Birds of Wisconsin, Citizen Science

2021 Milwaukee Christmas Bird Count Recap

2021 marked the 122nd Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running community science project in the nation. In the Milwaukee Circle, we had an exciting year with more birders volunteering than usual, and some very interesting rarities popping up on our count day!

Christmas Bird Count Origins

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) 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.

2021 Milwaukee Christmas Bird Count Summary

On Saturday, December 18, with the weather in the mid 20’s and a slight northerly wind, we had over 100 birders (111 to be exact!) spread out across the Milwaukee Circle in county parks, nature centers, backyards, beaches, and neighborhoods identifying and tallying all of the birds that we could find. Our counters ranged from first-time participants to birders who have been participating for decades. The beauty of an event like the CBC is that more experienced birders can be paired with newer birders, and newer birders often bring an excitement that is difficult to manufacture, especially on cold December days. Every level of participation makes the count stronger, and we’re grateful for the dedication and interest people show each and every year to the count. Collectively we surveyed Milwaukee for 141 hours, and covered 240 miles either on foot or by car.

We identified 78 species plus 2 taxa—where the birder could identify the family level at least, but not determine an exact species. For comparison, last year, we identified 76 species, and the year before 67. We had some very interesting highlights this year, including some species that are not usually found during winter in Milwaukee, including a Ruddy Turnstone (a shorebird that should already be in a coastal area like Florida by December), and FOUR Warbler species during count week including Pine Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler (both also incredibly far from their usual winter range!) on count day. With these rarities, it’s difficult to tell if it was a fluke because we had some extreme southerly winds a few days before the count, or if these discoveries are pointing to a bigger story. Time will certainly tell if these trends continue year to year, which is exactly the point of the CBC.

Other highlights that were also exciting but not AS shocking, were Fox Sparrow, White-winged Crossbill, Carolina Wren, Snowy Owl, and a Northern Saw-whet Owl. We nearly missed Pine Siskin, but thankfully one individual showed up at a feeder! Among all 111 birders, we tallied the stunning number of 12,791 individual birds. It is the collective nature of the Christmas Bird Count that makes it a success. Obviously, an individual birder, or even a small group, would not be able to cover as much ground or see as many species as the group as a whole. Every area covered, no matter how seemingly small, counts!

Thank you to all of the birders who participated and made this another great Christmas Bird Count. Save the date for next year: Saturday, December 17!