A Few Season Milestones

Today, a dreary Monday, May 7, 2012, brought little in a the way of a morning flight.  Scattered rain showers and squall lines dotted the radar, stunting the total flight that could be counted.  72 species and 1,258 individual birds were logged from the old Green Tower site.

Despite the rain showers, we again added a few more species for the season, including the first Wild Turkey of the year, Blue-headed Vireo, Least Flycatcher, and Eastern Wood-Pewee.  This spring, we have logged 203 bird species from the tower site.  90% of all the birds found in the park will likely be logged from this single site.

Other highlights were mentioning include, 64 warblers of 14 species and 7 Lincoln Sparrows.

A few birds hitting recent milestones include:
Double-crested Cormorant- 1,500 (hit this weekend)
Sharp-shinned Hawk- 500 (hit last week)
American Kestrel- 100 (hit last week)
Mourning Dove- 800 (hit Sunday)
Chimney Swift- 1,000 (hit last week)
Blue Jay- 7,000 (hit Sunday)
Barn Swallow- 1,000 (will hit next count day)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher- 500 (hit today)
Eastern Bluebird- 1,000 (hit yesterday)
Cedar Waxwing- 1,000 (hit today)
Yellow-rumped Warbler- 2,200 (hit today)
Palm Warbler- 400 (hit yesterday)
American Goldfinch- 9,000 (hit yesterday)

North winds look to interfere with the count for most of the week.  We’ll see when we make it out next.

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Recapping the Weekend

The longshore flight did not occur on Cinco de Mayo due to the north winds that quickly enveloped the region Friday afternoon.  In fact, this cold front brought local temperaures into the mid 40s by Friday evening, while most of the southern part of the state was in the mid 70s at the same time!

Under a East-Southeast wind, a small morning flight occurred today.  While a few categories were in low supply, an interesting mix of birds still accumulated 91 species and 2,162 individual birds.

The major highlights today were: 1 Ross’s Goose (getting quite late, state’s second latest?), yet another Merlin, 1 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (also getting late), and a Lapland Longspur.

Two new birds to be included in the season totals today included Swainson’s Thrush and Common Tern.  We welcome them.

A great count of 98 Eastern Bluebirds (including one active flock of 24), brought the season total for bluebirds to 1,000!  1,000 bluebirds!!!

The rest of the day’s list is below.

Ross’s Goose  1
Canada Goose  40
Wood Duck  3
Mallard  1
Red-breasted Merganser  1
Common Loon  1
Double-crested Cormorant  52
Great Blue Heron  5
Turkey Vulture  23
Osprey  3
Bald Eagle  2
Northern Harrier  6
Sharp-shinned Hawk  6
Cooper’s Hawk  5
Red-shouldered Hawk  4
Broad-winged Hawk  4
Red-tailed Hawk  36
American Kestrel  1
Merlin  1
Sandhill Crane  13
Killdeer  4
Solitary Sandpiper  3
American Woodcock  1
Caspian Tern  15
Common Tern  2
Rock Pigeon  5
Mourning Dove  20
Chimney Swift  49
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  2
Belted Kingfisher  1
Red-headed Woodpecker  4
Red-bellied Woodpecker  6
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1
Downy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Pileated Woodpecker  1
Eastern Phoebe  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  1
Eastern Kingbird  55
Warbling Vireo  2
Blue Jay  298
American Crow  2
Northern Rough-winged Swallow  15
Purple Martin  5
Tree Swallow  35
Bank Swallow  29
Barn Swallow  33
Cliff Swallow  20
Tufted Titmouse  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
House Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  13
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  2
Eastern Bluebird  98
Swainson’s Thrush  1
American Robin  8
Gray Catbird  1
Brown Thrasher  1
European Starling  24
American Pipit  6
Cedar Waxwing  94
Lapland Longspur  1   
Common Yellowthroat  1
American Redstart  1
Cape May Warbler  1
Yellow Warbler  1
Palm Warbler  18
Pine Warbler  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler  33
Prairie Warbler  1
Eastern Towhee  1
Chipping Sparrow  1
Field Sparrow  1
Song Sparrow  1
Swamp Sparrow  4
White-crowned Sparrow  7
Summer Tanager  1
Scarlet Tanager  2
Northern Cardinal  1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  7
Indigo Bunting  50
Bobolink  6
Red-winged Blackbird  210
Common Grackle  195
Brown-headed Cowbird  2
Orchard Oriole  1
Baltimore Oriole  41
House Finch  2
Pine Siskin  7
American Goldfinch  596
House Sparrow  2

