Tag Archives: Red-throated 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.

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!


Hotel California

Even with two full (official) longshore flight years under our belt, things continue to surprise you.  The unexpected is what spurs most birders out each day or week.  Numbers can fluctuate from day to day.  Today’s longshore flight count was a notable rebound from the first day of the season, with more than 10 times as many birds counted, compared to yesterday.  It was also 20 degrees warmer, making it far more comfortable to be on top of the windy tower site.  The day ended with 4,722 birds, making up 56 species.

Bald Eagles sitting on pack ice, March 10, 2014.
Bald Eagles sitting on pack ice, March 10, 2014.

As mentioned, warmer temperatures greeted any counters today.  The snow was thinner and making good progress towards melting.  The Lake Michigan pack ice was also more broken up.  You could still see lots of pushed ice at the horizon, but the near shore waters were open with floating islands of ice.  After some initial far scans for the first ducks of the day, it became obvious we had several eagles not too far out.  Three eagles had chosen to perch on the pack ice in search of food… or perhaps love.  The Bald Eagles performed for us for several hours.  They would jump from ice pack to ice pack, perch like kingfishers on chunks of ice, and at one point, when they looked to have lost numbers, one jumped up and had revealed that it had been mating with the other.  All was well in the eagle world until a passing adult Great-blacked Back Gull would have no tolerance of one of the eagles and began chasing it down.  The eagle was forced up and flew inland, right past the Bird Observation Deck, until turning back towards the lake and disappearing.

Bald Eagle moving past the Bird Observation Platform this morning.
Bald Eagle moving past the Bird Observation Platform this morning.

Aside from the Eagle show, the geese began performing as well this morning.  Geese normally don’t stage huge flights over the Indiana Dunes.  Despite large congregations at the Fish and Wildlife areas to our south, geese don’t seem to funnel around the lake, like cranes do.  Our only guess is the geese have been bottled up with the extended cold and today’s warmth provided the first exodus northward.   By 9am, streams of geese flocks could be seen from all 360 degrees.  Geese flocks came in from the south, traversed the lake from high elevation, or skirted our view along the south regions of the Valparaiso morraine.  Greater White-fronted Geese made a good appearance among the Canada Geese, and a lone Snow Goose showed up today also.  The 2,538 Canada Geese and 646 “speckle bellies” constitute the lakefront’s highest single party count.  Truly a sight to gander!

Mixed Canada and White-fronted Geese stream over the Bird Observation Platform this morning.
Mixed Canada and White-fronted Geese stream over the Bird Observation Platform this morning.

Aside from eagles and geese, it was good to see other birds arrive from this long, cold winter.  Turkey Vultures returned today, and were joined by a few raptors, including another Merlin, a Northern Harrier, and a few Red-tailed Hawks.  The blackbird trickle is picking up.  Only 380 today, but that will increase soon.  As predicted, the gull numbers increased notably today.  Many Ring-billed Gulls have returned.  Almost a thousand were observed moving with an assortment of other waterfowl.  Highlights are all below.

March 10, 2014 Longshore Flight Highlights:

Greater White-fronted Goose 646 
Snow Goose 1
Canada Goose 2538
Northern Shoveler 1
Northern Pintail 10
Redhead 26
White-winged Scoter 2
Long-tailed Duck 4
Common Goldeneye 5
Hooded Merganser 4
Common Merganser 10
Red-breasted Merganser 73
Red-throated Loon 7
Turkey Vulture 2
Bald Eagle 3
Rough-legged Hawk 3
Sandhill Crane 217
Great Black-backed Gull 5
American Kestrel 2
Merlin 1
Horned Lark 36
Snow Bunting 2

Beautiful Red-tailed Hawk soaring over kettles today.

Beautiful Red-tailed Hawk soaring over kettles today.
A darker Red-tailed Hawk visits the count area briefly, March 10, 2014.
A darker Red-tailed Hawk visits the count area briefly, March 10, 2014.




