Winter is for the Birds

Wisconsin Department of Tourism
Photo by Wisconsin Department of Tourism

Nature can be at its best in winter. Snow reveals backyard neighbors through the tracks and other signs of activity left behind. While many birds migrate, those that stay around can be a joy to watch. Here are some ways to get out and enjoy our feathered friends during the winter months. Be a citizen scientist, celebrate eagles, and design your own bird trail through a part of Wisconsin.

Feeders in my backyard mean my kitchen window offers a great view of visiting birds. I really like the cardinals because they brighten up the shrubs and trees. Maybe you already have a list of fun birds you have seen from outside your home or in your neighborhood. With two national bird counts each winter, you have an opportunity to become a citizen scientist from your own yard. Using the observations of professional and amateur observers, these counts document how birds are doing in Wisconsin, throughout the country, and around the world.

Photo provided by Wisconsin Department of Tourism

Great Backyard Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a chance for anyone with an interest in wildlife to contribute to our scientific understanding of birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society have partnered to organize this annual event since 1998. February 17 through 20, they invite you to participate from your yard or anywhere in the world. Participation is easy. You need to count for a minimum of 15 minutes or as much as you like during the four-day period. You will register your counts online through an international website called eBird.

Counts from across the country and the world provide scientists with a snapshot of the status of birds. In 2015, people from across the world recorded sightings of over 5,000 species, which is almost half of all the species in the world. No single scientist would be able to get such a broad picture without the help of citizen scientists. The best part is you can participate wherever you are, and everyone is welcome. You don’t need to be an expert.

The Christmas Bird Count: Wisconsin Society for Ornithology

The Christmas Bird Count organized by the National Audubon Society is the longest running citizen-scientist survey, held for over 100 years. Wisconsin’s participation is organized and coordinated by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and takes place every year December 14 through January 5. The Christmas Count provides critical scientific data over time and engages citizen scientists, empowering them to protect critical habitats for local bird populations and do conservation work in a social setting. Thousands of amateurs take part every year with experienced ornithologists.

To participate, you need to visit the Society’s website and sign up for one of the scheduled counts. Observers take notes that are submitted, reviewed, and ultimately the data is made available to researchers. So whether young or old, if you are a budding scientist, this may be the right activity for you.

Photo provided by Wisconsin Department of Tourism

Sauk Prairie’s Bald Eagle Watching Days

The celebration of eagle days has spread across Wisconsin. In summer, eagle populations spread out across Wisconsin and take advantage of the lakes and rivers for food and large trees for nesting and perching. You may have seen them along the Wisconsin River or in the tops of great white pines lording over everything below.

In the winter, eagles congregate together at places where food can be found, particularly open water. So right below dams and on rivers, where the water does not freeze, are prime locations for winter eagle watching and celebration. Wisconsin has at least six different eagle day celebrations, with one of the biggest in Sauk Prairie.

Sauk Prairie Eagle Watching Days is usually the third weekend in January. Organized by the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council and supported by a variety of local sponsors, the pancake breakfast at the River Arts Center provides an opportunity for you to make a day of eagle viewing at the river overlook, kids’ activities, wine tasting at Wollersheim Winery across the river, and a bus tour to other viewing spots. To get a closer look at birds, attend an eagle release (eagles recovered from injury) or a live birds of prey show.

Other eagle days:

• A Day with Eagles Along the Fox River in the Fox Cities area (January)
• Kaukauna Eagle Days in Kaukauna (January)
• Bald Eagle Days in Cassville (January)
• Bald Eagle Appreciation Days in Prairie du Chien (February)
• Bald Eagle Day in Ferryville (March)

Photograph provided by Cornell University, Photograph by Jack and Holly Bartholmai

Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail

Still not sure where to go to see birds or you want to learn more about the variety of habitats in Wisconsin? The Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail website serves as a guide to locations. Organized by regions, you can design your own route or, better yet, design a bird treasure hunt. The website notes let you know what birds and wildlife you can expect to find at various locations, many of which are wildlife refuges or nature preserves specifically set aside for birds. Learn about the variety of Wisconsin’s habitats and the birds that call Wisconsin home. And in case you don’t want to design your own tour, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism has color brochures for each of the five regions. Locations included in the trail are identified with a special sand hill crane logo.

National Eagle Center

On a final note, add the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota, to your itinerary. Located on the Mississippi, the Center is open year-round, although closed on Tuesdays in the winter. They offer daily education programs that feature eagle ambassadors.

Liz Wessel is the owner of Green Concierge Travel, which has information for honeymoons and other ecotravel at greenconciergetravel.com.

The Christmas Bird Count: Wisconsin Society for Ornithology

(wsobirds.org/christmas-bird-count)
December 14 through January 5

Sauk Prairie’s Bald Eagle

Watching Days
(ferrybluffeaglecouncil.org/bald-eagle-watching-days.html)
January 2017

Great Backyard Bird Count

(gbbc.birdcount.org)
February 17 through 20

Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail

(wisconsinbirds.org/trail)
Maps (wisconsinbirds.org/trail/maps.htm)

National Eagle Center

(nationaleaglecenter.org)
Closed on Tuesdays in the winter