The 121st Christmas Bird Count in Washington, D.C. and Virginia

The 2020-2021 Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season will always be remembered because of what we did differently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Audubon issued special pandemic protocols for conducting CBCs which included cancelling all in-person compilation gatherings, practicing social distancing and wearing masks at all times in the field, carpooling only within existing family or social ‘pod’ groups, and complying with current state and municipal COVID-19 guidelines. Or if following these protocols wasn’t possible, cancel the CBC for 2020. The only CBCs that were not held due to the pandemic were the Dismal Swamp and Cedars Preserve-Jonesville (a new count in 2019) and the Nassawadox CBC was only conducted in one sector.

Fifty-three counts were conducted in the region in the 2020-2021 CBC season. The total number of species recorded on the 2020-2021 counts was 216. The total number of individuals was 855,722.

There were a few compiler changes in 2020. George Armistead handed over the reins for the Cape Charles CBC to Ellison Orcutt and Dan Cristol. Rob Bielawski is the new primary compiler for the Back Bay CBC, replacing Andrew Baldelli who became a secondary compiler and Cindy Hamilton was added as a new secondary compiler. Allison Zak took over for Bert Harris as the primary compiler for The Plains CBC. Northern Shenandoah Valley CBC shuffled their compilers, Charles Hagen went from being the primary compiler to become a secondary one, Larry Frey assumed primary compiler duties and Rob Simpson continues as a secondary compiler. George Barlow assumed compiling duties for the Big Flat Mountain CBC from Tom Wieboldt. Robert Riggs passed on compiling duties to Giacoma Thornhill for the Blackford CBC. The Chesapeake Bay CBC is not an Audubon count as it is only conducted from an island on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and thus not a count circle. I mention it because Robert Ake took over compiling the Chesapeake Bay CBC after Ned Brinkley’s untimely death at age 55 in the Fall of 2020. Ned restarted this count in 1994 after it hadn’t been conducted for over 30 years. Then he conducted and compiled it for the next 26 years. Ned’s CBC participation will be sorely missed in the Virginia as he helped on numerous counts along the coast from Back Bay up to Wachapreague and west to Hopewell beginning with the Back Bay count in 1978 when he was twelve years old. 

Three new species were added for the region this year. A Pink-footed Goose was found and photographed on the Hopewell CBC (see Figure 1); this sighting has been submitted to the Virginia Avian Records Committee (VARCOM) for review. A Blue-winged Warbler was seen on the Washington, DC count. And a Western Meadowlark was photographed on the Williamsburg CBC. Two of these species (Pink-footed Goose and Western Meadowlark) had not been observed in the state prior to 2020. New subspecies or morphs were also reported: for the first time on a CBC in this region, Rockingham County reported both the Appalachian (type 1) and the Sitka Spruce (type 10) of Red Crossbills and supported the observations with recordings; a green morph Pine Siskin was recorded and photographed on the Rappahannock CBC; and Back Bay had a count week (CW) sighting of a Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow.

These are some of the more unusual species found or species found in unexpected locations: five Ross’s Goose (4 Hopewell, 1 Walkerton, & CW Back Bay) were discovered after missing them completely last year (see Figure 2); one Barnacle Goose in Washington DC (see Figure 3); two Eurasian Wigeon at Nansemond River; one Common Eider at Little Creek; Long-tailed Duck are typically seen in the Coastal region but one each were documented on the Waynesboro and Lexington counts this year (see Figure 4); one Red-necked Grebe at Nansemond River; a CW Western Grebe at Back Bay; a Green Heron was photographed on the Lynchburg CBC (see Figure 5) and there was a CW one in Chincoteague; most years Golden Eagles are found along the coast or in the mountains of western Virginia so these sightings were somewhat expected: 1 Cape Charles, 1 Highland County, 1 Augusta County, 3 Tazewell, 2 Mount Rogers-White Top Mountain & CW Wachapreague, but it was a surprise when one was also found on the Central Loudoun count; Rough-legged Hawks are more commonly found in the western part of Virginia, so one at Wachapreague was unusual; Clapper Rails are commonly observed on coastal CBCs but it was a new species on the Fort Belvoir count this year; Virginia Rails were recorded on two inland counts (1 Northern Shenandoah Valley & 1 Lexington); four Common Gallinule (2 Chincoteague, 2 Walkerton, a new species on the count, & CW Hopewell); six Sandhill Cranes (3 Chincoteague, a new species for the count & 3 The Plains); Lesser Yellowlegs are fairly common on coastal counts but one also turned up on the Washington’s Birthplace CBC; 13 Razorbill (2 Little Creek, & 11 Back Bay); 1 Royal Tern (CW Cape Charles, 1 Little Creek & CW Back Bay); 1 Snowy Owl (CW Chincoteague & 1 Nansemond River); 2 Ash-throated Flycatcher (1 Nansemond River & 1 Newport News); Western Kingbird was a new species for the Central Loudoun CBC; Blue-headed Vireo are usually confined to coastal counts but some also popped up further inland this year (1 Nansemond River, 1 Newport News, 1 Walkerton & 1 Manassas-Bull Run); the five Lapland Longspur tallied on the Rockingham County count were the only ones in the state this year after missing them completely for the past two years; one Clay-colored Sparrow (1 Nansemond River & CW Back Bay); one Summer Tanager in Cape Charles was a new species for the count; one Blue Grosbeak at Washington’s Birthplace was a new species for the count; and a Dickcissel was a new species on the Charlottesville CBC (See Figure 6).

