Christmas Bird Counts Continue Long Tradition in the Dunes

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the annual Christmas Bird Count season.   115th Christmas Bird Count begins on Sunday, December 14th, 2014, and runs through Monday, January 5th, 2015. The count period runs from December 14 to January 5 every year.  It’s a great chance to get a snapshot of the wintering birds  throughout the US and Canada (and now beyond) during this couple week period.  One thing is for certain, no single year is ever the same.  One notable invasion of birds one year may give way to another group of birds the year after.


The history of the Christmas Bird Counts can be traced back to Frank Chapman, who proposed the new holiday tradition of counting the birds, rather than shooting them, as had been the previous custom.  25 Christmas Counts were held that first year, recording 90 species of birds.  The majority of these counts were in the NE US, but a few were as far as California and Canada.  With declining bird populations, there was a growing trend of concern for certain species of birds.  a mere five years later the National Audubon Society would be formed as well.


Region map showing area Christmas Bird count circles.

The very first Christmas Bird Count in the Indiana Dunes took place on December 24, 1916!  On that year 2 participants counted about a dozen species of birds.  Most notable were some bobwhites, a species not currently being seen consistently in the dunes.  A break occured, and the counts began again in 1972.  This time 46 participants scoured the dunes area.  At one point (1977) over 100 birders were participating.  Today, some 30+ birders, plus feeder watchers participate the first weekend of the count period.  We’ve logged over 150 species through the years.  Three birds have been logged during the count week, but not on the count day.  Those being Little Gull, Mew Gull, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  Last year brought species 153 to the count when Jeff “Magic” McCoy logged the state’s first Christmas Bird Count Bobolink, hanging out along the railroad tracks near Michigan City.

While the Dunes’ main CBC will go on tomorrow, there is still the other, newer National Lakeshore West count that takes place on Tuesday, December 30.  This newer count, sponsored by the NPS, takes place in Lake and far eastern Porter counties and usually  needs counters willing to brave the cold and ice in search of birds.  You may also email Christie Gerlach at for more information on INDW.

Between winter finches, Snowy Owls, and the hopes for rare waterfowl, there is no reason to hang up the binoculars right now in the Indiana Dunes!

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Its Been a Long Time

Greetings from duneland,

As our spring migration count ended and the warm air transitioned to summer, things simply got busy.  It’s true that we were too overwhelmed to blog the dune birds.  But, it doesn’t mean they weren’t moving.  We’re sorry we haven’t been on here as much.  We’re hoping to change that now that the winter season is setting in and some more free time will be available for us.

Let’s start with the obvious.  Snowy Owls are again on the move.  Though early indications say this won’t be of the same magnitude as last years’ unprecedented invasion, that should seem normal.  We’re not likely to see what we saw last year for many years!  But moving they are.  The lakefront has seen about 1/2 dozen Snowy Owl reports in the last two weeks or so, including this beautiful bird (below) photographed by Alex Forsythe.  As the season progresses, we hope to provide more updates on Snowy Owl sightings, as well as offer car pool tours for folks to see them.  They often sit out on the breakwalls and can be difficult for visitors to see if they don’t have the higher power optics that we can bring out to the site.

Snowy Owl at Miller Beach by Alex Fosythe, December 1, 2014.

Snowy Owl at Miller Beach by Alex Forsythe, December 1, 2014.

Another thing to watch for right now are some of the winter finches in the area.  Pine Siskins have been common at many feeders.  But, a few redpolls should start to be seen at a few feeders.  The winter finch forecast this fall made predictions of a good flight, but so far the numbers have been few and far between.

Common Redpoll seen in the dunes during the last invasion year.

Common Redpoll seen in the dunes during the last invasion year.

Finally, we’ll probably be beating this drum for a while, but mark your calendars for the first ever Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, May 7-10, 2015.  Get information now at the festival Facebook page!

IDBF logo

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The Spring Brock Report

It’s been a few weeks now, so it’s probably time for a little update.  All of the lakefront reports for the dunes area from March-May, 2014 are now all available to view.  The Brock Report has been affectionately titled “where Brendan Grube birded at this spring” for this issue.

To access it, visit the NIMBA site and click on the pdf to bring it up.

Good birds are still to be found in June and early July.  Recent goodies have included the rare breeding pair of King Rails and the Grant St. Wetlands, and last week’s super goodie Yellow-crowned Night-Heron that spent nearly a week in a backyard near Westville.  The latter had gone ten years without a sighting in the dunes area.  Get out and bird!

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron last week in Westville.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron last week in Westville.


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3 Seasons of Counting

Waterfowl watching the first week of the longshore flight in 2014.

Waterfowl watching the first week of the longshore flight in 2014.

It’s hard to believe three short months ago we were standing atop an near arctic shoreline shivering as we waited for ice to break up and Snowy Owls to drift past the lake.  The past three years have seen average springs, warm springs, and now cold springs.  In just three years, it’s clear that the average spring is better for counting migrating birds.  Now, in no way can we take into account irruptions of certain species, seasonal movements that vary each year.  All these can affect individual species counts, but as a whole, the extreme cold and hot weather patterns couldn’t beat the average high for bird flights.

