by Lawrence Gardella and Jason Hoeksema
All counts for the region were conducted except for the Corinth circle, which has been retired, and the Tupelo, Eagle Creek, and Cullman CBCs. The highest species total was recorded by Jackson County with 151, followed by Southern Hancock at 139, Gulf Shores at 132, both Dauphin Island and Wheeler Dam with 121, both Wheeler Dam and Eufaula 119, Guntersville 108, and Noxubee NWR 104.
The overall general decrease in duck numbers continued for the region’s 2021-2022 CBCs. Many compilers either noted overall low waterfowl numbers or reported low counts for particular waterfowl species. This is in line with a general trend, but the region’s results this year could have been affected by the overall lack of hard cold snaps before the early part of the count period and by development or such other factors as the opening of wildlife hunting on Noxubee NWR. There were several exceptions to the decreases, with some circles having high counts for one or two waterfowl species (Canada Goose once; Northern Shoveler once; Blue-winged Teal twice plus one on a circle where it is an unusual species; Green-winged Teal twice; Redhead once; and Hooded Merganser once),
Circles failed to record ("missed") several species of ducks that historically they have almost always found, and other circles found some of the lowest counts ever. Mallards were missing in Natchez and historically low on six counts and American Wigeons low on two. Gadwalls were a miss in Gulf Shores and Natchez and low in five other counts including three of northernmost Alabama. Canvasbacks were missed on two counts and low on three others. Two counts missed Lesser Scaup, while low numbers were recorded on four others. One count missed Hooded Mergansers, while three more had historically low numbers. Noxubee NWR missed Red-breasted Merganser.
Other waterbird numbers were also down. Most notably, both Fort Morgan and Tuscaloosa missed American Coots, and Gulf Shores recorded only one; three other circles also were low.
Some land birds also were scarce. Seven CBCs reported low counts or misses of Hermit Thrush. Six CBCs reported low counts or misses of American Robin. Four CBCs reported low counts of Eastern Towhee. Field Sparrow numbers were low on three counts, including several with the lowest numbers ever.
It is not uncommon for circles to miss species usually recorded, but the numbers of missed species and dramatically low counts were alarming.
On many counts, the numbers of individual birds also suffered this year. The mild weather in December was likely a factor, and the number of counts run on days with strong wind may have made it harder to find birds. There are also ongoing habitat issues, particularly in the fast-growing southern counties.
Gulf Shores, Alabama, one of the counts run in high wind, had 26 regularly occurring species that were unusually low in abundance this year, and no species marked as high counts aside from some rarities. That circle is one of the region’s best-covered. If it had not been, more species would have likely been missing. Of its overall total of 132 species, 36 were noted by only a single party. This included rarities, of course, but also species usually found by several parties in the circle. It was odd to have only one party find American Coot, Wilson's Snipe, Bonaparte's Gull, Northern Gannet, American Pipit, and Field Sparrow, and the total numbers for two of those species (4 Bonaparte's Gulls and 8 Northern Gannets) is bizarre compared to prior maximum counts of these species of 1159 and 2057, respectively.
Just west of Gulf Shores, the Fort Morgan circle typically has far fewer participants, but it had similar problems. There were no Lesser Scaup, no American Coots, Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Common Ground-Doves, Northern Flickers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Tree Swallows, Sedge Wrens, American Robins (which were strangely absent in much of the southernmost parts of the Alabama Gulf Coast this winter), Brown-headed Cowbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks, or House Sparrows, all of which are usually seen. Fort Morgan had historically low counts of Ring-billed Gulls (10), Red-tailed Hawks (2), American Kestrels (2), Loggerhead Shrikes (3), Blue Jays (4, just more than one percent of the all-time high of 316), Gray Catbirds, Northern Mockingbirds, Swamp Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Ten was an extremely low count for Ring-billed Gulls.
The Jackson, Mississippi circle had overall low numbers of individual birds, and the number of species (89) was far short of the more typical 100. Extensive development around the Ross Barnett Reservoir was one possible factor. Notable misses were Herring Gull, Bonaparte's Gull, Northern Harrier, Eastern Screech-Owl, Rusty Blackbird, and Brewer's Blackbird. Jackson also had historically low counts of Killdeer (20), Hermit Thrush (0), American Robin (52), Dark-eyed Junco (22), and Brown-headed Cowbird (1).
