Tale of Two Owls

A reporter called today.  He was with a radio station down in Indy and when it came to wintering animals, our division of communication staff thought us in the dunes would be the best to talk to in regards to toughing out the cold!  I had plenty of stories of heat pad stuffed thermal underwear and shivering behind open car doors while birding the lakefront, but alas he wasn’t interested in that.  He had been posed the question of how the winter weather was affecting the sudden disappearance or appearance of different animals in Indiana.  The question seemed worthy enough of a little news minute and radio interview.  So off we went…

Jailbird Snowy Owls hanging out in LaPorte Co.
Jailbird Snowy Owls hanging out in LaPorte Co.

The Snowy Owls were obviously a central topic for the bit being recorded.  Questions arised as to whether their sudden invasion was weather based and what possible other animals were here because of the recent cold snap, or more news friendly term, polar vortex.  It was a good chance to talk about irruptions and migration in general.  These millions of birds flee the incoming cold for warmer climates.  Or so we think…!  Truth be told, most of these birds that migrate or irrupt occasionally are doing so more based on food supplies than actual temperature. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, the current Snowy Owl invasion (now approaching 100 recorded birds for Indiana!) is derived from a good breeding summer and subsequent search for food by younger owls.  These birds are no better predictors of incoming cold weather than, say, Punxsutawney Phil.  Seasonal fluctuations cause the different reports we get each year.  Since not all birds breed in the same areas or feed on the same food sources, it’s safe to say that one species irrupting, doesn’t necessarily translate to a similar bird irrupting.

Chesterton Saw-whet Owl, January 2014.
Chesterton Saw-whet Owl, January 2014.

That truth is easy to see with our recent fall Saw-whet Owl banding season.  The fall of 2013 was our lowest banding totals ever.  Here, in this instance, there was poor breeding in the Canadian northwoods and few Saw-whet Owls migrated south.  Since mid-December there have been no Saw-whet Owls reported in the entire state (versus 100 Snowy Owls!).  No one has seen a Saw-whet Owl in the dunes since our banding season ended either.  Until today!

Saw-whet Owl winter comparisons (2013 on left, 2014 thus far on right).
Saw-whet Owl winter comparisons (2013 on left, 2014 thus far on right).  Courtesy eBird.com.

As we often tell folks during the banding season, those with a keen eye may find a wintering saw-whet owl after the season is done.  Watch those dense pines, cedars, and spruce trees.  Whitewash or pellet accumulations may give hint to a roosting bird too.  The photos above and below were taken of a N Saw-whet Owl found in a spruce tree in a resident’s front yard today.  Unfortunately the entire area is private property and access is not public.  But, fortunately, for the bird, it should be allowed to continue too hunt and hunker all winter long at this site without too much disturbance.

Saw-whet Owl in Chesterton, IN, January 2014.
Saw-whet Owl in Chesterton, IN, January 2014.

Going back to our reporter.  What else is here that we don’t normally see.  The bad news I gave him was that there really isn’t much to report that could be attributed to the polar vortex.  It’s all food related I told him.  Perhaps the story could look at what may we be losing.  With southern species, like Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, or Eastern Bluebirds enjoying several years of mild winters, there is a chance that the cold weather knocks them back.  Time will tell and we’ll see who’s singing their spring song in a few weeks.

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Dead of Winter

Birding the Dunes is an easy place to promote.  When most places go quiet after the fall migration, binoculars can be literally put on the shelf until spring returns.  The Dunes offers the birding opportunities year round.  However, if you were to throw the towel one month of the year, February maybe the one.  As January transitions to February, the winter wonders have been seen, moved on, or perhaps the winter cold have finally gotten to the local birders.  Cabin fever is in effect, the ice is at it’s thickest and the real anticipation is now focusing on the spring season.

Lakefront shelf ice, January 19, 2014.
Lakefront shelf ice, January 19, 2014.

 

This upcoming February may be the hardest test for dune birders.  No winter finches to find.  No expected western wanderers have been seen (solitaires, Varied Thrushes, etc…).  The ice is the thickest in many years, reducing the waterfowl available.  The saddest news may be the (expected) decline of the Snowy Owl invasion.  We expect Snowy Owl reports to turn up in the dunes somewhat regularly through March, but this past weekend was the first weekend where no Snowy Owls were reported in NW Indiana!