An Icy 300 To Start

The third season of the Indiana Dunes Longshore Flight Count commenced today.  This new season takes place an additional 20 feet in elevation, from atop the new Bird Observation Platform.  This new season started with one defining word…. COLD!  This morning’s count started at a bone chilling 19 degrees, despite the south winds blowing across the frosty tower surface.  The tower temperature would go down as the second coldest in the three years of official longshore counts.  Ice still filled Lake Michigan and the new south winds began to slowly open up a little sliver of open water for the first waterfowl to come back.  The park staff was nice enough to plow the snow up to the tower site for us this morning.

Panaramic opening morning from the Bird Observation Platform.  March 9, 2014.
Panaramic opening morning from the Bird Observation Platform. March 9, 2014.

So, how did the first morning compare with last year’s first day (which was March 8, by the way)?  It’s clear migration is a day late up here along the lakeshore.  This morning’s 312 birds was a far cry from last year’s 1,852 individuals seen.  It’s common to not see the passerine movement going yet, but the thick ice also limited the waterfowl flight.  Very little was moving on the lake.  Gull numbers were dismal, but should build in the next day or so.  Chicago birders reported an influx of Ring-billed Gulls arriving today.  This wave should ripple this way by tomorrow.  Our opening day highlights were 4 White-winged Scoters, 6 Red-throated Loons, 1 Merlin, and 67 migrating Horned Larks.

Today’s full count:

Canada Goose 68
Greater Scaup 5
White-winged Scoter 4
Common Merganser 14
Red-breasted Merganser 27
Red-throated Loon 6
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 4
Sandhill Crane 15
Ring-billed Gull 17
Herring Gull 9
Great Black-backed Gull 1
Rock Pigeon  1
Mourning Dove 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Merlin 1
Blue Jay 1
American Crow 18
Horned Lark 67
Black-capped Chickadee 1
Tufted Titmouse 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Eastern Bluebird 4
American Robin 4
European Starling 8
Cedar Waxwing 12
Song Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 2
Northern Cardinal 4
Red-winged Blackbird 23
House Finch 12
American Goldfinch 1
House Sparrow 1

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.



Winter Bird Count Keeps the Birding Excitement Going

One of the great aspects of birding the Dunes is the constant supply of good birds.  When most folks have thoughts of hanging up their binoculars until spring, rare and unique birds provide lakefront birders a chance to keep up the birding excitement, not just through December, but through the entire wintertime.

One great way to stay active is through the National Audubon Society and their annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC).  This year is the Society’s 114th annual event.  Across 17 countries, but mostly Canada and the US, over 2,300 counts will occur between December 14 and January 5.  The Indiana Dunes count was first held in 1916!  After some hiatus, it was brought back in 1972 and has been held consecutively for the last 41 years straight.

In the past 41 years of counting, over 150 species has been recorded during this special day in December.  Some of the great birds recorded include King Eider, California Gull, Golden Eagle, and Baltimore Oriole.  The December 14, 2013 count would produce another new count species and some other great highlights.

Reynold's Creek GHA Snowy Owl (1500N/600E).
Reynold’s Creek GHA Snowy Owl (1500N/600E).

It’s too early to give the entire list, as counts from teams are still coming in.  It is safe to say over 70 species were logged on this year’s count.  Among the highlights includes the ever recurring Snowy Owl invasion.  Snowy Owls have been recorded on four different Indiana Dunes Christmas Bird Counts.  This year’s two birds ties the two seen on the 12/20/1986 CBC count.  The two birds seen yesterday were at Michigan City Harbor (outer breakwall) and the Reynold’s Creek GHA (1500N/600E).

Bobolink in Michigan City, IN, 12/14/13.  First state winter record.
Bobolink in Michigan City, IN, 12/14/13. First state winter record.

