The 122nd Christmas Bird Count is in the books, adding to the phenomenal value of the cumulative CBC database as we head toward the century and a quarter mark of data. For study of the status of birds in the Americas here’s nothing else like it in terms of geographic coverage and duration of time—even the revered Breeding Bird Survey has “only” been run for 56 years. The two surveys, especially when combined together, provide an incredibly valuable resource for researchers looking into the changing status and ranges of birds across North America, and increasingly in Latin America as well. And none of the Christmas Bird Count—yes, none of it—would happen without the amazing work of every participant, compiler, and regional editor involved with the program. Some folks think doing a CBC is primarily a fun (or brutal) day of birding with friends—which it is—but each and every checklist tallied adds to the overall value of the CBC database. Here’s a heartfelt thank-you to everyone who joins the CBC. It’s a job well done, and we definitely appreciate your time and effort.
The 122nd CBC season was a return to near-normal, or perhaps a step toward finding the new normal, after two years under the deep shadow of COVID-19. In general, the weather was “seasonable” across the continents, also in line with many of the fall and winter seasons over the past recent decades. Some regions had storms—either snow or rain—and some, of course, had frigid conditions, especially toward the end of the count period, but for the most part participants were out in what has become the new normal for the season.
The total number of counts included in this season’s results was 2621, second only to the record-setting 120th CBC at 2646 counts, which ended just before the pandemic was recognized. Included in that near-record total are 43 new counts, 11 in Canada, 18 in the United States, and 14 in the Caribbean and Latin America. The full roster of new counts in the 122nd CBC is listed in Table 1—welcome one and all!
The number of observers in the 122nd Count also rebounded, though not quite as fully as the number of counts. This is not surprising, given that we were still under the guidelines necessary to minimize the spread of Covid, with some folks still electing not to join in group activities. The total number of observers included in the 122nd Christmas Bird Count was 76,880, comprised of 64,882 in the field and 11,998 at feeders, the fourth highest ever level of participation in a CBC season. The regional break downs in participation were 14,975 observers in Canada (10,618 in the field and 4357 at feeders), 58,654 folks in the United States (51,181 in the field and 7473 at feeders), and 3251 in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Pacific Islands (3083 in the field and 168 at feeders). This is the fourth-highest number of participants ever included in a CBC season, with the highest in the record-setting 120th CBC, when there were 81,601 total observers.
Managing this level of participation comprises a huge job for compilers everywhere, especially for counts with a higher attendance. The job is especially busy for counts with more than 100 participants, and special kudos go to the compilers of all such counts. Table 2 lists the 83 circles in the 122nd Christmas Bird Count with 100 participants or more, including three counts in Colombia and Ecuador. Congratulations and a special thank-you to all!
Speaking of both new counts and lofty levels of participation, special recognition goes to the new Richmond, California CBC, a count that was started to include a more urban audience, for a fantastic first effort. Not only did Richmond circle recruit 181 participants on its first count, but observers also had a fabulously successful day in the field and tallied eight “national high counts” as listed in Brent Ortego’s 122nd CBC Season Highest Tallies for Individuals in the United States!
Looking at the yardstick of the total number of birds seen, there were 42,876,395 birds of all species tallied in the 122nd Christmas Bird Count (3,460,743 in Canada, 39,001,827 in the United States, and 413,825 in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands). This total is on par with the past several seasons but is of concern as in past decades far more total birds were tallied—averaging 60 to 100 million—30 years ago. This decline in total avian biomass found on the CBC is measured against the growth in number of counts and participants in the same time period, where the CBC effort and geographic coverage nearly doubled. The recent paper, including CBC data, that estimated a three billion bird decline in the North American breeding avifauna, lends credence to this drop in the number of birds found on Christmas Bird Counts. The Audubon Science team is very interested in this trend, and we hope to do analyses on CBC data over this timeframe to discover what species, or groups of species, have contributed the most to this apparent dramatic decline in the number of birds in North America.
