30,000 Birds!

From the first week it became clear that this warm spring we’ve been experiencing could lead to an amazing spring migration count in the dunes.  Just when you think you can’t beat the day before, another dawn comes and out paces the previous day!  Remember that scene from The Big Year, where the birders were greeted to the scene of thousands of birds coming in after a long night on the wing?  The scene was no question created with computers, but had they been to the dunes this morning they would have seen the closest thing to it!

Another weekend day meant more visitors to help count and gawk in the pure magnitude of flight that was occurring.  For first timers to the Green Tower, the pure magnitude of bird migration turns even experienced birders into pure spectators, taking it all in.  At dawn, literally thousands of blackbirds, grackles, starlings, robins, and more begun taking wing and were again heading west over the the tower dune.  Several new birds made their first appearance today, including Eastern Phoebes, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Cedar Waxwings, and Pine Siskins.

Over the water, gulls were a fraction of the numbers that we had the last few days, but 161 Red-breasted Mergansers fed off shore with a dozen Red-throated Loons.  Both White-winged and Surf Scoters were also seen today.  An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull helped add to the species tally also.

After such an amazing count yesterday, it was more astonishing today to see MORE Sandhill Cranes migrating by!  Today’s flight was more slow and drawn out.  The birds took time to kettle on rising thermals.  Like yesterday, hawks would slip into the flocks, riding the same thermals, often with disturbing calls from the nearby cranes.  61 birds of prey would be logged today.

Finally, there’s been a small upsurge in winter finches.  Another 9 Common Redpolls went by, but several Pine Siskin were also heard migrating by.  Where’s the crossbills next?

In total, 30,848 birds were seen and identified today.  This includes a new Dunes Area robin record.  Bluebirds weren’t that shabby either.  The season total is now at 65,442 birds.  Below are some selected highlights and another quick clip showing some of the early morning flight that happens just after dawn.

Selected Highlights:

Red-throated Loon- 12
Sandhill Crane= 5901
Lesser Black-backed Gull- 1
Eastern Phoebe- 8
Tree Swallow- 5
Eastern Bluebird-  194
American Robin- 7342
Lapland Longspur- 108
Red-winged Blackbird- 7860
Common Grackle- 7344
Common Redpoll- 9
Pine Siskin- 5


A lot of Sandhills over that Sand Hill!

This morning welcomed back a south wind to the old green tower site at Indiana Dunes State Park.  Yesterday’s northwest wind created cold and bitter conditions that helped drop the morning low to below freezing (27 degrees start).  Though things warmed up, the winds were again strong this morning, requiring extra coffee to keep warm and active.

Being a Saturday, the birding brought good company, as many birders visited the tower site to help log an amazing day along the lakeshore.  Spotting scopes were set up along the staircase and decking to watch an active flight with many notable sightings.

Over the water, White-winged Scoters put up good numbers for Indiana, as well as the first loons of the season, including both Common Loon and Red-throated Loon.  On land, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robins, and Starlings would dominate the air.  However, pipits, longspurs, and Horned Larks were also noted moving.  A new Green Tower bird record was set this morning when a pair of European Goldfinch were seen flying by low and at short range.  The bold yellow wing pattern was noted well.

The obvious highlight for the morning was the Sandhill Crane count.  At approximately 8am, the cranes began moving.  At first it was small flocks of 8-10, coming from the east, all heading west.  By 9am the flocks had grown to 80-100 and were a near constant stream of birds cresting the far pine stands and slowly drifting overhead.  Occasionally, Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Sharp-shined Hawks could be seen between the groups, attempting to kettle on the same thermals.  Hawk highlights also included a flyby Merlin along the beach.  In total 43 birds of prey were logged today.

Migrating Sandhill Cranes, March 10, 2012

Just as quickly as it had started, the cranes completely stopped moving (or we had cleaned out Kankakee FWA!) by 10:45am.  By 11am, most of the day’s flight was complete and only a few more birds were logged during the last hour of counting.  As we seek to answer questions about migration along Lake Michigan, more questions arise.  It would have been great to have a reporter south of the dunes to tell us where these cranes had all come from.

Today alone, 22,396 birds were counted!  The season total is now at 34,589 birds.  A few highlighted totals follow, as well as a small video snippet of some crane counting today.  We look forward to warmer weather and lighter winds tomorrow!  Come on up and join us, and don’t forget to reset your clocks in the morning.

Selected Highlights:

White-winged Scoter- 33
Red-throated Loon- 4
Merlin- 1
Sandhill Crane- 6,644
American Crow- 56
Eastern Bluebird- 68
American Robin- 3,245
Red-winged Blackbird- 4,140
European Goldfinch- 2
Common  Redpoll- 2 

Youtube Video Snippet:

She Keeps Blowing From the South!

Day two (March 7, 2012) of the 2012 Dunes State Park Green Tower Migration Count picked up much like yesterday ended… strong, wild wind!  From the bedroom early this morning you could hear the wind howling.  It wasn’t even dawn and the wind gusts were already topping 30mph.  By 8am, we were getting 40mph gusts that were whipping across the Dunes Prairie Nature Preserve.  So once again, birding was forced down to the next landing below our main birding spot.  From here, about seven feet lower than normal, one can bird without the main gusts.  However, after a little time there, you begin to accumulate some sand that softly falls upon you, covering cameras, scopes, and Frappuccinos!

Early Icterid Flight over the High Dunes
Early Icterid Flight over the High Dunes at dawn this morning. Can you identify them!?

