The John Hintermister Gainesville Christmas Bird Count 2023 – A Recap

Photo by Tedd Greenwald

Just like every year, in 2023, about 10 days before the John Hintermister Gainesville Christmas Bird Count, I started scanning the weather forecasts, trying to get some idea of what kind of conditions we would be dealing with come count day. In those pre-count days, we also were out scoping fields and marshes, pinning down those hard-to-find species, and in 2023 we had discovered many great species – like Tropical Kingbird, Red-throated Loon, Short-eared Owl, LeConte’s Sparrow – leading up to count day. However, it’s hard to predict what Mother Nature is going to throw at you in mid-December, whether it be blustering wind, crackling thunderstorms, suffocating fog, driving rain, freezing cold, or, more hopefully, one of those north Florida-famous cool calm mornings with an afternoon of abundant blue sky.

     For the past few decades this count has been fortunate to have mostly benign weather conditions. This all ended in 2023. Ten days out the weather looked grim, with all-day rain predicted. Over the following days, that forecast persisted or worsened, with most daylight hours showing 80-90% precipitation along with a good bit of wind. A few days out, the forecast for the afternoon at least brightened. Come CBC eve on Saturday night the rain started and continued steady until dawn. Unfortunately, those meteorologists were right: morning hours – prime birding time – were mostly wet, with a steady stiff breeze to exacerbate efforts to find and hear birds. Those seers also were right that the afternoon was much nicer, with little or no rain and even a spell of blue sky. The winds, though, continued.

     All this meteorology provides probably the most crucial backdrop of how easy it will be to find birds and what sort of results the CBC will produce. If conditions are good, it is more like a footnote and the results speak for themselves. But when you are dealing with the nasty condition we faced Sunday morning, it was our foremost topic of conservation when the day ended. So how did we fare? Our results were much better than I ever could have imagined.

     Although we missed the kingbird and loon mentioned above, many other rarities were pulled out of the mist, and we managed to find almost all regularly occurring species. The truly amazing final count is 173 species, just two off our all-time high of 175! The top bird of this CBC was a Short-eared Owl at Bolen Bluff (Team 4) which had only been seen once before on this count (in 1991). Other rarities found were one Vaux’s Swift, one Yellow-crowned Night Heron, six American Avocets (seen on just two previous counts in 1990 and 1991), four Black-bellied Plovers (seen on just two previous counts in 1989 and 2000), one White-faced Ibis, two LeConte’s Sparrow, and two Gray-headed Swamphens, all by Teams 1 or 2 in the prairie basin. Team 2 also dug up an Ash-throated Flycatcher at its regular spot on Persimmon Point and five Bachman’s Sparrows at Boulware Springs, two of the latter were also found by Team 10 at Morningside Nature Park. And at suburban feeders in NW Gainesville Team 9 found a Nashville Warbler, a Western Tanager, and a Rufous Hummingbird.

     With the inclement weather, many species showed lower than expected numbers. Our usual forays into the prairie by two teams in airboats were cancelled because of safety concerns associated with high afternoon winds, resulting in much reduced waterbird numbers (e.g., Limpkin, American Bittern, Ring-necked Duck, Snail Kite). The weather particularly affected our ability to find passerines, with most species showing lower abundance compared to our usual numbers, which often lead the country. However, this fall’s drought conditions (count day excepted) resulted in lots of exposed mudflats on the prairie and our intrepid prairie teams recorded record-high numbers of shorebirds (154 Dunlins, 273 Long-billed Dowitchers, 160 Least Sandpipers). This habitat is also perfect for large waders, and 800 Wood Storks (almost double our previous high), 3451 White Ibis, and 942 Glossy Ibis all exceeded previous highs. The most- eye-catching number of all was 48 Roseate Spoonbills; our previous high was 12 and the species was not even recorded on the count until 2012. Given the conditions, 46 Virginia Rails was truly unexpected; our previous high was 28.

     Of the 163 regularly occurring species on our list, we did quite well and failed to find only five. The most surprising misses were Field Sparrow (not missed since 2000), Ruddy Duck (not missed since 2007), and Snow Goose (we were having a great fall with up to 40 on the prairie until count day). Horned Grebe and Fox Sparrow are rather uncommon in the count circle and are more frequently missed.

     I want to give huge thanks to my co-compiler Bob Carroll, who steadfastly helped me steer this count the past seven years into being the juggernaut that it is today. Bob is an organizational guru, a task I will never excel at. He has taken the boring but just as important half of CBC data-crunching, figuring out the effort (party hours, part miles, by foot, owling, etc.) that goes into counting all those 173 species and 57,700+ individuals. The scientific contribution of CBCs is wholly dependent on providing accurate data on effort. This is Bob’s last year as co-compiler, but we will hopefully continue to see him for many more years as one of our crack bird finders and counters.

     Bob also helped to stage the compilation, where 65+ bedraggled and wet bird counters assemble to socialize, eat pizza, drink our favorite beverages, and tabulate our day’s results. And over the past 42 years, those life-restoring eats and drinks have been flawlessly delivered to the compilation by Griselda Forbes, a wonderful woman and past president of the Alachua Audubon Society. This is her final year in this role, but we plan to see her at many more compilations. Thanks to Bob and Griselda!

