Birds with Red Anatomy

Some birds have better names than others. Many names are utilitarian; describing exactly what the bird looks like. Case-in-point:


Red-headed Woodpecker

The Red-headed Woodpecker is a woodpecker with a red head! This is the bird I was talking about in my last post. It is still hanging out at Lions Park directly across the street from my home. I have yet to add it as a yard bird, but last Sunday I spent some quality time getting to know it. And it is a gnarly-looking example of a usually stunning species. This bird was born last year and is very awkwardly in the midst of transitioning from immature to adult plumage. I suppose everyone’s adolescence is rough.


Red-tailed Hawk

A young Red-tailed Hawk seemed to be doing much better in appearance, as it too was spotted at Lions Park last week. The mess of viscera and fur hanging below it was a Fox Squirrel.


Fox Squirrel

It might have been this squirrel. Or it might have been this squirrel’s friend, mother, or mortal enemy. We will never know. Also seen at Lions Park, pre-hawk sighting.


Red-necked Grebe

We have covered red heads, tails, and now we move on to the neck. A power outage at work today allowed me an extra hour in which to go birding. I decided to check the water treatment ponds to mop up some of the last remaining regular waterfowl. Despite my best plans, there was almost no activity, save for a bird completely off my radar: Red-necked Grebe! I have only ever seen this bird on one other occasion, in the exact same place in 2014 when we were having a particularly brutal winter and much of Lakes Michigan and Erie were frozen. That year the ice drove a lot of usually deep water birds like this inland in search of open water in reservoirs, so Fort Wayne got a few of them. To see one today in 40+ degree temperatures this far inland was very low on the list of expected things to see! Green bird #53 for the year, and #189 in my life.


Cedar Waxwing

Since last time, I also picked up Horned Grebe (two courting birds dancing around the Redneck above), Eastern Phoebe, Rock Pigeon, and this furtive Cedar Waxwing trying to hide from me on the Purdue campus yesterday.


White-breasted Nuthatch

Yes, that means I got to go birding on back-to-back days, a rare treat to enjoy. While today had a bigger highlight, yesterday was equally enjoyable even though it was mostly common folk like this White-breasted Nuthatch cramming itself into a tree crevice.


Hey tree, your Raccoon is hanging out.

The nuthatches weren’t the only ones jamming themselves into trees. Walking through my favorite local woodlot, I heard scraping sounds that I hoped would be a cool bird. It turned out to be a Raccoon quickly hurrying away from me. It must have been very alarmed by my presence, because it frantically tried to jam itself into the tiniest tree hole ever. It got halfway in and then appeared to be stuck for a very long and awkward moment, bum to the world.



It eventually got all the way in somehow. That hole was only a few inches across, so I hope it was worth it for that Raccoon turning itself into a sausage to get away from me.


Nothing Happened in February

As you may have guessed, February was a slow month bird wise. But March started pretty strong, so I will begin there.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike

Yesterday I went on my first long bike outing of 2018 down to Eagle Marsh. I was hoping to get a few early spring migrants, and I largely succeeded with FOGY (first of green year — a new term coined by Emily, who is doing a Wisconsin Green Big Year at The Big Gear) species including Common Grackle, Song Sparrow, Killdeer, etc. It was a windy day, so most birds laid low. But a Northern Shrike surprised me greatly. It was only the second one I have ever seen, and somehow it was also the first one ever recorded at Eagle Marsh, despite that preserve being objectively the best and most covered birding location in Allen County with a species list of over 230. The fact that it was also a Bike Shrike made it even better. This bird will undoubtedly make my obligatory “best of” list at the end of the year.

My Shrike glory powered me home through some fierce headwinds, where I then went with the family to Lions Park directly across the street from my house. As the kids were making themselves dizzy on the tire swing, I saw an unmistakable Red-headed Woodpecker flitting around in the oaks, with my house in the background less than 100 yards away. I have lived here for almost a year, and I have never seen a Red-headed Woodpecker at the park, but it looked like it might have even been checking out a hole for nesting. I will definitely be checking back frequently for this bird, and also keeping a steady lookout for the day I can count it as a yard bird. This is the hardest of the seven Indiana woodpecker species to come by, so getting it in my neighborhood on Shrike Day was gravy on top of an already great birding day. With it, my green list sits at 48 species for the year.

