Easter Egg Hunt

Morning view, April 20, 2014.

Morning view, April 20, 2014.

From atop the Dunes Bird Observation Platform, anyone visiting today had a pleasant bird’s eye view of a beautiful early spring dune landscape.  Off in the distance daffodils are flowering in front yards and children are exhibiting a high addiction to a plastic colored egg.  Back at the park, a steady stream of Easter weekend families are enjoying the park.  Some down on the beach (some even sun bathing!),  others hiking on trails.  However, no bunnies were seen today.

Last night’s south winds brought promise to a great morning movement.  Today’s flight was good, but it appears there was more exodus then arrivals.  5,510 birds were logged.  Two new birds for the platform this season were 6 American White-Pelican (rarer on actual lakefront) and a single early morning singing Henslow’s Sparrow back in the Dunes Prairie Nature Preserve.

Things are dwindling on the lake.  Though waterfowl numbers are going down, terns and Double-crested Cormorants continue to increase.  Blackbirds continue to pose good flights in the early morning hours, but are for the most part petered out around 9am.  Some of the other expected species continue to be a week behind.  By now we should be seeing a few other warblers, the first kingbirds, Lark Sparrows, and generally larger numbers in the present swallows, loons, and many other species.

The hawks attempted to make a strong movement in the stronger south winds today.  The day’s 91 birds constitutes as a weak-medicore flight.  Saving for the smaller flight was the diverse group of raptors.  12 species made today’s hawkwatch the most diverse of the season.  A few Broad-winged Hawks accompanied the many Red-tailed Hawks.  All three expected falcons were seen, as well as a late Rough-legged Hawk.

Accompanying the counter today was John Devaney, John Kendall, Brad Bumgardner, and Katie McGowan.  Some highlights are below.  Tomorrow holds some early promise for a good flight before the rain comes and the thermometer drops out on Tuesday.

Red-throated Loon 2
American White Pelican 6
Sharp-shinned Hawk 14
Broad-winged Hawk 6
Red-tailed Hawk 36
Great Black-backed Gull 5
Caspian Tern 36
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 26
Yellow-rumped Warbler 18
Henslow’s Sparrow 1
Rusty Blackbird 485
Purple Finch 4

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The Perils for a Little Piper

He’s flown 1,500 miles returning the promise that began 9 months earlier.  Migration, the promise to return.  For a tiny Piping Plover, completing that promise is no easy task.  With only 6,200 of your kind, it’s amazing they’re all able to avoid predators, find food, dodge weather systems.  All of which doesn’t acknowledge the countless human caused obstacles that lie in their way.

Of the 160+ records of Piping Plover in the Indiana Dunes area, spring birds are rarer than fall birds 4:1.  The majority of these birds wind up at Miller Beach, just west of the Indiana Dunes State Park.  This most southern tip of Lake Michigan tends to draw many shorebirds, particularly in the fall.  Once here, birds tend to linger a few days.  In the spring, they often do not.  Therefore, with notice that an unbanded Piping Plover is hanging out among the built up wrack at Miller Beach, one is best to hurry over to see it.

Several of us gathered at the Lake St Beach Parking lot after a full work day yesterday.  No Piping Plover was visible in the immediate stretch of beach.  Distant gulls could be seen scavenging farther west down the beach.  Through washed up sticks, bones, plastic, balloons, and other garbage, we waded our way the entire mile west to the USX breakwall and flooded impoundment.  After a full mile all we were able to score were Killdeer.  One breast band too many.  On the way back, with the idea of finding the earlier Piping Plover now fading, we began to take more notice to the details of the beach pickings.  Birds of many kinds were washed up on the shore for the gulls to pick apart.  Many, the mortalities of a dangerous migration, others on the bad side of the coin we called the winter of 2013/2014.  Still others having died mysteriously.  We began to take count of what we saw.  (Please note- what you see below may be gruesome or hard to see for some folks)

One of two dead Common Loons found on Miller Beach.

One of two dead Common Loons found on Miller Beach.

2 dead loons were found today.  Loons on Lake Michigan shorelines are often thought to be botulism victims.

Dead Redhead duck on Miller Beach.