At Noxubee NWR, three species had all-time lows for the circle: Mallard, Brown Thrasher, and Dark-eyed Junco. Other low counts (less than 20% of the average abundance in the previous 12 years) were recorded for Greater White-fronted Goose, Wood Duck, Mallard, Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, European Starling, American Pipit, Cedar Waxwing, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, and Common Grackle. Notable misses were Snow Goose, Northern Pintail, Canvasback, Redhead, Red-breasted Merganser, Wild Turkey, American White Pelican, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, American Woodcock, Bonaparte’s Gull, LeConte’s Sparrow, and Pine Siskin. The compiler noted that there seemed to be low numbers of waterfowl in general in the count circle, but he was not sure how much this was affected by the open hunting on the refuge this year.
The only Black-bellied Whistling-ducks were at Gulf Shores and Natchez, though Noxubee NWR had a count week record. Noxubee NWR recorded a Snow Goose X Ross’s Goose hybrid. The region’s lone Cackling Goose was at Arkabutla Lake. The only scoters were three Surf Scoters at Fort Morgan. Waterloo recorded the only two Common Mergansers, and Southern Hancock County the sole Long-tailed Duck.
The region’s only uncommon loons were a Pacific Loon at Guntersville and another one count-week at Wheeler Dam. One Eared Grebe was found on count day at Johnson County, and the only others were count week birds at Grenada and Hattiesburg. The only tubenoses were a Sooty Shearwater at Fort Morgan and a shearwater sp. at Dauphin Island.
The lone Neotropic Cormorant was count week at Natchez. Great Cormorant was a count week bird for the Jackson CBC. Jackson County recorded the only American Bittern and the only Green Heron for the region. All 11 dark ibis were at Natchez, and they were left Glossy/White-faced. Both Natchez and Vicksburg had Roseate Spoonbills, two and one.
All 14 of the region’s Whooping Cranes were at Wheeler NWR. Jackson County monopolized stilts and avocets with 47 Black-necked Stilts and two American Avocets. It also had 26 American Oystercatchers, with the only other three occurring on Dauphin Island. Dauphin Island had the only Piping Plovers (4). All 35 Marbled Godwits were at Southern Hancock, and the region’s only jaegers were a Pomarine at Gulf Shores and a count-week Parasitic on Dauphin Island. Several Black-legged Kittiwakes showed up during the winter, but the only count tallying one was Wheeler Dam. Franklin's Gulls were at Wheeler Dam and count week at Fort Morgan. Lesser Black-backed Gulls showed up at Dauphin Island, Gulf Shores, Wheeler Dam, Sardis Lake, and Southern Hancock.
Fort Morgan recorded the lone Broad-winged Hawk, rare anywhere in the country in winter. The only Short-eared Owls were two at Arkabutla Lake.
There was the usual sprinkling of hummingbirds including Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a Black-chinned/Ruby-throat at Gulf Shores, and a Black-chinned in Jackson County. The only Rufous in Alabama was Wheeler Dam’s first, and singles in Mississippi were at Southern Hancock and, count-week, at Lauderdale. The only Buff-bellied Hummingbirds were one recorded at Jackson County and a count-week bird in Gulf Shores.
Say’s Phoebes were in Eufaula (a repeat from last winter) and a count-week bird at Dahomey-Great River. The only Vermilion Flycatcher was in Jackson County. The only Western Kingbirds were one on Dauphin Island and one during count-week at Natchez. A count week Barn Swallow was at Noxubee NWR.
The only three Grasshopper Sparrows were at Brooklyn-Camp Shelby (ph.). Gulf Shores had the region’s only and count’s first two Bronzed Cowbirds and the region’s only two Bullock’s Orioles. All those birds were visiting feeders. Lauderdale County, Natchez, Southern Hancock, Gulf Shores, and Montgomery all had Baltimore Orioles. There were lone Summer Tanagers at Southern Hancock and Gulf Shores.