The last official count of the season took place yesterday, June 1.  A few late migrants will trickle through the first days of June, but by June 5 most are done migrating, breeding is in high gear, and the first hints of fall migration are only a few weeks ago.  Proof that the migration has come to and end, Sunday’s count was a measly 125 birds.  It was the lowest longshore count of the season.  The second lowest…. the first day of our season, March 9. So how did the year’s compare:

2012: 285,383 birds
2013: 428,374 birds
2014: 260,884 birds

American Robins migrating against the wind.

American Robins migrating against the wind.

It will take some time to analyze all the data.  But one species still stands out.  American Robins, one of the most abundant migrants over the dunes, especially mid-March through mid-April, posted dismal totals this year.  Compare this year’s 8,152, with last year’s 35,000 and the 37,000 seen in 2012.  Where were all the robins.  Strangely, you’d expect the colder and snowier winter to drive more robins south, which would mean that more robins would have streamed north.  One theory was has it that the productive summer resulted in a good winter crop of berries throughout the northern US.  Just as no winter finches irrupted this winter, few robins did either.  Thus, you might consider robins an  irruptive species.

The last migrants seen on June 1 consisted of typical late migrants.  Brendan logged both Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Purple Martin, Cedar Waxwings, Wilson’s and Canada Warblers, and a late and odd Lark Sparrow still visiting the site.

Expect us to better compare the last three years and give some insight into the migration over the dunes in the coming weeks.  We’ll also continue to give birders a peak into the breeding season birds in the coming months and send you to the great dune sites to see them.  Until then, we’ll leave you with one final video of some of the late and amazing birds seen in the dunes (and general NW Indiana area) this past week.

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Down to 14

As fast as spring migration enters, it quietly fades away.  Without hurrah, the spring sounds exit, with the summer breeders still going strong as June comes around.  It was just last week that we had peak counts of 30+ warblers and a multitude of species arriving daily.  Now, much of that has passed.  There are indeed still lots of birds around, and the last wave is coming through.  Late warblers, such as Mourning, Wilson’s, and Connecticut are sneaking in the underbrush, while late Flycatchers, like Olive-sided and Alder are calling in the early morning swamps.

Red-winged Blackbirds… once streaming by the thousands, are now a couple dozen.  Almost an anomaly to still see them. Why are they so late?  What held them back down south?  We peaked with 19,000 blackbirds on March 24.  Today, just 14.

Today’s full count:
Canada Goose 48
Mallard 3
Wild Turkey 1
Double-crested Cormorant 31
Great Blue Heron 5
Green Heron 11
Ring-billed Gull 32
Caspian Tern 1
Mourning Dove 4
Chimney Swift 29
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 2
Red-headed Woodpecker 1
American Kestrel 1
Olive-sided Flycatcher 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee 3
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Eastern Kingbird 36
Warbling Vireo 1
Red-eyed Vireo 1
Blue Jay 80
American Crow 1
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 2
Purple Martin 3
Bank Swallow 1
Barn Swallow 1
Cliff Swallow 5
Black-capped Chickadee 1
Tufted Titmouse 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
House Wren 1
Eastern Bluebird 11
American Robin 1
Gray Catbird 1
European Starling 2
Cedar Waxwing 1160
Common Yellowthroat 1
American Redstart 1
Yellow Warbler 2
Pine Warbler 1
Canada Warbler 2
Wilson’s Warbler 6
Eastern Towhee 1
Chipping Sparrow 1
Field Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 2
Song Sparrow 1
White-crowned Sparrow 1
Northern Cardinal 1
Indigo Bunting 10
Dickcissel 2
Bobolink 1
Red-winged Blackbird 14
Common Grackle 15
Brown-headed Cowbird 1
Orchard Oriole 1
Baltimore Oriole 1
House Finch 1
American Goldfinch 1
House Sparrow 1

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250,000 birds! … but not done yet.

The longshore flight continues.  Despite the warming weather, leafing trees, and all the signs of Memorial Day and the start of the summer season, there are still thousands of birds that will be logged from the platform before we call spring migration finished.  Today’s count of 2,295 birds helped push the season count to 250,000 birds.  A far cry from last year’s 428,000 birds.

Today’s 62 species and yesterday’s 87 only brought in two new species for the year.  Those being Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Mourning Warbler.  Add these two species and we’ve now logged 221 species from the site this year.

Cedar Waxwings enjoy a lakeside view during their late migration.  May 30, 2013.

Cedar Waxwings enjoy a lakeside view during their late migration in May.

The highlights from the past two days are below.

