The 121st Christmas Bird Count in Ontario, Canada

The COVID-19 Pandemic loomed large over the 121st CBC season in Ontario, with 17 counts from year 120 not completed this year. We did have one new count (welcome, Dunnville!) and Presqu’ile was back after a missed year for a total of 111 counts, down from 126 last year and the lowest total since the 110 in count year 114.

The weather patterns leading up to count day always plays a big role. This year, the entire province saw above average temperatures right through November and December encouraging larger than normal (though, increasingly becoming the new normal!) numbers of waterbirds and other lingering species.

Count day weather was again pretty comfortable this year, with an average low of -5.7° C and high of -1.1° C; about the same as the last couple of years. In all, 51 counts had temperatures that cracked the freezing mark this year, which, while lower than last year’s 73, is very high. Blenheim was the hotspot with a count day high of 6° C. Last year three counts cracked +10° C! Eagle River took the award for coldest Ontario CBC with a low of -26° C although Atikokan had the coldest “high” temperature of just -19° C. Sixteen counts reported no snow at all, down from 20 in year 120 and 30 in year 119 (but up from year 118 when all counts had snow). And 73 counts (down from 78 last year) had a maximum snow depth of 10 cm or less, so it was an easy year for walking. Hearst had the deepest snow, with a maximum snow depth of 80 cm, and 11 counts had 30 cm or more.

There were 3233 observers in the field this year, down significantly from the ~3700 of the last two years (not surprising given the drop in counts due to COVID) but still the sixth best. Conversely, more people opted to stay home and do feeder counts, resulting in a record 1437 feeder counters, more than 300 better than the previous high (1173) set last year. Added together field and feeder counters, the 4670 was the third highest total ever. All those observers put in a very impressive and record 8505.25 party hours. Observers logged a very impressive 66,271 km on count days, well shy of the totals of the past five or six years. For the fifth straight year Ottawa-Gatineau led the pack with the most field observers, this year with 164. Kingston again led the way for feeder counters with a whopping 136.

A total of 172 species were reported from all counts, seven below last year’s 179 (which happens to also be the average from the last eight years) but considering the missing counts included seven from the most southern and species-rich part of the province the total is actually quite good. The total increased by six with the addition of count week species (American White Pelican, Great Egret, Glaucous-winged Gull, Northern Hawk Owl, Swainson’s Thrush, and Black-throated Green Warbler).

Blenheim and Long Point have basically alternated for most species over the last several years and this year Long Point took the cake with a whopping 114 species. Blenheim (111) and Hamilton (106) where the other two counts in the 100 species club this year. Five other counts cracked 90 species: Toronto (94), West Elgin (94), Woodhouse Township (94), Oshawa (91), and St. Clair NWA (90). That’s about as good as we ever do, with the eight counts at 80+ tying year 118 for the most. In general, most counts reported above-average species totals, with 86 counts equaling or beating their average from the past six years and the “average count” up four species. This was likely thanks to a combination of many lingering birds and an excellent finch year. London (80), Ottawa-Gatineau (77), and Brantford (74) led the way for inland counts. Nipigon-Red Rock led the way among northern Ontario counts with 41, one better than Thunder Bay’s 40 species. Long Point led the way with an incredible 30 (!) provincial highs, which speaks to the incredible numbers of lingering birds there this year. Toronto was no slouch with 15 provincial highs followed by six counts with seven provincial highs each.

A total of 1,156,357 individuals were counted, down about 115,000 from the five-year average, but given the counts that didn’t run this year have a five-year average of just shy of 200,000, it was actually an above-average year, thanks to some big counts of waterbirds. The top five species this year were Canada Goose (195,564), American Crow (141,993), European Starling (110,364), Black-capped Chickadee (65,080), and Mallard (64,065); after a dip last year, Black-capped Chickadee was firmly back in the top five.

It really was an over-all better than average count year, but despite that some species were noticeably down. The following 27 species were recorded in numbers of 50% or less of their 20-year average: Snow Goose (71), Greater Scaup (16,832), Lesser Scaup (321), Ruddy Duck (324), Ring-necked Pheasant (35), Spruce Grouse (1), Horned Grebe (34), Red-necked Grebe (30), Black-crowned Night-Heron (6), American Coot (702), Bonaparte’s Gull (282), Ring-billed Gull (15,961), Glaucous Gull (73), Great Black-backed Gull (646), Long-eared Owl (25), American Three-toed Woodpecker (2), Black-backed Woodpecker (7), Northern Mockingbird (94), American Pipit (44), Lapland Longspur (40), Yellow-rumped Warbler (25), Fox Sparrow (11), Eastern Meadowlark (2), Rusty Blackbird (40), Common Grackle (565), Brown-headed Cowbird (2315), and Purple Finch (214). Many those can be explained by key counts that didn’t run this year because of COVID; for example, most gull numbers were down but Niagara Falls count didn’t run. Similarly, species like Yellow-rumped Warbler, Fox Sparrow and the blackbirds are often recorded in good numbers from the Essex County counts which didn’t run. Others, like Ring-necked Pheasant, Rusty Blackbird, and Eastern Meadowlark are part of long-term downward trends.

