100,000+ for 2014

View of the tower from the back dunes prairie on Trail 3.  March 31, 2014
View of the tower from the back dunes prairie on Trail 3. March 31, 2014

Monday, March 31 was a spectacular longshore flight day.  From dawn through mid afternoon the tower site was abuzz with bird migration.  It was also the warmest day of the season, and the first day this year to reach 60 degrees on the lakeshore.  South winds poured over the dunes throughout the night setting up for a warmer start than we’ve had previously.  By 8am, that same wind was already building to moderate gale strength and would try the diligence of any counter on top of the platform.  By lunch time, scopes, chairs, and hats were being knocked over on a regular basis.

Though it was feared that the wind would be too strong to keep many birds migrating, the urge to migrate overcame the winds and migrate they did!  The dawn blackbird and grackle flight was intense.  Over 100+ birds a minute were passing the tower for the first hour.  It was hard to pick out the other species while trying to get an accurate count of the clouds of black going overhead.  The blackbird and grackle count was no doubt under counted.  Miraculously, cowbirds, starlings, robins, and even 200+ Rusty Blackbirds were picked out among them too.  During mid-stream, Lapland Longspurs began their first push, as well as a few American Pipits and Horned Larks.  It was a real debacle trying to keep tally of it all.

One flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, honking their "huevos, huevos" for all to hear.  March 31, 2014
One flock of Greater White-fronted Geese, honking their “huevos, huevos” for all to hear. March 31, 2014

Waterfowl were steady, though clearly not the main highlight of the day.  Long-tailed Ducks continue to be seen daily, but another gigantic (for the lakeshore) wave of Greater White-fronted Geese came by.  Before this year, the daily record up here was 200 or so.  Today’s 641 was five shy of the new record set just three weeks ago.  354 Redheads may also be a new spring lakefront record.  Finally, 13 Common Loons were the first push of loons in the area this season.

1 of 13 Common Loons to head out over the big lake today, March 31, 2014
1 of 13 Common Loons to head out over the big lake today, March 31, 2014

It was clear that the south winds pushed things in, as more Caspian Terns went by, over 60 Tree Swallows filtered past.  Robins started their push, with a still less than organized stream of just under 1,000 birds.  By 10am, the raptor and crane show picked up.  After yesterday’s massive crane flight, today’s birds sought out to beat their predecessors.  Unfortunately for the counters, most turned away from the lake miles out and didn’t go directly overhead.  It made counting harder, but a careful eye found the second highest dunes area count ever, with 6,583.  Falling short of the record of 6,644 set in 2012.  Hawks posted their finest count of the season, with 116 birds going by.  Red-tailed and Turkey Vultures dominated.  A few dark-morphed Rough-legged Hawks were pretty sights, with one being nearly all black.

Short-eared Owl over the platform today.  March 31, 2014.
Short-eared Owl over the platform today. March 31, 2014.

After yesterday’s Long-eared Owl sighting, it was only fitting to have the season’s first Short-eared Owl sighting.  This bird was far more accommodating as it came in from the west and flew over the platform for everyone to see.  It later landed in the dunes prairie of Trail 3 and was seen by a couple folks later.

Today’s great count had many helpers.  Assisting Brendan today were: Brad Bumgardner, Ken Brock, John Kendall, Kim Ehn, Penny Starin, Bernie Konrady, and Rick and Pam Firks.  The day ended with an amazing 29,511 individually counted birds comprising 62 species! The best day yet, and pushing our season total now past 100,000+ birds.  Should we mention the 100+ House Sparrows seen today too?  Second year birds forging out to find their own home… or did McDonald’s open late today?

Today’s super highlights below, as well as some extra video footage and images.

Greater White-fronted Goose 641
Canada Goose 490
Tundra Swan 21
Wood Duck 22
Redhead 354
White-winged Scoter 1
Long-tailed Duck 10
Common Loon 13
Turkey Vulture 39
Sharp-shinned Hawk 17
Red-tailed Hawk 31
Rough-legged Hawk 3
Sandhill Crane 6583
American Woodcock 1
Bonaparte’s Gull 3
Caspian Tern 4
Mourning Dove 68
Short-eared Owl 1
Tree Swallow 61
Golden-crowned Kinglet 1
American Robin 932
American Pipit 5
Lapland Longspur 584
Red-winged Blackbird 11770
Rusty Blackbird 210
Common Grackle 5772
Purple Finch 11
House Sparrow 106

1 of 15 Great-blue Herons to go by this morning.  March 31, 2014.
1 of 15 Great-blue Herons to go by this morning. March 31, 2014.

The Lion’s Lamb!

Today, March 30, 2014 was the day we were waiting all month for!  Ken Brock, in his IN-Bird list-serv post said it best, “It was the kind of day one would like to bottle up and uncork next winter when the weather is dark and dismal.”  The day would end with the single best count of the season thus far.

