Just as they have every year for the past 55 years, local bird watchers watched their backyard feeders or took to the roads to tally all birds seen or heard within a 15-mile diameter of the Fifield Post Office for the annual Fifield-Park Falls Audubon Christmas Bird Count held on Dec. 19.

This year, a grand total of 29 species and 1,309 individual birds were counted. This compares to 24 species and 1,021 individual birds last year.

Five field observers spent a total of 34 hours traveling through various habitats along 376 miles of road and walking an additional 8.75 miles. Another 25 people stayed home to count the birds visiting their home bird feeders.

The weather for the count was calm and overcast with temperatures ranging from 28 to 30 degrees. With only a dusting of snow on the ground, it was one of only a few local counts that took place with little to no snow. Although lakes were frozen, several streams and rivers remained open. Conifer cone crops were poor this year.

Bird count highlights

For the first time in the history of the local count, a brown thrasher was spotted at two different feeders on Berry Patch Road in Fifield by Kathy Kascewicz and Steve Wolf. Kascewicz first saw the thrasher at her feeder on Nov. 23 and she has seen it ten more times between then and Dec. 21. All sightings were on the ground under sunflower seed feeders. It usually came early morning and late afternoon and seemed to like eating corn meal, sunflower bits, and wild blueberries — if the turkeys didn’t get them first.

Having a brown thrasher show up on any Wisconsin CBC is a rare event as only one up to three are counted each year on recent CBCs in the whole state. Brown thrashers nest here but prefer warmer weather during winter. They migrate to the southeastern United States where they spend the winter eating small insects, fruits, and nuts.

Two rough-legged hawks were also spotted during the count. They aren’t commonly seen in the local area except during winters when they occasionally come down searching for food when it’s scarce in their arctic home range. According to the Cornell Lab, the rough-legged hawk spends the summer capturing lemmings on the arctic tundra and tending a cliffside nest under a sun that never sets. Winter is the time to see this large, open-country hawk in southern Canada, the U.S., and in the local area, where it may be perched on a pole or hovering over a marsh or pasture on the hunt for small rodents. Found globally across northern latitudes, this species occurs in both light and dark forms, so it is sometimes difficult to identify.

Evening grosbeaks have been in short supply in recent years compared to when the Fifield-Park Falls Christmas Bird Count was started back in 1965. Back then people reported hundreds of them at feeders during the winter for many winters. Anyone who has fed a flock of evening grosbeaks in the winter knows they are like vacuum cleaners as they devour pounds of sunflower seeds, their favorite feeder food placed on favorite platform feeders.

Recent declines of evening grosbeaks have been documented by citizen science projects including Project FeederWatch and the Audubon CBC. PFW reports evening grosbeaks declined fifty percent between 1988 and 2006 with average flock size decreasing. This year, there had been earlier reports that flocks of evening grosbeaks were moving around northern Wisconsin and locally, observers were lucky enough to spot 50 of them on the CBC.

Other highlights include a big increase in the number of wild turkeys counted this year — 139 compared to 69 counted last year. And, a lot more black-capped chickadees were counted this year — 437 compared to the 167 counted last year. The increase in chickadees has been quite evident according to area bird feeder watchers.

Understanding of bird populations

The Fifield-Park Falls CBC was started in 1965 by Thomas and Mary Lou Nicholls and is part of a greater effort by the National Audubon Society initiated in 1900 to monitor the health and distribution of resident and winter birds across the Western Hemisphere. Now in its 121st year, the National Audubon Society’s CBC is larger than ever, expanding its geographical range and accumulating valuable scientific data about the winter distributions of various bird species.

According to the Audubon Society, a total of 2,646 counts were held in 2019; 1,992 in the United States, 469 in Canada, and 185 from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Pacific Islands. A total of 81,601 observers participated.

This 100-percent volunteer generated data has become a critical part of the U.S. Government’s natural history monitoring database critical to understanding the health of bird populations.

The count has allowed scientists to see trends in the bird population, with last year’s total count of 42,704,077 down by about six million birds from the previous year’s total count, which was also a low cumulative number, according to reporting by the National Audubon Society.

The Audubon Society plans to do an analysis of long-term count results in order to determine where the most significant declines in the bird population appear to be happening.

Count results from 1900 to the present are available through Audubon’s website at www.audubon.org/bird/cbc.