Category Archives: Birding

Stand Still- rarities coming!

Well it’s been a quiet week at Lake Michigan, Indiana, our hometown, out on the edge of the migration.  Things got a little colder here this last week.  While Sunday and Monday brought a mini heat wave and the pulse of migrants, a strong north wind clipper quickly shut off that valve Tuesday morning.  Fortunately the birds arrived Monday night and found no place to go, so we benefited and continue to do so if you’re bundled up enough to find them in the gloomy weather since then.  No more bluebird blue skies, but more phoebe gray perhaps.  The locals are practicing their silhouette birding skills, and warming up their warbler necks in anticipation of the next wave to come.  It drives you out to bird, just knowing there is something here that’s new to see.  Some new vireo in the treetops that has yet gone unseen this year.  New shorebirds are possible in the wet puddle, pond, or fuddle along some county road.  Maybe it’s the bright orange of an oriole at your feeder on a dreary morning, proving that spring is in fact coming, or more accurately  we’ll go from winter right to summer as is usually expected anymore.

The local Prothonotary Warbler is back at the Wilson boardwalk, Indiana Dunes State Park.

With those early Tuesday arrivals, was a pair of Prothonotary Warblers at the Dunes State Park board walk near the Wilson Shelter.  A single male typically heralds the season of golden yellow on the boardwalk, but apparently two males this past week found the wetland full of buttonbush and spatterdock to their liking.  The early bugs hugging the relatively warmer waters brought N Waterthrushes, Yellow-rumps, Palms, Orange-crowed Warblers all to feed near the surface at eye level.  All the while two bright yellow Prothonotaries dart around, each trying to sing louder then the other, and then to suddenly be pounced by the second bird, only to dart around and do it all again, all oblivious to the surrounding animals watching their hormone driven antics. Much like school boys swooning over a new belle in the school yard. a showmanship of one up man’s ship took place for many to see Tuesday morning.

From inside the Nature Center, plans are buzzing, people are moving now at a feverish pace as we prepare for the second annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival.  If you’re wishing to attend, and haven’t registered, well things may be a bit late.  You know what they say about the early bird… Nonetheless there are activities abound for folks, whether registered or not.  Final preparations are being made, banners being hung, signs being made, merchandise and giveaways secured and counted.  With that comes prayers and hopes for good weather.  Of course, it’s more than birds were interested in too.  No doubt you, like other birders, enjoy the foxes, moles, rabbits, deer, and other wildlife that will be around for one of a kind glimpses.  We’ve done much for conservation in NW Indiana and no doubt you’ll see something special, no matter the weather.  A mink bounds along even a ditch, seeking out frogs, crayfish, or a thirsty vole.  The new Reynold’s Creek GHA, east of Chesterton offers a peek of nature coming back.  How quickly to things show up when given the chance, and solitude reserved for them.  A Great-horned Owl reclaims the territory first given to him by the Creator.  He slow glides over newly freed meadows and prairies on the edge of the forestland in search of young pheasants.  Baby pheasants, the delicacy of predators, found only where nature has been allowed to flourish.

Rare Snowy Egrets found in the dunes area today.  Photo by Kristin Stratton.

To find these amazing sights, seek out on your own.  Forge new paths, travel down un-ventured roads.  If you’re ready to chase, use our Indiana Dunes Rare Bird Alert.  You’ll join nearly 1,700 people who get rare birds in the dunes sent to their phone or email.  With any hope we’ll have plenty of alerts to send out and plenty of birds to come in the next few days as we wait this current cold system out.  East to northeasterly surface flow will continue for the next several days.  This will keep the current selection of migrants here for plenty to see.  Over a dozen species of warblers have already been logged in the dunes just this week.  Butter-butts remain the abundant warbler.  Temperatures do look to be on a slow warming trend early next week…with mainly dry weather expected.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed this plays out and new birds arrive in time for the bird fest.