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Here Be Flying Squirrels

Speaking of the yard, I came home from the gym one night in February to hear a strange squeaking noise coming from the trees above the driveway. Hoping for a cool owl or something, I spent a few minutes watching. When movement finally let me track the source of the voice, I was thrilled to discover several Southern Flying Squirrels all cavorting about the trees in my yard! Lifer mammal! I have neither seen nor heard them since, but this was a very cool encounter. I dashed inside to grab my camera, interrupting Jaime’s ladies’ wine night, to try and manage a photo. I failed, but it made for an interesting new track to the conversation that was happening in the kitchen.

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Eastern Bluebirds

Still in the yard, I now want to introduce you to Bluebert and his mate. They are a pair of Eastern Bluebirds that have been foraging in our yard and even coming to the feeder for the last couple of weeks. Jaime first alerted me to them when I was in the shower, which I exited, still dripping wet, to see them from the bathroom window so that they could be counted as a proper yard bird for the first time. I always thought it was weird how into bluebirds some people are, but now that I have a pair of my own as feeder birds I totally get it.

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Downy Woodpeckers

In keeping with pairs of birds, here is a pair of Downies that have also been patronizing our buffet. The male and female were on a date.

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Bald Eagles

I was not intentionally planning on taking pictures of bird pairs, but that was the theme that emerged as I was looking at the photos I have taken over the last two months. This pair of Bald Eagles showed up at the water treatment plant at the end of January. It was the first time I have seen a pair in the city.

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No-Munk and Friend

The final pair photo is this couple of Eastern Chipmunks that have enjoyed the leftover scraps from a basement waterproofing project that we just finished. The one on the left only has half of a tail, so the kids have dubbed him the No-Munk. He’s no flying squirrel, but he has been around ever since we moved in, and it is cool to be able to identify the varmint as an individual.

America’s Beloved Agri-Hobo


Ice Bike

I went out to collect as many species of waterfowl as I could over the last two weeks. It has been really cold in northern Indiana, so my strategy was to look for the open patches of water that are few and far between where the birds will congregate. Luckily, I now live right next to two such places since moving last spring. I felt vaguely hobo-ish riding (okay, walking) my bike somewhat needlessly through the snow. But a guy’s gotta bird green.



The first really good winter birding spot in Fort Wayne is the water treatment ponds, about a mile and a half from my house. Even with the greenway trails totally uncleared, it was worth it to trudge to this spot.


Common Mergansers

On my first trip two weekends ago I found a huge diversity of ducks that quickly elevated my 2018 green list. Included among the species were a couple of Redheads and a small flotilla of Common Mergansers. Each of these are birds I only found in one of the preceding years’ lists.


The dam at Johnny Appleseed Park

The second good place I found for duckies is Johnny Appleseed Park, which is only about half a mile from home. I visited this past weekend. People know about the water treatment plant, but this park is relatively unbirded despite having the grave of its namesake (that link was the first one I found when I googled ‘johnny appleseed grave’ and it refers to the man as ‘America’s beloved agri-hobo’ — fantastic!). So I did what I had to do and made it Allen County’s newest eBird hotspot. The dam on the river here keeps the water turbulent and unfrozen.


Common Goldeneye

Among the Mallards and Canada Geese floated two Common Goldeneye, which was a little bit exciting.


Hooded Merganser

Many Hooded Mergansers also mixed things up. This female wanted nothing to do with me.


Cooper’s Hawk

Of the five new birds I added during my visit, none of them actually ended up being ducks. This Cooper’s Hawk was probably the coolest among the collection.

Even when the weather warms up and ducks are more spread out, I will probably be more frequently visiting Johnny Appleseed Park. It’s proximity to home can’t be beat, and I need to pay proper respects to America’s beloved agri-hobo.

