Indiana Dunes State Park offers prime habitat for prothonotary
warbler. This one was investigating a nest box along the
 Wilson boardwalk. (photo by Andrew Edwards)

Magic at the Dunes

Indiana Dunes Birding Festival draws a crowd in search of migrating warblers

(published 6-14-17)

I couldn’t have known The Search would end in Chesterton, the last stop on a 15-year chase after a brownish little bird. In fact, when 2017 began, I was blissfully unaware of the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival.

The story begins in January, when Brad Bumgardner, a naturalist at Indiana Dunes State Park, visited the DuPage Birding Club. He shared information about birding one of our region’s hottest of hot spots, where 371 species have been spotted so far.

Brad’s talk included an invitation to the aforementioned festival, hosted by Indiana Audubon. This guy knew his audience: In the dead of winter, the promise of spring warblers is irresistible.

Eastern whip-poor-will, a member of the nightjar family, is
most active after dark. Sharp-eyed watchers occasionally
locate a sleeping bird like this one. (photo by Jerry Goldner)
We left the meeting with a freshly printed copy of the 2017 festival guide, a 38-page booklet filled with daily schedules, field trip descriptions, speaker bios and logistical details for the May weekend. It was like giving candy to a pack of 10-year-olds.

Registration for the 3rd annual event would total about 425 birders, a record high, with at least 25 from DuPage. One of them was me.

I arrived Thursday afternoon in the rain, and the weekend forecast was not birding friendly: below-normal temperatures and winds from the north. It felt more like March than May. But after checking in at festival headquarters my spirits were quickly lifted—by birds, of course, as they often are.

The state park’s nature center features a viewing room overlooking an array of feeders. My timing could not have been better—16 species in about 20 minutes, including a swarm of rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-headed woodpecker and Eastern towhee. All were practically within reach, their sounds piped into the room from an outside microphone.

Festival organizers and the entire Indiana Dunes community
rolled out the red carpet for birders. The annual event
is a significant economic engine for local businesses.
That evening I joined a guided walk to find the forest dwelling whip-poor-will, a nocturnal Dunes specialty. After too much silence, so we enlisted the aid of a recording. As if on cue, a whip responded with the repeating namesake song we’d all come to hear. Some of us also detected the distant purr of a screech owl, a nice bonus.

With a strong breeze off Lake Michigan Friday morning our guide wisely selected a trail inside the state park with some protection. The walk wasn’t a total bust but things were slow for early May—clearly the wind was delaying the migration, keeping birds to the south. After lunch I retreated to my Chesterton hotel room to get warm, rest up and watch the Cubs and Yankees at Wrigley Field.
But suddenly there was more birding to do. At 5:15 a text alert announced a worm-eating warbler at the park. My most-wanted bird was 4 miles away!   

I took off in the Jetta, knowing the trail number and little else. Luckily, I met up with a couple from South Bend, Lindsay and Ben, who were better prepared. They knew precisely where the bird was last seen.

While not the flashiest bird, worm-eating warbler is a
challenge to find. Its primary breeding range is south of the
 Chicago region. (photo by Jerry Goldner)
About 40 anxious minutes passed at “the spot by the bench.” No trace of the warbler, a potential life bird for all three of us. This was beginning to feel like another “right place, wrong time” experience involving my avian nemesis.

I’d seen a “wormie” once before, in 2002. Unfortunately, it was dead, the victim of a building strike in downtown Chicago. Holding that bird, I’ll admit to briefly considering mouth-to-beak resuscitation. The Field Museum gladly added the specimen to its collection.

The Chicago encounter and other close calls crossed my mind as I waited in the woods with Lindsay and Ben. We were hearing a faint chip note—just enough to maintain a flicker of hope. Using her smart phone, Lindsay played the bird’s dry insect-like trill. Then, after several tries, a small miracle: the warbler of my dreams popped into view at eye-level, just off the trail about 20 feet away.

To say the least, it was a birding moment I’ll always treasure. Just like that the curse was over. I’d finally witnessed a worm-eating warbler with a pulse.

I practically floated into The Craft House that evening for a celebratory beverage and to check out the festival’s annual bird-calling contest. The beer was cold and the competition was a hoot. To their credit, the establishment’s regular patrons were patient and didn’t call the police. A young woman named Annie won the thing with her rendering of a pied-billed grebe, employing both voice and body language. Yeah, I guess you had to be there.

Indiana native Sharon Stiteler, a.k.a. Birdchick, led walks and
keynoted the festival’s banquet. Here, she’s helping a birder
take a “digiscope” photo of a pileated woodpecker. 
For me, after spotting the wormie, everything else was gravy. The chill and wind and general shortage of warblers no longer mattered. However, the weather was gradually improving and lots more birding was ahead.

On Saturday, I hit the trail with Sharon Stiteler, a nationally known birding blogger and personality from Minneapolis ( She’d be keynoting the evening banquet and the night before, at the bar, gave a fine impression of a veery. With Birdchick leading the way our group relocated the worm-eating warbler (apparently on territory) and enjoyed nice views of scarlet tanager, pileated woodpecker, wood thrush and blue-winged warbler. After the hike, birding on my own, a prothonotary warbler showed off along the Wilson boardwalk.

The master checklist at festival headquarters received an
impressive 186 “ticks” over four days. 
Birding festivals traditionally post a running list of birds seen or heard. At the Dunes, a giant checklist perched on an easel at festival headquarters, inside the state park visitor center. The four-day total of 186 species was a good number considering weather conditions.

I’ve now attended five birding festivals, each one surpassing my expectations. These events offer rich birding experiences and much more. It’s fun to hang around the tribe for a few days, make new friends and celebrate the hobby.

Festivals raise money for conservation, too. At Indiana Dunes, the International Crane Foundation received more than $2,000 from the banquet’s silent auction proceeds.

Another thing to like: the festival’s well attended free programs for kids and families, conducted by a legion of volunteers. Hopefully a few new birders were born.

Would I go again? Absolutely! The event was exceptionally well organized, reasonably priced and obviously convenient to DuPage (80 miles). Plus, the local community is incredibly welcoming to birders.

Maybe I’ll see you at the 2018 festival, May 3-6. My best advice is to register early, pray for better weather, and prepare to see some awesome birds. 

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.