Still, even if the numbers of birds have declined over time, the number of species tallied on CBCs is amazing! In the 122nd Christmas Bird Count, 2554 species were tallied, plus 483 identifiable forms and hybrids. In Canada, 294 species were found, and in the United States the tally was 672 species on count days, seven Count Week (CW) species, 59 infraspecific forms, and 34 exotic/introduced species. No new species were found on CBCs in Canada, but three were added in the United States—Steller’s Sea-Eagle at Freeport-Brunswick, Maine (count week), Bat Falcon at Santa Ana NWR, Texas, and Social Flycatcher at Brownsville, Texas. More on the sea-eagle to follow, but the Bat Falcon and the Social Flycatcher were both remarkable first US records present for some time before the count period. In fact, the Brownsville count, which had been dormant for a few seasons, was re-started to be sure to ensure the inclusion the flycatcher in the CBC!
With all those species to be found, and the amazing geographic coverage of the Christmas Bird Count, one measure of the success of a given CBC is often the number of species tallied. Evey CBC hopes to meet or exceed its historical species level, even adding new species on occasion. While over most of the North American CBC area a tally of 50 or 100 species can be a milestone to reach, other counts in the lower latitudes, especially in coastal areas or with great variation in altitude in the neotropics, have the opportunity to tally far more species. Table 3 includes the list of counts in the 122nd Christmas Bird Count that met or exceeded the 150-species mark on count day. Once again in the United States and Canada, the Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh, Texas captures the top spot at 230 species, while in the neotropics the Mindo-Tandayapa, Ecuador tallied 389 species. Several other counts in both regions are not far behind—who knows what will happen in the upcoming seasons!
Most Christmas Bird Count circles won’t vie for the top spots on the 150+ species list, but we can always hope to place well in species total within our region. This can be a much more competitive challenge, often depending upon the weather preceding the count period, conditions on count day, attendance for the season on the count, and just plain luck. So, the regional top species tallies are much more up for grabs each season! Table 4 lists the counts in the 122nd Christmas Bird Count that tallied the most species in each region this past season.
There were no surprising continental population-level species shifts during the 122nd CBC. After a big southward flight in the 121st Count, boreal finches stayed northward in their more expected ranges. Redpolls and crossbills moved east/west across the northern tier and southern Canada, especially in the west, but this is often the case in non-irruption seasons. Apparently, the food recourses were good in the boreal forest. Even Purple Finches stayed north in the winter of 2021-2022, and Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks also stayed north.
Similarly, there was no exceptional southward movement of northern raptors—diurnal or nocturnal. Of course, there was a nice assortment of Snowy Owl, Rough-legged Hawk, and other boreal/arctic species tallied, but mostly in the places where they are expected. Who knows what awaits us in the upcoming 123rd CBC.
A host of formerly more southern resident species continues their march northward. Mourning Doves, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and Northern Cardinals all continue to expand on CBCs in the norther edges of their respective ranges. And a diverse selection of water-associated species continues to winter farther and farther to the north, as ponds, lakes, and marshes remain open during the CBC season ever farther north. This is reflected in a downward trend in species totals in some areas of the South; waterfowl especially are staying to the north, to the chagrin of counters especially in the Southeastern states.
On the downside, both Northern Bobwhite and Loggerhead Shrike continue to decline in most regions, now even in their former strongholds. While bobwhite numbers in some areas are supplemented by released captive-raised birds, their native populations are dramatically declining in many regions. And for reasons not fully understood, Loggerhead Shrikes are declining just about everywhere across the species’ range. Christmas Bird Count data can definitely help track the fortunes of species such as these.
