Never Trust Your Meteorolgist!

Today, Monday, March 20 saw the first good songbird flight of the 2017 longshore flight season.  It was a day that wasn’t supposed to have a longshore flight.  As has been the case this past two weeks, any south winds have been accompanied by good rains that have essentially shut down any migration.  For the first day of spring, mother nature showed two sides.  The pre-dawn radar looked dismal.  Strong rains covered the south, giving little sign that any nocturnal migration was occurring.  The forecast was for rain all morning and into the afternoon.  The continued rain would also put a damper on songbirds, leaving wet counters hoping for a few ducks to go by.  Compare the radar image with 2 hours later as the sun rose.

Radar images this morning at 5am and then 7am local time.

How quickly the rain moved away, and this new first spring day brought a true spring migration of birds flooding in.  All three of our common March migrants, grackles, red-wings, and robins rode in on the south winds in decent numbers.  The blackbird movement this morning was strong, yet tame compared to where it could be at this point. Grackles were a large percentage of the flocks streaming by.  Robins were mixing in heavily, and using both the east and west pathways versus the more westerly path that most of the blackbirds were traveling.  For the day, 11,835 birds were counted, comprising a season high 58 species.

Waterfowl were on the low side, as has been the case this early part of the season.  Only 11 species were seen, with a few wigeon, a few pintail, and 9 Red-throated Loons being the most notable.

Birds of prey failed to materialize into any flight, as the promise of sun mid morning quickly closed back up to cloudy conditions, preventing any thermal development.  So it’s not surprising that the 34 that were counted were falcon heavy.  All three falcons were logged, including 9 American Kestrels. 2 Harriers were also making use of the strong winds today.

American Robin
American Robins migrating against the wind.

The robin count for the day was just under 2,500 birds.  Though not a record, or top 10 count, it was still a pretty strong flight, likely the state’s 13th or 14th highest spring count.

New for the season were 8 Tree Swallows and a single Purple Finch flyby.  The season total is now at 84 species.  For today’s complete list of birds, visit here.

false start- 5 yard penalty

After a stellar pre season start with early migrating birds in February, March has brought some weather pretty anti-conducive to migration.  In fact, we’ve only done official longshore flight counts on March 5, March 6, March 8, and March 12 since the lions of March entered.

The current forecast does not look to stellar for migration going forward for the next week.  When conditions are ideal (i.e. south winds) rain is in the forecast.  So for now, sit tight.  We won’t blog as much when birds aren’t moving.

You can still visit the Dunes State Park Nature Center and enjoy the Fox Sparrows that arrived a week ago and have been stuck here waiting on more ideal winds to migrate north on !

fosp 4
Fox Sparrow at the state park nature center this month.

Killdeer Crossing

It was a warmer, yet still brisk morning for the longshore flight, today, March 6.  The temperature at dawn started at 52 degrees, with a stiff south wind.  The air would only warm two degrees during the count, but winds would increase to 15 mph, with gusts pushing 30 mph.  Birding in 30mph winds is difficult enough in the woods.  Exposed on the bird tower is quite frankly dangerous.  Thus, much of the birding this morning was done below on the old wooden staircase.

This morning’s flight was generally slow in the blasting winds.  But an assortment of typical early migrants were moving nonetheless.  2,955 birds were recorded this morning, totaling 37 species.  For the season we’ve already recorded 74 species of birds from the tower site.

Waterfowl were again of interest today.  13 species went by today, including 22 Green-winged Teal, 7 White-winged Scoters, and a far but contrasting white/gray/black male Long-tailed Duck.  Red-throated Loons put on their best movement of the season, with 16 birds moving east to west.  This was the highest spring longshore count since March 9, 2016.

A large flock of Sandhill Cranes put down in Cowles Bog yesterday, as noted by several birders and local Dune Acres residents.  So it was interesting to see several groups pick up this morning moving out of the Cowles Bog area from the tower site.  174 birds were seen moving from the bog.  The cloudy conditions and high winds were not conducive to any thermal migration today.

Killdeer occurrence histogram for Indiana Dunes area.  Map courtesy Brock’s Birds of Indiana Dunes.

The other main highlight today was the continued Killdeer migration.  No matter the spring weather, Killdeer are quite predictable at moving in this period of March.  At times, flocks of 10-15 Killdeer can be seen and heard flying directly over the tower.  Yesterday’s excellent count was matched and then some as 212 Killdeer migrated today.  Breaking 200 means a new record in the dunes area top 10 list for Killdeer, and a similar state record for spring (statewide fall records are generally higher).

Just in time for spring migration, the current weather charts are showing a shift to west winds the next two days, followed by a sharp decrease in temperatures associated with north winds.  The outlook for migration the next week is not very good.

