Let the Fall Migration Commence!

Check the calendar and it clearly says summer is still here.  It’s easy to reason, given the high heat and humidity we experienced last week.  It truly is the “dog days” of summer.  Interestingly, and officially non birding, the dog days were named such because this is the time of the year that Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, also known as the “dog star” is present only when the sun is out.   In ancient times, Sirius was believed to add heat tot he sun’s energy, causing hot and sultry conditions.  The Egyptians calculated the dog days to be from July 3 to Aug. 11. 

Dog Days of Summer!
Dog Days of Summer!

The “dog days” are also a good time window to follow the first of fall’s migrating birds.  In between beach balls and bikinis, one can appear creepy and voyeuristic by grabbing your binoculars and spotting scope and heading to the beach to enjoy fall’s early birds… the shorebirds!

By late July, these high arctic breeders are in full migration back down the continent to their wintering grounds;  sometimes as far as the southern tip of South America.  The shorebird migration will continue through August and September, with a few lingering later.  These late birds are often overshadowed by the peaking songbird (i.e. warbler) migration also occurring by September and October.  However, now, before the rest of the ornithological troupe begins, you can brave the heat and humidity to find what are to many, the special shorebird treats.  The big ones!

It’s been noticed and theorized that many of the larger shorebirds tend to migrate out ahead of the passing cold fronts.  Thus, when the weather is at it’s hottest and most humid, one might find such shorebird finds like Willets, Godwits, or Whimbrels.  After the front passes, smaller shorebirds tend to trickle in, and may include the ever common Sanderling, or the ever rare Piping Plover.  This past week has been a good example of both types of shorebirds being found.    The state park beach has hosted several Willets and Whimbrels for the intrepid birder to find.  Many of these shorebirds must dodge the still strong beach crowd.  Thus, quiet and secluded beach spots, such as those areas in front of the Furnessville and Big Blowouts often harbor these birds.

Willets on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park this past week.  Photo by Pete Grube.
Willets on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park this past week. Photo by Pete Grube.
Whimbrel on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park this week.
Whimbrel on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park this week.  Photo by Pete Grube.

While the Whimbrel is a generally rarer sight to see when compared to the rest of the possible shorebirds in Indiana, even rarer was the sighting of not one, but 4 Piping Plovers on nearby Miller Beach this past weekend.  Casey Zillman’s report just may go down as the largest single party count in nearly 100 years.  A possible sign of their continued recovery and the efforts of those involved in the program.  You can see more of the photos on Casey’s Flickr Page.

Two of four Piping Plovers seen at nearby Miller Beach this past weekend.  Photo courtesy Casey Zillman.
Two of four Piping Plovers seen at nearby Miller Beach this past weekend. Photo courtesy Casey Zillman.

No matter how you look at it, the fall migration is on!


Not all that Wander are Lost?

Here in the Indiana Dunes, the summer bird breeding season marches on.  Summer crowds are now at peak.  Thousands of visitors will enter the main entrance gate daily.  Just as birders watch birds, birds on territory along the park roadsides will witness an onslaught of humanoids being drawn almost hypnotically to the colder lake.  While most visitors will pass the entrance gate and go directly to one of three beach parking, a few will continue past towards the campgrounds.  Even fewer may go further to a back park shelter or parking spot to hit one of 16 miles of hiking trails.  

By now with July here, breeding activity is already decreasing.  Summer recreation is just peaking, but many birds have done the deed and if they are not working on a second brood, they are already thinking fall migration.  Juvenile birds are being seen now.  These ratty looking birds are only weeks from the nest and already on their own.  Fall migration is being witnessed already in the form of shorebird movement.  Willets, Marbled Godwits, Avocets, and other large shorebirds have been seen already migrating in the dunes area.  Many of these birds will travel through ahead of cold fronts wherever they can find a peaceful stretch of beach.  Smaller shorebirds will follow in August, and even later for Sanderlings as September comes.  

For many, this can be the summer doldrums of birding.  Not much is going on as we await the main fall migration waves.  Even winter can seem more exciting with the prospect of rare northern visitors.  One happy aspect bird wise in the park is the continuing construction of the large Bird Observation Platform at the old Green Tower site.  The accessible ramp work is continuing, even though we are not up there birding.  The last week’s weather has been good for construction.  We have had one disturbance causing problems however.  Who would have known that it would be a bird!?

Racing Pigeon guarding the new bird observation platform.  July 2013.
Racing Pigeon guarding the new bird observation platform. July 2013.

For the better part of the last couple days, a Rock Pigeon set up camp at the platform.  At first a neat novelty, the bird simply stood around construction workers. Crew bringing in sand to lay down the ramp foundation found him or her literally standing in the way.  You’d  walk over and move the bird, but it would be right back hanging out where you needed to go.  Finally, the Nature Center was called and hearing it might be banded, we were interested in seeing the bird ourselves.  We approached it easily and had no problem simply picking up the bird.  The ease was obvious.  It was indeed banded, but not USGS banding, but by a racing club.

photo (2)
AU Racing Pigeon Band


The AU or American Racing Pigeon Union manages the sport of racing pigeons, stemming from the days of homing pigeons in Europe.  Many Chicago clubs exist and finding a racing pigeon in the dunes has become a nearly annual occurrence.  But… most don’t just hang out, they race.  One factor that most racing pigeons moving along Lake Michigan don’t know is the healthy breeding population of Peregrine Falcons.  The majority of racing pigeons found by park staff are headless somewhere down the beach.  No doubt fodder for these fast flying raptors.  Seeing a live one was a treat, and a super tame one even cooler.  

Park staff were able to read the band numbers and determine that he or she has come from a racing club near Naperville, IL.  We’ve contacted the club secretary and will hopefully tell the owner where his or her bird can be found.  Whether this pigeon read the tourism guides, it’s clearly found a sweet vacation spot here in the dunes this summer.