The 122nd Christmas Bird Count in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

The 122nd CBC did not experience the same level of concern about COVID as the previous one, but most compilers chose not to hold post-count gatherings. Participation was generally up from pre-pandemic counts. Species numbers were about average on most counts, but numerous compilers mentioned the scarcity of some of the usually more common birds. Although it was once again not a winter finch year, a good variety of rarities and late-lingerers were encountered.

Thirty CBCs were carried out in New Jersey, as Mizpah and Marmora returned after a year’s absence.  The total of 198 species recorded was one fewer than last year, and a bit below average for recent years. With some very windy weather, Cape May found only 143 species, the lowest total since 1977. Barnegat Light equaled last year’s tally of 132 for second place, followed by Cumberland County (123) and Oceanville (118).  One new species was added to the New Jersey CBC list, six species were recorded in record high numbers, and two in record low numbers for modern CBCs.

The 38 species of waterfowl reported included the state’s third CBC Pink-footed Goose, two Ross’s Geese, a record-tying 39 Cackling Geese, two returning Trumpeter Swans, two Eurasian Wigeon, and 16 Blue-winged Teal, the highest total since 1999. Just 30 Canvasback were located, the lowest total since 1951 and a tiny fraction of the 30,000 tallied in 1975. Ring-necked Duck, on the other hand, set a record with 3606 recorded, surpassing the previous high by almost 900 birds. Barnegat Light had the only King Eider, 29 of the 30 Common Eiders (Cape May had the other), and all 25 of the Harlequin Ducks reported. Common Goldeneye numbers have declined steadily over the past several decades, and the 177 counted this year was the lowest total in 74 years.

Ring-necked Pheasants have all but disappeared from the state, the eight recorded on seven different counts probably being recently released birds. For the fifth time in seven years, there were no reports of Ruffed Grouse, nor were there any Northern Bobwhite. Pied-billed Grebes (133) put on a good showing, but Horned Grebes, a species much scarcer now than several decades ago, dropped to just 81 birds. Red-necked Grebe was missed for the second year in a row after having been tallied for 20 consecutive counts. The outstanding rarity of the season was New Jersey’s first CBC Wood Storks, a pair of juveniles found on the Sandy Hook count that lingered for two weeks. Northern Gannets were abundant along the coast during the count period, with Cape May (6019), Barnegat Light (5520), and Sandy Hook (2416) accounting for most of the 14,463 individuals tallied. Great Cormorant numbers remained steady at 49 but were still far below the totals from earlier decades.

A near record 1125 Great Blue Herons were recorded, while Cape May (31), Marmora (29), and Oceanville (19) had most of the 87 Great Egrets. Oceanville had the only two Snowy Egrets and an impressive 82 Black-crowned Night-Herons. A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron found on the New York City side of the Lower Hudson CBC was just the second for the region in 20 years. Northwestern Hunterdon County and Raritan Estuary each had an Osprey of the season and Oceanville and Walnut Valley had single Northern Goshawks. Bald Eagles (894) once again set a record high, easily surpassing last year’s 761 total; Cumberland County had an amazing 176 and Salem County another 101. Just two Rough-legged Hawks were tallied, one each at Barnegat Light and Somerset County, clearly not an irruption year.

Both Clapper Rails (127) and Virginia Rails (41) were again plentiful, but a Sora on the Boonton CBC was a real surprise. Sandhill Cranes (88) were again found in record numbers, with 27 in Cumberland County, 36 in Salem County, and 21 in Somerset County. Nineteen species of shorebirds were counted for the second year in a row, with 13 Semipalmated Plovers being the highest total since 2012. The wintering flocks of Western Willets (16) and Marbled Godwits (13) at Absecon Inlet were again much smaller than in recent decades, the Willet total being the lowest in 21 years. Marmora added four Marbled Godwits. Ten Least Sandpipers were found at Cumberland (1) and Oceanville (9), while a well-documented Semipalmated Sandpiper was at Cape May, which also had all the 37 Western Sandpipers reported. A single Short-billed Dowitcher was reported from Tuckerton, while Oceanville had all but one of the 30 Long-billed Dowitchers; Belleplain had the other.

Two Dovekies at Barnegat Light were the only alcids of the season despite the presence of good numbers of several species offshore, some of which moved to the shore later in the winter. Barnegat also had a Black-legged Kittiwake, the first in six years. Bonaparte’s Gulls dropped off to only 30 compared to last year’s 2749, as this species’ numbers continue to fluctuate wildly from year to year. Eight Laughing Gulls on five different counts were a bit above normal, but the 16 Iceland Gulls were the most since 2000. In contrast, just two Glaucous Gulls were encountered, one each at Barnegat and Sandy Hook.

