Gulls, Gulls, Gulls!

When you live close to the dunes, and travel a consistent path back and forth to work and home, it’s no surprise that folks quickly recognize you whether you’re in your work uniform or not.  Too many late nights we’ve rolled into the local gas station before 11pm with barn boots and headlamps on.  After a few visits for late night coffee or a soda, the staff don’t even turn their heads anymore.  They know were studying birds, and nearly always have a bird question of their own tucked away for our visits.  Take in point yesterday.  We’re almost out the door when I hear, “hey, I saw this strange bird while fishing.”

Black-crowned Night-Heron at nesting colony in Lake Co. Indiana.
Black-crowned Night-Heron at nesting colony in Lake Co. Indiana.

You never know if you’ll have their answer. It becomes more surprising how many times a short description actually brings the correct answer for them.  Take yesterday’s continued description. “It’s a penguin that’s black and white by Lake George.  It wears a black streamer off it’s head.” Astonishing sometimes how the correct bird comes to mind!  I asked if it was this tall, showing with my hands an approximate height, and whether it was on the lake edge or wading into the water.  With his confirmation, I felt strongly I could tell him it was a night heron.  A Black-crowned Night-Heron to be specific.  Happy, we’ll await his next question on another date.

The Indiana Dunes hosts some unique breeding birds, such as the Black-crowned Night-Heron, that most folks will never see.  In the same place that Night Herons breed are some of the more commonly seen birds, but seldom seen nesting.  It’s nearly impossible to visit the Lake Michigan shoreline without seeing a Ring-billed Gull, but if asked what a gull nest looks like, most birders have never seen one.  On the southern rim of the lake, few will see the largest breeding colony, located right here in Indiana, within the almost Homeland Security safety of the region’s steel mills. Here, outside of sight, over 32,000 gulls nest side by side in cramped conditions.  Numbers fluctuate yearly, but the above number represents the 2011 count, the last survey (the next is 2014).  Watch carefully in the evening and you’ll notice the majority of gulls heading northwest or west towards the East Chicago steel mill, returning to their nesting grounds.

Gulls nesting along the steel mill property.
Gulls nesting along the steel mill property.

Within the steel mills, it’s not only the Ring-billed Gulls that are hiding out.  Occasional Herring Gull and Caspian Tern can be found mixed in.  The above Night-Herons are nesting in stunted trees, alongside Great Egrets.  Down lower, in white-washed slag piles and lake side edges, Double-crested Cormorants also nest.

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Though most birders will never see these birds raising their fluffy young, they’re all lakefront icons we expect to see on a daily basis.

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Summer Transitions

The summer season has slowly begun to take hold.  Temperatures, like this spring, remain on the colder side.  The state park trails and recreation areas have now filled in with visitors from all over the world (48 states and 29 countries registered in 2012).  Many are taking reprieve in the more pleasant weather.  The trails are seeing high use, while the beach remains quiet still (beach water at 51 degrees still).  Things will change, but for now, the breeding season birding weather is perfect!

With breeding season here, a vast array of specialty birds can be found for the visiting birder.  As has been stated before, a remarkable park feature is the fact that many southern birds (e.g. White-eyed Vireo, Cerulean Warbler, and Summer Tanager) nest here along with typical northern species (e.g. Veery, Blackburnian Warbler, and Canada Warbler).  We’ll highlight some of these unique species during the course of the summer.  We’re also logging many birds in the park as part of the Indiana Audubon’s Summer Bird Count.    The first of several counts was done done by park staff and volunteers just yesterday.  Portions of Trails 2, 10, and more developed areas of the park were surveyed for all the birds present.  We’re happy to report some great numbers thus far, including: 14 Eastern Wood-Pewees, a late singing Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, 26 Acadian Flycatchers (possible second highest dunes area daily count), 25 Red-eyed Vireos, 31 American Redstarts, and finally an impressive 10 Cerulean Warblers.

Cerulean Warbler today at Indiana Dunes State Park.  6/7/13.  Photo by Pete Grube.
Cerulean Warbler today at Indiana Dunes State Park. 6/7/13. Photo by Pete Grube.

The above mentioned Cerulean Warblers are forest canopy insectivores not easily seen.  Recognizing their buzzy call can help you zero in on one.  Their fondness for large forest tracts makes them particularly sensitive to forest loss and degradation.  For Indiana, Cerulean’s are state endangered and have had petitions sent in for federal protection.  Traditionally, the first sections of Trail 2, east of the Wilson Shelter have harbored a “Cerulean Alley” of sorts.  A trek down 2 should allow the careful ear a chance to hear them singing.

Finally, we mentioned we’d share more comparison of this spring’s longshore bird survey, compared to last year.  With 428,000 birds compared to 285,000 birds in 2012, there are certainly some noticeable increases.  But, the decreases in numbers are equally interesting.  While presented here as raw data, we won’t offer complete conclusions yet.  Some will be due to weather during appropriate migration periods, others may represent an actual increase or decrease in population.  More years of data will help us draw the most complete and accurate conclusions.  Saying that, here’s some neat data.  The first show the ten species with an increase.  As expected, winter finches staged a larger spring flight, compared to last year.  The White-winged Scoters aren’t surprising either.  For the decreased species, how much did weather play a role in the final count?

increase
Does not include non-migrants counted, and those that had numbers less than 10 birds.

 

decrease
Does not include non-migrants counted, and those that had numbers less than 10 birds.

 

If you look at other notable decreases after this top ten you’ll find Red-eyed Vireo, Nashville Warbler, and Gray Catbird.  The cold spring and late arrival into the count likely is the explanation for this entire group of May migrants being down from last year’s count.

Lastly of interest are the birds that had numbers nearly identical (or within 10%) of last year’s count.  Here’s a few of those:

same
Does not include non-migrants counted, and those that had numbers less than 10 birds.