Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo: Tom Gill/Flickr CC (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Birding the States

Birding in Indiana

National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
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Indiana’s 40 miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan are home to many of its most-frequented birding destinations, with rarities like scoters, jaegers, and kittiwakes regularly sited here. At Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park you can find dozens of viewpoints from which to search for birds on the water and flying overhead.

The most popular single birding spot in the state, though, may be the expansive Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis, where more than 270 species have been spotted over the years. One of the largest city parks in the United States, Eagle Creek even has an Ornithology Center adjacent to the reservoir.

Venture away from Lake Michigan’s shores to search for birds in marshes and lakes, a remnant prairie, and Hoosier National Forest in the south, where you’re likely to find a colorful mix of nesting songbirds. The reputation of the restored wetlands at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area grows by the year as its species list tops 280.

Whether you’re a resident Hoosier or a visitor, your birding adventures in Indiana will likely add some lifers to your list and whet your appetite for more birding elsewhere.

Indiana Birding Hotspots

 


Indiana Dunes State Park

This park on the Lake Michigan shore boasts the highest species list of any Indiana site. Scan the lake for waterfowl and gulls. Many migrating songbirds follow the shoreline as they travel to avoid crossing the huge water body.

Make a stop at the park’s nature center, on the eastern side, for advice and a trail map. For land birds, locals favor Trail 2 (about 3 miles long), which includes a marsh boardwalk, and Trail 10 (5.5 miles long), sampling dunes and shoreline. For many warblers and other songbirds, migration usually peaks in the first week of May. Among the rarities seen here is the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. On the west side of the park is a bird observation platform, a good spot for searching the skies and treetops.

Nesting birds here include Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Prothonotary Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Pine Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Baltimore Oriole.

In fall and spring, time spent scanning Lake Michigan can turn up ducks, loons, grebes, jaegers, gulls, and terns. All three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, and Red-throated Loon are among the uncommon but regular migrants.

The park is a very popular summer destination for swimmers, picnickers, and other fun-seekers, so in that season birding is mostly confined to trails away from the beach.

 

Eagle Creek Park

This Indianapolis park is one of the largest city parks in the country, with 3,900 acres of land area and 1,300 acres of reservoir. Its varied habitats make it a favorite and productive birding destination, with more than 270 species recorded.

Within Eagle Creek Park is an Ornithology Center with various educational exhibits, a bird viewing deck, and a hummingbird garden.

Getting the most out of a visit to the park means exploring different habitats, from woods and scrubby fields to ponds. The area is excellent in migration, and nesting birds include Wood Duck, Double-crested Cormorant, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, American Woodcock, Acadian Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Henslow’s Sparrow.

When the north end of the large reservoir has low water levels, it can be productive for shorebirds in late summer. The park bird list includes 24 species of ducks that have been seen in winter, with nearly 20 being at least fairly common.
 

Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area

This state-managed area on the Illinois state line is known for wetlands that attract waterfowl and marsh birds—though, with a bird list of more than 260, it’s also productive for many other species.

County roads cross the area in several places, providing opportunities to get out and scan. The main body of water, J.C. Murphey Lake, can be seen from the area headquarters off State Line Road. Patrol Road and Pogue Road are good birding routes. Check the levee east of parking area 4A for marsh species.

In addition to many species of geese and ducks in winter, nesting species include Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Virginia Rail, Sora, Common Gallinule, Sandhill Crane, Bell’s Vireo, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and Dickcissel. In winter, possible open-country birds include Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Northern Shrike, and Lapland Longspur.

Just north, bordering Highway 41, is Kankakee Sands, a 7,800-acre project to restore grassland and marsh and the associated wildlife. Birding can be done from roads, and visitors often walk the Wet Prairie Trail, a 0.6-mile loop beginning at a parking area on the west side of Highway 41 south of county road W 400 N.

The impressive list of nesting birds for Kankakee Sands shares much in common with Willow Slough, featuring such species as American Bittern, Least Bittern, King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, Sandhill Crane, Upland Sandpiper, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Dickcissel, and Bobollink.
 

Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge

Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent birding site in southeastern Indiana, just a few minutes from Interstate 65. With its mix of upland forest, bottomland hardwood forest, lakes, scrub, and cropland, it’s the kind of location with something to see year-round.

Some of the highlights here include migrant and winter waterfowl (including Tundra Swan), Wood Duck (a common breeder), Wild Turkey, Black Vulture, nesting Bald Eagle, migrant and wintering Sandhill Crane, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, and Prairie Warbler.

The refuge has a four-mile auto tour route that makes a fine all-around birding experience. There’s an observation platform at Endicott Marsh, which is a good spot to look for bitterns and Marsh Wren. There are also five walking trails, including a handicapped-accessible one near the visitor center.

Any of the refuge lakes will have waterfowl from fall through spring, Osprey in spring, and in late summer Double-crested Cormorant and wading birds.
 

Hammond Lakefront Park & Bird Sanctuary

This tiny patch of trees and scrub is a classic “migant trap,” an isolated patch of greenery—in this case set between a thoroughly urbanized landscape and Lake Michigan—where migrating birds congregate to rest and feed while traveling because they have no other nearby choice.

Located just west of the Hammond marina, it’s hardly a wilderness area, yet it’s worth it when, say, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Common Yellowthroat, and American Redstart, a Magnolia Warbler, a Blackpoll Warbler, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak appear within just a few minutes.

The bird sanctuary has a list of 215 species, which includes many ducks, gulls, and other waterbrds spotted on Lake Michigan. But in general the birding plan is simply to wander through the strip of vegetation during spring or fall migration (the period after stormy weather is usually best) and see what’s there. The first week of May and mid-September are generally peak times, though there are exceptions for different species. Some flycatchers and Connecticut Warbler, for example, are most likely in late May.
 

