work day, and when they were furloughed it was not possible to obtain their services.  Additionally, if the park or refuge was gated, with the shut-down access was completely lost. Many important and long-standing CBCs scheduled for the second half of the 119th Count period were either run with minimized coverage or needed to be cancelled outright.

Christmas Bird Counters are a persistent and enthusiastic bunch however, and despite the challenges again a new record high number of Christmas Bird Counts is included in this season’s results—an amazing 2615 CBCs, 30 higher than the 118th prior record number of 2585.  Of that new record total, 460 counts are included from Canada, 1974 from the United States, and 181 from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Pacific Islands.  One reason the number of counts included is because of an impressive roster of new circles included this season, and Table 1 lists all 51 new Christmas Bird Counts in the 119th CBC (9 from Canada, 20 from the U.S., and an amazing 22 new counts from Latin America and the Caribbean).

The increasing coverage of the Christmas Bird Count program in Latin America is especially encouraging. While the vast majority of CBCs are conducted in the United States and Canada, the new frontier for counts is in Central and South America. Not only is it important to expand knowledge about the status and distribution of the resident local avifauna, but for some migrant species it is becoming a high priority to learn where and how many of the Neotropical migrant species that breed in Canada and the United States are wintering.  While doing Christmas Bird Counts in the Andes or tropical rainforests it’s always a treat to see the local celebrities—quetzals, Harpy Eagles, or mountain-tanagers—but it’s equally important to appreciate the birds that breed in our own back yards and forests that we tally. Blackburnian, Golden-winged, and Blackpoll warblers, Swainson’s and Wood thrushes, Black-headed and Rose-breasted grosbeaks, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-throated Vireos, and Brown-crested and Great Crested flycatchers have all traveled as far as we have to their winter haunts, but under their own power. The wintering areas of some familiar North American breeding species are essentially unknown; I’ve heard it said that most Black-billed Cuckoos could fly to the moon for all the sightings we’ve had of them in winter.

Additionally, the importance of birding and ecotourism in some regions cannot be understated. Pristine areas loaded with birds and other amazing wildlife both in tropical lowlands and high mountainous regions are under pressure for economic, extractive development. Engaging local groups in ecotourism in these regions through activities like the Christmas Bird Count is a crucial step toward the long-term protection of such regions.

Given all the relatively good weather during much of the 119th Count period, all the new counts included, and the all-time high number of CBCs this season, it’s no surprise that we achieved a new record high level of participation in the 119th Count:  the efforts of 79,425 observers are included this season, just shy of the 80 thousand milestone and 2500 or so more than last season’s then-record high.  Included in that lofty record total are 14,816 observers from Canada (11,121 the field and 3695 at feeders), 60,392 from the United States (53,828 afield and 6564 at feeders), and 4217 (4023 in the field and 194 at feeders) in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.  As expected, all those counts in the 119th CBC with all those attending participants should generate an impressive list of circles with 100 or more observers, and Table 2 presents that roster of 84 circles in the 119th Christmas Bird Count in the century-plus number of observers club.

Bird-wise, the 119th CBC provided some surprises.  One of those, with somewhat unknown repercussions, is a surprisingly low total number of birds tallied:  48,678,334 with 45,156,330 from the United States, 2,986,854 from Canada, and 535,150 elsewhere.  Interestingly, the total numbers of birds tallied over the past 33 Christmas Bird Count seasons had dropped dramatically; this season’s number is the second-lowest ever during that period, despite a much higher number of both CBC circles and attending participant effort.  And it is 10 to 20 million birds short of the average numbers tallied over the past 20 seasons.  For years it has been mentioned in the annual Christmas Bird Count summaries that we shouldn’t worry too much about the total number of birds each season, as it can vary tremendously depending upon whether winter roosts of blackbirds, crows, or robins happen to be within count circles.  But still, especially in light of the recent paper published this fall about diminishing numbers of birds across the continent, this disturbing trend deserves some future analyses.

The numbers of combined species from all counts also declined, though only very slightly and not by an amount to be of concern.  In total there were 2638 species included in the 119th CBC results, plus 483 forms.  Of course the vast majority of these were from Latin America!  In the United States, 661 species were tallied, plus 62 infraspecific forms, seven count week species, and 44 exotics.  New for the U.S. was a Great Black Hawk at Greater Portland, Maine, and a Little Stint in San Diego, California.  Counts in Canada tallied 285 species and 11 infraspecific forms, and an additional species (Brambling at Medicine Hat, Alberta), was seen only during count week.  One species, Fish Crow at Hamilton, Ontario, was new to the all-time Canadian species list.  As happens each season, we all head into the field in the hopes of finding as many species as possible on count day, and Table 3 lists the circles blessed with enough geographic and ornithological diversity to tally 150 or more species in the 119th Christmas Bird Count.  Topping the list once again among the 84 on the list from the United States and Canada is Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh, Texas at 237 species, and Yanayacu, Napo, Ecuador retains top billing at 491 species of the 48 counts exceeding 150 species in Latin America.

