The 121st Christmas Bird Count in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

The 101st CBC was a new experience because of the limitations imposed by the COVID pandemic. A number of compilers decided not to conduct a count this year, although most circles did participate using smaller groups and social distancing. Some of the counts reported fewer participants and smaller totals, but many reported greater interest and participation due to people being anxious to get outside and do something. In general, the count numbers were pretty average, but included a good variety of unusual over-wintering and vagrant species, especially in Pennsylvania.

Twenty-nine CBCs were submitted from New Jersey, with only Mizpah and Marmora opting out. The 199 species recorded was three fewer than last year, but still just two short of the 20-year average. With mild weather, Cape May had 160 species to lead the state, as usual, followed by Barnegat at 132, its best in six years, Oceanville (127), and Cumberland (125). None of the counts exceeded previous highs but overall numbers were average or better for most species, and 11 species were recorded in record-high numbers while several others were second highest.

The same 36 species of waterfowl reported last year were seen this season. Three Trumpeter Swans returned to Assunpink, while Long Branch and Somerset Count each had a Eurasian Wigeon, and Cape May had the only Blue-winged Teal. King Eiders were at Barnegat (2) and Long Branch (3), while Barnegat had the only Harlequin Ducks (14) and 411 Common Eiders. The near record total of Common Eiders included 181 at Long Branch and 56 at Lakehurst. This formerly uncommon species has become a regular winter visitor along the entire New Jersey coast.

Walnut Valley found a single Ruffed Grouse, the first on a state count in five years. Pied-billed Grebes (92) rebounded from last year’s low and Horned Grebes (139) also showed a good improvement, while still far below the record high numbers of the 1970s. Surprisingly, Red-necked Grebe was missed for the first time in 20 years. The 85 Northern Gannets recorded, mainly at Cape May and Long Branch, was quite a contrast to last year’s 7760, and the lowest total in 25 years. A wintering American White Pelican at Forsythe NWR was a highlight of the Oceanville CBC. This species has now occurred in three of the past six CBCs after being missed for the previous 36 years. The Great Cormorant tally increased slightly to 46, but numbers are still far below those from the late 1980s to 2009. 

Great Blue Herons (993) and Great Egrets (80) were found in impressive numbers, while Sandy Hook had the only Snowy Egret and Barnegat the only two Tricolored Herons. Vultures were plentiful and Oceanville and Sandy Hook each produced an Osprey, making it ten years out of the past 11 for this species on a New Jersey CBC. Golden Eagle was missed, but other raptors were present in impressive numbers, including a near-record 292 Cooper’s Hawks. The Bald Eagle total of 761 far surpassed last year’s record tally of 682, as all of the participating counts recorded the species, led by Cumberland County (118) and Salem County (89). Red-shouldered Hawks continue to winter in the state in increasing numbers and this year’s 231 easily surpassed the previous record of 151 in 2017. Ten Rough-legged Hawks was an improvement over recent years, but still not a major invasion.

Both Clapper Rail (90) and Virginia Rail (72) were plentiful, the latter topping last year’s record high of 52; Cape May accounted for 57 of the Virginias. Sandhill Cranes also established a new high as five counts recorded 68 birds, 34 of them in Cumberland County. Shorebirds were well-represented by 19 species, including 10 Semipalmated Plovers, the most since 2012. Spotted Sandpiper was found for the second year in a row, this time a bird that wintered in Cape May. The lone Lesser Yellowlegs was found on the Cape May count, but the wintering flock of shorebirds at Absecon Inlet on the Oceanville CBC had only 26 Western Willets, the lowest total in 20 years. Nineteen Marbled Godwits were also at Absecon and another 14 were in Cape May. Cape May also had the only Short-billed Dowitcher, while Oceanville had five Long-billed Dowitchers.

The five Dovekies seen on three counts were the first since 2014, while the near record 537 Razorbills were seen mainly at Long Branch with 533. Bonaparte Gulls (2749) rebounded after four years of low numbers and were accompanied by a Black-headed Gull at Cape May. A total of six Laughing Gulls on three CBCs was a bit above average, but only three Iceland Gulls were reported, one each at Cape May, Long Branch, and Lower Hudson. Lesser Black-backed Gulls dropped off a bit to 104, while the four Glaucous Gulls were at Long Branch, Raritan Estuary, and Sandy Hook (2). Cape May had the only Forster’s Tern, but a single Royal Tern at Lakehurst was the first for the state in 21 years.

