While it might not seem random at all, September’s randomly selected county for Wisconsin eBird’s Hotspot of the Month, is Douglas. As many of you know, Douglas County is a September birding destination for many birders around the state who attend Wisconsin Society for Ornithology’s Jaegerfest field trip. Ted Keyel, one of the top eBirders from Douglas County, who just started his first year as a graduate student in the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Integrated Biosciences Program, chose to profile one of his favorite birding gems, Wisconsin Point. This article is a must read for anyone excited about birding in the state of Wisconsin. The list of rarities seen at this location is quite remarkable!
Number of species eBirded at the hotspot: 263
Checklists in eBird: 1388
Featured Species: Red-throated Loon, Horned and Red-necked Grebe, diving and dabbling ducks, all three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, shorebirds, Bonaparte’s Gull, Thayer’s Gull, Iceland Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Forster’s and Common Tern, 6 owl species, Northern Shrike, Common Raven, 8 thrush species, 26 warbler species, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Common and Hoary Redpoll, Red Crossbill
Rare/Notable Species eBirded: Barrow’s Goldeneye, Pacific Loon, Western and Clark’s Grebe, Red Knot, Red-necked Phalarope, Whimbrel, Hudsonian and Marbled Godwit, Piping Plover, Black-legged Kittiwake, Sabine’s Gull, Little Gull, Laughing Gull, Franklin’s Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, California Gull, Arctic Tern, Great Gray Owl, Gyrfalcon, Prairie Falcon, Cassin’s Kingbird, Boreal Chickadee, Townsend’s Solitaire, Mountain Bluebird, Northern Mockingbird, Bohemian Waxwing, Harris’s Sparrow
Douglas County is the northwestern most county in the state of Wisconsin. It is home to boreal bogs, pine barrens, river flowages, a few grasslands, and a large puddle to the north that most know by its name on the map, Lake Superior. Jutting out three miles into Lake Superior is the coastal barrier spit known as Wisconsin Point. Combined with the neighboring Minnesota Point it forms the largest freshwater sandbar in the world. Wisconsin Point has gained notoriety as one of the best birding locations in the state. It has a variety of habitats, including the coastal wetland, Allouez Bay to the west, Lake Superior and its sand dunes to the east-northeast, and deciduous and coniferous forest. To get here take Highway 53 and go east on Moccasin Mike Road. After about a mile, take the first left (north) on Wisconsin Point Road just before the landfill. Wisconsin Point Road takes you to all the parking lots along the point, which are numbered 1-22, with Lot 1 being your first pull off on the east as you head north on Wisconsin Point Road, and Lot 22 being at the far north end of the point. Alternatively, additional birding can be be found by continuing east on Moccasin Mike Road at the base of Wisconsin Point to arrive at two additional birding hotspots, the Superior Landfill and Wisconsin Point–Gull Bluff. The Superior Landfill is a favorite Douglas County hotspot for viewing wintering gulls and is located south of Moccasin Mike Road just past the Wisconsin Point Road intersection. Gull Bluff can be reached by continuing further east on Moccasin Mike Road and taking the first left (north) on Lake Shore Road to gain access to a wonderful view of the lake and a higher vantage point to watch birds. Sadly, there is one caveat that must also be addressed in regards to visiting Wisconsin Point. It is important to take your valuables with you or leave them at home as there has been a number of vehicular break-ins in the past. Police do patrol the area, but these unfortunate events still occur.
Most Wisconsin birders visit the point in late September during the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology’s popular field trip dubbed Jaegerfest. Upon first hearing the name, you may think the trip celebrates the drink Jaegermeister. While that may occur (only those 21 and older, and everything in moderation of course), the main purpose of the trip is to look for those kleptoparasites called jaegers. Jaegers breed in the arctic and tend to be found along the oceans, so it is a real treat to be able to see them in Wisconsin. While they can be seen at other locations in the state, Wisconsin Point is the most reliable spot for them. There are three species of jaegers that can occur: Parasitic, Pomarine and Long-tailed. Parasitic is the most common, but Pomarine and Long-tailed are both possibilities with Pomarine being the rarest and more likely to occur in October if at all. In addition to jaegers, Sabine’s Gull is the another arctic highlight visitors hope to see at Jaegerfest. Arctic Terns and Black-legged Kittiwakes also occur, but at a much rarer frequency. In addition to Charadriiformes, fall is also a fantastic time for migrant raptors and passerines. The species list for the Jaegerfest trip often totals over one hundred! Warblers, vireos, thrushes and sparrows all pass through in good diversity and numbers. Harris’s Sparrow is another specialty species that is usually observed in the fall and a target bird for most Jaegerfest attendees. While this bird can be encountered in mixed sparrow flocks in any of the brushy areas along Wisconsin Point Road, the turn off to the last parking lot has historically been the most reliable spot to encounter this sparrow. This year (2013) Jaegerfest takes place from Friday, September 20th-Sunday September 22nd. It is a great trip with opportunities to see a lot of fabulous birds and join in birding fellowship with old and new friends. It is highly recommended for both the novice to the expert birder.
