More on the Indiana Snowy Owl Invasion

If you love Snowy Owls, northwest Indiana is the place to be right now.  Folks in other parts of the state are just finally getting a taste of what we’ve been experiencing for the past month or so.  It’s simply the largest incursion of Snowy Owls into the state that we have ever witnessed.  That alone is a bold statement.  Is it possible that previous invasions were even greater, but our instant communication and social media allow sightings to really spread better than they would have 20 years ago?  Yes, possible, but still, most sightings would have been heard about, even if months late.

Winter 2013/2014 Snowy Owl Sightings in Indiana.  www.eBird.com.
Winter 2013/2014 Snowy Owl Sightings in Indiana. http://www.eBird.com.

As of this writing 50 (Edit: 52 as of 12/24) Snowy Owls have been logged in the state.  The map below shows where the sightings have occurred. This means that at least 50 Snowy Owls have traveled the thousands of miles to search out food in Indiana.  These sightings have been cross referenced with other nearby sightings and are scrutinized with them closely.  When possible sex and age are noted so that repeat birds are not logged as new birds.  Some high claims and high counts by other states may not have this certainty.

Not only are bird enthusiasts and the general public getting a once in a lifetime experience by seeing so many of these magnificent owls, but researchers stand to gain a wealth of information.  We are learning now that areas of the high arctic, particularly northern Quebec had an outstanding year in terms of Snowy Owl prey.  Lemmings were stock piled at nesting sites and the owls responded by laying many eggs and successfully fledging them all.  Now that many young owls are here, owl banders are switching from night shift banding to day shift to attempt to band and study these great white ghosts from the north.

Crowd watching a  Snowy Owl this month at the Port of Indiana.
Crowd watching a Snowy Owl this month at the Port of Indiana.

Project SNOWstorm, as it’s being called, has multiple facets that will seek to capitalize on this massive event to generate important data about these birds. This is being done via banding, GPS telemetry, specimens, and a photo database. Some surprising data already being collected this year shows that many of these Snowy Owls are not starving or emaciated, as is generally thought when so many are driven from the far north.  The fact that so many are immature, with few adults tells us that the irruption is not likely food related, or we would be seeing more adults coming down too.  Annick Gionet Rollick, from The Owl Foundation is reporting that only one of six birds coming in is emaciated.  The others are in good shape (aside from vehicle collisions).  That’s good news to hear for these Snowy Owls.  Perhaps we’ll see a return spring flight then?

That’s not to say that these owls don’t have their problems.  Snowy Owls are well known to being susceptible to aspergillus.  Their bodies just aren’t exposed to this in the colder climates.  Insect parasites, such as lice, can infest a bird and make life more difficult for them.  Look closely at the photo below.  Those dark specks are lice on an injured Snowy Owl that made it’s way to Dr. McAfee’s office in Valpo last week.

Injured Snowy Owl in Porter Co. this week showing lice.  Dr. McAfees in Valpo.
Injured Snowy Owl in Porter Co. this week showing lice. Dr. McAfees in Valpo.

Human threats are the most serious and one source of stress for these magnificent birds that we can do something about.  Getting out and approaching a wild Snowy Owl is just an all around bad idea.  If the owl has to move or fly away from you, then you are too close. This is compounded at sites where many people are visiting an owl.  What is perceived as a one time movement may be repeated several times a day.  There are great photographers taking amazing pictures with giant lenses that look more like WWII guns than cameras, then there are less then ethical photographers that will move ever closer to try to get a better picture.  Even worse are stories of mice being used for a picture.  Birders should have no hesitation to tell someone if they are too close or to call out individuals giving other birders and photographers a bad name (like a certain red-haired IL photographer driving the crossover SUV bearing the license plate 5518).  They may not be starving, but certainly don’t need the extra stress for no good reason.

Indiana's 48th season Snowy Owl in LaPorte Co. on 12/23/13.
Indiana’s 48th season Snowy Owl in LaPorte Co. on 12/23/13.

So certainly enjoy these sightings.  Go see a Snowy Owl or two.  Take your friends out to see them for Christmas.  But do so respectfully and do report your Snowy Owl sightings if you happen to see one.  Ebird.com is a great place to submit your own Snowy Owl reports.

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Lakeshore Fall Summary

Winter officially began yesterday, Saturday, December 21.  The solstice, the shortest day of the year, began at 11:11am local time.  While winter will settle in, the days will get longer, and chances to see birds will increase!  Especially so for those stuck working until the sun sets currently.  We’ve certainly been feeling winter’s early chill lately.  It’s been quite different than the very mild December we experienced last year.  Not only the cold, but the early snow, and the early growing shelf ice.

