The 120th CBC in Ontario

We had a record 126 counts in Ontario this year, up four from the last two years and up two from the previous record setting year in 2016/17. Included in this total was one brand-new count, Hornepayne (ONHO) – a warm (cold?) welcome! It is always especially exciting to get increased coverage in Ontairo’s vast north. We also welcomed back four counts that missed last year: Peel-Halton Counties (ONPH), Moscow (ONMS), Kincardine (ONKC), and Dunrobin-Breckenridge (ONDB). Not counted in this total is Presqu’ile (ONPQ) which did run but the data had not been entered as of this report.

The weather patterns leading up to count day always plays a big role. This year most of Ontario experienced cold temperatures and snow by mid-November, followed by more normal conditions leading up to CBC season. The “damage” seemed to have already been done though with many smaller bodies of water icing up during the cold spell in November forcing waterbirds and lingering birds south. December was pretty average for temperature and snow cover so nothing extraordinary to influence the birds.

Count day weather was pretty comfortable for the most part, with an average low of -5° C and average high of -0.4° C; similar to last year but about ten degrees warmer than count year 118! In all, 73 counts had temperatures that cracked the freezing mark. That’s not a figure I have tracked but it seems like a pretty high figure. Niagara Falls was the hotspot with a count day high of 14° C while Halton Hills and West Elgin both also cracked 10° C. Marathon, with a low temperature of -25° C held the less-enviable mark as the coldest count in Ontario, but Rainy River might have a claim to that dubious title as being the only count to not warm up above -20° C this year! Twenty counts reported no snow at all, fewer than last year’s 30, but way up from zero in count year 118. A total of 78 counts had a maximum snow depth of 10 cm or less, so it was a pretty easy year for walking. Hilliardton and Smooth Rock Falls tied for deepest maximum snow depth at 100 cm, but we’ll give the “snowiest count” award to Smooth Rock Falls based on the tie-breaker of minimum snow depth, at 40 cm compared to Hilliardton’s 10 cm.

There were 3697 observers in the field this year, down ten from last year’s record. The 1173 feeder counters however did set a new high mark for Ontario, besting count year 117’s 1108 by 65. Adding together field and feeder counters, the 4870 observers was a new record. All those observers put in a very impressive, but not quite record 8277.56 party hours. Observers logged a very impressive and new record 77,643 km on count days. For the fourth straight year Ottawa-Gatineau led the pack with the most field observers, this year with 137. Kingston again led the way for feeder counters with 70.

A total of 179 species was reported from all counts, the highest since count year 116 and right on the mark for the ten year average. The total count increases by three with the addition of count week species (jaeger sp. [no other jaegers were reported], Great Gray Owl, and Palm Warbler).

It was Blenheim’s turn at the top of the species leader board this year, but with “only” 104. It was generally a poor year for really big species totals and in fact this was the only count to top 100 species. Only Hamilton (97), Point Pelee (95), and Long Point (91) cracked 90. In general, most counts reported at or below their recent averages. This likely had to do with a poor year for winter finches moving south coupled with the lack of lingering species thanks to the cold November. London (76), Woodstock (71), and Brantford (66) led the way for inland counts. As usual, Thunder Bay, with 41 species this year, had the highest total among northern Ontario counts. Hamilton led the way with a whopping 17 provincial highs this year. Next on that list were Point Pelee and Toronto (12 each), Blenheim (11), and Algonquin and St. Clair (10 each).

A total of 1,222,864 individuals were counted, about 80,000 lower than the five-year average – mostly driven by abundant waterbirds. The total count was up about 100,000 and 25,000, respectively over the previous two years though. The top five species this year were American Crow (206,870), Canada Goose (172,555), European Starling (142,056), Mallard (95,420), and Rock Pigeon (48,461); similar to most years although Black-capped Chickadee had noticeably fewer birds and dropped out of the top five this year as a result.

