East Wind Hawkflight

If large totals have seemed lacking this spring, you’re not alone in that observation.  The season’s longshore flight has been noticably absent of 20,000 or 30,000 bird mornings.  The biggest culprit likely lies with the lack of south winds.  After a super warm February, March has been averaging 6 degrees cooler than last March.  The graphs below show our local weather station in March 2016, and March of this year.  Of note, look at the winds.  Last year we had several days of sustained south winds, before a new front would come in.  This year, the south winds are almost immediately accompanied with a front and precipitation.

In 2012, we conducted 21 longshore flight counts in the month of March.  In 2016, last year, we had 16 counts done.  This March has only seen 13 days with longshore flights.  Many of those weren’t south winds.  Obviously, south winds are the best for measuring migration.  Followed by westerly winds, and then finally east winds.  North winds are the worst.  Wind speed can also affect this.  When the weather’s not conducive to migration, anything other than a north wind will be measured, as was the case today, March 29.

With east winds blowing, a typical songbird flight will not happen in any significant quantity, but if the sun is shining, a few migrating thermal riding birds may push off and be forced against the lakeshore, when you’re east of Miller beach.  This produced the best Sandhill Crane count since March 5, with 2,376 going by.

With no passerine distractions, raptors put on their best migration of the season at the dunes longshore tower today.  307 raptors went by, with Red-tailed Hawks (154) being the most abundant.  The full list of raptors counted was:

Turkey Vulture banking near the longshore tower.

91 Turkey Vultures
4 Northern Harrier
42 Sharp-shinned Hawk 

1 Cooper’s Hawk 
1 Bald Eagle 
13 Red-shouldered Hawk 
154 Red-tailed Hawk Including 4 dark morphs.
1 American Kestrel

Unfortunately, the next 7 day forecast doesn’t look good still for south winds.  NOAA’s 8-14 day outlook shows above average temperatures, and below average precipitation.  This may bring the needed south winds to kickstart the dunes bird migration.  Until then, we’re enjoying just a small trickle of the dunes potential.

Today’s’ full count is here.


5 Seconds of Sunshine

Despite the continued warm temperatures, the longshore flight for Saturday, March 25 brought a all around wet and dreary day.  A warm pocket of air persisted through the rain showers today to keep the dunes nearly muggy at one point.  If you look at the temperature heat maps of the region today you’ll notice this interesting pocket, while nearby areas were up to 30 degrees cooler, particularly in southeastern Wisconsin.

Chicago Region Temperature Heat Map, Saturday, March 25, 2017.

When the rain didn’t disappoint, a few birds were logged, including 3 new annuals at the tower, bringing the season total to 104 species.  For the morning 724 birds were counted, from 40 species.  Only 6% of yesterday’s flight.

Interestingly, yesterday’s Eurasian Collared Dove appeared again this morning.  This time, it visited the feeders.  Will it become a regular this season?  A Winter Wren was also singing it’s melodious and bubbly trill from the tower site.  New for the season were Brown Creeper, Lesser Yellowlegs, and 7 Wild Turkeys.  

Flyover Osprey

The biggest highlight of the morning was the brief clearing that occured in the early afternoon.  After the continuous light rain and drizzle from the morning, the peek of sunshine was unexpected.  Perhaps the birds saw it coming, as raptors quickly took off and staged the first significant hawkflight of the season.  129 birds went by quickly during this short window.  Red-tailed Hawks (48), Sharp-shinned Hawks (51), and Northern Harriers (11) made up the majority.  Notable as well was an early Osprey.  Actually two of them!

Today’s full checklist is here.

Wind Swept – Longshore Flight 3/24/17

Friday, March 24 produced the best longshore flight of the season.  Without final Grube Magnitude Index numbers, the total diversity and abundance alone is enough for us to be fairly confident in today’s flight.  This time the weatherman was right on.  Warm temperatures overnight brought a decent nocturnal flight, and the same continued southerly gusts kick started a good morning flight.  The gusty south winds were too much for the counters to be elevated on the platform, but with the winds keeping many birds close to shore, the nearby staircase worked well today to count nearly 12,000 birds (11,743 to be exact).  Today’s 70 species was also the highest of the season.