The only encouraging gamebird numbers are for turkeys; bobwhite and grouse numbers continue to decline. Only 35 Northern Bobwhite were detected on eight counts plus one count week sighting. These were all single birds except the 15 at Walkerton and 14 at Washington’s Birthplace plus Northern Bobwhite was a new species on the Northumberland-Lancaster count. This is a slight improvement over only seeing 20 on three counts last year. Their numbers on our regional CBCs have been decreasing since their record high count of 2119 in 1976. In the region, there has been an estimated 70 percent decline in the bobwhite population since the mid-1960s (See Figure 7).  Marc Puckett, Small Game Project Leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, attributes some of this to the following, “The number of quail [Northern Bobwhite] hunters in Virginia peaked in the 1970s. As landowners, especially those interested in quail hunting, saw the number of quail decline in the 1960s and early 1970s, some resorted to stocking quail with hatchery raised birds. Into the 1970s, quail populations hung on despite marginal habitat but then did not recover in some areas after the harsh winters experienced in Virginia in 1977 and 1978.” Ruffed Grouse numbers on CBCs have also been declining for some time; their record high count was 101 in 1979. Unfortunately, this is the first year since 1935 that not a single Ruffed Grouse was recorded on CBCs in the region. The number of Wild Turkeys fluctuates from year-to-year; over 1000 turkeys have been seen on the last three CBCs (1217 in 2018, 1612 in 2019 and 1194 in 2020). The 5-year average and the 10-year average for turkeys are similar (1236 and 1206, respectively); these averages have been close to each other for at least five years which would seem to indicate that despite some yearly fluctuations, Wild Turkey numbers over time are fairly stable which is supported by the nearly flat trend for their numbers over the past ten years (see Figure 8). A few counts saw a record number of turkeys in 2020: 30 Cape Charles, 116 Mathews, and 43 Rockingham County.

Three species of hummingbirds were identified with eight actual hummingbirds recorded on this season’s CBCs which is more than the five hummingbirds logged last year. This year’s birds are: two Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1 Back Bay, 1 Newport News, & CW Little Creek); five Rufous Hummingbird (1 Charlottesville; 1 Rappahannock; 1 Augusta County; 1 Lexington, a new species on this count; & 1 Washington DC); one Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbird in Washington DC; one Calliope Hummingbird on Big Flat Mountain CBC (See Figure 9); and one hummingbird that could not be identified to species in Newport News.

It is always interesting to note the warblers: 1 Blue-winged Warbler in Washington, DC, 8 Black-and-White Warbler (2 Cape Charles, 3 Little Creek, 1 Nansemond River, 1 Newport News, 1 Washington DC); 48 Orange-crowned Warbler (2 Chincoteague, 12 Cape Charles, 9 Little Creek, 11 Back Bay, 5 Nansemond River, 2 Newport News, 1 Williamsburg, 1 Hopewell, 5 Washington DC); CW Nashville Warbler (CW Cape Charles & CW Back Bay & CW Washington, DC); 15 Common Yellowthroat (3 Cape Charles; 3 Back Bay; 2 Nansemond River; CW Hopewell; 2 Walkerton; 1 Northumberland- Lancaster; 2 Fort Belvoir; 1 Sandy River Reservoir, a new species on this count; & 1 Chatham); a CW American Redstart in Hopewell; 1 Northern Parula, a new species in Washington, DC; a CW Yellow Warbler in Hopewell; 201 Palm Warbler, including 9 Western and 9 Eastern/Yellow ones; 214 Pine Warbler; 12,280 Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler; 3 Yellow-throated Warbler (1 Little Creek, 1 Williamsburg, 1 Blacksburg & CW Washington DC) (see Figure 10); 1 Prairie Warbler at Nansemond River; and 1 Yellow-breasted Chat at Back Bay.

