12 May 2001
by Lynea Hinchman
A Day Birding in the Indiana Dunes
My Big May Day encompasses Indiana Dunes State Park and the Heron Rookery portion of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Indiana Dunes State Park is adjacent to the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan. Its proximity to the lake and its wealth of habitat diversity contribute strongly to the wealth of bird diversity found within the park. The Heron Rookery is a unit of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It is located in rural Porter County. The section that is birded is adjacent to, but not within, the Great Blue Heron Rookery proper. The Heron Rookery is a mature woodland island surrounded by agricultural fields. A trail through this area skirts the Little Calumet River.
Like the seven previous counts, I was joined by Jason Swelstad, DDS. Jason drove in from Farmington Hills, Michigan to do this count with me. Jason had just completed two days of intense testing after four years of study finally earning his DDS. He graduates #1 in his class. Way to go Jason!
Despite the cold and wind, this Big May Day began much the same as all the other Big May Days that I have completed during the past decade in these same areas. We began with calling Barred Owls from the Wilson Shelter area at 4:45AM. A pair respond very vocally from an area just south of the Wilson Shelter.
As soon as it was light enough to see, we proceeded to the foot bridge that crosses the marsh to spend an hour or so there counting whatever passed overhead or put in an appearance. We didn't wait too long before we had Prothonotary Warbler singing and a little while later we saw the pair. Other warblers we saw or heard from the foot bridge included Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Yellow Warbler, and Common Yellowthroat. Species of herons, corvids, blackbirds, gulls, ducks and swallows passed overhead while we birded from this vantage point. A Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Gray Catbird, Baltimore Oriole and Rose-breasted Grosbeak all put in appearances. Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were heard singing. We also had a Green Heron that we heard vocalizing excessively off in the distance.
We had barely entered the wooded area north of the foot bridge on trail ten when we had a wave of migrant warblers passing through the canopy over our heads. Among these was a male Black-throated Blue Warbler singing his I am so lazeeeeee way through the woods. It was about then that we mentioned how difficult it would be to bird by sight because all of the trees had leafed out. Also, we noted that the noise from the combination of the wind blowing the leaves and the roar of Lake Michigan just beyond the dune was making hearing songs difficult. None the less, we birded on and found a couple of more waves of migrants moving through the canopy. In the understory we found Swainson's and Gray-cheeked Thrushes and heard the flute-like song of the Wood Thrush.
Soon we reached the Horseshoe Bend, a horseshoe shaped bend where the marsh cuts in on the south side of the trail. As is so typical of this part of the trail, many birds were concentrated here due primarily to the fact that it is more open. This allows the sunlight to penetrate which in turn warms the area permitting the insects that the birds are searching for to be more active and abundant. Here we had Eastern Towhee, many Yellow and Common Yellow-throat Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Black And White Warbler, Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Least Flycatcher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and more of the other species previously seen. A Sora was heard calling from out in the marsh. It is here that an Eastern Screech Owl responded vocally to a tape of its song. The tape also attracted a very agitated White-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmice, and Black-capped Chickadees. We checked the area close to the ground that is covered with Skunk Cabbage and adjacent to the marsh for ground dwelling warblers. No Mourning or Connecticut Warblers were lurking here this visit, but it is early for these species. They'll be along in a week or two.
The stretch of the trail between the Horseshoe Bend and the platform that overlooks the marsh produced more Northern Waterthrushes, Swamp Sparrows singing from the marsh's edge, more catbirds, thrushes, warblers, and other passerines. It is in this stretch that I expect to hear multiple Cerulean Warblers singing their buzzy song. Disturbingly, this year I only heard one Cerulean singing anywhere in the park. I hope this means they are just late arrivals.
When we arrived at the platform, it appeared that things over the marsh were slow. But not for long! Soon Jason had a swallow sail by with a buffy rump. Bingo! We tallied a Cliff Swallow for our list. Next he announced he had heard the mournful sound of an Eastern Bluebird as it passed by. Young ears! Then Jason excitedly announced that he had spotted an adult male Northern Harrier. A minute later, we watched as the harrier was harassed by a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Then I spotted what appeared to be a swallow flying over the marsh. No. It was a shorebird with a swallow-like flight, a Solitary Sandpiper! Canada Geese honked noisily from their marsh nesting sites. Trees Swallows, Barn Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows and a lone Chimney Swift all passed before our eyes. Soon Jason had spotted a couple of Red-tailed Hawks circling out in the distance. An Ovenbird shouted out, "Teacher, teacher, teacher" from somewhere nearby and a flock of six Cedar Waxwings came in to be counted. After an hour at the platform, it was time to move on. It was already past eight-thirty and we had lots of birding to get done.
