Indiana Dunes Self-Led Big Day
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
It was already bright, sunny, and chilly at 5:30am when we left the Lower Berth studio realized how walkable everything is from this spot. Our room was just inside the front door and beyond that is a large common area thoughtfully decorated with a collection of train memorabilia. We were headed off on our own Indiana Dunes big day following the Self-Guided Birding Tour with our first stop: Beverly Shores. It is a unique, couple mile drive through various habitats and lots of good looks at birds. Sandhill Cranes along the roadside with colts, Red-winged Blackbirds screaming in your ear, and a mix of sparrows that will keep you busy all day.
We returned to Riley’s for a fantastic breakfast full of French toast, fresh fruit, and sausage and a tour through the rest of the railcars – do not miss that! And headed out to Cowles Bog. Here, you start off in the wetlands which are filled with swallows, ducks, and Sandhill Cranes and work towards the forested dunes. Now, we are familiar with most of the Central and Eastern Flyway warblers species who briefly visit Texas and Florida…but we really have never heard them call! The forests were alive with the sounds of American Redstarts, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Northern Waterthrushes. And high up in the very top of the trees were nesting Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. We hiked a good mile or so till we were atop the wetland on the north side of the dunes – a great vantage for herons and egrets – when we realized it was way past lunchtime and we were starving.
It was just a quick jaunt back into Chesterton where we found Joe’s Downtown Tacos who served us a burrito the size of a football and steak milanese cemita and the waitstaff made sure my iced tea was never below half. Such a great spot for a quick and quiet afternoon birding break!
From there, the Heron Rookery isn’t far and is said to be better in the afternoon. Locals had suggested we start at the east parking lot as it is bigger and typically birdier. We hadn’t gotten more than 100 feet down the trail when we saw the first warblers! Just on the other side of the creek was American Redstarts and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. It’s one of those trails that you don’t go down very far because you have to stop every few feet to see what’s moving around in the trees: orioles, warblers, kinglets, so much to see.
Then it was time for the last food stop of the day and as we are good Oregonians, it needed to include some beer. And there’s no better spot that the Chesterton Brewery, which is veteran-owned establishment that also gives back to veterans. They have a huge variety of beers brewed on-site, my favorite is a tie between the Raspberry Sour and Bourbon Ale, and some great BBQ – I never pass up on brisket!
We finished up the day at the Indiana Dunes State Park Observation Tower – a place with regular American Woodcock sightings. As the sun set you could see the twinkling lights of Chicago on the other side of Lake Michigan, which in the daytime had beautiful blue water that had me thinking I was in Hawaii…besides the cold temperatures. It’s funny how some birds are really creatures of habit, if you check eBird reportings of this species at this spot, you can see how they begin to call a few minutes later each day which correlates with the setting sun. The eBird report that was a few days before our visit had the first peent at about 8:05pm. So, we waited in anticipate after that
point, Erik trekked throughout the mile-long sandy trail along the succession dune system to see if he could find a better vantage. Right as he returned to the sandy hill on the northeast side is when we heard it. Peent at 8:15pm and first flight a few minutes later. American Woodcocks were always a species I wanted to see, and this lifer will always be one of my favorites.
Indiana is never a place that I thought about going, other than to add it to a list. I am a lister, I list states, birds, countries, beers…it’s always fun to check something off and feel that sense of accomplishment. But after this trip I realized it is more than just a checkmark, it’s a fantastic place to bird, eat, and stay.
As for the self-led birding tour, it is a great introduction to the premier birding locations along the Lake Michigan shore in Indiana, but I would recommend inserting a map as I had some trouble figuring out where all the locations are in relation to each other. And for new birders, it might be helpful to have some information about eBird and Merlin.