By Pat Nabong
Indiana Dunes National Park, on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, is home to more than 350 bird species, which live in and pass through the park during migration season.
Recently, birders from across the U.S. flocked to the newly-designated national park for the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival. Spanning four days, the festival was jam-packed with activities — from a quarter-million bird census, which is one of the Great Lakes’ largest, to bird races, bird banding workshops and several bird tours around the park.
The park is near one of the region’s most significant industrial corridors, in the Calumet region of Indiana. Just a few miles away from the park, in Burns Harbor, is a steel mill operated by ArcelorMittal. The site is “the nation’s largest source of industrial lead pollution,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
For many attendees, birding is an act of advocacy. And for some, it is also an obsession.“I’d say that birding is a little bit like a gateway drug to nature,” said Annie Aguirre, a bird guide who has been birding for four years.
While working with steel mills in Indiana, Mark Mathiowdis said he discovered the state was home to many birds, so he moved to Chesterton, Indiana to be closer to them. He started what he calls a “life list” of birds he’s seen in his lifetime—this type of list is common among birders. “Some people travel the world to see [birds], to get their life list up there,” Mathiowdis said.
Maureen Murphy started birding a year ago. Since then, she’s become involved in bird and nature conservation efforts. “Birds are kind of like wildlife ambassadors because they’re what we’re gonna see everyday whereas most wildlife is going to be invisible to us, and so … if the birds aren’t doing well, that means probably everything else isn’t going to be doing fairly well because they need habitat to survive,” Murphy said. “They need to be able to eat insects to survive, and if those things aren’t there for them, the birds are going to go away.”
“The art of paying attention to birds means you’re paying attention to everything in nature,” Aguirre said. “It’s all connected, really. I mean, you know, noticing that a certain bird isn’t showing up is, you know, typically because of habitat loss.”
And these connections in nature, and among one another, are what many birders love about the craft.“We are all connected, and birding is that connector,” Aguirre added. “Life can be really messy in a lot of different ways and I think it’s easy to kind of get stuck in your own universe and kind of forget about the way that there’s these forms of connection, and so birding, you know, it connects you to other people and it connects you to the place you’re living.”