Yesterday produced an early warbler migration madness that is worth a quick blog post here. Why any particular day is better than the next for migration depends primarily on weather conditions, especially wind speeds and directions. Why spectacles like yesterday happen on one south wind day over another is one of those mysteries of migration that we’ll likely have more questions than answers.
Yesterday morning welcomed the dunes with very warm south winds. Temperatures were already in the mid 60s at dawn, and shortly after dawn, the chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers could be heard and subsequently seen in mass numbers past the tower. The first hour along produced approximately 300 Yellow-rumped Warblers. From that point on, the intensity increased to rapid flights of dozens of birds per minute. With clickers in hand, the surveyors began 10 minute point counts. After each ten minutes, we cleared the score and started over. The quick burst of birds is well seen in the chart below.
By the time the flight concluded, we had logged 2,213 butterbutts (37% of all birds counted yesterday). This is the third highest ever count in Indiana. The two higher counts, 2,823 and 2,570 both occurred at the same location, here at the state park longshore tower. Facebook users can see a short clip of counting here. The total also sits as the highest April total in the Great Lakes, and second highest spring Great Lakes count (according to eBird data).
Almost as equally noteworthy were the Pine Warbler flight. Yesterday’s 47 Pine Warblers may be a new state single count record. 3 Orange-crowned Warblers were also
pretty good this early in the season. 57 Palm Warblers also moved yesterday.
Rounding out the other highlights of the 66 species logged yesterday were one Wild Turkey, 2 Solitary Sandpipers, a small influx of 164 Blue Jays, 7 Red-breasted Nuthatches, and a few Purple Finches still moving.
It’s a magic time for the dunes longshore tower. We’ve entered that period where anything is possible. From new arrivals to rarities, it’s the period birders get most excited about. It will last until the end of May for most of us in the Great Lakes. From Golden-crowned Sparrows to Ruffs, the possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, for today, April 18, the rarities remained just a possibility.
While the flight was moderate and the birds were certainly migrating and diverse, no new arrivals were logged today. It remained much of what we’ve seen already. However, we did count 7,574 birds to add to the season’s total, including many female Red-winged Blackbirds. The total of 65 species was down slightly from previous days. Thus far 138 species have been logged for the year.
Most notable was the beginnings of the Blue Jay flight. For those who have followed in the past know that the Blue Jay migration can be spectacular the first week of May. On some days 5,000+ bird will go by west to east. Thus far we’ve logged single birds here and there. Today’s 71 was a noticeable uptick, though far from where it will go in the following week or two.
Raptors were generally weak today, which was a surprise given the perfect southeast winds. 87 birds of prey went by. Sharp-shinned Hawks led the pack and Broad-wings, kestrels, Osprey, and Red-shouldered were only singletons today. It was the first hawkflight in a while with no Merlin. One surprise was the late push of 60 Sandhill Cranes that moved through the dunes today.
For the week going ahead, we hope to get one last good count in tomorrow before wind and rain get dicey. The forecast shows a good north wind flow for Fri-Sun, but a nice south set up coming for Monday and Tuesday of next week. This next south wind will really start to bring in the warblers, orioles, and tanagers. Things start to get exciting now!
As predicted, the weekend brought forth the predicted south winds needed badly for a good old fashioned longshore flight along the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Also, as predicted, a cooler start and lighter winds brought a lighter flight on Saturday, with more hawks, and a stronger overall flight Sunday, with winds causing thermal sheer and lowering overall hawks, most notably buteos.
Temperature wise, you couldn’t have asked for a better two days. With upper 60s on Saturday, and mid 70s on Sunday, it was very May like. Unfortunately, the May birds are still quite a bit away from the dunes. The only downside to the weekend’s flight was the total increase in new arrivals. Four new arrivals made it to the dunes. Those being American White Pelican, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
Saturday’s major highlights include the 135 raptors that went by. Leading the pack were 41 Turkey Vultures and 32 Red-tailed Hawks (including one dark morph). Over 5,000 grackles streamed by, with an excellent 990 Rusty Blackbirds also mixing in. Some flocks were pure Rusties.
Sunday brought even warmer temperatures, with starting temperatures in the mid 50s. But winds were much stronger. Enough to keep the counters down below the tower for much of the day. The dawn flight brought a much larger icterid movement. Some 10,000 grackles, blackbirds, and cowbirds moved in great streams overhead. The main flight path was nearly directly over the beach, making for great visual counting. The grackles nearly doubled the previous day, an Rusty Blackbirds exceeded the day before with 1,378 birds.
The major highlight of the morning was the strong flicker flight and excellent sapsucker count. An even 300 Northern Flickers undulated past the beach. Their sounds could be heard in each of the nearby woodlands. More silent and stealthy, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers staged a huge movement in not just the dunes, but many reported stations throughout Indiana. By the end of the day, 55 of them were counted. This is the fourth highest state count ever. In case you’re wondering, the dunes area holds the next three higher records as well.
