The 120th CBC in New Jersey & Pennsylvania

The very mild weather of fall and early winter contributed to much-improved counts on the 120th CBC compared to the previous year and generally higher totals of some species than were reported in very low numbers last season. Many half-hardy species lingered in good numbers and were joined by an impressive variety of unusual over-wintering species. In addition, some of the individuals from the major influx of western vagrants remained through the count period.

Thirty CBCs were submitted from New Jersey, with Lakehurst returning after a year’s absence. The 202 species recorded was seven more than last year’s total and one more than the 20-year average. Despite strong winds, Cape May had an excellent day to lead the state with 163 species, its highest tally since 2012. Cumberland (126) edged out Barnegat (125) for second, followed by Belleplain (121) and Oceanville (115). Although none of the counts exceeded previous highs, an amazing 13 species were reported in record numbers.

The 36 species of waterfowl did not include any rarities. Among them were two Trumpeter Swans returning to Assunpink, single Eurasian Wigeon at Cape May and Long Branch, and a Blue-winged Teal at Barnegat. A count-week Barnacle Goose at Long Branch was a narrow miss. Individual King Eider were at Cape May, Sandy Hook, and Ramsey, the latter well inland in the Orange County, New York, section of that count. Barnegat had all 20 of the Harlequin Ducks reported and 225 of the 233 Common Eiders.

One again, for the fourth time in five years, there were no reports of Ruffed Grouse. Pied-billed Grebe (47) was found in similarly low numbers to last year, while Horned Grebes picked up a bit to 87, still well below the long-term average. NW Hunterdon had two Red-necked Grebes, while Barnegat and Long Branch each had one. An adult Brown Booby, just the second ever for a New Jersey CBC, was a highlight of the Cape May count, where more than 5000 Northern Gannets put on a spectacular show. The count of 34 Great Cormorants was just four more than last year and the second lowest total in 40 years. Three Brown Pelicans, the first since 2011, were another highlight of the Cape May CBC. Tuckerton had two American Bitterns, while Oceanville and Cape May each had one. Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets were found in good numbers, but there were no reports of Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, or Tricolored Heron. A surprise Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the Lower Hudson CBC was the first on an NJ count in 20 years.

For the second year in a row, Black Vultures set a new high of 2728, surpassing last year’s tally by more than 500 birds. Turkey Vultures were also widespread with 4420. An Osprey was a highlight of the Princeton CBC; this species has now been recorded in nine of the past ten years. Barnegat had the only two Golden Eagles, while totals of other raptors generally returned to normal levels following last year’s low counts. The Bald Eagle tally was a record 682, as the species was recorded on all thirty counts for the first time. Both Clapper Rail (109) and Virginia Rail (52) were found in excellent numbers, the latter beating out the previous high total of 46 with Cape May accounting for 37 of them. Sandhill Cranes (64) also set a new record high, with 38 at Cumberland, 13 at Somerset, and 11 at Salem.

Shorebird numbers improved substantially from last year’s dismal total, perhaps due to the mild conditions before and during the count period. Twenty species were encountered, up from 17 last season. American Oystercatchers (497) returned to more typical numbers, with Oceanville (340) and Cape May (154) accounting for most of them. A Spotted Sandpiper was a highlight of the Warren County – Northampton County CBC; it was photographed at the Martin’s Creek Environmental Preserve, where one had been present during two of the past four winters. Cape May had the only Lesser Yellowlegs, as well as nine Marbled Godwits, but the wintering flock of shorebirds at Absecon Inlet on the Oceanville count had a surprising, but long-staying Whimbrel, along with 16 Marbled Godwits and 104 Western Willets. Sanderlings were abundant, with 4867 the highest total since 1994, and Dunlin (13,263) also rebounded to typical numbers. Cumberland had the only Least Sandpipers (13), while Cape May had one Short-billed Dowitcher plus one of the 16 Long-billed Dowitchers; Lower Hudson (7) and Oceanville (8) had the rest. Wilson’s Snipe, surprisingly, was very scarce, with eight counts recording a total of nine birds, the lowest tally since 1954.

Razorbills were again fairly common along the coast, although not as abundant as last year. Sandy Hook (62) again had the highest count, followed by Long Branch (25) and Barnegat (21). A Black Guillemot was reported from the Barnegat count, but its presence was not broadcast until it was rediscovered the next day. Only the sixth ever recorded on a New Jersey count and the first since 2002 (the previous one was in 1958), it lingered for another 10 days to the delight of many birders. For the fourth year in a row, Bonaparte’s Gulls (131) were present in modest numbers, while Barnegat and Lakehurst had the only two Laughing Gulls. Seven counts produced a total of nine Iceland Gulls and 12 counts produced 149 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, the highest total in nine years. Single Glaucous Gulls were at Belleplain and Trenton Marsh. Despite the mild weather and their return shortly after the count period, there were no reports of Forster’s Tern.

