The 122nd Christmas Bird Count in California

For the 122st Christmas Bird Count period, 126 counts were completed in California with a total of 366 species recorded (including documented rare species) plus five only seen during count week, along with a plethora of exotic species.  Several counts were canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, but fewer counts were canceled this season and there were far more participants overall. The state had a significant winter drought, so only a few counts had some light rain while the vast majority had no rain.  In general, temperatures were normal. Fall River Mills had the lowest low temperature of 00 F while the highest temperatures were lower than the previous year with 710 F recorded in Escondido and Hayward-Fremont.  Counts with more than 100 participants include Claremont, Marin County (southern), Morro Bay, Orange County (coastal), Palo Alto, Point Reyes, Rancho Santa Fe, Richmond (a new CBC), San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Ventura, Western Sonoma County, and San Francisco, topped off by Oakland’s 269 participants.  For numbers of species, counts with 200 or more include Rancho Sante Fe, San Diego, Morro Bay and the leader, San Diego, with 219. Overall numbers of species were average for most counts.

The following are the highlights of the counts (only sufficiently documented rare species included). In general it was an average showing for rare species, especially ultra-rare species. Rare waterfowl were in low numbers with single returning Tufted Duck in Santa Barbara and Crystal Springs, 84 Eurasian Wigeon over 33 count areas, 16 Long-tailed Ducks in 10 count areas. White-winged Scoter numbers continue to be low compared to decades ago with only 222 in the state (but up from 130 from prior year). Six Long-tailed Ducks were scattered among several coastal counts

Rare inland Red-necked Grebes were at Springville and Lake Almanor, and the coastal the high count was 33 at Pt. Reyes.  The long-staying and only known Northern Gannet in the Pacific Ocean was detected this season, but this time in Marin County (southern). Following the increases in recent years, only eight Brown Booby were detected with three in San Francisco and five in San Diego. A much rarer Red-footed Booby off Santa Cruz Island was the fourth CBC record for California. Tricolored Herons were found with singles at Thousand Oaks and Orange County (coastal). Twenty-four Reddish Egrets on four southern CBCs surpassed last year’s record high total by 11 and continues the trend of this formerly accidental rare species in southern California. Likewise, 147 Yellow-crowned Night-Herons on ten CBCs also surpassed last year’s record number by 64 as this species, also accidental in the state only a couple of decades ago, is strengthening its colonization of coastal southern California with one as far north as Santa Barbara, and a high of 88 in Thousand Oaks.

Eight Zone-tailed Hawks were scattered over four count areas, as this species is slowly becoming a regular wintering bird in small numbers in southern California. Only two Swainson’s Hawks were detected in the Central Valley where a wintering population established in the 1990s appears to be declining. Ten Pacific Golden-Plovers on seven CBCs was about normal. Rare wintering shorebirds include a Curlew Sandpiper in Palo Alto for the first winter record for the state, a Rock Sandpiper returning to San Francisco and five others in coastal Humboldt and Del Norte County CBCs, and the Little Stint back in San Diego for its fifth winter. Rare terns and gulls were absent with the exception of 12 Glaucous Gulls and only three Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Most rare gulls arrive later in winter in California. Only four Barred Owls were reported which is vastly under-reported given the fairly large population known in the North Coast Range and Sierra Nevada. Eleven Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers was below the recent average and half of number found in the previous count period.

Rare wintering flycatchers were prevalent. Eastern Phoebes were in Malibu, Carpinteria, (2) Santa Catalina Island, and San Diego. A very rare Greater Pewee was in San Diego. Olive-sided Flycatchers are also very rare in winter, so on at Rancho Santa Fe was unexpected. All Empidonax flycatchers are rare in the region in winter, so it was a great season with; eight Hammond’s Flycatchers; a very rare Dusky in San Gabriel Valley; 10 Grays in southern California; and 10 Pacific-slope (presumed not to be Cordilleran). Although decrease from last year, 11 Tropical Kingbirds over ten count areas was a good number.  A great total of 122 Vermilion Flycatchers was a new high for the state with over 28 count areas with a high of 15 at Orange County (coastal). Singles in Sonoma Valley and Lake Yosemite -Merced were the only ones in northern California. They have been increasing greatly in coastal and non-desert inland sites in southern California as well as venturing into the Central Valley in recent years. Two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers were in San Diego. One Cassin’s Vireo and ten Plumbeous Vireos were typical numbers and ratio. Much less expected were the Warbling Vireos in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, as there are relatively few documented winter records for the state. Even more unexpected was the Red-eyed Vireo at Orange County (coastal).  Four Northern Shrikes were confined to their Cascade/Great Basin range.

The only longspurs found were 11 Lapland with six at Honey Lake, three at Tule Lake, one at Año Nuevo and another at Pt. Reyes, and two Thick-billed with singles at Tule Lake and Honey Lake. No Bohemian Waxwings were found.

It was a good winter for eastern warblers highlighted by a Pine in San Diego, single Prairies at Monterey Peninsula and San Francisco, a Black-throated Green at San Gabriel Valley, a Magnolia at Rancho Santa Fe, and a Grace’s returned to Rancho Santa Fe. Other more regular vagrant warblers include a Lucy’s in Santa Barbara, eight Black-and-white, three Tennessee, four American Redstart, three Painted Redstart, three Chestnut-sided, one Northern Parula, and 11 Palm.  Rare wintering western warblers were well represented with very high counts of one Lucy’s, three McGillivray’s, 31 Nashville, 35 Yellow, 54 Wilson’s, 52 Black-throated Gray, and 15 Hermit warblers. 

Grasshopper Sparrows are rarely reported in winter in the region but singles at Oceanside Vista and two at Orange County (northeastern) was a typical showing. Two Clay-colored Sparrows was a poor showing with singles in Santa Barbara and Arcata. It was a below average winter for Swamp Sparrows with 13 in 11 count areas. Harris’s Sparrow had a poor showing with two at Salton Sea (south) and one at Honey Lake.

Only 16 Summer Tanagers and 54 Western Tanagers were recorded. One Black-headed Grosbeak at Palos Verdes Peninsula was an average total. Wintering orioles were in low numbers with only one Orchard, five Hooded, 10 Scott’s, but an average number of 36 Bullock’s.

The rare Brambling from Siberia was well inland in Quincy, and two Common Redpolls in nearby Chester were highlights.

Several species had many record counts for CBCs including Western Bluebird with 16, Pine Siskin with 18, Acorn Woodpecker with 12, Oak Titmouse with 10, Black Phoebe with 10, Anna’s Hummingbird with seven, Purple Finch with six, White-crowned Sparrow with nine, Orange-crowned Warbler with six, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with nine, and Bushtit with seven.