The 121st Christmas Bird Count in Minnesota

The 121st Audubon Christmas Bird Count (2020-2021 season) was a good one. The weather was excellent for winter birding. Many lakes were still open and hosting waterfowl. The birders came out in record numbers, and they found birds. It was the third highest count of total birds in the last decade. Eight species were found on at least 78 of the 80 counts. Of the 141 species (2nd highest ever) found, a remarkable 21 had record count numbers, including two species never reported before. There were 29 first county winter records. Unusual reports included two Turkey Vultures, a Broad-winged Hawk, an American Pipit, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and a Common Yellowthroat. Data in this summary is only for Minnesota and does not include participation and birds from outside the state in border counts.

Eighty of 85 counts collected and reported data, a slight decrease from last year. Five counts were cancelled because of the Covid pandemic. A new count at Redwood Falls, centered in Renville County, only reported data to the Minnesota Ornithologists Union and not to the National Audubon Society, which is not uncommon for start-up counts. That count is included in this summary. While the number of counts was the lowest in four years, participation of 2112 birders was the highest ever, due in large part to a nearly 29% increase in feeder watchers (704) over the five-year average. Average participation per count was 26.4, a 16% increase over last year. Thirteen counts had more than 40 participants, compared to 12 last year. Owatonna again had the most feeder watchers (108; 90 last year) and the most total participants with 118 (97 last year). Detroit Lakes doubled its feeder watchers, reaching 54 with excellent community promotion. Duluth and three Metro counts had more than 60 field surveyors (Excelsior 68, Bloomington 62, Duluth 61, St. Paul North 60). While all but four counts had surveyors out on foot, six sent surveyors out on skis and/or snowshoes. The Isabella count had surveyors out on foot, skis, snowshoes, kick-sleds, snowmobiles, and bicycles. They don’t have many roads up there. The Wabasha count deployed counters on horseback. The average number of field surveyors was 17.6, compared to 16.9 last year. The average number of feeder watchers was 9.0 compared to 5.9 last year.

Record participation is easy to explain: the weather was good for winter birding. Not that it was unseasonably warm (only 20% of the counts had highs above freezing), but it wasn’t cold, as only three counts started at below zero temps. Last year five times as many counts had lows below zero. This year a higher percentage of the counts reported that lakes were open (about a third vs. less than a fifth in both of the last two years) and there was less snow on the ground. Thirty percent of the counts had no snow versus last year’s 7%.  This was the highest percentage of snow free counts in at least the last five years.  

With more open water, there were more waterfowl counted. As Canada Goose numbers account for over 97% of the variability of the total numbers of birds, high numbers of Canada Geese (100,020) resulted in the third highest cumulative total of all birds in the last ten years (336,948). Canada Goose and Mallard numbers represented almost 40% of the total count this year, versus 14.8% of last year’s count, which was the second lowest total in the past ten years. The species count (141) tied for the second highest species count.

There were 180 reports which required additional documentation (vs. 82 and 147 in the last two years). Fifteen sightings were not accepted, as a result of inadequate (9) or lack of documentation (6). Four were withdrawn on one count as data errors.

The majority of the 29 species of waterfowl reported this year (compared to 25 and 27 species for the last two years) were reported at numbers above the 10-year average for that species, a significant reversal of last year when more lakes were frozen and almost all were below average. The 100,020 Canada Geese, our most common count bird, were 25.6% above the ten-year average, while the 30,931 Mallards, the second most common count bird this year (fourth last year), were 20.7% above the ten-year average. Trumpeter Swans, averaging fourth in the last ten years, was the third most common waterfowl this year with its second highest count. While almost three quarters of the counts reported Canada Geese, more than half were found on six counts: Fargo in the northwest and five counts in south central Minnesota. Mallards were not as widespread with over half found in four central Metro counts. Tundra Swans were below average despite being the third highest count in the last ten years. The 67 Long-tailed Ducks, almost all found on Lake Superior, represent the highest count since 2001, but was below the average for the 1990s. The 33 Ruddy Ducks found on six counts was a record high. First winter county records included four Trumpeter Swans on the Hendricks count in Lincoln County, a Ring-necked Duck at Two Harbors, a count week Greater Scaup at Wilmar, and a Pied-billed Grebe at Moorhead.

Four species of water dependent birds (cormorants, pelicans, herons, and kingfishers) were found. A Black-crowned Night-Heron reported in Winona was only the seventh on Minnesota counts in 30 years. For the fifth consecutive year no cormorants were reported. The 12 Wilson’s Snipe found is above expected numbers, but below some historical numbers.

The most common upland game birds, Wild Turkey and Ring-necked Pheasant, were widely found on 77.5% and 59% of the counts - similar to last year. Wild Turkeys were reported in record numbers (5266), while pheasants were in average numbers. Sharp-tailed Grouse had above average numbers, Ruffed Grouse about average, and Greater Prairie-Chickens were below average.