Dead Redhead duck on Miller Beach.

dead Horned Grebe on Miller Beach.

Dead Horned Grebe on Miller Beach.

Dead Herring Gull on Miller Beach.

Dead Herring Gull on Miller Beach.

Dead Red-breasted Merganser on Miller Beach.

Dead Red-breasted Merganser on Miller Beach.

Dead Flicker on Miller Beach

One of two dead Flickers on Miller Beach

All told on this one mile stretch of beach, the gulls were scavenging on:
1 Redhead Duck
1 White-winged Scoter
5 Red-breasted Mergansers
2 Common Loons
1 Horned Grebe
1 Herring Gull
3 Northern Flickers

After trekking the mile back east to Lake St (into a pretty stiff NE wind and 39 degrees), we were just about to the turning point for the parking lot, when a small shorebird left the beach and began flying towards us over the surf.  At close range, you could see a lighter brown, small plover, which was definitely not a Killdeer.  High pitch pips could be heard over the waves as it flew west and landed 50 yards away from us.  With scopes now swung back west you could clearly see the single banded breast and light sand colored back of a Piping Plover.  The walk was worth it, even if he was waiting for us back at the beginning.

Piping Plover at Miller Beach, April 18, 2014.  Photo courtesy Matt Kalwasinski.

Piping Plover at Miller Beach, April 18, 2014. Photo courtesy Matt Kalwasinski.

He’s made it 1,500 miles, perhaps only 300 more to go.  Let’s hope he makes it to the breeding ground to produce more of his kind so that we’ll have more springs and falls for them to complete the promise of migration.



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The Longshore Mixed Bag

Another longshore flight, another video for you today!  Today, April 17, brought a little rebound in both temperatures and total number of birds.  For the day 67 species totalling 4,549 birds were counted.  It was a little mixed bag of birds today.  A little highlight from each bird group.

From the lake, 9 lingering  White-winged Scoters and 3 Long-tailed Ducks were worth noting now in late April.  From the air up high, blackbirds put on a small show.  Most surprisingly was an increase in the already surging Rusty Blackbird count we’ve been logging this year.  1,525 more Rusty Blackbirds (and one Brewer’s Blackbird) look to be the dunes area’s 4th highest count.  Just behind the slightly higher count posted on the 14th.

The afternoon flight brought in only a few raptors.  Again this year, Merlins seem to make a good flight.  They’re being seen nearly daily, and our season total is already up to 25 bird, which is five more than we saw at this point last year.  The afternoon also brought a very good bird for the park.  Right around noon, an Upland Sandpiper was sighted drifting in over the pines.  It glided into the dune prairie grass and disappeared.  A search for it on foot re-found the bird, but it unfortunately continued on it’s migration.  Videos of both birds are below.

Brendan was joined by Ken Brock, Brad Bumgardner, Ben Mitchell, Eric Delbecq, Penny Starin, and Carl Swisher.  Highlights below.  The next two days do not look very ideal for the longshore flight, but Sunday looks good.  If you have a chance to break away from Easter activities, join us at the tower site.

April 17, 2014
White-winged Scoter 9
Long-tailed Duck 3
Red-throated Loon 8
Common Loon 5
Osprey 1
Solitary Sandpiper 3
Lesser Yellowlegs 3
Upland Sandpiper 1
Wilson’s Snipe 1
Bonaparte’s Gull 3
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 3
Pileated Woodpecker 1
American Kestrel 1
Merlin 4
Eastern Phoebe 2
Eastern Bluebird 1
Hermit Thrush 1
American Robin 48
Lapland Longspur 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler 30
Red-winged Blackbird 1420
Rusty Blackbird 1525
Brewer’s Blackbird 1
Purple Finch 1

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Raptor River over the Dunes

After two days off, south winds returned for another longshore flight today, April 16th.  During the break, another cold spell swept through.  Birders Tuesday morning awoke to an inch of snow.  I guess at this point we shrug it off.  Given the winter we’ve had, we kind of expected to see snow in April too.  This morning started on the heels of the last two days, cold, cold, cold!  Calm winds allowed arctic laden lake air to drift inland, while growing winds only made the already cool air even colder.  But the growing south winds did bring the best hawk flight of the season.  182 raptors would cruise by the shoreline today.

