One of the most popular birding events that goes on at the Indiana Dunes State Park is the annual fall Saw-whet Owl banding. It’s unlikely any regular reader here hasn’t heard or participated in a banding night. Our station is perhaps the most visited in the Great Lakes region in terms of total visitors and educational opportunities. A great feat considering we don’t band the most birds, compared to other stations. Our station certainly has it’s ups and downs that vary with each year’s breeding success. 5 years and 153 owl captures later…
We do much of our work with Project Owlnet. Project Owlnet facilitates communication and cooperation among hundreds of owl-migration researchers in North America, in particular studying the amazing migrations of Northern Saw-whet Owls. They help provide protocol standards and communication between stations, especially with recaptured birds across states. It’s founders are also the brain child’s behind the current Project SNOWstorm project going on right now with Snowy Owls.
In a move that gives Project Owlnet even more recognition, David Sibley, of Sibley Field Guide to Birds fame, has made a print of his painting of a Saw-whet Owl. The original was auctioned off, but this reprint is now for sale with a portion (percentage not said) of the sale of each print being donated to help fund the work of Project Owlnet. The prints are $45 each, 9 X 11″ limited edition, and they are made with archival ink and paper. The edition is limited to 300 prints and are signed and numbered, as well as come with a certificate of authenticity.
A reporter called today. He was with a radio station down in Indy and when it came to wintering animals, our division of communication staff thought us in the dunes would be the best to talk to in regards to toughing out the cold! I had plenty of stories of heat pad stuffed thermal underwear and shivering behind open car doors while birding the lakefront, but alas he wasn’t interested in that. He had been posed the question of how the winter weather was affecting the sudden disappearance or appearance of different animals in Indiana. The question seemed worthy enough of a little news minute and radio interview. So off we went…
The Snowy Owls were obviously a central topic for the bit being recorded. Questions arised as to whether their sudden invasion was weather based and what possible other animals were here because of the recent cold snap, or more news friendly term, polar vortex. It was a good chance to talk about irruptions and migration in general. These millions of birds flee the incoming cold for warmer climates. Or so we think…! Truth be told, most of these birds that migrate or irrupt occasionally are doing so more based on food supplies than actual temperature. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, the current Snowy Owl invasion (now approaching 100 recorded birds for Indiana!) is derived from a good breeding summer and subsequent search for food by younger owls. These birds are no better predictors of incoming cold weather than, say, Punxsutawney Phil. Seasonal fluctuations cause the different reports we get each year. Since not all birds breed in the same areas or feed on the same food sources, it’s safe to say that one species irrupting, doesn’t necessarily translate to a similar bird irrupting.
That truth is easy to see with our recent fall Saw-whet Owl banding season. The fall of 2013 was our lowest banding totals ever. Here, in this instance, there was poor breeding in the Canadian northwoods and few Saw-whet Owls migrated south. Since mid-December there have been no Saw-whet Owls reported in the entire state (versus 100 Snowy Owls!). No one has seen a Saw-whet Owl in the dunes since our banding season ended either. Until today!
As we often tell folks during the banding season, those with a keen eye may find a wintering saw-whet owl after the season is done. Watch those dense pines, cedars, and spruce trees. Whitewash or pellet accumulations may give hint to a roosting bird too. The photos above and below were taken of a N Saw-whet Owl found in a spruce tree in a resident’s front yard today. Unfortunately the entire area is private property and access is not public. But, fortunately, for the bird, it should be allowed to continue too hunt and hunker all winter long at this site without too much disturbance.
Going back to our reporter. What else is here that we don’t normally see. The bad news I gave him was that there really isn’t much to report that could be attributed to the polar vortex. It’s all food related I told him. Perhaps the story could look at what may we be losing. With southern species, like Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, or Eastern Bluebirds enjoying several years of mild winters, there is a chance that the cold weather knocks them back. Time will tell and we’ll see who’s singing their spring song in a few weeks.
