High waterfowl diversity and numbers was a highlight of this year’s local Christmas Bird Counts

Peterborough Examiner  – January 12, 2024 – by Drew Monkman  

Dan Chronowic and his group of fellow birders won’t soon forget the spectacle they witnessed on Chemong Lake. “The huge raft of Common Mergansers was truly a sight to see. We took multiple counts to get an accurate minimum tally of individuals present and there were at least 610!” said Chronowic.

Surprises such as this is what makes a Christmas Bird Count (CBC) so appealing. You never really know what you might find. For this year’s Peterborough and Petroglyphs counts, it was all about waterfowl, thanks to ice-free lakes and rivers. And it wasn’t just the diversity but also the sheer numbers. By the end of the day, 14 species of ducks, geese and swans had been tallied on the Peterborough CBC including a grand total of 880 Common Mergansers and nine Red-breasted Mergansers. This shattered the previous record-highs for these species of 255 in 2012 and one in 2018, respectively. As for the Petroglyph count, a White-winged Scoter and a Red-breasted Merganser were seen for the first time ever and Common Mergansers were twice as abundant as usual.

Clockwise from top left: Tundra Swans, White-winged Scoter, female Common Merganser, Spotted Sandpiper, Great Blue Heron (Carl Welbourn) and Red-breasted Merganser

More counts but fewer birds

Each year, over 100 local birders take a break from holiday festivities to spend a day outside identifying and counting birds. Christmas Bird Counts are organized at the local level, often by a naturalist club. 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. Two counts are held locally – one centered in Peterborough and one in the area surrounding Petroglyphs Provincial Park.     

In 2022, 2,625 counts took place across both North and Latin America. Of these, 476 were in Canada. An impressive 2,244 species were tallied by 79,005 observers. The total number of birds recorded was 40.3 million. Although this might seem like a lot, this number continues to decrease each year. In 1972, for example, 20,373 observers on 1031 counts tallied over 71 million birds. That is close to twice as many birds as in 2022. Even more troubling, the number of counts has more than doubled and participation has almost quadrupled over this same time period.

Peterborough Count summary

The 72nd  annual Peterborough Christmas Bird Count took place on December 17, 2023. A total of 68 species was recorded which was just two short of the previous high of 70 species in 2021.

“Despite the rainy conditions, a record 101 participants contributed to this year’s Peterborough CBC.  Many spent part of the day walking the trails and roadsides in the region while others monitored the birds coming to their yard.  Each made their own valuable contribution to this year’s version of the longest running annual wildlife inventory in the county,” said count organizer Martin Parker of the Peterborough Field Naturalists.  

Greater White-fronted Goose, Tundra Swan, Canvasback and Spotted Sandpiper were all new species for the count, having never been recorded before.

In addition to the record-high numbers of Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, records were also set for Ring-billed Gull (418 vs. 399 in 2015), Red-bellied Woodpecker (28 vs. 27 in 2022), Merlin (6 vs. 4 in 2020), Winter Wren (7 vs. 6 in 2006), Golden-crowned Kinglet (62 vs. 47 in 1982), Cedar Waxwing (817 vs. 737 in 1989) and Eastern Bluebird (8 vs. 4 in 2022).  

As for low numbers, House Sparrow abundance continues to decline with only 167 turning up this year. Compare this to the 2,209 found in 1981.  Also of concern was the near total absence of Snow Buntings. Almost 1,700 were recorded in 1989.  