Early winter shelf ice growing on Lake Michigan.
Early winter shelf ice growing on Lake Michigan.

You can usually expect that when winter arrives, the results and compilations of the previous season are finally together and published.  It is always interesting to see what rare birds were seen, what lingering bird broke a record for being tardier than his nest mates.  What birds were seen that you never knew about!?

Ken Brock, the well known “birdman of the dunes“, works hard to compile every bird sighting on the lakefront.  These reports come from first hand accounts, the popular eBird database, and online reports from places such as the Birding Indiana Facebook group.  The report is now online in it’s full form, but here’s some of the highlights folks may be interested in.

Redhead:- A superb longshore flight of (1615) at Miller Beach on 23 November (John K. Cassady, Jeffrey J. McCoy, John C. Kendall et al.) elevated the season total to a record 3455.

Harlequin Duck:– Two immature males or females were found at Michigan City Harbor on 3 November (Jeffrey J. McCoy), but Brendan J. Grube added a third Harley to this group four days later. Brendan and Brad Bumgardner also had a flyby singleton at Dunes State Park on 12 November.

White-faced Ibis:– On 17 October John C. Kendall and Edward M. Hopkins detected the
red eyes of (3) adults at Long Lake, providing a first record for Porter Co.

Bald Eagle:– Lakefront birders logged the largest fall count on record. A total of 19 were reported during the autumn flight.

Lesser Sand-Plover on the beach at Michigan City Harbor.  Photo courtesy Pete Grube.
Lesser Sand-Plover on the beach at Michigan City Harbor. Photo courtesy Pete Grube.

Lesser Sand Plover:– A first record for Indiana was established 15 October when Brendan J Grube discovered a plover, unlike any he had ever seen, on the beach at Michigan City Harbor. The bird quickly flew to the harbor’s outer breakwall, where it remained for about three hours.

Black-legged Kittiwake:– Lakefront birders enjoyed the best flight in three years. For the season some 26 Kittiwakes were reported.

Golden-winged Warbler:- Lakefront birders  enjoyed the best flight in 13 years with 12 Golden-wingeds reported during the autumn flight.

Snow Bunting:– Highlighted by the (630) birds that John C. Kendall logged at Portage Lakefront Park and Michigan City Harbor on 24 November, the fall of 2013 proved to be a fine season for Snow Buntings with 2659 reported.

Winter Bird Count Keeps the Birding Excitement Going

One of the great aspects of birding the Dunes is the constant supply of good birds.  When most folks have thoughts of hanging up their binoculars until spring, rare and unique birds provide lakefront birders a chance to keep up the birding excitement, not just through December, but through the entire wintertime.

One great way to stay active is through the National Audubon Society and their annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC).  This year is the Society’s 114th annual event.  Across 17 countries, but mostly Canada and the US, over 2,300 counts will occur between December 14 and January 5.  The Indiana Dunes count was first held in 1916!  After some hiatus, it was brought back in 1972 and has been held consecutively for the last 41 years straight.

In the past 41 years of counting, over 150 species has been recorded during this special day in December.  Some of the great birds recorded include King Eider, California Gull, Golden Eagle, and Baltimore Oriole.  The December 14, 2013 count would produce another new count species and some other great highlights.

Reynold's Creek GHA Snowy Owl (1500N/600E).
Reynold’s Creek GHA Snowy Owl (1500N/600E).

It’s too early to give the entire list, as counts from teams are still coming in.  It is safe to say over 70 species were logged on this year’s count.  Among the highlights includes the ever recurring Snowy Owl invasion.  Snowy Owls have been recorded on four different Indiana Dunes Christmas Bird Counts.  This year’s two birds ties the two seen on the 12/20/1986 CBC count.  The two birds seen yesterday were at Michigan City Harbor (outer breakwall) and the Reynold’s Creek GHA (1500N/600E).

Bobolink in Michigan City, IN, 12/14/13.  First state winter record.
Bobolink in Michigan City, IN, 12/14/13. First state winter record.

Another highlight is a first state Christmas Count record.  While searching for a hard to find bird this far north in Indiana, the Northern Mockingbird, Jeff McCoy located a first state winter record of a Bobolink.  This prairie and grassland bird travels 12,000 miles each year to it’s wintering grounds in central and southern South America.  A bird not to be found in the deep snow of Indiana in December.    The Bobolink makes species 153 for the Dunes CBC!