Another highlight is a first state Christmas Count record.  While searching for a hard to find bird this far north in Indiana, the Northern Mockingbird, Jeff McCoy located a first state winter record of a Bobolink.  This prairie and grassland bird travels 12,000 miles each year to it’s wintering grounds in central and southern South America.  A bird not to be found in the deep snow of Indiana in December.    The Bobolink makes species 153 for the Dunes CBC!

Other good birds would include Long-tailed Ducks, all three scoter species, multiple Thayer’s Gulls, Red-throated Loon, Rough-legged Hawks, lots of Pileated Woodpeckers, Snow Buntings, and Red-breasted Nuthatches.  The highlights weren’t just birds though.  Two mammalian highlights were noted by two teams thus far reporting in.  The first was an early morning Coyote seen at Dunes State Park.  She ran out of the woods, stopped at the growing shelf ice.. relieved herself… then ran back into the woods.  The second interesting report was of a river otter seen at the Trail Creek mouth to Lake Michigan.  The latter may be a first site record.

Coyote on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, December 14, 2013.
Coyote on the beach at Indiana Dunes State Park, December 14, 2013.

No matter the cold, there is still birding excitement out there right now!


Blue and Orange are common colors in this part of the state, especially in the fall.  It’s possible to drive through the dunes region and alternate between homes owned by Colts fans and homes adorning the logo for the Bears.  Blue and orange, Blue and white, blue and orange, blue and white…. It’s not fall, but we saw lots of blue and orange today.  However in this case, it was Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles.

Winds shifted southward for a good period today.  Rain also held off, allowing for a complete count to occur.  This all spoiled after 5pm, but another good count day felt good as we prepare for another break of north winds that will likely last through the weekend’s Big May Day Count.

Baltimore Oriole stopping for a brief second for a few songs before migrating past.
Baltimore Oriole stopping for a brief second for a few songs before migrating past.

Today, 7,761 birds took wing over the dunes.  Blue Jays dominated the flight 4 to 1.  After the new state record 7,000+ birds last week, it was great to see another large flight of 5,811 jays.  This likely will go down as the state’s third highest Blue Jay count!  Accompanying them was a major orange incursion.  Orioles, both Baltimore and Orchard streamed by, with occasional stops to sing their musical tones.  Birders are excited to see an oriole or two on a spring day, try on 387 Baltimore Orioles and 18 Orchard Orioles.  The former just may be the state’s second highest single party count.  The Orchard Oriole may also place second for the lakefront, and definitely a top ten count for the state.

Aside from Blue Jays and orioles, Chimney Swifts put on a major flight with 318 birds.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers continued their new migration, with 18 birds undulating past.  144 Cliff Swallows is amazing for the dunes area, but not anywhere near state records.  56 Cedar Waxwings gave signal to the last major flight we observe in May, the large waxwing movement!  Late in the day, a new season bird winged past the longshore tower dune.  11 American White Pelicans drifted over the state park and was captured in the video below.

With north winds coming, birds are still here to be found.  Many warblers could be heard throughout the park today.  Be careful if you hear a Golden-winged Warbler along the entrance road.  For the third spring, we have a weird Cerulean Warbler on territory that gives a very good GWWA song.  The dunes has traditionally had Blackburnian Warblers nest here.  A unique situation for Indiana, as few locations host them in the summer.  Birds have been heard recently at their traditional location along South State Park Road.  If you venture down there, listen for their distinctive, high pitched song.

Gray-cheeked Thrush in the Dunes State Park, 5/8/13.
Gray-cheeked Thrush in the Dunes State Park, 5/8/13.