Bald Eagles were reported in record numbers (1974), continuing a population growth that is most easily noticed in the winter when they concentrate near open water. They were found on all but two far north counts, demonstrating their remarkable recovery. Over 50% of their numbers were on 13 counts. The second most common diurnal raptor, the Red-tailed Hawk, was found on two-thirds of the counts, but over 60% were in the southeast. Rough-legged Hawks were higher than average and found in 62.5% of the counts. While both Northern Goshawks and Red-shouldered Hawks were reported at their highest numbers in over 10 years, both were below the average of 15 to 20 years ago at a time when participation was lower. Northern Harriers, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Coopers Hawks were below the ten-year average, with Sharp-shinneds at their lowest number in almost 30 years. Notable finds included first county winter record for Turkey Vultures at Faribault and Fairmont, Red-shouldered Hawks at Austin and Redwood Falls, and a Broad-winged Hawk in Bloomington (also only the second accepted CBC report). American Kestrels were found in above average numbers. Peregrine Falcons and Merlins were reported in small numbers, including a Merlin in Pipestone, outside its expected range.

It was a good year for our state’s breeding owls, but not as good for irruption owls. Great Horned Owls set a record high with 148. Barred Owl had its fourth highest total (72) and Eastern Screech-Owls recorded their highest number in almost 30 years (23). Long-eared, Short-eared, and Great Gray owls breed in the state, but are elusive and rarely encountered except in irruption years. The 20 Great Gray Owls reported is the highest since the last large irruption of 2004-2005. Three-quarters of the Great Grays were found just six counts in the northeastern Arrowhead area of the state. Of the nine species of owls reported, the five rarer owls had a total of 15 reports. Notable was the first county winter record of an Eastern Screech-Owl in Duluth.

Four species of gulls were found on count day and two more on count week in Duluth. Eight other counts along Lake Superior and the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers had one or both common species, Ring-billed and Herring. Both gulls were found in much better numbers than last year, but still below the ten-year average. The other two count day gulls in Duluth were California and Iceland.

In contrast with last year, all three species of doves were found in high numbers. Eurasian Collared-Doves (690) set a record. Rock Pigeons (18,709) hit their second highest peak since the record in 2006-2007, and 1384 Mourning Doves were also reported. The five common species of woodpeckers were also found in high numbers. Four of them - Downy (4637), Hairy (2263), Red-bellied (1822), and Pileated (888) all set records, while the number of Northern Flickers was its third highest.  Hairy Woodpeckers were found on all counts, while Downys were found on all but one count. Red-bellieds were found on all but 11 northern counts, and Pileateds on all but eight mostly southwestern counts. The other four species were found in small numbers. Whereas in most years nearly all Red-headed Woodpeckers are found on the Cedar Creek Bog count, this year they had a bad acorn crop, and none overwintered there.  Notable was the first winter county record of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Duluth.

It was an off year for winter field birds, which are some of the most variable count species. Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings were all well below average.  More than two-thirds of the Horned Larks were reported on just four southwestern counts. More than two-thirds of the Lapland Longspurs were found on four counts in the central and west central part of the state. Almost two-thirds of the Snow Buntings were reported on six northwestern counts.

Corvid numbers were up. After two off years, American Crows were found in above average numbers. Blue Jays were down from last year’s record, but still the second highest number recorded. Common Ravens (2163) and Black-billed Magpies (311) set records, while Canada Jays were at average, rebounding from a nadir three years ago on their four-to-five-year boom to bust cycle. Blue Jays again were found on every count, whereas American Crows were only missed on only one. Like last year, magpies were found on 20% of the counts and ravens on 50% all in the northern half of the state. Ravens were found as far south as Sherburne, Anoka, and Washington counties. With a bad acorn mast crop, Blue Jay numbers dropped by almost 80% from last year on the Cedar Creek Bog count, supporting a hypothesis tying their numbers to the crop.

Northern Shrike numbers were down from last year, but totals tend to be too variable to note any trends. Black-capped Chickadees (28,065), White-breasted Nuthatches (5852), and Brown Creepers (307) all exceeded records two years ago by approximately 10%. Tufted Titmouse (90) also reached a record, even though found on the same number of counts as the last two years. Red-breasted Nuthatch numbers were down from two years ago, but still had the fifth highest total on record. Black-capped Chickadees were found on all counts, whereas White-breasted and Red-breasted nuthatches were found on all but one and two counts respectively. Golden-crowned Kinglet numbers were below average, down from last year. Both Carolina (16) and Winter (5) wrens were found in record numbers. First winter county records for wrens included a Winter Wren on the Little Falls count, Carolina Wrens on the Alexandria and Mille Lacs South counts, and a Marsh Wren seen count week bird on the Rochester count.

