Wrapping up April

April 30 continued the third straight day of warm, moist air blowing in.  Birds have been forced to dodge rain storms, but a stalled out front has allowed for continuing migration, while overnight radar to our west show a shutdown system.  The last few days have been a nice save to another cold month.  While still behind, birds are arriving as they should, with a few arriving right on schedule, with others still about a week behind.

Early morning view of Lake Michigan.  Note the fishing boat that stirred up a few waterbirds on the lake.  April 30, 2014.
Early morning view of Lake Michigan. Note the fishing boat that stirred up a few waterbirds on the lake. April 30, 2014.

April wrapped itself up nicely  and put a bow on it as well today.  Some nice birds made their way through the dunes.  The rain held off again until the afternoon, but compared to previous days, sunshine was a harder commodity to score.  Thicker cloud banks would make birds up high hard to identify.  After three days of south winds, some expected late April songbirds made their appearance today.  It was a good day for orioles, early warblers, swallows, and sparrows.

An early boat stirred up some late waterfowl activity.  Often, a passerby boat can kick up loons and ducks sitting far on the water that may not be visible.  Today’s boat kicked up both species of loon, Red-breasted Mergansers, and another late flock of 14 Long-tailed Ducks, pushing the season total on Long-tailed Ducks to 1,700 birds.

In gentle winds, blackbirds came by in decent late April numbers.  Goldfinches joined warblers zipping by.  Blue Jays, after teasing the counters with 161 birds, made their first major flight, and right on time.  2,197 jays streamed past on their way up to Toronto.  Even Red-headed Woodpeckers got in on the migration.  8 individual birds were logged going over today.  Orioles continued their good start yesterday.  10 more today gives the tower site 25 orioles in two days.  Certainly more to come.

Migrating Blue Jays take a break for seed at the Bird Observation Platform.  April 30, 2014.  Photo courtesy John Kendall.
Migrating Blue Jays take a break for seed at the Bird Observation Platform. April 30, 2014. Photo courtesy John Kendall.

The bird of the day would almost be missed as counters watched a stream of Blue Jays.  Just before 9am, some dispersing Blue Jays scattered near the bird seed pile.  At the same time, a pigeon sized gray bird with larger white wing patches was seen flying west through the prairie with two much grayer birds in company.  At first fast, their flight slowed as they passed the state park property boundary, and began climbing elevation and moving left and right around the higher elevation Porter Beach homes.  The three birds disappeared behind the dunes, but not before all four at the tower site got a decent glimpse at a striking WHITE-WINGED DOVE sporting it’s racing stripes.  White-winged Doves are only recent to Indiana’s avifauna history.  Today, about 15 confirmed records exist for the state.  There is no dependable location to find this southwestern dove in the state, except with seven of the sightings occurring at Indiana Dunes State Park, a pattern is clearly emerging.

Rounding out the day’s other highlights included 2 Little Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night-heron, Merlin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, 72 Yellow-rumped Warblers, the continuing Clay-colored Sparrow at the seed pile, LeConte’s Sparrow in the prairie grass,  continuing juncos, and a Summer Tanager.  Today’s count included 82 species, and 6,424 individual birds.  Brendan was joined by John Kendall, Brad Bumgardner, Kim Ehn, and John DeVaney to assist in counting.

Total day highlights and their numbers:
Long-tailed Duck 14
Little Blue Heron 2 
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1 
Osprey 1
White-winged Dove 1 
Mourning Dove 76
Red-headed Woodpecker 9
American Kestrel 1
Merlin 1
Blue Jay 2197 
Cliff Swallow 26
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
Hermit Thrush 1
American Pipit 4
Black-and-white Warbler 1
Yellow Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 6
Pine Warbler 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler 72
Clay-colored Sparrow 1 
Le Conte’s Sparrow 1 
White-throated Sparrow 4
White-crowned Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 3
Summer Tanager 1
Red-winged Blackbird 2784
Rusty Blackbird 27
Baltimore Oriole 10
American Goldfinch 329

Farther in the park, bird song can be heard.  A drive down the entrance road is often a good cue to what arrived overnight.  A drive this morning offered the songs of Black-and-white Warblers, catbirds, Common Yellowthroats, and Northern Waterthrushes.  For 5 years, a Yellow-throated Vireo with a very strange call has been on territory near the Nature Center.  His weird titmouse like call was heard today.  He’s back!   One bird not heard yet, thankfully, is the Trail 8 (Wilson) boardwalk.  Check it out as they will likely arrive the next couple days.  Thanks to park volunteer Penny Starin for making the dreaded wade out there to reset it.