Owling proved very productive with eight species being tallied, including Barn Owls in Cumberland and Somerset County, and five Snowy Owls, three at Barnegat and two at Oceanville. Twenty-five Short-eared Owls was the highest total since 2007 and seven Northern Saw-whet Owls was another good showing. The long-staying Calliope Hummingbird at Pt. Pleasant, just the third for a New Jersey CBC, was a highlight of the Lakehurst count. 
The Cape May CBC found three of the minimum of four Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that wintered in the area, a record high total.

Red-headed Woodpecker was missed completely after setting a record of 125 last year. This boom-and-bust cycle is typical of the species in New Jersey, but this was the first time since 1978 that none was found. The other woodpeckers were all found in excellent numbers, especially Pileated Woodpecker with a new record high of 196; this species has increased steadily over the past decade. American Kestrels (109) continue at a fairly constant level, while the 71 Merlins equaled last year’s record and the 73 Peregrine Falcons bested last year’s 70 for the second highest total. The 38 Eastern Phoebes tied last year for the second highest count, but no other flycatchers were detected for just the second time in the past ten years.

Cape May had a Blue-headed Vireo. Blue Jay (4964) numbers were down to the lowest tally since 2003, but the other corvids were plentiful, including a record 159 Common Ravens, 59 more than last year’s record. Ravens were found on 19 of the 28 counts. For the first time in ten years, there were no Tree Swallows, but the Trenton Marsh produced 11 Northern Rough-winged Swallows along the Delaware River, where they are now expected in winter. It was an irruption year for Red-breasted Nuthatches with 356 compared to last year’s 13, and Brown Creepers were abundant at 319, the second highest total. For the second year in a row, both Winter Wren (349) and Carolina Wren (3,684) set record highs and the three Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, one in Cumberland and two in Cape May, represent the second highest total for that species. 

Cumberland and Cape May each had a Lapland Longspur, while Barnegat (85) and Sandy Hook (74) had the bulk of the 206 Snow Buntings. The seven species of wood warblers detected included an Ovenbird in the New York City section of the Lower Hudson CBC (where they are almost annual) and a very rare Tennessee Warbler at Tuckerton, the first since 1975. The Lower Hudson CBC had two Western Tanagers, both in the New York City section of the count.

Numbers of American Tree Sparrows (930) rebounded a bit from the lows of the past two seasons, but are still far below the totals of 20 – 30 years ago. Lark Sparrow was the highlight of the Cumberland County CBC, which also had the only Vesper Sparrow. The more common sparrows were plentiful, with more than 20,000 each of Dark-eyed Junco and White-throated Sparrow, plus a record 7912 Song Sparrows. Lincoln’s Sparrow, a species being encountered more frequently in winter in recent years, also reached a new high of seven individuals from four different counts. Six counts produced a near-record total of 18 Baltimore Orioles (12 at Cape May) and four others had count-week birds.

Winter finches were well represented for the first time since 2012, missing only Pine Grosbeak and White-winged Crossbill. Purple Finches jumped from 19 last year to 243 this season, while the 128 Red Crossbills was the third highest total ever and the highest since the record 682 in 1975. Common Redpoll (105) and Pine Siskin (188) were present in good numbers, while the 37 Evening Grosbeaks, a species encountered only seven times in the past 23 years, was the most since 1998 but only a fraction of the totals from the 1970s and 1980s. 

Seventy-seven counts were submitted from Pennsylvania, with Southeastern Bradford, Southern Lancaster County, and Washington choosing not to participate dues to the COVID pandemic. Despite the restriction from COVID and some heavy snow cover just prior to the count period, participation was the second highest ever in terms of party hours. Due to the party-size limitations from COVID, some areas reported better coverage than usual. For the second year in a row, Southern Bucks County led the list with 102 species, followed by Lititz (97) and Delaware County (96). Pennypack Valley tied for fourth with 95 species, ten more than their previous high; Upper Bucks County also tallied 95 species.

A total of 166 species were reported, three more than last year and six above the ten-year average. Two new species were added to the Pennsylvania CBC records, a Tundra Bean-Goose and a Tennessee Warbler. An impressive ten species of warblers were found, two more than the previous high, and 12 species were tallied in record high numbers. Winter finches finally put in a strong showing with the best year since 2012.

