2020 Toppenish and Yakima Valley Christmas Bird Count Recap

Toppenish Christmas Bird Count Summary

On this year’s Toppenish Christmas Bird Count, things were a little bit different. For one thing, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic led to some logistical challenges, such as the cancelation of our pre-count breakfast and post-count dinner. Also abnormal, we were treated to beautiful weather! The clear skies and temperatures in the mid 50s were a stark contrast to contrast to last year’s count, which was obscenely foggy and cold.

One of the most obvious trends this year was the abundance of waterfowl, clearly taking advantage of the open water. This general abundance was highlighted by a number of noteworthy species, including Redhead (4th count record), Greater Scaup (10th), Canvasback, Western Grebe (5th), and Common Loon (3rd). We also had a high count of Hooded Mergansers this year, the third year in a row now that we have had a high count of this species. We had three other high counts this year: California Scrub-Jay, Lesser Goldfinch, and Brown-headed Cowbird. Both Lesser Goldfinch and California Scrub-Jay have only recently been noted on the count and are continuing their expansion into the Yakima Valley. A number of other species were noted in high numbers, with Common Ravens, Bewick’s Wren and Savannah Sparrow all being more common than usual. Only one species was seen in abnormally low numbers, the American Robin, of which we only recorded 18 of on the count, the second lowest tally ever.

As you may have gleaned, this was a great year for unusual species. The aforementioned Redhead, Greater Scaup, Canvasback, Western Grebe, Common Loon, California Scrub-Jay (4th count record) and Lesser Goldfinch (2nd) were all of note for the count, as well as Sandhill Crane (3rd), Swamp Sparrow (5th), Say’s Phoebe (8th), Bushtit, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Fox Sparrow, and Pine Siskin. All of these uncommon species amounted to us recording the third highest total for the Toppenish CBC, with 91 species! We also counted 15,668 individuals this year, a few thousand below our average for the count.

This year I have been playing around with some trendlines of our long-term data. You probably don’t recall, but last year I mentioned that the last few years have seen low counts of Black-billed Magpie, Mourning Dove and Western Meadowlark. I’ve attached the trendlines of these species in the email. Western Meadowlark seems to be showing the most obvious decline, with a steady decline of about 2 birds per year since 1983 (Figure 1a). Given the imperiled nature of North American grasslands, this unfortunately does not come as a huge surprise. Black-billed Magpies have also been steadily declining for the duration of the count, averaging a decline of 6 individuals per year since 1983 (Figure 1b). Magpies were actually pretty stable until about 2008, with an average count of 439 per count between 1983 and 2008. However, since 2008, that average has dropped to just 204 individuals per count, less than half of the average in the first 25 years of the count. We tallied 350 Magpies this year, the most since 2008, so perhaps they will rebound, but this is still below the average of the first 25 years, giving us cause for concern.

Mourning Doves are an interesting enough case to get their own paragraph. Between 1983 and 2011, the annual count of Mourning Doves was actually increasing by about 3 individuals a year. Can you guess what happened in 2011? Enter the Eurasian Collared-Dove. This Eurasian invader was first recorded on the count in 2009 and began to really become established in 2011, eventually skyrocketing to a high count of 689 in 2017, less than ten years after their first detection. They have averaged a growth of 30 individuals a year since their establishment (Figure 2a). I have heard varied opinions as to whether people think Collared-Doves are negatively influencing Mourning Dove populations. Most people seem to think they are coexisting well. However, our count data may paint a different picture. Since 2011 (when Collared-Doves took hold), Mourning Doves have declined by roughly 43 individuals a year (Figure 2b). 43!!! That’s seriously concerning. Now, it is worth mentioning that Mourning Doves appear to oscillate cyclically, with dips in their population every 3 to 7 years (Figure 2c). We still need more data to show that there is a direct correlation between the increase of Collared-Doves and decline of Mourning Doves. However, it’s been 9 years since the establishment of Collared-Doves now, more time than the average oscillation in Mourning Dove population. Not a good sign. There are a number of other factors that could be contributing to this trend, but anecdotally, I feel like I am seeing many fewer Mourning Doves than I used to around these parts, while I just seem to be seeing more and more Collared-Doves. This will be something to watch closely in the coming years.

There have also been a number of species that have seen an increase in their numbers over the course of the Toppenish CBC. Red-tailed Hawks, for example, have been increasing by roughly 2 individuals a year since the inauguration of the count (Figure 3a). Bewick’s Wrens and Spotted Towhees have also become more common over the last 37 years, growing by about 1 and .5 individuals a year respectively (Figure 3b/3c). However, these increases may be linked to our overwhelmingly negative impacts on the planet. Red-tailed Hawks may be increasing due to the increase in land cleared for agriculture, as they coexist well with our human developments. Similarly, Bewick’s Wrens are likely expanding northward, just like the Lesser Goldfinch and California Scrub-Jay, due to anthropogenic climate change and the milder climate we now inhabit. Lastly, Spotted Towhees could theoretically be increasing as continued deforestation and a prevalence of wildfires leads to the clearing of forests and a subsequent rise in the shrubby thickets they covet in the breeding season. These are all hypothetical explanations, but it’s easy to see how the growth in the populations of these species may be caused by our continual destruction of the natural world.

Well, sorry if these final notes have been a bit discouraging, but I really appreciate the hard work that all of you have put into the count this year and years past! It is because of you that we are able to pick up on these warning signs and begin to see these worrisome trends in our own backyards. I hope to see you next year, so we can continue to collect the important data this count provides! Happy New Year to all!

-Eric Heisey

Yakima Christmas Bird Count Summary

Fourteen birders in ten groups on the Yakima Valley Christmas Bird Count found 91 species and 18,389 individual birds. 91 species is right at the average of the last ten counts. The record is 97 species set in 2015. The total of individual birds is a little above the all-time average but well below the record of 29,260 set in 1994.


Thank you to everyone who participated in this count this year. Hopefully COVID-19 will be under control next year and we can get back to normal Christmas Bird Counts and normal life.

-Denny Granstrand