Caspian Tern over Lake Michigan.

Caspian Tern over Lake Michigan.  A nice count of 114 were logged today, April 16, 2014.

This is quite in contrast with another April 16.  On this exact date in 1960, the shoreline of Lake Michigan would turn into a death trap for thousands of birds migrating through.  During the overnight period, a strong storm swept by the lake, forcing the migrating birds down, and for many down to drown in the swells of the lake below.  a 10.5 mile survey the next day found 3,600+ birds dead along the dune shorelines.  Never had a bird drowning been recorded at this magnitude (define: fallout), and never has one been seen like this since here.  The full scope of the survey went on to became a well known Hoosier ornithological paper in the state’s Indiana Audubon Society publication, the Indiana Audubon Quarterly.  You don’t recount Yellow Rail knowledge in Indiana without citing this paper.  The full paper, written by Simon Segal, of Chesterton, IN, can be read here.

Full list of dead birds found April 16, 1960.  Segal, S. (1960). Bird Tragedy in the Dunes, Indiana Audubon Quarterly, 38:23-25.

Full list of dead birds found April 16, 1960. Segal, S. (1960). Bird Tragedy in the Dunes, Indiana Audubon Quarterly, 38:23-25.

We haven’t seen a death like the one on this date in 1960, but the dunes and Lake Michigan are still dangerous.  We’ve posted dead birds before, and documented some of the waterfowl that struggled this past winter.  Some deaths are more mysterious.  This Eastern Whip-poor-will was found deceased at the nearby Hammond Bird Sanctuary yesterday by Matt Kalwasinski.

Dead Whip at  Hammond Bird Sanctuary.  4/15/14.  Photo by Matt Kalwasinski.

Dead Whip at Hammond Bird Sanctuary. 4/15/14. Photo by Matt Kalwasinski.

Today’s flight involved no storms.  In fact the south winds did little to stimulate a good blackbird, grackle, robin, or other songbird flight.  For the day, a smaller sample size of 1,003 birds, comprising 57 species would be logged.  As mentioned above the hawks would be most notable.  The 182 hawks would be dominated by 75 sharpies and 61 Red-tailed Hawks.  This writer, while walking near the tower site this morning with 30 6th graders in tow, pointed out a Cooper’s Hawk near the tower.  It didn’t take long for the young eagle eyes’ to start pointing out kettling Red-tailed Hawks above the park.  It seemed like for a small moment, an ever so slightly small moment, nature brought awe… which quickly ceded back to singing lyrics to some new fad pop band that this person has not heard of. Despite the major flight, other highlights existed.  They included the seasons’ first reported Forster’s Tern, and an always super cool and rarity on the lakefront Yellow-headed Blackbird.  The longshore platform also had the honor of hosting the now third Whooping Crane record for Indiana Dunes State Park.  The lone bird trailed a small flock of Sandhill Cranes and can be seen in the video clip below. Today’s highlights, and a couple video clips from today and the last week follow:

White-winged Scoter 2
Red-throated Loon 4
Common Loon 4
Sharp-shinned Hawk 75
Broad-winged Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 61
Rough-legged Hawk 1
Sandhill Crane 151
Whooping Crane 1
Bonaparte’s Gull 1
Great Black-backed Gull 3
Caspian Tern 114
Forster’s Tern 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1 (yes, RBWO do migrate)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Northern Flicker 12
American Kestrel 2
Merlin 3
Hermit Thrush 4
American Tree Sparrow 7
White-throated Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 6
Yellow-headed Blackbird 1

Misc. longshore birds seen this week, including the Short-eared Owl seen earlier this week. Today’s longshore flight birds, including the Whooping Crane.  All videos by Brendan Grube.

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Wind Block

Aside from the birding, another great feature for those that live on the southern rim of Lake Michigan is the mighty influence that 1,040 cubic miles of water has on the landscape. One really can’t take too much faith in the weather forecast anyway.  Wind shifts can warm or cool the land, bring unexpected rain or snow, as well as wash up a vagrant bird rarity.

