2018 Wisconsin eBird Year in Review

Swallow-tailed Kite ©Shawn Miller

2018 by the numbers—340 species and more than 113,000 checklists.  This compares favorably to 345 species and 97,000+ checklists in 2017.  Three species, all well-documented were added to the Wisconsin eBird total—Tufted Duck, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and Hammond’s Flycatcher.

Hammond’s Flycatcher ©Edgar Spalding

Keep reading for a review of 2018 rarities and highlights of your birding effort.

The Birds

Established Patterns of Vagrancy

The 2017 Wisconsin eBird Year in Review featured an incredible assortment of rarities at feeders–Buff-breasted Hummingbird, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Painted Bunting, Lark Bunting, White-winged Dove, Worm-eating Warbler, and Western Tanager.  For those that follow the status and distribution of North American birds, this year’s list of rarities while certainly unusual and exciting, were expected.  That is, all these species have established patterns of vagrancy.  To help define this phrase let’s take a look inside one of the state’s birding facebook groups.  A birder posted a video of a Baltimore Oriole observed in southwest Wisconsin on  December 17. Comments shared sentiments of surprise and wonder along with comments like “Shouldn’t he be flying south by now?”

A Late November Baltimore Oriole ©Gail Piotrowski

These comments are spot on.  A Baltimore Oriole in December is unusual and visually jarring at our northern latitude, but it is not unprecedented.  In fact, late fall to early winter Baltimore Orioles are so numerous that they are no longer tracked on the Wisconsin Rare Bird Records document available here.

Does this mean you should expect to see a Baltimore Oriole on a hike through your local patch in late fall or winter?  Not at all, but the data tell us somewhere between one and a few birders will see one almost every year.  Why are these birds still around?  A number of factors are possible including—injury, reverse migration, or mirror-image navigational errors.

Wisconsin’s first December Scarlet Tanager ©Tom Prestby

Tanagers illustrate a rather counterintuitive pattern of vagrancy in Wisconsin.  Scarlet Tanager is the tanager species in Wisconsin. It is an uncommon breeder nearly state-wide and a relatively common migrant.  Summer Tanager is rare, but regular in the south from late April through May as birds overshoot their traditional breeding areas.  Summer Tanager records routinely hit double digits most years.  Western Tanager is a true rarity with at most a handful of records each year.

As we enter November the expected tanager species shifts.  As does the expected hummingbird species, which you can read about here.  Despite its name, Summer Tanager is by far the most likely tanager to be seen in Wisconsin from November to March.

After Summer Tanager the next most likely tanager species from November through March is actually Western Tanager (3 records).

Until 2018 Wisconsin had ZERO Scarlet Tanager records between November and March.  On December 15th, while participating in the Green Bay Christmas Bird Count Tom Prestby and Adam Sinkula found the Scarlet Tanager shown above on the UW-Green Bay Campus furnishing Wisconsin’s first “winter” record. 

First State Records

Wisconsin picked up three state firsts in 2018. The most since 2014 when Garganey, Crested Caracara, and Gull-billed Tern (hypothetical) were added to the state list.  As first state records, these species were unprecedented in Wisconsin.  As we will see unprecedented does not mean unexpected.

Tufted Duck ©Liz Harper

Expected was this Tufted Duck on the Mississippi River in Pierce County.  First spotted in Minnesota this bird spent some time in Wisconsin waters.

While far more common on the Eastern Great Lakes—records in Michigan, Illinois and Ontario foreshadowed the Wisconsin record.  Given the presence of attractive habitat on Wisconsin’s “coasts” for large congregations of diving ducks—Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, and in this case the Mississippi River it was a matter of time before this attractive diver was spotted in our state.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper ©Justin Streit

Well-known for large concentrations of geese in late fall, less known to the general public are the large concentrations of shorebirds that use Horicon Marsh to load up on calories during their migration. In early August (near the peak of “fall” shorebird migration) Justin Streit captured the above image of the state’s first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.

While the Tufted Duck was expected to eventually show.  Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was a huge hole on the Wisconsin checklist.  Every nearby state and province had at least one record—including multiple records in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan.

