Season 2017 Start!

5 years ago we would have never imagined that we’d have over 1.2 million birds cataloged and new insights into the migration along the Indiana Dunes that we have today.  The migration along the shores of Lake Michigan is a wondrous event that as we learn more, more questions come up.  When we first started the longshore flight survey, timings were unknown.  Did migration start in March, February?  Do we need to be out in south winds only?  What about east winds?  What exact conditions will initiate a raptor flight?  Today we certainly know much more.  We know more about timings of migration, but variables such as climate change, storm events, habitat destruction and restoration throw wrenches into our knowledge and not only justify, but necessitate the continued study we’re embarking on again this year.

The 2017 longshore flight season traditionally starts officially the first full weekend in March. For two years in a row now, we’ve seen that migrants are already starting before this date.  We logged a few “preseason” counts last year in February, and the wild weather of this past winter has us doing it again.  It feels odd to be doing spring migration counts when it’s still officially ornithologic winter.  While many migrating birds are still enjoying the warm climate of the tropics and are otherwise unwise to the warm winter events happening in the Great Lakes, thus we would not expect them to return early, many short distant migrants have taken advantage of the warm weather and southerly winds to arrive early.  The race to mate has brought woodcocks, pintails, snow geese, and Sandhill Cranes into the dunes earlier than usual.  This arrival carries a risk.  Should a major snow storm arrive and bury the dunes in a March storm, these same birds who are pioneers in migration, may find themselves a footnote instead.

For those not as familiar with the longshore migration count done atop the old Green Tower at Indiana Dunes State Park, our long running blog has a great archive of past posts.  March 2012 has many posts that describe our count, the birds seen, and some of the early numbers we posted when we first started.  2017 has four official count days already in the books.  When we noticed Sandhill Cranes migrating in earnest, we set out to make sure they were getting logged.  With an eastern population of 100,000 birds, it’s pretty significant that 1/3 of the entire population is flying over the Indiana Dunes in it’s migration route.

SACR Range Map
The approximate range of the Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes. Adapted from Walkinshaw 1973, Jones et al. 2005, King 2008, Melvin 2008, Sutherland and Crins 2008, and International Crane Foundation unpublished data.

The most recent flight, yesterday, was a big movement of cranes, with a few early associated raptors.  6,180 Sandhill Cranes flew over the Indiana Dunes area on it’s way north.  Yesterday’s crane count was the 4th highest count ever logged from the tower site.  With many more thousands being seen to the fish and wildlife areas to our south, the migration is still far from done.

Another 39 raptors went by, with Red-tailed Hawks being the largest majority.  At 11:15am, a magnificent GOLDEN EAGLE flew directly over the tower and decided to kettle right over the counters.  The bird circled for approximately 3 minutes as it climbed higher and higher before drifting west along the shoreline.  No doubt on it’s way back to northern Canada.

The Indiana Dunes State Park is the single most diverse site in Indiana for birds.  With over 300 species seen in the park, the single longshore tower site is the most productive single site in the state to find birds over the course of the year.  With the advent of eBird, we can now share the full sightings that we log via the hotspot for the tower site.  We look forward to sharing the spring migration with you!

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Signs of An Early Spring Count?

Greetings from the Indiana Dunes.  As we sit here writing this the average high for February 17 should be 36 degrees.  The low should be 20.  Yet here we are at 66 degrees.  The next seven days won’t see any temperatures below freezing.  While this is great news for dune hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, this has got to no doubt have the birds a little confused.

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 winter 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. A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese.- Aldo Leopold

When Aldo Leopold wrote the above quote, he pondered the risks and rewards of animals trying to get a jump start on spring.  The balance of whether the current weather would play out down the road and result in higher breeding success.  A many migrating geese have found that a week later the weather might change and they now find themselves in harsher conditions than if they had stayed farther south.  Before such talk of climate change, this may have been the annual hedging of bets that geese made in March.  Now, as we’re seeing again this year, it’s in February.

Our last super warm spring was 2012.  Temperatures of 80 degrees in March resulted in an early migration in many  of the short distant migrants that wintered in the southern United States.  Later that year we baked in multiple 100 degree days.  In that year, many early migrants peaked during the first week of our longshore flight season.  On March 10, over 6,000 Sandhill Cranes flew over the park and by March 18 the flight was done for the season.  In 2014, for comparison, the peak flight day was March 31.  Today, cranes were heard in flight over the park. If the weather patterns continue, the crane flight will pass through before our official bird count season starts (March 6).

Migrating Sandhill Cranes, March 10, 2012
Migrating Sandhill Cranes at Indiana Dunes State Park.

As climate change brings stronger and more severe weather events, and a general warming trend to the dunes, birds will be forced to respond. Some will likely adapt fine and ride the changes.  Others will be more sensitive to these factors and face extinction.  The yearly changes in the weather and the bird flights add to the value that our annual longshore migration count provides.  We look forward to reporting the spring migration to you soon.  Again this year we’ll provide the data online to see on the eBird Hotspot for the park tower.

In thcontent2smalle meantime, it should be worth noting that registration for the 3rd annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival is just around the corner.  This year’s festival brings even more tours, more presentations, more workshops, and just more of everything for the visiting birder.  If you haven’t yet, mark your calendars for May 4-7, 2017.  Indiana Audubon Society members got the early shot at registering, but the general public registration goes live this Sunday.  Visit the registration page beginning Sunday to sign up for the great tours.