Owls were in short supply compared to last year, perhaps due to unfavorable predawn weather conditions at some sites, although a total of eight species was again reached. A single Snowy Owl was at Oceanville, but just 11 Barred Owls were reported. A lone Long-eared Owl was in Warren – Northampton counties, and just six Short-eared Owls were scattered among four different counts. Lakehurst had the only Northern Saw-whet Owl. The only hummingbird of the season was a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird returning to a Cape May feeder for the second winter; unfortunately, she did not survive a January snowstorm.

Twenty-two Red-headed Woodpeckers was a big improvement over last year’s zero, as this species’ totals continue to fluctuate widely from year to year. All of the other woodpeckers were found in typical numbers, with Red-bellied Woodpecker (2802) easily topping Downy Woodpecker (1986) as the most common species. American Kestrels (126) showed a slight improvement over the past few years with the highest total since 2006. Seventy-three Merlins were spotted, a new record high, while the 81 Peregrine Falcons displaced 2020 for the second highest total ever. Cape May had a continuing Ash-throated Flycatcher and another was a one-day wonder at Lakehurst; Tuckerton added a continuing Western Kingbird.

Three CBCs, Cape May, Great Swamp, and Princeton had single Blue-headed Vireos and Belleplain had two, surpassing the previous high count of two set in 1996. Blue Jay numbers (6156) improved somewhat from the previous year, but American Crows (7781) were still at less than half the totals of a decade ago. Common Raven, on the other hand, set a new record (210) for the third year in a row; as recently as 20 years ago, the statewide total was eight. Trenton Marsh had 12 Northern Rough-winged Swallows along the Delaware River, where they are now annual in winter, but a Barn Swallow at Cape May was the first on a New Jersey CBC since 1984.  Both chickadees were recorded in unusually low numbers, perhaps the result of West Nile virus; 1553 Carolina Chickadees was the lowest tally since 1973, while the 686 Black-capped Chickadees was the lowest since 1946, when there were far fewer observers.  Tufted Titmice have also declined substantially to 1733 from over 5000 as recently as seven years ago; the Lower Hudson CBC had none. Ninety-two Red-breasted Nuthatches was a respectable total for what was clearly not an irruption year.

Brown Creepers (370) came close to setting a record, the 12 House Wrens were the most since 2004, and the 349 Winter Wrens equaled last year’s record total. Barnegat had the only Lapland Longspur and 45 of the 48 Snow Buntings (Hackensack – Ridgewood had one and Sandy Hook two). Lower Hudson once again hosted an Ovenbird, this time on the New Jersey side, although there were other count week individuals on the New York City side. The other six species of wood warblers reported included 21 Orange-crowned Warblers, six Common Yellowthroats, eight Palm and 11 Pine warblers, and 8898 Yellow-rumped Warblers, thanks in part to an excellent food crop. The Lower Hudson CBC again had two Western Tanagers, both on the New York City side, while Moorestown also had one.

A Grasshopper Sparrow, only the second since 2009, was a great find at Belleplain. Salt sparrows were in short supply, with only four Nelson’s Sparrows (2 at Belleplain, 1 in Cape May, 1 in Cumberland), a single Saltmarsh Sparrow at Barnegat, and 11 Seaside Sparrows (4 at Belleplain, 3 at Marmora, 2 in Cape May, 2 in Cumberland). American Tree Sparrow continues to decline in our region, the total of 418 being the lowest since 1916; the record high was 8032 in 1969. A record-tying three Lark Sparrows were found, one each in Cumberland County, Raritan Estuary, and Sandy Hook. One Vesper Sparrow at Belleplain was unusual, while the five Lincoln’s Sparrows on five different counts was down slightly from last year’s record total of seven; the latter species seems to be wintering much more frequently in the northeast that in earlier decades.

Raritan Estuary had a Painted Bunting, another species increasing in our region, while Lower Hudson had the only Dickcissel of the season. A total of seven Baltimore Orioles was found on five different CBCs, but winter finches were almost non-existent. Two hundred one Purple Finches was a good total, but they soon disappeared for the duration of the winter. The only other visitor was Pine Siskin, with Princeton recording 41 of the 45 tallied, Cumberland and Hackensack-Ridgewood each having a pair.

Eighty-one counts were submitted from Pennsylvania, Southern Lancaster County and Washington returning after a year’s absence, and new counts added at Buchanan Trail and Potter County. Upper Bucks County led the list with 102 species, followed by Southern Bucks County (98), Lititz (95), and Western Chester County (93). A total of 160 species was reported, six fewer than last year, but just two below the ten-year average. Two new species were added to the Pennsylvania CBC records, Pink-footed Goose and California Gull. Only five warbler species were found, down from ten last year, and winter finches were scarce, but a surprising 17 species were found in record high numbers.