The morning started like so many this season.  Cold.  Frost laid heavy and white upon the tower decking this morning.  But the wind was nearly absent.  It could be a morning to sleep in, as the forecast was for winds out of the north at 2mph until late morning.  One thing we’ve learned is that north winds, when in the 0-3mph range can be almost as good as a south wind, as long as a lake breeze doesn’t overtake the warming land and flood cool air from the lake.  Birds will indeed migrate with little wind to impede their progress.  The dawn flight proved this, as blackbirds moved in good numbers immediately at dawn.  Winds slowly built from the south at 5mph by mid-day.  It was sunny, warm, and very spring-like!

Blackbirds stream over the tower counter.  March 29, 2014.
Blackbirds stream over the tower counter. March 29, 2014.

The day ended with 17,670 individual birds, comprising 57 species.  Sandhill Cranes were the talk of the town today.  All over the park, hikers, beach gawkers, pet strollers, and more were looking up into the sun to watch the massive wave after wave of cranes cruising over the park.  They started before 10am and continued through most of the afternoon.  When through, 5,625 cranes passed over the state park today.  This total surpasses any single day total last year and ranks among the top three counts in the dunes.
Other birds posting count numbers today included 937 Canada Geese, 62 Long-tailed Ducks, 37 Turkey Vultures, 4 Bald Eagles, 96 migrating American Crows, and 7,764 Red-winged Blackbirds in the dawn flight.  Robins remain behind for the year.  Where are they?  Not a high count, but the one that got away with just a quick glimpse in the pine stand near the tower today… Long-eared Owl.  Surely more will come though!

The total highlights are below.  A nice crowd made their way to the tower top. Thanks to Ken Brock, John Cassady, Brad Bumgardner, Lee Sterrenburg, Kathy McClain, Ben Mitchell, Rafi Wilkinson, Beth Rutherford, Katie Mcgowan, Casey Zillman, Jeanette Girton, and Ethan Girton for helping with today’s count.

Greater White-fronted Goose  20
Canada Goose  937
Tundra Swan  32
White-winged Scoter 19
Long-tailed Duck  62
Red-throated Loon  4
Common Loon  3
Horned Grebe  4
Turkey Vulture  37
Northern Harrier  1
Bald Eagle  4
Sandhill Crane  5625
Great Black-backed Gull  2
Long-eared Owl  1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1     FOY
Pileated Woodpecker  2
Merlin  2
Peregrine Falcon  1
Eastern Phoebe  8
American Crow  96     Big flock to the south.
Red-winged Blackbird  7764
Common Grackle  2438

As we begin the work week, we look to have two more very good days for counting on Monday and Tuesday before the next cold front drops down the shoreline of the lake.  If you had a day to call in sick, do it early this week!


Breaking (Bad) Ice

Hints of spring continue to do battle with winter’s foot hold.  Spring rains melt and break up months old ice, and the ever present theme of change continues to amaze and astound this writer.  As goes the quote, changes in nature, change your nature.   So the seasons roll.

Waves pound and batter the melting shelf ice, March 28, 2014.
Waves pound and batter the melting shelf ice, March 28, 2014.  Click image for larger view.

A brief longshore flight did occur today.  A change in winds occurred later than predicted and early south winds shifted to the northwest mid-morning when the front dragged over the southern shore of Lake Michigan around the 8am hour.  Rain before and after made passerine birding difficult, but  with birds filtering in, they are around to find if you look hard enough.  Temperatures started in the mid-40s, but dropped to the mid-30s before noon came.

Today’s super highlights included a diverse group of 19 species of waterfowl.  The cork is being released on the recent pack ice.  The waves can now reach the shelf ice and the wind shift today battered and pounded the locked in ice.  Loud roars could be heard today as rolling waves echoed inside ice caverns and tossed icebergs around like rag dolls.  Long-tailed Ducks made memory today, as 189 “oldsqauws” posted the single highest single party count for Indiana since Jim Landing counted (200) at Michigan City Harbor on 14 December 1958*.  A 50+ year record.   Blue-winged Teal were first of season birds along the lakeshore as well.

A Common Goldeneye comes in for a landing in the safety of the shelf ice harbor as pounding waves batter the shelf ice behind. March 28, 2014.  Click images for better view.
Common Goldeneye hiding in the shelf ice harbor. March 28, 2014.

Other great birds included the season’s first Caspian Tern.  It’s amazing how stealthy they arrive in Indiana each year.  The first reports each year come from Lake Michigan, somehow eluding hundreds of other birders statewide as they bee line for their favorite lake.  The best diurnal raptor of the day was a cooperative Merlin seen in the rain.  The best nocturnal raptor was the wolf in sheep’s clothing, aka. the Snowy Owl that flew past the shore with the the other gulls going by.  It was seen long enough to capture some incredible video, seen below (with some Merlin footage too!).  See how long it takes you to realize that it is indeed not a gull but a Snowy!?

