Green Friday

I really like the #optoutside campaign to replace Black Friday. I have never used that day for its ‘intended’ purpose, but I am glad that there is starting to be some real momentum for an alternative that is known even on the average person’s social media feed. In Indiana, all state parks were allowing free admission on that day. I didn’t go to one, but I did spend most of the day birding.

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Northern Flicker at the backyard feeder

It started with a family viewing of the Northern Flicker that has been patronizing our suet feeder recently. It first appeared earlier in the week while I was at work, and Jaime was incredibly excited to tell me that she used Sibley to identify it. We think it might actually be interested in our screech owl house; it has been frequenting the tree that it is mounted to.

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Amereican Coot

Later in the morning I departed on my bike to check some local spots for possible new year birds. The first stop was the Fort Wayne water treatment ponds, which I arrived at via a new link to the River Greenway in the form of the Pemberton Levee SELRES_900e3f50-1ad4-44b6-89b5-eb9b2c4fc06eSELRES_fded3a05-735c-415b-beb1-861ac23ab939SELRES_e011007f-aee9-4854-a57d-f9cd336335d9SELRES_734f4210-8dd9-4c2a-97c7-efdb161473b3TrailSELRES_734f4210-8dd9-4c2a-97c7-efdb161473b3SELRES_e011007f-aee9-4854-a57d-f9cd336335d9SELRES_fded3a05-735c-415b-beb1-861ac23ab939SELRES_900e3f50-1ad4-44b6-89b5-eb9b2c4fc06e. This new route doesn’t really save any distance, but it is nice to ride separate from traffic for even half a mile. There were a lot of birds at the ponds, but unfortunately not a lot of diversity and nothing new. I enjoyed some closer-than-usual looks at American Coots.

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Great Horned Owl

The star of the show at the ponds ended up being a Great Horned Owl that I flushed from right next to the trail. It flew up and perched close by allowing me to get a photo for the first time and also for the Blue Jays to thoroughly harass it.

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Lindenwood Cemetery

My next stop was Lindenwood Cemetery just on the other side of downtown. My primary goal there was winter finches. Specifically, I hoped for Red Crossbills. Indiana is experiencing a major irruption this year, and they have appeared at Lindenwood in years past because it offers the most conifers of any site near the city. No luck for me on Friday because the leaf blowers were out in force, so with time to spare I decided to keep riding and add another stop to my birding agenda.

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Rusty Blackbird

I took the Towpath Trail southwest toward Eagle Marsh. While I was riding on a particularly birdy segment I saw what at first I thought was a starling up in a tree. I wasn’t going to slow down, but right as I became even with it I could tell it was something else, and I braked to get out the binoculars. It flew down into the brush after a moment, and I stood there waiting to see if it would re-emerge. When it finally did, I was able to confirm it as a Rusty Blackbird, which was a state bird and also Allen County bird #199. It was soon joined by a friend as well as some Red-winged Blackbirds. While not totally unexpected, this bird wasn’t really on my radar as one that I might get green.

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Eagle Marsh

When I got to Eagle Marsh I decided to eschew my usual path and take the newly completed Continental Divide trail all the way around the preserve. It was windy but sunny, and bird numbers were low as the temperature had not risen enough to melt all of the ice.

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American Wigeon

The larger basins were mostly clear though, so I spent a good deal of time scanning the Mallards and Northern Shovelers for anything different. I was rewarded by two American Wigeon, pictured above as a diagnostic photo only because they were something of a nemesis for me, a long overdue life bird, and the only duck regularly occurring in the inland-Midwest that I had not seen. Plus with the Rusty from earlier, they were Allen County bird #200.

The last notable sighting as I was leaving the marsh to head home was a flyby Northern Harrier making my third year bird for the day. I ended the day with a green list of 158 species, all in Allen County. When I got home, I saw a report of a Snowy Owl the next county over that I was within 10 miles of. In addition to crossbills, Indiana is also currently experiencing a big invasion of Snowies, and I could have gone for that one by foregoing my other birding stops. But even as cool of a pickup as that would have been on a bicycle, I am glad that I birded where I did on Green Friday and found my own birds to add to the list.

