“Life List” Birding in Spring Migration

The Jagers officially became birders one year ago when we first hung feeders from our porch. On April 13, 2019, we photographed the House Sparrow and White-breasted Nuthatch nibbling sunflower seeds from our porch window. As we traveled for business trips and family vacations, we continued our passion for exploring nature and identifying as many birds as we could wherever we went. To date, we have identified 104 different species on our birding “Life List” and persistently search for more.

We have been looking forward to spring with great anticipation so that we could really hit the ground running for the bird migration this year. Ironically, the first day of spring was actually March 19th, 2020 which was the week when local preventative pandemic measures were enforced and all school buildings in Indiana transitioned to online learning. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks adjusting to life in quarantine and we’ve only left the house to shop for groceries or exercise. Before all of these changes took place, Derek and I had been planning to bird diligently on Indiana Audubon group outings and attend the four-day Indiana Dunes Birding Festival held annually in May.  While all scheduled trips are regrettably canceled, the birds don’t know any better and are still flying north.

On the Sunday morning of what would be the beginning of Spring Break, the weather forecast called for sunny skies and 60 degree high temperatures. We put a little pep in our step and made spontaneous plans for a day of adventure birding the lake shore trails of the Indiana Dunes National Park. This would be our first time leaving the county in weeks and driving somewhere other than the essential errands. We needed to get outside and explore the Great Outdoors.

Our mini-adventure began on the Indiana Birding Trail in South Bend with the Beverly D. Crone Restoration Area just off the U.S. 20 bypass. The park is a former landfill that was converted to a grassland habitat with a gravel loop trail over 111 acres. We have birded here previously with the South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society and found many hard-to-find species. It was a quiet morning for us with the typical visitors such as Red-winged Blackbirds, Robins, and Song Sparrows.

We continued on to Saint Mary’s Lake  on Notre Dame’s empty campus where fishermen cast their lines from the shore and a few runners and families walking their dogs circled the loop. There was a air of optimism and relief to be among the trees as strangers greeted each other with nods, waves, and brief pleasantries. Due to our quest for birding, we kept away from the path and quietly canvassed the shoreline with lenses ready and eyes scanning the branches.

A great blue heron majestically swooped overhead and a mute swan nested on a fortress of sticks. We spotted a new species for our Life List, two Northern Shovelers, medium-sized ducks, napping with their necks resting over chestnut feathers as they floated in the lake near turtles sunning their backs and a Double-crested Cormorant fanning its feathers with outstretched wings. We looped the lake identifying the Common Grackle, Blue Jay, Greater Scaup, and Song Sparrow, chuckling as the Mute Swan tailed a pair of Canadian Geese honking in distress as their bully pushed them away from her territory.  The great discovery of Saint Mary’s Lake climaxed with a dark figure diving in the middle of the lake. We captured a positive ID on the Common Loon, a large waterbird with black and white patterns that sings a haunting yodel. While we have seen a flock of loons from the distance camping in the Upper Peninsula last year, we hadn’t been able to photograph a clear picture for our Life List until today.

The adventure continued westward one hour to the Great Marsh Trail in Beverly Shores on the Indiana Dunes lake shore. The wetlands were brimming with activity from migratory birds with only a few human visitors in passing. As we embarked on the trail, a new bird for our Life List, the Pileated Woodpecker, a very large woodpecker about the size of a crow with what looks like a bright-red Mohawk, was drumming percussive taps into the crevice of a tall tree. A Black-capped Chickadee fluttered about the branches  and a flash of blue with a bright orange chest, the Eastern Bluebird, posed nobly atop a stump for its photograph. An unusual bird that scaled a tree trunk with jerky hops was almost completely disguised with the bark in its streaked buff-brown markings as our latest Life List discovery: the Brown Creeper.

On the open body of water, we found another new bird for our Life List, two Blue-winged Teals, ducks with a white stripe curved around its eye and brown-speckled feathers on its body. I also admired a Sandhill Crane gracefully stepping through the marsh reeds, a friendly neighbor we had only just seen on our family vacation over Christmas in Gainesville, Florida, now revisiting Northwest Indiana.

Our explorations proceeded to the Heron Rookery Trail in the Indiana Dunes of Michigan City where Golden-crowned Kinglets and Ruby-crowned Kinglets seemed to dance in the Little Calumet River. Their tiny bodies and frequent movements made it nearly impossible to snap a sharp photo for positive identification. The Paul H. Douglas Trail in the Miller Woods of Indiana Dunes in Gary was a delightful place for birding adventures. As the final destination of our very own “Great Birding Day,” it would have been nice to have more time here. The park offers several habitats including wetlands, woodlands, open dunes, and a beach front. We seemed to have the place all to ourselves, dedicating nearly an hour to the trails where we found Blue-winged Teals, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and another Brown Creeper. It had been a full day and our stomachs grumbled for our return trip home.

With each birding adventure we track our findings on eBird and the Audubon Bird app to not only correctly identify the birds we find, accumulate our Life List discoveries, but also to contribute to science with data on bird sightings. Birding is just as exciting an activity for the two of us as accomplishing our goals with running or cycling. The eBird app uses GPS coordinates to document where the birds were found and also maintains a continuous species list while actively birding.

I’ve learned that true birders respect their environment as guests of the wildlife that live there by walking lightly, talking softly, and patiently observing what nature displays around them. I can’t possibly think of a better socially-distant activity than birding in pairs in the open expanse of Mother Earth. As the world turns in turmoil, nature beckons us to participate in the wonder of unpredictable seasonal change as the birds carry on in their spring migration.

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