Category Archives: Longshore Flight Count

Migration Eve!

With any luck, at this time tomorrow, our blog will start off with, “It was a great day for migration in the dunes!”  The winds have not been favorable since last Friday evening, resulting in very little to report.  Whenever the north winds have shifted this spring, the large quantity of pack ice settles back up against the shelf ice and makes waterfowl viewing impossible.  This morning’s feeble count contained virtually no ducks since the light east winds had failed to open up the lake.  East winds are also not very conductive to a good longshore flight.  The rarer east winds can be good for lakefront birders north of us in Michigan, but not here.

Today’s count was a weak 18 species, comprising 1,418 individuals.  It was the coldest morning start, not just for this year’s count, but for all of the counts since we started in early 2012.  The low teens slowly rose to freezing, but afternoon.  Very little moved today, but the shifting south winds did hint at the larger crane flight to come.  Nearly 1,000 were sighted from the tower site this morning.  The short crane flight accounted for 2/3 of the birds this morning.

Monday night Wind Map showing strong south winds coming in from the west.  Map courtesy
Monday night Wind Map showing strong south winds coming in from the west. Map courtesy

The fun of the longshore flight is predicting that big day.  That spectacular birding morning that the site is known for producing.  March is known for the high quantities.  April.. the great mix of quantity and quality.  May has the quality in it’s favor.  But rarities can show up during any month.  Looking at forecast, tomorrow, March 18, should be the best morning of the season.  Blackbirds and Robins should make their first real flight, while waterfowl should also stream in. Cranes and hawks should then post their best flights to date.  An all around good day should be expected.  Depending on the rain forecast for Wednesday, it could be another good day for the 19th.  We should have several new arrivals by the end of the week as we finish with a strong Friday flight.  Join us this week!

viewing Trail 3 from the bird tower.  Photo courtesy SannePhotos.
viewing Trail 3 from the bird tower. Photo courtesy SannePhotos.

Wind Blown!

After two days of cold and snow, the Longshore Flight returned today (March 14, 2014).  Being Pi Day, we made every attempt to use the three significant Pi numbers of 3, 1, and 4 used whenever possible in our counts today.  The day was warm, but blusterry.  Strong south winds entered the scene last night.  Temperatures slowly rose overnight and were already a balmy 41 degrees at 7am.  The count’s high of 52 degrees would have felt warm had it not been for the blasting 30mph wind gusts.  It was the first morning of the season not done from atop the observation platform.  The howling wind made it difficult to even stand from up there.

Panoramic view from atop the Platform this afternoon.  Click the image to see it larger.
Panoramic view from atop the Platform this afternoon. Click the image to see it larger.

With only a week into the season, we’re observing that you can’t really compare one from another.  Everyday continues to be different.  We’ve now surpassed our first 10,000 birds of the season (11,311 to be exact).  This is nearly a 1/3 of where we were after the first four counts last year.  Many species we thought we would log by week’s end have not showed up.  We thought for sure the first Phoebe, Tree Swallow, and Lapland Longspur would have been seen already.  On the flip side, this early season has been interesting for its large goose flight.  Geese don’t typically stage huge flights over the larger Lake Michigan.  Yet, this week we’ve logged 3,500 Canada Geese, a Snow Goose, and over 800 Greater White-fronted Geese.  For Canada Geese, this surpasses the combined season totals from the last two years.  For the speckle bellies, the 800 seen is twice that from the last two years combined.  Are we catching a very early migrant that we normally miss?

2014 Longshore Flight Counter Brendan Grube.
2014 Longshore Flight Counter Brendan Grube.

This year’s count is being done by seasoned longshore count veteran Brendan Grube. For Brendan, birding is the family blood.  No other family is so represented with birding kin on the lakefront than the Grubes.  Brendan’s special skill allows for so many birds to go identified, often with just a split second glimpse in bad lighting, or only a single chip note overhead.  Few birders have the patience for the sedentary style of birding.  But the wait is worth it, as evidenced by the massive flight counts that occur here, as well as the growing list of volunteers and observers that visit each day.  Visit Brendan, help count a few birds, and perhaps learn something new!  When you’re done, swing by the Nature Center and pick up a free copy of the Birds of Indiana Dunes by Ken Brock.