As is usually the case, there were some big misses this year: Brewer’s Blackbird was missed for the third straight year but only the fourth time in the past twenty. House Wren was also missed for only the fourth time in the past 20 years. Gray Partridge, Brant, Vesper Sparrow, Townsend’s Solitaire, Boreal Owl, Virginia Rail, and Varied Thrush were all missed but have been recorded on at least half of the past 20 counts.

Conversely, there were some excellent counts recorded, even with fewer counts reporting. The following 39 (!) species reported counts of 50% or more of their 20-year average: Greater White-fronted Goose (7), Cackling Goose (72), Mute Swan (3587), Trumpeter Swan (1068), Tundra Swan (24,065), Wood Duck (62), Northern Shoveler (371), Green-winged Teal (63), Redhead (22,053), White-winged Scoter (7,660), Black Scoter (95), Hooded Merganser (1463), Sharp-tailed Grouse (142), Turkey Vulture (220), Bald Eagle (1561), Sandhill Crane (6011), Barred Owl (148), Short-eared Owl (94), Red-bellied Woodpecker (1752), Pileated Woodpecker (886), Merlin (119), Black-billed Magpie (163), Fish Crow (4), Red-breasted Nuthatch (5334), White-breasted Nuthatch (8673), Winter Wren (199), Marsh Wren (16), Carolina Wren (539), Gray Catbird (23), Bohemian Waxwing (15,456), Orange-crowned Warbler (7), Common Yellowthroat (16), Northern Parula (2), Northern Cardinal (11,813), Red-winged Blackbird (7312), Red Crossbill (343), Common Redpoll (45,719), Hoary Redpoll (189), and Evening Grosbeak (3942).

Thirteen of those species also set new record highs: Mute Swan (3587 vs 3155), Trumpeter Swan (1068 vs 849), Turkey Vulture (220 vs 189), Sandhill Crane (6011 vs 3,717), Merlin (119 vs 102), Fish Crow (4 vs 1), Red-breasted Nuthatch (5334 vs 4805), White-breasted Nuthatch (8673 vs 8371), Carolina Wren (539 vs 521), Bohemian Waxwing (15,456 vs 15,074), Northern Parula (2 vs 1), Northern Cardinal (11,813 vs 10,702), Common Redpoll (45,719 vs 41,953), and Hoary Redpoll (189 vs 162). 

Those are long lists, but the species fall into a couple categories: first, many waterfowl were well above average. Next, we see some irruptive species (e.g. Barred Owl, the nuthatches, and finches) and finally are some species showing long-term increasing trends, plus a few other interesting one-offs. Some of those counts are especially impressive when one considers the key counts that were missing this year. Northern Cardinal jumps out as an interesting one as there was a huge irruption of them noticed in the north, but from the totals it is clear the entire province was seeing much more than usual. 

As mentioned above, irruptive species had big years in Ontario. Just the fact Bohemian Waxwing, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and both redpolls had record years makes that apparent but Evening Grosbeak and Red Crossbill both were also well up with both having their second-best year in the past twenty. Pine Grosbeak was about 20% above the 20-year average and White-winged Crossbill had about the fifth best year of the past twenty. Pine Siskin was about average and as is often the case in big finch flight years, Purple Finches pretty well completely vacated the province before the county period began. Northern owls were a different story; Boreal Owl was missed; Northern Hawk Owl was only recorded during count week while Great Gray Owl had a decent year with 13 (highest since the 24 in count year 113). Northern Saw-whet Owl was slightly above average at 15.

There are always some exciting finds on CBCs, and this year was no exception. Two new species were added to the all-time Ontario CBC list: Scott’s Oriole (a male at a feeder in the Hanover-Walkerton circle) and a Glaucous-winged Gull during count week on the Sault Ste. Marie count). The latter represents the first record all-time for Ontario. Other good finds were two Northern Parulas on Peel-Halton (just one prior CBC record), two Fish Crows on both Peel-Halton and St. Catharines (just one prior CBC record), a Slaty-backed Gull on Toronto (two previous records), a Pacific Loon on Hamilton (seven previous records), Black Vulture on Sandbanks (just 11 prior CBC records), and a Palm Warbler on Toronto (12 previous records).

All in all, it was another excellent CBC season here in Ontario with highs, lows, and everything in between. Here’s to all the hard work the huge team of volunteers put in to making the count a success and for another good year in count year 122-it’s just around the corner!