In contrast to the raptor flight of Saturday, only 92 raptors were seen. Though many early Sharp-shinned Hawks were seen early, giving promise to more later. The much awaited Broad-winged Hawks did not arrive today. The other notable today was a very good 74 Yellow-rumped Warblers for this date in early April. Most high counts occur in late April, with the state record being 2,823 of them in a single day counted from this very spot.
The current forecast shows promise for a Monday flight, but begins to waiver, particularly for Wednesday. But another warming trend is not far behind for the next wave of migrants. We’re hoping for some more of neo-tropical variety!
If large totals have seemed lacking this spring, you’re not alone in that observation. The season’s longshore flight has been noticably absent of 20,000 or 30,000 bird mornings. The biggest culprit likely lies with the lack of south winds. After a super warm February, March has been averaging 6 degrees cooler than last March. The graphs below show our local weather station in March 2016, and March of this year. Of note, look at the winds. Last year we had several days of sustained south winds, before a new front would come in. This year, the south winds are almost immediately accompanied with a front and precipitation.
2017 March Weather History
2016 March Weather History
In 2012, we conducted 21 longshore flight counts in the month of March. In 2016, last year, we had 16 counts done. This March has only seen 13 days with longshore flights. Many of those weren’t south winds. Obviously, south winds are the best for measuring migration. Followed by westerly winds, and then finally east winds. North winds are the worst. Wind speed can also affect this. When the weather’s not conducive to migration, anything other than a north wind will be measured, as was the case today, March 29.
With east winds blowing, a typical songbird flight will not happen in any significant quantity, but if the sun is shining, a few migrating thermal riding birds may push off and be forced against the lakeshore, when you’re east of Miller beach. This produced the best Sandhill Crane count since March 5, with 2,376 going by.
With no passerine distractions, raptors put on their best migration of the season at the dunes longshore tower today. 307 raptors went by, with Red-tailed Hawks (154) being the most abundant. The full list of raptors counted was:
91 Turkey Vultures 4 Northern Harrier
42 Sharp-shinned Hawk 1 Cooper’s Hawk 1 Bald Eagle 13 Red-shouldered Hawk 154 Red-tailed Hawk Including 4 dark morphs. 1 American Kestrel
Unfortunately, the next 7 day forecast doesn’t look good still for south winds. NOAA’s 8-14 day outlook shows above average temperatures, and below average precipitation. This may bring the needed south winds to kickstart the dunes bird migration. Until then, we’re enjoying just a small trickle of the dunes potential.
Note: the following first appeared 4 years ago, tomorrow, as an introduction to birding the longshore flight and the sedentary birding by flight that is done here. We’re presenting portions again for folks that are new to our longshore flight this year. Enjoy!
From atop the old green tower site at Indiana Dunes State Park, birders are approximately 50-60 feet above Lake Michigan. When you’re twice the height of the beach pavilion, you are at a good vantage point to view migrating birds in the spring. With a south wind, the morning flight begins at dawn and continues for several hours before being reduced to a trickle. Some mornings, the birds literally shine as the rising sun behind us illuminates the passing birds. The necks on Red-throated Loons reflects back like a light bulb at times. When clouds interfere, the birds are mere black spots against a gray background. It’s here where body shape, flight style, and small call notes make the difference in identifying all that flies by.
Quite simply, 90% of the most recent flight in March can be narrowed down to four species. Of course, many other species go by that are worth noting and the main species going by will change as the spring progresses. The thousand blackbird counts will be replaced by thousand Blue Jay flights in May. But with cloudy conditions, notice how easily the main four species shake out in this style of sedentary birding.
Take the American Robin. We often know it’s a robin flying over, but when pressed to explain why it’s a robin, we may fail to accurately describe why we know. The Peterson Guide to Birds inside cover gave many of us our first peak at identifying birds by their silhouette. Here’s some photos taken yesterday in very cloudy conditions.
The photo is poor, but you can see it’s a robin. The orange belly and white vent is visible. Here’s the same photo, but darkened in Photoshop.
This image is more closely what our eyes would have seen yesterday morning. The miracle of modern day cameras can automatically compensate for the lighting and adjust the white balance and exposure. Notice right away the average tail projection past where the wings would ultimately fold down to. It’s easy to photograph birds and end up with shots that look like little bird bullets. You always catch them with their wings folded in. Not with robins. Their resting/gliding state is with the wings partially open. It begins to form a clear “caped” pattern. Think Batman (and Robin!), with his cape. Here’s a completely terrible, out of focus shot showing how robins look when they pass by. However, it illustrates the point.
At the old green tower, we won’t see this from any other bird in March, and most of April. Really, the only bird we’ll see in significant numbers that remotely looks like this are Eastern Kingbirds in May. Lastly, notice the side shot and the jolly belly. Our plump robins flying by at low level can be easily identified from similar birds by this too.
Grackles are much easier to separate when flying over. Their extra tail extension, longer wings, and long head are obvious at longer distances. The major problem counters have here is the fact that they mix with the other blackbirds, and force counters to estimate each flock by percentage of each blackbird for the final tally.
