A History of Christmas Bird Counts in Door County

My late husband, Roy, and I were involved in conducting annual Christmas bird counts for many years. He began doing them in Kewaunee, from 1958 through 1970, and when he started working for The Ridges Sanctuary, he and Harold Wilson initiated the Ephraim count in 1963.

After that, Roy did the counts every year until 2013, when his health wouldn’t allow it. I began helping in 1972 and have organized them every year since 1973. We switched from doing the Ephraim count in 1995 to starting two different counts – in Sturgeon Bay and Brussels – in 1996. 

Not only is it a fun experience to get out with friends to look for birds, but it’s also a form of citizen science, helping to record which species are here and in what numbers. From the mid-1970s through the late ’80s, we had 50-93 people helping each year. Sometimes we had a potluck supper after the Saturday count and enjoyed much laughter and camaraderie as we exchanged the day’s events and findings.

Written records of unusual bird species seen here during the winter include a northern mockingbird in Kewaunee on Dec. 25, 1963; one of the first red-bellied woodpeckers in Ephraim on Dec. 27, 1963; and two ruby-crowned kinglets on Jan. 1, 1968.

Weather conditions – including cloud cover, wind, precipitation, high and low temperatures, and the depth of the snow – are noted for each count. Many years with no snow on the ground made finding birds difficult because they blended in with the dry, brown grasses. Feeder watchers also observed that few birds arrived to get seeds during those years because there was so much natural food out in the wild that there was no need for supplemental feeding.

The Christmas count period is now a uniform time of Dec. 14 – Jan. 5, and the count may begin at midnight and run for the 24-hour span of one day. We often chose the first Saturday in the count period in hopes of having better weather and open lakeshore areas in which to find waterfowl. I remember the 1995 count, when we had eight inches of rain in October and then it became freezing cold. Kangaroo Lake was completely frozen by Nov. 12.

We have been very fortunate to have two excellent birders helping with our counts in Sturgeon Bay and Brussels. Brothers Kevin Swagel and Darrin Swagel travel from Evanston, Illinois, and St. Louis Park, Minnesota, respectively, to do the two counts in one weekend. They work hard at listening for owls and surveying the shorelines for unusual waterfowl.

Darrin and Kevin have found a number of unusual species during these counts. This year they found the first red-necked grebe of any count, and they also identified a king eider in 2009 and a hooded merganser-goldeneye hybrid. Other unusual species – here mostly because of warmer-than-usual weather – were the savannah sparrow, vesper sparrow, common yellowthroat and Cape May warbler. One winter, an Iceland gull was seen, as well as horned grebes and a red-throated loon.

When reviewing the 26 years of these two counts, some interesting statistics surface. The more common species have widely varying totals from year to year. The mallard, for instance, had a high of 1,388 in 2007 and a low of 92 in 2017. Long-tailed ducks hit a high of 2,400 in 2007, but there have been no sightings in eight of the past 14 years. The common-merganser count was 1,847 in 2004, but zero in 2000.

Weather conditions on count days can definitely influence the numbers of birds seen. The years 2001 and 2003 were the warmest and yielded record-high total counts. The Brussels count was canceled in 2008 because of ice-covered roads and blowing snow, and in 2016, heavy snow caused both the Sturgeon Bay and Brussels counts to be canceled.

Some of the typical birds visiting Sturgeon Bay count feeders include the chickadee, with a high of 587 and a low of 202; cardinal, 109 (high) to 34 (low); American goldfinch, 729 to 124; and dark-eyed junco, 685 to 100.

There were 660 pine siskins counted in the 2012 Sturgeon Bay circle, zero in 2019, and only five in this year’s count. The winter visiting birds from the far north vary according to the available food in Canada. If certain trees such as birches and conifers produce a great number of seeds there, the birds don’t need to come down to the United States to find food.

Common redpolls had a large influx to our area every other year until 2017. American robins were abundant in the 1998 counts, with 224 in the Sturgeon Bay circle and 32 in Brussels, but there were eight years when none were seen.

Each annual bird count is so dependent on good weather, low winds, many feeder watchers and lots of field parties working to observe all of the two 15-mile-diameter circles. The Audubon Society and I are very grateful to all of the participants.