Another perennial contest among CBC participants is to tally the most species in our region for the season; it’s one of the things that keeps us out and counting, no matter what the conditions, each year.  The list of region-topping counts and their tallies during the 119th Christmas Bird Count is presented here in Table 4.

Aside from the usual draw of a great day of birding, with hopes of finding some unusual or at least interesting birds, one of the factors that drew folks into the field for the 119th CBC was the hope of a decent winter finch flight during the season.  The “finch forecast” released in the fall of 2018 gave the potential for a good incursion of redpolls, crossbills, and winter grosbeaks southward into some more southern areas than usual.  However while there were good numbers of such birds in their more usual northern haunts, much of the lower two-thirds of North America was left out of the flight, at least for the more sought-after species like Bohemian Waxwing, White-winged Crossbill, Evening and Pine grosbeaks, and Hoary Redpoll.  However, despite the significant lack of movement of some of the more charismatic boreal birds, there was a considerable movement of some irruptive species, especially Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, and Purple Finches.  Red-breasted Nuthatches were widespread across much of the continent, and this flight even made it southward to the Gulf Coast and northern Florida.  Purple Finches and Pine Siskins were tallied in good numbers deep into the Southeastern States, providing spice for feeder watchers and field observers alike.  But we’ll need to wait at least one more season for the next big winter finch winter.

Similarly, there was no major southward raptor movement during the 119th Count.  Gyrfalcons were tallied, mostly as singletons, on only a few of the more northern counts.  Rough-legged Hawks were found in good numbers on northern CBCs, but made no significant southward movement.  There were good, though not exceptional, numbers of Snowy Owls in the north central portions of the continent, especially in Ontario, but otherwise these frosty waifs were found in even lower-than-average numbers.  And as far as Great Gray, Boreal, or Northern Hawk owls, well, you had to be where they’re “supposed to be” to find even one during the 119th CBC.

Of course any time you have tens of thousands of birders out over an entire continent unexpected and unusual birds are going to be turned up, and the 119th CBC provided to be no exception to this rule.  Many rarities were turned up regionally, and please make sure to read through the 119th CBC Regional Summaries for the highlights not mentioned here.  In the Northwest Chain of Hawaii, out on Midway Island, the Christmas Bird Count there was the “official” census numbers for nesting seabirds.  It is heartening to see that excellent numbers of many species, including Laysan and Black-browed albatrosses as well as the incredibly Endangered Short-tailed Albatross, Bonin Petrel, and Island Canary, were all tallied in good numbers.  One of the most amazing birds found on a CBC in the 119th Season was the Great Kiskadee discovered on the Gene Stratton-Porter Historic Site, Indiana CBC, and present for some days afterward.  Yes, this species is expected on CBCs in Texas and points south…but not in Indiana!  The aforementioned Blackburnian Warbler, which *should* be in Latin America for the winter, was tallied at San Francisco, California and Ten Thousand Islands, Florida.  Black-headed Grosbeak was found on a number of counts in Texas and California.  In the state of Tennessee, a Tennessee Warbler was tallied at Reelfoot Lake…and a Nashville Warbler in Nashville!  One of these days it could easily be that a Cape May Warbler will be tallied again in Cape May, New Jersey (it happened last year), and maybe even a Philadelphia Vireo in Philadelphia.  Don’t bet on finding a Connecticut Warbler on a CBC in Connecticut…or a Barrow’s Goldeneye in Barrow (now Utqiaġvik) Alaska.  But then again, these days who knows might show up somewhere.

Let’s talk about the Great Black Hawk on the Portland, Maine CBC.  This was the first United States CBC record for the species, though it is frequently tallied in Latin America.  Not only was this bird the first Unites States CBC record, it also represented the continuing first American Birding Area (ABA) area record at all.  Amazingly this wasn’t its first sighting!  In April of 2018, an immature Great Black Hawk was discovered at South Padre Island, Texas, providing the very first ABA record of this species.  The bird did not stay for long, and soon disappeared to the chagrin of many birders.  But, in August 2018, an unusual raptor was discovered in Maine, and soon identified as a young Great Black Hawk.  The bird was well photographed in both Texas and Maine, and soon realized to be the exact same individual!  In Maine, the Great Black Hawk was tested by many local raptors, including Red-tailed Hawks, and disappeared for a while, only to be re-discovered in a city park in downtown Portland, Maine.  This is where it remained, feeding on a bumper crop of local gray squirrels, through the 119th CBC period, and was then tallied on the Portland CBC.  Not surprisingly, given that this high-spirited tropical raptor is not physically adapted to the freezing temperatures of northern winters, it did not fare well and was eventually found injured and taken to a rehabilitation facility.  Unfortunately the bird’s legs and feet had major frostbite damage, and it eventually lost its battle to those injuries.

