Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory

Waterbird Watch Spring 2020

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For the last 5 ½ years, six hours a day, starting at dawn, for six days of the week, for three months each spring and fall, Waterbird Watch technician Calvin Brennan has scanned the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan at Harrington Beach State Park in Ozaukee County. In May, 2020, Calvin finished his 11th season doing the watch for the Observatory. In that time, he has seen phenomenal numbers of birds and has recorded new and rare species for the count, the county and the state, contributing to our knowledge of how migratory birds use the western shore of Lake Michigan, and when, and in what numbers.In spring of 2020, he tallied an incredible 204,663 migrants; that’s up sharply from spring 2019, when 175,954 birds were recorded. Last fall his tour of duty wrapped up on Dec. 3 with a tally of 158,066 migrants.Reluctantly, the Observatory has decided to pause the Waterbird Watch, given the difficulties Covid-19 has caused for non-profits like ours, and Calvin’s interest in pursuing a new position at another site. “We plan to analyze the data we have and to look for patterns in how birds along Lake Michigan are being affected by weather and potentially, by climate change,” explained the Observatory Science Director, Dr. Jennifer Phillips-Vanderberg. “In the future, these data may serve as a baseline for other studies to gain more insights that will become possible only after more time has passed.” 
Thank you, Calvin, for your dedication, through foul weather and fair!

Here are the Top 11 species for Spring 2020
Red-breasted Merganser – 58,767
Bonaparte's Gull – 27,264
Double-crested Cormorant – 21,389
Ring-billed Gull – 15,276
Lesser Scaup – 10,555
Herring Gull – 10,364
Common Tern – 8,496
Greater Scaup – 8,290
Caspian Tern – 4,922
Canada Goose – 4,736
Mallard – 4,418
 Of note, the tally of Long-tailed Ducks fell from 5,765 in spring 2019 to 481 in spring of 2020

Here are the Top 10 species from Spring 2019:
Bonaparte's Gull - 42,962
Red-breasted Merganser – 28,735
Herring Gull - 14,020
Common Tern - 11, 592 
Greater Scaup – 10,657
Ring-billed Gull - 10,337
Double-crested Cormorant - 9,748
Long-tailed Duck – 5,765
Lesser Scaup - 5,526
Mallard - 5,085

Here are the Top 10 species for fall 2019:
Red-breasted Merganser - 87,659 
Ring-billed Gull - 19,639 
Canada Goose - 15,846 
Double-crested Cormorant - 11,210 
Herring Gull - 3,634 
Mallard - 2,680 
Greater Scaup - 2,217 
Common Loon - 1,308 
Lesser Scaup - 1,254 
Bonaparte's Gull - 1,046 

Waterbird Watch - Fall 2019

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By Board member Carl Schwartz   

Six hours a day, starting at dawn, for six days of the week, for three months each spring and fall Waterbird Watch technician Calvin Brennan scans the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan at Harrington Beach State Park in Ozaukee County. He just finished his 10th season doing the watch for the Observatory.

He sees phenomenal numbers of birds; records new and rare species for the count, the county and the state; and contributes to knowledge of how migratory birds use the western shore of Lake Michigan -- when, and in what numbers.

His latest tour of duty wrapped up Dec. 3, and he offered this summary to accompany his tally of 158,066 migrants:

“Diving ducks, including Red-breasted Mergansers, were somewhat low (down 32,000 from fall 2018), even given the recent extension of the season (to account for climate change). Canada Geese, Common Loons and some of the dabblers were higher than average. Parasitic Jaegers were in record numbers with a high of four in one day and perhaps most remarkable of all on an entirely separate day, were three flying southbound as a group. New species for the overall list were Red-necked Phalarope, Sabine's Gull and Pacific Loon.”

Here’s Calvin’s Top 10 list for fall 2019:
Red-breasted Merganser              87,659
Ring-billed Gull                           19,639
Canada Goose                            15,846
Double-crested Cormorant           11,210
Herring Gull                                3,634
Mallard                                       2,680
Greater Scaup                             2,217
Common Loon                             1,308
Lesser Scaup                               1,254
Bonaparte's Gull                          1,046
    The spring and fall flow are different; here’s the Top 10 list from spring 2019, when 175,954 birds were recorded:
Bonaparte's Gull                          42,962
Red-breasted Merganser              28,735
Herring Gull                                14,020
Common Tern                             11,592
Greater Scaup                             10,657
Ring-billed Gull                            10,337
Double-crested Cormorant            9,748
Long-tailed Duck                          5,765
Lesser Scaup                               5,526
Mallard                                        5,085

Waterbird Watch - Spring 2019

American Avocet Joel Trick

American Avocet Photo by Joel Trick

Another seasonal summary of the totals of many species observed and tallied by our technician at the Waterbird Watch is here. The technician was on duty six hours per day, six days per week, from March 1 to May 21 in the spring season. 

In addition to the "Top Ten" listed below, other noteworthy sightings included 54 American Avocets, Whimbrel and Marbled Godwit, 8 Red-necked Grebes, 1 Western Grebe, and 341 Red-throated Loons.  Note that the numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers and Double-crested Cormorants were lower than in many previous seasons. The advantage of datasets collected over a long time period allows us to see trends in the data. 

