Snowy Theater Drawing to a Close

Whether birder or not, this winter’s Snowy Owl invasion has been one of great joy for many Northwest Indiana residents.  It’s introduced a large number of folks to not just Snowy Owls, but to the world of birds.  No simple Hedwig.  These birds have given awe to hundreds of visitors that have sought them out.  The Dunes State Park has helped well over 150 people to see their very first Snowy Owl in the last three months.  Numbers will still trickle in around the state, but no doubt, some 90-95% of the season’s owls have been logged already.  A few stragglers will likely be one day wonders as they make their way back north now that the days are getting longer and temperatures finally rise.

History of Snowy Owl reports in the Dunes, showing our current progress through the typical season.  Courtesy Birds of Indiana Dunes, by Ken Brock.
History of Snowy Owl reports in the Dunes, showing our current progress through the typical season. Courtesy Birds of Indiana Dunes, by Ken Brock.

This season has seen some strange locations for Snowy Owls, as well as some record high counts, both by location and single observer.  Locally, the Snowy Owl seen on top of the Aldi’s Food Store in Michigan City may be the strangest spot one was located.  More usual, airports hosted many birds, including the Porter Co. Airport in Valparaiso, Michigan City Airport, and the Gary/Chicago International Airport.  A few owls were in precarious locations that were susceptible to human intrusion and could have easily been harassed.  These owl reports were not shared to the public, when possible.  When the season is completely over, we’ll share an entire list of every Snowy Owl that we know of in Indiana this past winter.

For now, there is still one notable Snowy Owl in the area.  She (our assumptions based on plumage photos) has been fairly reliable since mid-December.  She has had lots of windswept agricultural area to feed in.  This remaining bird in the area may be one of your last dependable moments to catch a glimpse of an amazing Snowy Owl before they head back to the arctic realm to the north.  For those that haven’t been over there yet, follow SR 421, south out of Michigan City, through Westville, and to it’s intersection with County Road 800 south.  A short jog east of the intersection is the most reliable spot for her.  She tends to sit right in plain sight on the ground or occasionally on the irrigation systems out i the field.  Recent eBird reports can be used as a good guide for finding where she has been seen recently.

Since these birds could leave any day now, this upcoming weekend may be as good a time as ever to get one last look.  Who knows, maybe a Snowy Owl will cross our paths from the Bird Observation Tower in the coming weeks!?

Here are two great photos taken by Rodney Ervin, of Winamac, recently.  Thanks for allowing us to share these great shots!

Snowy Owl watches the Canadian National Railroad Train pass through.  Photo courtesy Rodney Ervin
Snowy Owl watches the Canadian National Railroad Train pass through. Photo courtesy Rodney Ervin
Snowy Owl keeps watch over Snow Buntings in the rural Westville field.  Photo courtesy Rodney Ervin.
Snowy Owl keeps watch over Snow Buntings in the rural Westville field. Photo courtesy Rodney Ervin.
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Are you a Dunes Birder?

Immature Bald Eagle in Northwest Indiana this week.  Birds of Prey are the second most popular reason folks travel away from home to birdwatch.
Immature Bald Eagle in Northwest Indiana this week. Birds of Prey are the second most popular reason folks travel away from home to birdwatch.

Are you a birdwatcher?  Are you a birder?  Is there a difference?  What impact do birders have in the economy of the dunes area?  All are important questions to ask.  It’s these questions that when answered, provide some of the needed backbone behind conservation initiatives.  Quite simply, money talks.  It’s this reason that the most recent birding report, Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis, helps to provide insight on who birders are and the impact they have in the dunes, and the rest of the country.  The full article can be downloaded here.

blog titleSo what makes up a birder?  From the original Birding magazine, a birder is the  acceptable term used to describe the person who seriously pursues the hobby or sport of birding, whether amateur or professional.  A birdwatcher, on the other hand, is the rather ambiguous term used to describe the person who watches birds for any reason at all, and should not be used to refer to the serious birder.  In the recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, a birder is an “individual who has taken a trip one mile or more from home for the primary purpose of observing birds and/or closely observed or tried to identify birds around the home.” So, if you’re having a beer on the beach and watch a seagull fly over, you don’t count.  Nor do the trips to the zoo.

Who is a dunes birder?  Well, not much has changed from older reports.  You’re still older and more educated.  Your average age is 53 years old.  You are just slightly more likely to be a female. You’re also likely to be white, educated, and have more money than average.  The richer you are, the more likely you are a birder.

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Participation rates are the percentages from a certain population that participate or engage in birding activities.  Participation rates are lower in minorities, as well as dense urban areas.  But how they stack up state by state are also interesting.  The chart below ranks Indiana in the top 2/3 of the country with participating birders.  Indiana is better than the U.S. average in birding participation, and does better than our neighboring Illinois, Ohio, or Kentucky.