Penny Starin sets the new Prothonotary Warbler box, April 30, 2014.
Penny Starin sets the new Prothonotary Warbler box, April 30, 2014.



Burning off the Fog

The weather lately has been difficult to predict big flights.  Many small longshore counts have been conducted the last few days, but we haven’t posted any full lists.  In fact, we haven’t had a real good 5,000+ bird day since April 20.  Yet, here we are staring May 1 in it’s face.  May won’t bring in record blackbird, grackle, or robin flocks, but will shower us with waves of Blue Jay and Cedar Waxwing numbers to help boost the total birds seen over the high dunes this spring.

Beach Pavilion in early morning fog, April 29, 2014.
Beach Pavilion in early morning fog, April 29, 2014.

Today, like yesterday, and again tomorrow was a game of rain dodging.  Winds, which had been predicted to be more easterly last weekend, were a more ideal southerly this morning.  There was no rain on the radar this morning, but one step outside revealed that the winds had died, creating a dense fog bank that blanketed both the land and water.  You might as well been flying blind if you attempted to migrate today.  Things started quiet, but feeder birds found their seed, and waterbirds found their water.  From the mist, the season’s first Willets could be seen on the beach.  They stayed close, and traveled only when forced to this morning, while Spotted Sandpipers braved the fog a little more and attempted small flights along the beach.

10 Willets hunker down and await the fog burn off before continuing migration.  April 20, 2014.
10 Willets hunker down and await the fog burn off before continuing migration. April 20, 2014.

By 9am, the winds gradually picked up and you could see the fog lift off and be carried off in the wind.  Suddenly, the cork was released and birds began a late longshore flight.  A quick 1,000 blackbirds would stream by, swallows by the  hundreds began feeding, and single chip notes of warblers, sparrows, and finches could be heard.

Waiting for the fog to lift.  April 29, 2014.

Waiting for the fog to lift. April 29, 2014.

During the late morning push, some 88 species of birds would be logged from the tower site this morning.  2,675 individuals would be counted.  First of the season birds were plentiful and included, the above mentioned Willets, Great-crested Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, Clay-colored Sparrow (see photo below), Indigo Bunting, and both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles (Baltimore’s exploded on the scene with 15 flying by).

There were additional highlights too.  The season’s second Upland Sandpiper flew over the tower around 8:30am.  The first precursor to the upcoming Blue Jay flight brought over 160 jays past the site.  With perfect winds and a thick but fluffy cloud deck, hawks began a short and impressive flight.  Unfortunately, growing storm cells shut down the movement just as the first 100 birds had passed.  But early indications showed that it would have been a most impressive flight for both Sharp-shinned Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks. Kestrels could have also been a season high if it weren’t for the storms.

As we round out April, we have now logged 216,000 birds this year.  By this time in 2012, we were at 234,000 and an even higher 360,000 last year.  Numbers haven’t hit any mind blowing days quite yet.  Though not likely, it is still within reach that our three year total could surpass 1 million counted birds!  Species wise, were at 162 species for the year.  So many more species still to go.

