The 121st Christmas Bird Count in Alberta, Canada

Provincial Summary

Despite the challenges of organizing, running, and compiling counts during a pandemic, 54 Christmas Bird Counts submitted data during the 121st (2020-2021) season in Alberta. December 20 was the most popular count day (17), followed by December 19 (12), and December 27 (5). A total of 229,522 individual birds of 124 species were tallied by 1309 field counters and 845 feeder counters, an increase in both from the previous year, with 140 new feeder watchers participating. Edmonton had the most field counters (222), while Calgary led the province with party effort and party miles. Participants on the Devon-Calmar CBC put in the most nocturnal effort. Edmonton by far had the most feeder counters (251), followed by Calgary (157).

Calgary was the top count with 69 species on count day, up from 64 species the year previous. Three species or forms were only detected during Count Week, including: Greater White-fronted Goose (Lethbridge), Snow Goose (Calgary), and Red-breasted Merganser (Banff-Canmore). The top 10 most abundant species in Alberta, in order of most to least abundant were: Canada Goose, House Sparrow, Mallard, Black-capped Chickadee, Bohemian Waxwing, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), Black-billed Magpie, Common Raven, Common Redpoll, and Snow Bunting. Black-billed Magpie and Common Raven were the only species reported on all counts; Blue Jay and Black-capped Chickadee were reported for all but three circles.

Weather conditions throughout Alberta were textbook, with lower temperatures and deeper snows reported at higher latitudes, while higher temperatures and associated higher winds recorded in the central and southern regions of the province. Peace River recorded the coldest low temperature on count day with -27 degrees Celsius, while Lethbridge was the warmest at 9 degrees Celsius. A heavy snowfall early in the new year provided Cochrane with the greatest maximum snow depth (50 cm), while the highest maximum wind speed was, unsurprisingly, reported for Lethbridge (75km/hr).

Species and notes

Canada Goose (75,728) was the most abundant waterfowl species reported, down from the previous year, followed by Mallard (15,908), Common Goldeneye (1923), Bufflehead (228), and Common Merganser (99), all of which are increases from the previous count year. Lethbridge reported the highest count of Canada Goose (34,576) in Alberta, and Cackling Goose was reported again for Calgary and Lethbridge; participants are reminded to try to obtain photos of this species when observed. Six Trumpeter Swans were reported, with four in the Brule count circle, and two in Waterton Lakes N.P., and two Tundra Swans were observed, one in the High River count, and the second at Wabumun Lake. Other notable waterfowl include a Wood Duck and a Long-tailed Duck in Calgary, and an overwintering Ruddy Duck in Medicine Hat. Sharp-tailed Grouse were recorded in small numbers throughout their range, with the highest numbers reported for Dinosaur Provincial Park (67) and Manyberries (40). Ring-necked Pheasant numbers are much more scarce than last year, with the highest number also reported in Manyberries (26). Six counts recorded Spruce Grouse, with three each reported for Athabasca and Jarvie. The only grebe species reported were four Horned Grebes reported for Waterton Lakes N.P., along with one Common Loon in that count circle. A second Common Loon was reported for Spruce View. One American White Pelican was recorded for High River, which was only the third record for the province, and one of only two recorded in Canada this year.

One Virginia Rail was reported in the Banff-Canmore count circle, a usual location for this species, while American Coot was reported on five counts: Calgary (3), Spruce View (4), Lethbridge (1), and Medicine Hat (12), with an additional record from Waterton Lakes N.P. during count week.

Three counts reported Killdeer, including Snake’s Head (2), Calgary (3), and Red Deer (1). Wilson’s Snipe numbers were up this year with five individuals reported in two counts in the Rockies, four individuals in the Banff-Canmore circle, and one in Jasper. Gull numbers rebounded, with one Glaucous Gull recorded on the Wabamun Lake count, and five white-headed gulls recorded in Medicine Hat. Mourning Dove numbers, following a drop after an unusually high year during the 116th, seem to be back on the rise.

For another year, Bald Eagle was the most abundant raptor (245) with a sharp increase in the number of Rough-legged Hawk (119), but a decline in records for Northern Goshawk (23). Merlin (63) was the most abundant falcon, followed by Prairie Falcon (18), and Gyrfalcon (6), with Canadian high-counts for Prairie Falcon in Medicine Hat (4), and Gyrfalcon in Devon-Calmar (2). A lone American Kestrel was recorded at Medicine Hat for another year. Once again, all nine expected owl species were detected including Canadian high counts represented by 15 Great Gray Owls at Cochrane Wildlife Reserve, and one Boreal Owl at Devon-Calmar, for the second year in a row. Great Horned Owl was the species most detected (82), followed Great Gray Owl (39), with a sharp decline in Snowy Owl from last year, with only 10 observations.

High counts for Canada were recorded for American Three-toed Woodpecker (10) at Banff-Canmore and Downy (430) and Pileated (86) at Edmonton. With nine Belted Kingfishers in the province, this species remains stable to increasing trend during winters in Alberta.

The highest Canadian counts for Clark’s Nutcracker once again was recorded in Banff-Canmore (91) with Edmonton displacing Calgary as the high-count for Black-billed Magpie, with 3447 observed. For the second year running, Mountain (332), Black-capped (3691), and Boreal Chickadee (68) topped the Canadian records at Banff-Canmore, Edmonton, and Sheep River, respectively. Only a solitary Pacific Wren was reported in Alberta, with that record coming from Lethbridge.

A Swainson’s Thrush reported in Calgary was a high-count for Canada, as was a Brown Thrasher in Lac La Biche. One Mountain Bluebird was reported for Calgary, the first of that species reported during a Christmas Bird Count in Alberta.

After a few years of holding the North American records of both House Sparrow and Bohemian Waxwing, that title did not fall to Calgary, however the numbers were still impressive, with 6999 and 859, respectively.

As per usual, Dark-eyed Juncos represented the sparrows with a large presence at 577, however White-throated Sparrow numbers jumped to 39. White-crowned Sparrow (8), Song Sparrow (5), and Harris’s Sparrow (3) made good showings, but the highlight of this family was a pair of Savannah Sparrows on the Blindline count. Red-winged and Yellow-headed blackbirds were a notable absence this year, with only four Common Grackles, one Rusty, and one Brewer’s blackbirds being reported, but Western Meadowlark were present in the highest numbers recorded in the province, from two count circles: Dinosaur Provincial Park (19), and Medicine Hat (2). Two Yellow-rumped Warblers were reported, one in Edmonton, and one in St. Albert, were noteworthy finds.

Finch numbers during the 121st Christmas Bird Count were respectable, but with a massive irruption in Eastern Canada of redpolls and grosbeaks, the 3534 Pine Grosbeaks and 7930 Common Redpolls were scattered throughout the province in numbers only slightly higher than average, but impressive nonetheless.

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