When you live close to the dunes, and travel a consistent path back and forth to work and home, it’s no surprise that folks quickly recognize you whether you’re in your work uniform or not. Too many late nights we’ve rolled into the local gas station before 11pm with barn boots and headlamps on. After a few visits for late night coffee or a soda, the staff don’t even turn their heads anymore. They know were studying birds, and nearly always have a bird question of their own tucked away for our visits. Take in point yesterday. We’re almost out the door when I hear, “hey, I saw this strange bird while fishing.”
You never know if you’ll have their answer. It becomes more surprising how many times a short description actually brings the correct answer for them. Take yesterday’s continued description. “It’s a penguin that’s black and white by Lake George. It wears a black streamer off it’s head.” Astonishing sometimes how the correct bird comes to mind! I asked if it was this tall, showing with my hands an approximate height, and whether it was on the lake edge or wading into the water. With his confirmation, I felt strongly I could tell him it was a night heron. A Black-crowned Night-Heron to be specific. Happy, we’ll await his next question on another date.
The Indiana Dunes hosts some unique breeding birds, such as the Black-crowned Night-Heron, that most folks will never see. In the same place that Night Herons breed are some of the more commonly seen birds, but seldom seen nesting. It’s nearly impossible to visit the Lake Michigan shoreline without seeing a Ring-billed Gull, but if asked what a gull nest looks like, most birders have never seen one. On the southern rim of the lake, few will see the largest breeding colony, located right here in Indiana, within the almost Homeland Security safety of the region’s steel mills. Here, outside of sight, over 32,000 gulls nest side by side in cramped conditions. Numbers fluctuate yearly, but the above number represents the 2011 count, the last survey (the next is 2014). Watch carefully in the evening and you’ll notice the majority of gulls heading northwest or west towards the East Chicago steel mill, returning to their nesting grounds.
Within the steel mills, it’s not only the Ring-billed Gulls that are hiding out. Occasional Herring Gull and Caspian Tern can be found mixed in. The above Night-Herons are nesting in stunted trees, alongside Great Egrets. Down lower, in white-washed slag piles and lake side edges, Double-crested Cormorants also nest.
Though most birders will never see these birds raising their fluffy young, they’re all lakefront icons we expect to see on a daily basis.