Chesterton Tribune

Birders converge on the Indiana Dunes; the Merlin makes it memorable

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Ask the golfer what keeps him coming back to the course week after week, after all the shanks and hooks and expensively lost balls: maybe it’s the lingering memory of the 30-foot putt drained dead in the cup, of the 130-yard wedge to the green within inches of the hole.

Now ask the birders who converged on the Dunes this past weekend where they’ll find the energy to rise before dawn and hit the field the next time morning breaks clammy, gray, and raw.

Could be that Merlin at West Beach on Saturday.

The Dunes was the venue this year for the Indiana Audubon Society’s annual Fall Birding Festival, and more than 100 members from across the state—from Mt. Vernon, Zionsville, Fishers, South Bend, Indie, and North Webster, among other places—discovered why Northwest Indiana, with its range of habitats, is arguably one of the premier sites in the Midwest.

In fact, for much of the weekend the weather was uncooperative. Prevailing south winds slowed migratory activity to a trickle—birds tend not to be keen on flying Lake Michigan in the teeth of a headwind—while the front which blew through the Dunes early last week was strangely unproductive and left few interesting stragglers in its wake. Even so, birders logged a total of 92 species over the weekend, including two very rare sparrows—LeConte’s and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed— and a Philadelphia Vireo.

And that Merlin.

“Given the weather, we didn’t have a whole lot of birds,” said Brad Bumgardner, chief interpretative naturalist at Indiana Dunes State Park (IDSP). “But the ones we did have we had great views of. The kinglets, the nuthatches, the thrushes. One of our goals was to show folks from all over the state the great birding opportunities in Northwest Indiana, all the different habitats we have, like the lakeshore, the Dunes, and McCool Basin.”

At 7 a.m. Saturday Bumgardner led a contingent of 20 birders on a three-hour tour of West Beach at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It was spitting rain for much of the time, overcast, and chilly, but for at least one of those birders—a Chesterton Tribune reporter, go figure—the field trip proved to be a first-in-a-lifetime experience.

The outing began at the Green Tower, the fabled site on the extreme west edge of IDSP high atop a dune overlooking the lake. Nothing doing there: a lone Ring-billed Gull. But Bumgardner made a fundraising pitch for the new observation tower jointly planned by IDSP and the Northwest Indiana Migratory Bird Association. Over the weekend IAS members donated a total of $1,131 to that project.

Then West Beach. Within 90 seconds of arriving Bumgardner spotted a bird of prey perched in a tree a couple of hundred yards to the west and north of the parking lot: falconish, small, slate gray, with a banded tail and a weakly patterned face. Bingo: Merlin.

Not altogether a rare bird but one more often seen on the wing. And for the Trib reporter—who was looking for a story and not a Merlin at all—a Life Bird and the best reason in the world to get up early the next Saturday. For the record: No. 293 in Indiana.

As Chuck Mills of Newburgh put it, “Brad, you’ve earned your pay.”

Bumgarder than led his troop to the beach—enjoying fine views of Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Palm Warbler en route—and into the Pinery to the east. Best birds there: a trio of Swainson’s Thrush.

The outing ended on the Trail 10 boardwalk at IDSP: Red-headed Woodpecker, Common Yellowthroat, Red-shouldered Hawk.

The three-hour tally: a modest 28 species but—salted by the Merlin—more than enough to justify the outing.

Judy Grantz made the trip to the Dunes from Grand Rapids, Mich., and was glad she did. “I had a wonderful time,” she said. “Anytime you get to see a Merlin is a good birding day.”

For her part Sharon Sorenson of Mt. Vernon—whose column “For the Birds” appears weekly in the Evansville Courier & Press—was gladdened to see birds which almost never make it to her neck of the woods. “This is our first chance to bird the lakeshore,” she said. “We’re discovering that birds that are common here are great finds back home. There’s that much difference between the northern and southern tiers of the state. For example, a Red-breasted Nuthatch back home would be newsworthy. Here they’re everywhere.”

And that was the whole idea of holding the event in the Dunes, IAS President Amy Wilms told the Tribune. “The Indiana Audubon Society decided to host its Fall Birding Festival at Dunes State Park this year to celebrate the great lakefront birding that our northern part of the state has to offer,” she said. “Our members were given the opportunity to spend quality time with some of the most knowledgeable birders in the state, such as Ken Brock, John Kendall, and Brad Bumgardner. The Dunes area provided the welcoming atmosphere that we were looking for along with some great bird watching, excellent shorebird habitat, and cool weather to help us welcome the fall bird migration. We couldn’t have asked for a better spot.”


Posted 10/6/2009