Warbler Prophecies

Friday, May 4, 2012 brought a morning of flip flopping.  The winds throughout the night pushed south for fifth night in a row.  However, a sudden squall brought brute force over the dunes as dawn was breaking.  The pure force of this storm hijacked our south winds, and the low pressure from the storm pulled the wind to the north for an hour.  Afterwards, winds would shift again, then back to the north again!  Every time the winds shifted, the morning flight would suddenly stop.  By late morning, a thick cloud bank could be seen along the entire Indiana lakeshore.  This cloud wall, seen miles away drifted fog into areas of Northwest Indiana by early afternoon.

No doubt due to the difficulties, the bird count was much lower than the last few days, only logging 2,597 birds, from 84 species.  Yesterday we wrote about the difficulty in identifying many of the migrating birds.  We spoke too soon, as today, with each wind shift, the migrating warbler groups were heavy and high!  Little specks against the overcast sky, their shapes and flight style often times only said “warbler”.  In the end, 436 warblers were seen today without an identity assigned to them.  Among those that did included an Orange-crowned Warbler, Ovenbird, Black-and-White Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, several Black-throated Green Warblers, and 148 Yellow-rumped Warblers.

The morning calm provided a beautiful calm lake.  Several new arrivals made their appearance for the season, including a pair of Willets, with one pictured below, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and the previously mentioned Black-and-White Warbler and Northern Waterthrush.

One of two Willets on the Dunes State Park beach 5/4/12.

The full list follows.

Wood Duck 2
Blue-winged Teal 5
Red-breasted Merganser 7
Common Loon 1
Horned Grebe 1
Double-crested Cormorant 6
Great Blue Heron 7
Great Egret 1
Turkey Vulture 2
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Solitary Sandpiper 11
Willet 2
Semipalmated Sandpiper 12
Ring-billed Gull 10
Herring Gull 2
Caspian Tern 11
Mourning Dove 2
Chimney Swift 9
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Belted Kingfisher 1
Red-headed Woodpecker 14
Red-bellied Woodpecker 6
Northern Flicker 1
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Eastern Kingbird 35
Yellow-throated Vireo 1
Blue Jay 370
American Crow 1
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 5
Purple Martin 3
Tree Swallow 5
Bank Swallow 5
Barn Swallow 16
Cliff Swallow 13
Tufted Titmouse 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
House Wren 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 9
Eastern Bluebird 10
Gray-cheeked Thrush 1
American Robin 4
Gray Catbird 1
Brown Thrasher 1
European Starling 4
American Pipit 3
Cedar Waxwing 111
Ovenbird 1
Northern Waterthrush 1
Black-and-white Warbler 1
Orange-crowned Warbler 1
Nashville Warbler 2
Common Yellowthroat 3
Yellow Warbler 4
Blackpoll Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 27
Pine Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 148
Prairie Warbler 1
Black-throated Green Warbler 3
Unidentified Warbler Species 436
Eastern Towhee 1
Chipping Sparrow 4
Field Sparrow 2
Lark Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 5
White-crowned Sparrow 8
Summer Tanager 1
Scarlet Tanager 5
Northern Cardinal 1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 7
Indigo Bunting 70
Bobolink 17
Red-winged Blackbird 308
Rusty Blackbird 1
Common Grackle 17
Brown-headed Cowbird 4
Orchard Oriole 6
Baltimore Oriole 80
House Finch 1
Pine Siskin 6
American Goldfinch 689
House Sparrow 1

1/4 Million Birds!

