Take Time to Visit the Butcher Watchman

Here’s a bird worth seeing.  The butcher bird, lacking talons to kill it’s own prey, uses it’s own powerful beak to kill it’s prey, then drags them to thorns, barbed wire, or other pointed objects to store his or her food for later.  These butcher trees can be found as proof of the bird’s hangout locations.

Northern Shrike in the Dunes. Photo by Dr. Ken Brock.

Who is this butcher bird of the dunes.  They’re called shrikes, and right now is a perfect time to go visit the shrike.  Here for the winter, it’s a easy bird to view, since it requires no long hikes, no brutal lakefront winds, and can be seen from the comfort of your own vehicle… if you can find him!  Each winter, a contingent of Northern Shrike leave their summering grounds on the scrubby conifer forestland near the arctic tundra.  Here, they find their own “Florida” to tough out the winter.  In Indiana, the bird is far more common in the northern part of the state, and nearly half of the state records come from the Indiana Dunes (NW Indiana) area.

Northern Shrike perched high in Beverly Shores 2012.  Photo by Pete Grube.
Northern Shrike perched high in Beverly Shores 2012. Photo by Pete Grube.

Come November, shrikes migrate into the area and can be seen in open wetlands, field edges, and near wooded swamps.  Here they’ll perch up high in search of mice or small birds.  They can be seen on minute, then gone the next; hidden among the lower brush or shrubs.  Sometimes it takes a few visits to find a shrike.  One of the best areas to find a shrike is the interdunal swamps of Beverly Shores.  Beverly Drive is often called “shrike alley” from mid November through February.  During a typical winter, several birds can usually be found along this stretch.  The map below shows some of the recent sighting areas (gold stars), as well as some other typical locations they have been seen (blue stars).

Northern Shrike Sightings in Beverly Shores.
Northern Shrike Sightings in Beverly Shores.

Mineral Springs Road, at Cowle’s Bog is another location to look for shrike.  A real exciting location to find one is at an occasional bird feeder!  The Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center feeders hosted a bird last winter that on several occasions took dive at some of the feeder birds.  The event was seen by many birders.  Check them out this late fall and early winter if you get a chance.


Return of the Snowys

A potential highlight each November in the dunes is the return of the Snowy Owl.  The large white owl of the north doesn’t return to the dunes each fall, but when they do, their large charismatic nature and overall appeal tend to draw many birders in to see them.  Thus when late November comes, they are highly sought after in some of the traditional sites.

Snowy Owl Indiana Dunes State Park Zimmerman Print.  Prints are only $5 at the state park nature center.
Snowy Owl Indiana Dunes State Park Zimmerman Print. Prints are only $5 at the state park nature center.

Many residents in the area have never seen one and often don’t realize that they can be found here. In fact, the Indiana Dunes area is the best location in the state to see a Snowy Owl.  So unique to this area, compared to other birding sites, it was chosen as the animal to represent the Indiana Dunes State Park in the 1985 Zimmerman print made for each state park.

Snowy Owl records in the dunes.  Courtesy Ken Brock.
Snowy Owl records in the dunes. Courtesy Ken Brock.

The first Snowy Owl of the 2013 fall season was found today, November 24, at a famous site for them.  The Port of Indiana’s outer breakwalls are a safe haven for migrating owls moving down the lakeshore.  An owl was spotted this morning on the far western wall.  This location is often an eye strainer, requiring a spotting scope to see adequately.  Within an hour later, other birders noticed an agitated Peregrine Falcon behind them dive bombing another Snowy Owl at close range, right behind the tug boats at the Port.  This second bird would later be mobbed by crows and fly across to the outer breakwall, but in more viewable location.  These owls may stick around for a few days for birders with good binoculars and spotting scopes to see.

Snowy Owl.  Always a treat.
Snowy Owl. Always a treat.

Planned Bird Sanctuary Shows Growing Birding Support

The growing support for birding in the area is evident with talk of a new nature preserve for Porter County.  Not just any nature preserve, a bird sanctuary!  Not just your everyday bird sanctuary… one dedicated to wetland birds, including shorebirds!  Clearly, the interest of local birders and the growing influence is showing loud and clear.  This announcement comes on the heals of Chesterton being named a Bird Town Indiana.

Location of new bird sanctuary in Chesterton.
Location of new bird sanctuary in Chesterton.

The land, just recently purchased by the Porter County Parks Foundation, is an island oasis surrounded by the residential areas on the south side of Chesterton.  The Foundation currently owns 29 acres of the land, and hopes to acquire the rest.  In reading the recent article on the development, it’s clear the Foundation and Parks Department are dreaming big in restoring the habitat.  This is no build a trail and clear a few invasives type work.  Work of this scale will not be available right away, but it’s a step in the right direction and we’ll hopefully see some great results for the birds in the next year or two.

Close up view of the new bird sanctuary.
Close up view of the new bird sanctuary.

End of the Saw-whet Season Approaching!

2013 has been a poor fall for Saw-whet Owl banding at the Indiana Dunes State Park.  Saw-whets ride a usual 4 year cycle of boom vs. bust.  Much of this population cycle can be traced back to the prey that they are eating.  Small deer or white-footed mice make up a large percentage of their diet and a crash in their population can have drastic effects to the breeding success from one year to another.

The 2013 fall banding season was never expected to be that great.  Our volunteers at the state park were bracing for some low numbers and many owl-less nights.  We didn’t expect it to be the worst year ever!  Needless to say, we never really were up too late and aren’t as sleep deprived and grumpy as we normally are at this point in the season!  We still had some great highlights though.

2013's first saw-whet of the season!  October 13, 2013.
2013’s first saw-whet of the season! October 13, 2013.

Our first Saw-whet Owl was captured on October 13.  An adult female bird, showing typical pattern for a second year bird.  After that, birds were slow to come in and by Halloween weekend we had only banded 5 birds.  To date we’ve had 14 captures, with the majority coming in November.  The last few days have been good with 1-3 birds on each of the ideal nights.

New in 2013 was our text alert program.  Designed for folks within 25 minutes of the park, it allowed viewers to rush to the park to watch one of our owls get banded.  This was better than sitting long hours in the building hoping for an owl.  Some 50+ families used it this fall to get notified of owls being captured at the net.  We also turned back on our live webstreaming service to band any owl that was texted.  So folks who didn’t live nearby could even get the text and simply turn on their computer.  Our web stream address is www.webinar.in.gov/dnrdunesnc.  It’s only on when we’re banding an owl though.

Another saw-whet banded this season.  0924-36028
Another saw-whet banded this season. 0924-36028

With the saw-whet season coming to a close, it will be another year before we’re offered swets in the hand!  But you still have a few more nights to possibly see us band an owl.  If weather conditions hold, November 15, 16, and 17 will be banding nights, and possibly November 20/21, after the park deer reductions.  Come on out and see an owl!  While you’re at it, adopt an owl too!  For $25 you’ll get a cool certificate with a photo of your owl and you’ll be email notified if the owl is ever recaptured again.  They make great Christmas presents too!

Owl Banding Certificate!
Owl Banding Certificate!