A delayed rain forecast over night allowed for a night of strong south winds, with the bulk of the rain and front changing wind to arrive later Sunday afternoon.  Indeed, a nice warm air did greet the dawn.  Winds gusted right away and an early morning flight of birds began almost immediately down near the beach line.  Weather wise, what occurred next was intriguing. With the main cold front trailing through northern Illinois, the upper portion hit Lake Michigan and the colder air allowed it to, what the advanced meteorological discussion site said, “back-door down the Lake Michigan shore.”  At 11am, the dunes were plunged into the cold air over the lake.  Temperatures dropped from 72 degrees to 48 degrees in 2 minutes!  No rush of cold wind, but a rapid descent that was noticed by everyone around.  The cold air hit the warmer shoreline and fog developed that would shift and sway from the beach line with each passing wind.  Temperatures never really recovered and the flight was done.

Before the temperature would take a nose dive, 8,297 birds would be logged.  It was a good morning for new arrivals.  First appearances were made by Greater Yellowlegs, Chimney Swifts, Northern Mockingbird (rare up here), Vesper and Swamp Sparrows.  Another first appearance is not only the first for the season, but a first for the site… a flyby Snowy Egret!

Yellow-rumped Warbler by Pete Grube.

Yellow-rumped Warbler by Pete Grube.

Flickers will not stop!  629 more today now gives us 1,732 for the season.  Where else can you see over 1,000 Flickers in 3 days!  Over 100 Yellow-rumped Warblers is showing us that the early warblers are on the move.  Butter-butts for everyone in attendance.

Lastly of note, early morning joggers going down the sand trails of Trail 3 and the Dunes Prairie Nature Preserve were overhead yelling, “look,  an owl!”  A Short-eared Owl flushed from the grasses and made his/her way out over the lake with crows in pursuit.

Today’s count of 63 species gives us a new season total of 128 species.  More birds than most have seen in Indiana all year.  Helping Brendan today were Brad Bumgardner, John Kendall and Karen and Warren Leow.  Highlights below:

Great Blue Heron 14
Great Egret 1
Snowy Egret 1
Osprey 1
Bald Eagle 1
Greater Yellowlegs 1
American Woodcock 1
Short-eared Owl 1
Chimney Swift 3
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 26
Northern Flicker 629
Pileated Woodpecker 2
Merlin 2
Eastern Phoebe 3
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 8
Northern Mockingbird 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 113
Vesper Sparrow 1
Swamp Sparrow 2
Red-winged Blackbird 3608
Rusty Blackbird 1532 (possible tower high count)
Purple Finch 18

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More Flicker Madness

Saturday, April 12 was the spring day offered up to dunelanders in exchange for all the cold and dreary spring days that had been delivered thus far.  With a light breeze at dawn, and warm temperatures, it was a day where just about anything could pass by.By the end of the day, it was a steamy 77 degrees and the winds were now powerful southerly gales.  It was a good day to log 76 bird species, from all over the tower site.

Sunshine over Mt. Tom.

Sunshine over Mt. Tom.  The tower panoramic this morning.

Magnitude!  Again, that’s the spectacular observation one gets here.  You don’t need to visit the Bird Observation Platform to see your first gnatcatcher or Cliff Swallow of the year.  But you come here so that you can see 98 gnatcatchers or 101 Cliff Swallows.  Today’s magnitude began three days ago when Flickers started building.  First 162 were witnessed Thursday, then 180 yesterday.  Today’s observers watched a massive 649 individual Northern Flickers undulated past the tower.  It’s a new second highest state count, behind the 1300+ seen at the same site in 2010.  We’re now over 1,100 flickers for the spring.  Other magnitudes worth mentioning were 205 Long-tailed Ducks (now over 1,500 for the year!), 233 Mourning Doves (including a Eurasian Collared-Dove) and a grand slam of all expected swallow species.

Blackbirds and grackles posted a great flight today.  The squeeky door sounds of Rusty Blackbirds also posted a good 761 birds.  New arrivals today included the first Broad-winged Hawk, American Golden Plovers, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Bank and Cliff Swallows, and first White-throated Sparrows.  The new arrivals would push the daily count to 76 species.

A simple Sharpie Silhouette.  April 12, 2014.