Falls of the Ohio State Park

This site along the Ohio River on the bank opposite Louisville, Kentucky, is most famous for its amazing display of Devonian-age fossils exposed on the rocky river bottom. Fossils such as corals, sponges, bryozoans, snails, and brachiopods are best seen from June to November when water levels are low.

At low-water periods shorebirds can be common on and around the rocks, muddy shore, and sandbars. August is usually the best time for species such as American Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Least Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. The peak for Dunlin is the first week of November. Some shorebirds can be present in late April and early May, as well.

Some of the notable birds found at and near the falls in summer are Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black Vulture, Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon.

Waterfowl can be present on the river in winter. At that time masses of gulls can often be seen, including Ring-billed Gull and Bonaparte’s Gull, or rarities such as Iceland Gull or Lesser Black-backed Gull.
 

Potato Creek State Park

This park about 10 miles southwest of South Bend is a fine all-around birding destination with forest, restored grassland, and a 327-acre lake. More than 220 bird species have been recorded here.

Ospreys nest on platforms around the lake, where other summer residents include Wood Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, and Green Heron. In woodlands and fields look for breeding Wild Turkey, Red-shouldered Hawk (nests in the northeastern part of the park), Acadian Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Veery, Wood Thrush, Yellow-throated Warbler, American Redstart, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Baltimore Oriole. The park includes nine miles of trails. Several can be excellent for migrant songbirds. The 2.5-mile Trail 4 is favored by local birders.

Birds seen regularly, or occasionally outside nesting season, include Bald Eagle, Sandhill Crane (has nested locally), and Northern Shrike (scarce in winter). Twenty-three species of ducks have been sighted from fall through spring, along with Common Loon and Horned Grebe.

When the water level is low in late summer and fall, the eastern end of Worster Lake can be a good place to look for shorebirds. Areas along Pierce Road south of the park can also have shorebirds in spring when agricultural fields are flooded.
 

Goose Pond/Beehunter Marsh Fish and Wildlife Area

Since its establishment in 2005, this 8,064-acre area has become one of the most popular birding sites in Indiana. Located about 40 miles southwest of Bloomington, it’s mostly flat marshland, much of which can be birded from roads. Birders can also walk along dikes separating impoundments. Visitors must fill out a permit at one of the roadside kiosks.

Goose Pond and the adjacent Beehunter Marsh unit are known for wintering geese and dabbling ducks, wading birds, abundant and diverse shorebirds, and songbirds of grassland and marsh.

More than 30 species of shorebirds have been recorded here, including rarities such as Spotted Redshank and Curlew Sandpiper. Shorebirds can be common in both spring and fall, though the period of August and September is best. Black-necked Stilt nests here.

Some of the other nesting birds found in the area are Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Bobwhite, Pied-billed Grebe, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Northern Harrier, King Rail, Sora, Common Gallinule, Bell’s Vireo, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, and Dickcissel.

In early spring Sandhill Crane is common, and Whooping Crane (of the introduced eastern population) is somewhat regular. In winter, Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owl hunt the grasslands.
 

Celery Bog

Located in West Lafayette, this relatively small preserve (less than 200 acres) has a bird list of more than 250—one of the highest of any site in Indiana.

Around four miles of trails wind through woodland and into marsh habitat. Several viewing platforms provide observation points over the marsh and swamp.

Wood Duck breeds here, and many species of geese and ducks can be seen in migration and winter. Waterbirds such as Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and Green Heron are seasonally present in the wetlands. Osprey and Bald Eagle appear in migration. About 25 species of shorebirds have been recorded, with about a dozen seen regularly.

Wooded areas near the wetlands are excellent in spring and fall for migrant flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, and warblers. Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and Baltimore Oriole nest here.

The Lilly Nature Center, located at Celery Bog, presents environmental programs throughout the year.
 

Pokagon State Park

This 1,260-acre park in extreme northeastern Indiana boasts a bird list with nearly 200 species. It’s an extremely popular recreation area, but most visitors are interested in the resort’s inn, campgrounds, picnic areas, and swimming beach, leaving trails to birders.

The park borders Lake James, a glacial water body spanning 1,200 acres Meandering through marshy areas and beautiful rolling mixed forest of pine and northern hardwoods, 14 miles of park trails provide access to the varied birding habitats.

Nesting birds at Pokagon include Hooded Merganser, Broad-winged Hawk, Virginia Rail, Sora, American Woodcock, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Marsh Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Veery, Wood Thrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Cerulean Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, and Baltimore Oriole. Sandhill Crane is seen often in spring.

Several species of ducks can be present on Lake James in spring migration, and Osprey and Bald Eagle make occasional appearances.

Birding Trail

Chicago Region Birding Trail Guide

Chicago was not founded by birders, but it could have been. Here, where the eastern forest meets the prairies and the Great Lakes, is the heart of an exciting territory for naturalists. This regional trail, sponsored by the City of Chicago, the Bird Conservation Network, and Chicago Wilderness, leads to 58 of the best birding sites in the seven Illinois counties surrounding the city and in two counties in northwest Indiana. On native prairies in summer, rare Henslow’s sparrows sing their flat hiccups, while meadowlarks and bobolinks deliver more melodious tunes. Forest preserves host flashy treetop birds like rose-breasted grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers in summer, while remnant marshes still support nesting herons, ducks, and all sorts of water birds. During spring and fall migration, gulls, hawks, and other migrants sweep along Lake Michigan’s shoreline when the winds are right. But birders in the know may follow the guide to downtown Chicago, where, in the shadows of skyscrapers, parks along the lakefront provide stopover habitat for thousands of migrant travelers, including everything from blackburnian warblers to Virginia rails. —Kenn Kaufman