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Record breaker: Harlan County CBC recap

The Harlan County Christmas Bird Count (CBC) took place 15 December and it set a record.  Previous Harlan County CBC’s were held in consecutive years from 1996-2001 and the CBC resumed in 2014.  Below, I provide a summary of the results from the 2016 edition of the Harlan County CBC.

This Double-crested Cormorant sitting on a rock at the base of Harlan County dam illustrates the weather conditions endured during the CBC. Perhaps this was not the best spot to sit on a windy, cold day.

Conditions:  Weather was obviously cold ahead of the CBC.  The lake was about 80% open, but all other water bodies, including the Republican River, were mostly or completely frozen.  We also had a rather stiff south breeze on the day of the count that made birding conditions less than ideal.  Temperatures ranged from 8 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Species total:  Eighteen observers tallied 90 species, which is a new record count.  The previous record was 85 species recorded in 1998 and 1999.  I also believe, based on a quick review, the Harlan County CBC is now only the second count in Nebraska to reach the 90 species pinnacle (the other is, of course, Lake McConaughy).

New CBC species:  A whopping four species were recorded for the first time in 2016; Brewer’s Blackbird, an unidentified Calidris sandiper, Swamp Sparrow and Barred Owl are all new additions.  Harlan County is at the western edge of the Barred Owl’s range in Nebraska and it has long been suspected there should be a few in the count circle.  Owling efforts have unsuccessfully tried to detect this species, but the one found during the CBC was a bird flushed from its daytime roost.  One party also reported a Pink-sided Junco, which is a new subspecies for the count.

Almost new CBC species:  A Great-tailed Grackle was observed the day before the CBC, but missed the day of the count.

Other notable birds:  Ruddy Duck (1), Common Loon (1), 6 species of gulls (including California, Thayer’s and Lesser Black-backed), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (2), Red-breasted Nuthatch (2), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1), Fox Sparrow (3), Rusty Blackbird (2) and Purple Finch (1).

Count Week birds:  Species seen before the CBC, but not observed the day of the CBC include Wood Duck, Green-winged Teal, Killdeer, Golden Eagle and the aforementioned Great-tailed Grackle.

A large flock of Snow and Ross’s Geese at Harlan County Lake.

Record counts:  Record counts of individual birds were the 62,370 Snow Geese (previous high count was 24,545 in 2015), an estimated 630 Ross’s Geese (33 in 1998), 21 Hooded Mergansers (14 in 2015), 117 Northern Bobwhite (16 in 1999), 3 Prairie Falcons (1, multiple years), 4 Carolina Wrens (3 in 1998 & 1999), 23 Yellow-rumped Warblers (17 in 1998 & 2001), 116 White-crowned Sparrows (114 in 1998).   The estimate for Ross’s Geese was based on sampling of flocks that showed at least 1% of white geese were Ross’s Geese.

Bigest miss:  Merlin has been recorded on seven of the eight previous CBCs.

Other misses:  Great Blue Heron (recorded on 6/8 of the previous CBCs), Greater Prairie-Chicken (5/8), American White Pelican (4/8) and Winter Wren (4/8).  Missing the heron was not a big surprise because of the recent cold weather and the iced over conditions of rivers and streams.  Also, no grebes were found.

Biggest absence:  As I did last year with this summary, I am making a distinction between a species present but not detected and one not present.   During the first iteration (1996-2001), Black-billed Magpies were recorded every year (average number tallied was 24).  In 2014, only 3 were found.  None were found last year or this year, unfortunately.   This species has been declining in Nebraska for over a decade and has disappeared from some areas and is on the verge of disappearing from other areas.  The likely cause of the decline is West Nile Virus.  Black-capped Chickadees were also hit hard by West Nile Virus.  Their numbers also appear to be depressed compared to numbers encountered during the first iteration of the CBC.  The graphic below illustrates this point for both species.

Graphic showing the number of Black-billed Magpies and Black-capped Chickadees recorded per party hour by year (points) during all years of the Harlan County CBC. Trend line shows the generally decline of both species from the first (1996-2001) through the second (2014-2016) interations of the CBC.

Sapsuckers continue to show well:  Zero Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were recorded during the first iteration (1996-2001) of the Harlan County CBC, but the species has been recorded on all three recent counts.  Two sapsuckers were tallied in 2016.

Participants:  Many thanks to individuals that braved snow and cold and did a great job counting birds.  This year’s participants were:  Mary Bomberger Brown, Clem Klaphake, Bette Klaphake, Lauren Dinan, Kenny Dinan, Larry Einemann, Andrew Furman, Robin Harding, Alice Heckman, Mallory Irvine, Joel Jorgensen, Richard Mathieson, Marty Mathieson, John Murphy, Lanny Randolph, Logan Shoup, Ross Silcock and T.J. Walker.

A few Red-breasted Mergansers, like this one, can usually be found among the hordes of Common Mergansers during the CBC.

The overall species list is below.

Good birding!

The Harlan County Christmas Bird Count species list

Greater White-fronted Goose

Snow Goose

Ross’s Goose

Cackling Goose

Canada Goose

Wood Duck (CW)


American Wigeon


Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal (CW)



Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup


Common Goldeneye

Hooded Merganser

Common Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Northern Bobwhite

Ring-necked Pheasant

Wild Turkey

Common Loon

Double-crested Cormorant

Bald Eagle

Northern Harrier

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

American Kestrel

Prairie Falcon

American Coot

Killdeer (CW)

Calidris spp.

Bonaparte’s Gull

Ring-billed Gull

California Gull

Thayer’s Gull

Herring Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collard-Dove

Mourning Dove

Eastern Screech-Owl

Great Horned Owl

Barred Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

Northern Shrike

Blue Jay

American Crow

Horned Lark

Black-capped Chickadee

White-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Brown Creeper

Carolina Wren

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Eastern Bluebird

American Robin

European Starling

Cedar Waxwing

Lapland Longspur

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Spotted Towhee

American Tree Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Northern Cardinal

Red-winged Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle (CW)

Meadowlark (sp.)

Purple Finch

House Finch

Pine Siskin

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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