Peterborough species totals

The species totals for the Peterborough count are as follows: Greater White-fronted Goose (1), Canada Goose (1,700), Trumpeter Swan (2), Tundra Swan (3), American Black Duck (1), Mallard (887), Mallard (domestic type) (1), Canvasback (1), Greater Scaup (7), Lesser Scaup (6), Bufflehead (4), Common Goldeneye (132), Hooded Merganser (17), Common Merganser (880), Red-breasted Merganser (9), Ruffed Grouse (14), Wild Turkey (233), Common Loon (1), Great Blue Heron (1), Northern Harrier (4), Cooper’s Hawk (8), Bald Eagle (7), Red-tailed Hawk (35), Spotted Sandpiper (1), Ring-billed Gull (418), Herring Gull (651), Great Black-backed Gull (1), Rock Pigeon (1,481), Mourning Dove (536), Eastern Screech-owl (6), Great Horned Owl (3), Barred Owl (2), Belted Kingfisher (4), Red-bellied Woodpecker (28), Downy Woodpecker (93), Hairy Woodpecker (44), Northern Flicker (1), Pileated Woodpecker (20), American Kestrel (2), Merlin (6), Northern Shrike (9), Blue Jay (322), American Crow (536), Common Raven (47), Black-capped Chickadee (2,248), Red-breasted Nuthatch (31), White-breasted Nuthatch (138), Brown Creeper (14), Winter Wren (7), Golden-crowned Kinglet (62), Eastern Bluebird (8), American Robin (535), Gray Catbird (1), European Starling (2,979), Bohemian Waxwing (5), Cedar Waxwing (817), Snow Bunting (4), American Tree Sparrow (287), Dark-eyed Junco (773), White-throated Sparrow (7), Song Sparrow (1), Swamp Sparrow (1), Northern Cardinal (186), Red-winged Blackbird (2), House Finch (42), Purple Finch (5), Common Redpoll (1), Pine Siskin (29), American Goldfinch (1,139), and House Sparrow (167). Total species: 68, Total individuals: 17,900

Petroglyph Count summary

The 37th annual Petroglyph Christmas Bird Count took place on January 2 under overcast conditions with temperatures hovering around zero. “We had to work hard to detect the birds. This meant doing lots of pishing, squeaking and imitating owl calls to draw the birds in,” said count organizer Colin Jones.

The 30 participants found 38 species which was quite a bit higher than the 10-year average of 33 but below the record of 41. The number of individual birds counted (2,607) was above the 10-year average of 2,443. Typical overwintering species like Blue Jays and Common Ravens were at about the 10-year average numbers.   

New for the count were White-winged Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, and Great Blue Heron. Mallards were found for only the second time, and the two Sharp-shinned Hawks tallied represent a new count high. There were also unusually high numbers of Herring Gulls (7), Golden Eagle (2), and American Crows (15).  

Winter finch numbers were all over the map. Above-average numbers of American Goldfinch (238), Pine Siskin (196) and Purple Finch (39) turned up, but Red Crossbill (9) and Common Redpoll (42) were relatively scarce. No White-winged Crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks or Evening Grosbeaks were recorded. 

As for other low numbers, Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers were all well-below the 10-year average. Participants were unable to find any Canada Jays or Black-backed Woodpeckers. As their range retreats northward from a warming climate, these once-annual  species have only been recorded  four times each since 2009.   

Petroglyph species totals

            The species totals for the Petroglyph Count are as follows: Mallard (17), White-winged Scoter (1), Common Merganser (108), Red-breasted Merganser (1), Wild Turkey (74), Ruffed Grouse (25), Rock Pigeon (45), Mourning Dove (9), Herring Gull (7), Great Blue Heron (1), Golden Eagle (2), Sharp-shinned Hawk (2), American Goshawk (1), Bald Eagle (9), Red-tailed Hawk (4), Barred Owl (4), Downy Woodpecker (14), Hairy Woodpecker (29), Pileated Woodpecker (7), Northern Shrike (1), Blue Jay (270), American Crow (15), Common Raven (80), Black-capped Chickadee (776), Golden-crowned Kinglet (41), White-breasted Nuthatch (100), Red-breasted Nuthatch (170), Brown Creeper (19), European Starling (15), Bohemian Waxwing (79), Purple Finch (39), Common Redpoll (42), Red Crossbill (9), Pine Siskin (196), American Goldfinch (238), Snow Bunting (15), American Tree Sparrow (59), and Dark-eyed Junco (18). Total species: 38, Total individuals: 2607.


Alarm: After a year of unprecedented heat waves across the world, record-breaking wildfires throughout Canada, and a month of December in Peterborough that was a staggering 5.7 C warmer than usual, it should come as no surprise that 2023 was the world’s hottest year on record. According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, 2023 was 1.48 C warmer than the pre-industrial average from 1850–1900, beating out 2016’s record of 1.25 C.

Carbon dioxide: The atmospheric CO2 average for Jan. 6, 2024 was 422.86 parts per million (ppm), compared to 419.28 ppm a year ago. In 1988, the year climate scientist James Hansen warned the U.S. Congress about global warming, it was 351 ppm.   

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.