Tag Archives: Common Loon

A Tale of Two Loons

April greeted the dunes to a few days of spring weather this past weekend.  The southerly winds extended into today (Monday) to allow for two countable days of longshore flights.  Though Saturday had the sunny skies, the south winds failed to shift to the south until nightfall, thus the count was much lower than it could have been.  Sunday was a stiff southeast wind, which brought not only a decent songbird flight, but even raptors under a generally overcast sky.  Monday saw continued southeast winds, but more cloudy conditions.  So how did the three days compare?

Saturday, April 1 (north winds) had 59 species, but only 881 individual birds.
Sunday, April 2 (southeast winds) had 61 species, including 6,904 individual birds.
Monday, April 3 (southeast winds) had 67 species, including 20,490 individual birds.

Each day offered new arrivals this past extended weekend.  April 1 included the survey’s first Hairy Woodpecker, a early Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and 4 Vesper Sparrows for the year.  New arrivals for April 2 included an early Northern Rough-winged Swallow.  April 3, as you might guess, offered the more new arrivals, including Brown Thrasher (2) and Pied-billed Grebe.  Another early Northern Rough-winged Swallow made an appearance.

Of note the last few days has been a stream of loons moving through the southern Great Lakes.  On Sunday, a combined 79 loons were seen migrating past the tower.  These were split nearly even with Common Loons just edging out Red-throated Loons.  More Commons were spotted flying directly due north from above the tower, while Red-throateds were more likely to be on the lake moving east or west.  Nearly all Common Loons are in breeding plumage by now, while Red-throated Loons will not transition until late May and early June and are very rarely seen in breeding plumage in Indiana. Monday continued the loon movement, with 31 Red-throated Loons being seen on the water from the tower site.  However, only 3 Common Loons were seen today.  A comparison of two loons on the water from today is below, taken digiscoped with an iPhone.  Hover over to identify each loon.

 

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Merlin near the tower site, 4/2/17.

Raptor diversity has also been the specialty the last few days, with both falcons and buteos putting in some mileage over the longshore tower.  Sunday’s southeast winds pushed some 269 hawks, falcons, and vultures over.  the usual flight paths were not followed and birds seemed to move in many directions.  Falcons put on a good show, with a few Merlins even buzzing the tower and stopping to eat cowbird fodder, which the tower feeders have in ample supply right now.  29 kestrels Sunday, and 4 more Monday rounded out the falcon show.

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American Kestrel perched in the dunes prairie 4/3/17.

Rounding out the odds and ends in notables…. Sunday produced the best Northern Flicker flight of the season with nearly three hundred birds (285 to be exact).  A weaker, yet still significant 122 went by on Monday.  Rusty Blackbirds increasted ten fold, from 102 seen Sunday to 1,479 seen on Monday among the icterid flocks.

Duck diversity had been waning, but did well on Monday, as late waterfowl finish their migration through the dunes.  15 species passed by, with most dabblers being seen, and a few divers, including Lesser Scaup and White-winged Scoter.

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Distant and cropped iPhone photo of Monday’s Short-eared Owl moving along the beach.  4/3/17.

Lastly, several counters Monday got a late morning treat of a Short-eared Owl flying east along the beach.  The beautiful dune prairie, behind the tower, may have had some allure, as it turned and began working circles over the parking lot, and then towards the tower, as it inspected the prairie and then decided to continue it’s eastward movement.  It was last seen putting down somewhere near the prairie dune that sits next to Mt. Tom.  Migrating Short-eared Owls are a more common fall sight than in the spring.

For the three days of April, we welcomed 28,275 birds through the dunes, comprising 88 unique species.  Our season total as of today stands at 116 species.  You can view the year’s total species count and accumulated checklists here.

North winds visit again, and include the chance for snow this week, but if the forecast holds out, we should be in store for a nice bank of south winds by the weekend and into next week.  April is a prime time for new arrivals and rarities, so anything is possible!

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.

 

 

Great Lakes’ Divers

You may hear birders speak of “spark birds.”  Spark birds are those species or individuals that stimulate a serious interest in more serious birding.  For some, that bird experience may be their first foray into birding… a species they have never seen, nor do they know what it is.  For others, there was some initial interest, and the bird’s sighting or behavior pushed it to obsessive birding.  This writer has distinct memories of watching for hours the gentle dives and behavior of a migrating Common Loon on a NE Indiana lake one spring afternoon.  Before my interests swung heavy towards the owls, my first group of birds that really drew me were the loons.

Winter plumage Common Loon.  Photo by Len Blumin.
Winter plumage Common Loon. Photo by Len Blumin.

The southern rim of Lake Michigan is a great location to observe migrating loons.  Loon observation programs hosted at the state park always draw an interest from casual birders and park visitors.  They’re simply interesting and popular birds.  Even Aldo Leopold wrote about the plaintive siren of the wilderness.  Leopold said, “the Lord did well when he fitted the loon and his music in this lonesome land.”  We don’t always hear the eerie yodel across  Lake Michigan, but a spring morning, with hope of hearing them, makes one visit the beach on an April sunrise.  If you’re lucky, you may hear them during a calm dawn.