The rest of the day’s highlights:

Gadwall 28
Blue-winged Teal 3 FOY
Northern Pintail 6
Canvasback 5
Redhead 42
White-winged Scoter 7
Long-tailed Duck 189
Red-breasted Merganser 15
Ruddy Duck 2
Red-throated Loon 1
Common Loon 3
Caspian Tern 1
Snowy Owl 1 A migrant gliding and soaring to the west, just cresting the dune tops. Essentially, the bird was caught in the passage of gulls at 100-200 ft up.
Merlin 2
Fox Sparrow 1

*Thanks to Ken Brock for the Long-tailed Duck record dates.

Longshore Flight March 26 (and oil spill update)

Though bone cold, this morning’s longshore flight was a good sign of what is to come.  Temperatures warmed by late in the afternoon and the winds were clearly from the south.  Hopefully now that a little warmer air is in place for overnight, the next morning’s flight will produce some real numbers.  The only kink in the plan is expected rain tomorrow.  The hourly forecasts show the main part of the rain arriving around 10am.  This would still allow a decent flight to occur.

Southerly winds pouring north from Texas, March 26, 2014.
Southerly winds pouring north from Texas, March 26, 2014.

Today’s longshore flight (March 26) brought another 10,000+ bird day, in large part due to an early blackbird and grackle movement.  Other songbirds were still low in numbers.  On the lake, waterfowl were in low numbers as well with one exception.  Long-tailed Ducks continue to make a fifty year record occurrence in the state.   48 Long-tailed were seen this morning.  With total Great Lakes ice coverage at 72 percent still, there is still lots of ice to our north and no doubt many ducks, geese, and loons waiting to enter the area.

Brendan was joined today by Robert Guth.  Highlights from the count today:

Northern Pintail 2
White-winged Scoter 8
Long-tailed Duck 48 
Common Merganser 7
Red-breasted Merganser 38
Common Loon 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Bald Eagle 2
Red-shouldered Hawk 2
Red-tailed Hawk 5
Rough-legged Hawk 1
Sandhill Crane 46
Glaucous Gull 1
Horned Lark 4
American Robin 4
Red-winged Blackbird 11990
Common Grackle 3954

Many folks have been asking about the recent oil spill at Whiting Park.  Information about the specifics can be found here, here, and also here.  As regrettable and unfortunate the event was, it appears that Lake Michigan, and the residents who love it, dodged a good bullet here.  Winds during the last few days have been out of the north.  The orientation and location of the specific beach, in between the BP Refinery and the Arcelor-Mittal East Chicago Steel Mill has long north south borders that would push any oil into the bay and not let it escape into the lake.  The very cold waters of the lake also should help the oil from dissolving into the water or from clinging to any surfaces.  Lastly, the opening of the lake is allowing many of the waterfowl to feed away from the shoreline, and away from this winter harbor.  The effects on waterfowl and gulls should be minimal due to late winter timing.   The oil spill is a tragedy, but from a birding standpoint, we’ll continue to cross our fingers that we avoided an accident of the nature seen at other locations nationwide the last few years.

Forecasting Spring?

After a break from any major longshore flight, things finally look to return.  This morning the dunes were greeted to yet another new layer of snow.  Officially, 1.5 inches fell overnight in Chesterton.  The long range forecast looks like this may be a turning point from the bone chilling cold.  Starting Wednesday, each day will bring progressively more warm air, southerly winds, moisture, and… birds!  The 2014 seasonal so far is 57,700 birds.  Surprisingly, it’s more than last year at this time!  Last year we had several small days, and the big numbers began March 26.  Check out the 2012 totals thought!  We were at 150,000 birds by this time.

The week ahead should be interesting for migration.  Many late birds should begin to arrive by the end of the weekend.  Wednesday, March 26, will see south winds enter the area.  The morning will be very cold, but should quickly warm to the upper 30s.  Fortunately, there is open water off-shore, so we won’t have to wait for the pack ice to drift back out.  Blackbirds and robins should post a decent surge, but will grow as the weekend progresses.  Thursday swings back to north winds, but then by Friday-Sunday, winds will progressively grow more southerly and temperatures will surge to the warmest of the season by Sunday.  Saturday and Sunday could be two ideal days to be at the bird observation platform.

