The 121st Christmas Bird Count in Georgia

This year was an incredibly difficult year, and not just for CBCs. The arrival of COVID-19 changed just about everything, mostly for the worse, and that of course affected counts as well. Georgia added a new count in Richmond Hill (GARH) for a new total of 28 counts, but five of those counts were not held due to COVID. This Georgia CBC Summary usually is mostly made of trends compared to previous yearly totals, but the loss of data from these five counts pretty much made comparisons to previous year totals moot. Hopefully the 122nd count will be back to a more normal time…

The state total of 216 species was surprisingly about average. We did miss a couple expected species but made up for it with some surprises and a huge winter finch irruption including Evening Grosbeaks. Birders logged 5195 miles total counting all modes of transportation, which is lower than usual and reflects all the counts not run. Weather was good for most counts, and in a striking departure from recent years only one count reported heavy rain at all on count day (Savannah GASV).

As indicated above, I will not be making my usual references to the last few years of many species, except in a few relevant cases (mostly where the state had high totals even with fewer counts).  For context or trend information, this will be using two averages: the last 5-year rolling average, and the last 15-year, always in that order. This will be listed as xx/xx, so most recent to most distant, allowing readers to follow which species are increasing or decreasing over the long haul. In some cases, they will be listed as 5RA or 15RA. This will allow readers some perspective with which to judge new high or low totals since much older count results are based on much fewer counts in the state. I will still list high and low counts for the year, but looking at longer-term averages often gives a more accurate perspective. I will list these as RAs for Rolling Averages. In comparing counts, please note that this year’s count was the 121st CBC, run in December 2020 and January 2021. Comparing numbers to older counts will refer to the count number, which coincidentally and luckily for us is the same as the year the count’s finish. The first time a count is referenced I will spell it out, all subsequent uses will be just the two-letter code, for example Albany is GAAB, or just AB. 

Once again, the fall weather was warmer than historical average fall and winter temperatures, resulting in the same two effects we have seen last couple of years: semi-hardy species which can withstand slightly cool temperatures will winter farther north than they normally would; and hardier more northerly species like gulls and some waterfowl will not get pushed this far south at all and will simply winter farther north. These “abnormally” warm falls are becoming more normal as the temperatures slowly but consistently climb from year to year, which why we are seeing more and more species lingering later and in larger numbers.

The second ever Georgia CBC Cackling Goose was a single bird found on the Lake Oconee (GALO) count. This is likely the same bird as last year, found again on the same count. For the fourth year in a row Trumpeter Swans were found in Georgia, this year two on the Floyd County (GAFC) count. Last year there were three on this same count, so again these are likely returnees. The 542 Wood Ducks was well above the 5RA of 433, even with fewer counts. Gadwall recent averages of 1322 (5RA) and 1118 (15RA) are both well below this year’s total of 1667, and while the 183 American Wigeon is historically low it was well above the 5RA of 120. Northern Shovelers again had a good count with 3493 for the state, which compares favorably to the 5RA of 2204 and 15RA of 2072. The first Long-tailed Ducks in nine years were found at Macon (GAMA) with two, and one each at Dalton (GADA) and Glynn County (GAGC). SV had a whopping count of 1307 Tricolored Herons, and the state had a total of 1615, the highest state count in five years and the 2nd highest ever. The 5RA is 1072 and the 15RA is 819. 

The state total of 476 Red-shouldered Hawks was also very high, second only to 482 on the 117th count. This is especially surprising given the missing counts, but the RAs are 426/360 so they are obviously increasing. A total of 25 Virginia Rails was counted this year, highest in four years, and once again SV had the high count, with 17. The last few years have seen a drop in the numbers counted of Sora, with the 5RA at 31 and the 15RA at 73, but this year’s count of 52 was the highest in five years. The numbers of Sandhill Cranes found on our CBCs is of course wholly dependent on winds and weather, but this year’s total of 4328 was the highest in four years and well above the RAs of 3620/2343. The single best count was 3585 at Carter’s Lake (GACL), and they made a serious effort to avoid double-counting any flocks. 

Also coming in high was the total of 321 American Oystercatchers… 2nd only to the 325 seen on the 119th count. Considering they were only found on three counts (with 3 coastal counts missing) that is a great total! The RAs are 258/201. The highest individual count was a superb total of 273 at Little St Simons Island (GALS). Another good total was the 79 Wilson’s Plovers, considering the RAs are 60/36. This hardy plover is a species we can expect to continue increasing as a wintering species. The majority of them were at LS (78) and one was at GC. Another species that continues to increase is the versatile Killdeer; this year’s total of 3355 was second only to last year’s 3619. The RAs are 2656/2558 so the recent increase is most likely due to adding a couple new counts. The count of six Long-billed Curlews is a new high for the state, and even more surprising is that they were all on one count: LS. The RAs are a measly 0.6/0.3. This is a species that does not like people, so we typically only get them on the loneliest beaches… The total of 619 Red Knots is the highest count for GA in nine years, providing a little good news for this beleaguered species. The RAs are 145/366, and the highest total was 569 at LS. Any Purple Sandpiper is a good find in GA in winter, and this year there was only one, at GC. This year’s total of 90 American Woodcock was the 2nd highest ever (102 on the 119th count). CL led the way with 58 and the RAs are 63/49. 