Today’s count logged failed to produce the big blackbird movement, nor any significant cranes, but the geese and gulls continued for another day resulting in 3,696 birds of 47 species.  Our four day species total is now 68 species.  Brendan’s volunteer counters, assistants, and observers included J.P. “Bird Eater” Anderson, Mrs. Anderson, Cindy Downs, John Kendall, and Brad Bumgardner.

March 14, 2014:

Greater White-fronted Goose  121
Wood Duck  6
Northern Pintail  12
Green-winged Teal  3
White-winged Scoter  2
Long-tailed Duck  4
Double-crested Cormorant  2
Northern Harrier  1
Cooper’s Hawk  2
Red-shouldered Hawk  3
Red-tailed Hawk  8
Sandhill Crane  3
Killdeer  27
Ring-billed Gull  2348
Glaucous Gull  1    Adult
Great Black-backed Gull  3
American Kestrel  3
Peregrine Falcon  1
American Robin  248
Snow Bunting  2
Red-winged Blackbird  43
Eastern Meadowlark  2

Finally, our recent eagles, as well as the seasonal increase in eagle sightings in the northern part of the state were featured in a nice gallery of birds on the South Bend Tribune outdoors section.  Check them out here!

Since it’s Pi day, we’ll end this post with a pie!


Winter Storm Brewing

Today was the calm before the storm.  After yesterday’s warm, 52 degree day, this morning failed to reach as high.  A draping cold front entered the area late morning.  While approaching winds were fairly calm, creating a a low hanging mist over the lake. The post front winds picked up from the north and brought a steady downward trend in the temperatures all afternoon.   Meanwhile, sites to the south of the dunes enjoyed more sun and warmer temperatures.  By the end of the day, the temperature in the dunes was near freezing (32 degrees).  At the same time it was still 50 in Lafayette, 70 in Indy, and mid-70s south of Bloomington.  Quite a temperature change with the impending snow storm.

2,581 birds, from 47 species were logged today.  The season’s three day total is now 7,615 birds.  In the first three days of counts in 2013 our total was 5,321 birds.  A single day can change these numbers this time of year.  But, it’s an optimistic look, considering the winter weather we have had.  We’re certainly going to be taking a break soon with the Winter Storm Warning that is in effect.

We added a few new birds, Wood Duck and Green-winged Teal namely.  2 Red-necked Grebes would be significant if it weren’t for the massive invasion occurring right now in the lower Great Lakes.  The most noticeable and anticipated flight was the first hint of the blackbird movement to come.  Over 1,000 Red-winged Blackbirds moved through.  Feeble in comparison of what will begin any day now, but more than we’ve had the first two days of counting.  The clouds brought very little raptor movement to note, which also meant the cranes did not move.  However, reports downstate indicate that there was heavy Sandhill Crane movement in Indiana today.  No doubt many of these birds reached Jasper-Pulaski or Kankakee FWA before they hit the north winds.  The next good south wind day should see 1,000+ crane days over the dunes.  We’ll bet the bank (or bird seed) on it!  That next good day may not occur until the end of the week.  4-8 inches of snow are being forecasted for overnight and Wednesday.  Thursday will be a cold start, with lows 3-7 above, but should rebound into the 40s by Friday.

Today’s other highlights (March 11, 2014):

Greater White-fronted Goose 57
Wood Duck 4
Gadwall 30
Green-winged Teal 5
White-winged Scoter 12
Bufflehead 2
Red-necked Grebe 2
Bald Eagle 2
Sandhill Crane 1
Great Black-backed Gull 4
American Kestrel 1
Horned Lark 33
Field Sparrow 1
Red-winged Blackbird 1306
Eastern Meadowlark 2

Hotel California

Even with two full (official) longshore flight years under our belt, things continue to surprise you.  The unexpected is what spurs most birders out each day or week.  Numbers can fluctuate from day to day.  Today’s longshore flight count was a notable rebound from the first day of the season, with more than 10 times as many birds counted, compared to yesterday.  It was also 20 degrees warmer, making it far more comfortable to be on top of the windy tower site.  The day ended with 4,722 birds, making up 56 species.

Bald Eagles sitting on pack ice, March 10, 2014.
Bald Eagles sitting on pack ice, March 10, 2014.