Today’s other highlights follow:

Red-throated Loon 6
Common Loon 3
American White Pelican 11 
Great Egret 2
Osprey 1
Northern Harrier 3
Broad-winged Hawk 1
Caspian Tern 6
Common Tern 1
Chimney Swift 318 
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 3
Red-headed Woodpecker 8
Red-bellied Woodpecker 18
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1

Pileated Woodpecker 1
Blue-headed Vireo 1 (new season bird)
Warbling Vireo 4
Blue Jay 5811 
Cliff Swallow 144 
Gray Catbird 6
European Starling 24
American Pipit 8
Cedar Waxwing 56
Common Yellowthroat 1
American Redstart 1
Yellow Warbler 3
Blackpoll Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 9
Yellow-rumped Warbler 49
Henslow’s Sparrow 1
Lincoln’s Sparrow 2
White-throated Sparrow 1
White-crowned Sparrow 9
Summer Tanager 1 (new season bird)
Scarlet Tanager 7
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 25
Indigo Bunting 25
Bobolink 1
Orchard Oriole 18
Baltimore Oriole 387 
Purple Finch 17
Pine Siskin 17
American Goldfinch 312

Little Bits of Blue

With lingering fog burning off and high humidity, today looked to be a much different weather day in the dunes.  Highs hit 70 degrees and a light southerly breeze made it actually feel hot by mid day.  It was hot enough that among first season birds, the beach filled with the first bikinis and sunbathers.  Swimming in the lake was another story (water is 39 degrees currently!).

Northern Mockingbird at Longshore Platform this spring.  They are becoming more common in the area.
Northern Mockingbird at Longshore Platform this spring. They are becoming more common in the area.

A good mix, including 76 species, traversed the high dunes today for counters.  Total count consisted of 3,288 individual birds (season total now over 350,000 birds!).  Even while the count was going on, other birders were making their way along the park’s trails, boardwalks, and at the Nature Center.  We talked to a couple birders from out of state, looking to scratch their birding itch while traveling cross country.  Many yellow-rumps are still dominating the area.  The longshore dune only received a couple new species.  With the current wing map, conditions look prime for the best neotropic invasion of the season so far on Tuesday and likely Wednesday.

Wind map from Monday evening, April 29,2013.  Image from http://hint.fm/wind/
Wind map from Monday evening, April 29,2013. Image from http://hint.fm/wind/

Today began the first significant flight of Blue Jays.  Most folks don’t think of Blue Jays as migratory birds, but massive flocks move over the dunes typically around May 1 and lasts two weeks.  Peak flights will measure 3,000-5,000 birds.  Today, 902 Blue Jays flew over. It was also a big movement of tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  39 gnatcatchers migrated past today, accounting for a new spot on the dunes area top 10 count for gnatcatchers.  Rounding out the blue colored birds, 3 Great-blue Herons, 1 Indigo Bunting, and 4 Eastern Bluebirds went past.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) at the Dunes State Park feeders today.  4/29/13
Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) at the Dunes State Park feeders today. 4/29/13

An interesting movement occurred today with Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  Usually, the red-bellied woodpecker is not considered a migratory bird. Due of the recent expansion of their breeding range, many Red-bellied are showing more migratory behavior during the coldest months of the year, moving south to the milder locations within their breeding territory over the winter.  Researchers speculate this behavior is linked to climate change and the abundance of food available from bird feeders.  Today, 16 went by, nearly doubling the season’s total.

Today’s other highlights are below.  Don’t forget to visit the birding dune or Nature Center for your free Brock’s Birds of Indiana Dunes book.

Blue-winged Teal 4
Red-breasted Merganser 97
Red-throated Loon 12 (still migrating!)
Common Loon 4
Osprey 1
Northern Harrier 2
Sharp-shinned Hawk 3
Broad-winged Hawk 5
Wilson’s Snipe 4
Red-bellied Woodpecker 16
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Eastern Kingbird 2
Warbling Vireo 1
Blue Jay 902
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
House Wren 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 39
Brown Thrasher 5 (one loud migratory group)
Yellow-rumped Warbler 11
Lark Sparrow 1 (season’s fifth bird!)
White-throated Sparrow 4
Dark-eyed Junco 9
Pine Siskin 2