A single White-winged Dove at GC was the state’s 13th CBC record. Oddly, the state total of 97 Barred Owls was a new record by 11 (86/107th and 85/103rd). All the river swamps around the Dublin (GADU) count provided 18 of the 97, a spectacular one count total. Four different hummingbird species were found: five Ruby-throated (3 SV, 2 GC); one Black-chinned (SV), three Rufous (all in the northern half of the state: Athens (AH), FC, and Macon (MA)); and one Calliope at AH. This Calliope at a feeder was GA’s 4th CBC record. Both Downy and Hairy woodpeckers had banner counts: Downy set a new high with 1074 (old record 1038 on 118th count, RAs 960/877), and Hairy had the second highest ever with 146 (second only to last year’s 147, RAs 122/98). Both of these species are benefiting from the newly created inland counts. Conversely, GA did not record a single Red-cockaded Woodpecker this year, but only because neither of the counts that normally find this species were run. The RAs are 45/41. Another large count was the 1494 Eastern Phoebes, this is the second highest count ever to 118th’s 1619, and the RAs for this species are 1324/1168. A single Northern Rough-winged Swallow on the DA count was Georgia’s 13th CBC record, and the furthest north so far. For a non-irruption year like this one, a state total of 78 Red-breasted Nuthatches (found on 12 different counts) is higher than normal: the five and 15 RAs are both 45. A shocking 19 Brown Creepers were found on the Atlanta Intown (GAIA) count, which contributed to a much higher than normal state count of 60 (RAs 44/49). The GA total of 285 House Wrens was also much higher than normal, as can be seen by the RAs of 209/206. This is the 3rd highest total ever for GA CBCs. As it was that year the largest count by far was at SV with 81. The count of 3172 Carolina Wrens was also very high, 2nd highest ever to 115’s 3299. RAs are 2822/2500 for this widespread and helpfully loud species. A single heard-only Lapland Longspur was the only one found this year, it was at CL. The now-expected Northern Waterthrush showed up on two counts: a CW single on GC, and a whopping six at SV, the usual site lately. Again, we set a new record tally for Orange-crowned Warblers with a total of 187, easily topping last year’s 167. The coast had plenty of course, led by the 42 at SV, and AU (Augusta) had 17 in all their great habitat, but again the backyards that dominate the IA count had a great total with 16. Two Northern Parulas were found this year, the first in five years, both on the LS count. A single Magnolia Warbler found earlier within the GC count circle obligingly stayed for the count day, and was GA’s 7th CBC record. Another great find was the single Yellow Warbler found and photographed on the AU count, GA’s 3rd CBC record. From being a mega rarity only 20 years ago, Prairie Warblers are now surprising only if they aren’t found somewhere, this year Georgia had five: one at Harris Neck (GAHN) and four at SV. The only Wilson’s Warbler was CW only at MA. GC found the only Lincoln’s Sparrow for the state this year. This winter two Summer Tanagers were found on the GC count, for Georgia’s 5th and 6th CBC records. Georgia’s 7th CBC Blue Grosbeak was at AU. The total of 38 Baltimore Orioles tied the 2nd highest ever on the 117th count, the overall record remains 41 on the 113th count. 

This was an enormous year for Purple Finch in Georgia: a total of 568 were counted, the highest number since 736 were found (on only 18 counts) on the 86th count. The all-time Georgia record of 1249 on the 73rd count is likely safe, but this was a huge count for the state of this declining species. The RAs for this irruptive species are 100/110. Leading the way was CL with 76, FC with 70, and RO with 65. Another reddish irruptive species was seen in record numbers when 56 Red Crossbills were counted. Normally this species is only found on the Blue Ridge (GABR) and Chattahoochee National Forest (GACH) counts if at all, but here’s where they were found this year: 32 at FC, 18 at CH, and 6 at CL. The RAs are a measly 6/10. In all, this species wasn’t found in GA on any CBCs until the 73rd count, and have only been found on 28 of the 47 counts since then. The old record was 28 on the 109th count, which FC topped all by itself. Birders have gotten pretty good at finding a few each year; they have been counted on 14 out of the last 15 CBCs. Another irruptive, the more common Pine Siskin, was also found in near-record numbers with a total of 2167; 3rd all-time behind 3843 on the 115th count and 2326 on the 109th count. The RAs are 109/525 which reflect that crazy 115th count. The highest totals were at the feeder heavy count circles for Roswell (GARO) and IA with 469 and 446 respectively. The crown jewel of declining boreal irruptives is the Evening Grosbeak, as we have come far since the halcyon days of the late 20th century when this species was almost annual; so, it was thrilling for counters to find a total of seven: five at CH and two at CL. It turned out that the CH area was hosting relatively large numbers of this species and many birders got to see their lifer Evening Grosbeak up there for the next couple months… all thanks to the CBC counters who found them. The only other CBC record in the last 20 years was one at DA on the 111th count.

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