Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Birding dean Ken Brock honored for putting Indiana Dunes on the map

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By KEVIN NEVERS

He’s the dean of Northwest Indiana birding, the man who put the Dunes on the map as a premier site in the Midwest to observe avifauna.

He’s a prodigious archivist who has painstakingly compiled and indexed 40,000 observations, including species numbers, party counts, daily records, seasonal averages, and earliest and latest migrations.

He’s a teacher and a mentor who for years has led weekly Saturday expeditions into the Dunes and has taken scores of neophytes under his wing.

He’s Ken Brock of Westchester Township.

And he’s a 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s prestigious Ludlow Griscom Award, honoring outstanding contributions in regional ornithology.

Brock literally wrote the book on the birds of the Indiana Dunes. It’s called The Birds of the Indiana Dunes, it’s currently in its third edition, and its the gold-standard reference on population trends, migration patterns, and seasonal hotspots for the 300 or so species which may traverse the Dunes or tarry here in any given year.

He’s also the author of the definitive Brock’s Birds of Indiana, based on a database of 615,000 records, which does for the entire state what his earlier work does for the Dunes.

But it’s the Dunes where Brock’s heart is.

A geologist by trade, Brock moved to Northwest Indiana in 1970--after taking a faculty position at the Indiana University Northwest--and promptly began birding the Dunes. It was, at the time, terra incognita, wholly uncharted by any contemporary birder. Brock changed all that, discovering--among other sites--the now fabled Migrant Trap in Hammond, a geographical funnel which draws all manner of migrating birds in the spring and fall.

The one thing Brock didn’t find, in those early years, was anybody else with a pair of binoculars. “When I moved to Northwest Indiana in 1970, I was the only birder around,” he says. “In 1974 I met Peter Grube and together we birded the lakefront regularly and rarely, if ever, encountered another birder.”

That’s changed. Now, of a Saturday, a birder is unlikely not to run into other birders, as he or she hits all the usual spots: the Michigan City Marina; Beverly Drive in Beverly Shores; Cowles Bog; the Green Tower and trails 10 and 2 at the State Park; the Portage Lakefront Walk; the Ogden Dunes Pinery; Long Lake and West Beach; the concession stand at Marquette Park; Miller Beach and the U.S. Steel impoundment; and the Migrant Trap. All of them, sites originally discovered and documented by Brock.

“Today scores of birders from Chicago and around the state enjoy Indiana’s lakefront birding,” Brock notes. “During the famous autumn cold fronts, it is not unusual to find more than two dozen birders lakewatching at Miller Beach. . . . We have also discovered the spring longshore flights along the crest of the high dunes. These flights allow birders to stand in one place and see thousands of birds fly past in a single morning.”

And Brock has had everything to do with popularizing the Dunes as a birder’s paradise.

“No one has done more for birds and birders in the Dunes than Ken Brock,” says his close friend, John Cassady. “Ken has been actively birding this area, and keeping meticulous records, for 40 years. In addition to his books and the countless bird classes he has taught, Ken continues to lead a regular Saturday birding group with an enthusiasm that is infectious. He always has time to help beginning birders get their binoculars lined up on a bird, answer any ID questions, or show them the best places to find birds.”

Brad Bumgardner--chief interpretive naturalist at the State Park and no slouch himself when it comes to introducing folks to the adventure of birds and birding--recalls hearing of Brock long before he moved to Northwest Indiana. “Ken Brock had almost celebrity status,” Bumgardner says. “No matter where you birded, you had heard of him and his work. You occasionally hear about those rare celebrity encounters where the actual person is humble and friendly. Ken is exactly that. He loves sharing his birding skills, loves receiving bird reports from everyone, and continues to have that thirst for knowledge.”

“I run into birders today who often cite Ken Brock and his birding workshops, taught long ago, as their inspiration into birding,” Bumgardner adds. “Decades later, Ken is still mentoring and inspiring the next generation of birders. But these aren’t just birders. They’re conservationists.”

Pete Grube, Brock’s early birding partner, remembers a month-long trip he and Brock took to Costa Rica in 2008. Every couple of days the pair would visit an Internet cafe in the mountains, just so Brock could “download to his laptop the latest Indiana birding records.” Then, “in the downtime between birding, he would incorporate this information into his database, keeping it continually up to date. What a treasure trove of information he’s compiled. I doubt if any other state or region of the country can match this.”

Getting started in birding is easy enough. Buy yourself a pair of binoculars and a field guide. But if you’re at all serious about it, find yourself a copy as well of Brock’s Birds of the Indiana Dunes. Because knowing where the birds are, and when they’re there, is just about as important as knowing what they look like. And Brock has spent half a lifetime doing the groundwork for you.

 

 

Posted 2/10/2014