The stretch of trail between the platform and the trail two cutoff has some open areas that have been traditionally good for migrating warblers and, in recent years, this is the only place in the park we have found Red-headed Woodpecker on our Big May Day. No woodpecker today, but we had better luck with migrants. While birding along this stretch, Jason and I discovered that if we did a pishing duet, we had a better response from the birds. At this stop, our pishing duet pulled in Blue-headed, Yellow-throated, and Red-eyed Vireos. Bay-breasted, Yellow-rumped, Tennessee, Nashville, Black And White, Chestnut-sided, and Cape May Warblers along with other passerine species came in to see what all the fuss was about. A male Blackburnian Warbler with his bright orange throat gave his high pitched song overhead as we listened and watched. His shocking orange colored throat almost required we put on our sunglasses. He was a really stunning looking bird!
We hiked on trail ten beyond the trail two cutoff. Here we had White-eyed Vireo singing its chip-weo-chip song. Next our pishing produced what appeared to be an endless flock of White-throated Sparrows that kept popping up out of the Skunk Cabbage as we pished. We tallied forty of these and a Lincoln Sparrow at this site. We also had House Wren and more Northern Waterthrushes and Common Yellowthroats. We then doubled back and took the trail two cutoff.
The cutoff passes over the marsh via a boardwalk. In past years, the water level has been brimming over the edges of the boardwalk. This year, the water level was extremely low. We had a buteo pass overhead and Jason and I agreed, noting its darkly bordered, paring knife wings and the banded pattern in the tail, that it was a Broadwinged Hawk. Pishing along the boardwalk produced more Northern Waterthrushes, Common Yellowthroats, and our only Canada Warbler for the day. This dapper little guy with a necklace across his yellow throat popped up to eye level and gave us a great look. But the real star performer was waiting high up in the trees. Our only Golden-winged Warbler for the day was at the top of the canopy. I spotted it and excitedly alerted Jason who immediately got on it. This striking little jewel was a male. The sunlight reflecting off of him only served to enhance his bright golden wing patches and crown. Wow! Jason and I voted him bird of the day! Next, Jason heard a Northern Parula. I tried and tried to hear its ascending buzzy song that is a long ziiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiipp sound. Finally, the bird came close enough so that my aging ears could pick it up. Pretty soon we were hearing two of them. This species rarely is found in the state park and this is the first time I have had it on this count. As we neared the end of the boardwalk, we heard our first singing Louisiana Waterthrushes. This is the first year I've found this species at this site. Low water levels may have resulted in their relocating here. Later as we passed by their traditional sites, none were seen or heard singing. Just before the end of this stretch we had our only Turkey Vulture of the day.
A bench awaited us at the end of the boardwalk stretch. Sitting here resting our feet, we listened and watched for species we hadn't seen yet. At this stop on a previous May Count, Jason heard and then we both saw a Worm-eating Warbler, but not this year. Pileated Woodpecker is another species that we have found while waiting here, but none put in an appearance this time. Finally, we moved on to the home stretch of what I call the two-ten loop. This last stretch was, at one time, excellent for Blue-winged Warblers. During the past couple of years, they have become difficult to find along this stretch. This year we found none. Overall, this stretch proved to be very quiet with only an occasional Red-eyed Vireo and a couple of small migrant flocks containing already seen species. At the end of this stretch, we checked for Red-Shouldered Hawk. They have nested here in the past. A look at the nest revealed no adults and no young. We hadn't even heard this sometimes vocal species at all during the day. Soon we were back at the Wilson Shelter area where Chipping Sparrows were singing. It was 12:30PM. We departed for a quick lunch and our usual afternoon visit to the Heron Rookery.