 Although The Winter Finch Forecast is primarily written for Ontario, Canada, it often also predicts the winter irruption of these species moving much farther south of Ontario. This forecast indicated that Purple Finches, Red Crossbills, Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, and Red-breasted Nuthatch would migrate south out of Canada and into the United States in Fall and Winter 2020-2021. Regional CBC numbers were higher than usual for most of these species. The 1272 Purple Finches were the most sighted since 1281 in 2007. But only five Red Crossbills (4 Rockbridge County & 1 Highland County) showed up compared to seven in 2019 and eleven in 2018. An amazing 1697 Pine Siskins occurred on 38 of the region’s CBCs. This is the highest number since 2953 Pine Siskins were present in 2008. Evening Grosbeaks were the real treat; 427 Evening Grosbeaks were recorded on 24 of the CBCs in the region; this is by far the highest number observed in over 25 years since 851 were reported in 1995. The 678 Red-breasted Nuthatches identified on 47 of the regional CBCs are the most since 694 in 2012. Six out of the last ten years, the numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches have been well under 100. Black-capped Chickadees were also seen in unexpected numbers and places as 153 were spotted on 15 counts; this is more than double the 10-year average of 72.

New record high numbers were tallied for the region for these species: 1087 Red-shouldered Hawk (their numbers have been increasing in the area since 1969 when only 44 turned up); 628 Hairy Woodpecker; 57 Merlin; 7835 Fish Crow; 620 Common Raven (due to these local high counts and eastward range expansion: 10 Fort Belvoir, 26 The Plains, 1 Chancellorsville, 2 Lake Anna, 5 Gordonsville, 40 Northern Shenandoah Valley, 71 Highland County, 44 Mount Rogers-White Top Mountain & 15 Washington DC); 3628 White-breasted Nuthatch; 8469 Carolina Wren; 3047 American Pipit are the second highest number recorded since 3296 were spotted in 1985 (this was due to several local high counts: 334 the Plains, 620 Manassas-Bull Run, 190 Charlottesville, 16 Sandy River Reservoir, 175 Lynchburg, 24 Rappahannock, 667 Rockingham County, 166 Augusta County, 25 Mount Rogers-White Top Mountain); 147 Nelson’s Sparrows (30 Wachapreague, 108 Cape Charles, 8 Little Creek, & 1 Newport News) were seen which is four times the old record of 37 set in 2006; this is the third year in a row that record high counts of Chipping Sparrows have occurred on the region’s CBCs (2106 in 2020, 2158 in 2019 & 2192 in 2018); 33,676 White-throated Sparrow, which is well above the previous high count of 28,218 from 1977; 12,997 Song Sparrow, which is over 2000 more than the previous high count of 10,802 in 1992; 14,978 Northern Cardinal; and 45 Baltimore Oriole which bested the previous high count of 37 from back in 1963. 

The numbers for some species are encouraging as they seem to be increasing. An outstanding 1038 Brown Pelican appeared in 2020; this is the first time their numbers have exceeded 1000 since 2006, but this is still well below their high count of 1553 from 2002. The number of Black Vulture dropped a bit to 5976 from their record high count of 7198 set in 2019. According to Black Vulture Conflict and Management in the United States, nationwide, Black Vulture populations are increasing and expanding their range. This is supported by their CBC numbers in the region which have been steadily increasing over the last 50 years (see Figure 11). Not surprisingly, Turkey Vulture numbers have also increased over the same period with 7660 in 2020 and a high count of 9203 ten years ago in 2011. Peregrine Falcon numbers recovered in 2019 and 2020 (39 and 36, respectively) after dipping to only 24 in 2018. The number of Peregrine Falcons has been increasing over the years since none were documented in 1966 (see Figure 12). This corresponds to breeding populations of peregrines rebounding largely due to intensive management efforts in Virginia according to Rottenborn and Brinkley. The Peregrine Falcon population is rebounding after dramatic declines, but “It’s been a slow recovery,” says Bryan Watts, director of The Center of Conservation Biology, a research unit shared by the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University in ‘Peregrine falcon banded for study.’