A few years ago, Indiana birders enjoyed a decent flight of Snowy Owls. The winter of 2011/2012 saw 46 individuals reported. It beat the previous record Snowy Owl flight when 40 were counted during the winter of 1996/1997. It was a memorable flight that made news across the nation. Snowy Owl’s invaded much of the county, but the Great Lakes were especially noteworthy. Owls were seen as far south as Texas, and Hawaii recorded it’s first state record of this amazing white ghost.
Birders often wait years or even a decade to see another flight like this. Now, only two winters later, it appears the Indiana Dunes and much of the US is undergoing another invasion. It began light, but by November’s end, sightings were literally snowballing in. Already, this invasion is getting more press than the 2007/2008 incursion. Likely due to the fact that the concentrations on the east coast are higher this time around. More people seeing them= more press.
So what have been the early highlights? Early returns? Well, December has just began and we have the following interesting reports:
“Newfoundland has been experiencing a huge invasion of Snowy Owls over the last 2 weeks. A count of 42 along a 25km stretch of road yesterday is an indication that hundreds and maybe even thousands of these birds are all along the Southern coast of the island. Hatch year birds make up the vast majority of these birds, but a few adults have been seen.” Alvan Buckley in Newfoundland.
A Snowy Owl is currently being seen in Bermuda. Last seen Friday, November 29.
A Snowy Owl in North Carolina is the first in many years. If birders in Indiana are giddy about a Snowy Owl, imagine the near mass hysteria among southern birders when one shows up that far south.
On Sunday, December 1, A Snowy Owl was seen at the Port of Indiana. Shortly after, 3 were seen together at Michigan City Harbor. A single bird was simultaneously being seen at nearby New Buffalo, MI harbor, while two more were inland in Berrien County. Later that afternoon, an astounding 5 Snowy Owls were being seen at the IN/IL stateline by Illinois birders. A single birder could have easily seen a dozen Snowy Owls along Lake Michigan’s southern rim in one afternoon!
These charismatic birds of the cold arctic excite bird enthusiasts and can contribute to bringing a new generation of bird watchers to the scene. For many, it’s Hedwig in the flesh (and feathers). These birds often allow for close up approaches, but it’s important to give them space, not to stress an already exhausted and likely starving bird. Watch any Snowy Owls from a distance. One opportunity to see Snowy Owls comes Monday, December 2. The Dunes State Park Interpretive Services will meet anyone interested in seeking out a Snowy Owl at the Indiana Dunes Tourism Visitor Center at 1215 N St Rd 49, Porter, IN, 46304 at 12pm central time. The car pool tour will drive around to known sites where the park’s optics will help give close up looks. If present, another tour will be offered this upcoming weekend too.
Snowy Owls in Indiana for 2013/2014… 13 and counting…
In a turn of events, last weeks’ first state record Lesser Sand Plover at Michigan City Harbor has been refound. Not back at the Lake Michigan beach, but at a unique inland pond within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. For folks needing info on the first sighting, read here.
West Beach is a unit of the National Lakeshore that is well known as the main swimming destination for many park visitors. Educationally, West Beach hosts an amazing succession trail that takes visitors from foredune grass, through thick Jack pine stands that host hidden Long-eared Owls, and up towering dunes. The flat cactus fields behind the dunes host annual Le Conte’s Sparrows, and the scattered red cedars have on multiple occasions hosted wintering Merlins and Townsend Solitaires.
In southern part of the unit lies Long Lake. Though shallow, the entire lake stretches for nearly a mile. The lake is currently still holding very little water, from last year’s record heat and drought. In some winters, low water levels have led to winter fish kills.
Folks looking for the Sand Plover over the next day or so should also watch for other rare species too. The photo below of three White-faced Ibis was taken just a few days ago.
One of the spectacular aspects of birding around the Indiana Dunes (#dunesbirding) is you never know what might show up. Each season… each month can bring something new! Predicting the next big rarity or state record is a losing bet. Just when you think you’ll know, something far different can show up.
With most of the main songbird migration waning, and the woodlands left with Yellow-rumped Warblers and sparrows coming through, attention often begins to turn towards the lake, as waterfowl, loons, late shorebirds, and gulls begin to arrive in the dunes area. A good north wind will push them down the lake for birders to see. Imagine the surprise today, with light south winds and rain entering the radar, when a strange looking plover would enter Indiana’s record books and soak many scopes and their owners.