Longshore bird counting is a frustrating balance of birding expertise and humility.  Whether a mile out over Lake Michigan or a speeding bullet 20 feet above your head, you must be ready for a good number of birds to go by un-identified.  With experience, the spectators watch in wonder as birds are identified that might normally go unknown to others.  Even the experts are stumped occasionally.

The most frustrating aspect of missing a bird ID happens right now with the countless warblers migrating by.  Warbler flights after dawn are a strange oddity in themselves.  Why, two, three, four hours after dawn are warblers still going strong?  Logic says nocturnal migrants land at dawn, and diurnal migrants take off at dawn.  A quick anthropomorphism reminds me of heading through Michigan on vacation, and Dad saying, “just another 30 minutes and theirs a better rest stop ahead.”  But, what could be better than the dunes, so why not stop here?  40 species of warblers have been identified in the dunes area.  With many similar color patterns and plumages, identifying them on the wing can be a real challenge, whereas your typical woodland birding may yield higher diversity counts.  Thus, when ten or more species are found at the Green Tower site, it was a good day.

Yellow Warbler in Dunes State Park May 3, 2012. Yellows are one of the easier to identify longshore migrants.

Thursday, May 3 was another good day.  No show stopper rarity stole the show today, but several birds of note made the day pleasant, and warm (hottest count day of the season).  The total count for the day was 7,321 individuals.  Only seven less than yesterday.  However, total species diversity went from yesterday’s 101 to 87 species.  A major milestone was reached today with the passing of 1/4 million birds for the season!

Northern Harrier flying over Lake Michigan, May 3, 2012.

With visiting veteran birder, Ed Hopkins, in co-pilot this morning, several great counts were made, and a new state record was achieved.  The best highlights were: 9 American White Pelicans (rare on the lakefront), 25 migrating Red-headed Woodpeckers, 127 Eastern Kingbirds (nearly a dunes top 10 count), 2,515 Blue Jays (possible 9th largest state count), 32 Cliff Swallows, 248 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (new Indiana state record, doubles yesterdays breaking of the state record), 574 Cedar Waxwings, 454 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 178 Palm Warblers (state’s 5th largest count), 140 Indigo Buntings, 115 Baltimore Orioles, and 1,718 American Goldfinch.

Baltimore Oriole stopping for a brief second for a few songs before migrating past, May 3, 2012.

It’s worth mentioning that Pine Siskins made a surprise resurgence today.  40 of the zippy winter finches were heard and seen flying over the tower site.

As mentioned above, warblers can be a difficult ID, and it can be easy to get complacent in calling each one a Yellow-rumped or Palm, when such high numbers are passing by.  Today’s counters did log 13 warbler species, including 13 Cape May Warblers, 1 Blackburnian Warbler, 1 Blackpoll Warbler, 1 Prothonotary Warbler (only second Green Tower record?), and 1 Ovenbird.  Today’s Yellow-rumps passed a milestone 2,000 for the year too!

We look forward to one more morning of south wind, then north winds kick in for the weekend.

Great Day to Be a Birder!

The longshore flight at Indiana Dunes State Park on May 2, 2012 will be remembered as one of the best flights witnessed by both number of species seen and incredible high counts.  Long before dawn, signs that today would be a good day were already being seen.  The forecast was for stronger south winds in the 10-20mph range, less rain than the last two days, and a predawn radar image that made Chicago look like the eye of a hurricane;  a hurricane of birds winging it northward.  Not only were the birds good, but the list of birders present was also impressive.  So impressive, that their presence on a weekday can only mean sick days were being used or bosses were in the dark.  Thus, today’s list of counters will for the most part remain anonymous.

The local Prairie Warbler was performing again today with beautiful Lake Michigan in the background, 5/2/12.

It’s hard to decide where to begin.  Let’s start by noting that 101 species were seen from the site today.  This included 7,328 individuals (2,517 yesterday).  Monday and Tuesday were great count days, but seemed to have been leading up to today.  The previous best Grube Magnitude Index from the Green Tower site was 67.85.  Today, it was blown away with a very impressive 79.04 per Ken Brock.  This quantification calculates today’s count as the best ever observed!

At dawn the stream had started and the variety and strength of the morning flight would continue for many hours.  By 11am, hawkwatching was distracting, as gnatcatchers, swallows, and orioles still continued to migrate past the old tower site.

Cape May Warbler adding to the day’s diversity, 5/2/12.

Let’s tick off two sets of highlights.  First the rarities, then the high counts.  Major rarity highlights for today included, a single Black-crowned Night-Heron landing in the nearby pines, 2 Bald Eagle, 4 Merlin, 67 American Golden Plovers, 1 American Woodcock, 1 SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER, 1 Tennessee Warlber, 1 Magnolia Warbler, 1 good looking Prairie Warbler, 1 early Summer Tanager, 3 Lark Sparrows, 1 singing! Clay-colored Sparrow, and 8 Pine Siskin.

High counts included, 11 Osprey, 73 Sharp-shined Hawks, 100 Broad-winged Hawks (state’s second highest for the month of May) , 364 Chimney Swifts (state’s 7th highest count), 2,121 Blue Jays (state’s 10th largest count), 19 Cliff Swallows, 124 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (new state record!), 535 Yellow-rumped Warblers state’s 9th largest count),  109 Palm Warblers, 268 Baltimore Orioles (state’s second highest count) , 139 Indigo Buntings, and 1,579 American Goldfinch.

Flyover Osprey, one of 11 for the day, 5/2/12.
Flyover American Kestrel, one of 15 today, 5/2/12.

Inland, away from the Green Tower, and not on the official list, other warblers were noted, giving a dunes area total of at least 17 warbler species, including the well known Prothonotary Warbler that is back on the Wilson Shelter Boardwalk.  A Golden-winged Warbler was also found today in the nearby IN Dunes NL Heron Rookery unit.

Winds will continue southerly overnight, thus our counters will head to bed early, sore and sunburn, with dreams of what may appear tomorrow morning.

Bad Day to be a Songbird…

May Day!  May 1, 2012 provided for another wondrous day of south winds.  An eclectic group of birds were logged that made the day just as spectacular as yesterday, except with a completely different set of birds.  The promise of good birds lured other birders to the old Green Tower site at Indiana Dunes State Park.   Providing assistance were the young birding phenom from the Indiana Young Birders Club, Landon Neumann, and his Costa Rican birding friend, Laramie Aspegren.  On the other end of the spectrum, veteran state birding expert Ken Brock provided his expertise in today’s hawk flight.  Somewhere cookies were reported to have been passed around too.

The sun attempts to break through the thick fog at 7am local time, 5/1/12

The day began by appearing quite dismal.  A heavy fog had set in overnight, and was thick as clam chowder at dawn.  While visibility was poor, birds were clearly singing and when seen… migrating.  Reports farther in the park showed that at least a dozen warblers were in full song, and several new arrivals were on territory.  Slowly the fog burnt away, and birds began to be logged.  By the end of the day, 2,516 individual birds from 93 species were counted.

The amazing highlight of the day was another hawk flight.  This time, under nearly full clouds, with some peeking blue sky, the hawks began to move.  While many species would go by, Sharp-shinned Hawks would dominate the sky.  The bird eating predators would be ticked off minute by minute until 334 would be logged, a new Indiana state record, shattering the old record of 223 set 20 years ago.  Merlin were officially nominated to the Green Tower trash bird list, as counters were forced to watch another two today, totaling 29 for the season.  One of today’s birds stayed quite cooperative, as it tore apart it’s feathered prey within eyesight of the tower counters.

