Door County, Wisconsin: Day Four — North by Midwest

American white pelican, Lake Michigan, Wisconsin

Sometimes you hold all the stars in your hand. Sometimes the cards are aligned just right. And sometimes you get to be in Door County, Wisconsin, on the most heartbreakingly beautiful day of the summer.

Ferry, Washington Island, Wisconsin

Better yet, I got to spend most of the day on Washington and Rock Islands, just off the northern tip of the long peninsula, birding. Melody showed me some really lovely spots and some really exciting birds, and my appetite is decidedly whetted for another visit.

Bald eagle nest, Washington Island, Wisconsin

It seems like every would-be birding destination in the world touts its “diversity of habitats,” but Door County lives up to the boast. What’s more, those habitats — from hay fields and woodlots to boggy spruce forests and hemlock groves — unite the two great ecological systems that dominate the center of the continent. Here, the dickcissels of the midwestern prairies sing to the black-throated green warblers of the boreal forest.

The meeting of north and west is especially obvious out on the water. Not that long ago, American white pelicans were rare birds on the Great Lakes, even in migration. This week, it has been hard not to see these huge, magnificent birds, ones and twos sailing majestically on the waters of the bay and the lake or larger groups — up to 130 at a time — gliding and sailing with equal serenity across the blue skies.

American white pelican, Lake Michigan, Wisconsin

These classic birds of western prairie lakes and swales share the blue waters with surprising numbers of red-breasted mergansers.

Red-breasted merganser, Washington Island, Wisconsin

Most seem to be males, suggesting that the waters of Door County are a “molt migration” site for this species; while the females and young linger around the nest, the drakes, their work done for the year, take off for open water and shed their flight feathers in safety. Nearly every bit of shoreline — as here, on Washington Island — seems to have its mergansers, but the biggest flock Melody and I encountered was a whopping 310 birds, loafing and feeding just off Rock Island.

Melody with hemlock and pileated woodpecker work, Rock Island, Wisconsin

The wooded habitats, too, harbor a piquant mix of species. This enormous hemlock is the playground of a pileated woodpecker, a surprisingly common bird in Door County; in fact, with the exception of the ubiquitous northern flickers, I heard and saw more pileateds than any other picid this week.

Just a couple of miles away stands a dark, wet deciduous forest, the home of a family of red-headed woodpeckers. Quiet and furtive on a warm afternoon, the birds eluded us on our quick stop, but just knowing they were there, somewhere, made the peninsula a richer place to my mind and eye.

As a slender hint of just how rich Door County is for the birder, have a look at our day list, and note the enticing mix of northern and western and eastern birds you can find there — even in summer.

Canada goose

Mute swan


Hooded merganser

Red-breasted merganser

Wild turkey

Common loon

American white pelican

Double-crested cormorant

Great blue heron

Great egret

Black-crowned night-heron

Turkey vulture


Bald eagle

Cooper’s hawk

Broad-winged hawk

Red-tailed hawk

Sandhill crane


Ring-billed gull

Herring gull

Caspian tern

Common tern

Rock pigeon

Mourning dove

Chimney swift

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Northern flicker

Pileated woodpecker

Great crested flycatcher

Eastern kingbird

Red-eyed vireo

Blue jay

American crow

Common raven

Purple martin

Tree swallow

Northern rough-winged swallow

Bank swallow

Cliff swallow

Barn swallow

Black-capped chickadee

Red-breasted nuthatch

House wren

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Eastern bluebird

American robin

European starling

Cedar waxwing

Nashville warbler

Yellow warbler

Chestnut-sided warbler

Black-throated green warbler

American redstart


Common yellowthroat

Eastern towhee

Chipping sparrow

Clay-colored sparrow

Vesper sparrow

Savannah sparrow

Song sparrow

Northern cardinal

Indigo bunting



Red-winged blackbird

Eastern meadowlark

Common grackle

Brown-headed cowbird

Purple finch

American goldfinch

House sparrow