Other good birds would include Long-tailed Ducks, all three scoter species, multiple Thayer’s Gulls, Red-throated Loon, Rough-legged Hawks, lots of Pileated Woodpeckers, Snow Buntings, and Red-breasted Nuthatches.  The highlights weren’t just birds though.  Two mammalian highlights were noted by two teams thus far reporting in.  The first was an early morning Coyote seen at Dunes State Park.  She ran out of the woods, stopped at the growing shelf ice.. relieved herself… then ran back into the woods.  The second interesting report was of a river otter seen at the Trail Creek mouth to Lake Michigan.  The latter may be a first site record.

Coyote on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, December 14, 2013.
Coyote on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, December 14, 2013.

No matter the cold, there is still birding excitement out there right now!

Snowy Owl Invasion Becomes Official

A few years ago, Indiana birders enjoyed a decent flight of Snowy Owls.  The winter of 2011/2012 saw 46 individuals reported.  It beat the previous record Snowy Owl flight when 40 were counted during the winter of 1996/1997.  It was a memorable flight that made news across the nation.  Snowy Owl’s invaded much of the county, but the Great Lakes were especially noteworthy.  Owls were seen as far south as Texas, and Hawaii recorded it’s first state record of this amazing white ghost.

Snowy Owl reports from eBird.com, 2010-2013.
Snowy Owl reports from eBird.com, 2010-2013.

Birders often wait years or even a decade to see another flight like this.  Now, only two winters later, it appears the Indiana Dunes and much of the US is undergoing another invasion.  It began light, but by November’s end, sightings were literally snowballing in.  Already, this invasion is getting more press than the 2007/2008 incursion.  Likely due to the fact that the concentrations on the east coast are higher this time around.  More people seeing them= more press.

So what have been the early highlights?  Early returns?  Well, December has just began and we have the following interesting reports:

  • “Newfoundland has been experiencing a huge invasion of Snowy Owls over the last 2 weeks. A count of 42 along a 25km stretch of road yesterday is an indication that hundreds and maybe even thousands of these birds are all along the Southern coast of the island. Hatch year birds make up the vast majority of these birds, but a few adults have been seen.”  Alvan Buckley in Newfoundland.
  • A Snowy Owl is currently being seen in Bermuda.  Last seen Friday, November 29.
  • A Snowy Owl in North Carolina is the first in many  years.  If birders in Indiana are giddy about a Snowy Owl, imagine the near mass hysteria among southern birders when one shows up that far south.
  • On Sunday, December 1, A Snowy Owl was seen at the Port of Indiana.  Shortly after, 3 were seen together at Michigan City Harbor.  A single bird was simultaneously being seen at nearby New Buffalo, MI harbor, while two more were inland in Berrien County. Later that afternoon, an astounding 5 Snowy Owls were being seen at the IN/IL stateline by Illinois birders.  A single birder could have easily seen a dozen Snowy Owls along Lake Michigan’s southern rim in one afternoon!
Snowy Owl (1 of 3) at Michigan City Harbor on December 1, 2013.  Photo courtesy Steve Wasz.
Snowy Owl (1 of 3) at Michigan City Harbor on December 1, 2013. Photo courtesy Steve Wasz.

These charismatic birds of the cold arctic excite bird enthusiasts and can contribute to bringing a new generation of bird watchers to the scene.  For many, it’s Hedwig in the flesh (and feathers).  These birds often allow for close up approaches, but it’s important to give them space, not to stress an already exhausted and likely starving bird.  Watch any Snowy Owls from a distance.  One opportunity to see Snowy Owls comes Monday, December 2.  The Dunes State Park Interpretive Services will meet anyone interested in seeking out a Snowy Owl at the Indiana Dunes Tourism Visitor Center at 1215 N St Rd 49, Porter, IN, 46304 at 12pm central time.  The car pool tour will drive around to known sites where the park’s optics will help give close up looks.  If present, another tour will be offered this upcoming weekend too.

Snowy Owl at Port of Indiana November 24.  Photo courtesy Pete Grube.
Snowy Owl at Port of Indiana November 24. Photo courtesy Pete Grube.
Heavily marked young (probably female) Snowy Owl flying over breakwall at New Buffalo, MI November 29.  Photo courtesy Mike Bourden.
Heavily marked young (probably female) Snowy Owl flying over breakwall at New Buffalo, MI November 29. Photo courtesy Mike Bourden.

Snowy Owls in Indiana for 2013/2014… 13 and counting…