American White Pelican at Striebel Pond in Michigan City.  Photo by Janice Rodriquez
American White Pelican at Striebel Pond in Michigan City. Photo by Janice Rodriquez

Until then, many local birders have had great viewing opportunities of an American White Pelican at the Striebel Pond in Michigan City.  It’s possible this is the same bird that has been wintering at the Portage Marina.  Regardless, the pond has many great viewing areas, so the pelican is never too far away, even for folks carrying only binoculars or a camera.

If you’ve never been to Striebel Pond, a map is below.

striebel map

Crane Calling!

Henry Van Dyke said, “The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another.”  The counters today, upon stepping outside on this first full day of spring, and finding a new 1/2 inch of snow on the ground, weren’t so polite in the commentary. Indeed, at 31 degrees at dawn, it looked to be another cold winter day of shuffling feet below the scope, flattening down a slick icy perch as one scans back and forth from lake waterfowl to passerine above.  Despite the early, grim outlook, conditions did get better!  South winds and a warm sun bathed the dunes in a much awaited spring day, and the birds began to appear.

Several early season arrivals filtered in today; still over a week behind normal schedule.  Just after dawn, the first Tree Swallow of the season moved past the beach, and the first Eastern Phoebe also skirted the shelf ice shortly after.  Both arrived also on the same day last year (March 11).   A decent variety of waterfowl went past through the morning, with 12 species represented.

By 9:58am, the first Sandhill Crane passed over the park, spurring the best crane flight of the season, and well within the best five counts in the last few years.  Today’s crane flew directly to the lake, before turning west towards Chicago.  It peaked during the 11am hour, and slowed to a trickle after 12pm, with few seen by 1pm. Today was also the best hawk watch of the season.  103 birds of prey soared past in the same pathway that the cranes traveled.  Some raptor highlights included 2 Merlin, over 35 Red-tailed Hawks, and 5 Bald Eagles.  One of which can be seen in the video highlights above.

The morning’s refreshing count brought in 6,178 birds, comprising 58 species.  The new arrivals bumped up our current season total to 36,471 birds, comprising 83 species.  Assistants and observers today included John DeVaney and Brad Bumgardner.  Today’s highlights were:

Wood Duck 15
Northern Pintail 29
Lesser Scaup 129
Long-tailed Duck 1
Horned Grebe 20
Turkey Vulture 14
Northern Harrier 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 8
Cooper’s Hawk 13 .
Bald Eagle 5
Red-shouldered Hawk 14
Red-tailed Hawk 37 Dark Morph included
Rough-legged Hawk 3
Sandhill Crane 2793
Glaucous Gull 1 adult
Great Black-backed Gull 2
Belted Kingfisher 2
Merlin 2
Eastern Phoebe 1
Tree Swallow 1
Eastern Bluebird 41
American Robin 1163
Rusty Blackbird 4
Purple Finch 3

Noticeably absent for the season’s best hawkwatch, was Indiana Bird Man himself.  Ken Brock was in the park today, but tied down assisting some Ball State Univ students working on a park project.  They used his expertise in the amazing bird life during a taped interview today.

brock interview

First Day of Spring?

Breaking Shelf Ice.
Breaking Shelf Ice.

March 20, 2014.  Our calendar says it’s the first day of spring.  The last few (and upcoming forecast) beg to differ.  Alas, it could be colder, like just weeks earlier.  For this date, there is still snow on the ground.  Sites farther back in the park, such as the Nature Center, still have several inches of slushy ice.  The shelf ice has not broken up yet, but now is a good time to see some of the ice caves melting, creating ice arches.

Today’s count was again under less than ideal conditions.  Robins posted their best flight to date, with 1,131 robins flying over today.  Two single birds that were noteworthy were both white today.  Just when we thought the Snowy Owl flight was waning, a single Snowy Owl was found early on the pack ice.  The gusty west winds pushed the ice east and the giant owl was lost, likely drifting through Beverly Shores sometime this afternoon.  The other white bird worth mentioning was a single Ross’s Goose that landed on the beach with a flock of Canada Geese.  We rarely log Ross’s Goose on the lakefront, so today’s Ross’s was exceptional.

Single Ross's Goose hiding among the Canada Geese on the beach today, March 20, 2014.  Photo by Brendan Grube.
Single Ross’s Goose hiding among the Canada Geese on the beach today, March 20, 2014. Photo by Brendan Grube.

The weather looks decent for a good flight tomorrow.  It may be the best of the week.  Cooler air will slide in Saturday and persist for several days.  Next week looks to be quite chilly for late March, with better conditions developing by late week.  Come out Friday if you have a chance.

Here are the highlights from today:

Ross’s Goose  1  
White-winged Scoter  29
Horned Grebe  10
Red-necked Grebe  1
Great Blue Heron  1
Bald Eagle  1
Great Black-backed Gull  1
Snowy Owl  1     
Pileated Woodpecker  1
American Robin  1131
Red-winged Blackbird  606
Common Grackle  552