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What birds are birders traveling to see?  What bird would bring you out of your house on a chase to see?  You chase what’s been found, but what kind do you really want to chase?  Would you be surprised to learn waterfowl are the most watched type of bird away from home?  State Park waterfowl tours each year do bring out a good number.  Loons also are popular with park visitors, though often harder to view out over the big lake.  Not as surprising are the raptors.  Hawk watches are popular with area birders.  Eagles, yes.  Falcons, yes.  Owls, definitely yes.

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The entire birding report is a good read and it’s worth birders reading.  Know your value, and use it to advance birding sites, conservation, and public access to these sites.   I’ll leave you with a card that was left at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center a few falls ago.  It made a simple statement that a birder was here, and spent money because we offered a birding opportunity.

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Great Lakes’ Divers

You may hear birders speak of “spark birds.”  Spark birds are those species or individuals that stimulate a serious interest in more serious birding.  For some, that bird experience may be their first foray into birding… a species they have never seen, nor do they know what it is.  For others, there was some initial interest, and the bird’s sighting or behavior pushed it to obsessive birding.  This writer has distinct memories of watching for hours the gentle dives and behavior of a migrating Common Loon on a NE Indiana lake one spring afternoon.  Before my interests swung heavy towards the owls, my first group of birds that really drew me were the loons.

Winter plumage Common Loon.  Photo by Len Blumin.
Winter plumage Common Loon. Photo by Len Blumin.

The southern rim of Lake Michigan is a great location to observe migrating loons.  Loon observation programs hosted at the state park always draw an interest from casual birders and park visitors.  They’re simply interesting and popular birds.  Even Aldo Leopold wrote about the plaintive siren of the wilderness.  Leopold said, “the Lord did well when he fitted the loon and his music in this lonesome land.”  We don’t always hear the eerie yodel across  Lake Michigan, but a spring morning, with hope of hearing them, makes one visit the beach on an April sunrise.  If you’re lucky, you may hear them during a calm dawn.

Large groups of Common Loons will stage in the Indiana waters in November.  A big Thanksgiving cold front will push hundreds, and occasionally thousands, off the lake and over a lakefront observer, heading to warmer waters.  Most Common Loons will push out of Indiana by winter time.

Red-throated Loon numbers in NW Indiana.  Courtesy Ken Brock, Birds of Indiana Dunes.
Red-throated Loon numbers in NW Indiana. Courtesy Ken Brock, Birds of Indiana Dunes.

Many decades ago, you wouldn’t take notice of different looking Common Loons.  The Red-throated Loon was a rare sight in the state.  Sometime in the mid 1990s, numbers of Red-throated Loons on Lake Michigan started to increase.  Not just in Indiana, but in all the Lake Michigan bordering states.  This increase was not subtle, but exponential.  There are theories on population, food supplies, or climate change, though none have been pin pointed to the reason we see so many now.  Red-throated Loons are the loon most likely to winter on Lake Michigan.  Those moving through will winter off the Atlantic coast in areas farther north than most Common Loons will winter.

Thus, a loon seen this time of year is likely to be a Red-throated Loon.  From a distance, they can look similar, but their much smaller size, excess white, and smaller up-turned bill help to identify them.  A long distance scan on a sunny day reveals a brighter, shinier loon than the Common Loons appear.  A great guide on IDing our loons found in NW Indiana can be read here.  Unfortunately, that’s how most of us see the loons… from a far distance.

Red-throated Loon adult, February 2014.
Winter Red-throated Loon adult, Portage Lakefront Park, February 2014.

To see a loon up close is a special experience.  You can see the amazing adaptations that make them deep diving experts.  You can see the special color of gray they possess, as well as the deep red eyes that help them see better below the water.  These same adaptations hurt them when it comes to flying.  With their legs so far back, they require a runway of sorts to take off.   This really becomes a problem when they find a nice shimmering surface sparkling like their favorite lake, only it’s really just a wet parking lot sparkling with lights.  If they don’t figure this out in time, their legs and feet can be damaged by the crash landing.

Crash landed Red-throated Loon in Michigan City.  Photo courtesy Stephanie Stefanko.
Crash landed Red-throated Loon in Michigan City. Photo courtesy Stephanie Stefanko.

This was the case this week with a wintering Red-throated Loon in Michigan City.  It crash landed on Coolspring Road and was picked up by a helpful family.  A few quick emails later, and we were able to help assess the bird’s injuries and arrnage for it’s freedom in some real water.  The next morning, the bird was released in the freshwater estuary found at the Portage Lakefront Park and Riverwalk.  After some brief preening and water drinking, it took to diving right away and will hopefully find an abundance of food there for a while, or at least until it decides to find the open water out in the middle of the lake.  Chances are good it will still be there for a few days if folks want to go look for him or her.

Releasing the Red-throated Loon, February 2014.
Releasing the Red-throated Loon, February 2014.
Red-throated Loon after release, February 2014.
Red-throated Loon after release, February 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update 2/11/14: Unfortunately, presumably the same Red-throated Loon was found deceased today on the ice in the harbor.  Why it died may remain a mystery.  Botulism E. is a major concern for loons on the Great Lakes right now.

