Backyard Birdfeeder Banter: Christmas Bird Count sheds some light on light activity

By Jed Buelow

Tomahawk Leader Co-Editor, Sports and Nature Editor

After a rather slow start with very few visitors, the activity at the backyard birdfeeders has finally started to pick up a bit in recent days out at our house in the town of Tomahawk.

Back around the time the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was reporting lower than normal numbers of birds being found in the region, the many I talked with whom hang feeders were also reporting bird numbers way down as compared to previous years. The finches all but vanished and an abundance of chickadees that typically would visit the feeders throughout the day seemed far and few between to start the winter.

The decline had many wondering what could be the cause. Did the irruption of wintering birds not happen due to an abundance of food available to the north? Did the birds just keep heading south when they got here and saw just how much snow was already on the ground? Or perhaps something else is at play that might have caused a decline in populations?

This year the Wisconsin CBC, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology CBC program and Audubon CBC merged resulting in a record 112 counts, more than doubling the previous number of counts statewide. The results showed many feathered friends might have left or kept right on going when they got to the Northwoods. The summary also showed the warmer weather experienced so far has allowed an unusual number of water birds to stick around the southern part of the state.

The Audobon’s summary of this year’s count notes, “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.”

A couple of nearby communities were mentioned in the summary. It notes Evening Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings were present earlier in the fall in unusually high numbers and were found further south than in most years. Medford had the highest count of waxwings in the state with 226. Rhinelander was one of just five CBCs to record a Single Varied Thrush and another was spotted in Cable.

“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 in late December. Even more amazing, a Rufous Hummingbird attended a feeder in La Crosse accompanied by another Selasphorus hummingbird until the winter freeze-up,” the report indicated.

Canada goose (158,000) was the most abundant bird counted with Starling at a distant second at 89,000. The Horicon Marsh still had a Sandhill Crane count of 515 birds and the open water in the south resulted in 31 Great Blue Herons making the list. Rose-breasted Grosbeak turned up in Milwaukee and a counter in Montello even had a Baltimore Oriole come into a feeder that was added to the list.

In previous years our birdfeeders have been overrun by common redpolls. Flocks numbering in the hundreds were not uncommon as sometimes the feeders would need to be filled twice a day. So far this year we have seen none.

A lot of the other birds making up the irregular irruption have also been regular visitors at our feeders in the past but have not been seen yet this season. One of those, the Pine Grosbeak, appears to have set up shop in the middle portion of the state, according to the summary.

The good news is that in recent days the activity at our birdfeeders has seemed to be picking up a bit. There has been more chickadees dropping in, and a ruffed grouse and plenty of blue jays have been showing up to feed on the sunflower seed that falls to the ground. Even a rafter of turkeys and a few morning doves were spotted in the yard.

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