At arrival to the old Green Tower site this morning, the sky was a constant stream of various early migrating birds.  Last night’s strong south winds had apparently brought new arrivals northward.  One would think that 40 mph winds would hamper flight and it would be best to rest somewhere calm.  Doing the opposite of popular opinion, birds apparently use the Jim Irsay playbook.

In flocks of 30-50, various bands of Red-winged Blackbirds would flash by going east to west over the dunes.  Occasional grackles could be found within the groups.  Usually seperate, robins started moving this morning, also together in loose flocks .  Starlings put up good numbers this morning, with nearly a thousand going by.  Lapland Longspurs made a strong appearance, with 135 individual birds going by, a Dunes Area top 10 count.  Also posting nice numbers were Killdeer.  Loose bands of 4-6 could be found every few minutes moving right off of the water line.  162 Killdeer would be counted before the morning was over.

Other unusual highlights this morning included 4 White-winged Scoters flying just off shore.  Their white wing markings reflected the early morning sunshine.  A few other ducks would go by this morning too.  Later, some “pishing”  convinced a lone Common Redpoll to turn around and landed in a small oak next to the staircase this morning.  It took off seconds later giving it’s mechanical “chet chet chet” call, leaving one to wonder why they didn’t take a photo!

Finally, the record breaker this morning was a singleton Pine Warbler seen briefly before departing the nearby Jack Pines.  This morning’s bird likely represents the earliest spring migrant for the northwestern Indiana area (if not all of northern Indiana), beating the previous spring record, a feeder bird on March 12, 2008, again here at Indiana Dunes State Park.

In two March days, the old Green Tower site at IDSP has produced 12,192 identified birds.  Add a few more for the un-identified birds that have gone by.   The real movement hasn’t even started yet!  Here’s some other random numbers from today.

Ring-billed Gulls: 2,070

Eastern Bluebirds: 14 flew past today

American Robin: 538 individually logged

European Starling: 936 tailless birds seen

Red-winged Blackbirds: 3,460 birds.  High counts later will top 10,000 in a few hours of counting

Common Grackles: 270 seen.  Again, a fraction of what is to come.

As we look ahead and study the forecasts, cold weather and north winds look to greet us for a couple days.  We’ll likely pick up again with below freezing temperatures on Saturday morning.

March Lions, No Lambs in Sight.

Today marked the inaugural count for the 2012 Green Tower season.  From atop the high dune at Indiana Dunes State Park, the birds recognized that spring is here and began moving too (at least some species!).

The morning was marked by pre-dawn winds approaching 20mph.  By sunrise, the winds were blowing strong from the south, with gusts that approached 40mph at times.  At this speed, the sand was blowing from the nearby Dunes Prairie Nature Preserve and could be felt if you were out in the open.  The wind did stimulate some bird movement, but any passerine movement failed to materialize with both robins and blackbirds equaling a combined 56 individuals.

View from the Green Tower

The real movement this first day of the season was the impressive gulls streaming past the beach.  With light songbird movement, we were able to carefully count 3,592 Ring-billed Gulls.  With this many gulls, it’s not surprising that Herring, Great Black-backed, and Glaucous Gulls were found among them.  Ten species of waterfowl were also found, although in relatively low numbers at this point.

By 9am, the early morning clouds had cleared, and under a bright sun, the cranes began migrating, totaling 408 birds today.  14 hawks/vultures were also logged today, but a few slipped by unidentified in the high winds.

First Red-tailed Hawk of the Season

South Winds Are Coming!

Caspian Tern over Lake Michigan

We’re getting excited with the possibilities this season!  The first forecasted south, warm winds are set to arrive this week.  We should start to see the first early movement of blackbirds and robins, as well as waterfowl out over the lake.  With an official counter this season, it’s possible to log some interesting high counts, including some possible state record counts.  The thoughts of new, first state records is also not out of question this year. how many birds will fly by the tower site this season?  250,000…. 500,000…. 1 million!?

2010 Green Tower Birds

We are forecasting the official start of the Green Tower counter season for Tuesday, March 6.  The protocol will be to begin counting within the first 30 minutes of sunrise, and weather permitting continue through a six hour period.  Our first few morning may greet us with below freezing temperatures, but the good news is that temperatures will continue to rise through the season.  This year’s lake is much more open than normal, with zero shelf ice to drive feeding ducks farther off shore.    With this much open water, we expect an early and heavy duck movement, with many species probably peaking a few weeks earlier than normal.

Birding the Indiana Dunes!

Migration is a promise… a promise to return.  For eons, birds have returned to and through the dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan.  This mass migration is a phenomenon to be seen by any Hoosier (or out of state) birder!  Here, from a small dune top, one can witness the rafts of migrating waterfowl, wonder in thousands of songbirds flying overhead, and sit back and enjoy an afternoon raptor flight.  All, while sitting in one position.

Migrating Blue Jay in May

For many years, the mass migration, or longshore flight has been well noted among lakefront birders.  For the first time in 2012, this longshore migration will be quantified with an official bird counter.  From March through May we welcome birding phenom Brendan Grube, as he grapples with the identification and quantifying of an estimated 1/2 million individual birds that will flyover the old Green Tower site at Indiana Dunes State Park.  Our counts will occur 5 days a week and attempt to document the true spring magnitude of migration along the Indiana Dunes.  This position is funded by the Lake Michigan Coastal Program and sponsored by the Northwest Indiana Migratory Bird Association.

Want to witness it for yourself?  Visitors are welcome to the the top of the staircase where Trail 3 starts.  Park in the Indiana Dunes State Park West Lot on an early morning with south winds.  Check back frequently for updated daily counts as the season progresses!

Birding the old Green Tower high dune at Indiana Dunes State Park