It was a pretty decent day to start the season off. It was clear and cold, much of the morning was below freezing, and the wind was coming from the East-Southeast. There was a movement of Sandhill Cranes totaling 2,052. Raptors included Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered & Red-tailed Hawks, & American Kestrel. A flock of 35 Greater White-fronted Geese passed by over Lake Michigan. Eastern Bluebirds are moving along; 70 of them were counted today. Eastern Meadowlarks are back in the area, today 6 were seen including 2 that decided to stop and perch right next to the tower like this one…
This is just the beginning though. It should be interesting to find out what’s in store for this spring.
Today, March 5 marked the official start of the 6th annual Indiana Dunes longshore flight survey. In typical fashion, waterfowl and gulls made up the most diversity this morning. Some 15 species of waterfowl were recorded going by. Viewing was difficult due to strong gales from atop the tower. But the winds brough a balmy 60 degrees for early March. A 30 degree temperature change from the start! Most of the counting this morning occured from the staircase below the tower due to the winds. We did log 48 species though, with a total count of 7,067 birds. Here’s what we found:
As mentioned above, waterfowl were the most diverse taxa today. However, none were in real high numbers. We don’t expect to see any record breaking waterfowl season, given that most of the largest lakes never froze and many waterfowl probably wintered north of us. Highlights in waterfowl consisted of 4 Greater White-fronted Geese, 2 Tundra Swans, 37 shovelers, 3 White-winged Scoters, and 10 Red-throated Loons.
Sandhill Cranes greeted the first day of official counting with another large flight. 5,197 birds passed over the tower. Many started close to the lakefront just after 9:30am, but soon the strong winds broke up many thermals, and birds began fighting the wind and were harder to see south of the tower. It’s likely the wind sheer broke up any late morning thermals, resulting in very little hawk movement. But, 3 Bald Eagles are worth noting.
5 years ago we would have never imagined that we’d have over 1.2 million birds cataloged and new insights into the migration along the Indiana Dunes that we have today. The migration along the shores of Lake Michigan is a wondrous event that as we learn more, more questions come up. When we first started the longshore flight survey, timings were unknown. Did migration start in March, February? Do we need to be out in south winds only? What about east winds? What exact conditions will initiate a raptor flight? Today we certainly know much more. We know more about timings of migration, but variables such as climate change, storm events, habitat destruction and restoration throw wrenches into our knowledge and not only justify, but necessitate the continued study we’re embarking on again this year.
The 2017 longshore flight season traditionally starts officially the first full weekend in March. For two years in a row now, we’ve seen that migrants are already starting before this date. We logged a few “preseason” counts last year in February, and the wild weather of this past winter has us doing it again. It feels odd to be doing spring migration counts when it’s still officially ornithologic winter. While many migrating birds are still enjoying the warm climate of the tropics and are otherwise unwise to the warm winter events happening in the Great Lakes, thus we would not expect them to return early, many short distant migrants have taken advantage of the warm weather and southerly winds to arrive early. The race to mate has brought woodcocks, pintails, snow geese, and Sandhill Cranes into the dunes earlier than usual. This arrival carries a risk. Should a major snow storm arrive and bury the dunes in a March storm, these same birds who are pioneers in migration, may find themselves a footnote instead.
For those not as familiar with the longshore migration count done atop the old Green Tower at Indiana Dunes State Park, our long running blog has a great archive of past posts. March 2012 has many posts that describe our count, the birds seen, and some of the early numbers we posted when we first started. 2017 has four official count days already in the books. When we noticed Sandhill Cranes migrating in earnest, we set out to make sure they were getting logged. With an eastern population of 100,000 birds, it’s pretty significant that 1/3 of the entire population is flying over the Indiana Dunes in it’s migration route.
The most recent flight, yesterday, was a big movement of cranes, with a few early associated raptors. 6,180 Sandhill Cranes flew over the Indiana Dunes area on it’s way north. Yesterday’s crane count was the 4th highest count ever logged from the tower site. With many more thousands being seen to the fish and wildlife areas to our south, the migration is still far from done.
Another 39 raptors went by, with Red-tailed Hawks being the largest majority. At 11:15am, a magnificent GOLDEN EAGLE flew directly over the tower and decided to kettle right over the counters. The bird circled for approximately 3 minutes as it climbed higher and higher before drifting west along the shoreline. No doubt on it’s way back to northern Canada.
The Indiana Dunes State Park is the single most diverse site in Indiana for birds. With over 300 species seen in the park, the single longshore tower site is the most productive single site in the state to find birds over the course of the year. With the advent of eBird, we can now share the full sightings that we log via the hotspot for the tower site. We look forward to sharing the spring migration with you!
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.
It’s hard to write about the longshore flight after a spectacular day like Monday. By Monday night the winds were howling. Weather vanes swung hard from south to north by midnight and Tuesday brought bone chilling cold on the lakefront. The breaking shelf ice literally built a brand new white cap of ice mounds behind the existing layer. By Tuesday’s end, the temperatures were thirty degrees cooler and waves could still be heard even though the winds had since died.
The green luck of the Irish was certainly with us Tuesday. The cold and clear conditions made it perfect for the bravehearts that made it down to the beach to watch one of the best Northern Lights or aurora borealis shows that this author has ever seen on the lakefront. The perfectly dark skies over Lake Michigan provide for excellent viewing, despite the glowing light pollution from Chicago.