That’s the news from Indiana Dunes, where all the Blue Jays are strong, all the sparrows are good looking, and all our fledgling colts are above average.  🙂


A Dunes Birding Festival Primer

IDBF logoIt’s Wednesday, May 6.  The inaugural Indiana Dunes Birding Festival kicks off tomorrow.  For some, the weather looks uncertain, for others it looks prime for some great birding opportunities.  One thing is for sure, there are a lot of birders converging in the Indiana Dunes for what looks to have the potential for a great birding event.

White-rumped Sandpiper at McCool Basin this week.
White-rumped Sandpiper at McCool Basin this week.

So far a multitude of good birds have been seen. The weather this past week has literally pushed in new waves on a daily basis.  Just in the last couple days, we’ve seen White-rumped Sandpiper, Neotropic Cormorant, 26 species of warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, Harris’s Sparrow, a record Pine Siskin flight, and others.  What else is lurking around the dunes right now?

Given the current forecast, here are our hints to maximizing your birding experience this upcoming weekend.  One great resource for larger scale, regional bird foreasting is the new Bird Cast website.  Of particular note is there comments from the upper Midwest saying, “Although a passing frontal boundary disrupts this flow on Tuesday and Wednesday, another round of warmth builds through the end of the week and brings a new round of moderate to very heavy flights across the region”  We are already seeing heavy flights begin in the dunes and the southerly winds should continue this trend through the entire festival weekend.

One aspect that brings cheers or jeers is the aspect of rain.  There are good chances that some parts of the weekend will see rain.  But in migration, rain can mean grounding of birds, or better yet for birders, a fallout.  If the morning is wet and muggy, check the beaches for shorebirds.  Large shorebirds tend to migrate ahead of and during this weather.  Willets, Yellowlegs, and Dowitchers can be expected to be moving.

With south winds expected during the weekend, most dune locations should be ideal.  The Heron Rookery often hosts the first migrating warblers in each wave, as it is usually ahead of the dunes botanically.  However, if a good wave has entered the dunes before dawn, the lakefront traps in Lake County can be very good.  For those visiting  this weekend, you can find free parking at the Hammond Bird Sanctuary.  Tell the gate operators that you’re here for birding and there are a few saved spots.  For nearby Whiting Park, birders can enter “12411” in the parking meters for free parking.  Just place the receipt in your windshield.  This is also good at Whihala Park.

Prothonotary Warbler hanging out at Wilson Boardwalk this week.  Photo courtesy Pete Grube.
Prothonotary Warbler hanging out at Wilson Boardwalk last year. Photo courtesy Pete Grube.

If winds pick up, consider birding back dune areas, such as the Trail 2 and 10 area in the Indiana Dunes State Park.  The areas near Cowle’s Bog can be productive if winds are high.  The local Prothonotary Warblers are back on territory on the boardwalk, and nearby you can check out the nesting Red-shouldered Hawk above the dumpsters in the S Orchard Picnic Area.  The nature center is also hosting many migrants.  Orioles, RB Grosbeaks, siskins, Lincoln’s Sparrows, and more are at the feeder today.

Steamy counters, May 8, 2014.
Steamy counters, a year ago this weekend.

Lastly, if it’s early and on a south wind, you should visit the longshore flight tower for it’s amazing flights and rare birds.  Birders can follow the directional arrows when you enter the park to access the West Beach Lot.  The tower has already logged over 180 species of birds thus far this season.

For more info on any birding location, be sure to visit the festival headquarters at the Indiana Dunes Tourism Visitor Center at SR 49 and US 20.

2015 Season Fast Approaching!

It’s amazing how fast this winter has passed.  Early winter Snowy Owls faded to no major bird irruption to keep birders busy, yet perhaps since this winter wasn’t as brutal and bone cold as last winter, we’re not as cooped up in cabin fever.  And here it is March!  The reasons to get out and bird multiply each week from here on out, and the opportunities certainly abound this spring as well.

Brendan does a pre-flight check of the longshore conditions, March 4, 2015.
Brendan does a pre-flight check of the longshore conditions, March 4, 2015.