2019 Spring Waterbird Watch Top Ten                                     
Bonaparte's Gull - 42,962                                                         
Red-breasted Merganser – 28,735                                                         
Herring Gull - 14,020                                                  
Common Tern - 11, 592                                               
Greater Scaup – 10,657                                                
Ring-billed Gull - 10,337                                                         
Double-crested Cormorant - 9,748                                                        
Long-tailed Duck – 5,765                                                        
Lesser Scaup - 5,526                                                    
Mallard - 5,085                                               
Total for all species – 175,954                                                  
Highlights for the final week of the Spring Watch:                                                      
Little Gull, California Gull, Neotropic Cormorant  

Waterbird Watch - Fall 2018

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Red-breasted Merganser by Kate Redmond

Calvin’s totals for the recently-completed fall season once again describe the massive movement of birds past our study site location. Totals for each species are:

  • Red-breasted Merganser - 119,489 
  • Ring-billed Gull - 17,069
  • Double-crested Cormorant - 12,107
  • Canada Goose - 7,104
  • Greater Scaup - 4,664
  • Herring Gull - 4,441
  • Common Merganser - 2,214
  • Lesser Scaup - 1,908
  • Mallard - 1,888
  • Long-tailed Duck - 1,517

Total for all migrants - 186,972 (This is a final, overall tally.)

Highlights for this fall:

Multiple Pomarine Jaegers, Parasitic Jaegers, a Swainson’s Hawk, several Black-legged Kittiwakes and Franklin's Gulls. It was once thought that jaegers were not reliably present along the western Lake Michigan shore; our watch data shows that to have been an incorrect assumption.

Waterbird Watch - Records and Rarities

by Kate Redmond

 Common Mergansers by Kate Redmond

It’s not for everybody. Sometimes it’s cold. Sometimes it’s the wind. Or the eyeball-searing glare off of a sparkling Lake Michigan. There are days of rain, fog, and isolation, and days of fair weather and curious visitors. There are long lines of birds that are faint dots on the horizon, and there are “reverse migrants” that may pass by several times before finally committing to a course. And there are the hours -- six hours a day, starting at dawn, for six days of the week, for three months. But Waterbird Watch technician Calvin Brennan keeps coming back for more. He just finished his ninth season (four and a half years) doing the watch, which occurs in both spring and fall at Harrington Beach State Park.

His reward? He sees phenomenal numbers of birds; records new and rare species for the count, the county, and the state; and contributes to our knowledge of how bird species use the western shore of Lake Michigan as a migratory corridor, and when, and in what numbers.

The Waterbird Watch was originally scheduled to run from March 1 to May 20 and from September 1 to November 20. The first watch technician was Seth Cutright, in the spring of 2012. The second was Jonathan Stein, and the third was Calvin, who joined the project in the fall of 2014. Counters are stationed on a point that juts into the lake, allowing a good view to the north and south, and there’s a small blind that gives some shelter from the elements (though it can be colder inside the blind than outside).

The purpose of the counts is to quantify both the timing and the numbers of migrating waterbirds (geese, ducks, loons, grebes, cormorants, pelicans, shorebirds, and wading birds) that navigate along and off the shoreline. Land birds are counted when doing so doesn’t distract from the counter’s main mission, and about 175 species of birds are seen during a count period. Along with adding to our understanding of avian behavior, these data would provide an invaluable head start in assessing potential impact if a project like an offshore wind farm were proposed. 

The mechanisms that drive migration are different in the fall than they are in the spring. In spring, increasing daylight hours stimulate hormones that cause migratory birds to feed and to put on the fat that will sustain them during their long flight. Fall migration is food-driven -- when the pond ices over, or the mud freezes, or the insects disappear, it’s time to head south.

Not surprisingly, weather plays a big part in species seen and in count totals. A long, cold spring with a stubborn ice pack slows migrants considerably but can result in some big days when the birds finally break through. These conditions resulted in a single-day count of 700 Common Loons in the spring of 2018, out of a seasonal total of 4,240 loons. One unanticipated result of analyzing the count data is that the count period itself has been tweaked. Because our recent mild falls don’t inspire the birds to move in their historical timeframe, the count period has been extended into the first week of December.

Swainson’s Hawk, Black-legged Kittiwake, Little Gull, Franklin's Gull, California Gull, Arctic Tern, Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers, Ross's Goose, Harlequin Duck, and Neotropic Cormorant are among the rarities tallied over the seven years of counting. Unusual sightings include watching a Virginia Rail fly in off the lake and seeing migrations of large shorebirds like Whimbrels and Marbled Godwits.

Almost 187,000 birds were counted in the fall 2018 count. The count average is about 176,000, but the highest total (so far) was the fall 2017 count, when 219,747 individuals were seen. Red-breasted Mergansers, one of the diving ducks, are usually the most numerous. Their fall 2017 total of 157,711 surpassed the total count for all species in the spring of 2018. Double-crested Cormorants, Long-tailed Ducks, and various species of gull generally vie for second place. To see the top ten species for each count on our website.