Large groups of Common Loons will stage in the Indiana waters in November.  A big Thanksgiving cold front will push hundreds, and occasionally thousands, off the lake and over a lakefront observer, heading to warmer waters.  Most Common Loons will push out of Indiana by winter time.

Red-throated Loon numbers in NW Indiana.  Courtesy Ken Brock, Birds of Indiana Dunes.
Red-throated Loon numbers in NW Indiana. Courtesy Ken Brock, Birds of Indiana Dunes.

Many decades ago, you wouldn’t take notice of different looking Common Loons.  The Red-throated Loon was a rare sight in the state.  Sometime in the mid 1990s, numbers of Red-throated Loons on Lake Michigan started to increase.  Not just in Indiana, but in all the Lake Michigan bordering states.  This increase was not subtle, but exponential.  There are theories on population, food supplies, or climate change, though none have been pin pointed to the reason we see so many now.  Red-throated Loons are the loon most likely to winter on Lake Michigan.  Those moving through will winter off the Atlantic coast in areas farther north than most Common Loons will winter.

Thus, a loon seen this time of year is likely to be a Red-throated Loon.  From a distance, they can look similar, but their much smaller size, excess white, and smaller up-turned bill help to identify them.  A long distance scan on a sunny day reveals a brighter, shinier loon than the Common Loons appear.  A great guide on IDing our loons found in NW Indiana can be read here.  Unfortunately, that’s how most of us see the loons… from a far distance.

Red-throated Loon adult, February 2014.
Winter Red-throated Loon adult, Portage Lakefront Park, February 2014.

To see a loon up close is a special experience.  You can see the amazing adaptations that make them deep diving experts.  You can see the special color of gray they possess, as well as the deep red eyes that help them see better below the water.  These same adaptations hurt them when it comes to flying.  With their legs so far back, they require a runway of sorts to take off.   This really becomes a problem when they find a nice shimmering surface sparkling like their favorite lake, only it’s really just a wet parking lot sparkling with lights.  If they don’t figure this out in time, their legs and feet can be damaged by the crash landing.

Crash landed Red-throated Loon in Michigan City.  Photo courtesy Stephanie Stefanko.
Crash landed Red-throated Loon in Michigan City. Photo courtesy Stephanie Stefanko.

This was the case this week with a wintering Red-throated Loon in Michigan City.  It crash landed on Coolspring Road and was picked up by a helpful family.  A few quick emails later, and we were able to help assess the bird’s injuries and arrnage for it’s freedom in some real water.  The next morning, the bird was released in the freshwater estuary found at the Portage Lakefront Park and Riverwalk.  After some brief preening and water drinking, it took to diving right away and will hopefully find an abundance of food there for a while, or at least until it decides to find the open water out in the middle of the lake.  Chances are good it will still be there for a few days if folks want to go look for him or her.

Releasing the Red-throated Loon, February 2014.
Releasing the Red-throated Loon, February 2014.
Red-throated Loon after release, February 2014.
Red-throated Loon after release, February 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update 2/11/14: Unfortunately, presumably the same Red-throated Loon was found deceased today on the ice in the harbor.  Why it died may remain a mystery.  Botulism E. is a major concern for loons on the Great Lakes right now.

 

 

Some Loony Weather

Longshore Rainbow, March 23, 2012

This morning greeted the counters with the first real precipitation in days, if not two weeks.  Despite the weather, it was absolutely beautiful and calm out over the high dune.  By dawn, most of the morning rain was more of a drizzle off and on.  The rain was never really hard enough to put a hamper on the birding.  Heavier rains came later in the afternoon, but for the morning, songs could be heard, and a few birds did choose to migrate.

The best highlight may not have been a bird, but the amazing full color rainbow that arched across the sky around 8:30am.  As the old birding lore goes, some mega rarity was sitting off shore at the end of that rainbow.  A Yellow-billed Loon perhaps.

A loon no doubt, as there was a good movement of loons early this morning.  The loon migration typically peaks in mid-April, but a good number are already being seen.  The dunes area hosts record counts of 1,000+ birds.  The majority of these high counts occur in the fall, but a few spectacular spring counts also exist.  Thus today’s 69 Common Loons and 5 Red-throated Loons are merely the tip of the iceberg, but quite enjoyable for folks that have never seen that many loons on the water at once.

As one can guess, the morning flight of passerines never really took off.  Perhaps 1,000 robins and blackbirds flew over the tower site this morning.  However, once again, Palm Warblers made a presence, with two more birds being seen.  One of the Palm Warblers chose to serenade the counters with it’s weak trill from the West Lot for quite a while.  A quick look on Ebird and IN-Bird shows that no other birders in Indiana have seen a Palm Warbler yet.  Odd?  Accompanying the Palm Warbler in song was the season’s first territorial Pine Warbler.  Add the two Yellow-rumped Warblers and it was the season’s first three warbler species day!

After 14 full days in a row of counting birds, it may be nice to have some breaks in the coming week.  The forecast becomes more complicated and wind shifts will occur more often.  Calm north winds don’t necessarily mean no birds, so if conditions look good, we will still be out there.