We’re officially less than a week away from the longshore flight count at Indiana Dunes State Park.  On March 9, seasoned count veteran, Brendan Grube, will return for his fourth season of migration logging.  We’re only 25,359 birds away from 1 million birds counted since the project began.  If you’re not familiar with the bird tower site, saw it fitting enough to make it their first hotspot feature on their main homepage.  Watch for a little contest in the coming week on guessing our 1 millionth bird!

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Today, despite the cold winds from the lake, we set up the count area.  The sunflower feeder was put up, thistle tube hung, suet cage ready, and a good 15 lbs of mixed seed dumped around the feeding area, perched high over Lake Michigan.  It won’t take long for the first birds to notice.  Day one should bring the first migrating gulls, horned larks, Red-winged Blackbirds, and perhaps a Killdeer or two.


Also worth noting is the upcoming Dunes Birding Festival on May 7-10, 2015.  Registration is already online here.  The festival promises to have a wide assortment of car pool birding tours, live bird of prey shows, engaging speakers, workshops, and more.  There is also a special young birder’s family day at the State Park on Saturday of the festival.

New Dunes Birding Workshops coming

For folks interested in ringing in the New Year with some birding, here are your options!

Indiana Dunes State Park will be offering two separate birding related courses and workshops in 2015.  Each workshop is designed to introduce nature enthusiasts to the great birding that is available in the Indiana Dunes area and appeal to a wide range of skill and interest levels.


The first workshop, simply titled “Indiana Dunes Birding: Crash Course” is a single day introduction to birding, common species found in the dunes, enjoying and leading bird walks, as well as seeing birds up close via bird banding.  It will be held Saturday, January 31 from 2pm-5pm at the state park nature center.  The workshop costs $10 for adults and $5 for youth under 18.


The second workshop is the “Beginning Birding in the Dunes,” and eight week course, designed to introduce participants to the magic of Indiana Dunes birding, its birding sites, a comprehensive study of the birds viewable in the dunes, and more.  The workshop meets each Thursday night, March 12-April 30, from 6pm-8pm at the state park nature center.  Optional fieldtrips, bird walks, and other outdoor activities are offered during the weekends as well.  The workshop is led by local birding experts Dr. Ken Brock and Michael Topp.  The eight week workshop costs $50 for adults and $25 for youth under 18.

“The birding workshops are a great lead up to the inaugural Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, being held May 7-10 in the Indiana Dunes area”, said Brad Bumgardner, Dunes State Park Interpretive Naturalist.

All participants must pre-register for the workshops and can do so by calling the state park nature center.  For more information about this or other park programs, call (219) 926-1390.

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.




Today we closed another chapter on another great longshore flight season.  It’s been a rewarding year all around.  Today’s flight ended almost like it began, with an Eastern Meadowlark.  5,302 birds went past today, and like it’s been lately Cedar Waxwings again made up the vast majority of them (5,143).

Best birds of the day were 4 lingering Common Loons off the beach pavilion, 3 Spotted Sandpipers, 5 Red Crossbills, and 10 Pine Siskins.

Add them all together and you have 423,874 individual birds counted from this dune top since March 1.  Whew!  We owe some major accolades to our counter, Brendan Grube, who day after day braved the elements to log these birds.  The list of helpers who came up, whether an hour or a day, is also notable.  These folks helped in overwhelming conditions where many birds likely went past without eyes on them.  We’ll post another update with some specific totals and a comparison with the 2012 count, but the tentative total looks to be 216 species.  23 species were represented by only one bird.  Who led the pack?

