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The Laudholm Census

Compiled by Julia Sagaser in summer 2019.

Volunteers from York County Audubon have been making bird counts at the Wells Reserve four times a year since 1989. During each census, they survey four routes covering salt marsh, beach, forest, and meadow. Over these 30 years, the steady Laudholm Census has documented changes in bird occurrence.


"The Laudholm Census," a film by Julia Sagaser.


In 1987, volunteers and docents started keeping bird lists as they led walks and field trips at the new Wells Reserve. They reported 77 species of birds within the reserve that year.

One of them, Art Garland, wrote in the January 1988 Wells Reserve Advisory Bulletin, "What seems to be called for is an organized schedule of bird walks led by docents or volunteers who are experienced birders.” He hoped these walks would document the state of birds over time, while bringing more visitors to the reserve. Later that year, another volunteer, Nancy McReel, began recording bird and other wildlife observations in a computer database.

In the winter 1989 newsletter, Henrietta List wrote an article documenting the first two Laudholm Censuses, in May and August that year. She wrote that the York County Audubon Society had decided to “conduct four bird surveys of the Reserve each year to get a better understanding of the use of the area through the seasons.” Eighty species were recorded in the first census, including many warblers on their spring migration.

Over three decades, many volunteers have participated in the Laudholm Census and have formed a tight-knit quarterly birding community.


The Laudholm Census has been conducted mostly in the same manner since its beginning. Whenever possible, the method is as follows:

  • Conducted four times a year to cover all four seasons, usually in February, May, August, and November. The day of the census is kept as consistent as possible, and is most often on a Tuesday before mid month.
  • The census begins at 7am in May and August and 8am in November and February.
  • Four routes are surveyed within the Wells Reserve and the Webhannet River estuary. They are labeled Laird-Norton Trail, Barrier Beach Trail and Laudholm Beach, Muskie Trail, and Webhannet Marsh driving route.

The participants split up to survey their assigned route for 2-4 hours. At the end of the census, they gather and tally their recordings into a master list for that day.


A preliminary evaluation of the data reveals patterns that suggest real change in the bird community at the Wells Reserve over 30 years.

It shows a rise in wild turkey, osprey, eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, and tufted titmouse; the northern expansion of the red-bellied woodpecker and relatively sudden appearance of Virginia rail; the steady decrease in eastern meadowlark; and the highly variable populations of piping plover and least tern. Similarities between the Laudholm Census data, local perceptions, and scientific surveys are reassuring that the census has been accurate enough over time to detect these trends.

Other notable findings include increases in willet and semipalmated sandpiper, a decline in short-billed dowitcher, and long absences of blue-headed vireo and wood thrush.


The census participants are careful and capable, but the effort lacks scientific rigor. There is little control on variables such as number of participants, their skill level, and how and when specific locations are surveyed. 

A deeper investigation of Laudholm Census data, in combination with other sources and future studies, would provide greater confidence for potential research and conservation actions.

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