Birds of Wisconsin, Citizen Science

2020 Milwaukee Christmas Bird Count Recap

2020 marked the 121st Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the longest running community science project in the nation. Much like everything else this year, the Milwaukee Christmas Bird Count had to be altered a tad. But with social distancing, we were still able to get outside and experience the joy that birds can bring, while at the same time contributing important data.

Christmas Bird Count Origins

The Christmas Bird Count started on Christmas day in 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed holding a bird census instead of the traditional bird hunts that were popular at the time. Since then, count circles have been established all over the country, and the tradition of counting birds lives on. The data gathered from these counts provides valuable information to ornithologists and conservationists on the health of bird populations, how ranges are shifting, and provide insight into conservation efforts.

Milwaukee Circle History

The Milwaukee Circle was first established in 1905 with just two birders participating in the first year. From 1905-1946, counts were held irregularly, but since 1946, Milwaukee has only missed one count! The circle is a 15-mile diameter centered at Port Washington Road and Hampton Avenue, and encompasses almost the entire city. It runs north to Virmond Park in Mequon, south to South Shore Yacht Club in Bay View, west to the Menomonee River Parkway, with Lake Michigan creating the entire eastern border. Many great birding hotspots are within our area  including Lake Park, all three Urban Ecology Center locations, County Grounds, and Schlitz Audubon to just name a few.

2020 Milwaukee Christmas Bird Count Summary

This year, despite (or maybe because of) the pandemic, we had excellent coverage in our area, and on Saturday, December 19, over 70 birders participated in the field or by watching their bird feeders. Counters went out into their assigned areas either solo or in very small groups to find and tally all of the species they could identify.

Zoe Finney, Milwaukee Christmas Bird Count Compiler, birding in the field.

Nearly 100 miles were covered on foot, and many hours were spent behind scopes watching for various waterfowl along Lake Michigan. It was an unseasonably pleasant day with no snow, and hardly any wind. We were able to cover more of Milwaukee this year than we have the past few years and were able to collectively find some excellent species!

Our final results show that we observed 76 species plus 3 taxa (where the birder was able to identify family level, but not identify the exact species). For comparison, in 2018 we observed 64 species, and in 2019, 67. Highlights for 2020 included a Red-throated Loon, two Northern Shrike, three Merlin, three Carolina Wren, one Horned Lark, a Red-winged Blackbird, and a decent showing of winter finches including a group of 35 Common Redpolls, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin. While we had quite a few notable birds, there were a few species that we sadly missed, including Great Blue Heron, and Song Sparrow.

At the virtual post-count Zoom gathering, there was a common refrain that it felt like a “slow day” out in the field, or that the birds felt more sparse than usual, even for December. But that is one of the great aspects about an event like the CBC where everyone is out birding at the same time but in different locations across an entire city…it truly is the collective effort that makes the difference. Between 76 birders, we tallied 15,848 individual birds!

Thank you to all of the birders who participated and made this another great Christmas Bird Count!