Indiana Dunes Birding Festival
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
Birding festivals are a world of their own. For a brief 3-5 days, hundreds of birders converge to a specific area to bird with one another, buy birdy items, hear from experts, and just enjoy spending time with others who have the same passion. I didn’t really know what to expect from the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival as we had never traveled to that part of the world for birds and really had never heard anyone talk about birding there. That’s because, it’s a hidden gem.
The Indiana Dunes is composed of about 2,000 acres of a unique landscape. There are dunes, forests, prairies, waterfront, wetlands – the perfect spot for migrating birds. The festival highlights many of the premier locations with trips lead by local experts and great birders. And there is just such a diversity of species that use these landscapes - warblers, sparrows, shorebirds, and so much more. While participating in the festival, we actually saw 4 lifer species: Black-throated Blue Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and American Woodcock!!
Now, the festivals we are used to offers more expensive field trips and can make these adventures easily rack up into the $1000’s, they require travel to distant locations away from the headquarters and can kind of feel like you are being herded along. Indiana Dunes Birding Festival is different. Each field trip is $5-$40, within a short drive, and small, intimate groups. And each spot has something new and different to explore.
Each day of the festival, we guided a “Hannah and Erik Go Birding” trip, featuring our style of birding (more relaxed, fun, and informal). So, if you are looking at a birding day at the Indiana Dunes, this is what we suggest:
Start off at Cowles Bog to see the Sandhill Cranes, migrating warblers, nesting Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and more. This sandy area has miles of trails to explore, we didn’t explore further than the fork on our outings, because it was just so busy with migrants on the way in! Thrushes skitter along the forest floor and warblers bounce through the tree canopy, making it easy to spend all day there.
From there, head into the Indiana Dunes State Park and go towards the Wilson Shelter. From that spot there are many places to visit looking for warblers. The #8 trail has nesting Prothonotary Warblers just off the boardwalk that are likely some of the most photographed of their species. The woods along the nature center get small groups of warblers moving through, if you hit it just right. And the road down towards the Tremont Shelter can be very productive at all times of the day. If you are looking for the elusive Cerulean Warblers, they can be found along Trail #2 – which can turn into a pretty long and fantastic hike with a long sections of forest, boardwalk through a flooded stand of snags, and then back on the dunes towards the Wilson Shelter. There are a plethora of trails at the park, all are begging to be explored with so much to see.
If you are hungry, downtown Chesterton is a quick 5-minute drive from most locations and the Octave Grill has a plethora of creative burger options to make everyone happy (Erik also loved the Buffalo Fries!). A quicker option is the Port Drive-In, a blast-from-the-past spot for burgers, fries, and shakes with very reasonable prices and classic quality – make sure to get a mug of their root beer!
Then of course, I enjoyed finishing up the evening with the sunset over Lake Michigan and listening to the American Woodcock display at the Indiana Dunes State Park tower. Again, the two times we watched; we were the only ones there. It’s the perfect end to a day.
There are just a few hotels in Chesterton, but if you are looking for a quaint, inexpensive option, the Spring House Inn is the place! It’s the festival hotel and just down the freeway from the headquarters. Situated along a stream with plenty of old trees, it also happens to be an ideal birding spot!
So, all in all, there’s lots to see and do in Chesterton and the Indiana Dunes region. It’s an incredible warbler spot in the spring and easy enough to bird on your own. But, don’t miss the festival as it a hub for birders and great introduction to the area.