Season Three Gets Underway

While the dunes may still hide under a thick blanket of snow, the big ball of light above is rising higher and higher and somehow signalling to the birds that spring is near and it’s time to complete the promise they agreed to many months ago… the promise to return.  It’s spring migration in the dunes!  After this particularly long and cold winter, the birding this spring may be the most anticipated spring we’ve had in decades!  Every season has it’s flavor and preferred birds, but spring is by far the favorite among so many birders.  No trickle in of birds, but  massive tsunami wave after wave of flying gems returning to breed for another summer.

Waterfowl watching this week from the Beach Pavilion.
Waterfowl watching this week from the Beach Pavilion.

Just as we talk about fall migration when were still baking in summer sun, the spring migration has it’s way of finding a foot-hold even when it appears winter will not give up.  The first south winds signal the arrival of the first waterfowl, whether the lakes are prepared for them or not.  In fact, my favorite spring quote from Aldo Leopold states,

“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.  A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his silence.  A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed.  But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat.  His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”

In no better winter will this be a true test for the migrating goose or other duck arriving from the north.  There is so little open water for them.  This may in turn create spectacular viewing opportunities for us in the next few weeks as ducks, geese, and swans are forced to smaller, more restricted feeding areas.  It stands to reason that the colder spring we are likely to also face may bring in some good betters.  The old motto, the worse the weather, the better the birds, seems to always stay true!  With that, the third season of the Dunes Longshore Flight Count will commence officially on Sunday, March 9.  Typically, a week into March signals the start of the main passerine flight over the dunes.  Not to say birds have been waiting to migrate until Sunday, but by this date we really need to be up there if we want to capture the early migrating species.  Already, Herring Gulls, Red-throated Loons, Horned Larks, and a few blackbirds have been on the move.  Counts this year will occur from atop the Bird Observation Platform.  You can count on someone being up top to count the birds if a south wind is underway.  To get a glimpse at what we see and when, feel free to check the archives (on right column) for past postings of the days’ counts.  One thing is certain, no day is ever the same!  Finally, check out the season totals from 2012 and 2013.

Long-tailed Duck on Lake Michigan.  Photo by Amber Edwards.
Long-tailed Duck on Lake Michigan. Photo by Amber Edwards.

One waterfowl we believe will be most spectacular to count this spring will be the Long-tailed Duck.  This uncommon, deep diving duck winters heavily off the Atlantic coast and can be seen in pretty good numbers on the upper Great Lakes.  However, numbers are generally fewer and far between in the Indiana waters of Lake Michigan.  With exception of a fluke decade (1950s) most Long-tailed Ducks number in the singles when seen.  It’s been speculated that the massive ice on the lakes has driven many Long-tailed Ducks south to areas where they are rarely seen, especially inland lakes and ponds.  Even with the sliver of open water on Lake Michigan, we’re seeing the ripple effect right here.  Today’s 90 Long-tailed Ducks that were seen in front of the Dunes State Park Pavilion constitute the highest single day total since 1964.  That’s the highest count in fifty years!  It’s only March, but when you add the state’s inland sightings for Long-tailed Duck this spring, you can clearly see the magnitude of this year’s invasion.  The Bird Observation Tower will surely log many more as we get started counting through March.  How high will the annual total be this year!?

Annual State Totals for Long-tailed Duck in Indiana, 1965-2014.  Data courtesy Ken Brock.
Annual State Totals for Long-tailed Duck in Indiana, 1965-2014. Data courtesy Ken Brock.

Let the counting begin!

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