Travel

Get Yourself to Indiana's First National Park, Where the Birds Abound

With an upcoming festival celebrating spring migration, it’s time to explore the rare habitats and hundreds of species at Indiana Dunes.

The ancient sand dunes at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, the poet Carl Sandburg once wrote, “are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and Yosemite is to California.” Now they have joined those beloved western parks not only in the poet’s eyes, but on paper: In February, President Trump signed a spending bill establishing Indiana Dunes National Park, the 61st national park and the Hoosier State’s first.

It’s a recognition more than a century in the making. Efforts to establish a national park in the dunes began in 1916 but got bogged down when World War I broke out. It became part of the national park system 50 years later, but under the less recognizable label of a national lakeshore.

The name change doesn’t bring stronger protections or a bigger budget, but it could attract more visitors to the area, says Bruce Rowe, the park’s supervisory ranger and spokesman. “We've had a lot of folks from around the country who have contacted us since the name change and said, ‘Hey, I hear you're a national park. You know, we want to come out and visit you,’” Rowe says. “It has just given greater prominence to the Indiana Dunes than we had under our old name.”

Only about an hour’s drive from Chicago, the park offers city dwellers an easy outdoor escape. For visitors seeking more than a day trip, Dunewood Campground on the north side of the park offers 66 campsites with bathrooms and showers, and there are plenty of nearby hotels, inns, and B&Bs for those who require creature comforts.

“It has such a diverse mixture of habitats, and because it’s in an urban setting, that just makes it really special,” says Stephanie Beilke, conservation science associate for Audubon Great Lakes. Beilke leads bird surveys regularly at the park, which encompasses 15,000 acres of prime natural real estate with 15 miles of beachy coastline, more than 50 miles of trails, and dunes towering nearly 200 feet above the lakeshore that were created by a continental glacier that retreated some 14,000 years ago. It also includes a mosaic of marshes, oak savannas, pine forests, bogs, prairies, and globally rare dune-and-swale habitat, a repeating pattern of parallel wooded sand ridges with wetlands between them.

With such an abundance of natural communities comes an impressive diversity of birds—more than 350 species have been observed there, the National Park Service reports. The park’s location at the foot of Lake Michigan makes it an excellent stop for birds that follow the lakeshore during migration rather than winging over open water. “The birding along the Indiana Dunes is kind of a hidden treasure,” says Brad Bumgardner, executive director of the Indiana Audubon Society.

More birders are beginning to seek that treasure. Now in its sixth year, the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, hosted by the Indiana Audubon Society the third weekend in May, is a relative newcomer. But more than 850 people attended the festival last year, Bumgardner says, making it one of the biggest in the country.

Whether you’re headed to the festival or want to explore on your own time—fall migration is another great season to visit—here are some of the birding hot spots at Indiana Dunes.

Cowles Bog: Not only an Important Bird Area, the bog is also a park service-designated National Natural Landmark and a birthplace of plant ecology, where Henry C. Cowles conducted early studies on plant succession. Among the many species visitors to the bog can hope to encounter are Marsh Wrens, American and Least Bitterns, and elusive Virginia Rails. 

Paul H. Douglas Trail: Formerly known as Miller Woods, the 3.2-mile round-trip walk winds through a variety of habitats, including wetlands, beach, and black oak savanna—a natural community that once stretched across 50 million acres but now covers only about 30,000. Along with a rainbow of wildflowers in spring and summer, hikers here might come across Scarlet Tanagers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, and Red-eyed Vireos.  

Longshore Birding Platform: Dubbed the “pinnacle” of Indiana Dunes birding, this tower sits on a dune overlooking Lake Michigan and serves as the site for bird counts during migration. On a single day earlier this month, counters recorded nearly 26,000 birds representing 83 species, including Rusty Blackbirds, Wood Ducks, and 1,239 Northern Flickers—a record for Indiana. Note that the platform is located within Indiana Dunes State Park, which is surrounded by the national park and managed separately.

Great Marsh Trail: This mile-long trail is a great place to see wading birds and warblers. It’s also a nesting area for Sandhill Cranes, one of the area’s big birding draws, Bumgardner says. An observation deck gives you a bird’s-eye view of a restored wetland and its many avian inhabitants

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