Birding the dunes is just as much the knowledge we learn about bird migration, as much as the joy we get from birding.  The entire study of ornithology is a rich topic with diverse opportunities here.  We stand on the shoulders of birding greats in terms of what birds we expect to see, how we bird, and what species we study here.  One great resource for birders in the Dunes is the Birds of Indiana Dunes series.  Any birder wanting to truly learn when and where to find birds need this book or CD.  It’s not another field guide for your library.  The Brock guides, created by Birding Great Dr. Ken Brock area culmination of now over 1 million bird records.  You can pick up the older second edition book or find the third edition CD at the Dunes State Park Nature Center or online as well.

Brock's Birds of Indiana Dunes.  First Edition, Second Edition, and Third Edition now in CD format.
Brock’s Birds of Indiana Dunes. First Edition, Second Edition, and Third Edition now in CD format.

Another thing to look forward to this spring is the re-introduction of the Birding 101 courses that introduced a large number of dune birders to a pair of binoculars.  Birding in the Dunes returns this spring as an eight week course to introduce new birders to the joy of birding in the dunes, the where and how to bird the dunes, as well as some specific species study.  Each week will also offer an optional field exercise to emphasize some of the inside study.  The courses are offered Thursday nights from March 13-May 1.  Registration is required as the workshop is expected to fill quickly (as of Jan 20, the course was nearly 1/2 full and has only been spread through word of mouth!).  You’ll want to call the Nature Center (219-926-1390) if you want to get signed up!

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50 days

tower sunset

No major winter bird story to report, but this recent sunset shot this week reminded us that we’re only 50 days away from the 2014 Longshore Flight Survey.  Weather dependent, we should be counting the first waves of blackbirds, grackles, and robins sometime during the first week of March.  Until then, the beach is locked in some incredible shelf ice formations.

Sunset, January 13, 2014.
Sunset, January 13, 2014.

Gregarious Gulls

gullstoday

For many casual bird enthusiasts in NW Indiana, countless hours can be spent learning the both rare and interesting bird species to be had in the dune woods, wetlands, prairies, and immediate lakeshore.  Gaining appreciation for the simple “seagull” won’t often occur right away.  For some birders, it may take years before a genuine interest in the diverse ID challenges, plumage variations, hybridization, and seasonal occurrences are seen as a draw to studying gulls, and not a prohibition.

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Gull breeding colony in Indiana on Lake Michigan.

Often overlooked, and almost always under counted, the gull is the House Sparrow of the shoreline.  They are resourceful, inquisitive and intelligent birds.They demonstrate complex methods of communication and one can observe a highly developed social structure.  With lifespans approaching 30 years, they’ve seen their fare share of pre-teens trying to devise a way to capture them with the enticement of a potato chip or French fry. They likely have seen their fair share of swimsuit fashion changes too.

The budding gull birder, or larophile, as some obsessive gull freaks call themselves, need only to learn two main species intimately during the summer months.  The abundant Ring-billed Gull and larger and less common (in the summer) Herring Gull.  The former breeds in large super colonies at the local steel mills to the west of the state park.  Over 20,000 nesting pairs can be seen making the daily pilgrimage along the lakeshore in May to feed hungry young.  First heading out from the mills, then heading back in steady streams at dusk.

Ring-billed Gull in summer breeding plumage.
Ring-billed Gull in summer breeding plumage.

The first rule for any birder wishing to truly learn the gulls is to appreciate the complex variations in the Ring-billed Gull.  These variations occur with age, with plumage molts, and with time of year.  There are too many combinations to count!  But you must know these if you’re to start separating out the rarer gulls.  Separate the larger, pink-legged, and yellow eyed Herring Gulls and you’ve got most of the summer gulls ID’d.

Winter months bring an assortment of northern gull species that makes the gull ID more challenging, fun, and interesting.  All of this is stifled, of course, by the bone chilling cold that winter gulling brings with it.  A couple great sites near the dunes to see some of these wintering gulls include Michigan City Harbor, Port of Indiana, and the Whiting BP Refinery Beach.

There are many worth pouring through field guides to get to know.  Listed below are only the most common and easiest to ID winter visitors.  This is certainly not the end-all for gull ID in the dunes, but a glimpse of a few that don’t take too much research to get to know.  The Great Black-backed Gull is a bully of a large gull that can be easy to ID.  It’s large size makes it the largest gull species in the world.  It’s dark black back, pink legs, and clean white head and neck (nape) separate it from the smaller Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Adult Lesser’s are more known for their slightly lighter colored back, yellow legs, and more heavily streaked head and neck in the winter months.

Great Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull

Glaucous Gulls are large, white gulls of the high arctic.  They winter in the dunes area and stand out from the other large gulls simply by their abundance of white.  Their backs are very pale gray and wing tips show virtually no black.  At their size, only albino gulls really pose identification problems.