Yet another Merlin near the Green Tower, 5/1/12. The bird was feasting on some unknown bird, the group consensus being Bachman's Warbler.

The obvious raptor highlight was not one spectacular bird, but two!  Indiana’s first May record of a NORTHERN GOSHAWK was logged by hawk watchers today.  Not long after, the state park’s  sixth SWAINSON’S HAWK soared over, providing excellent views.

Swainson's Hawk (light morph) soaring over Dunes State Park, 5/1/12. Photo courtesy Ken Brock.

Rounding out the day’s highlights were 6 Osprey, 585 Blue Jays, 36 Neumann Cookies, 39 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, 1 Cape May Warbler, 1 Lark Sparrow, and an amazing 192 Baltimore Orioles.

South winds, day 3 up next!

Birding… O! the Joy!

Leaving Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, the thirty-three member Corps of Discovery team began their long journey to the Pacific Ocean. Encountering wildlife, waterfalls, and breathless beauty their toilsome persistence rewarded them in November of 1805 when Clark wrote “Ocian in view O! The Joy!”.  While our suffering may seem insignificant compared to that shared by the Lewis and Clark expedition, for spring birders having gone so long without south winds, joy is the only word that could describe today.

Monday, April 30, 2012.  With a full backing of joyous, south wind, the green tower counters experienced the best count in over two weeks.  4,604 birds, from 83 species would wing over and under the high dune counters.  Using the Grube Magnitude Index to measure bird migration in the dunes, it would go down as the 7th highest score ever (47.91).  No doubt bolstered by the good April diversity and staggering high counts from Chimney Swifts, Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, and American Pipits.

New for the season were American Bittern (flushed from the marram grass blowout!), Eastern and Western Kingbird (see more below), Blackburnian Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and Orchard Oriole.  The season total now stands at 160 species.

The morning would stay cloudy, making identification difficult for the many small warblers going by.  Several themes were present through the morning.  It was clear an insect hatching had occurred on the beach, as hundreds of swallows and swifts took advantage by both swooping constantly in tight knit groups in front of the beach pavilion, but also sitting by the hundreds on the beach to feed.  The swarm would eventually lead to the highest spring dunes area count of 467 Chimney Swifts (4th highest dunes overall record).  The other theme was shorebirds.  Many migrating yellowlegs, Dunlin, Pectoral, Solitary, and Least Sandpiper would be seen flying by today.

Lesser Yellowlegs silhouette against the gloomy sky, 4/30/12.

Rounding out the day’s highlights included: 2 Merlin, 31 Eastern Kingbirds, 248 Blue Jays, 41 American Pipits, 232 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 88 Baltimore Orioles, a lone Common Redpoll, and 2 Pine Siskins.

By 10:15am, rain showers had entered into the picture.  Normally, the morning flight is shut down.  However, this morning, the birds continued moving.  Swallows continued to stream past, while intermittent blackbird flocks passed over.  While seeking shelter at the Beach Pavilion to watch for shorebirds, counter Brendan Grube noticed a yellow colored Kingbird approaching from off shore.  A quick phone call brought this reporter and his camera racing to the beach from the park’s interior.  With seconds to spare, the Western Kingbird had continued to stay perched high in a cottonwood, allowing for study (in albeit horrible lighting).  The extent of yellow on the breast and white edged retrices were noted in person.  As we approached for a photo, the bird disappeared, only to appear over our heads flying towards the lake, while quickly gaining altitude.  Among the passing swallows one photo was taken, seen below.  While it won’t pass records committee muster by itself, it helps capture a yellow bellied tyrant of some species.

Western Kingbird eluding the Green Tower Counters on 4/30/12.

The only thing that beats today is the prospect of what tomorrow’s south winds bring.  Birding… O! the Joy!