Here are some select fog highlights:

Red-throated Loon 2
Common Loon 5
Sharp-shinned Hawk 34
Bald Eagle 6
Broad-winged Hawk 31
Killdeer 1
Spotted Sandpiper 5
Solitary Sandpiper 7
Greater Yellowlegs 1
Willet 10
Lesser Yellowlegs 1
Upland Sandpiper 1 
Pileated Woodpecker 1
Merlin 1
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Eastern Kingbird 23
Warbling Vireo 1 
Blue Jay 161
Red-breasted Nuthatch 3
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 27
Lapland Longspur 4
Yellow Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 8
Pine Warbler 4
Yellow-rumped Warbler 57
Clay-colored Sparrow 1 
White-throated Sparrow 4
White-crowned Sparrow 2
Dark-eyed Junco 3
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 4
Indigo Bunting 1
Red-winged Blackbird 1676
Orchard Oriole 1
Baltimore Oriole 15

Distant seed pile photo showing Clay-colored Sparrow with Chipping Sparrow.
Distant seed pile photo showing Clay-colored Sparrow with Chipping Sparrow.
One of three Lark Sparrows seen yesterday.  None were present today.
One of three Lark Sparrows seen yesterday. None were present today.

Finally, we offered up a Sibley Birding Basic’s guide to those that could ID the warblers from last week, as well as the two raptors observed on Thursday.  The warblers were indeed an Orange-crowned, Pine, and Worm-eating.  The hawks were Broad-winged and Osprey.  Instead of picking, we’ll award both Laura Hess and Matthew Beatty a free copy.  Thanks folks!


Swainson’s Hawk!

Warm air and humidity spilled into the region today and allowed a few good birds to slip into the area.  Unfortunately, the 5 day forecast doesn’t look too good for any huge influxes of migrating birds.  But, today’s dune daily download will likely keep the area habitats with worthy birds to seek out through the weekend, no matter the temperature.

The day’s count was diverse, but not high.  Only 1,251 birds were seen, but they were represented by 75 species.  New birds at the tower site for the year were only a flock of Pectoral Sandpipers.  Early spring migrants may be making their last hurrah, with a single White-winged Scoter and 11 Long-tailed Ducks still moving by.

The highlight of the day was one of the best hawkwatches of the season.  This season’s hawk numbers have been nothing compared to last year’s banner year, so 135 birds becomes good this year! It only takes one hawk to make a good hawkwatch though.  Early in the hawkwatch period today, a single Swainson’s Hawk passed over the tower site.  Most, but not everyone present got to see it.

Yesterday we teased a few warblers to ID.  Today we’re going to combine that quiz with another.  So to win the Sibley Birding Basics book either ID the 3 warblers in yesterday’s video found here or comment here with the ID of the two hawks below.  We’ll extend the date through the weekend.

Today’s count had the assistance of John Cassady and Ken Brock.  Highlights below:

Blue-winged Teal 7
Lesser Scaup 21
White-winged Scoter 1
Long-tailed Duck 11 
Red-breasted Merganser 7
Red-throated Loon 21
Osprey 4
Sharp-shinned Hawk 30
Broad-winged Hawk 14
Swainson’s Hawk 1
Sandhill Crane 7
Pectoral Sandpiper 10
Great Black-backed Gull 2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Pileated Woodpecker 1
Merlin 1
Blue Jay 10
Black-capped Chickadee 1
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 4
Pine Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 43
Dark-eyed Junco 2
Yellow-headed Blackbird 1 
Purple Finch 6

Warbler Tease

Today, Wednesday, April 23 brought the second day of north winds.  Even though the winds were lighter than yesterday, the still cold water of Lake Michigan blanketed the area with cold air.  Temperatures didn’t break 40 degrees, versus the 50 degrees fifteen  miles south in Valparaiso.

The great thing about cold snaps by this point in the spring is that there are still migrating birds here to be found.  Even on cold mornings, warblers, vireos, thrushes, and more can still be found trying to find much needed migration fuel.  Hikes in areas near water, such as Dunes SP, Trail 2, Beverly Shores, Cowle’s Bog, and the Heron Rookery can find birds feeding near the relatively warmer water, where insect hatchings are congregated.

ref-cg-0375709665-m_originalNo count was done today with the cold temperatures and wind, but check out the cool video of a few warblers seen in the area today.  We’ll do a drawing Friday and give away a Sibley Birding Basics guide among those that comment below with the correct ID of the three warblers captured on film today.


