I’ve driven I-94 through Northwest Indiana countless times. Little did I know that just a few miles off this well-traveled Interstate between Michigan City and Gary, Indiana, a natural oasis was hiding right under my nose. What I usually saw from the Interstate was industrial plants and refineries…. Not exactly the landscape I equate with forests, dunes, marshes, and wildlife such as birds.
Yet, these unlikely neighbors coexist along Lake Michigan’s southern shore. This part of the state is known as the Duneland area, and for good reason—its dunes are remarkable. Katie, a fellow birder from my local Audubon Club, and I set out to explore them.
We made the small community of Chesterton in Porter County, Indiana our base. We sampled food from several locally owned restaurants, had wonderful meals everywhere, and stayed at Dunes Walk Inn at the Furness Mansion, a small inn in a restored historic home.
The Indiana Dunes Visitor Center is just north of the I-94 exit for Chesterton, and that’s where Katie and I started our search for the local wildlife.
The Visitor Center is an eco-friendly building with exhibits about the area’s natural history, and it proved to be the ideal place to begin our journey. The Indiana Dunes State Park, which was founded prior to the National Park, is now surrounded by National Park lands. We also discovered that there’s a ton of information at the state park’s Nature Center. It’s complete with a library and a bird watching area, and is the starting point for many of the state park’s trails.Find exceptional birding adventures at the Indiana Dunes
My mission was to explore the excellent birding in the region. The area is a mecca for spring and fall migrating birds and is listed as a “Birding Hotspot” on eBird.com. Each May, the Indiana Audubon Society holds their annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival here because of the rich biodiversity, the variety of habitats, and the close proximity to the lakeshore, which attracts birds during their north and south migrations. Monthly bird walks led by Indiana Audubon are also scheduled into November at the National Park. I was visiting during September looking for those fall migrants. Without any organized walks on the schedule, Katie and I struck out, armed with the Indiana Dunes Self-Guided Birding brochure.Download the Indiana Dunes Self-Guided Birding brochure here
Our first, and most frequent stop (three times) was the Great Marsh Trail at the corner of Broadway and Beverly Drive. This is one of the newer trails in the National Park. The hike is roughly a mile, and the path is flat and easy to walk. Conveniently, it includes a birding platform at the edge of the open marsh.
Over the course of the weekend, we saw more than 40 bird species at this location. The first evening we counted more than 45 Wood Ducks! Never have I seen so many of these beautiful ducks in one location. The area also served up about 50 Blue Winged Teals that flew synchronously in flocks around the marsh, flashing their beautiful blue wing patches. We also spotted Great Blue Herons, Great Egret, Sandhill Cranes, both a Red-tail and Rough-Legged Hawk, Eastern Phoebes, Gray Catbirds, Lincoln Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Red-eyed Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, and Nashville Warblers on the Great Marsh Trail.
A few tips: Parking is limited with two small parking areas along Broadway, and the morning is the most productive time. Also, depending on the time of year, it’s a good idea to bring insect repellent; my visit was late September.
The Great Marsh Trail explores only a small portion of the larger Great Marsh habitat, which occupies the low area between two ancient shorelines of Lake Michigan. Birds flock to this entire habitat, which extends all along Beverly Drive both to the south and north of the developed trail.Explore the Great Marsh Trail
Another productive birding location was our second stop on Saturday morning— the Longshore Bird Observation Tower at the west end of the Indiana Dunes State Park. Katie and I took several flights of stairs from the parking lot to reach the tower at the top of the dunes. The structure overlooks Lake Michigan as well as a shrubby, wooded portion of the back dune, and I imagine would be a great place for hawk watching!
We spotted a number of migrants in the pine trees that surrounded the stairwell area, where several Blackpoll Warblers, another unidentified warbler, and Chipping Sparrows fed on insects. Our perspective allowed us to see into the treetops where these kinds of birds often hide. Our visit was after the peak shorebird migration, but those we did see included quite a few Ring-billed Gulls. The state park has numerous trails, among the dunes and forests. We hiked Trails 9 and 10 through oak forests between the dunes and the marsh, and we were thrilled to spot a Red-headed Woodpecker.
One of our longest hikes was on a portion of the Cowles Bog Trail. Though the trail bears the name of “bog,” it is in fact, a fen…. The primary difference is that fens have greater water exchange and are less acidic, so the soil and water are richer in nutrients. This well-maintained trail intersects many ecosystems, including wetlands, wooded areas, moving dunes, and beaches. It was one of the most beautiful trails we took during our stay in the dunes area. Beyond the scenery, the birding was productive, even though we visited in the middle of the day when birds are known to be least active.
Some of the more exciting species we spotted included a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, White-throated Sparrow, Swainson’s Thrush, American Redstart, Nashville Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Mockingbird, and an Eastern Bluebird.
A little farther west along U.S. 12, sandwiched between the Port of Indiana and Gary, Indiana, are additional tracts of dunes that have been saved from development and are now part of the National Park. West Beach lies between (and a little north of) Gary and Portage, and is a popular spot for swimming in the warmer months. There is a service building with picnic shelters and concessions (during the summer). The parking lot, once a high dune leveled from sand mining, is now surrounded by dunes on all sides. From a birding perspective, Long Lake, passed shortly after entering the park, is home to migrating waterfowl in the spring and fall. There is a viewing platform a short walk from the nearby parking area. We saw a number of Wood Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, Great Egret, and several Great Blue Herons plying the marshy lake water even at midday. Among the Willow and Oak trees that bordered the lake, we spotted Gray Catbird, House Wren, Swamp Sparrow, Nashville Warblers, Common Yellowthroat Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler.
It’s worth mentioning that West Beach is also home to the Dune Succession Trail, a marked trail that traverses dunes, forests, and the lakeshore, illustrating how one ecosystem replaces another over time. The trail involves more than 250 steps, but if you are up for it, you will get some beautiful views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding dunes.Explore Indiana Dunes State Park
Miller Woods is within the city limits of Gary and is another portion of National Park property. The park is home to the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education and is listed in the Self-Guided Birding Guide. I visited late Sunday afternoon and the Visitor Center had just closed. The trail closest to the Douglas Center accesses ponds (via a boardwalk) and oak savannah habitats, and an extension trail north to Lake Michigan passes through wooded dunes to the beach. Bird activity at the time I visited was slow… but I saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Least Flycatcher, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Good timing gets credit for yet another trip highlight. I was fortunate that the weekend I visited the Indiana Dunes was the final open house of the season at Pinhook Bog. This protected area is about a 20-minute drive east of Chesterton. A true bog, this unique habitat is a floating mat of sphagnum moss above an ancient hidden lake. Bogs are rare and extremely fragile, and so the bog trail is only open when staffed by a park ranger (once weekly during the summer months, and two times during September). The bog is home to three species of carnivorous plants—the pitcher plant, sundew, and bladderwort—and several species of native orchids.
Over the course of my visit to the Indiana Dunes, I was able to explore a large portion of the area. I was impressed with its beauty, the variety of habitats and biodiversity, the easy accessibility, and excellent condition of the facilities. Yet, even with a long weekend, I wasn’t able to do and see it all. If you only have a day to bird the area, then I would recommend the Great Marsh Trail as your top stop. But if you can linger a little longer, you won’t regret it. There is much to do and see. My four days in the area have forever changed my perception of this section of Indiana. Now, I know it to be a birding hotspot.
The Indiana Dunes is truly a hidden gem, and a testament to how big industry can coexist with nature. I highly recommend including the Indiana Dunes in your next birding adventure.Find exceptional birding adventures at the Indiana Dunes