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Predawn blackbird counting, 3/24/17

The radar loop from 1am to 7am showed a good nighttime movement, despite early rain that fell shortly after dusk.  April and May radar signatures will develop higher dB values later in the season. Counters were on scene before dawn today to get an early sense of how the morning flight would flesh out.  With sunrise not even upon us, fast moving flocks of blackbirds, mainly grackles, were already utilizing the pre dawn light to begin an exodus north.  Many flocks riding the strong winds like a buoy floating over waves in the lake.

Blackbird and robins flocks were literally using every flyway we observe near the tower.  Some were traveling high and fast both east and west.  Many west bound flocks were trying the low route that would take them dipping through the west lot, and then swiftly rising at near eye level to the counters.  Another pathway brought birds just south of the tower site in similar streams.

As arrival dates go, today was pretty darn good.  Overall, over a dozen new birds for the season were logged today.  The list of new arrivals helps identify many of the species throwing blips on last night’s radar.  Today’s new arrivals included:  Blue-winged Teal, Double-crested Cormorant, Pectoral Sandpiper ,Wilson’s Snipe, Bonaparte’s Gull, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,Winter Wren, American Pipit 
 Yellow-rumped Warbler,Savannah Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow , and Eastern Towhee.

Waterfowl numbers were generally low, but the 14 species diversity was good.  A late push of 600+ gulls seems to indicate that Ring-billed Gulls are still migrating.  However, many local birds have returned, so this can be hard to ascertain.

Flickers were the surprise this morning, as they started their longshore appearance with a bang.  Usual flicker flights don’t occur until April, with exception of a March 20-28 flight in 2012 during the hot spring and summer.  So it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise to see them ready to go, given the warm February we received last month.  201 Flickers flew past through the morning hours.

Other notables for the day included 362 Tree Swallows, 850 American Robins, and eight species of sparrow.  A Fox Sparrow was singing near the tower site, but not as impressive as the 80 reported today at the Hammond Bird Sanctuary by Michael Topp.  This count likely represents a new state record count.

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Longshore board after today’s count.

Today’s complete list of all 70 species is here.  We’re at 99 species for the season now.  What will number 100 be!?

The upcoming storm systems will make counting hard the next few days.  Some south winds will reappear for Sunday, but rain is still inthe forecast.  The week will hold fickle weather with shifting winds nearly daily, before the long range shows some strong south winds Thursday into Friday, with tight gradients, which would mean gusty conditions again before shifting back to the north for next weekend and start of April.  Looks like the same month that came in like a lion intends to go out the same way!




Never Trust Your Meteorolgist!

Today, Monday, March 20 saw the first good songbird flight of the 2017 longshore flight season.  It was a day that wasn’t supposed to have a longshore flight.  As has been the case this past two weeks, any south winds have been accompanied by good rains that have essentially shut down any migration.  For the first day of spring, mother nature showed two sides.  The pre-dawn radar looked dismal.  Strong rains covered the south, giving little sign that any nocturnal migration was occurring.  The forecast was for rain all morning and into the afternoon.  The continued rain would also put a damper on songbirds, leaving wet counters hoping for a few ducks to go by.  Compare the radar image with 2 hours later as the sun rose.

Radar images this morning at 5am and then 7am local time.

How quickly the rain moved away, and this new first spring day brought a true spring migration of birds flooding in.  All three of our common March migrants, grackles, red-wings, and robins rode in on the south winds in decent numbers.  The blackbird movement this morning was strong, yet tame compared to where it could be at this point. Grackles were a large percentage of the flocks streaming by.  Robins were mixing in heavily, and using both the east and west pathways versus the more westerly path that most of the blackbirds were traveling.  For the day, 11,835 birds were counted, comprising a season high 58 species.

Waterfowl were on the low side, as has been the case this early part of the season.  Only 11 species were seen, with a few wigeon, a few pintail, and 9 Red-throated Loons being the most notable.

Birds of prey failed to materialize into any flight, as the promise of sun mid morning quickly closed back up to cloudy conditions, preventing any thermal development.  So it’s not surprising that the 34 that were counted were falcon heavy.  All three falcons were logged, including 9 American Kestrels. 2 Harriers were also making use of the strong winds today.

American Robin
American Robins migrating against the wind.

The robin count for the day was just under 2,500 birds.  Though not a record, or top 10 count, it was still a pretty strong flight, likely the state’s 13th or 14th highest spring count.

New for the season were 8 Tree Swallows and a single Purple Finch flyby.  The season total is now at 84 species.  For today’s complete list of birds, visit here.

false start- 5 yard penalty

After a stellar pre season start with early migrating birds in February, March has brought some weather pretty anti-conducive to migration.  In fact, we’ve only done official longshore flight counts on March 5, March 6, March 8, and March 12 since the lions of March entered.

The current forecast does not look to stellar for migration going forward for the next week.  When conditions are ideal (i.e. south winds) rain is in the forecast.  So for now, sit tight.  We won’t blog as much when birds aren’t moving.

You can still visit the Dunes State Park Nature Center and enjoy the Fox Sparrows that arrived a week ago and have been stuck here waiting on more ideal winds to migrate north on !

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Fox Sparrow at the state park nature center this month.

Killdeer Crossing

It was a warmer, yet still brisk morning for the longshore flight, today, March 6.  The temperature at dawn started at 52 degrees, with a stiff south wind.  The air would only warm two degrees during the count, but winds would increase to 15 mph, with gusts pushing 30 mph.  Birding in 30mph winds is difficult enough in the woods.  Exposed on the bird tower is quite frankly dangerous.  Thus, much of the birding this morning was done below on the old wooden staircase.

This morning’s flight was generally slow in the blasting winds.  But an assortment of typical early migrants were moving nonetheless.  2,955 birds were recorded this morning, totaling 37 species.  For the season we’ve already recorded 74 species of birds from the tower site.

Waterfowl were again of interest today.  13 species went by today, including 22 Green-winged Teal, 7 White-winged Scoters, and a far but contrasting white/gray/black male Long-tailed Duck.  Red-throated Loons put on their best movement of the season, with 16 birds moving east to west.  This was the highest spring longshore count since March 9, 2016.

A large flock of Sandhill Cranes put down in Cowles Bog yesterday, as noted by several birders and local Dune Acres residents.  So it was interesting to see several groups pick up this morning moving out of the Cowles Bog area from the tower site.  174 birds were seen moving from the bog.  The cloudy conditions and high winds were not conducive to any thermal migration today.

Killdeer occurrence histogram for Indiana Dunes area.  Map courtesy Brock’s Birds of Indiana Dunes.

The other main highlight today was the continued Killdeer migration.  No matter the spring weather, Killdeer are quite predictable at moving in this period of March.  At times, flocks of 10-15 Killdeer can be seen and heard flying directly over the tower.  Yesterday’s excellent count was matched and then some as 212 Killdeer migrated today.  Breaking 200 means a new record in the dunes area top 10 list for Killdeer, and a similar state record for spring (statewide fall records are generally higher).

Just in time for spring migration, the current weather charts are showing a shift to west winds the next two days, followed by a sharp decrease in temperatures associated with north winds.  The outlook for migration the next week is not very good.

See today’s complete list here.

Official Start- Start the Bugles!

Today, March 5 marked the official start of the 6th annual Indiana Dunes longshore flight survey.  In typical fashion, waterfowl and gulls made up the most diversity this morning.  Some 15 species of waterfowl were recorded going by.  Viewing was difficult due to strong gales from atop the tower.  But the winds brough a balmy 60 degrees for early March.  A 30 degree temperature change from the start!  Most of the counting this morning occured from the staircase below the tower due to the winds.  We did log 48 species though, with a total count of 7,067 birds.  Here’s what we found:

As mentioned above, waterfowl were the most diverse taxa today.  However, none were in real high numbers.  We don’t expect to see any record breaking waterfowl season, given that most of the largest lakes never froze and many waterfowl probably wintered north of us.  Highlights in waterfowl consisted of 4 Greater White-fronted Geese, 2 Tundra Swans, 37 shovelers, 3 White-winged Scoters, and 10 Red-throated Loons.

Sandhill Cranes greeted the first day of official counting with another large flight.  5,197 birds passed over the tower.  Many started close to the lakefront just after 9:30am, but soon the strong winds broke up many thermals, and birds began fighting the wind and were harder to see south of the tower.  It’s likely the wind sheer broke up any late morning thermals, resulting in very little hawk movement.  But, 3 Bald Eagles are worth noting.

Rounding out the day’s notables were 666 American Robins, only 105 Blackbirds, and a very good 131 Killdeer.  The Killdeer total doesn’t compare to last year’s record count of 905 seen in a single day, but still sits in the top 20 of state spring counts.

Read today’s entire list on eBird here.