So what does this tell us about the amazing influence of birding, on Christmas Bird Counts or otherwise?  The Great Black Hawk saga is the most recent example of birders, in many different locations, documenting sightings and providing an incredible opportunity to track the movements of *individual birds* across the continent.  Out-of-season and –range birds often reappear at the same locations during successive CBCs; look at the results of a returning Summer Tanager at an oasis in California, or a Rufous Hummingbird in northern Florida or western Massachusetts. Even if a bird is wildly out of place, if it survives the winter it is likely to keep doing what worked last year.  And dedicated birders give us the opportunity to track the movements of individual migrant birds; family groups of Sandhill Cranes have been tracked over hawk watches from New England to the Southeastern US.  An individually identified Broad-billed Hummingbird was tracked thru Connecticut and Massachusetts as it strayed far northeastward from its expected range. A Zone-tailed Hawk (individually identified again by photographs) was tracked as it moved northward during spring migration from the mid-Atlantic states through New England to the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. The power of bird watchers and importance of their sightings is amazing.  And now we have this wayward Great Black Hawk, which will not return for another season.  Yet this hawk gives us hope as birders that some other crazy bird will grace our presence during a Christmas Bird Count or just while we’re out birding, and that sighting will help us understand what’s going on in the bird world, which deeply reflects what’s going on in our own world.

Over the past 30-plus years Audubon has worked to convince ornithological researchers that the Christmas Bird Count, as well as the Breeding Bird Survey and other community science programs, provide important and valuable data otherwise unavailable for their studies.  This endeavor has been successful beyond our wildest dreams, and the CBC and BBS databases have led the way within scientific research teams to the acceptance of the value of community science programs and data sets beyond ornithology.  Supplying CBC data to researchers is now an integral part of the work the Audubon Science team does on a weekly basis, both within and beyond this organization.

But as we give talks about the amazing uses of the CBC for conservation research, it has become apparent that many Christmas Bird Count participants themselves don’t realize the importance of what their contributions mean to further the protection of the birds we love!  Audubon has won the hearts of the scientific community, and now we need to better communicate that fact to the universe of CBC birders themselves.

Christmas Bird Count data were used to document the shifting of ranges of birds during the early winter over the latter half of the 20th century as continental conditions moderated during that half decade.  This data enabled Audubon to use the CBC as non-breeding season data with the Breeding Bird Survey as breeding season data to produce the ground-breaking 2014 Birds and Climate change report, which was the first predictive modeling of where birds may need to move in the face of climate change over the next century. This October, Audubon released an updated and vastly improved version of the study—Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink. Survival by Degrees incorporates far more bird data than was possible for the 2014 study, as well as including the effects of habitat changes, urbanization, sea level rise, and other potential threats into the models.  Interested people can select their location by state/province or zip code and will get tailored lists of species of birds in their area with specific predictions and threats listed out.  While seeming to present dire predictions, the report also supplies information that will help the public address the effects of climate change, and also presents hope that the future can be brighter if we all take action.

Back in Rhode Island last season, yes indeed, the Lesser Black-backed Gull was back for its 17th winter at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.  Now probably well over 20 years old, this bird knows its spot, its cove, its rock.  We’ve tallied that bird on that rock in that cove for almost half the span of the decades I’ve done that CBC.  It’s become an expected highlight of my annual CBC there.  But sometimes the real highlight isn’t a bird; as we learn our areas on Christmas Bird Counts we gain a real sense of place about the region as well as the birds that may be found there.  During the 119th Count the surprise of the season for me was found in a recently mowed field in an inland area, one we always check for interesting sparrows, maybe a sapsucker, or if we’re really lucky a Ruffed Grouse.  As I looked where I was stepping in the lumpy field I noticed something curled up under a clump of grass that had been pulled up by the mowing—to my surprise and shock, a marbled salamander!  Not just any salamander (which in itself would be incredibly unusual on a CBC in New England) and not what might have been more relatively expected spotted salamander, but a marbled salamander, the first I’ve ever seen north of the mid-Atlantic states.  Clearly the salamander wasn’t prepared for the coming winter above the surface of the ground in Rhode Island, so we carefully found a spot under a log in a thicket area where, hopefully, it could survive the winter after being rudely turned up by the field mowing.

Birds are our passion, and provide the catalyst to get us out in nature, whether on a Christmas Bird Count or at any time of year.  Christmas Bird Counts and other traditional locations we visit also enable us to develop a sense of place, and of noticing changes and caring about that place.  Being out birding also enables us to have other experiences in nature—like finding a surprise life form, whether it’s a salamander or a bobcat or an ancient tree.  And our passion for the birds and the locations where we bird encourages us to take steps to protect those birds, and the places they need.


Table 1.  New counts in the 119th (2018-2019) Christmas Bird Count

Count Code Count Name