The 122nd Christmas Bird Count in Georgia

This year was another difficult year for CBCs, with lingering COVID-19 issues affecting many counts. With the still new Richmond Hill (GARH) count Georgia now has 30 counts, but four of those counts were not held due to COVID or other issues (Bainbridge GABL, Cumberland Island GACI, Okefenokee NWR GAOK, St Catherines Island GASC). This Georgia CBC Summary usually is mostly made of trends compared to previous yearly totals, but the loss of data from these counts pretty much made comparisons to previous year totals harder to parse out. Hopefully the 123rd count will be back to a more normal number of counts.

The state total of 213 species was slightly below average. Birders logged 5426 miles total counting all modes of transportation, which for the second year is lower than usual and reflects all the counts not run. The weather was good for most counts, only two counts reported heavy rain at all on count day (Athens GAAH and Lake Blackshear GALB).

As indicated above, I will not be making my usual references to the last few years of many species, except in a few relevant cases (mostly where the state had high totals even with fewer counts).  For context or trend information, this will be using two averages: the last 5-year rolling average, and the last 15-year, always in that order. This will be listed as xx/xx, so most recent to most distant, allowing readers to follow which species are increasing or decreasing over the long haul. In some cases they will be listed as 5RA or 15RA. This will allow readers some perspective with which to judge new high or low totals since much older count results are based on much fewer counts in the state. I will still list high and low counts for the year but looking at longer-term averages often gives a more accurate perspective. I will list these as RAs for Rolling Averages. In comparing counts, please note that this year’s count was the 122nd CBC, run in December 2021 and January 2022. Comparing numbers to older counts will refer to the count number, which coincidentally and luckily for us is the same as the year the count period ends. The first time a count is referenced I will spell it out, all subsequent uses will be just the two-letter code, for example Albany is GAAB, or just AB.

As is becoming the norm, the fall weather was warmer than historical average fall and winter temperatures, resulting in the same two effects we have seen last couple of years: semi-hardy species which can withstand slightly cool temperatures will winter farther north than they normally would; and hardier more northerly species like some gulls and some waterfowl will not get pushed this far south at all and will simply winter farther north. These “abnormally” warm falls are becoming more normal as the temperatures slowly but consistently climb from year to year, which is why we are seeing more and more species lingering later and in larger numbers.

The new RH count found 22 Mute Swans, but they are considered here to be domestic and not countable. With the increase in numbers of this species as far south as North Carolina some “wild” ones should show up sometime in the next few years. Almost every species of puddle duck had very low numbers again; the only real exception was Mottled Duck which continues to increase modestly along the coast. After about 20 years of mostly boom numbers and increasing regularity on inland counts, the count of 504 Red-breasted Mergansers was way below the RAs of 1106/1179, and they were only found on six counts. All were coastal except for singles at Athens (GAAH) and Piedmont-Rum Creek (GAPR). This was another poor year for scoters, with zero White-winged or Surf Scoters (both have 5RA around 5). The Black Scoter total of 104 was the lowest in 25 years (RAs 429/1011). Of these 71 were seen at Glynn County (GAGC). The only Eared Grebes in the state were three at GC. The 3454 Double-crested Cormorants found were the lowest total in nine years and much lower than the RAs of 5880/6649. Many waders also had their lowest counts in around 10 years: Great Egret 949 (RA 1167/12270; Snowy Egret 1211 (1658/2074); Tricolored Herons 677 (997/861); Black-crowned Night-Heron 190 (450/364), and White Ibis 1670 (2090/2034). An exception to this situation is the 131 Roseate Spoonbills counted, which is a new high (123 on the 116th count). The biggest single counts were 65 on the GC count and 27 at Little St Simons Island (GALS).