Hammond’s Flycatcher ©Edgar Spalding

Take a glance at the Hammond’s Flycatcher map (below) and Wisconsin’s record just seems wrong.  While the other two first state records have their origins in the eastern hemisphere, this species is from Western North America.  Hammond’s Flycatcher breeds as far north as Central Alaska and winters as far south as the Honduran-Nicaraguan border.  But this bird never comes close to Wisconsin.  The nearest approach is probably Colorado’s Eastern Plains.  With Wisconsin’s record seemingly so out of place, how can this bird fit in an established pattern of vagrancy?  Well just let your eyes wander to the east coast.

Hammond’s Flycatcher has wandered east in five of the last six years!  Most of the records below lie between late October and early January—exactly the window in which Wisconsin’s bird was found by Edgar Spalding.  The September Nova Scotia birds are the only outliers.

Summary of Hammond’s Flycatcher eBird records in the northeast

To get to the east coast these vagrant Hammond’s must have travelled over the central part of the country.  Unlike its predecessors, the Wisconsin Hammond’s Flycatcher stopped well before it approached the Atlantic Ocean.  Hammond’s Flycatcher ranges up into Central Alaska and migrates south through much Western North America much like Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Thrush, Say’s Phoebe, and Townsend’s Warbler—all of which wander into into Wisconsin with varying degrees of frequency.  Lastly, given their drab coloration and skulking habits it would not be surprising if Hammond’s and other vagrant empidonax flycatchers go unnoticed when they wander out of range.

Anticipating Rarities 

Swallow-tailed Kite ©Shawn Miller

Skimming Rare Bird Alerts from the northeastern quadrant of the US and Southern Ontario in late July and early August revealed an exciting trend.  A raptor with a significant wow factor, Swallow-tailed Kite was pushing north in a broad front past their typical range.  This species is prone to vagrancy and can easily cover large distances in short periods of time.  But the question remained, would one make it to Wisconsin?

Selected 2018 Swallow-tailed Kite eBird records north of normal range

Well we did better than one.  At least two birds were observed in the state.  At least one observer saw two birds simultaneously at the Neshkoro location in Marquette Co. and a bird was also observed at Cedar Grove in Sheboygan Co.

The Neshkoro bird was extremely cooperative—many observers spotted the bird before parking their cars.  Once stopped birders observed the bird gracefully soaring over fields and treetops—a few even saw the bird feeding on dragonflies or cicadas on the wing

At about the same time Swallow-tailed Kites were pushing north, another charismatic bird from the South was dispersing further north than normal.

Minnesota Roseate Spoonbill ©Isaac Hosch

Might Wisconsin get its first Roseate Spoonbill since August of 1845?  Records in Maine, Quebec, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa certainly encouraged Wisconsin birders to routinely check their local wetlands.

In birding, not all stories have the desired ending.  In 2018, Roseate Spoonbill was an incredible near miss.  On August 26th a bird was spotted a few miles west of Prescott, WI–probably within view of Wisconsin–on a Mississippi River sandbar in Hastings, MN.  Later in the day the bird took flight—heading further west into Minnesota to the Minnesota Valley NWR.  After the 26ththe bird was not seen.

Highly Localized Patterns of Vagrancy

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird ©John Menge

Some taxa not only have well-established patterns of vagrancy, but their recent visits to Wisconsin have been highly localized.

Mountain Bluebird visits every few years, with four records since 2013 (all coming mid-March to late April).  All of these recent records occurred in westernmost Wisconsin—Pierce, Trempealeau, and Burnett Counties.  The best place to look for a Mountain Bluebird?  Try Crex Meadows SWA with two records (2014 & 2018) in a very narrow window (April 20-26).

Lark Bunting

Lark Bunting ©K. Java

Lark Bunting has wandered into Wisconsin a bit more frequently than Mountain Bluebird, with eight records since 2013 (six in May, one in September, and one in July).  All of these records occurred in the western half of the state.  Burnett County is again an excellent place to look with records from Crex Meadows SWA in 2018 and nearby Fish Lake SWA in 2016.  For those familiar with this species habitat preferences it should come as no surprise that this species was also spotted in recent years at Mead SWA and Leola Marsh SWA.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and yellow-bellied kingbirds

The Bayfield Peninsula has an uncanny knack for concentrating yellow-bellied kingbirds (among other rarities).  You may recall last year’s remarkable photo of a Western, Tropical/Couch’s, and Eastern Kingbird all perched on the same wire.

Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird ©Erica Peterson

This year another Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird was spotted.  This time between Bayfield and Red Cliff.  In a largely forested landscape surrounded by Lake Superior, these yellow bellied kingbirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher are found in the few open habitats more frequently than anywhere else in the state.


Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern is often high on the wish list of birders visiting Jaegerfest on Lake Superior in September.  Alas, Arctic Terns have not been spotted there since 2014.

Arctic Tern ©Lorri Howski

In recent years, the most reliable locations for Arctic Tern are Lake Michigan Hotspots—the Sheboygan and Manitowoc Lakefronts, and Cat Island in Green Bay.  After an exhilarating and often exhausting month of May many birders are ready to put their optics away and rest once the calendar turns to June.  But, if you want to see an Arctic Tern you should keep your bins and scope handy since June is the best month to see this species.

Arctic Tern frequency chart–the peaks roughly correspond to June observations on Lake Michigan/Green Bay and September-October records on Lake Superior

Long-billed Curlew

From Wisconsin Birdlife:

In the early settlement years during the mid-nineteenth century, the Long-billed Curlew was a common breeding species in the southern counties.  Hoy (1853b) called it “common on large thinly settled prairies,” and mentioned that it nested abundantly in Columbia and Fond du Lac counties. Kumlien and Hollister (1903) were indefinite about exact locations.  “During the forties, fifties and sixties it bred in suitable localities in different parts of the state…From 1860 to 1890 it decreased rapidly, and when found at all it was as a migrant only.”  The last definite date for nesting was May 1859 (Robbins, p. 266, 1991).

As a former breeder Long-billed Curlew is now decidedly rare with only 9 records since 1911.

Long-billed Curlew ©Rob Pendergast

For the intrepid birder hoping to find their own Long-billed Curlew the two most recent records suggest scouring flooded fields in or near the Central Sands region as the best bet.

These could show up anywhere…

Clark’s Nutcracker

While the species in the previous section show an affinity for certain parts of the state, other vagrants are far less predictable.

Clark’s Nutcracker ©Myles Hurlburt

2018 provided the state’s first record of Clark’s Nutcracker since 1973.  With only five records there is scant data from which conclusions can be drawn.  What can be said is all records lie in a window from November to February and four of the records come from more northern, forested habitats.  From a Wisconsin perspective, the Rock County record is a bit of an outlier, but it is consistent with Illinois records along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Looking at the broad view (above) Clark’s Nutcracker rarely strays further east than Wisconsin.

frigatebird sp.

frigatebird sp. ©KT Kingsbury

Frigatebird sightings are a recent phenomenon.  Occurring in a window from late September through early November, Wisconsin’s first came in 1988 (Douglas Co.), followed by a Door Co. record in 2007, a Marathon Co. record in 2017, and now a Dane Co. record in 2018.  Only the Marathon County bird was identified at the species level due to some excellent pictures.  While less expected than Magnificent, Lesser Frigatebird has established a pattern of vagrancy to the interior United States, so all frigatebirds cannot be assumed to be Magnificent.  Frigatebirds,  with the largest wing area to body weight ratio of any bird, can cover vast distances without ever flapping their wings.  Which means they can truly show up almost anywhere.

Record Numbers of Geese…Again 

Wisconsin established record high counts for Snow, Ross’s, Greater White-fronted, and Cackling Goose in 2017.  2018 provided no indication that these populations are stabilizing.  Ted Keyel obliterated the previous high count (1000) of Greater White-fronted Goose when he found 2600 in Columbia County.

Greater White-fronted Geese ©Ted Keyel

Ted also gets credit for a new record high count of Cackling Goose with 535 at Goose Pond, Columbia County.

Record Numbers of Gulls

 A die off of Gizzard Shad in Port Washington led to staggering numbers of gulls and high gull species diversity at Coal Dock Park and the neighboring marina.