Among the 31 species of waterfowl recorded this year, the highlight was surely the state’s first Tundra Bean-Goose discovered in the Delaware County CBC circle just three days before the count. Fortunately, it lingered in the area, moving to the Schuykill River in Philadelphia, where hundreds of birders were able to see it. The massive gathering of Snow Geese in the eastern Lehigh Valley produced 227,000 birds on the Bethlehem-Easton CBC along with a single Ross’s Goose. Another 15,000 Snow Geese on other counts brought the total to 242,000, just shy of last year’s record 253,000. Lehigh Valley and Southern Bucks County each had a Greater White-fronted Goose. 

Trumpeter Swan was missed for the second time in six years, but the 1372 Tundra Swans were the most in five years, led by Pittsburgh with 344.  Dabbling ducks were mostly found in average numbers, but the 48 American Wigeon tally was the lowest in 13 years and Mallard, while still the commonest duck, was down 5000 over the past five years to just 15,683.  Only six Canvasback were located, up from two last year, but still far below average. Redheads, on the other hand, increased from 29 to 296. Erie had most of the scoters, as usual, with one Surf, 17 White-winged and 18 Blacks. Pittsburgh also had a Surf Scoter, Southern Bucks County and Upper Bucks County each added a White-winged Scoter, and Pittsburgh had three Black Scoters to raise the total for the that species to a new record 21.

Only 22 Ruffed Grouse were recorded, a modern era low, continuing the long-term decline of this species apparently due to the effects of West Nile virus and loss of early successional habitat. Erie had the only Red-throated Loon and nine of the 24 Common Loons; the remainder of the Commons Loons were at ten different counts. Erie also had the only two Red-necked Grebes. Great Cormorants were at their usual sites along the Delaware River at Southern Bucks County (16) and Pennypack Valley (6). A Great Egret was a highlight at Lititz.

A single Osprey was at Cowanesque Lake.  Single Golden Eagles on five different counts was a bit below average, as was the total of 110 Northern Harriers, but raptors in general were well-represented. Cooper’s Hawks (576) set a new record high, although the 476 in 2016 was comparable when corrected for observer hours. Single Northern Goshawks were at Cowanesque Lake, Emporium, and Warren.  The 864 Bald Eagles was second only to the 899 in 2018 and would surely have set a new record high had the Southern Lancaster County CBC been conducted. Southern Bucks County had an impressive 108 eagles. Red-shouldered Hawk numbers have increased substantially during the past decade and the 350 seen this year far eclipsed last year’s record 214. 

West Chester had two Virginia Rails and Mansfield-Wellsboro and Upper Bucks County each had one. The 323 Sandhill Cranes was the second highest total for a Pennsylvania CBC, with Linesville contributing 177, Grove City 102, and Butler County 42. The only shorebirds detected were 66 Killdeer, a low total, 58 Wilson’s Snipe, and a single American Woodcock at Hamburg. Only 11 Bonaparte Gulls were found, four at Erie and seven at Linesville, continuing recent trends, but the 33,000 Ring-billed Gulls were scattered around the state. The 34,000 Herring Gulls, on the other hand, were concentrated at Southern Bucks County, whose 31,000 was the highest continent-wide count for yet another year. Southern Bucks also had all 13 Iceland Gulls, two of the three Glaucous Gulls (Erie had one), and 214 of the state’s 298 Great Black-backed Gulls. The latter species has declined substantially on Pennsylvania CBCs in the past decade and the total is the lowest since 1984. Bucks County continues to host one of the highest concentrations of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the country, with 273 at Southern Bucks, 241 at Upper Bucks and 92 at Central Bucks; Bernville had two and Bethlehem-Easton one.

Three Eurasian Collared-Doves at Chambersburg was the sixth Pennsylvania CBC report of a species that continues to be very rare in the Northeast. York had the only Barn Owl and Elverson the only Snow Owl, although a count week-bird was at Juniata County-Lewiston. The 384 Great Horned Owls was the highest total since 2014 as the species is hopefully recovering from the effects of West Nile virus. Tallies of Long-eared Owl (14), Short-eared Owl (15), and Northern Saw-whet Owl (22) were about average. Chambersburg had a Rufous Hummingbird, a species recorded nine times in the past 11 years, and Upper Bucks had a Selasphorus hummingbird that was probably a Rufous. Better yet was the lingering Allen’s Hummingbird at Delaware County, only the second for a Pennsylvania CBC.