Barn Owl and Snowy Owl went undetected this year, but counts of Eastern Screech-Owl (362) and Great Horned Owl (205) showed a significant improvement over last season. Twelve Long-eared Owls were found on four counts, while an above-average tally of 14 Northern Saw-whet Owls was the best in five years. A long-staying Rufous Hummingbird was a highlight of the Ramsey count, as was an equally long-staying Ruby-throated Hummingbird in Cape May. A record total of 125 Red-headed Woodpeckers was tallied on 12 counts in what was clearly an invasion year; four CBCs hit double-digits with 24-31 birds. Red-bellied Woodpeckers continue to increase, this year setting a new high of 3035, far surpassing the previous record of 2583. This is even more remarkable when one notes that the tally of this species exceeded 100 for the first time in 1974. American Kestrel numbers (98) have held steady in the 95 ± 15 range for the past ten years, a far cry from the counts of the 70’s and 80’s, but Merlin (71) set a new record and the Peregrine Falcon total (70) was the second highest.

With the mild weather, the tally of 38 Eastern Phoebes was not too surprising, but the total is second only to the 49 encountered in 1995. Just two Ash-throated Flycatchers from the major influx in late November were located on CBCs, one each at Long Branch and Sandy Hook, but others were relocated later. A Western Kingbird that wintered at Cape May was one of the numerous highlights of that count, which also hosted a White-eyed Vireo and a Blue-headed Vireo; one of the latter was also a good find at Sandy Hook. Blue Jay numbers (6990) held steady, but the American Crow tally (7044) dropped again to the lowest in more than 50 years. Common Raven on the other hand, continued to increase with 21 counts reporting a record 100 birds.

Moorestown found 19 Northern Rough-winged Swallows from the flock that winters along the Delaware River, just four fewer than last year’s record, while Cape May had 181 of the 205 Tree Swallows. Barnegat chipped in with 23 and Lower Hudson added a single. Black-capped Chickadee has shown a steady decline in recent years, perhaps due to West Nile virus, as has been described in Pennsylvania for both chickadee species (Bolgiano, N. 2019. Evidence for West Nile Virus-Related Avian Declines in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Birds 33:2-11.). An additional factor is that range of Carolina Chickadee is gradually moving north, displacing the Black-capped. In any event, the 774 Black-capped Chickadees reported from 13 counts was the lowest total since 1946, when there were far fewer counts and observers. It was definitely not an invasion year for Red-breasted Nuthatch, as expected given their typically two-year cycle, but the 13 recorded on eight counts was the fewest since 1961.

It was a banner year for wrens. The total of 10 House Wrens was above average, but Winter Wren (340) and Carolina Wren (3442) both reached record highs.  The Marsh Wren tally (75) was the second highest ever and the Sedge Wren total of 18 is exceeded only by the 25 seen in 1934, when the species was far more common in the state than it is today.  Both kinglets were plentiful, with the record count of Ruby-crowned Kinglets (338) surpassing the previous high by 66 birds. Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, and Northern Mockingbird were all found in significantly higher numbers than last year’s dismal showing. A single Lapland Longspur was encountered on the Barnegat count along with 80 of the 169 Snow Buntings.

The nine warbler species reported included 22 Orange-crowned Warblers and a record seven Nashville Warblers. Cape May had an over-wintering Northern Parula and Prairie Warbler, while both Palm Warbler (27) and Pine Warbler (42) were found in excellent numbers, the latter being a new high. A Wilson’s Warbler at Northwest Hunterdon County was an outstanding find and highlight of that count. Single Yellow-breasted Chats were found at Cape May and Long Branch.

Cape May recorded a Grasshopper Sparrow, the first on a state CBC since 2009, but the Henslow’s Sparrow photographed on the Long Branch count was the first since 1932, when the species was still a fairly common breeding bird in the state. LeConte’s Sparrow was a count week bird at Moorestown. American Tree Sparrow numbers continue near the bottom of the historical totals following years of decline, but Chipping Sparrows are wintering in increasing numbers throughout the southern half of the state, reaching a record high 1173 this year. Lark Sparrow was a count week bird at Cape May, which also had four of the six Vesper Sparrows, a species not encountered every year. Belleplain and Cumberland County each had one. Long Branch had a Lincoln’s Sparrow, a species that has now been recorded for 20 years in a row, and every count reported Swamp Sparrow for a record total of 1366. The record tally of Eastern Towhee (957) was almost double the previous high of 559 in 2015.

