A Surf scoter heading into the surf

The 2023 Christmas Bird Count

The Cortes Island Museum has been sponsoring two birding events every year for the past two decades.* 2,873 birds were seen during the 2023 Christmas Bird Count, but this number would have been much higher if there were more participants. 

“We can only go to a certain number of places where we know there will be birds, and that’s mostly along the coastline,” explained Laurel Bohart, a keen birder as well as co-curator of Wild Cortes.

Birdwatching Photo by Diane Helentjaris on Unsplash

“There were children as well looking around the school, so they would have added their count. I think Gina Trzesicka (from the Museum) may have been involved in the bird count too, down at her place. We rely on people phoning in if they have bird feeders. They phone in and we gather that data. It’s just easier than going to everybody’s bird feeder and counting, because they keep  changing every few minutes.” 

Gina subsequently emailed, “We had 28 people in the field Including the ‘reporters,’ and I received reports from around 20 people, including bird feeders and backyard reports. But, of course, we could use more observers and reporters.”

Most of the counting was done between 9:00 AM and sometime after 3:00 PM on Sunday, December 17th, but additional data is gathered for 3 days before and after the count day.  

CC: How can so few people count so many birds in a little over six hours?

Laurel Bohart: “I don’t know how I managed to count that many birds, we just ran. That’s the only way we could do it. I was very, very aware of the time and so you move  fast.  So, we were going around Blue Jay Lake, here, here, here, very quickly, scanning to see if there was anything out there. You develop a technique when it comes to lakes and even trees. You scan the tops of trees. Is anything moving? If it’s moving, stop, identify it. If it’s not, on to the next tree. It’s the same with the water. If you see little things bobbing around out there, you get your binoculars on them. You identify as fast as you can. If you’re not sure, mark it as that and on to the next bird because you don’t have time. You’re trying to get to too many places.”

CC: Which was the most numerous of the 70 species of birds counted? 

Laurel Bohart: “1,411  Surf scoters.”   

The Surf scoter is a sea duck, which was given the nickname ‘old skunk-head.’ The Cortes Island Museum keeps records of the Christmas counts going back to 2001,* and Surf scoters are often the most numerous species. Last year there were only 395, so they dropped to #2. 

CC: What about Juncos, which were the #1 bird in last year’s count?

Laurel Bohart: “Dark Eyed Juncos, 129, which is a stark contrast to last year where there were 717 Juncos.”

The second most most numerous species in this count was a small sea duck called Bufflehead (133 birds), which winter in bays, estuaries and lakes.

One of Bohart’s personal highlights occurred just as the count was coming to an end.

Laurel Bohart: “Tom and I counted at Squirrel Cove, Blue Jay Lake, the Klahoose Area, Seaford, and then Linnaea. We finished around 3:30. The others weren’t at the museum yet, so we went down to Smelt Bay to see if there was anything interesting. I spotted the blackbirds right away. I didn’t know they were Brewer’s Blackbirds until they landed on the ground and were walking instead of hopping.  Blackbird species all walk. The last time I saw Brewers Blackbirds was in Nanaimo a number of years ago at one of the malls in the parking lot, picking up scraps. I had never seen them on Cortes before,  but to see them here at Linnaea and then another, I think, 7 down at Smelt Bay was quite extraordinary.“ 

“It was also extraordinary, only 1 Canada Goose was counted down in Smelt Bay. Normally there’s dozens, but the local Canada Geese, the Greater Canada’s, were brought from Eastern Canada for hunters to shoot because Western Canada Geese are small. The large Canada Geese are not adapted to the West Coast and so they eat eelgrass beds.”

In addition to cleaning the water, Eelgrass is critical habitat for salmon, crab, and other wildlife.

Laurel Bohart: “Which is why the Conservation Office is going around shaking eggs. When you shake the eggs, they don’t hatch. You don’t have to have a cull of geese, you just shake the eggs and they stop reproducing. Eventually their numbers are manageable. The eelgrass beds, we hope, will survive.”

CC: Another one of her highlights took place the Blue Jay Lake area.

Laurel Bohart: “After doing the main area of Blue Jay Lake, we stopped at a number of places to listen and watch.  There were just a few Varied Thrushes, actually quite a few Varied Thrushes, and there were other birds like that.”

“Then we go down to the left, along where Blue Jay Lake is.  There’s a road that circles around, and comes back by the pond. Well, that’s more of a lake than a pond. It’s almost as big as Blue Jay. The thing is all the birds were huddled in the bushes, and I spotted the Bald Eagle. Birds aren’t going to make themselves targets if there is a hungry eagle, so they were hiding. I walked back through the farm to a certain place and stood with my hands on my hips glaring at him. I said, ‘you need to leave now.’ I stared so hard he picked up and left.” 