See today’s complete list here.

Official Start- Start the Bugles!

Today, March 5 marked the official start of the 6th annual Indiana Dunes longshore flight survey.  In typical fashion, waterfowl and gulls made up the most diversity this morning.  Some 15 species of waterfowl were recorded going by.  Viewing was difficult due to strong gales from atop the tower.  But the winds brough a balmy 60 degrees for early March.  A 30 degree temperature change from the start!  Most of the counting this morning occured from the staircase below the tower due to the winds.  We did log 48 species though, with a total count of 7,067 birds.  Here’s what we found:

As mentioned above, waterfowl were the most diverse taxa today.  However, none were in real high numbers.  We don’t expect to see any record breaking waterfowl season, given that most of the largest lakes never froze and many waterfowl probably wintered north of us.  Highlights in waterfowl consisted of 4 Greater White-fronted Geese, 2 Tundra Swans, 37 shovelers, 3 White-winged Scoters, and 10 Red-throated Loons.

Sandhill Cranes greeted the first day of official counting with another large flight.  5,197 birds passed over the tower.  Many started close to the lakefront just after 9:30am, but soon the strong winds broke up many thermals, and birds began fighting the wind and were harder to see south of the tower.  It’s likely the wind sheer broke up any late morning thermals, resulting in very little hawk movement.  But, 3 Bald Eagles are worth noting.

Rounding out the day’s notables were 666 American Robins, only 105 Blackbirds, and a very good 131 Killdeer.  The Killdeer total doesn’t compare to last year’s record count of 905 seen in a single day, but still sits in the top 20 of state spring counts.

Read today’s entire list on eBird here.

Snowless Start

Yesterday’s longshore flight took place on the last day of February.  To call it February seems a dis-service to the month that typically brings us a groundhog yanked out of the ground among a mob of humans looking for winter to end.  Yet, we end February with 60 degrees, among a month full of warmth, and a spring bird migration weeks ahead of normal.  It was just announced that the Chicago area recorded its first ever January and February with no measurable snow on the ground!  Will March come in like a lion or lamb?  Or will the warm south winds continue the march of migrants?

With one last day of good south winds, we did do a longshore flight today. With full clouds, and spotty rain, it’s understandable that the count was lower than what it could have been.  However, it did have it’s surprises.  as to be expected this early in the season, waterfowl diversity is up. 16 species of ducks, loons, and geese were spotted from the tower.  Early Wood Ducks are already arriving and after a winter of only a few Red-throated Loons, they are appearing now with some regularity.  Six were seen.

long eared owl bourden
Long-eared Owl near the Green Tower site in 2013. Photo courtesy Mike Bourden,

The find of the day was the Long-eared Owl roosting in a cedar tree not far from the tower site.  They are annual on our longshore survey, but not typically this early.

The day’s entire list is posted below for 2/28/17.

Greater White-fronted Goose  36
Canada Goose  5
Wood Duck  3
Gadwall  3
Mallard  2
Northern Shoveler  5
Redhead  35
Ring-necked Duck  3
Lesser Scaup  5
White-winged Scoter  14
Bufflehead  2
Common Goldeneye  1
Common Merganser  4
Red-breasted Merganser  6
Red-throated Loon  6
Horned Grebe  2
Great Blue Heron  1
Killdeer  40
Ring-billed Gull  314
Herring Gull  1
Great Black-backed Gull  1
Mourning Dove  2
American Crow  5
Black-capped Chickadee  1
Tufted Titmouse  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
American Robin  144
European Starling  20
Cedar Waxwing  6
American Tree Sparrow  1
Field Sparrow  1
Fox Sparrow  2
Dark-eyed Junco  4
Song Sparrow  5
Northern Cardinal  3
Red-winged Blackbird  219
Common Grackle  12
House Finch  1
House Sparrow  5


Season 2017 Start!

5 years ago we would have never imagined that we’d have over 1.2 million birds cataloged and new insights into the migration along the Indiana Dunes that we have today.  The migration along the shores of Lake Michigan is a wondrous event that as we learn more, more questions come up.  When we first started the longshore flight survey, timings were unknown.  Did migration start in March, February?  Do we need to be out in south winds only?  What about east winds?  What exact conditions will initiate a raptor flight?  Today we certainly know much more.  We know more about timings of migration, but variables such as climate change, storm events, habitat destruction and restoration throw wrenches into our knowledge and not only justify, but necessitate the continued study we’re embarking on again this year.