2013 Top Twenty List 
1) Red-winged Blackbird 193374
2) Common Grackle 58579
3) American Robin 35593
4) Cedar Waxwing 31057
5)Blue Jay 19301
6) Sandhill Crane 10880
7) Ring-billed Gull 10852
8) European Starling 9987
9) Red-breasted Merganser 5184
10) American Goldfinch 5176
11) Brown-headed Cowbird 4954
12) Yellow-rumped Warbler 4317
13) Tree Swallow 3628
14) Pine Siskin 3193
15) Canada Goose 2461
16) Chimney Swift 2275
17) Mourning Dove 1828
18) Northern Flicker 1600
19) Eastern Kingbird 1534
20) Barn Swallow 1173

It can be argued over what the best bird of the season was.  Obviously new tower records are noteworthy given the history of the site and the many eyes and hours already spent birding here.  Thus, having Black Vulture, Marsh Wren, and Henslow’s Sparrow added to the official list in one year is spectacular.  Perhaps the trump bird would be the Swallow-tailed Kite seen on May 18.  It’s being wondered now if this may be the same individual bird being observed in Lafayette right now.  

This Swallow-tailed Kite in Lafayette could possibly be the same bird we observed from the platform on May 18, 2013.  Photo by John Kendall.
This Swallow-tailed Kite in Lafayette could possibly be the same bird we observed from the platform on May 18, 2013. Photo by John Kendall.

Later in the coming days we’ll highlight the best birds of the year and compare with how we did in 2012.  Until then, we’ll also keep blogging great breeding birds through the summer, keep promoting birding in the dunes, and maybe even give hints to a new birding workshop series to come in the future!

For now, here’s a flash back photo!  It was this water tower that started it all.  Now gone, construction continues on the current birding platform.  With some luck and good engineering, we’ll be up top the new tower for the 2014 count.

The old water tower sits today where the longshore flight count takes place.
The old water tower sits today where the longshore flight count takes place.

Happy Birding!

Final Checklists

Ornithological spring is quickly coming to a close.  While May 31 will end the official spring count, many lingering migrants can still be found in June.  Local dune birders often use June 5 as a better signal of summer.  Given the spring we’ve had, expect many lingering migrants to still be seen after this weekend.  We’ll still highlight summering birds and the upcoming fall migration on the blog.  Be sure to click the “Follow” link above to get updates this summer and fall.  We’ll also give tips on watching our saw-whet owl banding operations in October!

Today, May 30, was one of the warmest mornings of the season.  Strong south winds gusting to 20+ mph pumped in warm and humid air.  As has been the case this week, the warm air stimulated afternoon popcorn storms.  One such yesterday brought two inches of rain in 20 minutes.  For our count, the rain held off again until the afternoon, so a good count period took place, logging 3,595 birds.  Take a guess who led the pack today?

Cedar Waxwings enjoy a lakeside view during their late migration.  May 30, 2013.
Cedar Waxwings enjoy a lakeside view during their late migration. May 30, 2013.

Cedar Waxwings made up 85% of the migrating birds today.  In a sign that the end is near, not a single warbler was identified going by today.  Birds go by every day without identity, but if a warbler went by, it was not identified to species.  After a few weeks hiatus, another Eurasian Collared-Dove was seen going by.  Even stranger was the continued migration of Red Crossbills.  9 more flew past, making this the sixth day this May we’ve recorded them.   We’re clearly not the only ones seeing them.  Take this report of 80 crossbills seen in NW Ohio yesterday!

Cedar Waxwings migrating past the longshore platform.  May 30, 2013.
Cedar Waxwings migrating past the longshore platform. May 30, 2013.

The rest of the day’s steamy highlights follows:

Double-crested Cormorant 1
Green Heron 2
Northern Harrier 1
Red-shouldered Hawk 3
Red-tailed Hawk 14
Forster’s Tern 3
Eurasian Collared-Dove 1
Red-headed Woodpecker 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Eastern Kingbird 28
Blue Jay 102 
Cedar Waxwing 3079
Summer Tanager 1
Dickcissel 2
Bobolink 2
Orchard Oriole 2
Baltimore Oriole 3
Red Crossbill 9 
Pine Siskin 10

Oddball Red-headed Woodpecker eating nyger seed today!
Oddball Red-headed Woodpecker eating nyger seed today!