“Then they all came out of the bushes and 10-15 minutes later we had flocks of Scaup. We had Buffleheads. We had Grebes. One was a Horned Grebe. The last two we saw at Blue Jay Lake Pond were two Green-winged Teal, male and female and he was hot on her trail.” 

There are normally between 54 and 82 species recorded in Christmas Counts. This year there were 67.

This was a record breaking Christmas Count for Common Loons, Redneck Grebes, Greater Scaups, and the second highest year for Surf scoters and Great Blue Herons.

On the opposite side of the ledger, there were fewer Canada Geese and Juncos than any previous count.

The Count

Loons (aquatic diving birds)

  • Pacific Loon – 1 – which are never that numerous. 
  • Common Loons – 70 – a new record, the next highest was 48 in 2009.

Grebes (aquatic diving birds)

  • Horned Grebes, – 56 – an increase from last year
  • Red-necked Grebes – 60  – another new record year.

Cormorants (aquatic diving birds)

  • Double crested Cormorants – 15 – there haven’t been more than 20 for years. The record is 52 in 2011
  • Pelagic Cormorants – 20 – which seems to be about normal.

Herons (stalk fish and other prey in shallow water)

  • Great Blue Herons – 15 – which is close to the record of 16 set in 2015.

Swans and Geese (found in lakes, ponds and moving water)

  • No Trumpeter Swans – they haven’t been in a Christmas Count since 2018 and were usually only 1 or 2. 
  • No Tundra Swans – there was one in the weekly sighting last year, but not previously
  • Canada Goose – 1, in total – that’s an incredible drop from the record breaking 233 in 2005.

Ducks (small swimming bird found in fresh and ocean water)

  • Green-winged Teal  – 2 – at Blue Jay Lbeingake. This is another bird which has not been recorded in double digit numbers.The record is 8 in 2005. 
  • Mallards – 10 – This is the second lowest count ever, the worst year being 2010. There were a record breaking 142 Mallards in 2005.
  • Ring-necked ducks – 2 – which have not been seen in double digits since 2010.
  • Greater Scaup – 65 – a new record.
  • Lesser Scaup – 2 – the first since 2020, when there were 4, but their appearances in the record appear to be sporadic. The record is 6 in 2017.
  • Harlequin Ducks – 77 – which seems normal, the record was 156 in 2001.
  • Long-tailed Ducks – 3 – there weren’t any last year. The record is 32 in 2002. 
  • Surf Scoter – 1, 411 – the second highest count ever. the record being 1,440 in 2001. 
  • White-winged scoters – 52 – a species that is listed sporadically. There weren’t any last year and the record is 135 in 2005.
  • Common Goldeneyes – 40 – which is a significant drop from last year, when there were 109, but seems about normal
  • Barrow’s Goldeneyes – 56 – a dip from the past two years, but about normal. There were 224 in 2008.
  • Buffleheads – 133 – the highest number since 2013, but the record was 554 in 2001. 
  • Hooded mergansers – 4 – which seems average, there haven’t been two digit reports since 2005. 
  • Common Mergansers – 23 – which is average 
  • Red breasted Mergansers – 16 – considerably down from the high of 83 in 2021.

Kites, hawks, and eagles (predators)

  • 1 Cooper’s Hawk – which is normal
  • Red-tailed hawk – 1 -There were 2 last year.
  • Bald Eagles – 22 – lower than in recent years. The record was 83 in 2015. 

No falcons, grouse, or rails

  • There was a Merlin (Falcon) last year and representatives of all three categories in 2021

Plovers (wading birds)

  • Semipalmated Plover – 1 – there haven’t been any since 2015 
  • Killdeer – 4 – There were 5 last year

Oyster-catchers (wading birds)

  • Black Oystercatchers – 25 – there were 11 last year and 49 in 2021

Sandpipers (wading birds)

  • Greater-yellowlegs – 3 – and none in other counts since 2019.
  • Black Turnstones – 15 – there were 35 last year

Gulls (a seabird at home on land, water or flying)

  • Mew Gulls – 12 – which is a drastic drop. The high was 921 in 2019
  • Glaucus Wing Gulls – 90 – similar to last year, the high being 418 in 2002.
  • Glaucus Wing Western Hybrid Gulls – 2 – which started appealing in the 2010 count. There have been 4 every year since 2020. 

Auks, Puffins (diving seabirds)

  • Marbled Murrelets – 13 – a marked increase over last year. The record was 82 in 2016.

