Birding… O! the Joy!

Leaving Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, the thirty-three member Corps of Discovery team began their long journey to the Pacific Ocean. Encountering wildlife, waterfalls, and breathless beauty their toilsome persistence rewarded them in November of 1805 when Clark wrote “Ocian in view O! The Joy!”.  While our suffering may seem insignificant compared to that shared by the Lewis and Clark expedition, for spring birders having gone so long without south winds, joy is the only word that could describe today.

Monday, April 30, 2012.  With a full backing of joyous, south wind, the green tower counters experienced the best count in over two weeks.  4,604 birds, from 83 species would wing over and under the high dune counters.  Using the Grube Magnitude Index to measure bird migration in the dunes, it would go down as the 7th highest score ever (47.91).  No doubt bolstered by the good April diversity and staggering high counts from Chimney Swifts, Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, and American Pipits.

New for the season were American Bittern (flushed from the marram grass blowout!), Eastern and Western Kingbird (see more below), Blackburnian Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and Orchard Oriole.  The season total now stands at 160 species.

The morning would stay cloudy, making identification difficult for the many small warblers going by.  Several themes were present through the morning.  It was clear an insect hatching had occurred on the beach, as hundreds of swallows and swifts took advantage by both swooping constantly in tight knit groups in front of the beach pavilion, but also sitting by the hundreds on the beach to feed.  The swarm would eventually lead to the highest spring dunes area count of 467 Chimney Swifts (4th highest dunes overall record).  The other theme was shorebirds.  Many migrating yellowlegs, Dunlin, Pectoral, Solitary, and Least Sandpiper would be seen flying by today.

Lesser Yellowlegs silhouette against the gloomy sky, 4/30/12.

Rounding out the day’s highlights included: 2 Merlin, 31 Eastern Kingbirds, 248 Blue Jays, 41 American Pipits, 232 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 88 Baltimore Orioles, a lone Common Redpoll, and 2 Pine Siskins.

By 10:15am, rain showers had entered into the picture.  Normally, the morning flight is shut down.  However, this morning, the birds continued moving.  Swallows continued to stream past, while intermittent blackbird flocks passed over.  While seeking shelter at the Beach Pavilion to watch for shorebirds, counter Brendan Grube noticed a yellow colored Kingbird approaching from off shore.  A quick phone call brought this reporter and his camera racing to the beach from the park’s interior.  With seconds to spare, the Western Kingbird had continued to stay perched high in a cottonwood, allowing for study (in albeit horrible lighting).  The extent of yellow on the breast and white edged retrices were noted in person.  As we approached for a photo, the bird disappeared, only to appear over our heads flying towards the lake, while quickly gaining altitude.  Among the passing swallows one photo was taken, seen below.  While it won’t pass records committee muster by itself, it helps capture a yellow bellied tyrant of some species.

Western Kingbird eluding the Green Tower Counters on 4/30/12.

The only thing that beats today is the prospect of what tomorrow’s south winds bring.  Birding… O! the Joy!

Riding the Cusp of Neotropical Excitement!

Wednesday, April 25, brought the first south wind in many days.  It also offered the only south wind likely for several more days.  While bird migration is occurring as I right this, all signs point to a wind shift back to the north before 4am Thursday morning.  Today didn’t even offer a full day, as rain teased the area throughout the mid morning, and lighting made it difficult to identify birds flying over.

The sun fights to break the thick cloud bank this morning at the Green Tower site, 4/25/12.

What started with many record and near record counts has slowly found itself right where things should be.  Typical first arrivals are now occurring when many did last year, especially for neotropical migrants.  With the persistent cold, a few are now appearing a little late, or in small numbers when present.  Take this morning’s first Baltimore Oriole of the season.  Some south winds would have had many more through by now.  Eastern Kingbirds have also yet to be seen, but should have arrived this week.   The good side to the story is that we’re in that window where the next warm breeze should bring in some great migrants to up the diversity count!

Today’s count did include 74 species, of 3,650 individuals.  New for the season this year were Spotted Sandpiper, Common Yellowthroat, and Baltimore Oriole.    Other highlights included a great late count of 20 Red-throated Loons, 1 Osprey, 1 Merlin, 1 Vesper Sparrow, 1 Pine Siskin, and 1 tardy Common Redpoll.

