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).
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 the 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.