Diversity Knocking on the Door

The Longshore flight count for Monday, April 21 finally gave hint at the greater spring migration that’s been hidden just south of us all spring.  It was the warmest start, and warmest day of the season.  Dawn was absolutely gorgeous and the southerly breeze felt good to the face at 60 degrees.  Though generally cloudy, the morning had little bursts of sunlight that would pour over the landscape, lighting up migrating birds as they zipped by.

Yellow-rumped Warbler in the Cottonwood Tree.
Yellow-rumped Warbler in the Cottonwood Tree.

Today brought the largest species total (i.e. diversity) for the year, with 73 species being counted from the BOP area.  Total numbers for the day were 3,587 birds.  For the second day in a row, duck numbers have taken a nose dive, with exception for a few cormorants and loons.  Blackbirds are starting to throttle back.  Many females are dominating the migrating groups.  All of this isn’t bad, as it allows more time to watch for the ones and twos of new species getting by.  With that, a few sparrows and warblers joined the scene today.  With warm winds pumping in all night, first of season birds included Eastern Kingbird, Pine Warbler, Yellow Warbler, LeConte’s Sparrow, and Lark Sparrow.  One new bird that doesn’t seem so strange was our first Barred Owl of the season.  Despite the fact that they are common in the backdune forests and swamps nearby, they are a very rare longshore tower bird.  This morning’s bird was the first in several years.

Other birds influxing into the area with good counts included 38 Yellow-rumped Warblers and 42 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  The latter was Indiana’s 19th highest single party daily total.  To date, 63 Purple Finches have been counted this spring.  Surprising given the poor fall flight they gave last year.  A few landed and showed off briefly before migrating today.

Not surprisingly, with increasing clouds, only 49 birds of prey would be logged today.

Volunteering at the site today included Brad Bumgardner, Ken Brock, and Stephanie and Margaret Danyi.  Highlights follow:

Red-throated Loon 3
Common Loon 2
Double-crested Cormorant 96
Osprey 3
Broad-winged Hawk 16
Solitary Sandpiper 3
Great Black-backed Gull 1
Forster’s Tern 2
Barred Owl 1
Pileated Woodpecker 5
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 42
Yellow Warbler 2
Pine Warbler 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler 38
Vesper Sparrow 2
Lark Sparrow 1
Le Conte’s Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 3
Rusty Blackbird 71
Purple Finch 13

Easter Egg Hunt

Morning view, April 20, 2014.
Morning view, April 20, 2014.

From atop the Dunes Bird Observation Platform, anyone visiting today had a pleasant bird’s eye view of a beautiful early spring dune landscape.  Off in the distance daffodils are flowering in front yards and children are exhibiting a high addiction to a plastic colored egg.  Back at the park, a steady stream of Easter weekend families are enjoying the park.  Some down on the beach (some even sun bathing!),  others hiking on trails.  However, no bunnies were seen today.

Last night’s south winds brought promise to a great morning movement.  Today’s flight was good, but it appears there was more exodus then arrivals.  5,510 birds were logged.  Two new birds for the platform this season were 6 American White-Pelican (rarer on actual lakefront) and a single early morning singing Henslow’s Sparrow back in the Dunes Prairie Nature Preserve.

Things are dwindling on the lake.  Though waterfowl numbers are going down, terns and Double-crested Cormorants continue to increase.  Blackbirds continue to pose good flights in the early morning hours, but are for the most part petered out around 9am.  Some of the other expected species continue to be a week behind.  By now we should be seeing a few other warblers, the first kingbirds, Lark Sparrows, and generally larger numbers in the present swallows, loons, and many other species.

The hawks attempted to make a strong movement in the stronger south winds today.  The day’s 91 birds constitutes as a weak-medicore flight.  Saving for the smaller flight was the diverse group of raptors.  12 species made today’s hawkwatch the most diverse of the season.  A few Broad-winged Hawks accompanied the many Red-tailed Hawks.  All three expected falcons were seen, as well as a late Rough-legged Hawk.