American Robins and Eastern Bluebirds rebounded from last year. Robins were close to the ten-year average, while bluebirds were still significantly below the average. Seventy percent of the robins were found in six Metro counts. A total of nine species of thrush were recorded compared to six and eight for the last two years. A Mountain Bluebird on the St. Paul North count, a Hermit Thrush on the Redwood Falls count, a Gray Catbird on the Northern Meeker County count, and a Brown Thrasher on the Alexandria count were all first county winter records.

Bohemian Waxwing numbers rebounded from last year’s nadir to the highest in ten years, while Cedar Waxing numbers dropped, staying below the average for another year. Whereas last year 85% of the Bohemian Waxwings were found on one count in the northwest, this year 83% were found on six counts in the northeast of the state. Cedar Waxwings were widespread, but in small numbers. While 23 counts (mostly in the southwest and far north) had no waxwings, six counts had both. European Starlings, found on all but four counts in the state, evened out to slightly above average after last year’s low and the previous year’s record. House Sparrows, found on all but six counts, were above the ten-year average. Interestingly the only count that did not report crows, Beltrami Island in the far north, was also the only count that did not have White-breasted Nuthatches. It was also one of only two counts that did not have starlings and House Sparrows. The other count that missed both starlings and House Sparrows, Isabella, had only four crows and one White-breasted Nuthatch. For the fourth time in seven years, a Eurasian Tree Sparrow was found, this time as a first county winter record for the Mountain Lake-Windom count.

Dark-eyed Junco and American Tree Sparrow numbers were below average for the fourth year in a row. They accounted for almost 99% of the 10 species of sparrow reported (down from 11 last year). First winter county records included a count week Harris’s Sparrow at Detroit Lakes, a Field Sparrow at Mankato, and Swamp Sparrows on the Lamberton and Northern Wright County counts.

Overall, blackbirds, with the exception of Rusty Blackbirds, were significantly below the ten-year average. Rusty Blackbirds were about twice the expected average. Seventy percent of the Red-winged Blackbirds were on just four counts in the southwest. Sixty percent of the Rusty Blackbirds were found on the La Crosse-La Crescent count in the southeast. The other icterid species included Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Western Meadowlark, and a count week Baltimore Oriole, which was a first winter county record for the New Ulm count.  

The 4360 Northern Cardinal total was a record. Eleven counts with urban/suburban habitat and high numbers of participants in the southern half of the state accounted for almost 60% of the cardinals. The only Rose-breasted Grosbeak was a first winter county record on the Carlton count.  While all finches did better than last year, four of the ten species were still below the ten-year average. While American Goldfinches were found with some of the lowest numbers of the decade, House Finches had the highest numbers in 15 years. Purple Finch and White-winged Crossbill numbers were peaking, while Red Crossbills were bottoming out. Pine Grosbeak, Pine Siskin, and redpoll numbers were up, although well below historical peaks. Evening Grosbeaks have been in marked decline for the last 25 years, but this year had the highest numbers during that time period, being found in a quarter of the counts, all in the north plus Red Wing in the south. Pine Grosbeaks were found in almost all the same counts in the north. In general, where those two were not found House Finches and/or Purple Finches were. Only three counts had none of the four, and three counts had three or even four of these finches. Goldfinch and Pine Siskin distribution generally fit with the southern House and Purple finches. The seven counts that had Pine Siskins and no American Goldfinches were all in the north. An equal number of counts that had goldfinches and no Pine Siskins were in the south.

Three species of warbler were found. A record nine Yellow-rumps were found in four counts including six on the Redwood Falls count and a first winter county record on the Willmar count. The second most common warbler for Minnesota counts, the Pine Warbler, was found for the fifth time, and was a first winter county record on the Grand Marais count and the eighth accepted state winter record for the state.  A Common Yellowthroat found on the Rochester count, was a first county winter record, the sixth accepted winter record for the state, and just the second for a CBC. The first CBC report had been at Ft. Snelling in 1934. An American Pipit, a count week report on the Excelsior count, was the first winter county record for Scott County, only the second accepted winter state record, and the first Christmas Bird Count report.

A complete table of the results of the 121st Christmas Bird Count in Minnesota (includes data from outside of Minnesota from border counts) is available at:

https://moumn.org/CBC/coordinator_yearend_table.php?year=2020&main

For Minnesota data only, which was used in this summary:

https://moumn.org/CBC/coordinator_yearend_table.php?year=2020&main&mn

A table showing what sightings were reviewed, what documentation was received, eBird postings, and whether reports were accepted is available for download at:

https://moumn.org/CBC/documents/121_Bird_Review.html

Images of birds submitted for documentation (& not on eBird) are available at:

http://moumn.org/CBC/recent.php?count_year=121&op= 

 

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