Sunday, November 13, 2005

From the Field: Midwest Cave Swallow Invasion Continues!!!!

There has been a significant Cave Swallow migration in the past few days, with multiple birds being seen in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. But none in Illinois. So, armed with that knowledge -- and the prospect of 40 mph+ winds from the south/southwest -- I decided to stick close to the lakefront today. Since the Bears game shut down Northerly Island, I decided to do a lakewatch from Navy Pier instead. I chose Navy Pier because it offered some shelter (as described below), because it juts out into Lake Michigan more than a mile, and because there are large colonies of Barn and Cliff Swallows there in the summer, so I figured the spot must have some sort of intrinsic appeal to Cave-type swallows.

It was, let's say, a little bit windy. Anyone who watched the Bears game today saw basically the same conditions I had at Navy Pier. With north/northeast winds, lakewatching at Navy Pier can be brutal. However, since today's winds were out of the W/SW, I was able to use the buildings on the Pier to shelter myself from the wind. So, despite winds gusting up to 50-60 mph, it was actually pretty comfortable sitting down on the benches at the far east end of the Pier.

I watched the lake for about 4-5 hours, taking breaks to go inside, refuel at the Billy Goat, run away from a couple of homeless guys, and take photos for a few tourists. I had to walk (parking is veeeery expensive at Navy Pier) so I did not bring my scope. I should know better than to do a lakewatch without a scope--that was a big mistake!!!!

I saw a total of eights birds pass between the end of the Pier and the distant breakwater -- one unidentified passerine and seven swallows. A few Canada Geese flew by at the breakwater, while some larger flocks of ducks were migrating on the far side of the breakwater, perhaps 1.5 miles away.

I spotted the first pair of swallows at about 11:10 am. They were travelling south, very low and close to the surface of the lake. As I scanned to the right, I also noticed a third swallow in front of the pair. There birds appeared to be short and stocky swallows, with relatively squared-off tails. I couldn't get much color off of them at all, although I did detect a hint of "lightness" on the front of one of the birds. The birds overall appeared to be dark, and I was mainly getting a "side" view of them. They were flying like, well, swallows, and they clearly were not Barn Swallows. They headed off to the south and were quickly out of view. The birds were about 3/4 of the way out to the breakwater, which I guess would be as far as 150-200 yards away????

At about 11:53 I was watching a Wendella tour boat head east out onto the lake past the southeast corner of the Pier. As I scanned towards the back end of the boat, I notice four swallows that appeared to be trailing the boat. There were some little things "flitting" around near the boat which may have been some sort of insects. At this point the swallows were flying east behind the boat, which then turned to the north; the swallows circled around a bit before heading off to the south. I don't think I missed these birds pass in front of me, I think they either came down the lakefront behind me (ie flew over the Pier) or possibly came out to the lakefront via the Chicago River, which enters the lake just south of Navy Pier.

I got a bit better look at these swallows, although they were still too far out for me to be able to get much color on the underside. They did circle around a couple of times before they took off. I am pretty comfortable in saying that the tails were completely square, and based on the tail shape, size, and overall jizz, I feel confident that these were either Cave of Cliff Swallows. Given what we know about Cave and Cliff Swallows, it is likely that all seven birds were in fact Cave Swallows.

Interestingly, there were no swallows of any kind sighted at Miller Beach in Indiana today. Any swallows flying south from Navy Pier that stayed close to the shore would likely pass by Miller Beach, where there are almost always a couple of excellent birders doing a lakewatch. They saw nearly two dozen Cave Swallows along the Indiana lakefront on Saturday. The birds I saw could have stayed along the Chicago portion of the lakefront, headed inland, or passed Miller Beach when no birder was present. (I think they may have ended the lakewatch at 11:00 today, I will try to confirm ths with Ken Brock.)

Wisconsin birders today sighted as many as 20 Cave-type swallows at a sewage treatment plant near Milwaukee, these birds were apparently still present at dusk.

Will those swallows head south tomorrow? Where did the seven swallows I saw today go? If Cave-type swallows are feeing at a sewage plant in Milwaukee, could they be doing the same in the Calumet area? Where could these swallows be feeding or roosting along the Chicago lakefront? There are many Barn/Cliff Swallow nests along the central Chicago lakefront, right around Navy Pier, so there would be plenty of roost locations for any passing swallows.

I am surprised that I have not yet heard from any Illinois birders that were out along the lakefront today at Evanston/Northwestern, Gilson Park, or Illinois Beach State Park.

There have been Cave Swallows sighted in Illinois before, but I don't think any of them have been properly documented (ie photographed). Someone please correct me if I am wrong. There may be up to two dozen Cave Swallows along the western shore of Lake Michigan at this very moment, and we need to try to find some documentable birds in Illinois!!!!!!!!!!

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