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Lost to Nature #1: City West and Tremont, Indiana

My line of work has familiarized me with the small communities of the Midwest, and my hobby of choice has acquainted me with the natural places where its birds can be found. Recently I have become aware of some intersections between the natural world and the developed world which I think are interesting and warrant some exploration here. Most of the time you would rightly think of this manifesting as forests and natural areas being overtaken as people move in and build. However, I want to highlight the exact opposite. I have found numerous instances of cities, towns, and centers of development being taken over by and returning to nature, and in many cases becoming the birding hotspots that are famous in the birding world today.

The first of these I would like to write about regards the Indiana Dunes State Park (eBird hotspot information here). This is the foremost birding site in the entire state of Indiana, and for good reason.

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Lake Michigan as viewed from the Dunes on my 2011 camping trip

The park will  hopefully soon be up for consideration as the newest National Park, which would be a huge boon for tourism and conservation. Its variety of habitats span several thousand acres and include the namesake Dunes which in some cases are hundreds of feet tall, Lake Michigan shoreline, forests, swamps, and prairie. There have been over 300 species of bird recorded here, including the current invasion of Red Crossbills and some mind-bending Midwest rarities like Black-legged Kittiwake.

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Aerial view of the park (Google Maps)

Although it is today a shining example of a natural place in the state, the Dunes’ history could have been much different.

In the 1830s Indiana was a newly-established state that was still mostly frontier. The Lake Michigan shoreline was relatively undeveloped, with cities like Chicago having only a few hundred residents. Settlers for the most part found success in farming, but a few entrepreneurial individuals had bigger ideas. In 1836, some business partners established a city on the shore of Lake Michigan and platted it as City West. Their vision was to build a thriving port city (with help from political favor) that would become the leading shipping center on the western Great Lakes.

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The envisioned City West (Wikimedia Commons)

Although the area was never developed like the map above, within a couple of years City West boasted a few hundred residents, mostly young, single men who wanted to be a part of the riches that were envisioned for the city. The port, shipping canals, and lighthouse never came to be, but City West did have numerous hotels, mills, stores, and taverns (but notably no schools or churches). For a moment, its investors’ dreams of elevating the city’s prominence above that of Chicago were realistic.

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City West overlaid on the Dunes as they appear today

It is difficult to imagine how different Indiana’s sliver of Lake Michigan would look with a metropolis on it instead of a state park. But it is possible to plot the city’s location by using the prominent bend in Dunes Creek that empties into the lake near the main entrance to the park. It is shown on the original plat, and the same meander still exists today even though the mouth of the creek has changed position over 181 years.

But just as soon as the city came to be, the Panic of 1837 ended things just as quickly. As banks failed, land was foreclosed, property was seized, and City West pretty much ended when speculators could not pay back their debts. By 1839, the city was effectively abandoned. In the 1850s, the remaining deteriorating wooden buildings were engulfed in a fire that was started either by lightning, locomotive cinders, or a passing vagrant’s untended campfire. What was left of the city was lost the conflagration much like Chicago would see soon after in its own great fire, but unlike Chicago, City West was not rebuilt. Some residents remained in the area up until the beginning of the 20th Century in a community southeast of the original known as New City West, but it never grew large or had delusions of grandeur like its predecessor.

Over the course of the next century, people would come to appreciate the Dunes more and more as an ideal natural spot to relax and enjoy the outdoors, which is where the story picked up again in the early 1900s. Key local residents began to organize around the idea of saving the preserving the Dunes from future development, and in 1926 the Indiana Dunes State Park became a reality. By then, New City West had become known as ‘Tremont’ in reference to the ‘three mountains’ — the Dunes’ three largest dunes of Mount Tom, Mount Holden, and Mount Green — and was known as a resort community.

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The hotel at Tremont (Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society)

Tremont succeeded as a modest, small vacation town for a number of decades.

