The 121st Christmas Bird Count in California

For the 121st Christmas Bird Count period, 97 counts were completed in California with a total of 358 species recorded (including documented rare species) plus four only seen during count week.  Thirty-six counts were canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. No counts suffered from moderate to heavy rain during the day, and the vast majority had no rain.  In general, temperatures were normal. Mammoth Lakes had the lowest low temperature of 40 F while Santa Ana River Valley recorded the highest temperature with 850 F.  Counts with more than 100 participants include San Diego, Morro Bay, Palo Alto, Rancho Santa Fe, Western Sonoma County, and San Francisco, topped off by Santa Barbara’s 253 participants.  For numbers of species, counts with 200 or more include Rancho Sante Fe, San Diego, Morro Bay, and the leader, San Diego, with 219. Overall numbers of species were average for most counts.

The following are the highlights of the counts (only sufficiently documented rare species included). In general it was an average showing for rare species, especially ultra-rare species. Rare waterfowl were in low numbers with single returning Tufted Duck in Santa Barbara and Crystal Springs, 58 Eurasian Wigeon over 25 count areas, seven Long-tailed Ducks in six count areas. White-winged Scoter numbers continue to decline with only 130 in the state (up from 85 from prior year). Six Long-tailed Ducks were scattered among several coastal counts.

Rare inland Red-necked Grebes were at Springville and Lake Almanor, and the coastal the high count was 28 at Centerville to King Salmon.  The long-staying and only known Northern Gannet in the Pacific Ocean was not detected this season so was likely on SE Farallon Island (not part of a count area). Following the increases in recent years, only three Brown Booby were in San Diego, and another at Rancho Sante Fe. A much rarer Red-footed Booby in San Diego was the second CBC record for California. Tricolored Herons returned with singles at Thousand Oaks and San Diego. Thirteen Reddish Egrets was a high total and continues the trend of this formerly accidental rare species in southern California. Likewise, 83 Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is an exceptional number as this species was also accidental only a couple of decades ago and is strengthening its colonization of coastal southern California with two as far north as Santa Barbara. 

Five Zone-tailed Hawks were scattered over four count areas, as this species is slowly becoming a regular wintering bird in small numbers in southern California. Thirty Swainson’s Hawk in Eastern Contra Costa County was a local record count where a small population had been wintering for over 25 years. Five Pacific Golden-Plovers were fewer than expected with one in Los Angeles, two in San Diego, and two in Western Sonoma County. Rare wintering shorebirds include; a Ruff in San Jose, a Rock Sandpiper returning to San Francisco, and the Little Stint back in San Diego for its fourth winter. Rare terns and gulls were absent with the exception of only four Glaucous Gulls and seven Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Most rare gulls arrive later in winter in California. Lingering from summer, a Laughing and two Yellow-footed gulls remained at Salton Sea North. Only four Barred Owls were reported which is vastly under-reported given the fairly large population known in the North Coast Range and Sierra Nevada. Twenty-two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers was an excellent total. 

Rare wintering flycatchers were prevalent. Single Eastern Phoebes were in Palos Verdes Peninsula, Santa Barbara, and Eastern Contra Costa County. A very rare Greater Pewee was in Pasadena-San Gabriel Valley. All Empidonax flycatchers are rare in the region in winter, so it was a great season with an incredible Willow Flycatcher for the first state CBC record in San Jose; a Least Flycatcher in San Francisco; very rare Dusky in Santa Barbara and Clear Lake; 23 Grays in southern California; five Hammond’s; and 13 Pacific-slope (presumed not to be Cordilleran). As in last year, an outstanding 17 Tropical Kingbirds over 10 count areas was unexpected with a high of four in Santa Barbara. The long-staying Thick-billed Kingbird was in San Diego and another was found in Claremont. Three Dusky-capped Flycatchers were unexpectedly found this season, with singles at San Diego, San Fernando Valley, and Ventura. A great total of 113 Vermilion Flycatchers was a new high for the state with over 24 count areas with a high of 25 at San Jacinto Lake. Three at Pixley NWR in the southern Central Valley were the only ones in northern California. They have been increasing greatly in coastal and non-desert inland sites in southern California as well as venturing into the Central Valley in recent years. Single Scissor-tailed Flycatchers returned to San Diego and Thousand Oaks. Two Cassin’s Vireos and five Plumbeous Vireos were typical numbers and ratio. Much less expected was the Warbling Vireo in Santa Barbara as there are relatively few documented winter records for the state. Five Northern Shrikes were confined to their Cascade/Great Basin and far north coast range. 

The only longspurs found were Lapland with 24 at Centerville Beach to King Salmon, two at Hayward-Fremont, one in Del Norte, and three in Tule Lake. No Bohemian Waxwings were found.

It was an average winter for eastern warblers highlighted by a Pine in San Diego and two Grace’s in Rancho Santa Fe. Other more regular vagrant warblers include a Lucy’s in Santa Barbara, eight Black-and-white, three Tennessee, three Northern Waterthrush, three American Redstart, two Painted Redstart, and 19 Palm.  Rare wintering western warblers were well represented with relatively high counts of 19 Nashville, 36 Yellow, 43 Wilson’s, 46 Black-throated Gray, and six Hermit warblers.  

Grasshopper Sparrows are rarely reported in winter in the region so singles at Thousand Oaks, Palo Alto, and San Diego and two at Cachuma was an unexpected showing. Ten Clay-colored Sparrows was an outstanding number with singles in San Diego, Oceanside-Vista, Lancaster, Los Angeles, Pasadena-San Gabriel Valley, Escondido, Centerville Beach to King Salmon, Arcata, San Fernando Valley, and Rancho Santa Fe. A single Lark Bunting in Rancho Santa Fe was the only one reported. It was a below average winter for Swamp Sparrows with 10 in eight count areas. The only Harris’s Sparrow was in Del Norte. 

Only 12 Summer Tanagers and 60 Western Tanagers were recorded. A much rarer Hepatic Tanager returned to Rancho Santa Fe. Five Black-headed Grosbeaks with singles at Año Nuevo, San Diego, Western Sonoma County, and two at Willow Creek were an above average total. Wintering orioles were in typical numbers with two Orchards, four Baltimore, seven Hooded, 17 Scott’s, and 34 Bullock’s. 

Several species had many record counts for CBCs including Western Bluebird with 16, Pine Siskin with 18, Acorn Woodpecker with 12, Oak Titmouse with 10, Black Phoebe with 10, Anna’s Hummingbird with seven, Purple Finch with six, White-crowned Sparrow with nine, Orange-crowned Warbler with six, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with nine, and Bushtit with seve

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