The State Park’s own longshore bird counter and all around eagle eye birder, Brendan Grube, ventured to Michigan City’s Washington Park to check for birds near the beach and off-shore. Without a camera, or even a phone today, he would stumble on a strange looking plover that through observation, was apparent that this was no usual plover we see. A quick phone call from a borrowed passerby, and birders began to converge. The bird moved to the outer breakwall, near the lighthouse, and the first digiscoped photos were taken, albeit nearly 1,000 feet away.
As birders gathered, and light rain entered the area, the bird took off from the outer breakwall and could be seen (and heard) flying southeast towards the shoreline. Moving east, past the gulls, the bird landed on the main beach and began to provide better views and opportunities for birders to photograph it. Again moving, this time, back towards the lighthouse and in the corner, where the lighthouse breakwall begins. A location convenient for birders to peer over the breakwall to snap shots, without disturbing the bird.
Lesser Sand Plovers, formerly known as Mongolian Plovers, are an ABA code 3 rare bird. Few inland records exist, and most that do show up are seen in Alaska or California. The map below from eBird.com shows a sampling of the records. This bird may be the first for the Midwest. Hopefully the rain and south winds will keep the bird for other birders to see tomorrow.
The summer season has slowly begun to take hold. Temperatures, like this spring, remain on the colder side. The state park trails and recreation areas have now filled in with visitors from all over the world (48 states and 29 countries registered in 2012). Many are taking reprieve in the more pleasant weather. The trails are seeing high use, while the beach remains quiet still (beach water at 51 degrees still). Things will change, but for now, the breeding season birding weather is perfect!
With breeding season here, a vast array of specialty birds can be found for the visiting birder. As has been stated before, a remarkable park feature is the fact that many southern birds (e.g. White-eyed Vireo, Cerulean Warbler, and Summer Tanager) nest here along with typical northern species (e.g. Veery, Blackburnian Warbler, and Canada Warbler). We’ll highlight some of these unique species during the course of the summer. We’re also logging many birds in the park as part of the Indiana Audubon’s Summer Bird Count. The first of several counts was done done by park staff and volunteers just yesterday. Portions of Trails 2, 10, and more developed areas of the park were surveyed for all the birds present. We’re happy to report some great numbers thus far, including: 14 Eastern Wood-Pewees, a late singing Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, 26 Acadian Flycatchers (possible second highest dunes area daily count), 25 Red-eyed Vireos, 31 American Redstarts, and finally an impressive 10 Cerulean Warblers.
The above mentioned Cerulean Warblers are forest canopy insectivores not easily seen. Recognizing their buzzy call can help you zero in on one. Their fondness for large forest tracts makes them particularly sensitive to forest loss and degradation. For Indiana, Cerulean’s are state endangered and have had petitions sent in for federal protection. Traditionally, the first sections of Trail 2, east of the Wilson Shelter have harbored a “Cerulean Alley” of sorts. A trek down 2 should allow the careful ear a chance to hear them singing.
Finally, we mentioned we’d share more comparison of this spring’s longshore bird survey, compared to last year. With 428,000 birds compared to 285,000 birds in 2012, there are certainly some noticeable increases. But, the decreases in numbers are equally interesting. While presented here as raw data, we won’t offer complete conclusions yet. Some will be due to weather during appropriate migration periods, others may represent an actual increase or decrease in population. More years of data will help us draw the most complete and accurate conclusions. Saying that, here’s some neat data. The first show the ten species with an increase. As expected, winter finches staged a larger spring flight, compared to last year. The White-winged Scoters aren’t surprising either. For the decreased species, how much did weather play a role in the final count?
If you look at other notable decreases after this top ten you’ll find Red-eyed Vireo, Nashville Warbler, and Gray Catbird. The cold spring and late arrival into the count likely is the explanation for this entire group of May migrants being down from last year’s count.
Lastly of interest are the birds that had numbers nearly identical (or within 10%) of last year’s count. Here’s a few of those: