Christmas Bird Counts

Rice Lake Christmas Bird Count Results

By Robin Maercklein

It was 4:40 a.m. December 23, 1977 and fledgling birder Robin Maercklein found himself driving his old worn out 1968 Volkswagon on his first Christmas Bird Count.  As there were only two participants in the Rice Lake Count, he covered half the territory alone.  His task: find and count every bird in a daunting 88 square miles.  Twelve hours and 52 miles later – eight of those miles on foot – he completed half of the 15 mile diameter circle.  Twenty-six species of birds were found that day.

The Rice Lake count was conducted for five years between 1974 and 1978.  Robin would participate again in 1978.  Little did he realize that he would resurrect this count 38 years later for the 115th running of the National Audubon Christmas Bird Count.  This time there were eleven participants in six teams, each covering a portion of the circle.  In addition, two others counted birds at their feeders, also within the circle.

Sponsored by the Gaylord Nelson Audubon Society the count took place on January 4th, 2015.  This was a trial run to see if we could get the minimum of ten participants that are needed to become official in 2016.   Official or not, everyone had a good time and we managed to find 33 species of birds.  The 2,486 birds counted was second only to 1977 when an incredible 48 species were observed.

Both 1977 and 1978 had seven species of waterfowl.  While we only found 4 species this year, two of them were not found previously on the count.  They are Canada Goose (344 of them!) and two Trumpeter Swans.  While most folks may be familiar with the success story of reintroduction of Trumpeter Swans to Wisconsin, many may not be aware of the successful recolonization by Canada Geese.  The older Luck count in Polk County began in 1952 but had no geese until 1988 and they have been found every year since 1997.  Likewise the Trumpeter Swan has been found annually on the Luck count since 2010.  Likewise, both Ring-necked Pheasant and Wild Turkeys were found on the Rice Lake Count for the first time.  It appears that they are all here to stay.

While the first appearance of two Horned Larks on the Rice Lake count may be just luck, the 18 Mourning Doves observed also were a first for this count.  Like the swans and geese, Mourning Doves were barely present on the Luck count until they began showing up regularly in the mid-1980s.  Perhaps in this case, it is more likely related to climate change resulting in less snow cover and hence, more available foraging areas for Wisconsin’s official peace symbol.

Two other species bear mentioning: the Evening Grosbeak and the Red-headed Woodpecker.  Both of these species were found on earlier counts in both Rice Lake and Luck.  The Red-headed Woodpecker mostly disappeared from the Luck count by the mid-1980s with its last appearance in 1992.  This species is widely known by birders and scientists to be declining throughout the region, likely from loss of habitat among other factors.  Meanwhile the Evening Grosbeak, the bird that inspired Robin to start watching birds as they mobbed his bird feeders in the 1960’s and ’70’s, has also mostly disappeared, last being seen on the Luck count in 1998.  Here is a northern species of bird that prefers the spruces and evergreens found much more commonly in the northern tier of counties in Wisconsin.

While an occasional Evening Grosbeak may be found wandering south in the winter this is a species we are unlikely to see regularly again on either the Rice Lake or Luck Christmas bird count.  We don’t have definitive proof as to the reasons for all of the various birds that show up or disappear, but counts like these will continue mark the changes in bird communities… As long as we continue to show up and count them.

Below is the full list of species and numbers of each found.  I believe we did a better job covering the circle with 6 teams reporting compared to the previous maximum of three people in two teams.  We found 6 species not previously reporting and set new record highs for 7 species.  The count species total for all years now stands at 67.

344   Canada Goose                     New for this count

2       Trumpeter Swan                 New for this count

4       American Black Duck

207   Mallard

12     Common Merganser            Previous high count was 1

2       Ring-necked Pheasant         New for this count

3       Ruffed Grouse

25     Wild Turkey                        New for this count

11     Bald Eagle                          Previous high count was 2

1       Red-tailed Hawk

134   Rock Pigeon

18     Mourning Dove                   New for this count

1       Belted Kingfisher

15     Red-bellied Woodpecker   Previous high count was 2

30     Downy Woodpecker

11     Hairy Woodpecker

7       Pileated Woodpecker         Previous high count was 3

56     Blue Jay

327   American Crow                  Previous high count was 186

5       Common Raven

2       Horned Lark                        New for this count

179   Black-capped Chickadee

19     White-breasted Nuthatch     Previous low count was 20 and average is 40

480   European Starling

213   Snow Bunting

21     American Tree Sparrow

18     Dark-eyed Junco

6       Northern Cardinal

7       Purple Finch                       Previous high count was 3

167   Common Redpoll

9       Pine Siskin

72     American Goldfinch

77     House Sparrow