The 120th Christmas Bird Count season was a wonderful one throughout most of Atlantic Canada, with its usual mix of wintry weather, fantastic birds and great camaraderie. Who knew at the time that our world would be turned upside down by a pandemic in just a few short weeks! A mild fall with plenty of winds from the south and west led to an array of vagrants and displaced migrants hanging on into winter, while the sudden onset of cold and snow in some areas concentrated birds within count circles. All in all, there was plenty to see and talk about.
A total of 79 counts were completed in the Atlantic region this season; with 35 in Nova Scotia, 30 in New Brunswick, 11 in Newfoundland & Labrador and three in Prince Edward Island. Although the number of counts was up from 69 the previous season, involvement remained at similar levels with just over 1900 participant, ~1250 of which put in 3476 hours in the field. The bird tally was also up significantly with 197 species recorded throughout the region (including a few count week observations) – the increase due at least in part to a good number of rare and lingering species throughout.
Despite being rare in North America, Pink-footed Goose was recorded for the third straight season with individuals in St. John’s (NL) and Minto-Chipman (NB). Not to be outdone, a Barnacle Goose was observed during count week in Truro (NS), while Brant was recorded in both NS and NB. The 64 Tufted Duck tallied in St. John’s (NL) was expected, but individuals in Corner Brook (NL), Glace Bay, The Sydneys, and Antigonish (NS) were certainly notable. A Redhead in Glace Bay was also regionally rare.
Mild weather certainly contributed to a surprising 16 species of lingering shorebirds in the region (though all in NS & NL). Perhaps the most notable was a Semipalmated Sandpiper near Cape Race, which also furnished NL with a first winter record. A Long-billed Dowitcher in Yarmouth (NS) was also notable. Purple Sandpipers were about typical with 109 in NS and 393 in NL.
The elusive Gray Partridge put in a showing with 27 spotted on the Hillsborough, PEI count. This species has been extirpated from NS, but continues to keep a small yet firm foothold on the island. Similarly, the 236 Wild Turkeys on the St. Stephens NB count (on the border with Maine) represent the only established population in the region. Willow Ptarmigan were recorded in four different circles in NL, while ambitious birders were able to find a Rock Ptarmigan in the Long Range Mountains during the Bonne Bay count.
Diurnal raptors are always a highlight, and this year was no exception. A Black Vulture in Quispamsis-Hampton (NB) was regionally rare, but has been showing up more frequently and may soon become more regular. Twenty-three Turkey Vultures were also spotted in the province, along with 157 in neighbouring NS. Bald Eagles continue to increase in the region, with 1416 individuals reported across all four provinces. Two Golden Eagles in Sackville (NB) were remarkable, while a Gyrfalcon seen in Grand Manan (NB) was the only one this season and always an exciting find.
Not to be outshone, seven species of owl were reported throughout the region including 18 Barred, 12 Northern Saw-whet, three Long-eared, two Short-eared and two Northern Hawk owls. It was a low year for Snowy Owl with just three, while (not surprisingly) Boreal Owl was missed altogether. Woodpeckers put in a typical showing across the region, although an American Three-toed Woodpecker in Goose Bay (NL) is notable since it often goes unrecorded during the season.
A surprising four species of wren were recorded in the region this season, including a locally rare Sedge Wren in Halifax-Dartmouth (NS). Carolina Wren has become expected in recent years, although only singles were reported in each of NS & NB this year. Three Marsh Wrens and three Winter Wrens rounded out the count.
Rare and lingering warblers are often a “prize” of the season in Atlantic Canada, and the mild fall this year led to a bonanza in some provinces. A total of 11 species was recorded, including higher than average numbers of expected species such as Yellow-rumped (81), Pine (62), and Orange-crowned Warblers (13). One of the rarest birds of the season was a Hermit Warbler in St. John’s (NL) – the fourth provincial record and latest by several weeks. Other warblers throughout the region included Yellow-breasted Chat (10), Palm (2), Yellow-throated (3), Northern Parula (1), Black-throated Blue (1), Wilson’s (1), and a count week Common Yellowthroat. The only lingering vireos were single Blue-headed Vireos in Brier Island and Amherst, NS.
Other lingering birds of note in the region were a Common Tern (PEI), Eastern Phoebe (NS), Ruby-throated Hummingbird (NS), Tree Swallows (NS) and several Eastern Bluebirds (NS & NB). Notable in the region at any season were Dickcissel (NB & NL), Indigo Bunting (NB) and Eastern Meadowlark (NB).
One of the rarest species in Atlantic Canada this season was a Lark Bunting – very rare anywhere in the east, and a lingering rarity at Broad Cove, NS. Also exciting was a Seaside Sparrow which made a count week appearance in Wolfville, NS. Locally uncommon sparrows also included single Field, Lark, and Vesper sparrows in NS.
By all accounts, it was a mediocre season for finches with many totals well below those of the previous year. Totals were: Pine Grosbeak (589); Purple Finch (1725); White-winged Crossbill (1270); Red Crossbill (98); Common Redpoll (287); Pine Siskin (824); American Goldfinch (12,985); and Evening Grosbeak (1145). House Sparrow numbers were up slightly over last year with 1642, although anecdotally they continue to decline across the region.