The Blue Jay flight will peak during the first week of May (statistically May 7, per Brock), but the first signs of an earnest migration are occurring.  The highest one day count of the season went past as 230 Blue Jays were observed.  The thick clouds did no justice to the observation seen below.

A single Blue Jay flock moves below the cloud bank, 4/25/12.

Lots of Night Movement, Few Birds…

We continue to be under north winds here in the Indiana Dunes.  Hopefully this changes tomorrow with a short spell of south winds, before shifting again back to the north.

Under a northerly influence, clear and dry skies, and a new moon, a very evident movement occurred last night.  This movement, however, was not by birds, but by solar radiation hitting the upper atmosphere.  The Green Tower, though no longer present, lived up to it’s colored name, as hues of green shimmered past over the big lake.  Do birds use the aurora borealis as a migration directional tool?

Aurora Borealis from the Indiana Dunes State Park, 4/23/12

Even though winds were still out of the north (technically northwest), a count was conducted today.  Three new species were added for the season, being Forster’s Tern (late to appear up here), Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and Warbling Vireo.

1,750 birds of 58 species were logged today.  The full list is below:
Canada Goose 10
Red-breasted Merganser 7
Common Loon 1
Double-crested Cormorant 57
Great Blue Heron 5
Great Egret 1
Turkey Vulture 13
Northern Harrier 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 3
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
American Kestrel 1
Sandhill Crane 1
Ring-billed Gull 1013
Herring Gull 101
Caspian Tern 20
Forster’s Tern 2
Mourning Dove 9
Chimney Swift 4
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Red-headed Woodpecker 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 3
Downy Woodpecker 1
Pileated Woodpecker 1
Eastern Phoebe 1
Warbling Vireo 1
Blue Jay 126
American Crow 8
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 4
Purple Martin 1
Tree Swallow 43
Bank Swallow 1
Barn Swallow 32
Cliff Swallow 2
Tufted Titmouse 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
House Wren 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 3
Eastern Bluebird 2
American Robin 6
Brown Thrasher 2
European Starling 60
Palm Warbler 2
Pine Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 1
Prairie Warbler 1
Eastern Towhee 2
Chipping Sparrow 1
Field Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 1
Swamp Sparrow 2
White-throated Sparrow 1
Northern Cardinal 1
Red-winged Blackbird 24
Common Grackle 29
Brown-headed Cowbird 1
House Finch 6
American Goldfinch 144

Dunes State Park Auroras, 4/23/12.

The North Wind Blues

Since it’s been a few days since any longshore list was provided, we thought we would give a quick update.  North winds have been in place since last weekend.  Today the wind is again gusting from 20-30 mph out of the north.  The Dunes area is settled into upper 40s (yet clear skies!).

North winds bring few birds and big white caps.

Little in the way of migration has been occurring here.  Despite promising conditions to the south, migration has stalled out south of us and has brought little in the way of new migrating neo-tropic migrants.  The forecast holds that north winds will dominate all week, with a quick switch over on Wednesday, before flopping back to north winds.

Despite the gloomy outlook, if one looks at the typical list of birds being seen right now (Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrows), it’s fairly typical of the average for this date.  3 marvelous weeks in March have now been caught up by three miserable April weeks.  Botanically, things are still a couple weeks ahead though.

Gale Warning!

What a difference a couple hours can make!  A short longshore flight count occurred today, Friday, April 20.  Temperatures at dawn were a balmy 60 degrees with a gentle south wind.  Within two hours, the wind shift had occurred and the mercury was plumetting on the lakeshore.  What was 60 degrees was now 42 degrees under a northwest gale.  By afternoon, a Gale Warning had been issued for small craft, with waves tonight expected to build to ten feet.

Big Waves on Lake Michigan.

However, the south winds overnight allowed for a few new birds for the season, most notably Gray Catbird and White-eyed Vireo.  A Black-throated Green Warbler was also heard inland, within the state park, but not at the Green Tower site.  Other notables would include a return of migrating ducks (wigeon, shovelor, teal, bufflehead) that have not been seen in a few weeks.  It was another 1,000+ day for American Goldfinch too.

