Cerulean warbler is a hard-to-find species in the Chicago
 area. Birders often have better luck at Indiana Dunes State 
Park, about 75 miles east. Photo by Christian Goers.
Back to the Dunes

(published 7-8-19)

Two years ago, I attended the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival for the first time. The weekend rocked, highlighted by an unexpected encounter with a worm-eating warbler, my first, ending a decades-long quest—one of my best birding moments ever.

I resolved to go back this year, figuring the Dunes would be even birdier with the festival two weeks deeper on the May calendar. Maybe I could find a certain blue and white bird that eluded me and everyone else in 2017.

Truth is, I had a bad case of the blues, meaning I really wanted a cerulean warbler. I’d put eyes on one just once before, at Indiana Dunes State Park, in 1999, long before Indiana Audubon began hosting a festival there. I was way overdue.

Devoted birders can see up to 35 kinds of warblers during spring in our region. Cerulean is among the most coveted due to its scarcity. It’s a poster bird for avian habitat conservation, and one of North America’s fastest-declining migratory songbirds. The species winters in northern South America.

Cerulean warblers prefer to feed and nest in the upper canopy, making them hard to spot in a leafy forest. When searching, the two-step process is to listen for the song, then watch for movement and hope for a satisfactory look. I prepared by playing and replaying the cerulean track on a “Birding by Ear” disk, thankful that my car is old enough to still have a CD player.
Here I am with artist Kristina Knowski and her cerulean
warbler painting. She designs the festival's official
poster every year, along with event hats, t-shirts and
other items. Photo by Aaron Melendez.

Arriving in Chesterton, the song was burned into my brain, and it didn’t take long to hear the real thing. Indiana Dunes State Park, I’m happy to report, is still a hotspot for cerulean warbler. They are by no means abundant, but they are present and nesting on property. I found several without much trouble the first day, then enjoyed an upgraded view the next day with friends Bonnie and Joan from the DuPage Birding Club. 

Knowing the cerulean’s buzzy song helped, but we needn’t have worried—plenty of other birders were on the same mission. That’s the thing about birding festivals, you can often locate the “best” birds just by joining a group, or by sharing notes with fellow lanyard-wearing chasers. A giant “scoreboard” at festival headquarters keeps a running record of sightings, so the on-site possibilities are well known to all. This year, 208 species were seen over four days at the Dunes.

Cerulean warbler was not my only target species in Indiana. Another was Kristina Knowski, the festival’s official artist who contributes so much to the event. Tracking her down required a lot less effort. Festival week is busy time, and her colorful prints, magnets and notecards were moving. This artist knows her audience.

The 2019 festival poster depicted this nesting pair of 
prothonotary warblers at Indiana Dunes State Park. 
Photo by Bonnie Graham. 
I first met Kristina about 10 years ago when she attended a few Cantigny Park bird walks with her mom, Sue. Little did I know we had a talented artist in our midst. A Joliet native, Kristina graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago as valedictorian and now resides in Porter, Indiana, with her husband and son. As an illustrator and fine artist, she is best known for her portfolio of extinct bird species (kristinaknowski.com). The ivory-billed woodpecker inspired her passion for birds.

Kristina’s poster for the 2019 festival featured a pair of prothonotary warblers at their nest box along the famed Wilson Boardwalk inside the state park. Patient birders were able to witness the actual birds depicted on the poster, a must-see sideshow at the Dunes every spring.

The artistic elements add a nice dimension that few other birding festivals offer. In addition to creating the annual poster (four so far), Kristina heads up the “Dune Birds in Art” exhibition, a canvas painting workshop and a field-sketching class with the Indiana Young Birders.  
Birders couldn’t ask for a more welcoming festival, which
this year raised $5,500 for bird-related conservation, 
education and research. About 850 watchers attended. 
Kristina’s original poster art—signed, framed and donated by the artist—sold for just under $1,000 at the festival’s silent auction fundraiser on Saturday night. That was too rich for this birder’s blood, but I didn’t leave the festival empty handed. One of Kristina’s watercolors now lives on my mantle—a cerulean warbler, naturally.

My enthusiasm for spring birding on the Indiana lakefront—now a national park!—continues to grow. The 2020 Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, May 14-17, is already on my calendar.

You should go, too, especially if you’ve never attended a birding festival. This one is incredibly well organized and suited to all ability levels. You’ll see some amazing birds, meet friendly people and maybe even take home some art.

Copyright 2019 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.