The 2017 longshore flight season traditionally starts officially the first full weekend in March. For two years in a row now, we’ve seen that migrants are already starting before this date.  We logged a few “preseason” counts last year in February, and the wild weather of this past winter has us doing it again.  It feels odd to be doing spring migration counts when it’s still officially ornithologic winter.  While many migrating birds are still enjoying the warm climate of the tropics and are otherwise unwise to the warm winter events happening in the Great Lakes, thus we would not expect them to return early, many short distant migrants have taken advantage of the warm weather and southerly winds to arrive early.  The race to mate has brought woodcocks, pintails, snow geese, and Sandhill Cranes into the dunes earlier than usual.  This arrival carries a risk.  Should a major snow storm arrive and bury the dunes in a March storm, these same birds who are pioneers in migration, may find themselves a footnote instead.

For those not as familiar with the longshore migration count done atop the old Green Tower at Indiana Dunes State Park, our long running blog has a great archive of past posts.  March 2012 has many posts that describe our count, the birds seen, and some of the early numbers we posted when we first started.  2017 has four official count days already in the books.  When we noticed Sandhill Cranes migrating in earnest, we set out to make sure they were getting logged.  With an eastern population of 100,000 birds, it’s pretty significant that 1/3 of the entire population is flying over the Indiana Dunes in it’s migration route.

SACR Range Map
The approximate range of the Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes. Adapted from Walkinshaw 1973, Jones et al. 2005, King 2008, Melvin 2008, Sutherland and Crins 2008, and International Crane Foundation unpublished data.

The most recent flight, yesterday, was a big movement of cranes, with a few early associated raptors.  6,180 Sandhill Cranes flew over the Indiana Dunes area on it’s way north.  Yesterday’s crane count was the 4th highest count ever logged from the tower site.  With many more thousands being seen to the fish and wildlife areas to our south, the migration is still far from done.

Another 39 raptors went by, with Red-tailed Hawks being the largest majority.  At 11:15am, a magnificent GOLDEN EAGLE flew directly over the tower and decided to kettle right over the counters.  The bird circled for approximately 3 minutes as it climbed higher and higher before drifting west along the shoreline.  No doubt on it’s way back to northern Canada.

The Indiana Dunes State Park is the single most diverse site in Indiana for birds.  With over 300 species seen in the park, the single longshore tower site is the most productive single site in the state to find birds over the course of the year.  With the advent of eBird, we can now share the full sightings that we log via the hotspot for the tower site.  We look forward to sharing the spring migration with you!

Signs of An Early Spring Count?

Greetings from the Indiana Dunes.  As we sit here writing this the average high for February 17 should be 36 degrees.  The low should be 20.  Yet here we are at 66 degrees.  The next seven days won’t see any temperatures below freezing.  While this is great news for dune hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, this has got to no doubt have the birds a little confused.

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring. A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges. A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese.- Aldo Leopold

When Aldo Leopold wrote the above quote, he pondered the risks and rewards of animals trying to get a jump start on spring.  The balance of whether the current weather would play out down the road and result in higher breeding success.  A many migrating geese have found that a week later the weather might change and they now find themselves in harsher conditions than if they had stayed farther south.  Before such talk of climate change, this may have been the annual hedging of bets that geese made in March.  Now, as we’re seeing again this year, it’s in February.

Our last super warm spring was 2012.  Temperatures of 80 degrees in March resulted in an early migration in many  of the short distant migrants that wintered in the southern United States.  Later that year we baked in multiple 100 degree days.  In that year, many early migrants peaked during the first week of our longshore flight season.  On March 10, over 6,000 Sandhill Cranes flew over the park and by March 18 the flight was done for the season.  In 2014, for comparison, the peak flight day was March 31.  Today, cranes were heard in flight over the park. If the weather patterns continue, the crane flight will pass through before our official bird count season starts (March 6).

Migrating Sandhill Cranes, March 10, 2012
Migrating Sandhill Cranes at Indiana Dunes State Park.

As climate change brings stronger and more severe weather events, and a general warming trend to the dunes, birds will be forced to respond. Some will likely adapt fine and ride the changes.  Others will be more sensitive to these factors and face extinction.  The yearly changes in the weather and the bird flights add to the value that our annual longshore migration count provides.  We look forward to reporting the spring migration to you soon.  Again this year we’ll provide the data online to see on the eBird Hotspot for the park tower.

In thcontent2smalle meantime, it should be worth noting that registration for the 3rd annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival is just around the corner.  This year’s festival brings even more tours, more presentations, more workshops, and just more of everything for the visiting birder.  If you haven’t yet, mark your calendars for May 4-7, 2017.  Indiana Audubon Society members got the early shot at registering, but the general public registration goes live this Sunday.  Visit the registration page beginning Sunday to sign up for the great tours.