Winter Catch-Up Post

I realized that besides a needlessly lengthy year-end summary post with only three old photos, I haven’t blogged since November. I have, however, birded. So it’s time to change that.


Carolina Wren

I spent part of the holiday season in Raleigh, North Carolina at my parents’ house. The day after Christmas I birded at the next-door William B. Umstead State Park. There, a photogenic Carolina Wren posed on a photogenic mossy stump for me.


Northern Mockingbird


Brown Thrasher

I also got to watch a Northern Mockingbird and a Brown Thrasher throw down, which was pretty cool. Despite its size disadvantage, the mocker owned the fight.


Ruddy Duck

There were also more Ruddy Ducks than I have ever seen in my life, with dozens in Big Lake.


Mallard x American Black Duck?

But the most interesting duck was an apparent male Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid. I have not spent much time studying my duck crosses, but that pairing seems to be what this one is. If you have any thoughts, please weigh in.


Horned Lark

Back home in Indiana, it has been below freezing for a couple of weeks. My current 2018 green list is up to a whopping 6 species because I haven’t yet ventured out for any local birding. But I did travel for work on Wednesday that put me in the vicinity of the Mount Comfort Airport east of Indianapolis. This airport is famous for its winter birds, so I decided to stop on my lunch break to see what was on the seed pile that had been thoughtfully constructed by enterprising birders.


Lapland Longspur

I was immediately greeted by Horned Larks (they said ‘hola’ of course) and Lapland Longspurs, the latter of which was a long overdue lifer*. The asterisk is because I have never actually got a definitive ID on one until today, but I know for an absolute fact that I have seen them before on two or three occasions with all of the flocks of birds I have scared from the side of snowy country roads.



I watched the larks and longspurs stuff their faces with corn as I in turn also stuffed my face with Subway. Watching these birds from close range in a warm car was not a bad way to spend a lunch break.


Snow Bunting

It was quickly made even better by the arrival of another species. A single bird landed about 10 feet away from my car on the opposite side of the feeding frenzy. I saw right away that it was the second lifer of my lunch break, a Snow Bunting. And thus the Rural Midwest Winter Birding Trifecta was complete! Snow Buntings are reported from Mount Comfort every year, but not in nearly the numbers as the other species. I went to get the longspurs, and I figured I may or may not also get the bunting, so luck was on my side.

With two additions to the life list already, so far in 2018 I am averaging 0.67 life birds per day. Not bad!

Year End Summary: Festivus Edition

(Author’s note: I started this before the holidays, and it is no longer seasonally appropriate, but I am not changing the theme at this point.)

Happy Festivus, everyone! I am about to embark on a car trip that will effectively mean the end of my green birding adventures for the year, so even though 2017 hasn’t yet expired, now is as good a time as any for the obligatory year end summary post.

Part 1: The Pole

An important part of Festivus is the Festivus Pole. I feel like this is appropriate for the birder who is an obsessive lister, because the final size of one’s list ends up being a de facto “pole” measuring contest anyway. Here are my stats:

Total bird species observed: 158
Total miles traveled for birding purposes: 461.2
Miles traveled per species: 2.9 (this is a lot less than I thought it would be!)
Miles biked: 410.3
Miles walked/hiked: 49.4
Miles kayaked: 1.5
Miles driven: 0.0

Now that I have completed three full years of green birding, I have some interesting data to look back on. I have improved my numbers each year, with 137 species in 2015, 143 in 2016, and now 158 in 2017.

Over three years, I have observed a total of 187 species while birding green, all in Allen County, Indiana. There are 108 species that I observed in all three years; 34 species that I observed in two of the years; and 45 species that I observed in only one of the years. Of those single-year only species, 12 were in 2015; 13 were in 2016; and 20 were in 2017. I had nine lifers while green in 2015, five in 2016, and five in 2017.