The rarity list at Cape May included an Indigo Bunting, the first on a CBC since 2013, and a Painted Bunting, an increasing visitor from the south. Cape May also had two Dickcissels and Moorestown had one. A pleasant surprise was the tally of 448 Eastern Meadowlarks, the highest total in 20 years; Belleplain (86), Cumberland County (151) and Cape May (102) accounted for most of them. Five Baltimore Orioles was a typical number, but winter finches were practically non-existent. The total of 19 Purple Finches was the fewest since 1947, while the three Pine Siskins provided the lowest number since 1967, when just two were found. Mizpah had the only Red Crossbill, while White-winged Crossbill, Common Redpoll and Evening Grosbeak all went undetected.

Eighty CBCs were submitted from Pennsylvania, two more than last year and the most ever. Poor weather affected some of the counts on the first day of the period and on December 29, but conditions were generally mild and species totals were about average. A total of 163 species was encountered, two more than last year. For the first time in ten years, no count reached the 100 species level, but Southern Bucks County topped the list alone for the first time with 98 species (they had tied for the top spot in 2002 and 2014), followed by Harrisburg and Upper Bucks Counts at 97, and Southern Lancaster County at 95. Nine species were recorded in record high numbers and there was an impressive array of vagrants and lingering migrants.

The 30 species of waterfowl included single Greater White-fronted Geese at Central Bucks County, Gettysburg, and Lebanon County, while the record 253,000 Snow Geese came mainly from a mind-boggling 226,000 on the Bethlehem-Easton count. There were no reports of Ross’s Goose, but a Barnacle Goose at Southern Bucks Country was the sixth for a Pennsylvania CBC and the first since 2014. Lewistown and Northern Lycoming County each had a Trumpeter Swan, and Lititz had 681 of the 901 Tundra Swans reported.

A Eurasian Green-winged Teal was a count-week bird at Delaware County and most ducks were recorded in typical numbers except for Canvasback (2) and Redhead (29), which were present in well below ten-year average tallies of 165 and 181, respectively. A very lost Harlequin Duck was a highlight of the Williamsport count and just the seventh for a state CBC. The only scoters this season were a pair of White-winged Scoters at Erie.

Only 36 Ruffed Grouse were encountered, a modern-era low for a species that used to average 200+ on Pennsylvania CBCs. Erie, Harrisburg, and Upper Bucks County each had a Red-throated Loon, but Erie had the only Red-necked Grebe. Great Cormorant was at Southern Bucks (9) and Pennypack (5), as usual, but this species continues to be found in much reduced numbers compared to earlier decades. Hamburg had a count-week American Bittern, while        Audubon, Lancaster, and Upper Bucks County each had a Great Egret.

Bloomsburg had an Osprey, making it eight out of the past nine years that this species has been found on a state CBC. The total of eight Golden Eagles equaled the ten-year average and the 151 Northern Harriers was also near average, but Sharp-shinned Hawk continues to decline, 166 reported being the lowest total since the early 1980s. Cooper’s Hawk (433), on the other hand, continues to do well, outnumbering Sharpies for the 16th year in a row. Bloomsburg and Cowanesque Lake each had a Northern Goshawk. The total of 868 Bald Eagles was second only to last year’s 899 and included 88 at Southern Lancaster County, 81 at Southern Bucks County and 52 at Linesville; the species was found on 73 of the 80 CBCs. A record number of 214 Red-shouldered Hawks was found, while the 3079 Red-tailed Hawks was typical of recent years, as was the continuing low numbers of Rough-legged Hawks (19).

Lancaster had a Virginia Rail and Delaware County had a Common Gallinule, the first on a Pennsylvania CBC since 2006. American Coot numbers (1108) rebounded from last year’s low total, with 917 at Southern Bucks County. Sandhill Cranes (161) continue to be found in good numbers, with 90 at Linesville and another 57 at Grove City; this species was virtually unknown on state CBCs 20 years ago. The 54 Killdeer reported was half of last year’s tally and the lowest total since 1947; this species is another that may be affected by West Nile virus. A Least Sandpiper was an unusual find on the Johnstown CBC, while a dowitcher at Erie was only the third for a state CBC.

A Black-headed Gull at Butler County was just the sixth for a state CBC, but marked three consecutive years that it has been encountered. The lower Delaware Valley hosts some of the highest concentration of gulls on the continent, especially Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Southern Bucks County reported 39,000 Herring Gulls, easily the highest total in North America, while the three Bucks County counts plus Bethlehem-Easton combined for a total of 689 Lesser Black-backeds. Upper Bucks’ tally of 459 was the highest ever for a Pennsylvania CBC and the highest single count total for the continent. Southern Bucks also had most of the Great Black-backed Gulls, 14 of the 16 Iceland Gulls, and three of the five Glaucous Gulls. Lebanon County and Upper Bucks each had an Iceland Gull, while Beaver and Erie had single Glaucous Gulls.