Accompanying the counter today was John Devaney, John Kendall, Brad Bumgardner, and Katie McGowan.  Some highlights are below.  Tomorrow holds some early promise for a good flight before the rain comes and the thermometer drops out on Tuesday.

Red-throated Loon 2
American White Pelican 6
Sharp-shinned Hawk 14
Broad-winged Hawk 6
Red-tailed Hawk 36
Great Black-backed Gull 5
Caspian Tern 36
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 26
Yellow-rumped Warbler 18
Henslow’s Sparrow 1
Rusty Blackbird 485
Purple Finch 4

The Perils for a Little Piper

He’s flown 1,500 miles returning the promise that began 9 months earlier.  Migration, the promise to return.  For a tiny Piping Plover, completing that promise is no easy task.  With only 6,200 of your kind, it’s amazing they’re all able to avoid predators, find food, dodge weather systems.  All of which doesn’t acknowledge the countless human caused obstacles that lie in their way.

Of the 160+ records of Piping Plover in the Indiana Dunes area, spring birds are rarer than fall birds 4:1.  The majority of these birds wind up at Miller Beach, just west of the Indiana Dunes State Park.  This most southern tip of Lake Michigan tends to draw many shorebirds, particularly in the fall.  Once here, birds tend to linger a few days.  In the spring, they often do not.  Therefore, with notice that an unbanded Piping Plover is hanging out among the built up wrack at Miller Beach, one is best to hurry over to see it.

Several of us gathered at the Lake St Beach Parking lot after a full work day yesterday.  No Piping Plover was visible in the immediate stretch of beach.  Distant gulls could be seen scavenging farther west down the beach.  Through washed up sticks, bones, plastic, balloons, and other garbage, we waded our way the entire mile west to the USX breakwall and flooded impoundment.  After a full mile all we were able to score were Killdeer.  One breast band too many.  On the way back, with the idea of finding the earlier Piping Plover now fading, we began to take more notice to the details of the beach pickings.  Birds of many kinds were washed up on the shore for the gulls to pick apart.  Many, the mortalities of a dangerous migration, others on the bad side of the coin we called the winter of 2013/2014.  Still others having died mysteriously.  We began to take count of what we saw.  (Please note- what you see below may be gruesome or hard to see for some folks)

One of two dead Common Loons found on Miller Beach.
One of two dead Common Loons found on Miller Beach.

2 dead loons were found today.  Loons on Lake Michigan shorelines are often thought to be botulism victims.

Dead Redhead duck on Miller Beach.
Dead Redhead duck on Miller Beach.
dead Horned Grebe on Miller Beach.
Dead Horned Grebe on Miller Beach.
Dead Herring Gull on Miller Beach.
Dead Herring Gull on Miller Beach.
Dead Red-breasted Merganser on Miller Beach.
Dead Red-breasted Merganser on Miller Beach.
Dead Flicker on Miller Beach
One of two dead Flickers on Miller Beach

All told on this one mile stretch of beach, the gulls were scavenging on:
1 Redhead Duck
1 White-winged Scoter
5 Red-breasted Mergansers
2 Common Loons
1 Horned Grebe
1 Herring Gull
3 Northern Flickers

After trekking the mile back east to Lake St (into a pretty stiff NE wind and 39 degrees), we were just about to the turning point for the parking lot, when a small shorebird left the beach and began flying towards us over the surf.  At close range, you could see a lighter brown, small plover, which was definitely not a Killdeer.  High pitch pips could be heard over the waves as it flew west and landed 50 yards away from us.  With scopes now swung back west you could clearly see the single banded breast and light sand colored back of a Piping Plover.  The walk was worth it, even if he was waiting for us back at the beginning.

Piping Plover at Miller Beach, April 18, 2014.  Photo courtesy Matt Kalwasinski.
Piping Plover at Miller Beach, April 18, 2014. Photo courtesy Matt Kalwasinski.

He’s made it 1,500 miles, perhaps only 300 more to go.  Let’s hope he makes it to the breeding ground to produce more of his kind so that we’ll have more springs and falls for them to complete the promise of migration.