As has been the case during the past few “down years”, waterbirds featured fairly prominently in the list of below-average counts, although definitely not to the same extreme as the last few years, especially year 118. Snow Goose, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, King Eider, Harlequin Duck, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Red-throated Loon, Pied-Billed Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and American Coot were all recorded in numbers of 50% or less of their 20-year average. Next to waterbirds, probably the biggest factor for low total individuals was the low counts for blackbirds; Red-winged Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird were both less than 50% their 20-year average and Eastern Meadowlark, Rusty Blackbird, and Common Grackle were less than 75% of their 20-year average. The Rusty Blackbird and Common Grackle counts were also notable in being the lowest since count years 61 and 63, respectively. Other very low counts included a trio of open-country species: Short-eared Owl (8; the lowest since count year 79), Horned Lark (791; the lowest since count year 80), and Lapland Longspur (20; lowest since count year 66),  

As is usually the case there were a few misses this year: Gray Partridge was missed for the fourth straight year so that perhaps no longer qualifies as a surprise miss…that species is rapidly disappearing from the province. For the first time since 1961/62 no Wilson’s Snipes were found on an Ontario CBC. Vesper Sparrow was also missed, for the 15th time in the past 73 years. Brewer’s Blackbird was missed for the third time in 45 years although all three of those misses have been in the past five years. Slightly less surprising misses were Brant, Harris's Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Great Gray Owl (although there was one on count week), and Boreal Owl.

There was a relatively short list of seven species that set new highs for the province; most are of species showing long-term increasing trends. These included Cackling Goose (94 vs 93), Trumpeter Swan (849 vs 692), Great Egret (2 vs 1), Black Vulture (16 vs 14), Bald Eagle (1728 vs 1631), Sandhill Crane (3717 vs 2137), and Eastern Phoebe (21 vs 15). The one that stands out most here is Eastern Phoebe; despite two relatively cold falls/winters and generally poor years for lingering species, it has now set record highs in two consecutive years, so something interesting is going on.

As far as winter finches go, count year 120 was definitely a below-average year:  Pine Grosbeak (385 vs 20-year average of 4207) and Common Redpoll (1075 vs 12,948) were both down 90% or more from their 20-year averages, while Hoary Redpoll (26 vs 54) and Evening Grosbeak (907 vs 2958) were down 50-70%. White-winged Crossbill (1342 vs 2111) and American Goldfinch (24,432 vs 27,075) rounded out the species experiencing a down year. Red Crossbill (291 vs 126), Purple Finch (1578 vs 976), and Pine Siskin (3735 vs 3196) meanwhile had above-average years. Looking at the data in more detail, it was actually a pretty good year for Red Crossbill, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin in central and northeastern Ontario but the good numbers there were offset by very low numbers elsewhere. The Pine Grosbeak count was the lowest since 1983/84 and similarly, Bohemian Waxwing (190 vs 5203) had its lowest year since 1994/95. Irruptive owls were a total split; Northern Hawk Owls led the way with their best showing in a decade with 12 recorded. Barred Owls also had a very big year, with the 105 counted, well short of last year’s record 158, but still good enough for second-highest ever. Snowy Owls also had another good year (what’s new!?) with 156 tallied, good enough for sixth highest ever (five of the top six counts have been in the past seven years). On the other side of the spectrum, Great Gray Owls were missed on count day for only the third time in 25 years. Boreal Owl was missed completely and Northern Saw-whet Owls were below average (9 vs 20-year average of 22).

There are always some exciting finds on CBCs and this year was no exception. No new species were recorded, but two species were recorded for only the second time ever: Slaty-backed Gull and a Northern Fulmar were found on the London and Ottawa-Gatineau counts, respectively. A Western Meadowlark on the Eagle River count was a real surprise and only the third record for an Ontario CBC. Other good finds were a Wilson’s Warbler (6th Ontario CBC record) on London, Spotted Towhee (11th) on Prince Edward Point, Common Gallinule (11th but just the second in the past 27 years) on Wallaceburg, Swainson’s Thrush (14th) on Toronto, Townsend’s Solitaire (20th) on Sandbanks, and Black-headed Gull (12th) and Black-legged Kittiwake (25th) on Niagara Falls.

All in all, it was another excellent CBC season here in Ontario with highs, lows, and everything in between. Here’s to all the hard work the huge team of volunteers put in to making the count a success and for another good year in count year 121-it’s just around the corner!