The 32 species of waterfowl recorded this year included the state’s first CBC Pink-footed Goose, a long-staying bird at Lehigh Valley, which also had four Greater White-fronted Geese. Five other counts added eight Greater White-fronted Geese for a state-wide total of 12. A total of five Ross’s Geese included two at Southern Bucks County, and singles at Bethlehem-Easton, Pittsburgh, and Upper Bucks County. Forty-one Cackling Geese was the most in six years and the second highest tally ever.

Duck totals were a mixed bag. The 934 Gadwall, a species gradually increasing as a winter resident, was the third highest total, while the 416 Northern Pintail was the best count since 2007.  Delaware County had four Blue-winged Teal, a species not encountered every year, and the total of 490 Green-winged Teal was the highest in 20 years. Three diving duck species were reported in excellent numbers and three were not. The 1501 Ring-necked Ducks was a new high for the state’s CBCs; this species has been increasing since the 1970s. Hooded Mergansers (2733) also set a new high by a large margin in a count that included an amazing 1175 at Linesville. The Bufflehead tally of 1213 was the third highest on record. Canvasback, on the other hand, were found in single digits (3) for the third year in a row, while Redhead dropped to just 16 from 296 last year. The count of 19 Greater Scaup was the lowest since 1994.

Thirty-three Ruffed Grouse was a slight improvement over last year’s 22 but is still the second lowest total since 1951, as the species seems to be suffering from both West Nile virus and the maturation of second-growth forests. Erie had the only two Red-throated Loons and 17 of the 30 Common Loons. Only eight Great Cormorants were reported, the lowest tally since 2009, with seven at Southern Bucks County and one at Pennypack Valley. An American Bittern was a great find at Curtin, as was the more-expected Great Egret at West Chester.

Both Black Vulture (3217) and Turkey Vulture (5575) were found in record high numbers. The former species has increased dramatically since it was first detected on a few Pennsylvania CBCs during the 1950s, while wintering numbers of the latter have grown substantially in recent decades. An Osprey at Western Chester County continued the recent trend of one or two per season somewhere in the state. The Christmas Count period coincided with a good flight of Golden Eagles, with four at Emporium and Hamburg, and three at State College contributing to a record high 17, five more than the 12 in 2017. Sharp-shinned Hawks have shown a gradual decline in this century, possibly related to West Nile virus, and the 172 birds counted was the second lowest total since 1984. Northern Goshawk was missed for the first time since 1965.

The Bald Eagle tally of 1063 easily surpassed the previous record of 865 set in 2018. Southern Bucks County counted 130, followed by Southern Lancaster County (91) and Lititz (76). Two-hundred forty Red-shouldered Hawks was a big drop from last year’s 350, but still the second highest for the state. A Broad-winged Hawk at Southern Lancaster County was the first on a state CBC since 2006 and followed several late fall observations. Only 10 Rough-legged Hawks were encountered, the lowest total since 1962, continuing a long-term decline. West Chester had all four Virginia Rails, while the 305 Sandhill Cranes was the third highest state total, led by Grove City (160), Linesville (137) and Butler County (8). The high totals for this species for the past six seasons coincide with the inception of the Grove City CBC.

Shorebirds were typically scarce, with just four species. One of these, however, was the fourth Purple Sandpiper ever found on a Pennsylvania CBC; these records have all come from Erie in the past 20 years. Single American Woodcock were found at Pocono Mountain and Upper Bucks County. Large numbers of gulls continue to winter in the lower Delaware Valley, including a record 880 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, most of them in Bucks County. Upper Bucks led with 542, the highest count in the country, followed by Southern Bucks (249) and Central Bucks (74). Southern Bucks County once again led all North American CBCs with 37,000 Herring Gulls, but the highlight of the count was the state’s first CBC California Gull. That count also had 10 of the 11 Iceland Gulls (Elverson had one), but the only Glaucous Gull was Erie, the lowest statewide CBC total since 2001. While most species of gull are being found in good numbers, Great Black-backed Gull has declined steadily on Pennsylvania CBCs since 2013. This year’s total of 225 was the fewest since 1971; the peak total of 16,673 occurred in 2004.

Four Barn Owls at Juniata County–Lewistown, plus one at Southern Lancaster County was a bump up for the last couple of years, but the 7seven Long-eared Owls from five sites was the fewest since 1990. Only six Short-eared Owls were tallied, one each at six different sites. Woodpeckers were plentiful. The 71 Red-headed Woodpeckers, a bit above average, were concentrated in the southeastern part of the state, with 17 at York Springs and 10 at Harrisburg. Red-bellied Woodpecker numbers have fluctuated up and down in recent years, but the general trend has been up, as witnessed by the record 6262 tallied this year. With their expansion north and east during the past 70 years from their initial stronghold in the southwestern part of the state, the species now rivals Downy Woodpecker for the position of Pennsylvania’s most common woodpecker. Likewise, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker counts have seen wild year-to-year swings with a recent low of 281 in 2018 and a record high of 975 this season.

