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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