As mentioned, warmer temperatures greeted any counters today.  The snow was thinner and making good progress towards melting.  The Lake Michigan pack ice was also more broken up.  You could still see lots of pushed ice at the horizon, but the near shore waters were open with floating islands of ice.  After some initial far scans for the first ducks of the day, it became obvious we had several eagles not too far out.  Three eagles had chosen to perch on the pack ice in search of food… or perhaps love.  The Bald Eagles performed for us for several hours.  They would jump from ice pack to ice pack, perch like kingfishers on chunks of ice, and at one point, when they looked to have lost numbers, one jumped up and had revealed that it had been mating with the other.  All was well in the eagle world until a passing adult Great-blacked Back Gull would have no tolerance of one of the eagles and began chasing it down.  The eagle was forced up and flew inland, right past the Bird Observation Deck, until turning back towards the lake and disappearing.

Bald Eagle moving past the Bird Observation Platform this morning.
Bald Eagle moving past the Bird Observation Platform this morning.

Aside from the Eagle show, the geese began performing as well this morning.  Geese normally don’t stage huge flights over the Indiana Dunes.  Despite large congregations at the Fish and Wildlife areas to our south, geese don’t seem to funnel around the lake, like cranes do.  Our only guess is the geese have been bottled up with the extended cold and today’s warmth provided the first exodus northward.   By 9am, streams of geese flocks could be seen from all 360 degrees.  Geese flocks came in from the south, traversed the lake from high elevation, or skirted our view along the south regions of the Valparaiso morraine.  Greater White-fronted Geese made a good appearance among the Canada Geese, and a lone Snow Goose showed up today also.  The 2,538 Canada Geese and 646 “speckle bellies” constitute the lakefront’s highest single party count.  Truly a sight to gander!

Mixed Canada and White-fronted Geese stream over the Bird Observation Platform this morning.
Mixed Canada and White-fronted Geese stream over the Bird Observation Platform this morning.

Aside from eagles and geese, it was good to see other birds arrive from this long, cold winter.  Turkey Vultures returned today, and were joined by a few raptors, including another Merlin, a Northern Harrier, and a few Red-tailed Hawks.  The blackbird trickle is picking up.  Only 380 today, but that will increase soon.  As predicted, the gull numbers increased notably today.  Many Ring-billed Gulls have returned.  Almost a thousand were observed moving with an assortment of other waterfowl.  Highlights are all below.

March 10, 2014 Longshore Flight Highlights:

Greater White-fronted Goose 646 
Snow Goose 1
Canada Goose 2538
Northern Shoveler 1
Northern Pintail 10
Redhead 26
White-winged Scoter 2
Long-tailed Duck 4
Common Goldeneye 5
Hooded Merganser 4
Common Merganser 10
Red-breasted Merganser 73
Red-throated Loon 7
Turkey Vulture 2
Bald Eagle 3
Rough-legged Hawk 3
Sandhill Crane 217
Great Black-backed Gull 5
American Kestrel 2
Merlin 1
Horned Lark 36
Snow Bunting 2

Beautiful Red-tailed Hawk soaring over kettles today.

Beautiful Red-tailed Hawk soaring over kettles today.
A darker Red-tailed Hawk visits the count area briefly, March 10, 2014.
A darker Red-tailed Hawk visits the count area briefly, March 10, 2014.




An Icy 300 To Start

The third season of the Indiana Dunes Longshore Flight Count commenced today.  This new season takes place an additional 20 feet in elevation, from atop the new Bird Observation Platform.  This new season started with one defining word…. COLD!  This morning’s count started at a bone chilling 19 degrees, despite the south winds blowing across the frosty tower surface.  The tower temperature would go down as the second coldest in the three years of official longshore counts.  Ice still filled Lake Michigan and the new south winds began to slowly open up a little sliver of open water for the first waterfowl to come back.  The park staff was nice enough to plow the snow up to the tower site for us this morning.

Panaramic opening morning from the Bird Observation Platform.  March 9, 2014.
Panaramic opening morning from the Bird Observation Platform. March 9, 2014.

So, how did the first morning compare with last year’s first day (which was March 8, by the way)?  It’s clear migration is a day late up here along the lakeshore.  This morning’s 312 birds was a far cry from last year’s 1,852 individuals seen.  It’s common to not see the passerine movement going yet, but the thick ice also limited the waterfowl flight.  Very little was moving on the lake.  Gull numbers were dismal, but should build in the next day or so.  Chicago birders reported an influx of Ring-billed Gulls arriving today.  This wave should ripple this way by tomorrow.  Our opening day highlights were 4 White-winged Scoters, 6 Red-throated Loons, 1 Merlin, and 67 migrating Horned Larks.

