Amazing Avocets in the Dunes

The following guest blog post is from local birder Kimberly Ehn of Porter, IN.  To be a guest blogger, email

photo (6)I parked my car in the last parking space closest to the beach. I was there to make the long trek down the beach, as the experienced birders told me I should go. I should go to see if the birds they had already observed were still there. As a new birder, I eagerly listen to these knowledgeable folks discuss identification details, reference bird observation areas, and compare checklists.

Arriving after other birders had relocated them, I walked the long mile down the beach by myself. An adult Ring-billed gull looked back at me as it waded further into the lake. The northwesterlies were a bit gusty and the waves were noisy, but I kept my sight on the goal: the US Steel breakwall/impoundment. Finally there, I climbed over the boulder scraps, and followed the fence until I could position my binoculars on the mud flats beyond. There they were! Three American Avocets! Their long legs made them appear as if floating on the water, but then they would bend their ankles and I could see more of their plumage. The black and white pattern on their back and wings were identifiable. Two seemed smaller than the third. Above them, I spotted a Caspian Tern hovering in the wind. When it landed, all three Avocets indignantly flew up and moved to where I could no longer see them. They were gone, but my quest to see them had been successful. I had made that beach walk six days prior and had to leave with no sighting of the Recurvirostra americana. I had to smile this time when I turned to walk back up the beach.


I had read the postings online for a few weeks of more experienced birders seeing and listing the Avocets, among names of other birds I had not seen. Eight months ago I bought The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, received a pair of 8×42 Vortex binoculars, and accompanied knowledgeable birders on their searches. I have since added two more books, a CD, and a phone app. Along the way, I have asked the wrong questions, mis-identified common birds, pretended to see out of broken binoculars, and used the wrong words to name parts of birds. I have also listened to the call of the Summer Tanager and other birds over and over to memorize them. I have also studied the book descriptions of birds that are listed online by the area’s great birders. I don’t have a spotting scope, and I can’t hear the higher frequencies of some bird calls, but I am content to say, “I am a birder.”

Contact Kimberly Ehn at


The Next Tern in the Fall Lineup

Fall migration is starting to really ramp up in the Indiana Dunes area.  We’ve been watching shorebirds for several weeks, but there’s been little else as of yet.  Many birds start moving in August, but often go unnoticed as most visitors are still in summer mode and don’t think of fall until Labor Day has passed.  Long before the last lifeguards have hung up their preservers for the season, birds are dodging bikinis and loose dogs.

To set the stage for the next couple months, shorebirds will continue through August and into September.  By early September, the beautiful warblers, vireos, and tanagers will begin their migration, peaking in mid-September.  The vexing sparrows will follow in October, while many birders will be setting up on the lake at the same time to capture a glimpse of migrating ducks, jaegers, and other waterbirds.  Hopefully winter finches will be appearing, only to peak in great numbers by November.  The birding will continue strong with the chance of rarities through November.  All in all, fall is a great birding season in NW Indiana.

Aside from shorebirds, the observant eye can notice another spectacular lakefront migration right now, the tern migration!  Three major tern species can be seen staging a large migration along the lake’s southern shore.  The first to peak in late August are the easily identifiable and impressive Black Tern flocks.   Flocks of a hundred of these giant dark butterfly birds can be seen skimming above the waves in search of some migration morsel in the water.  Their migration season is quick, so you need to be out on the beach now to get a chance to see them.

Migrating Black Tern in the dunes area.  Photo by John Cassady.
Migrating Black Tern in the dunes area. Photo by John Cassady.

By Labor Day, our other two terns, affectionately called the Sterna terns (due to their shared genus name), begin peaking in their migration.  First the Forster’s Terns, then the Common Terns.  Often unidentifiable far off shore, beach sitting and nearshore birds can be easily identified based on a few characteristics.  Once molted, the Forster’s signature earpatch is useful, whereas the dark wing mark (called the carpal bar) on the Common Terns are just two features to look for in migrating Sterna.  Of course this overly simplifies things, and doesn’t take into account rarer terns, such as the Arctic Tern.

Flock of Common Terns on the Beach.   Photo by Pete Grube.
Flock of Common Terns on the Beach. Photo by Pete Grube.
Molted Forster's Tern migrating along Lake Michigan.  Photo by Pete Grube.
Molted Forster’s Tern migrating along Lake Michigan. Photo by Pete Grube.

With Labor Day just over a week away, expect to see more birds and more birding opportunities in the dunes.  The first great chance will occur the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, September 1, when the state park offers a entire afternoon of bird banding at the park nature center.  It will be a chance for visitors to see both common feeder birds and some newly arrived migrants up close and in the hand.  Come for an hour or stay for the entire banding afternoon.

Also worth mentioning is the Dunes Big Sit.  For those not familiar with Big Sits, they are sedentary birding events, where all birds are counted within a close proximity circle.  No scouring the miles of shoreline in search of birds.  A few Big Sits have been done at the old green tower site in the past, but this year’s should be spectacular, as it will be the public’s first birding opportunity from atop the new Bird Observation Platform.  Join local birders for a full day of birding on Saturday, September 21 from atop the tower.  We’re aiming for 100 species of birds!

Bird Town Indiana

We all know the birding is good in Northwest Indiana.  We know that great birds can be seen here in each of the four seasons.  The birding sites that exist in the dunes are fabulous places to observe each of the birding aspects that birders enjoy greatly.  It reminds me that a key to  great birding is to have birding support.  Communities, governments, park systems that also recognize birding as a popular hobby.  Their support and promotion of it further’s the momentum.  For many of these entities, the ultimate bottom line is the dollar.  Thus birding tourism is important for their continued promotion of birding, whether by simple brochures, birding towers, paid staff to educate, or simply a pit toilet where the birders are parking.

Enter Indiana Audubon Society.  As one of the oldest Audubon groups in the nation (established 1898), the society works to bring birding to the fore front, as well as connect birders via their field trips, festivals, and young birder activities.  In 2013, a new program was introduced that works to bridge the birding sites and birders with the community support needed to bring birding more mainstream.  Modeled after a similar Wisconsin program, Bird Town Indiana seeks to recognize communities in Indiana that demonstrate an active and ongoing commitment to the protection and conservation of bird populations and habitat.

ias logo

Like Tree City USA, towns or cities that are eligible simply apply and if qualified, can get recognition through the Indiana Audubon.  Large signs will be prominent in these recognized communities, letting birders know that this town has educational efforts, conservation efforts, and more all in support of birds.

bird town logo jpg

This upcoming fall, the first Bird Town Indiana’s will be designated by the Society.  Geneva, IN will hold the distinction as the first town.  While exciting, how about city number two?  Welcome Chesterton, IN as the second town to enter the program.  Once officially approved by the Indiana Audubon, expect to see these signs as you enter or the duneland area.  Bring your binoculars…