Today’s list included 2,815 birds.  Those birds are listed below:

Gadwall 6
American Wigeon 1
Northern Shoveler 5
Green-winged Teal 29
Lesser Scaup 20
Bufflehead 2
Red-breasted Merganser 33
Common Loon 17
Double-crested Cormorant 114
Killdeer 2
Solitary Sandpiper 1
Ring-billed Gull 114
Herring Gull 5
Caspian Tern 8
Chimney Swift 4
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
Pileated Woodpecker 1
White-eyed Vireo 1
Horned Lark 1
Purple Martin 1
Tree Swallow 64
Barn Swallow 4
House Wren 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 8
Eastern Bluebird 2
Hermit Thrush 2
American Robin 10
Gray Catbird 1
Brown Thrasher 2
Orange-crowned Warbler 2
Palm Warbler 4
Pine Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 18
Prairie Warbler 1
Eastern Towhee 2
Chipping Sparrow 2
Field Sparrow 2
Song Sparrow 1
Swamp Sparrow 3
White-throated Sparrow 4
Northern Cardinal 2
Red-winged Blackbird 604
Common Grackle 43
American Goldfinch 1051
House Sparrow 1

A Little Bump of Yellow Rumps!

The longshore flight for Thursday, April 19 bore close resemblance to yesterdays survey.  While the totals were nearly identical (4,286 birds today vs. 4,231 yesterday), the composition of species and their totals were in stark contrast.  If yesterday was the hawk and blackbird theme day, today, the yellow wonders took stage.

The morning began warm and calm.  Temperatures at 58 degrees under a south wind would fluctuate with shifting lake breezes, that caught a foot hold by 10am, bringing the temperature down five degrees.  Winds never picked up to the predicted 10-20mph, but stayed around 5 mph all morning.

The referred to yellow up above was a good goldfinch and early warbler flight.  American Goldfinches streamed by in flocks of 30-50 today, quickly escalating to an incredible 1,157 birds.  This marks the 8th largest dunes count recorded.  Unfortunately, an overcast sky dulled out the incredible bright yellow sight that it could have been.

Also notable was the first major Yellow-rumped Warbler flight of the season.  In loose flocks and singles, these early migrant warblers were in full force migrating just above the counters’ heads today.  An incredible 435 were counted among migrating Palm and Pine Warblers.   Even with 400+ birds, the Yellow-rumps barely crack the top 10 dunes count, which goes to 2,823 of them April 26, 2011.  There’s still time!

Early Prairie Warbler, Indiana Dunes State Park, 4/19/12.

A single Prairie Warbler was back on territory in the dunes today.  This northern outpost hosts many nesting birds.  Today’s little chap was the dunes’ 3rd earliest record.

Rounding out the highlights for today were, 104 D-C Cormorants, 185 Blue Jays, 1 American Pipit, 1 Orange-crowned Warbler, 7 Pine Warblers, 5 Rusty Blackbirds, 19 Purple Finch, and 4 Pine Siskin

And now the north winds come.

Can Lightning Strike Twice?

This mythical hawk migration that was said to occur in the Indiana Dunes seems to reveal itself more and more this season.  With typically ideal migration conditions, a hawk migration did indeed occur today.  If you add the 160 hawks seen today (Wed, April 18) with the previous counts this season, we’ve surpassed 1,000 birds of prey from the Dunes State Park Green Tower site.  These numbers have not been seen in nearly a decade (2004 to be exact) per Ken Brock.  With several weeks left in the typical hawk migration window, it will be interesting to see how high we can get this season!

The morning started off calm, but chilly.  Another frost advisory had been issued the night before, and the counters were greeted to low 40s, but a promise of some sunshine peeking over the horizon.  The flight was not notably strong, but enough birds streamed past to make it interesting.  By the end, some 4,200 birds flew past, made up of 70 different species.  No new birds were added to the season total today.

Bernie Konrady and Brendan Grube log migrating hawks from the Green Tower on 4/18/12.

Today’s highlights (including hawks) were: 1 Red-throated Loon, 46 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 26 Red-tailed Hawks, 1 Merlin, 17 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, 3 Pine Warblers, 3 Rusty Blackbirds, and 3 Pine Siskin.

Aside from typical daily counts, the counters will also do hourly or 1/2 hourly counts for specific species.  For passerines, this data helps show when the morning flight occurs.  Statistics can express the percentage of the day’s flight each hour (more on that in an future post).  The hawk watch is also done every 30 minutes.  The breakdown below shows how the morning’s hawks chose to migrate by.

All Hawk Watch Data for 4/18/12. Chart courtesy of Ken Brock.

South winds (and rain) will persist for one more day, but then cold north winds look to infiltrate the dunes for the weekend.