Since the cold front, birds have continued to move, but certainly not the 20,000+ birds that make the longshore flight so exciting. Flight counts were done on Wednesday and today (Thursday). Respectively, 6,046 birds and 6,044 birds each day. Wednesday brought a residual robin flight, while Thursday’s slightly warmer weather brought an impressive 4,394 Sandhill Cranes. For the season, 12,771 cranes have been recorded flying over the dunes this season.
Unfortunately, no new birds have been recorded since the major cold front came through. This will no doubt change in the coming days. Friday looks to welcome in some more warm, south air.
…that could have been the question of the day! After a sluggish week start, the longshore flight for Monday, March 16 could only be described as remarkable. Perhaps for the counters, exhausting! Dawn arrived at 6:59am local time and within minutes the first streams of blackbirds and robins filled the warm 54 degree air. It didn’t take long to become apparent that the passerine longshore flight was going to occur primarily right over the beach. Though many birds would also pass to the south, some 90% of the flight traveled right over the melting shelf ice. Thousands of birds every fifteen minutes would nearly overwhelm everyone trying to keep tabs on the movement. The day would end with a mind numbing 40,132 birds! This is the second highest longshore flight ever recorded!
With two counters doing passerines, the writer assisted this morning by logging birds to the south, as well as any waterfowl movement over the lake. Fortunately, the waterfowl movement was light, with exception of a good Ring-billed Gull migration. By 9:20am, the robins were waning, but not before producing a probable state record 15, 753 American Robins. These “Sultans of Spring” more than doubled the previous longshore flight, as well as any single count in the state before today. So it is only expected that a careful count of the first 2,000 birds would reveal that an American Robin would be the 1,000,000th bird to fly past the tower in our four years of counting! He or she was in a quick flock of 100 other robins that went by in the first 30 minutes of counting. We’ll see who guessed robin and award the contest winner tomorrow!
Other notables for the day included, 2 Snow Geese, 1 Long-tailed Duck, 1 “happy to eat passerines” Merlin, 3,528 Sandhill Cranes (another lakeshore top ten count), 135 Killdeer, 2 Tree Swallows, Fox Sparrow, and Purple Finch. 67 species were logged for the day. With 40,132 new birds, our season total now stands at 63,175 for the year.
North winds are expected to overtake the region by midnight, so we’ll have a night of rest before evaluating the forecast for the next wind shift and our next wave of birds into the dunes.
Sunday, March 15 was one of those days to regret if you didn’t make it outside to enjoy the dunes. Fortunately, those that didn’t were in the minority, as thousands of visitors winged over the sandhills along Lake Michigan. They were joined by thousands of the human kind too. It didn’t take long before the sounds of Sandhill Cranes became the background noise to spring football passing, melting lakeshore exploring, and forest and wetland hiking.
The longshore flight for March 15 was greeted with a southerly, yet cold wind, still ailing from yesterday’s northerly wind. By mid-morning, 50s were soaring into the low 60s, and all sign of the early morning frost was gone. As winds gained, an assortment of new annual birds flew past the tower, as a small contingent of counters helped reach 53 species for the day, comprising 7,513 individual birds. It was the best day yet of the season.
New birds for the year were Cackling Goose, Great-horned Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Tree Swallow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Song Sparrow. The season total now sits at 79 species of birds.
By 10am, the first of several waves of cranes began moving over the dunes. The winds, being stronger than Friday, helped push many of the birds directly over the high dunes to the delight of park visitors. Most turned westward and drifted towards Chicago in their wagon circling kettles. In the end, 3,264 cranes migrated along the Lake Michigan shoreline for the day. This puts the count as the 7th largest longshore crane flight on record. There’s still a few days to top the 6,644 counted just a few years ago.
The full list is below, but first it should be pointed out that the 7,513 birds today brings the season total to 23,043 birds. We’re now a mere 2,316 birds from the elusive 1 millionth bird. As you may recall from our previous blog, a drawing will occur… likely tomorrow, to the person that guesses which species will be the great one millionth! You can guess in the blog comments or on the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival Facebook Page. The winner gets Brock’s Birds of Indiana Dunes, a bird festival magnet, bird festival bucket hat, and an Indiana Dunes State Park sticker. Hurry, the 1 millionth will be coming fast.
Cackling Goose 1
Canada Goose 220
Mute Swan 2
Northern Pintail 4
Greater Scaup 1
White-winged Scoter 3
Common Merganser 7
Red-breasted Merganser 333
Turkey Vulture 1
Cooper’s Hawk 4
Bald Eagle 4
Red-shouldered Hawk 4
Red-tailed Hawk 3
Sandhill Crane 3264
Ring-billed Gull 33
Herring Gull 1
Mourning Dove 2
Great Horned Owl 1
Belted Kingfisher 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Pileated Woodpecker 2
American Kestrel 1
Peregrine Falcon 2
Blue Jay 1
American Crow 38
Horned Lark 7
Tree Swallow 1
Black-capped Chickadee 1
Tufted Titmouse 1
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Carolina Wren 1
Eastern Bluebird 2
American Robin 53
European Starling 63
Cedar Waxwing 12
Yellow-rumped Warbler 1
American Tree Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 1 FOY
Dark-eyed Junco 3
Northern Cardinal 1
Red-winged Blackbird 2719
Eastern Meadowlark 5
Common Grackle 646
Brown-headed Cowbird 9
House Finch 1
Pine Siskin 7
American Goldfinch 3
House Sparrow 1