The 122nd Christmas Bird Count in Ontario

For the second year in a row, the COVID-19 Pandemic loomed large over the CBC season in Ontario, with several regular counts still unable to run. We had 17 counts back that missed year 121 but seven counts went the other direction. Ontario also welcomed two new counts, Flamborough and Kemptville to bring the number of counts run this year to 123 – the third highest total ever. Just three behind the record 126 from two years ago and barring any unforeseen circumstances, count year 123 should be in line for a record year.

The weather patterns leading up to count day always plays a big role. This year, the entire province saw fairly warm temperatures through November but a heavy freeze at the end of the month likely squeezed out some waterbirds and lingering species. Following the cold snap, December leading up to the count period turned very warm, melting virtually all snow in the south. However, many lingering waterbirds had already cleared out of many areas earlier in the fall with the cold snap.

Count day weather was again pretty comfortable this year, with an average low of -7.3° C and high of -2.5° C; about a degree cooler than the last couple of years. Forty-three counts had temperatures that cracked the freezing mark this year, which, while lower than the past two years of 73 and 51, is high. Thousand Islands was the hotspot with a count day high of 17° C (!); Delta and Kincardine both hit 14° C. Last year no counts cracked +10° C. Hornepayne took the award for coldest Ontario CBC with a low of -34° C although Smooth Rock Falls had the coldest “high” temperature of just -20° C. Twenty-two counts reported no snow at all, up from 16 in year 121 and from 20 in year 120. Many years, every count reports snow. This season, 91 counts (up from 73 in 121 and 78 in 120) had a maximum snow depth of 10 cm or less, so it was an easy year for walking. Moonbeam and Hornepayne tied for the deepest snow, with a maximum snow depth of 90 cm, and 12 counts had 30 cm or more.

There were 3403 observers in the field this year, up about 200 from last year but still about 300 below the couple of years prior to the pandemic. Still, this total represents the fourth highest total ever. Feeder watchers were down about 200 from last year’s record but at 1225, was good enough for second all time. Added together, field and feeder counters totalled 4628, good enough for fourth all time. What was most impressive about this year’s effort was the total time spent in the field; a total of 9020 party hours, which was over 500 more than the last year’s record-setting 8505. Observers logged a very impressive 71,881 km on count days, slightly down from the record 82,270 km of count year 115, but perhaps that’s a testament to how much more time counters spent walking rather than driving this year (possibly thanks to the lack of snow). For the sixth straight year, Ottawa-Gatineau led the pack with the most field observers, this year with 142. Kingston again led the way for feeder counters with a whopping 103.

A total of 1832 species were reported from all counts, the highest total since 2015/16, 11 better than last year’s 172 and four above the average from the past ten years. The total increased by three with the addition of count week species (American Woodcock, Boreal Owl, and Harris’s Sparrow).

Blenheim and Long Point have basically alternated for most species over the last several years and this year Blenheim retook that honour with an incredible 124 species. This isn’t a stat that is easy to look up, but it appears to represent a new all-time high for an Ontario count! Long Point (110) was the only other count that cracked 100 species this year. Seven other counts surpassed 90 species: Hamilton (97), Sandbanks (97), Toronto (96), West Elgin (96), Point Pelee (95), Woodhouse Township (94), and St. Clair N.W.A. (90). Those nine counts at or above 90 represents the highest number to reach that milestone at least in the past ten years (and likely ever). In general, most counts reported above-average species totals, with 91 counts equaling or beating their average from the past seven years and the “average count” up two and a half species. Cambridge (77), London (74), and Brantford (73) led the way for inland counts. Thunder Bay led the way among northern Ontario counts with 47, followed by Nipigon-Red Rock (33) and Dryden (30). Blenheim led the way with a very good total of 20 provincial highs, but perhaps more amazing was first-time count Flamborough chipping in the second most with 17 provincial highs! St. Clair N.W.A. rounded out the top three with 13. Flamborough took top spot for most Canadian highs, with 11, followed by Blenheim (9), and Point Pelee (6). Thirty-five Ontario counts recorded a total of 87 Canadian highs this year.

A total of 1,316,372 individuals were counted, up more than 1.5 million from last year and almost 50,000 above the ten-year average. This was also the third highest total ever and the most since 2015/16. Taking into account the averages from the missing counts this year, we were probably down about 85,000 from what could reasonably be expected, which would have been good enough for second all-time. The top five species this year were European Starling (204,303), Canada Goose (201,703), American Crow (143,627), Mallard (58,041), and Black-capped Chickadee (57,809). The only change from last year was Canada Goose moving back into the top five (at the expense of Mallard).