A simple Sharpie Silhouette. April 12, 2014.

Wind gusts picked up considerably by late morning and under strong 25-30 knot winds, hawks picked up.  Both Sharpies and Red-tailed Hawks posted good numbers.  Adding to the total was a lone Bald Eagle, two Osprey, and five Merlin.  The hawkwatch logged over 100 raptors today.

Today’s highlights of 17,448 birds are below.  The counter was assisted by Kim Ehn, Penny and Jim Starin,  John DeVaney, Brad Bumgardner,  and John Kendall.  Ken Brock’s regular birding tour provided a brief birding moral support stop.

American Wigeon 1
American Black Duck 2
White-winged Scoter 1
Long-tailed Duck 205
Red-throated Loon 10
Common Loon 16
Osprey 2
Sharp-shinned Hawk 37
Broad-winged Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 23
Rough-legged Hawk 1
Sandhill Crane 302
American Golden-Plover 25
Eurasian Collared-Dove 1
Mourning Dove 233
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Northern Flicker 649
American Kestrel 15
Merlin 5
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 5
Purple Martin 4
Tree Swallow 279
Bank Swallow 1
Barn Swallow 7
Cliff Swallow 3
American Pipit 1
Lapland Longspur 196
Yellow-rumped Warbler 23
White-throated Sparrow 1
Red-winged Blackbird 8819
Rusty Blackbird 761
Common Grackle 4625
Purple Finch 8


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Fire and Ice

Migration pushes on.  Each year a little different.  Today’s longshore flight produced a respectable 8,356 birds.  For the season we have now logged 165,000+ birds.  But how does it compare with past years?  At this point last year we had just passed the 300,000 mark and in 2012, we were sitting just shy of 200,000 birds.  So, birds are clearly behind and big wow days haven’t been as frequent.  The biggest underachiever of the season…. American Robins!  We have yet to have a 2,000+ robin morning this year.  Last year we had 6 of them by this date, and 9 of them in 2012.  More on robin theories for another post though.

Today’s count had high hopes, light south winds and warm temperatures.  Today’s count also had some fear.  The fear that did in fact materialize was that the light southerly winds would be overtaken by a lake breeze as the land warmed.  The lake breeze was present almost immediately after dawn and kept massive flights from moving.  Some birds did move, but no OMG day.  After scraping ice off cars this morning, the day warmed and and provided afternoon hawk watchers with a smoky backdrop for finding hawks.  That smoky backdrop would be a park prescribed fire in the Trail 9/10 area of the park.  The smoke really illustrated the air conditions going on.  At first the lake breeze would take the smoke inland, but higher, southerly transport winds would then push it back to the north.  See the image below to see what we’re talking about.  A Great Lakes hawkwatching phenomenon.

Prescribed fire today.  Look at the initial lake breeze, and then subsequent south winds pushing the smoke around.

Prescribed fire today. Look at the initial lake breeze, and then subsequent south winds pushing the smoke around.

Fighting the north wind today would be another Flicker push.  180 more just edged out yesterday’s flight.  New arrivals would include Brown Thrasher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a single Red-breasted Nuthatch.  A distant raft of Long-tailed Ducks pushed the day’s total to 104, and the season total to an astounding 1,373!

Helping the counter hit 62 species today was Brad Bumgardner, Kim Ehn, John DeVaney, John Kendall, and Ed Hopkins.  The weekend holds good promise for dune area birders looking for new birds, then Mother Nature will give us a slap back to reality come Monday (dare those weather jerks say the S word again!).

Today’s Highlights:

Green-winged Teal  23
Ring-necked Duck  5
Long-tailed Duck  104
Red-throated Loon  2
Common Loon  8
Bald Eagle  1
Sandhill Crane  186
Killdeer  1
American Woodcock  1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  7
Northern Flicker  180
Pileated Woodpecker  4
Merlin  2
Peregrine Falcon  1
Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  1
Golden-crowned Kinglet  6
Brown Thrasher  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler  4
Fox Sparrow  2
Red-winged Blackbird  7305

Belted Kingfisher over the tower today.  April 11, 2014.

Belted Kingfisher over the tower today. April 11, 2014.

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