Arriving at the Heron Rookery, we noted nothing singing in the parking lot. An omen? We walked the short distance north along County Road 450 East to enter the trail on the south side of the creek. This trail runs adjacent to the creek for one and a half miles between Porter County Roads 450 East and 600 East. It is the only known site for Yellow-throated Warblers in the Indiana Dunes Area. The abundance of Sycamores here appears to attract them. In fact, I had seen three of them just a few days earlier. Usually, it is a wonderful place for both spring migrants and spring wildflowers. We walked in several hundred feet without even hearing a bird. Finally, we began to see Swainson's Thrushes running along the path. Then we had singing American Redstarts. One year we followed one down the path as it hopped along and flashed its tail at us. Many times there is a Belted Kingfisher in the rookery, but we found none today. Not even a pair of Wood Ducks were there. A single Solitary Sandpiper worked the bank at the creek's edge. It moved along as we approached. Eventually we had Acadian Flycatcher and Eastern-Wood Pewee. Finally, we heard three singing Cerulean Warblers. Hard to miss were the half dozen Louisiana Waterthrushes that nest in holes hidden in the creek's bank. They were either singing or busily moving along the creek's edge today. A Least Flycatcher che-bekked somewhere nearby and a Great Crested was its usual noisy self. One Downy and one Northern Flicker were our only observed woodpeckers today. But large holes, freshly excavated in a tree betrayed the presence of their larger cousin, the Pileated Woodpecker. I had observed a pair here on a previous visit.
We were about a mile back along this trail at a place where a ditch cuts in from the north. Here, after several unsuccessful tries along the trail at hearing or seeing Yellow-throated Warbler, I decided to try my Barred Owl vocalization to see if I could attract a mob and lure in our target bird. The vocalization did attract a mob. It even elicited a response from a Barred Owl, but Yellow-throated Warblers were having no part of this. They remained well concealed and unheard during our entire visit. Fortunately, we did find one new warbler species while at the rookery. A male Blackpoll appeared in the mob. This handsome little black and white warbler with his solid black cap came in directly across the creek from us giving us a good look. Also, new here was Indigo Bunting. A striking male in full breeding plumage put in an appearance. These were the only two new species we found at the rookery. We did an about face and birded our way back out the same way we had come in carefully listening and watching for the elusive Yellow-throated Warbler the entire way.
After we left the Heron Rookery, we made a quick circle around it via the county roads. We saw a Kildeer and heard a singing Vesper Sparrow on Porter County Road 600 East. It was almost 3:30PM and time to return to the park to check a couple of final places and tally our sightings.
Arriving back at the state park, we made a quick trip to the lakefront there. It produced nothing significant. We had a Herring Gull among all the Ring-billed Gulls and three fly-by Double-crested Cormorants. The brisk cold northerly wind probably curtailed any lake movement.
We finished the day at the picnic area furthest south of the Wilson Shelter area. Here we birded as we transcribed our notes onto a list form. The few species we saw here included the only Downy Woodpecker found in the park today, a Hairy Woodpecker, American Robins, Chickadees, Titmice and Ovenbirds. We left the park at 5:30PM.
Notable misses today included Blue-winged Warbler and Pileated Woodpecker both of which are possible at the park or the rookery. Red-shouldered Hawk, a traditional nester in the park was not seen or heard anywhere, but was clearly nesting at its traditional site. Yellow-throated Warbler which, in the dunes area, is only found at the Heron Rookery was also absent from our list today. Weather probably played a role in these misses.
All in all, we tallied a total of ninety-nine species for the day. This included twenty-three species of warblers. These tallies are very typical of our previous Big May Days for these two sites. With little effort, we could easily have tallied well over one hundred species today had we expanded our day to include other habitats.
Directions to the Indiana Dunes State Park: From the Chesterton exit #26 of I-94, go north on Highway 49. This highway terminates at the entrance to the state park. To reach the Wilson Shelter area, turn on the first road that goes right after passing the park headquarters. Follow this road until it ends at Wilson Shelter. Park in the lot there. To get to the foot bridge over the marsh, walk north on the boardwalk that leads to this area. Trail 10 begins after you cross over the foot bridge. Trail maps are available at the entrance to the park, the Nature Center or Park Headquarters. To go to Lake Michigan: Retrace your steps back to where you entered. Instead of turning right, proceed straight and you will arrive at Lake Michigan.
Directions to the Heron Rookery: From the intersection of Highway 49 and Indian Boundary Road, proceed east on Indian Boundary Road to the stop sign at Brummitt School. Turn left at this stop sign heading north and follow this road around until it intersects CR 1300 North. Turn right and proceed east on CR 1300 North. It ends at CR 450 East. Almost directly across CR 450 East is the parking lot for the Heron Rookery. Park in the lot and walk back to CR 450 East. Head north on CR 450 East until you reach the bridge that crosses the Little Calumet River. The entrance into the Heron Rookery is on your right just before the bridge.
Great Blue Heron
N. Rough-winged Swallow
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Copyright 2001 by Lynea Hinchman, Michigan City, Indiana. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written permission is strictly prohibited. Contact Lynea Hinchman at the address below for further information.
P. O. Box 887
Michigan City, Indiana 46361 (In the heart of the Indiana Dunes)