By Al Crist
Wow! The TAS Christmas Bird Count! Double Wow!! We sure had a great count this year, with the most species we’ve ever recorded (71) and a huge crew of counters participating. The 27 committed birders that rose early and braved the windy winter’s day were the most people we’ve had on a CBC in decades. Beth and I had an especially fine CBC. Early that morning our group chanced upon an incredible mixed species flock. Within a few minutes we had counted numerous species with the highlights being Flickers, Hairy Woodpeckers, a Pileated Woodpecker, and four Purple Finches. I can often go whole winters without seeing a Purple Finch.
Now, how about a slightly bigger challenge? Why not give our May bird count a try? Every year, on the 2nd Saturday in May, we count birds in Kosciusko County for the Indiana Audubon Society’s “Big May Day Bird Count”. The objective of the BMDBC is to count the number of birds of each species occurring in a participating county area from midnight to midnight on the count day. We won’t even expect you to count for the full 24 hours! Maybe 20, or so — just kidding.
Most groups begin early in the morning and are done sometime in the afternoon but you can choose to quit earlier as well. The data snapshot obtained from the numerous counts occurring throughout the state provides a valuable scientific record of the bird populations occurring each year in Indiana.
The May count is a great time to improve your birding skills. Whereas we normally see about 60 or so species on the Christmas count, the total species count is usually in the vicinity of 140 for the May count. Migration is at its peak in early May and you’ll probably see species then that you’ll not be able to see again until the next spring. It’s the best time of the year to work on your Warbler identification skills. If you’re more of a novice, you’ll be paired with experienced birders who will enjoy helping you improve your skills. Hope to see you on May 13th.
On a different note, for Beth and I one of the frustrations of living in northern Indiana is the scarcity of natural habitat to visit and to bird. ACRES Land Trust is a great organization that has protected a lot of habitat in our area. But compared to southern Indiana and some of our more northern Midwestern states, northeastern Indiana is a bit lacking in natural environment.
Recently, Beth and I have scratched that frustration itch just a bit. We’ve discovered an amazing natural area in northern Indiana that, for us, has actually been kind of “hidden in plain sight”. In early May, for the second year, we headed northwest to Chesterton, IN for the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival. We had been quite impressed with this event when we first attended in May of 2015. It’s co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the Indiana Audubon Society and is a great opportunity for some really fine spring-migrant birding. The migrating birds cluster along the southern shore of Lake Michigan before making the long flight north along the eastern or western shores of the lake.
Two different parks comprise what’s commonly referred to as the Indiana Dunes. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore stretches, in large scattered tracts along the lake shore from Gary, at the western end, to Michigan City, at the east. Interspersed among the incredibly varied and untouched natural areas of the National Lakeshore are several large steel mills and the busy Port of Indiana. The contrast is surreal. Probably nowhere else in the U.S. does heavy industry and extensive pristine natural habitat exist so closely together and, believe it or not, it works. Halfway between Gary and Michigan City sits Indiana Dunes State Park, bordered on three sides by the National Lakeshore and to the north by Lake Michigan. It’s a large state park with incredible and varied habitats: pristine beach, towering open dunes, wooded savannahs on dunes back from the lake, and extensive marshes. Beth and I think Trail #9 in the park is the most spectacular hiking trail we’ve been on in the whole state. The Indiana Dunes (both State Park and National Lakeshore) is a huge chunk of nature, with 15,000 acres of beaches, prairies, wetlands and forests; more than 70 miles of hiking trails; and 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. If you go, be sure to begin your visit at the Indiana Dunes Visitors Center, located on Hwy. 49 just north of Chesterton. National Park rangers will provide you with all kinds of information on the area.
We had reservations to camp beginning Thursday at the State Park and the first night was quite pleasant. Shortly after dusk we listened to the eerie sound of Whip-poor-wills calling near the campground. Unfortunately, it all went south Friday night at the campground, with giant RVs and screaming kids everywhere. Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with either big RVs or kids. Both are fine in moderation, but they were certainly not in moderation at the state park. On Saturday, we knew we could not stand another night there and ended up camping at the National Lakeshore campground, which was new to us. What a great campground! The sites are well separated by woods, the showers and bathrooms are great, and there are no electrical hook-ups which discourages the big RVs. It’s a much quieter campground than at the state park. Pizza trucks set up on week-ends next to the country store at the little crossroads just outside the campground. A quick one-mile hike or bike ride north from the campground takes you past the “Great Marsh” (the largest interdunal wetland in the Lake Michigan watershed), through the village of Beverly Shores, and to a fantastic public beach on the lake. Along the way, you also pass the Beverly Shores train station, probably the cutest train station on the planet! Hop on and in less than an hour you’re in downtown Chicago. The National Lakeshore campground and the surrounding natural areas have since become one of our favorite week-end destinations.