 

 

Sibley Supports Project Owlnet

One of the most popular birding events that goes on at the Indiana Dunes State Park is the annual fall Saw-whet Owl banding.  It’s unlikely any regular reader here hasn’t heard or participated in a banding night.  Our station is perhaps the most visited in the Great Lakes region in terms of total visitors and educational opportunities.  A great feat considering we don’t band the most birds, compared to other stations.  Our station certainly has it’s ups and downs that vary with each year’s breeding success. 5 years and 153 owl captures later…

Total Saw-whet Owls banded at Indiana Dunes State Park 2009-2013.
Total Saw-whet Owls banded at Indiana Dunes State Park 2009-2013.

We do much of our work with Project Owlnet.  Project Owlnet facilitates communication and cooperation among hundreds of owl-migration researchers in North America, in particular studying the amazing migrations of Northern Saw-whet Owls.  They help provide protocol standards and communication between stations, especially with recaptured birds across states.  It’s founders are also the brain child’s behind the current Project SNOWstorm project going on right now with Snowy Owls.

In a move that gives Project Owlnet even more recognition, David Sibley, of Sibley Field Guide to Birds fame, has made a print of his painting of a Saw-whet Owl.  The original was auctioned off, but this reprint is now for sale with a portion (percentage not said) of the sale of each print being donated to help fund the work of Project Owlnet.  The prints are $45 each, 9 X 11″ limited edition, and they are made with archival ink and paper. The edition is limited to 300 prints and are signed and numbered, as well as come with a certificate of authenticity.

Sibley Saw-whet Owl Limited Edition Print for Sale.
Sibley Saw-whet Owl Limited Edition Print for Sale.  Visit here to purchase your own copy.

 

 

 

 

Winter Movement in the Dunes

A great thing about birding the dunes is the seasonal and monthly changes that never make birding here monotonous.  If you’re disappointed about not seeing an invasion of a certain species, a new one will appear and leave us wondering what spurred their irruption.  A few winters ago, we watched in awe as hundreds of White-winged Crossbills invaded every pine and spruce stand in the area.  The next year… none.  Another winter it was the birds of the west coming to visit.  You could literally watch a Spotted Towhee feed along side a Varied Thrush.  The next year… none.

We’ve already documented the amazing Snowy Owl invasion that’s gone on this winter (now at 106 birds in the state this season).  Two more species have shown themselves to be here in unusual numbers now that winter has set in.  By the Christmas Count season, we were noticing large numbers of wintering robins, and now that January has passed, White-winged Scoters have established themselves as a wintering presence, not just in the dunes, but statewide.

American Robin soaking up the winter sun in a hawthorne tree this past month.
American Robin soaking up the winter sun in a hawthorne tree this past month.

The State Park has taken many calls and messages from locals asking about the abundance of robins recently.  First, they’re taken back that we do indeed have American Robins in the winter months.  Once that revelation occurs, we discuss how wintering robins flock together in search of dormant insect pupae and berries still hung on trees, such as hawthornes, crab apples, and lindens.  But this winter has seemed differently.  Our Turdus migratorius have been seen in larger flock sizes, even before the real cold weather set in.  You can even go back to mid-December, when we recorded the highest count of robins ever recorded on the Indiana Dunes Christmas Bird Count.

If you check the eBird line graphs, you’ll find similar frequency of sightings for Indiana, but larger abundance charts and larger high counts this past month, compared to the same month last year.  Even stranger were 500 robins seen flying past the Dunes State Park Bird Observation Platform (former Green Tower) this week.  Is spring beginning, or are they getting nomadic and hungry this late into winter now?

American Robins seen during the Dunes CBC, 2004-2013.
American Robins seen during the Dunes CBC, 2004-2013.

The other bird making movement is the rarer and more sought after White-winged Scoter.  Not that the robin isn’t exciting, but robin reports aren’t sending birders scrambling to go see them.  Their counts this season have been up, not just in the dunes, or Indiana, but throughout the eastern United States.  Some contribute the increase to the weather, particularly the higher ice build up on the Great Lakes this winter.  Interestingly, White-winged Scoter numbers had declined a little over the last decade, but have been showing a noticeable increase in the dunes area for the past 4 or 5 years now.  Like we discussed last week with the two owls, I’d highly suspect it’s food that’s behind the wintering numbers.  Zebra mussels probably….

January White-winged Scoter sightings statewide, 2013 v 2014.
January White-winged Scoter sightings statewide, 2013 v 2014.
White-winged Scoter pair at Port of Indiana, January 31, 2014.  Photo by Pete Grube.
White-winged Scoter pair at Port of Indiana, January 31, 2014. Photo by Pete Grube.

If you want to find White-winged Scoters this next couple weeks, your options are limited.  The large shelf ice formations and floating flow ice have locked in many of the popular lakeshore birding sites.  Yet, there are still a couple places, and the scoters there are in good numbers (sometimes 50 or more!).  The Portage Lakefront Park and nearby marina is a good place, as well as the Port of Indiana.  In Lake County, the Hammond Marina and BP Refinery Beach areas have held scoters lately.  If you’re in La Porte County… well it’s pretty frozen, better move over a county!