Christmas Bird Count

113th CBC Wisconsin Regional Summary

By Carl Schroeder

In a historic year for the Wisconsin CBC, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology CBC program and the Audubon CBC program were merged resulting in 112 counts this season, more than doubling the previous number of counts.  Wisconsin now rivals Texas and California in the number of counts and certainly surpasses them in terms of the percent of the state covered.  The next big task is to get 40 years of history from the WSO program entered in the Audubon database.

Unusually warm weather covered the state at the start of the count period in mid-December which continued to the end of the month, cooling to below freezing after Christmas and not reaching normal temperatures until the end of the count period.  Southern Wisconsin temperatures on the opening weekend were as high as 48 and stayed above freezing even in the far north.  This left extensive open water on inland lakes and rivers all the way to Lake Superior. Mild conditions persisted for two weeks and not until December 30 were most water bodies finally frozen over for the winter.

Consequently this season was outstanding for the number of water birds seen throughout the state.  Swans, geese and ducks were recorded in numbers more typical of late October or November.  Perhaps it was no surprise then that the most abundant bird of the season was Canada Goose (158,000) with  Starling at distant second at 89,000.

At the same time Wisconsin experienced an irruption of wintering birds from the north and west.  Most remarkable was the breadth of the irruption, as it was not limited to only a few species.

Due to the reported widespread crop failure of fruiting and cone-bearing trees in Canada, Red and White-winged crossbills, Common and Hoary redpolls, Pine Siskins, Pine and Evening grosbeaks, and Bohemian Waxwings headed south in search of food. The numbers and diversity of this irruption had not been seen for 15 years. Pine Siskins and White-winged Crossbills were widely seen in good numbers across the state. Both were found in numbers nearly tripled from last year.  Red Crossbills made a push into southern Wisconsin beginning back in August and continued into December when they were seen on 32 counts.  Pine Grosbeaks, an uncommon species year-round in the northern third of the state, were observed at 46 locations this year, many in the middle of the state. 

Evening Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings which were present earlier in the fall in unusually high numbers persisted at a more moderate level into the CBC period and were found farther south than in most years. Medford in the north central part of the state had the highest count of 226 Bohemians, although they were seen on 14 other CBCs as far south as Milwaukee. An unprecedented number of reports of Hoary Redpolls came in from over the state. Most years only a handful of records of this rare bird are approved by the WSO records committee for the entire winter. This year there were 35 Hoary Redpolls from 23 CBCs.

In recent years Wisconsin has experienced increases in the observations of Varied Thrush and Townsend’s Solitaire. Single Varied Thrushes were recorded on five CBCs: Blanchardville, Cable, Mount Horeb, Oconomowoc, and Rhinelander. Four counts had lone Townsend’s Solitaires: Appleton, Ephraim, Hales Corners, and Baraboo.  One Western Meadowlark was identified in Retreat.  

Hummingbirds in Wisconsin in winter? For the first time in the history of the Wisconsin CBC there were hummingbirds.  A Ruby-throated Hummingbird came to a feeder in the Sheboygan area on the count day and continued until it disappeared late in December.  Even more amazing, a Rufous Hummingbird attended a feeder in La Crosse accompanied by another Selasphorus hummingbird until the winter freeze-up.

Snow Goose was seen on seven counts with a high mark of 16 in New Franken.  Madison had 384 Cackling Goose. All three swan species were seen from border to border due to the open waters with a high of 101 Mute Swan at Washington Island at the tip of Door County, 234 Trumpeter Swan on the Mississippi River in the Hudson CBC, and 832 Tundra Swan at Retreat also on the Mississippi.  Several species of dabbling ducks were found in above average numbers: 1500 Gadwall, 750 Pintail and 1000 American Wigeon on the Mississippi in the La Crosse circle and 1550 Northern Shoveler in Madison.

The Lake Michigan coastline attracts several specialty birds not usually found inland but this year more of these showed up away from the “big pond”. A Barrows Goldeneye was found in Superior where the other great lake, Lake Superior, touches the extreme northwest corner of the state. White-winged Scoters were seen inland by the birders in the Fond du Lac, Madison, and Waterloo CBCs exceeding those seen on Lake Michigan. Even Long-tailed Duck which is very rare away from Lake Michigan was found in Appleton, Baraboo, Madison, and Lake Geneva. The most Long-tailed (1404) were seen by air over Lake Michigan within the Cedar Grove circle.  By air, meaning that an aerial survey running transects over Lake Michigan made the observation.  These surveys have been done for several years and have discovered large numbers of wintering ducks more than two miles offshore.

Red-throated Loons were found on five counts from Racine in the south near Illinois and as far north as Ephraim on Green Bay.  Madison observers found two Red-necked Grebes which breed in nearby marshes to the north but are usually no longer around in December.   A rare Eared Grebe was observed in the Hales Corner CBC and documented for the Records Committee. Nearly 11,000 American Coot were found on the numerous large lakes in the Madison area. Sandhill Cranes are normally gone with the onset of winter but stayed on 15 CBCs with the highest number, 515, on the Horicon Marsh CBC.

Not surprisingly with the warm weather, 31 Great Blue Herons found the fishing good to the end of the period and were seen across the southern half of Wisconsin on 21 circles.

Turkey Vultures enjoyed the mild temperatures and were found on four counts including two in the northeast at New Franken and Ephraim. Thirteen Northern Goshawks scattered across the upper half of the state and 13 Red-shouldered Hawks claimed widely spread locations in the lower half. Golden Eagles held the center.  Two Osprey stayed in Montello long enough to be recorded before the freeze-up.  Seventeen Snowy Owls were located and one Northern Hawk Owl. The NHOW was up near the tip of Door County on the Ephraim CBC.

The best gull find was a Slaty-backed Gull that was photographed in Superior. Two Bonaparte’s Gulls were unusually late in Sheboygan. Iceland Gulls were found in Hales Corners, Superior, and Sauk City.

Not just the first record for the CBC but the first winter record ever, a Le Conte’s Sparrow was documented on the Hustisford count, just north of the Horicon Marsh.  A Harris’s Sparrow and two Field Sparrows were found in Durand in the northwest of the state. Montello attracted a Baltimore Oriole to a feeder. On the Riveredge CBC just north of Milwaukee two specials, Summer Tanager and Rose-breasted Grosbeak, were coming to feeders during the mild weather.

Somewhat against reason, given the mild conditions, Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and American Goldfinches were all down from recent years by 40 percent or more.  These and other more typical wintering species may have been undercounted due to the rains that suppressed both the counted and counters on the opening weekend.

Many CBCs had record high species counts this year. Typical was Ashland which sits on the shore of Lake Superior in the far north.  On a balmy day with a high of 37 degrees, Ashland birders found an amazing 58 species, 13 more than their previous record.  Madison lead the state in the number of observers (105 of which 101 were in the field), parties (49) and effort (232 hours).  Located in Dane County with a diversity of habitats, Madison also found the most species, 90.  Montello, located just north of Madison found 86, followed by Appleton with 83 and Waterloo with 78.  Sauk City and La Crosse both had 73 species. Rounding out the top ten were Milwaukee, Lake Geneva, New Franken, and Oshkosh with 72.  Many of the inland counts were boosted by the waterfowl lingering on the open lakes. Some counts observed at many as 17 species of ducks.