Common Loon 1
Osprey 1
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Broad-winged Hawk 2
Dunlin 1
Caspian Tern 3
Forster’s Tern 6
Chimney Swift 174
Common Nighthawk 12
Pileated Woodpecker 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee 1
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher 1
Least Flycatcher 1
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Eastern Kingbird 62 (162 on 5/20)
Yellow-throated Vireo 1
Warbling Vireo 1
Red-eyed Vireo 1
Cedar Waxwing 404
Tennessee Warbler 1
Mourning Warbler 1
Common Yellowthroat 1
American Redstart 1
Magnolia Warbler 2
Yellow Warbler 4
Blackpoll Warbler 1
Pine Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler 1
Black-throated Green Warbler 1
Lark Sparrow 1
White-crowned Sparrow 1
Scarlet Tanager 6
Indigo Bunting 18
Dickcissel 1
Bobolink 8
Orchard Oriole 2
Baltimore Oriole 24
American Goldfinch 103

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Warbler Mania

The Indiana Dunes warbler peak can be manic, yet subtle.  An explosion of sounds and active motion in the bush and overhead.  You look to your right and left, but see no others.  You’re left with fish tales to tell of warblers dripping from the trees.  No elbow to elbow crowds, like seen in other state birding sites.  We won’t deny the appeal of the birder networking and many eyes or shared bird sightings going on at the more known birding sites, like NW Ohio.   Yet here, one can sit in silence, enthralled by the new songs coming from each tree, all performing their songs for you!  Now, crap… can you remember which warbler makes that sound!?

This past weekend, May 17/18 brought the true peak for warblers this season.  Ken Brock writes,

Perhaps no group of birds generates more excitement among birders than the wood warblers…   Accordingly, for many birders the warbler migration constitutes the very quintessence of birding.”

It was indeed written Saturday that the tall trees were dripping with warblers.  No reason to stay at the longshore tower to watch for migrating birds.  One could set up anywhere in the park and watch a parade of feeding warblers zip, jump, dive, and chase after emerging insects.  The temperatures were perfect for active feeding throughout the day.  Winds were light, but felt good in the sun.  The following chart shows all of the warblers that were reported by various birders, eBird reports, the longshore tower, or from the Dunes Birdathon team this weekend.

warbler seenAs mentioned above, it was also the Dunes Birdathon.  It’s NIMBA’s attempt to log as many bird species in the NW Indiana area in 24 hours.  The funds raised help out with various bird related activities in the dunes, such as the owl banding program at the state park.  This year’s team began at 2:30am.  American Woodcock was the first bird heard calling deep in Cowle’s Bog.  The day was joyous.  We quickly hit the dripping warbler wave when we first entered Beverly Shores, just after sunrise.  Tennessee Warblers chipping everywhere.  Redstarts in every understory tree.  Rare for the lakefront, one of the first warblers seen was a Yellow-breasted Chat on Beverly Shores’ far east side near Mt Baldy.  Thrushes would also be common, with both Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked nearly tying each other in numbers this day.

The 2014 Dunes Birdathon Team, weary yet awake at hour 13.   5 more hours to go!

The 2014 Dunes Birdathon Team, weary yet awake at hour 13. 5 more hours to go!

The team birded the state park by 9am and continued racking up good birds.  The park’s Cerulean and Pine Warblers were calling right where they had been.  A quick peak of the park’s nesting Red-shouldered Hawks found mom sitting on the nest.  The Wilson Shelter boardwalk Prothonotary Warbler show was still on.  Here, visitors have been treated to one of the biggest show off warblers.  Mom and Dad Prothonotary continue to gather nest material and build their box full of grass and moss right in front of everyone with no regard for distance.  Today, they would be busy on the ground searching for last minute nesting material.  We savored the sight for a moment, then moved on for more birds.

Prothonotary Warbler hanging out at Wilson Boardwalk this week.  Photo courtesy Pete Grube.

Prothonotary Warbler hanging out at Wilson Boardwalk this week. Photo courtesy Pete Grube.

The late afternoon meant new birds and new habitats.  Kankakee Sands provided many fillers, including the needed grassland sparrows, Bobolinks, Dickcissels, and meadowlarks.  A surprise Osprey in a small fishing pond helped with numbers.  Finally, Willow Slough would give us the bird of the day… an adult female Red-necked Phalarope in full breeding plumage.  A rarity anywhere in Indiana in the spring!

With light fading, our team raced back north to the Grant Street Wetlands.  Yellow-headed Blackbirds still proclaimed their territories, while nighthawks and a single Black-crowned Night-Heron flew by.  Wanting just one more bird, the team drove the growing darkness and had just enough light to see the local Bald Eagles sitting on their nest along the Little Calumet River.  Finally dark, the day was bright!  165 species were seen.  A new record for our little team.

Thanks to all that pledged.  Final numbers and pledges are still being added, but we look to have raised over $1,500.00 yesterday for bird conservation in the dunes!

Not to be outdone.  The bird tower also logged some good birds for those that visited.  Over the past two days, a couple new season birds were seen.  Sedge Wren and Ruddy Turnstone are both good site records.  Also worth noting this weekend were a single Merlin, a couple American White Pelicans, Common Loon, Great Black-backed Gull, 295 Chimney Swifts (Sunday),  and a well seen Lark Sparrow.

Lark Sparrow at the Bird Observation Tower on May 17.  Photo by Alex Forsythe.

Lark Sparrow at the Bird Observation Tower on May 17. Photo by Alex Forsythe.

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