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1950 topographic map of Tremont (HistoricAerials.com, as if you could not tell)

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1959 aerial photo of Tremont (HistoricAerials.com, obvs)

The town remained mostly a collection of homes until the 1960s, which saw the establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Tremont was surrounded and cut off from expanding any further as the U.S. government began buying up tracts of land in the vicinity.

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Tremont’s location today (Google Maps)

As homes were bought and demolished to restore the area to its primordial state, Tremont slowly ceased to exist. A few gravel roads and isolated cabins exist as physical remnants of the town, but the only real evidence of the towns once here are a namesake road and a few picnic shelters at the Indiana Dunes, one each for Tremont and City West.

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The phantom parcels of Tremont (Porter County GIS)

One interesting thing to note is that as parcels were acquired to enlarge the National Lakeshore area, they were not replatted, and the original property lines and vacated roads are still visible as phantoms recorded with the Porter County Assessor and Surveyor.

Today, likely the only people to regularly use these roads and live on these properties are birds and other flora and fauna of the Dunes. With everything said about the Dunes as an Indiana birding destination, I was a little bit surprised that I had never heard anything about the past lives of the area. I am sure the locals are well familiar, but I think this story of manmade places slowly receding back into the woods is a fascinating bit of history.

There are a lot more stories like these among Indiana’s birding destinations. I am kind of excited to share some more of them.

Yard Work

It’s been a while! I have birded a few times and gone to some cool places over the past month, including the Deetz Nature Preserve in the town of New Haven where I got a long overdue lifer/nemesis in Black-throated Blue Warbler for green bird #152. I also picked up Blackpoll (#153) and Bay-breasted (#154) on that trip to further pump up the list. It is also less than five miles from my new house, which will make it ideal to visit on a Five Mile Radius list that I hope to do next year in addition to all the green birding.

I also did something that I don’t often do and attended a group hike at Eagle Marsh with the local Audubon chapter. I biked there too and made four late Semipalmated Sandpipers green bird #155. Additionally, I was solicited to be on the board of that group because, and I quote, “we need people who aren’t 80.” I probably don’t have the time needed to commit to that, but it was a cool thing to be asked.

Much of the in between time in October was spent yard birding, and I added four species to the list to bring the total to 53 species.

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Nashville Warbler

I had a mixed flock of warblers fly through earlier in the month with many Magnolia Warblers, which were new, and several Nashville Warblers, which were the only ones willing to sit still enough to document. I also had Rock Pigeon, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Barred Owl (on Halloween!) to round out the month. Still no juncos, though.

Speaking of owls in the yard, last weekend I took Walter to Lowe’s to have him help me with a father-son birding project. I decided that we would build a Screech Owl box and put it up in the big maple in our back yard.

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Measuring

Walter was game to help me measure everything out and then proceeded to spend almost an hour using the tape measure on everything else in the garage. For this, The Internet told us that a good box could be made from a single board of 10 inches by 8 feet. They didn’t have cedar, so I chose untreated pine.

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Child labor?

I have spent all of my money on bike, binocular, and camera gear (and okay, some Legos), which means that I do not own the stereotypical dad power tools. This owl box was strictly rustic with all cuts made by hand. I figure the owls will appreciate edges that are a little rough.

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They see me drillin’

I also don’t own a hole saw. So the entrance hole is rustic too. I took my largest drill bit and just chiseled chunks out of it, with some finishing touches from the generic, lowercase-D dremel.

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A home for an owl

Both kids helped me gather some pine needles to line the bottom of the box, and it was hung about 15 feet high in our tree. Eastern Screech Owl would be a state bird for me, but I am optimistic that this will be how I get my Indiana bird.

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Success!

Building this thing was way easier than I thought it would be. Even if you are a rookie like me and lacking in tools, it is definitely worth it to make one from scratch rather than shell out $60 to buy one premade. Whether or not it actually works remains to be seen, but rest assured I will be live-blogging about it whenever an owl does decide to move in.