December 31, 2016’s 117th Audubon Christmas Bird Count is now going into the books. Our final official tally is 196 species.
This tally can be found at this link:
117th Santa Barbara CBC results
As has been the case for several years now, our months of preparation for this large CBC effort focused on weather: the drought and its impacts; what was in store this winter; would our dwindling bodies of water get relief? A bit of early October rain quickly evaporated, but then December began to look like a normal rain year for Santa Barbara! Ponds and puddles brought waterfowl, dry sloughs and creek outfalls filled, overflowed, and opened to the ocean. Conditions improved along with our spirits. And as always, birders scouted the hotspots, turning up a few nice surprises—the returning Tufted Duck, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Warbling Vireo among them. But few other rarities popped up during December, and numbers of regular species seemed low by all accounts. Where were the warblers and sparrows?
Count Day dawned just as predicted: cold (for us), with all manner of precipitation depending on where you were birding. The mountains had fog, hail, snow, and wind. The coastal strip had drizzle and then steady rain, brief periods of bright sunlight, and generally stirred-up conditions. And finally, the weather became the story of the day. Small craft advisories scrubbed the boat outing, so our pelagic birding regulars did sea watches from various points of land. Mountain teams navigated road washouts by bicycle, hiked slippery trails, changed flat truck tires, and napped in their vehicles waiting for the dense fog to clear enough to see anything. Along the coast, birders ducked in and out of their assigned areas, seeking bird activity in the bright moments and refuge during the downpours. The noon checklist rundown at Goleta Beach was held in pelting rain under cover of the Beachside Restaurant patio. And even in these less than perfect birding conditions, it was hard not to be ecstatic over the rain!
The evening countdown confirmed our suspicion that we might be looking at a lower-than-normal species total, but all of us were surprised at just how low: 195 at the evening’s close, which rose by one to 196 in the final compilation (we thought we had missed Osprey, but it was found at east Devereux). This total is Santa Barbara’s lowest in over 25 years, and many factors have played a part. The drought and its impact on wintering species has finally caught up to us—the birds are simply not here. The day’s weather conditions also made finding anything a challenge, so individual totals for many species—particularly land birds—were low. During the compiling process the week after Count Day, we consistently found many numbers down a third or more from normal. And as we are learning from other Southern California counts, similar trends were evident in many places. Our notable misses were legion this year: American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Dunlin, Western Sandpiper, Greater Roadrunner, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and all oriole species except Bullock’s. As in many Southern California counts this season, montane species were scarce: no Red-breasted Nuthatch, no Pine Siskin, no Mountain Chickadee. Our one montane exception was Townsend’s Solitaire, a nice surprise at the end of the day on La Cumbre Peak.
On the positive side, the 117th CBC brought two new species to our records: Laughing Gull, presumably the same bird lingering since first recorded early last summer, and Prairie Warbler, found just before count day. The returning Tufted Duck, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Warbling Vireo were all seen on count day, as were nice surprises such as an immature Bald Eagle, seen first at UCSB, then over Shoreline Park, then in Montecito, clearly moving east! Other highlights: six Common Mergansers flying up the Santa Ynez River toward Gibraltar Reservoir; American White Pelican at Gibraltar Reservoir (a record high count of 84); Mountain Quail calling at West Camino Cielo; Spotted Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl in the mountains; Tropical Kingbird at Chase Palm Park; Tennessee Warbler in Goleta; Swamp Sparrow at the Zoo; and stakeouts including Eurasian Wigeon, Costa’s Hummingbird, and Black-headed Grosbeak.
For those of you who enjoy rankings, here are a few national high counts (some totals may still be unofficial):
229 Matagorda County/Mad Island Marsh, TX
210 San Diego, CA
206 Guadalupe River Delta, TX
200 Morro Bay, CA
197 Point Reyes, CA
196 Santa Barbara
189 Freeport, TX
184 Oceanside Carlsbad
177 Corpus Christi, TX
Thanks to Santa Barbara Audubon volunteers and all the dedicated birders who made this effort possible.
Rebecca Coulter, Jared Dawson, Liz Muraoka, and Joan Murdoch
SB CBC Coordinators