Today’s full count:

Canada Goose 68
Greater Scaup 5
White-winged Scoter 4
Common Merganser 14
Red-breasted Merganser 27
Red-throated Loon 6
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 4
Sandhill Crane 15
Ring-billed Gull 17
Herring Gull 9
Great Black-backed Gull 1
Rock Pigeon  1
Mourning Dove 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Merlin 1
Blue Jay 1
American Crow 18
Horned Lark 67
Black-capped Chickadee 1
Tufted Titmouse 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Eastern Bluebird 4
American Robin 4
European Starling 8
Cedar Waxwing 12
Song Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 2
Northern Cardinal 4
Red-winged Blackbird 23
House Finch 12
American Goldfinch 1
House Sparrow 1

Season Three Gets Underway

While the dunes may still hide under a thick blanket of snow, the big ball of light above is rising higher and higher and somehow signalling to the birds that spring is near and it’s time to complete the promise they agreed to many months ago… the promise to return.  It’s spring migration in the dunes!  After this particularly long and cold winter, the birding this spring may be the most anticipated spring we’ve had in decades!  Every season has it’s flavor and preferred birds, but spring is by far the favorite among so many birders.  No trickle in of birds, but  massive tsunami wave after wave of flying gems returning to breed for another summer.

Waterfowl watching this week from the Beach Pavilion.
Waterfowl watching this week from the Beach Pavilion.

Just as we talk about fall migration when were still baking in summer sun, the spring migration has it’s way of finding a foot-hold even when it appears winter will not give up.  The first south winds signal the arrival of the first waterfowl, whether the lakes are prepared for them or not.  In fact, my favorite spring quote from Aldo Leopold states,

“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 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.”

In no better winter will this be a true test for the migrating goose or other duck arriving from the north.  There is so little open water for them.  This may in turn create spectacular viewing opportunities for us in the next few weeks as ducks, geese, and swans are forced to smaller, more restricted feeding areas.  It stands to reason that the colder spring we are likely to also face may bring in some good betters.  The old motto, the worse the weather, the better the birds, seems to always stay true!  With that, the third season of the Dunes Longshore Flight Count will commence officially on Sunday, March 9.  Typically, a week into March signals the start of the main passerine flight over the dunes.  Not to say birds have been waiting to migrate until Sunday, but by this date we really need to be up there if we want to capture the early migrating species.  Already, Herring Gulls, Red-throated Loons, Horned Larks, and a few blackbirds have been on the move.  Counts this year will occur from atop the Bird Observation Platform.  You can count on someone being up top to count the birds if a south wind is underway.  To get a glimpse at what we see and when, feel free to check the archives (on right column) for past postings of the days’ counts.  One thing is certain, no day is ever the same!  Finally, check out the season totals from 2012 and 2013.

Long-tailed Duck on Lake Michigan.  Photo by Amber Edwards.
Long-tailed Duck on Lake Michigan. Photo by Amber Edwards.

One waterfowl we believe will be most spectacular to count this spring will be the Long-tailed Duck.  This uncommon, deep diving duck winters heavily off the Atlantic coast and can be seen in pretty good numbers on the upper Great Lakes.  However, numbers are generally fewer and far between in the Indiana waters of Lake Michigan.  With exception of a fluke decade (1950s) most Long-tailed Ducks number in the singles when seen.  It’s been speculated that the massive ice on the lakes has driven many Long-tailed Ducks south to areas where they are rarely seen, especially inland lakes and ponds.  Even with the sliver of open water on Lake Michigan, we’re seeing the ripple effect right here.  Today’s 90 Long-tailed Ducks that were seen in front of the Dunes State Park Pavilion constitute the highest single day total since 1964.  That’s the highest count in fifty years!  It’s only March, but when you add the state’s inland sightings for Long-tailed Duck this spring, you can clearly see the magnitude of this year’s invasion.  The Bird Observation Tower will surely log many more as we get started counting through March.  How high will the annual total be this year!?

Annual State Totals for Long-tailed Duck in Indiana, 1965-2014.  Data courtesy Ken Brock.
Annual State Totals for Long-tailed Duck in Indiana, 1965-2014. Data courtesy Ken Brock.

Let the counting begin!