Species list (bold-faced species = rarity; bold-faced count = high count):

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck 9001, Muscovy Duck 212, Wood Duck 251, Gadwall 44, American Wigeon 30, Mallard 2, Mottled Duck 321, Blue-winged Teal 1584, Northern Shoveler 22, Northern Pintail 171, Green-winged Teal 126, Redhead 1, Ring-necked Duck 1855, Greater Scaup 1, Lesser Scaup 11, Bufflehead 12, Common Goldeneye 1, Hooded Merganser 183, Red-breasted Merganser 5, Northern Bobwhite 14, Wild Turkey 174, Pied-billed Grebe 52, Rock Pigeon 42, Eurasian Collared Dove 1, Common Ground-Dove 28, Mourning Dove 269, White-winged Dove 1, Whip-Poor-Will 6, Vaux’s Swift 1, Ruby-throated Hummingbird 6, Rufous Hummingbird 1, King Rail 17, Virginia Rail 46, Sora 44, Gray-headed Swamphen 2, Purple Gallinule 2, Common Gallinule 279, American Coot 424, Limpkin 61, Sandhill Crane 4069, Black-bellied Plover 8, Killdeer 428, American Avocet 6, Dunlin 154, Least Sandpiper 225, Wilson’s Snipe 438, Long-billed Dowitcher 257, American Woodcock 10, Spotted Sandpiper 3, Greater Yellowlegs 152, Lesser Yellowlegs 68, Bonaparte’s Gull 16, Laughing Gull 1, Ring-billed Gull 543, Herring Gull 1, Forster’s Tern 31, Common Loon 1, Wood Stork 800, Double-crested Cormorant 544, Anhinga 341, American White Pelican 500, American Bittern 10, Least Bittern 9, Great Blue Heron 248, Great Egret 403, Snowy Egret 293, Little Blue Heron 505, Tricolored Heron 111, Cattle Egret 90, Green Heron 11, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 2, Black-crowned Night-Heron 51, White Ibis 3451, Glossy Ibis 942, White-faced Ibis 1, Roseate Spoonbill 48, Black Vulture 464, Turkey Vulture 1155, Osprey 59, Snail Kite 52, Bald Eagle 135, Northern Harrier 51, Sharp-shinned Hawk 13, Cooper’s Hawk 11, Red-shouldered Hawk 153, Red-tailed Hawk 31, Barn Owl 2, Eastern Screech-Owl 8, Great Horned Owl 35, Barred Owl 27, Short-eared Owl 1, Belted Kingfisher 40, Red-headed Woodpecker 6, Red-bellied Woodpecker 203, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 42, Downy Woodpecker 118, Northern Flicker 33, Pileated Woodpecker 60, American Kestrel 45, Merlin 2, Peregrine Falcon 4, Eastern Phoebe 312, Vermilion Flycatcher 1, Ash-throated Flycatcher 1, Loggerhead Shrike 31, White-eyed Vireo 37, Blue-headed Vireo 48, Blue Jay 130, American Crow 654, Fish Crow 7, Tree Swallow 28, Carolina Chickadee 272, Tufted Titmouse 399, Brown-headed Nuthatch 1, House Wren 150, Sedge Wren 39, Marsh Wren 20, Carolina Wren 352, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 388, Golden-crowned Kinglet 1, Ruby-crowned Kinglet 524, Eastern Bluebird 280, Hermit Thrush 30, American Robin 1178, Gray Catbird 97, Brown Thrasher 17, Northern Mockingbird 100, European Starling 11, Cedar Waxwing 130, House Sparrow 20, American Pipit 1, House Finch 105, American Goldfinch 97, Ovenbird 13, Northern Waterthrush 8, Black-and-White Warbler 108, Orange-crowned Warbler 79, Nashville Warbler 1, Common Yellowthroat 138, American Redstart 2, Northern Parula 1, Palm Warbler 866, Pine Warbler 219, Yellow-rumped Warbler 1159, Yellow-throated Warbler 50, Prairie Warbler 2, Wilson’s Warbler 2, Yellow-breasted Chat 2, Eastern Towhee 58, Bachman’s Sparrow 7, Chipping Sparrow 1222, Vesper Sparrow 2, Savannah Sparrow 181, Grasshopper Sparrow 6, Le Conte’s Sparrow 2,  Henslow’s Sparrow 4, Song Sparrow 27, Lincoln’s Sparrow 3, Swamp Sparrow 307, White-throated Sparrow 41, White-crowned Sparrow 22, Summer Tanager 3, Western Tanager 1, Northern Cardinal 707, Indigo Bunting 1, Painted Bunting 7, Red-winged Blackbird 5910, Eastern Meadowlark 106, Rusty Blackbird 79, Common Grackle 1669, Boat-tailed Grackle 1673, Brown-headed Cowbird 2730, Baltimore Oriole 35.

Andy Kratter, Co-compiler John Hintermister Gainesville Christmas Bird Count
Collections Manager, Ornithology
Florida Museum of Natural History