Melissa and her daughter out for a hike.

8 Million Birds

By: Melissa Washburn

Does that sound like an awful lot of birds? Last year I learned that that’s the estimated number of individual birds that flew overhead in just the first three days of Indiana Audubon’s annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival. Northwest Indiana is an ideal pit stop for birds during peak spring migration in May, with Lake Michigan and the various habitats in the region providing plenty of food, water, and shelter. Over 350 species can been seen here over the course of the year, making this a hotspot for birders from all over the country. I’m a VERY casual birder, still learning a lot and getting out to hike and bird when I can; my “life list” is far short of even that 350 species number (it’s currently around 200). But it’s not a competition, and this real-life version of Pokemon Go has given me so much joy and excitement (and plenty of fodder for friends and family to poke fun at me and my omnipresent binoculars starting every April).

Many birders will tell you that they have a “spark bird” — that first sighting, often accidental, that filled them with joy and wonder and set them on their journey to see as many birds as possible. I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondacks in upstate New York, often camping, fishing, and hiking with my family. We would watch osprey hunting over the lake, the occasional bald eagle (back in the 1980s they were near extinction, so spotting one was an absolute treat), and songbirds at the feeder in our backyard. But two experiences really stick out for me. The first was staying in a lakeside cabin for a weekend with my brother and father, getting up at dawn to go fishing, and hearing the eerie calls of common loons echoing over the lake. The second experience was sitting out on our back porch in the country when I was maybe 11, and seeing an indigo bunting land in a nearby tree. I had never seen something that color in nature before, and I HAD to know what it was.

Fast forward about 20 years, after college, career, moving around, and starting my own family… moving to Northwest Indiana in 2005 I began to rediscover my love of the outdoors as I found so many beautiful and special places here. Many of the Shirley Heinze Land Trust properties are now favorite hiking and birdwatching spots. I saw my first Eastern meadowlark at Meadowbrook Preserve in Valparaiso, and enjoy warblers, woodpeckers, white throated sparrows, and blue grey gnatcatchers every spring at J. Timothy Ritchie Nature Preserve, right in the midst of a residential area in Chesterton.

You don’t have to know the name of every bird you see to understand that they are a treasure, that millions fly overhead unseen every spring and fall, and that we have a responsibility to preserve the places that enable them to travel thousands of miles each year to raise their own families and persevere in the face of so many threats and challenges. I appreciate the work Shirley Heinze does to keep wild spaces intact for birds, insects, native plants, and people, and to share the wonder of these spaces with the public. Everything touches everything else, and whatever it is about the natural world that gives you joy or inspiration, you’ll find it at one of Shirley Heinze Trust’s special places.

Melissa Washburn is a designer, illustrator, birdwatcher, and Shirley Heinze volunteer living in Valparaiso