American Kestrels (701) were near the 10-year average, but still well below the numbers from the 20th century. The Merlin count of 69 was second only to last year’s 73 although the rapid increase of the past 20 years may be leveling off; as recently at 1994, the statewide CBC was one Merlin. After dipping a bit the past few years, Peregrine Falcons (50) set a new state CBC high, with Bethlehem-Easton, Lancaster, Southern Bucks County, and Williamsport each reporting four. Twenty-one Eastern Phoebes was about average, but there were no other flycatcher species recorded. A single Northern Shrike at Grove City was typical of the low totals from recent years; the last double-digit tally was 14 in 2011.

Blue Jay numbers have remained fairly steady over the past decade, but this year’s total of 38,000 American Crows was the lowest since 1960, as the species is still apparently struggling with declines due to West Nile virus. Common Raven, on the other hand, continues to increase across the entirety of the state, the 793 counted easily surpassing last year’s 728; all but five of the 81 CBCs recorded this species. York had two Tree Swallows and Pennypack Valley had a Barn Swallow, along with 60 of the 81 Northern Rough-winged Swallows found in the state; Harrisburg had the other 21, the third time that CBC has encountered this species. Pennypack’s total was once again the third highest for the swallow on a CBC north of Mexico.

The numbers of both chickadees (Carolina 3876, Black-capped 6670) and Tufted Titmouse (7211) continue to be far below the counts of two decades ago, but White-breasted Nuthatches seem to be holding their own. Red-breasted Nuthatches (378) were down somewhat from last year’s 596, but still represented a good showing for what was supposed to be an off-year. Both Brown Creeper (764) and Winter Wren (462) were found in above-average numbers, and a Marsh Wren was a highlight of the Lehigh Valley CBC. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was at Pennypack Valley, the fourth time in the past seven counts that one had been found on a Pennsylvania CBC.

A record 726 Hermit Thrushes were tallied, far more than last year’s 561, and 2.5 times the ten-year average. A Wood Thrush at Lebanon County was the 12th for a Pennsylvania CBC. Gray Catbirds were plentiful with 104 being the highest count since 2005, but Northern Mockingbirds (1965) have been slow to recover from a decline that began in 2008. The American Pipit total (1080) was well above average, as was the 8381 Cedar Waxwing, the most since 2007.  Bethlehem-Easton had the only Lapland Longspur, while Southern Lancaster County (8) and Grove City (7) accounted for the Snow Buntings.

The five species of wood warblers encountered included a state CBC record six Orange-crowned Warblers, one more that the five in 2016 and a high of 13 Pine Warblers, including six in Southern Bucks County. Seven Common Yellowthroats and six Palm Warblers were about average, but the 1138 Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers was the highest total since 2007 and more than five times last year’s tally. A Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warbler was at Bald Eagle State Park.

The changing status of some of the more common wintering sparrows seems to reflect the warming trend associated with climate change. Chipping Sparrow (248) set a record high for the second year in a row, as their numbers have gradually increased over the past few decades. The 1552 American Tree Sparrows, on the other hand, was the second lowest total since 1937 (1358 in 2019 was lower), as this species seems to be staying farther north in winter. Three hundred eleven Fox Sparrows was the second highest tally for a state CBC, although counts from the 1970s were higher when adjusted for observer effort (party hours). Likewise, the 38,000 White-throated Sparrows and 711 Eastern Towhees were record highs for the state CBCs but have been found at similar levels in some earlier years when adjustment is made for observer effort. In three of the past four years, Dark-eyed Junco numbers have dropped significantly from a 38-year average of 89 per 10 party hours to just 51. Last year was an exception, when heavy snow over much of the state saw a jump to 112/10 party hours (fide Nick Bolgiano). Among the less common sparrows were a Clay-colored Sparrow and two Vesper Sparrows at Lititz, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow at York.

Fifty-nine Eastern Meadowlarks was a slight improvement over last year’s 55, but well below the 100 – 300 that were typical of the 20th century. Common Grackles (79,000) rebounded from the lows of the last couple of years. A single Baltimore Oriole at Southern Bucks County was a big drop for the eight found in the state in 2020. It was not a particularly good year for winter finches. A total of 341 Purple Finches was lower than last year’s 542, but still not bad for an “echo” year. Likewise, 33 Red Crossbills was better than the 22 in 2020, but still not an irruption year. The only White-winged Crossbill was at Hamburg, while no Common Redpolls were found on count days for only the second time since 1964 (2019 was the other); Northern Lycoming County did have redpoll during the count week. Twenty-nine Pine Siskins was the fewest since 2006. Finally, the declining House Sparrow population registered just over 15,000 birds, the second lowest total (after 14,777 in 2018) since 1959.