California Gull ©Ted Keyel

Rarities observed included Slaty-backed Gull (becoming annual in Wisconsin), California Gull (above), and Laughing Gull (much more common in spring/summer).

The table below summarizes the highlights of the winter gull season in Port Washington.  Included are first observed dates for the rarities and high count dates for some of the more common species.

Consequences of a mid-April Blizzard

Not only does eBird allow us to track long-term trends in bird populations, but it can also be used to assess the consequences of single weather events like the freak mid-April blizzard of 2018 (Note all charts below use Dane Co. data).

Some largely insectivorous like Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Bluebird had already arrived, were unable to find food on the snow-covered landscape and the results sadly were predictable.

Eastern Phoebe:

Eastern Phoebe was perhaps the hardest hit species by the snowstorm.

Eastern Bluebird:

2018 Eastern Bluebird numbers were low overall, but the population appears to have recovered more rapidly than Eastern Phoebe

Species less reliant on insects like Hermit Thrush and Fox Sparrow seemed to fair reasonably well although the peak in their frequency was delayed (especially in Fox Sparrow) and was likely higher than normal due to birds foraging at or near feeders.

Hermit Thrush:

Fox Sparrow:

The Breeding Bird Atlas 

2018 was year four of five for Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II.

Highlights included an irruption of breeding Red Crossbills in the latter half of 2017 through about August of 2018. This irruption “prove[d] to be the most diverse on record, yielding at least [six] types statewide (Types 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 10) and establishing first state records for Types 4 and 5.”

Red Crossbill ©Mike Wanger

Barn Owls were possible breeders in Iowa County.

Barn Owl ©John Kivikoski

American Three-toed Woodpeckers lingered until May in Bayfield County.

American Three-toed Woodpecker ©Ryan Brady

A white Great Blue Heron at a rookery in Polk County was very unusual.

A white Great Blue Heron ©Brian Collins

The Florida Keys have a population of white Great Blue Herons often called Great White Heron.  According to the Sibley Guide “white and dark morphs there average 10 percent larger than other Great Blues and have heavier bills”.  White nestlings have also been photographed in Texas.  As Sibley states here:

They should not be accepted as “Great White” Herons just because they’re white.  Similarly, their mere existence does not negate the distinctiveness of true Great Whites from the Florida Keys. The true status of those white nestlings will have to remain a mystery for now, awaiting further study.

Shifting Views on Barnacle Goose

In June this Barnacle Goose was spotted in Polk County.  This species is not yet on the Official Wisconsin List.  This June bird and another observed last August in Dane County are unlikely to overcome legitimate concerns about provenance from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology Records Committee.

Barnacle Goose ©Robin Maercklein

That said, the next Barnacle Goose observed with migratory geese is more likely to make it onto the official state list, than at any time in the past.  As Mike Burrell highlights here, the dominant view of these birds is shifting from “escapees unless proven otherwise” to “wild unless contrary evidence”.

The Numbers

2018 Species Data

2018 Checklist Data

The Birders

Top County Totals – 2018 Species (Threshold 200)

In 2018 68 birders did a lot of local birding–matching or exceeding the 200 species threshold.  In 2017 the number was 62, which suggests county birding continues to grow in popularity.  This year’s high total of 248 species matches last year’s high total by Shawn Miller in Dane.  Well done county birders!

The 2018 Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge (WLPC)

In 2018, 10 birders surpassed 200 or more species in their patches (versus 7 in 2017, 5 in 2016, and 7 in 2015 and 2014).  This year Cynthia Bridge tops the list, Congratulations Cynthia!  For the uninitiated the Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge is a way to standardize patch birding.  Each patch is a 7.5 mile radius circle centered at the birder’s home.  If you like the Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge you might also like the even more local 2019 5 MR Challenge–search Facebook for “5MR Birding” if you are interested.

Below are the 2018 Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge Participants and their year totals (threshold 150 species):


Omissions and errors are unintentional.  Corrections and compliments are welcome.  Please send both to:

Aaron Stutz


Text, Charts, and Tables by Aaron Stutz 

Text, Maps, and Editing by Nick Anich