The 121st Christmas Bird Count in Atlantic Canada

The 121st Christmas Bird Count season was a bright spot in a tumultuous year throughout most of Atlantic Canada, as it was everywhere. With a pandemic turning the world upside down, people increasingly took solace and comfort in nature – especially birding. The fresh air, wonderful birds and great camaraderie of CBCs took on new meaning for many. A relatively 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, it was a season to remember.

A total of 88 counts were completed in the Atlantic region this season; with 43 in New Brunswick, 32 in Nova Scotia, 10 in Newfoundland & Labrador and three in Prince Edward Island. The number is up significantly from previous years, mainly due to a concerted effort by dedicated birders at Nature New Brunswick to have more of their provincial results submitted online. Involvement was also up with well over 2100 participants, ~1450 of which put in 3915 hours in the field. The bird tally was somewhat above average with 196 species recorded throughout the region (including a few count week observations) – due in no small part to a good number of rare and lingering species throughout.

Despite being rare in North America, Pink-footed Goose was recorded for the fourth straight season with a long-staying individual in St. John’s (NL). Other locally rare or uncommon geese included a Greater White-fronted Goose in Pictou Harbour (NS), Cackling Goose in Moncton (NB) and several Snow Geese in NS and NB. A Tundra Swan was also among the highlights at Cape Sable Island (NS). The 52 Tufted Duck tallied in St. John’s (NL) was relatively low for the circle compared to recent years, and the only other individual for the region was at Antigonish (NS). A Redhead in Glace Bay (NS) and a Ruddy Duck at Halifax-Dartmouth (NS) were also regionally rare. A record high 16 Barrow’s Goldeneye in NF included a notable count of nine in the Stephenville area.

Shorebird diversity was down significantly from last season with a more typical six species recorded, mostly in NS.  Perhaps the most notable was a lingering Willet, recorded as the western race, at Broad Cove (NS). Purple Sandpipers were slightly below average with 99 in NS and 300 in NL. Killdeer, Black-bellied Plover, Sanderling, and Dunlin rounded out the tally.

The elusive Gray Partridge put in a showing with seven spotted on the PEI National Park count. This species has been extirpated from NS, but continues to keep a small yet firm foothold on the island. A total of 161 Wild Turkeys were recorded on five counts in NB, the bulk from St. Stephens (on the border with Maine) and nearby Mactaquac - the only established population in the region. Willow Ptarmigan were recorded in four different circles in NL, including five in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Diurnal raptors are always a highlight, and this year was no exception. A Black Vulture in Pictou Harbour (NS) was regionally rare, but showing up in the Maritimes with more frequency in recent years. A total of 157 Turkey Vultures were also spotted in the province, along with 28 in neighbouring NB. Bald Eagles continue to increase in the region, with 1908 individuals reported across all four provinces. The number of late and/or wintering Broad-winged Hawks in the region appears to be growing, with five reported in NS and another in NB this season. A Gyrfalcon seen during count week in Sackville (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 33 Great Horned, 28 Barred, nine Northern Saw-whet, 21 Short-eared, and a single Long-eared. A Great Gray Owl in Stanley (NB) was very notable. It was another low year for Snowy Owl with just four, while Boreal Owl was once again missed altogether. Woodpeckers put in a typical showing across the region, although a Red-headed Woodpecker in Memramcook-Hillsborough (NB) was a local rarity and an American Three-toed Woodpecker in Bonne Bay (NL) is notable since it often goes unrecorded during the season.

A surprising five species of wren were recorded in the region this season, including an exceptionally out-of-range Rock Wren in Halifax-Dartmouth (NS) – perhaps the rarest bird recorded in the region this season. Carolina Wren has become expected in recent years and were recorded in a total of seven circles across NS & NB this year. Two Winter Wrens, two House Wrens, and a single Marsh Wren round out the count.

Rare and lingering warblers are often a “prize” of the season in Atlantic Canada, and there was notable diversity this year. A total of twelve species were recorded, including good numbers of expected species such as Pine (47), Yellow-rumped (30), and Orange-crowned (14) warblers, along with Yellow-breasted Chat (11). Other warblers throughout the region included Palm (6), Common Yellowthroat (6), Wilson’s (2), Tennessee (2), Yellow (1), Black-and-white (1), Cape May (1), and American Redstart (1). The only lingering vireo was a single Blue-headed Vireo in Yarmouth, NS.

Other lingering birds of note in the region included a Sandhill Crane (NS), nine American Coots (NS & NL), two Eastern Towhee (NB & NS), 14 Hermit Thrush (NB, NS & NL), 15 Northern Mockingbirds (NS & NL), 64 Brown-headed Cowbirds (PEI) and 20 Baltimore Oriole (NB, NS & NL). Nearly 1800 Northern Cardinals were recorded across this region this season, including two in NL where they remain a rare visitor at any time of year.

Notable birds in the region at any season included a Common Gallinule (NL), Little Gull (NS), Townsend’s Solitaire (NS), Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (NS), Western Tanager (NS), Brown Thrasher (NB), and two Yellow-headed Blackbirds (NB & PEI). Locally uncommon sparrows also included a Lark Sparrow in Glace Bay (NS) and Clay-coloured Sparrow in Hillsborough (PEI). A “yellow-bellied” kingbird in Lunenberg (NS) was not identified to species but would certainly have been a rare record.

With finch irruptions being reported all over the continent this season, it is not surprising that numbers were all over the board in this region. Pine Grosbeak (1880), Common Redpoll (12,831) and Evening Grosbeak (9935) were up significantly from last season and reflecting huge incursions seen into other parts of southern Canada and the northern United States. White-winged (1476) and Red (195) crossbills showed more moderate increases, while Purple Finch (272) and Pine Siskin (694) were down from last year – perhaps as many had moved to points further south. American Goldfinch remained stable with 11,059 individuals recorded, indicating that they remain more or less resident throughout the region. House Finch continues to increase in NB and NS where a total of 219 were reported. House Sparrow numbers remained relatively stable at 1540, although anecdotally they continue to decline in many places.