While jaegers are certainly alluring, there is so much more to Wisconsin Point than just Jaegerfest. If that is the only time you visit, you are missing out on the bounty of birds this place has to offer. During the winter, many northern birds come down to spend this season in the Wisconsin Point area. Before the water freezes in the Superior Entry, be sure to check for Barrow’s Goldeneye among the dense gathering of Common Goldeneye. Additionally, gull-watching can be quite productive during the winter months due to Wisconsin Point’s close proximity to the nearby Superior Landfill. The lakeshore and bluffs are the best spots to watch for gulls on Wisconsin Point or one can opt to scope the Superior Landfill from Moccasin Mike Road. Thayer’s, Iceland, Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gull are all regular in the winter, and for the last few years there has been a Slaty-backed Gull as well. During irruption years (2012 for example), multiple Great Gray and Boreal Owls have also been sighted at Wisconsin Point. Lastly, look for winter finches which frequent the point during the colder months as well. Both Red and White-winged Crossbill have been observed in the pines and flocks of Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls forage along all three miles of the point with the occasional Hoary Redpoll mixed in. Before you know it, winter has passed and we are on to spring, which flies by even faster.
Wisconsin Point is a phenomenal spring migration location. Lingering winter visitors and incoming spring migrants can make for some wonderful days of birding. Lake Superior often holds high numbers of Common Loons and Horned Grebes. With some additional effort, it is often possible to find multiple Red-throated Loons as well as the occasional Western and/or Eared Grebe. The lake and Allouez Bay both attract large numbers of ducks. Everything from dabblers to sea ducks occur including all five Aythya species, all three Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks. The bluffs are a good place to see migrating raptors. Due to the updraft along the bluffs, one can often get looks at these birds of prey from above. Typically, this is not an easy feat in a state whose highest point is less than 2,000 feet. Shorebirds and gulls are also in good abundance in the spring. Highlights to look for include: Whimbrel, Piping Plover, Red Knot, Little Gull and Franklin’s Gull. If you thought we were done talking about jaegers, you were wrong! As in the fall, Wisconsin Point is the most reliable spring location in the state for migrating jaegers. Often overlooked by all of the Jaegermania is the passerine migration that also takes place. During mid-to late May, it is not uncommon to have upwards of 20 species of warblers or more. In addition to warblers, good pushes of flycatchers, thrushes, vireos and sparrows occur along the point. If you are lucky enough to come during a fallout, the experience upgrades from spectacular to amazingly incredible! The sheer magnitude of numbers and diversity is truly astounding.
Birding Wisconsin Point during the summer months can be a strikingly different experience from the other seasons. This is partially due to fewer birds around than in spring and fall. However, both of those respective migrations extend pretty far into the summer, so it is not the sole reason why summer birding at Wisconsin Point can border on frustration. This is also the time the majority of beach-goers come to hang out, go swimming, play in the sand and all sorts of other activities. A lot of the shorebirds and gulls that might otherwise linger are encouraged to leave by the increased level of human and domestic animal activity on the beach. Fear not though, there are still birds to be found. Between Eastern Kingbirds, a smattering of warblers, and Merlins to eat all of the aforementioned smaller birds, you can still have an enjoyable time.
In summary, Wisconsin Point is an amazing location. The scenery is beautiful and the birds are plentiful. It is truly one of Wisconsin’s birding gems.
Thanks to the following contributors:
Ted Keyel, author and photos
Cynthia Bridge, Fun Facts, editing and photos