Chesterton Tribune

Indiana Dunes State Park naturalist Brad Bumgardner interprets the moment

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On the afternoon of Dec. 5, 2007, prominent Valparaiso birders Brendan and Pete Grube identified a very rare Hoary Redpoll at the feeders of the Nature Center at Indiana Dunes State Park (IDSP). Word spread quickly, by cell phone and Internet, and by the time the Nature Center closed at 4:30 p.m. several scrambling birders had been fortunate enough to see the Hoary Redpoll for themselves.

But many others were not, and when IDSP Interpretive Naturalist Brad Bumgardner returned home from business at Pokagon State Park, his voice mail was full of messages. “I was getting all kinds of calls from people who wanted to see the Hoary Redpoll.”

So Bumgardner opened the Nature Center two hours early the next morning and at 7:25 a.m. he and others—some of whom had traveled from Chicago—were rewarded with a curtain call. Not only the Chicago birders were delighted. For Bumgardner, himself a skilled birder, the Hoary Redpoll was a Life Bird, his first personal identification of this species in the field.

On June 18 Bumgardner celebrated his one-year anniversary at IDSP, and in only 12 months has become a vital member of Northwest Indiana’s small but ferociously dedicated cadre of birders. He’s been on the ground floor of nearly every significant identification at IDSP in the last year—not only the Hoary Redpoll in December but the Evening Grosbeak in October, the Townsend’s Solitaire in November, the Bohemian Waxwing in February, the earliest Pine Warbler ever in the Dunes in March, and the Say’s Phoebe in April—and has become both an early-warning system and an information clearinghouse for birders eager to see oddities and vagrants.

By avocation Bumgardner’s a birder, and an awfully good one. By profession, however, he is, in essence a story teller, as all interpretive naturalists are, tasked with spinning the tale of IDSP through its flora and fauna, it geology and geography. Thus, as head of Interpretive Services, with a staff of two, Bumgardner schedules and oversees the hundreds of programs offered annually at the park.

Yet Bumgardner also serves as the Resource Management Coordinator at IDSP—in charge of writing burn plans and generally protecting the property from the depredations of invasive species—and as the Volunteer Coordinator he works closely with the Friends of the Dunes.

In short, Bumgardner wears a lot of hats and is an almost preposterously busy guy.


Bumgardner, an Angola native, has been with the DNR’s State Park & Reservoirs Division for seven years, after completing his degree in natural resources at Purdue University. He came to IDSP from Pokagon and in the first half year of his new posting presided over an explosion of visits to the Nature Center. “We’re looking at about an eight- or nine-year high in Nature Center attendance just last year. Over 60,000.”

More numbers: in the first quarter of 2008 attendance at the Nature Center increased 40 percent over the year-ago period, while more specifically program attendance jumped by a colossal 663 percent.

For Bumgardner the key is smart, fun, diverse programming: on birds, of course, but also on reptiles, wildflowers, tornadoes, hibernation, astronomy.

There was the History Comes Alive Weekend last September, with historical reenactments and history hikes; the Kids’ Fall Funfest in October, with crafts, apple cider, and Native American foods; and also in October “Howloween” in the Dunes, with trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving, sessions on bats, owls, and spiders, and a hike into the Dunes pet cemetery. In June IDSP celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Prairie Club and in July will hold its annual Sand Sculpture Contest.

“Our programs not only attract the yearly park visitors but the local audience. We do weekend programs all year long and then in May we begin daily programs, two to three a day and four to five on the weekends. We’ll easily do 700 to 1,000 programs in a year. And we’re not just offering the same programs every week. We always have different things going on.”

The point of them all is to tell the story of IDSP and the Dunes, to interpret its natural—and human—history and make it as living and hands-on as possible, to find teachable opportunities in the random, like the unlikely journey of a Hoary Redpoll which flew Lake Michigan for a meal at the Nature Center. “We encourage our new employees to interpret the moment,” Bumgardner says. “If you’re taking a group on a wildflower hike and a T. Rex pops out of the woods, interpret it.

And people are loving it. Other state parks are seeing their attendance drop. Not IDSP. “We’re pretty happy right now, at a time when other properties are experiencing a decline because of gas prices. People are seeing the quality of the programming and choosing to come here, even if it means paying the gate fee.”


An interpretive naturalist is of necessity a jack-of-all-trades: ornithologist, herpetologist, entomologist, geologist, botanist, historian: “We try to know a little about everything. You never know when someone’s going to ask about a flower, a tree, a bug, even a constellation in the sky.”

But Bumgardner’s first love, from the age of 9 when he started to go on bird hikes at Pokagon, is birds. So coming to Northwest Indiana, a Midwest hotspot, was rather like a kid’s walking into a candy store. “I went from being the lone birder to being with 60 to 100 birders in the area all the time.”

Bumgardner, as all local birders must, tips his hat to legends Ken Brock and Pete Grube, who for a generation have been record-keeping the birds of the Dunes and in doing so “laid the foundation” for every birder who’s followed.

Bumgardner also downplays his own significance in the local birding community, despite his notable contributions to it. “I haven’t done anything new. I’ve just added an extra eye to the grand scheme. I’m just keeping my eye on a real good potential spot, so it can be watched on a daily basis.”

Actually, Bumgardner is doing something new. On his own initiative, he’s applied for a permit from the Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel, Md., to begin a full-fledged bird-banding operation at IDSP. Data collected from such operations are critical for understanding the movement, health, and behavior of birds. “We’ll band anything and everything. We’ll start with cages and do feeder birds, winter finches and summer birds, and move up to mist nets. My ultimate dream is to set up a solid bird-banding park. It’ll take a lot of volunteers.”

Bumgardner’s skills and industry have been recognized by his fellow birders and next year he has agreed to serve as the chair of the Indiana Rare Birds Record Committee (IRBRC), which reviews the identifications of unusual species made throughout the state. Think you’ve seen a Yellow Rail? A Bewick’s Wren? A Cave Swallow? Submit your sighting to the IRBRC and let it decide. “The chair of the committee is the person that everyone hates,” he jokes. “If you reject a record, that is.”

Interpret the Moment

For Bumgardner birds give the science and craft of interpretive naturalism its greatest play. Here one minute, clean gone the next, birds force the interpretive naturalist to tell his or her story on the fly. “The great thing about interpreting the Dunes’ bird life is that you never know what bird is around the next corner. They have wings, fly places, and allow for us to interpret the moment. The Hoary Redpoll and Evening Grosbeaks that visited our feeders last winter are great examples. Having the opportunity to introduce visitors to the diversity found here is what makes this job so fun. It makes it all worthwhile when we see them back the next week, looking for that next bird around the bend.”


Posted 7/1/2008