For people interested in checking out the status and movements of species of interest, there are two online products that may help. One is the Trend Viewer section in the CBC website, where you can explore how species are faring as reflected in the past several decades of CBC results, which was recently updated to include the most recent CBC seasons. Regional, survey-wide, and time interval options are available for viewing—check it out at the “Where Have all the Birds Gone” tile https://www.audubon.org/conservation/where-have-all-birds-gone ! And recently the Audubon Science team took a fascinating first-ever dive into the longer-term data set available in the Christmas Bird Count, including earlier decades that pre-date the Breeding Bird Survey. In most studies, CBC data earlier than the 1960s were not included as in general researchers were looking at the results of both the BBS and the CBC. In Audubon’s recent very long-term CBC trend paper “Unraveling a century of global change impacts on winter bird distributions in the eastern United States” published in Global Change Biology, we looked at trend data back to the 1930s compared to land use data and climate change, documenting the relative effects of both factors on how groups of birds respond. It’s a ground-breaking paper and well worth a look!
Another fascinating resource to check out is Audubon’s recently released Bird Migration Explorer https://explorer.audubon.org/ . This is the product of Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiaitve, a program that brings together for the first time an amazing compendium of studies and sighting data relevant to the migration of birds in North America. You can explore species, place connections, and conservation challenges all in a fun map-based display. Data from 404 studies on 184 species are synthesized, including banding returns, satellite tracking studies, geolocator studies, plus eBird data and other sighting data. It’s an incredible resource and is especially impressive to explore the locations connection maps. It’s eye-opening to discover just where the birds that pass through our backyard or birding hotspot spend their breeding and non-breeding seasons.
With the dramatic increase in popularity of bird watching, growing skill sets of observers, and stellar array of bird identification resources available both in books and on our smartphones, we’re getting a rapidly growing appreciation and understanding of how birds move around. With more birders out there able to recognize and identify more species, and the ability to instantly share sightings among others, this has been a real boon to birding. Not only are we learning where species go, and when, and just how many species are showing up out of their “expected” ranges, but we are also more frequently even able to track individual wayward birds in their peregrinations across the continent. We’re realizing that many of these wayward, out-of-range birds (west to east or east to west), if they survive the winter, will return to exactly the same “wrong” spot in successive winters. If it worked once, they’ll keep doing it! Examples have been documented with out-of-range passerines like Summer Tanager, where one bird returned for several winters to the same desert oasis in California. And there is an increasing number and variety of “out of range” hummingbirds overwintering repeatedly in the East, many tallied with excitement on Christmas Bird Counts. We had one female Rufous Hummingbird (named “Rufie” by the local birding community) that returned for eight consecutive winters to the same feeder in western Massachusetts.
One case in point is the Heermann’s Gull, a species normally restricted to the Pacific Coast, that’s been traveling up and down the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Massachusetts for the past couple of years. Observers have been able to follow what appears to be the same bird, not only its movements but also documenting its transition from immature to sub-adult to adult plumages, throughout its journey. And this 122nd Christmas Bird Count season the bird was tallied on the Litchfield-Pawleys Island, South Carolina CBC as it flew by. This species, of course, is not new to the Christmas Bird Count, but is a great bird on the east coast of North America.
However, possibly the star bird of the 122nd Christmas Bird Count and for birders over much of North America, was the famous, far-wandering, adult Steller’s Sea-Eagle. Photo documentation of this bird, which has some unique plumage characteristics in its white epaulettes, indicates that one individual Steller’s Sea-Eagle has made a grand tour of North America, far exceeding any other known example of this species. Steller’s Sea-Eagle is one of the three largest species of eagle in the world, tied with the Harpy Eagle of Latin America and the Philippine Eagle of the Philippines. It is a massive bird, seeming to dwarf the Bald Eagles that (in North America) may be present with it. This particular bird was first seen, and photographed, on the Denali Highway in south central Alaska in August of 2020. While Alaska is the only North American location with occasional records of this species, most others have been along or near the coast, especially in the Aleutians and other offshore islands. This species’ normal range is on the Asian side of the North Pacific.
The Denali Highway sighting was a one-time-wonder, an incredibly lucky encounter by one traveling birder who fortunately was armed with a camera. It was bizarre in that this was in the interior of Alaska, and an adult bird, but certainly within the realm of possibility of a wandering individual.
However, in March of 2021, an adult Steller’s Sea-Eagle was seen by a non-birder along a creek in southeastern Texas. They knew it was a really odd looking eagle and had the presence of mind to both photograph it and show it to amazed local birding friends. Much to the chagrin of the local birding community, this was also a one-time, single-observer sighting. Photos show this looks like the same individual bird that had been in the interior of Alaska the summer prior.
Next, from June through November of 2021, based upon many photographs, the same bird traveled around the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, thrilling observers in New Brunswick, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Then it disappeared…for a short time. It reappeared in mid-December in southeastern Massachusetts, present for only a few days. After a short hiatus, it was then found along the mid-coast of Maine, where it wandered locally from late December 2021 into early February of 2022—including during the 122nd CBC period.
After a long hiatus, the wandering bird was first briefly seen in April 2022, first in Nova Scotia and then shortly afterward in far eastern Newfoundland, and then for much of August 2022 in a different part of Newfoundland, where it apparently summered.
In late November of 2022, the bird had moved southward and was found again for a couple of days along the coast of eastern New Brunswick. Its whereabouts have been unknown—or unreported—since then.
This one individual Steller’s Sea-Eagle has probably been seen by more human beings than any other of its species, ever. And it is certainly the most widely-traveled. In all of those travels it is known to have visited many Christmas Bird Count circles: Restigouche and Bouctouche, New Brunswick; Pictou Harbour and West Hants, Nova Scotia; Bath-Phippsburg-Georgetown, Freeport-Brunswick, and Pemaquid-Damariscotta, Maine; and Taunton-Middleboro, Massachusetts. Of all those circles, only Freeport-Brunswick, Maine was able to tally the bird, even there again a one-day-wonder and only during count week. So far, that is…currently birders in the Northeast are anxiously awaiting the next arrival. Maybe we’ll be able to tally it on count day on a CBC in the 123rd Count.
Back to less spectacular, but still interesting, long-returning, and unusual species, my old friend (literally) the Lesser Black-backed Gull had returned to its rock, and cove, on the coast of Rhode Island last fall, as it has for well over 15 years. For a number or reasons, much to my displeasure, I was again unable to join my traditional Christmas Bird Counts in Rhode Island, which was especially frustrating as I knew we would have access to the Ninigret N.W.R. where the gull was in residence. Since I began doing CBCs in Rhode Island in the late 1970s, Lesser Black-backed Gulls have gone from becoming a stellar rarity to an expected, if uncommon species. So rather than hoping for the inclusion of “my” bird as the sole example of the species on the South Kingstown CBC, it’s become one of several that are sometimes tallied. But we know, when we see this bird on its rock on its cove, that it’s the same 20+ year-old bird we’ve been tallying for years. Because birds, like people, become set in their ways.
My long-time CBC birding companion Doug was able to access the refuge during the count this past season, but shockingly there were nearly no birds of any species in Ninigret Pond, where we have found the gull for the past two decades. Perhaps the weather was too nice, the tide condition was wrong, or the wind, or the food resources, or whatever, weren’t right. That’s the luck of birding and the CBC. But no gulls, no ducks, no anything. Pretty much just open water. “Our” Lesser Black-backed Gull, though known to be present, was not tallied in the 122nd Christmas Bird Count season. It was a “count week” bird—just like the Steller’s Sea-Eagle in Maine.
Is this Lesser Black-backed Gull that we’ve watched for going on 20 years back this coming season? I don’t know, since there are multiple birds of this species now being found in Rhode Island, including this fall, and I haven’t been down to the Refuge to check out the rock in the cove for the bird. But this one gull, like “Wisdom” the now 70+ year-old Laysan Albatross on Midway Island, helps document that birds tell us how we’re doing in terms of our stewardship of the environment in which we all exist. Birds are wondrous, and wonderful. We need to continue to pay special attention to how they’re doing, and the efforts of everyone on every Christmas Bird Count everywhere help us do that.
Thanks so much once again for all your efforts on the Christmas Bird Count, an see you out there in the field.