Woodpeckers were found in excellent numbers. The 55 Red-headed Woodpecker tally was down a bit from 2091’s invasion year, but the 791 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were second only to the 8015 in 2017. Hairy Woodpecker (1817) and Pileated Woodpecker (1013) each established new all-time highs for a Pennsylvania CBC. American Kestrel numbers (640) have held fairly steady in recent years following a decline in the early part of this century. Merlins, on the other hand, continued their slow, but steady, increase to a new record of 73 birds; Lehigh Valley had eight, while Delaware County, Lebanon County, and Pittsburgh each had five. As recently as the 1980s, a count of one to five was a more typical for the entire state. Peregrine Falcon numbers seemed to have levelled off, although the 39 birds tallied this year was second only to the 45 in 2016.

A single Northern Shrike at Philipsburg matched the low total from 2014 and 2015; the last double-digit count was the 14 in 2011. Common Ravens continue their steady increase, with this year’s 734 easily topping last year’s record 671; all but five of the 72 reporting CBCs recorded this species. Horned Larks (7904) were abundant and the 100 Northern Rough-winged Swallows on the Pennypack Valley, while not a record, was the third highest total for a single CBC north of Mexico. American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, and Tufted Titmouse all showed modest gains from the lows of 2018, when West Nile virus was most severe (fide N. Bolgiano). 

The modest irruption of Red-breasted Nuthatches in the fall carried over into the Christmas Count season and the total of 596 was the highest since 2106, although still far short of some of the major flights of earlier decades. Newville reported the only House Wren, while the 6328 Carolina Wrens was second only to last year’s record 7251. A long-staying Townsend’s Solitaire, just the third for a Pennsylvania CBC, was one of several highlights of the Chambersburg count. Individual Wood Thrushes at Bloomsburg and Harrisburg were the 10th and 11th for a state CBC. Hermit Thrushes were plentiful, as a moderating climate and abundant available food crops are encouraging more to stay north. The record 561 birds included an impressive 71 at Huntingdon. The total of 19 Lapland Longspurs was well above average.

An amazing ten species of wood warblers were encountered during the CBC period. The three Ovenbirds, one each at Harrisburg, Huntingdon, and State College, was the most ever for a state CBC, while the Tennessee Warbler found on the Delaware County CBC was the first for a Pennsylvania CBC. Pennypack Valley had the only Orange-crowned Warbler and Bloomsburg added the state’s fourth CBC Cape May Warbler. A Northern Parula at Harrisburg was just the third for a state CBC, although the second in two years, and the Black-throated Gray Warbler at Lebanon County was also the third for a Pennsylvania CBC.

The 2989 American Tree Sparrows was more than twice last season’s 82-year low, but still less than 20% of the 1998 total, even when corrected for observer hours. Chipping Sparrows, on the other hand, are wintering in Pennsylvania in increasing numbers as the climate warms and reached a new high of 197. A Clay-colored Sparrow was found for the third year in a row, this year at Indiana, for the ninth state CBC record. Some sparrows were abundant, such as 63,461 Dark-eyed Juncos, second highest total, 37,416 White-throated Sparrows, a new record high, 282 Savannah Sparrows, also a new state high, and 12,246 Song Sparrows, a second highest total. Many of the high sparrow counts came from CBCs conducted during the first weekend of the period when the large snowfall of previous days forced many birds to feed in the open along road or water edges. Lehigh Valley had a Vesper Sparrow and single Lincoln’s Sparrows were spotted at Lehigh Valley, Pennypack Valley, Southern Bucks County, and York Springs. 

In a season of record high totals, Northern Cardinals were not to be left out, coming in with a high of 17,910, just edging out the 17,586 tallied in 2008. A Blue Grosbeak at Pennypack Valley was only the second for a Pennsylvania CBC. In contrast to many of the other species, blackbirds were decidedly scarce. The combined total of Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird was 10,550, the lowest count since 1992. Had the Southern Lancaster County CBC been conducted, that number would surely have been higher. Eight Baltimore Orioles was the highest total since 2006 and many others were found in southeastern Pennsylvania both before and after the count period.

Winter finches put in a good showing for the first time in a number of years as outbreaks of spruce budworm during the breeding season and a scarcity of seed crops sent many of them south. Purple Finches (542) made their best showing in five years, while the 22 Red Crossbills, a modest number, were the first since 2016. Individual White-winged Crossbills at Hamburg and State College show that it was not a flight year for that species. The Common Redpoll total (666) was the highest since 2012 and the small flock at Dingman’s Ferry included a Hoary Redpoll on the New Jersey side of the count. Evening Grosbeaks (318) made their biggest incursion in the state since 1997 when 1410 were tallied, but the statewide record of 11,271 in 1985 is safe for the time being. 

Once again, I thank Nick Bolgiano for sharing some of his insights into the Pennsylvania CBCs in advance of publication.

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