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!

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