But there is concern for other species whose numbers are declining. Only 9745 Snow Goose were discovered; this is the lowest since 8548 were present in 2002 and only 15% of the 20-year high of 63,848 from 2004 (see Figure 13). Only 415 Common Loon were located. This is the second lowest number seen in the last ten years after 372 in 2016; their ten-year high was 733 in 2011. Their numbers seem to fluctuate quite a bit but are trending downward over the past 20 years (See Figure 14). Less than one thousand (858) Northern Gannet were reported; their 5-year average of 2068 is below their 10-year average of 2950 which suggests that their numbers are declining; their 5-year average has been below the 10-year average for over 15 years which indicates that this decline has been going on for at least 15 years. This is quite a decline from their 20-year high count of 28,828 in 2001 (See Figure 15). Only 134 Sharp-shinned Hawk were observed; their numbers have been declining during this century from a high count of 306 in 2002 (see Figure 16). Not everyone cares about the 9037 Rock Pigeon seen; comparing their 5 and 10-year averages confirms that the number of Rock Pigeon has been declining for over ten years from a high count of 17,083 in 2004. Loggerhead Shrike numbers dipped below 10 this year as only six were recorded (1 Charlottesville, 1 Shenandoah N.P. Luray, 1 Blacksburg, 1 Tazewell, 2 Glade Spring); at least this is better than the 10-year low of 4 in 2013 (see Figure 17). Only 34,695 Red-winged Blackbirds were tallied which is the lowest number since 27,802 in 1994. There has been a steep decline in their numbers for the last 15 years since 282,498 were logged in 2006 (see Figure 18). According to the American Bird Conservancy, Red-winged Blackbird numbers have been declining for decades for a number of reasons (poisoning, trapping, shooting, habitat loss, and climate change).

A few counts set new records for the number of species and/or number of individuals recorded. The following counts set new records for the number of species: 75 total species at Darlington Heights, 71 Chatham, 72 Rappahannock, 81 Lexington, and 67 Mount Rogers-White Top Mountain. These CBCs had a new record high number of individuals: 7409 total individuals at Middle Peninsula, 3429 Chatham, 3719 Rappahannock, and 3637 Mount Rogers-White Top Mountain.

I am deeply indebted to the three people who serve on the CBC Rare Species Vetting Committee who help me review rare bird reports each year. They shall remain anonymous, but I want to recognize them and express my gratitude as I couldn’t do this without their help and I greatly value their learned opinions.


LITERATURE AND MEDIA CITED

American Bird Conservancy. 2019. “Red-winged Blackbird: Bird of the Week, March 8, 2019,” Online: https://abcbirds.org/bird/red-winged-blackbird

Audubon Christmas Bird Count Team. 2020. “COVID-19 Pandemic Guidelines, September 22, 2020,” National Audubon Society, Online: https://www.audubon.org/news/christmas-bird-count-compiler-announcements

Hoar, T. 2020. “Winter Finch Forecast 2020-2021,” Finch Research Network, Online: https://finchnetwork.org/winter-finch-forecast-2020

Kluever, Bryan M.; Pfeiffer, Morgan B.; Barras, Scott C.; Dunlap, Brett G.; and Humberg, Lee A. 2020. “Black Vulture Conflict and Management in the United States: Damage Trends, Management Overview, and Research Needs,” Human–Wildlife Interactions: Vol. 14: Iss. 3, Article 8, Online: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/hwi/vol14/iss3/8

Parker, Stacy. 2021. “Peregrine falcon banded for study” Daily Press, Hampton Roads News, 16 June 2021, Online: https://enewspaper.dailypress.com/infinity/article_share.aspx?guid=7df10...

Puckett, Marc, Small Game Project Leader, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. 2021. 9 June 2021, personal emails

Rottenborn, S. C. and Brinkley, E. S. 2007. Virginia Birdlife: An Annotated Checklist, Virginia Society of Ornithology

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, “Get to Know Bobwhite,” Online: https://dwr.virginia.gov/quail/get-to-know-bobwhite/

 

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