A Eurasian Collared-Dove at Newville was just the fifth report for a Pennsylvania CBC; this species is amazingly rare in the Northeast considering its abundance elsewhere in the country. Reading had a Rufous Hummingbird, the first on a state count since 2016, but an Anna’s Hummingbird that was count-week bird at West Chester would have been the first ever for a Pennsylvania count. All of the woodpeckers were recorded in excellent numbers, including an invasion-year tally of 84 Red-headed Woodpeckers, the highest count since 2001. Red-bellied Woodpecker (6153) and Pileated Woodpecker (1009) each established new all-time highs.

American Kestrel numbers (645) remained steady, although much reduced from the counts of 40 to 50 years ago. Merlin (60) continues to be reported in high numbers, with nearly half of the counts recording the species, while Peregrine Falcon (32) also continues in healthy numbers.  The Eastern Phoebe total (27) was the highest since 2006, while a Myiarchus, most likely Ash-throated, was a good find at York Springs; Ash-throated Flycatcher has been recorded just once on a Pennsylvania CBC, but there was a major influx of the species into the Northeast last November – early December.

Four Northern Shrikes was a typically low number for recent years, but a Blue-headed Vireo at Dallas Area was just the eleventh for a state CBC. American Crow numbers were down just slightly from last year, following the steep decline earlier in the decade, but the 46,000 total was still the lowest in 20 years. Common Raven, on the other hand, continues to spread and increase, setting a new high of 689 birds this season while being encountered on 69 of the 80 counts. Northern Rough-winged Swallow was found on three counts, with 80 at Pennypack Valley, 10 at Southern Bucks County, and four at Lancaster. Chickadees and Tufted Titmouse have also suffered recent declines, apparently due to West Nile. Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse were up 15% and 18%, respectively, from last year’s dismal totals, but Black-capped Chickadees were down 25% from 2018 at the lowest level in modern times.

It was clearly not an irruption year for Red-breasted Nuthatch, but the statewide total of 82 was the lowest since 1967.  Wrens, on the other hand, were more common than usual. A total of seven House Wrens on five counts was above average, as was the tally of 432 Winter Wrens. Delaware County had a pair of Marsh Wrens, a species not encountered every year, but the 7251 Carolina Wrens recorded exceeded the previous high by more than a thousand birds. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a species typically seen once every two or three years, was a highlight of the Southern Lancaster CBC. Both kinglets were present in good numbers, especially Ruby-crowned Kinglet with 363 the second highest total ever.

A Swainson’s Thrush was well-described on the Chambersburg CBC, the eleventh for a state count, and both Gray Catbird (57) and Brown Thrasher (15) were seen in good numbers for the lingering migrants. The American Pipit tally of just 11 birds, fewer even than last year’s 36, was the lowest since 1989. Grove City had the only two Lapland Longspurs and 80 of the 96 Snow Buntings found in the state. The usual mix of wood warblers, seven species, included Orange-crowned Warbler at Bald Eagle State Park and Harrisburg, Northern Parula at Lancaster, only the second for a Pennsylvania CBC, and a Wilson’s Warbler at Wyncote, the eleventh for a state CBC.

The long-term decline in American Tree Sparrow numbers continues, with this year’s 1355 being the lowest total since 1937, when there were far fewer counts and observers. A Clay-colored Sparrow at Mount Pocono made it two years in a row for a Pennsylvania CBC and only the eighth record overall. Field Sparrows were present in near record numbers, but Dark-eyed Juncos, like last year, were down almost 40% from the 10-year average. Vesper Sparrow at Curtin and York were noteworthy, while a Lark Sparrow at Lititz was only the fifth for a state CBC. Song Sparrow reached a new record high at 12,732 and Swamp Sparrow (590) was also found in above average numbers. Grove City and Upper Bucks County each had a Lincoln’s Sparrow, a species recorded with increasing frequency in the past two decades.

A handsome Green-tailed Towhee at Pennypack Valley was only the third for a Pennsylvania CBC and its cousin Eastern Towhee (654) was found in record-high numbers. Sixty-two Eastern Meadowlarks was the most since 2012, but still far below the tallies of several decades ago. Blackbirds (Red-winged, Common Grackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird) were generally scarce with only about 50,000 compared to the million-plus seen in some years. A Baltimore Oriole was a highlight of the Warren CBC, but winter finches were notable by their near complete absence. The Purple Finch total of 82 was the lowest in many decades and the Pine Siskin count of 33 was one of the lowest in modern times. Both crossbills, Common Redpoll and Evening Grosbeak went unreported. Once again, I thank Nick Bolgiano for sharing some of his insights into the Pennsylvania CBCs in advance of publication.

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