Part 2: The Airing of Grievances

The airing of grievances is arguably the most famous Festivus tradition. So let me begin. I only had one real mishap this year. In June when I was participating in the Acres Land Trust’s inaugural Bird Blitz, I had a flat tire about 12 miles from home with nothing to fix it. My father-in-law came to the rescue of me and my bike, but I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could ride up to the scene of the accident to pick up where I left off.

There were also several birds that I did not see, leaving me much aggrieved. Particularly because I was so close to the 160 mark. In order of their egregiousness:

5.) Prothonotary Warbler. I came up empty at my two most reliable spots for this bird, and I never saw one anyone else this year, either.

4.) Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I never heard one anywhere at all this year, green or otherwise. Super weird.

3.) Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are year-round residents in Allen County, but every single time I went to the best place to find them, Fox Island, I never saw nor heard a single one all year. I managed a couple of them elsewhere while having driven, but this was a bird I was counting on.

2.) Scarlet Tanager. This is one of the most common and easiest to see migrants in the Midwest. I saw plenty of them this year, just never while I was out under my own power. The worst offender was the bird I saw at my in-laws’ house. The family has lunch there on most Sundays, and on one of them Jaime and I for whatever reason decided to drive instead of riding our bikes like we usually do. That ended up being the day a tanager was in their front yard about half a mile from home. I kicked myself hard that day.

1.) Snowy Owl. Normally this would be an incredibly difficult bird to find in any year, regardless of whether or not I was using gasoline. However, 2017 is having a huge irruption of Snowies, and I did in fact see one when I left my office to drive to it. A single bird was found about seven miles from my home, and it was right in the middle of the Fort Wayne Christmas Bird Count area to boot. Naturally, the owl stuck around for about five days before peacing out the day before the count. The day after the count, I headed out on bicycle to make one last attempt for it, but it never reappeared.

Part 3: The Feats of Strength

There were many birding accomplishments of which I am very proud. In addition to my overall number, I attempted a feat of strength in a green big day on May 17th, in which I traveled 55+ miles and found 77 species despite extremely hot and extremely windy weather.

5.) Northern Waterthrush. I had some subjectively better birds in the form of Henslow’s Sparrow (#1 bird from last year) or Black-billed Cuckoo (state-endangered and lifer), but this was the bird that put me at 150 species in September, allowing me to reach my goal.


Cell phone shot of bird #4

4.) Black-crowned Night Heron. I saw this bird while on a kayak outing with my son in July. We biked to the livery and paddled the river, so this so far is the only FOY green species I have seen in while kayaking in any year. It was also really cool that Walter was able to see it with me.


Bird #3

3.) Rusty Blackbird. State nemesis! I had some really great views of a few Rusties while biking to Eagle Marsh in November. Had I been driving, there is no way I would have found them

2.) Bell’s Vireo. A real birder’s bird: drab, prone to hiding, small, and uncommon. I had a purely lucky right place/right time bird on the Towpath Trail on my way home from Eagle Marsh in August. I stopped to have a snack and it immediately started singing right next to me. There was only one other Bell’s Vireo reported in Allen County this year.


My best bird of 2017

1.) Merlin. On the second day of the year, I had my best bird of 2017 despite a botched ID at the time. I was taking part in the Southwest Allen County CBC on January 2nd, and as I was riding through Foster Park to get to another location, I stopped to observe (and thankfully photograph) what I thought was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Instead, it turned out to be a Merlin, and again it was one of only two reported in the county this year.

Part 4: The Send Off

In conclusion, I had a pretty great year, birding and otherwise. I will again be doing my birding green next year, and I hope to go on at least one longer overnight bike trip to find some new birds. If you are also into this kind of thing, let me know about your goals for 2018 or accomplishments in 2017. You can also join the Facebook group I created for the esoteric adventures that are green birding.

Happy Festivus, Happy New Year, and Happy Birding!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

1837 City West Plat

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.

Location of City West

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.


The hotel at Tremont (Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society)

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

1950 Topo Map

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

1959 Aerial

1959 aerial photo of Tremont (, 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.

Phantom Parcels

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.