Pigeons, Doves (Land birds that eat seeds, fruits and vegetables)

  • No Rock Doves or Collared Doves – there haven’t been in the count since 2014 

Owls (nocturnal birds of prey)

  • No Screech Owls in a Christmas count since 2019
  • No Great Horns – there was 1 in the weekly count during 2021.
  • Northern Pygmy Owls – 1 – this is the first record of them in the Christmas count since 3 in 2015.
  • Barred Owl – 1 – which seems low. Yhe high was 6 in 2005.

Hummingbirds (wings create a humming sound)

  • Anna’s Hummingbirds – 14 – there have been 13 the past two years and 31 in 2020. 
  • Rufous Hummingbirds – none – the only Christmas count they appear in was 2019. 

Kingfishers (dive into the water for their food)

  • Belted Kingfishers – 9 – the highest number since 2019. The record was 11 in 2001.

Woodpeckers (hunt for insects living in trees)

  • No Red breasted Sapsuckers – & there weren’t any last year, but 9 Red-breasted Sapsuckers in 2021.
  • Downy Woodpecker – 1 – there weren’t any last year, but usually between 1 and 4.
  • Hairy Woodpecker – 5 – there were 3 last year.
  • Northern Flicker – 10 – the record being 35 in 2013.
  • Pileated Woodpeckers – 4 – there weren’t any last year, which is the first time that has happened.

Jays, Crows Magpies (commonly called the Crow family)

  • Steller’s Jays – 7 –  which is low, though not as bad as last year (when there was 1). The record is 72 in 2004.
  • Northwestern Crow – 43 –  the best report since 2019. The record is 105 in 2001. 
  • Common Raven – 31 – the lowest count since 2018. The high is 50 in 2003.

Chickadees, Nuthatches, Creepers (Woodland songbirds)

  • Chestnut-backed Chickadees – 73 – the highest count since 2011, the record is 100 in 2001.
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch – 2 – the lowest count since 2018.
  • Brown Creeper – 6 – the highest count since 2009, when 9 were spotted

Wrens (common backyard songbirds)

  • Pacific Wrens – 40 – the most numerous since 2016, when there was a record breaking 77.

Thrushes and Kingletts (Woodland songbirds)

  • Golden Crown Kinglets – 40 – the record is 104 in 2006
  • Ruby Crowned Kinglets – have not been in the count since 2020. 
  • Hermit Thrushes – 2 – which are only appear in the counts sporadically
  • American Robins – 2 – which is a significant drop. The high was 150 in 2005. 
  • Varied Thrushes – 5 – another significant drop. There were 33 last year and the high was 96 in 2010.

Starlings (omnivorous songbirds, known for widespread foraging)

  • European starlings – 45 – the highest count since 2019. The record is 103 in 2009.

Sparrows (songbirds usually living around human areas)

  • Spotted Towhees  – 32 – last year there was a record breaking 166.
  • Fox Sparrows – 4 – more often than not there are double digits. The record was 49 in 2021.
  • Song Sparrows -15 – another low year, but there have been worse. There were 20 last year and 68 in 2012.
  • White-crowned Sparrows – none – there were 2 last year, but nothing since 2009 prior to that.   
  • Golden Crowned Sparrows – 5 – there were 8 last year, when the record was set.  
  • Dark Eyed Juncos – 129 – the lowest year on record; the highest was 717 in 2022r.

Meadowlarks & Blackbirds (songbirds found in open, or human occupied, areas )

  • Brewer’s Blackbird – Laurel said, “George has 2, there were 9.” – Though she did not see any personally, there are records of previous sightings in 2016, 2019 and 2021.  

CC: Going forward, do you have any thoughts for the 2024 Christmas bird count? 

Laurel Bohart: “I’m  hoping next year we can gather more people  and  what I’d like to see ithem trained on bird identification. You bring them in here or do a movie on bird calls, but visuals are most important. If you can hear a wren and identify it by sound, you don’t need to see it. It’s the same as just about any other small bird. But birds like kinglets have very similar voices, and so you have to eye them to be sure.”

CC: If you could put together the perfect bird count for Cortes Island, what would it look like?

Laurel Bohart: “I would love to see an entire army of about a thousand people going through all of Cortes, including the trails to the north end, and taking about a week in order to do a proper survey. Say you do one in spring, one in summer, one in fall, and one in winter. Then you have a better idea of what species stay on the island in winter, which species are migrating. How long it takes the youngsters to grow, how soon they’re migrating.”

Top image credit: Surf scoter – Photo by  Shanthanu Bhardwaj via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

This story initially contained a factual error regarding the number of participants, which was subsequently corrected.

*Footnote: There has been a Christmas Bird Count since 2001 and a Spring Bird Count since 2001. 

Sign-up for Cortes Currents email-out:

To receive an emailed catalogue of articles on Cortes Currents, send a (blank) email to subscribe to your desired frequency: