Fewer than usual species found on local counts

              Many people are asking this winter where all the birds are. A friend in Keene told me recently that it’s been years since his feeders have required so little refilling. So, what’s going on? First, as predicted, most winter finches have remained in the north. This means no redpolls and only a few siskins (in northern Peterborough County) at nyger seed feeders. In addition, the abundance of seed, nuts, and berries this year means that many birds like blue jays, tree sparrows, cardinals, and goldfinches are finding the nourishment they need in the wild instead of at feeders. All of this being said, my own feeders are relatively busy, with a dozen or so juncos dining on the finch mix I scatter on the ground and woodpeckers and nuthatches coming to my peanut feeders.

              The best way to get a true picture of bird numbers both locally and across North and South America is to look at the results of Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs). Between mid-December and early January each year, birders take a break from the holiday festivities to spend a day outside, identifying and counting birds.   

              Last year, 2,615 counts took place, of which 460 were in Canada, 1,974 in the United States, and 181 in Latin America and the Caribbean. The participants found 661 species in the U.S. and 285 in Canada. The takeaway from this 119th CBC was the low total number of birds: about 48.6 million. Bird numbers have been dropping dramatically over the past 33 counts, but last year’s total is the second-lowest ever – 10 to 20 million birds short of the average numbers tallied over the past 20 seasons. This was despite a much higher number of counts and a record number of participants. The decline appears to confirm a well-publicized recent study outlining how bird numbers across North America have plummeted by one-third – three billion birds – since the 1970s.

              Christmas Bird Counts are organized at the local level, often by a naturalist organization. The count area is a circle, measuring 24 kilometres in diameter. The circle is then sub-divided into sectors, each of which is covered by a different group of birders.     

              Once again this year, two local counts were held – one centred in Peterborough and the other in Petroglyphs Provincial Park. To see maps of the count circles, go to www.peterboroughnature.org (Peterborough CBC) and https://bit.ly/2uAxI8t (Petroglyphs CBC). About twice as many species turn up on the Peterborough count, thanks mostly to the wider variety of habitat. Martin Parker of the Peterborough Field Naturalists organized the Peterborough count, while Colin Jones headed up the Petroglyphs count.

Peterborough Count

The 68th Peterborough CBC was held December 15 under generally clement conditions. Sixty-four participants spent all or part of the day in the field, while 16 others kept track of birds visiting their feeders.

              By the end of the day, 11,159 individual birds were counted and a total of 56 species. Both these numbers are somewhat low. Over the past five years, the average has been 62  species and 13,736 individuals. Extensive ice coverage this year reduced both the variety and abundance of water birds. This was especially evident in the number of Canada geese – a paltry 53 as compared to nearly 6,000 in 2014. Clearly, nearly all of the geese had left the Kawarthas. Windy conditions on the morning of the count also created difficulties in hearing owls. Only great horned owls were recorded.  

The fall forecast that winter finches would not come south this winter also turned out to be true. No pine grosbeaks, crossbills, or pine siskins were found. The only winter finches that showed up were a single common redpoll and seven evening grosbeaks. The absence of winter finches has been the story on other counts in Central Ontario, as well. There are, however, good numbers of many finch species in Algonquin Park.

As for robins, the 143 individuals found was much lower than expected and well below the five-year average of 492. This is especially odd, given the abundance of their favourite winter food, namely wild grape. For whatever reason – maybe November’s record cold? – most robins decided to vacate the Kawarthas.

Two species were recorded for the first time ever, bringing the total number of species since the count began in the 1940s to 136. A canvasback duck turned up on the Otonabee River near the waste-water treatment plant, and two turkey vultures were seen flying over the city in separate locations.  

Record high numbers were tallied for mallards (1,510) and for American crows (956). Two peregrine falcons were seen, which ties the previous high. One was on the Quaker Oats building and the other at Loggerhead Marsh off of Ireland Drive. The number of red-bellied woodpeckers tied the previous record of 16, a total well above the five-year average of 9.6. A horned grebe on Little Lake was only the third ever for the count, while a yellow-rumped warbler turned up for the seventh time. 

The species totals for the Peterborough count are as follows: Canada goose 53,  wood duck 2, American black duck 10, mallard 1,254, canvasback 1, common goldeneye 124, hooded merganser 4, common merganser 31, ruffed grouse 4, wild turkey 115, horned grebe 1, turkey vulture 2, sharp-shinned hawk 2, Cooper’s hawk 7, bald eagle 9, red-tailed hawk 25, rough-legged hawk 1, ring-billed gull 41, herring gull 407, glaucous gull 2, great black-backed gull 3, rock pigeon 1,107, mourning dove 574, great horned owl 2, red-bellied woodpecker 16, downy woodpecker 60, hairy woodpecker 50, pileated woodpecker 21, northern flicker 3, American kestrel 1, merlin 3, peregrine falcon 2, northern shrike 2, blue jay 197, American crow 956, common raven 26, black-capped chickadee 1,641, red-breasted nuthatch 10, white-breasted nuthatch 98, brown creeper 10, golden-crowned kinglet 15, American robin 143,  European starling 2,053, cedar waxwing 286, snow bunting 150, yellow-rumped warbler 1, American tree sparrow 178, chipping sparrow 1, dark-eyed junco 402, white-throated sparrow 5,  northern cardinal 144, common grackle 1, house finch 60, purple finch 16, common redpoll 1, American goldfinch 342, evening grosbeak 7, and house sparrow 218.  

Petroglyph Count

              The 34th Petroglyph CBC took place on January 4, 2020 in mild weather and excellent listening conditions. The 36 participants found 29 species, which is a little below average. However, the 3,338 individual birds counted was well above the 10-year average of 2,248. Although no new species were seen, participants did find a record 26 barred owls. The previous high was only 11. There were also much higher-than-average numbers of downy woodpeckers (50), hairy woodpeckers (70), pileated woodpeckers (33), red-breasted nuthatches (278), white-breasted nuthatches (170), golden-crowned kinglets (108), and blue jays (652). Most of the jays were found in woodlands away from feeders, which means they were probably able to find and cache large numbers of acorns and beechnuts this fall. In poor nut years, most jays migrate south. A single Canada jay was found. Up until 2009, this species was recorded annually.

As for low counts and misses, only two bald eagles were tallied, which is well below the 10-year average of six and the count high of 14. No snow buntings were observed, nor were there any black-backed woodpeckers. The latter is likely a resident species within the count circle but only in very low numbers. As for winter finches, participants counted 115 purple finches, 2 pine siskins, 262 American goldfinches, and 43 red crossbills.  

              The species totals for the Petroglyph Count are as follows. The number in parentheses represents the 10-year average number: ruffed grouse 29 (16.5), wild turkey 88 (47.5), rock pigeon 38 (48.8), mourning dove 8 (9.6), northern goshawk 1 (0.3), bald eagle 2 (5.8), red-tailed hawk 4 (2.4), great horned owl 1 (0.5),  barred owl 26 (2.7), downy woodpecker 50 (22.7), hairy woodpecker 70 (36.8),  pileated woodpecker 33 (14.1), northern shrike 2 (0.7), Canada jay 1 (0.9), blue jay 652 (238.7), American crow 8 (6.5), common raven 87 (85.7), black-capped chickadee 1,068 (738), red-breasted nuthatch 278 (80.8), white-breasted nuthatch 170 (85.5), brown creeper 35 (11.7), golden-crowned kinglet 108 (30.7), European starling 9 (28), purple finch 115 (1.3), red crossbill 43 (13.6), pine siskin 101 (45.5), American goldfinch 262 (159.2), American tree sparrow 25 (29), and dark-eyed junco 11 (26.8).  

Drew Monkman

I am a retired teacher, naturalist and writer with a love for all aspects of the natural world, especially as they relate to seasonal change.