The total of 42 Ospreys found was the lowest in 21 years, possibly due to the loss of several coastal counts and the Lake Bainbridge count. RAs for this species are 58/60. After several years of steadily increasing numbers of Red-tailed Hawks, the total this year was only 390, also the lowest total in 21 years. The RAs for this species are 487/505. The total of 742 Sandhill Cranes is very low, for two reasons: no cranes from the Okefenokee count that wasn’t run, and a poor showing of migrant flocks during the CBC period. This is the lowest total in nine years, and the RAs are 2576/2219. The highest count by far was 634 spotted on the Carter’s Lake (GACL) count. After last year’s banner count of 325 Lesser Yellowlegs, this year’s 33 was the lowest in 12 years. RAs for this species are 245/218. The Sapelo Island (GASA) count had eight Whimbrels, helping the state get to 14 for the count; this is the highest total in 22 years (RAs 4/4). Also high was the count of nine Long-billed Curlews, all found on LS, setting a new high count record for Georgia. Red Knots had another decent year with 512, compared to RAs 298/409. LS had all of them. The single Purple Sandpiper was at GC, only the 14th count with this species in GA (in 122 years). GC had the only one last year also. A single count week Wilson’s Phalarope at Savannah (SV) was only the 6th state CBC record. Finally, the 10,333 total of Laughing Gulls is a new state CBC record by several thousand, thanks to the approximately 8000 seen at a landfill on the new RH count. Also setting a new record was the 16,318 Ring-billed Gulls seen, more than 2000 more than the old record (14,269 on the 111th count). The single high count was GC with 9332 but the 5100 at the landfill at RH also helped. Tying the Georgia CBC record of nine set last year were nine Lesser Black-backed Gulls again this year, all on the coast (RAs are 5/3). Four each were at GC and LS, and the last one was on SA. Georgia’s first CBC Gull-billed Tern was spotted and photographed on the GASV count.

Four different hummingbird species were found again this year although a different mix than last year: three Ruby-throated (2 GC, and the other surprisingly at Intown Atlanta GAIA); three Rufous (all pretty much in or almost in the northern half of the state: Dublin DU, Floyd County FC, and Macon [MA]); one returning Calliope at AH; and a long-staying Buff-bellied on the GC count. This Calliope at the same feeder as last year was GA’s 5th CBC record, and this was Georgia’s 4th Buff-bellied.

A whopping nine Western Kingbirds were tallied, well above the RAs of 2.4/2.3. Five were at SV and four were at GC. The total of 123 White-eyed Vireos was a new state record, topping the 103 seen on the 109th count (RAs are 86/78). Both crow species continue to lag recent historical numbers, but it’s hard to say why. For American Crow, this year was 3982 which is in line with the 5RA of 3998, but well below the 15RA of 6216. For Fish Crow, this year was 545. The 5RA is 380, so that shows some recovery, but the 15RA is 1242 so still clearly recently depressed. A whopping nine Common Ravens were tallied (5 on the Chattahoochee National Forest GACH and 4 on the Blue Ridge GABR count). The RAs are 3.8/1.8. This is only the state’s 18th CBC with ravens, but dedicated teams in the mountain counts usually find them somewhere in the last few years. This count more than doubles the previous record of four. The 93 Horned Larks tallied is Georgia’s 3rd highest count ever and largest in 55 years! Habitat loss has greatly reduced their numbers in winter in GA; the RAs are 32/25. Almost all were on the Dublin GADU count. Again this year Georgia had three species of swallow; until about 20 years ago there was only one (Tree). Nine Northern Rough-winged Swallows were reported (all in or near the Piedmont ecoregion, oddly): GAIA had four, Roswell GARO and Macon also had two, and Peachtree City GAPC had one. This is the second highest count ever behind the 118th count with 12, and the RAs are 4.4/2.5. Georgia’s 11th CBC Barn Swallow was on the GASA count. The count of 77 Brown Creepers was the state’s third highest CBC total (RAs 48/52). Urban counts IA with 20 and RO with 17 led the way, which continues to be a surprising place to find so many creepers. Perhaps they are finding suet feeders more to their liking than their usual riparian corridor habitat. The 1395 American Pipits were the highest numbers counted in nine years; the RAs are 817/1188. DU had 384 to go along with all their Horned Larks, but CL was right behind with 366.

Two Ovenbirds were found for Georgia’s 19th and 20th CBC records, one each on the GC and RH counts. A single Northern Parula was on the AU count, and this species is now found about every other year somewhere in Georgia. The presence of Prairie Warblers has also increased dramatically, not only present almost every year but in increasing numbers. This year’s nine is a state CBC record, mostly coastal with five at SV, two at GC, and one at RH, but one was inland at MA. The only Wilson’s Warbler was at IA, and the only Yellow-breasted Chat was at MA. The 11 Painted Buntings tallied tied the state record set on the 118th count; this is another species rarely found in winter up until about 20 years ago but now regular, expected, and increasing. Usually, these CBC records are mostly coastal, this year the top count was MA with six! This species breeds up the Oconee River into Macon, and I suspect these are birds that have learned they can be residents without having to migrate each year. This year 30 Red Crossbills were reported, a great number, all on the CH (26) and BR (4) counts. This is the 2nd highest total ever to last year’s 56, and even with that huge number from last year the RAs are 21/14. Finally, another species with large variations in numbers year to year is the American Goldfinch. Only 1406 were found this year (RAs 2213/2727), this is the lowest total in 20 years.