The largest groups in March are usually the Red-winged Blackbird flocks. Their constant call notes and occasional full song fill the sky during heavy flights. Counts of 10,000+ a day are common at the Green Tower. Like the robin, the tail extension is average, but the birds exhibit full wing beats. Males dominate early, as the first scouts arrive, but the flocks begin to show more females later in March. During this time, the careful eye can separate the males from females by size alone. Birders are also on the look out for Rusties, Brewers, and Cowbirds among them. Sound is a good indication when they are mixed in. Here’s a bullet bird below.
Starlings can be one of the easier to separate during heavy flights merely due to their tiny tails. Their triangular, kite like wings, smaller size, and short tail extension is usually enough in even the worst lighting.
Knowing the major four helps, but our paid counter must be able to recognize many other birds high in the sky as they go over, searching for any details and hints to it’s identity. It’s also good to be knowledgeable of potential new species, never seen at the site. Will our counter recognize a Lewis’s Woodpecker or Smith’s Longspur if it went by?
Lastly, here’s three more shots taken on March 12, 2012, during poor lighting conditions. They are each common birds seen, and show slightly different characteristics that can provide enough clues to the identity. They’re great quiz birds (i.e. poor photos). Can you identify them? If so, tell us in the comments. We’ll send you the most recent Brock’s Birds of Indiana Dunes CD, with pdf files on each dune bird in a drawing of those that comment with all three correct by Wednesday. Good luck!
As you can see from the photo above, the morning prospect was not very good shortly after dawn today. Thick fog enveloped the lakeshore, extending into Chesterton and the rest of the region. From the creamy soup, a bright ball of light could be seen rising and it didn’t take long to raise the temperatures a few degrees, resulting in a improving viewing conditions. The counters simply birded the immediate grounds around the tower in search of feeding birds, roosting owls, and general nature viewing. From high above you could hear the call notes of migrating blackbirds and grackles. These birds must have found the upper limit of the fog and were enjoying smooth sailing. Winds were light but from a favorable southerly direction.
As the fog lifted, it was possible to begin counting birds. How much went by without seeing is unknown. What is known is 3,445 birds were logged during the longshore flight for today, March 12. It was a season high 60 species for the morning. As has been the case lately, waterfowl were in good variety, but low numbers. White-winged Scoters were back up with 48 being seen. 4 Surf Scoters flew past, including two adult males showing their “skunk-headed coot” features. Another early Blue-winged Teal was on the lake for many to see, and a lone Canvasback rounded out the highlights on the water.
By mid-morning an entire contingent of who’s who of lakefront birding was assisting with the count. Distant raptors, cranes, and blackbirds continued through late morning. Another 1,036 Sandhill Cranes flew past, thus proving that the Kankakee bottomlands aren’t completely empty of cranes. 1,300 blackbirds were the other high counters, but occasional Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and pipits were mixed in.
Other highlights consisted of Tree Swallows and an Eastern Phoebe. Two Pileated Woodpeckers were a nice treat to see fly by at eye level from the tower. For today’s complete list, visit here.
Tomorrow marks the beginning of the annual Christmas Bird Count season. 115th Christmas Bird Count begins on Sunday, December 14th, 2014, and runs through Monday, January 5th, 2015. The count period runs from December 14 to January 5 every year. It’s a great chance to get a snapshot of the wintering birds throughout the US and Canada (and now beyond) during this couple week period. One thing is for certain, no single year is ever the same. One notable invasion of birds one year may give way to another group of birds the year after.
The history of the Christmas Bird Counts can be traced back to Frank Chapman, who proposed the new holiday tradition of counting the birds, rather than shooting them, as had been the previous custom. 25 Christmas Counts were held that first year, recording 90 species of birds. The majority of these counts were in the NE US, but a few were as far as California and Canada. With declining bird populations, there was a growing trend of concern for certain species of birds. a mere five years later the National Audubon Society would be formed as well.
The very first Christmas Bird Count in the Indiana Dunes took place on December 24, 1916! On that year 2 participants counted about a dozen species of birds. Most notable were some bobwhites, a species not currently being seen consistently in the dunes. A break occured, and the counts began again in 1972. This time 46 participants scoured the dunes area. At one point (1977) over 100 birders were participating. Today, some 30+ birders, plus feeder watchers participate the first weekend of the count period. We’ve logged over 150 species through the years. Three birds have been logged during the count week, but not on the count day. Those being Little Gull, Mew Gull, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Last year brought species 153 to the count when Jeff “Magic” McCoy logged the state’s first Christmas Bird Count Bobolink, hanging out along the railroad tracks near Michigan City.
While the Dunes’ main CBC will go on tomorrow, there is still the other, newer National Lakeshore West count that takes place on Tuesday, December 30. This newer count, sponsored by the NPS, takes place in Lake and far eastern Porter counties and usually needs counters willing to brave the cold and ice in search of birds. You may also email Christie Gerlach at email@example.com for more information on INDW.
Between winter finches, Snowy Owls, and the hopes for rare waterfowl, there is no reason to hang up the binoculars right now in the Indiana Dunes!