Photo of the Olive-sided Flycatcher, Fort Harrison State Park, Indianapolis, Indiana, May 26th, 2016 by Ryan Sanderson; White-throated Sparrow by Ryan Sanderson also taken at Fort Harrison State Park in 2015Opening to the public in late 1996, Fort Harrison is one of Indiana’s newest state parks. From 1903 until 1995, the park property was part of Fort Benjamin Harrison Military Reservation and served as an Army training and support base. In 1995, four years after the Army base was slated for closure, the Federal government agreed to turn over 1,700 acres to the Indiana DNR. Despite being Indiana’s first urban state park, bird activity is abundant: summer bird counts in 1999 and 2004 detected 87 and 93 species respectively. Four primary trails serve as gateways to the nearly 1,000 acres of accessible birding at Fort Harrison–clearly one of the largest tracts of unbroken forest in central Indiana.
Fall Creek Trail – The aptly named Fall Creek Trail, which parallels its namesake waterway for several hundred yards, is the trail most recommended for birders with limited time, as it is likely you will encounter the most number of species here. In summer listen and watch for Prothonotary Warblers which nest in tree cavities along the creek. Other warblers nesting along the trail include Yellow-throated, Cerulean, Northern Parula, and Louisiana Waterthrush. Birds nesting in the banks of Fall Creek include Northern Rough-winged Swallow and Belted Kingfisher. This trail also provides the best opportunity for you to see one of the pairs of Brown Creepers that nest at the park–so keep your eyes and ears alert. Often heard, but sometimes difficult to actually see, are the Yellow-billed Cuckoos which call throughout the day. Migratory birds that stop along Fall Creek Trail include Worm-eating, Connecticut, and Mourning Warblers, both kinglets, and all the members of the thrush family. In winter watch for Winter Wren and Swamp Sparrow along the creek. Fall Creek Trail is labeled as moderate but a sturdy walkway traverses the steepest terrain. The walkway, built in 2004, also helps prevent hillside erosion. A number of side trails meander off from the main trail but eventually bring you back to either the main trail or to Harrison Trace Trail. A portion of Fall Creek Trail was renamed as Camp Creek Trail in 2002. You will need to take Camp Creek Trail or Harrison Trace to return to the parking lot.
Harrison Trace Trail – This paved trail provides a smooth surface for birders and hikers and may be of particular interest to those in a wheelchair. Harrison Trace Trail runs beside Delaware Lake and Duck Pond, through wooded areas, and along the golf course located at Fort Harrison. Expect to see the common woodland and forest edge species along this trail. In summer watch for Red-eyed, White-eyed, Warbling, and Yellow-throated Vireos, all of which nest along the trail. Kentucky Warblers, Ovenbirds, Eastern Wood-Pewees and Acadian Flycatchers often can be heard calling from the wooded areas. Delaware Lake and Duck Pond occasionally pull in several species of waterfowl other than the commonly seen Mallard and Canada Goose. Also watch for Green Herons at Delaware Lake. Although paved in its entirety, Harrison Trace Trail does have some steep grades to be aware of.
Camp Creek Trail – Formerly a portion of Fall Creek Trail, this section was renamed as a standalone trail in 2002. However, you will have to access it from Harrison Trace and it is simply linear in nature. This trail runs mostly through a heavily wooded area and includes both bottomland and upland forest. Species diversity is lower along this trail than the others. Besides some common nesting woodland species look and listen for the Lousiana Waterthrush that nest along the creek.
Lawrence Creek Trail – This trail runs through a richly wooded area that hopefully will become a state dedicated nature preserve. Along this moderate hiking trail, expect to see and hear Kentucky Warblers, Wood Thrushes, Hooded Warblers, Summer Tanagers, Scarlet Tanagers and many other summer woodland species. In winter, you can expect to find most Indiana woodpeckers including Pileated, as well as the ever-present titmice and Carolina Chickadees. In invasion years, expect to see a few Red-breasted Nuthatches. There are two trailheads for Lawrence Creek Trail and each is labeled on the property map. Explore the areas around the trailhead parking lots for bluebirds, towhees, Common Yellowthroats, Song Sparrows, and unexpected species, such as the Orange-crowned Warbler that stopped by during a recent spring migration.
Walnut Plantation – Although not a named trail, the paved path that runs through this black walnut monoforest is easily accessible and provides relatively good birding. Birds are much easier seen in these walnut trees in spring since the trees leaf out later than other species. Even in summer birding is much easier in this area. Nesting birds include both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles (often nesting a few trees apart), Indigo Bunting, Cerulean Warbler, Field Sparrow, American Goldfinch, Eastern Bluebird, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and many year-round species. Access is from the Walnut Plantation trailhead for Lawrence Creek Trail. The entire area is paved and of even terrain.
Fall Creek and Camp Creek trails are approximately one mile in length and Harrison Trace and Lawrence Creek are between 2 and 2.5 miles. All four can be birded in two hours or less. Property maps can be obtained at the front gate, park office, or Nature Center.
Typical Time to Bird Site: 2-4 Hours.
Fort Harrison is an outstanding location in central Indiana to find both migrating and nesting warblers and vireos. Few other places in this part of the state offer such extensive woodlands and riparian habitat. Other woodland species, such as tanagers, flycatchers, and woodpeckers also occur here in ample numbers. Because of a large rookery on the park property, Great Blue Herons are a common site and often can be viewed flying overhead or along Fall Creek. The rookery itself is closed to the public.
Brown Creepers are permanent residents at Fort Harrison. It is likely that two dozen pairs of creepers nest each summer at the park. In the summer of 2000, a total of 18 Brown Creepers–including one immature–were observed. The creepers prefer to build their nests under the loose bark of dead or dying trees that grow near water. Given the numerous creeks and floodplain woodlands found in the park, a fair amount of such suitable nesting habitat exists for Brown Creepers at Fort Harrison. In fact, many of the documented Brown Creeper nests from Indiana were found at Fort Harrison. Nesting species which are otherwise difficult to find in central Indiana include Northern Parula and Prothonotary , Cerulean , and Hooded Warblers . These birds begin arriving in late April and early May and can be found until mid- to late July. Fort Harrison is a reliable central Indiana location to find Kentucky Warblers and Summer Tanagers , both of which are best observed from early May through July. Pileated Woodpeckers can be found year-round at the Fort.
Trumpeter Swan – (05-Jun-1999)
Mississippi Kite – (19-May-2003)
Northern Goshawk – (31-Oct-2004)
Merlin – (31-Oct-2004)
Yellow Palm Warbler (hypochrysea subspecies) – (31-Oct-2004)
REFERENCESBower, Stephen E. The American Army in the Heartland: A History of Fort Benjamin Harrison 1903-1995. Indianapolis: Indiana Creative Arts.Gorney, Don.”Brown Creeper in Indiana.”Indiana Audubon Quarterly 78.1 (2000): 3-15.Woollen, William Watson. Birds of Buzzard’s Roost: One for Each Week and Other Essays by Wm. Watson Woolen. Indianapolis: Scott-Miller Company, 1907.
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