Glaucous Gull adult
Glaucous Gull adult

While there are certainly other gull species worth learning, these simple five are enough to spark an interest in what are to many simply “seagulls.”  Brave the winter winds, set up a scope or binoculars on a flock of gulls (a few loaves of bread helps too!) and add a new gull species to your list this winter in the dunes.

A New Year for Birding the Dunes (and a little Snowy update)

The Indiana Dunes area is a spectacular birding area.  Over 360 species of birds have been logged along the shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana. The north-south orientation of the lake creates a funnel effect in the fall, as birds migrate along the east and west shores. In the spring, birds pile up on the southern shore, hesitant to fly over the lake. For migrant songbirds, the dunes are an oasis for fueling up before continuing along the lake into Wisconsin and Michigan. The fall flight can be just as enjoyable.  Whether you have beginner or advanced identification skills, Indiana Dunes is a great place for birders. 2013 has been no exception.  There have been many highlights and thrills for the bird enthusiast.  Rather than looking back at the great year, it seems more exciting to look forward to things going on now and into the new year.

Snowy Owl recently in LaPorte Co.  December 2013.  Photo by Josh Grube.
Snowy Owl recently in LaPorte Co. December 2013. Photo by Josh Grube.

An opportunity exists right now to generate a wealth of data with this historic Snowy Owl invasion.  We have agreed to join the Project Owlnet coordinators in a special project that has been just now authorized by the Bird Banding Laboratory.  The project has multiple facets, ranging from banding to telemetry to analysis of deceased birds, involving both the banding community and the general public.  The website for the project, including some fundraising for GPS units just went online this week.  It’s officially called Project SNOWstorm.  The SNOW part being the banders code for Snowy Owl.

Project SNOWstorm
Project SNOWstorm

There is so much new data to learn and we have a great opportunity to dispel many of the myths surrounding these Snowy Owl irruptions.  Early data is showing these birds are not starving.  As opposed to a true irruption, few adults are being seen.  Rehabbers in Indiana this winter have taken in injured birds; not starving or emaciated birds.  The two GPS tracked owls thus far are also revealing neat stuff.  One bird in Wisconsin has not left more than a mile of where it was banded last week.  The Maryland bird has now gone back 150 miles north and is monitored landing on off shore buoys, presumably to terrorize sleeping ducks that think they are safe out in the far waters.

We absolutely should take this unique chance during this possibly once in a lifetime Snowy Owl incursion to collaborate where we can, collecting data and documenting what these owls do and where they invade to so we can better understand, appreciate and care for these owls. We have no intention on visiting sites where a single owl is being visited by droves of bird watchers, such as many of the ones where photos are being posted from.  This year there is the chance to both research them and allow lots of enthusiasts to see them.  The state park alone has sponsored four special snowy owl tours and have showed over 100 people their very first snowy owl.  The press have covered this invasion as well with many stories.  When capturing was mentioned, an adoption was joked in regards to funding the project.  One lady this week quickly said she would donate $100 to help further research to learn more about them.

Banding Snowy Owls is new to us and a learning curve.  We hope to have the chance to band a few through at least early February.  No bird will be banded if it shows poor health. We can’t promote public viewing but word has already gotten out as to what we are attempting and we’ve noticed random cars following us with great interest. We hope you will also support the work this winter, dispel any myths, and continue to pass on sightings that may hold potential for research.  If you have any questions or thoughts that we can answer to help others understand why we’re doing it, please don’t hesitate.  Still need to see a Snowy Owl!?  The Dunes State Park will likely offer another car pool tour to see one if they are still present.  Check their Facebook page for tour updates.

Osprey gliding over the Dunes during the spring migration.
Osprey gliding over the Dunes during the spring migration.

So, besides trying to capture and band amazing Snowy Owls, what else are we up to?  We’ve been in talks with NIPSCO and the stars look to align for the donation and installation of two Osprey towers in the state park this spring.  These elegant fish eating birds of prey are on Indiana’s endangered species list, with some 50 nesting pairs in the state.  Osprey overwhelmingly prefer artificial structures.  They are also simply enjoyable birds to watch, get people excited about wildlife and the outdoors.  They offer educational opportunities about the importance of wetlands, clean water, and a healthy environment.  As things come together, we hope to announce where these towers will go up and where you’ll be able to watch them when potential nesting Osprey return this spring.

We also anticipate to be back up on the new Bird Observation Tower for our third official season of longshore flights.  The spring flight counts will start the first week of March. Coinciding with the counts will be a return of Birding the Dunes workshops.  Meeting Thursday nights for eight weeks, this special series will introduce birding in the dunes to a new generation of bird enthusiasts.  Watch for more info on this course in the coming weeks.  It is sure to fill quickly.

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