Despite it being another overall better than average count year, some species were noticeably down. The following 30 species were recorded in numbers of 50% or less of their 20-year average: Snow Goose (44), Ross’s Goose (1), American Wigeon (227), Blue-winged Teal (1), Harlequin Duck (2), Surf Scoter (32), Gray Partridge (25), Red-necked Grebe (52), American Coot (795), Killdeer (4), Purple Sandpiper (1), Lesser Black-backed Gull (9), Glaucous Gull (56), Great Black-backed Gull (696), Northern Hawk Owl (1), Long-eared Owl (18), Red-headed Woodpecker (4), American Three-toed Woodpecker (2), Eastern Phoebe (1), Horned Lark (2817), Boreal Chickadee (29), Brown Thrasher (1), American Pipit (9), Bohemian Waxwing (2183), Lapland Longspur (73), Red-winged Blackbird (1685), Rusty Blackbird (46), Brewer’s Blackbird (1), Brown-headed Cowbird (3169), and Hoary Redpoll (29). Some of these (like Gray Partridge and Great Black-backed Gull) are part of a well-documented long-term decline. Others, such as Boreal Chickadee seem to be heading that same way. The drop in blackbirds almost across the board seems to be largely a result of the heavy cold snap at the end of November pushing them out just before the count period began.

There really wasn’t too much in the way of big misses this year. Great Gray Owl, Gyrfalcon, and Pine Warbler are probably the biggest misses – only the fourth, third, and fifth count day misses, respectively, in the past 20 years.

Conversely, there were some excellent counts recorded, even with fewer counts reporting. The following 37 species reported counts of 50% or more of their 20-year average (two fewer than last year): Greater White-fronted Goose (8), Cackling Goose (97*), Trumpeter Swan (1155*), Tundra Swan (18,014), Northern Shoveler (817), Northern Pintail (621), Green-winged Teal (168), Canvasback (14,237), Ring-necked Duck (1014*), Hooded Merganser (3052), Sharp-tailed Grouse (245*), Red-throated Loon (323), Horned Grebe (181), Double-crested Cormorant (507*), Turkey Vulture (361*), Golden Eagle (29), Cooper’s Hawk (447*), Bald Eagle (2120*), Red-shouldered Hawk (31), Sandhill Crane (7457*), Snowy Owl (164), Barred Owl (120), Red-bellied Woodpecker (2067*), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (41), Merlin (144*), Black-billed Magpie (236*), Winter Wren (208), Marsh Wren (27), Carolina Wren (593*), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (4*), Eastern Bluebird (1324*), Townsend’s Solitaire (3*), Hermit Thrush (112*), Gray Catbird (22), White-throated Sparrow (2270*), and Red Crossbill (264).

Eighteen of those species (marked with an asterisk) above also set new record highs. The theme for species with good showings in 2021/22 were waterbirds (14 species) and then another big group are species that are showing long-term increasing trends (e.g., Bald Eagle, Merlin, Red-bellied Woodpecker etc.). There’s also a pretty big list of species here that would be considered “lingering” species, in particular those that feed primarily on berries in winter (Eastern Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Gray Catbird). White-throated Sparrow and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker likely fall into that last category as well as they tend to spike in years with good berry crops.

Irruptive species were mostly absent from Ontario CBCs this year. Barred and Snowy owls were the main exception, both having above average years, but both are also showing a trend that way over the past decade or so – possibly an increase or possibly a result of shifting winter ranges (or a combination). The other irruptive owls were all low – only a single Northern Hawk Owl (20-year average of 5), no Great Gray Owls (12) or Boreal Owls (2) on count days. Even Black-backed and American Three-toed woodpeckers were below average. Winter finches, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Bohemian Waxwing were all at or very close to their twenty-year averages with about twice as many under the average than over.

There are always some exciting finds on CBCs, and this year was no exception. The closest we got to a new species was the Eurasian Green-winged Teal on the Toronto count. While considered a subspecies of Green-winged Teal by the American Ornithological Society, some authorities do split it out. Other good finds were the Razorbill on the Niagara Falls count (only the second ever), Least Sandpiper and Nelson’s Sparrow on Blenheim (both only recorded twice before), Rufous Hummingbird on Peel-Halton (4th), Indigo Bunting on Kincardine (4th), Summer Tanager on Woodhouse Township (6th), Pacific Loon on Meaford (9th), and Mountain Bluebird on Guelph (10th).

All in all, it was another excellent CBC season here in Ontario with highs, lows, and everything in between. Here’s to all the hard work the huge team of volunteers put in to making the count a success and for another good year in count year 123-it’s just around the corner!