Michigan City Harbor (MCH) is a well-known lakefront birding site located in northwest Indiana just miles from the Michigan state line. The harbor, with its beaches, piers, yacht basin, and breakwaters is almost certainly the best site on the lakefront for viewing Lake Michigan birds. A full 40% of the rare and accidental species on the Indiana state checklist were documented at MCH, arguably making it the state’s premiere birding site.
Trail Creek, the aquatic thoroughfare into and out of the harbor, divides MCH into two main components: Washington Park on the east, and NIPSCO on the west. At 90 acres, the Washington Park side of the harbor is by far the larger of the two areas and has many features of interest to birders. The southern boundary is defined by a large area of mature trees and well-manicured lawns typical of an urban park. Immediately north of this wooded segment lies the parking lot, which extends northward to the beach and westward to the yacht basin. To the east of the parking lot stretches a long expanse of sandy beach that can be scanned easily from the lot’s northeast corner. During periods of low human disturbance (e.g. the early morning), this area of beach serves as a popular resting area for gulls and terns, often amassing hundreds of easily scannable larids. Also to the east of the lot but well-back from the water are the few remnants of dunes still remaining at MCH, occupied largely by a fragmented stand of marram grass. While these dunal remnants are subtle and amount to just high spots on the beach, they are prime locations from which to monitor the harbor during times of heavy bird movement along the lake.
Looking west one sees the most prominent feature of MCH: the US Coast Guard jetty (also known as East Pier) which terminates in the well-known MCH lighthouse. The tip of this jetty (on the north side of the lighthouse) serves as another prime location from which to scan the lake, especially for birds that tend to migrate farther out over open water. Immediately west of the jetty lay the effluent waters of Trail Creek, followed by NIPSCO Beach on the far western edge. Just northwest of the lighthouse is a single offshore breakwall situated some 300 feet from the tip of the jetty. This breakwall, often covered with scores of gulls and shorebirds, has also served as an observational post for birds of prey, including Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Snowy Owls. The yacht basin at MCH lies adjacent to Trail Creek on the Washington Park side of the harbor. It can be scanned from two locations: the northern edge is most easily viewed from the beachside sidewalk that runs between the parking lot and the jetty, and the southern section can be observed from a pulloff along the harbor’s one-way exit road. This southern yacht basin section includes a small area of open water that in the past has hosted overwintering dabbling and bay ducks as well as several rarities.
In mid-1999, the NIPSCO Public Access Area was closed to the general public–apparantly over issues of liability and theft. NIPSCO officials are currently considering pleas by both the birding and fishing communities to allow special access to the NIPSCO property. Until special permission is granted, NIPSCO should be considered off limits to everyone. NIPSCO Beach, however, can still be thoroughly scanned from the base of the jetty on the Washington Park side of the harbor.
One word of caution to the visiting birder: watch out for “Al”, the partial albino Herring Gull who has become a fixture at MCH. A fairly conspicuous fellow, Al manages to cause considerable diagnostic confusion for visiting birders. Even with careful searching, you won’t find a picture of him in your field guide! The key is to recognize this bird as Al and then to move on.
Typical Time to bird Washington Park: 45-60 minutes.
The beaches and waters of MCH are regular for loons, grebes, diving ducks, gulls, terns, and shorebirds. The sparse vegetation of Washington Park’s wooded area is well suited for viewing migrant passerines during periods of heavy flight. These birds most commonly include thrushes, wrens, vireos, warblers, and sparrows.
Red-throated Loon – late October through late November; often seen flying far from shore
Harlequin Duck – November through March; usually observed diving along the rocky portions of the jetty and breakwater
Long-tailed Duck – December through March; although this species is rarely seen today, an amazing 31,539 birds were tallied on 26-Dec-1955 during the Michigan City CBC!
Black Scoter – mid-October through mid-November
White-winged Scoter – mid-October through mid-November
Surf Scoter – October through mid-November
American Avocet – mid-July through mid-September; often seen resting on NIPSCO Beach
Willet – late June through August
Whimbrel – July through September
Marbled Godwit – late June through July
Red Knot – late August through mid-September
Baird’s Sandpiper – mid-August through mid-September
Purple Sandpiper – mid to late November; most often found on or near the boulders of the jetty and breakwater.
Red Phalarope – late October through mid-November
Parasitic Jaeger – late September through mid-November
Laughing Gull – mid-May through June; 80% of all Lakefront records are from MCH
Franklin’s Gull – late September through mid-November
Little Gull – late October through November; usually found in flocks of migrating Bonaparte’s Gulls
Thayer’s Gull – mid-November through early January.
Iceland Gull – December through April
Lesser Black-backed Gull – late October through mid-January; records of this gull have increased dramatically over the past decade Glaucous Gull – mid-November through February. Great Black-backed Gull – January through March
Black-legged Kittiwake – throughout November
Snowy Owl – November through December; usually found perched on piers or breakwaters
Brown Pelican – (07-Jul-1999)
Northern Gannet – (09-Dec-1991)
Magnificent Frigatebird – (27-28-Apr-1957) – immature; (30-Sep-1988) – immature; (04-Oct-1988) – adult male
Marbled Murrelet – (19-Nov-1994)
Brant – (19-Oct-1957); (26-Oct-1957) – injured bird; (20-Feb-1983 to 27-May-1983)
Black-headed Gull – (20-Aug-1977) – winter-plumed adult; (16-Aug-1980) – immature; (20-Apr-1996) – adult
Mew Gull – (24-Nov-1987); (14-Jan-1995); (29-Mar-1996); (14-Dec-1996); (31-Dec-1996) – all adult birds
California Gull – (10-Nov-1983); (18-Nov-1992); (20-Nov-1993); (20-Nov-1994); (09-Nov-1996); (21-Dec-1996) – all adult birds
Slaty-backed Gull – (13-Mar-1993) – winter-plumed adult
Royal Tern – (29-Jun-1996); (22-May-1999 to 15-Jun-1999) – both breeding-plumed birds
Arctic Tern – (15-Jul-1992)
Kirtland’s Warbler – (22-23-May-1983) – singing male at Washington Park Beach
Lark Bunting – (18-Apr-1956) – Washington Park Zoo
General site information
Ownership: City of Michigan City, Indiana; Michigan City Port Authority: 219-872-1712; Michigan City Parks Department: 219-873-1506
Fees: Parking at Washington Park Beach is $2.00 on weekdays and $4.00 on weekends from early spring through fall. Annual passes are available.
Officially, access to the MCH jetty and lighthouse is restricted. Pedestrians MUST proceed out to the lighthouse AT THEIR OWN RISK. On windy days the waves can be very unpredictable, washing up and over the concrete jetty with considerable force. In the winter this water can quickly freeze and make navigation on the jetty quite treacherous. Extreme caution should be employed under all circumstances.
Since mid-1999, access to NIPSCO property has been prohibited to everyone. If NIPSCO officials decide to grant special permission to birders, this site guide will be immediately updated with details of the access requirements.
Indoor facilities are available at Washington Park Beach in the spring and summer.
Lodging: Camping facilities are available at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore’s Dunewood Campground, located on US 12 a few miles west of Michigan City. Hotel, motel, and bed-and-breakfast accommodations are available in Michigan City.
A visit to MCH at any time of year has the potential to yield great birds. Large shorebirds begin returning to Michigan City’s beaches in late June and continue through September, whereas the specialty gulls and diving ducks start arriving in October and can be found through early spring. As is true for all the great lakefront birding sites, the best time to visit MCH for lakefront specialties is in the fall immediately after the passage of a cold front, especially one that brings strong winds from the north.
Brock, Kenneth J. “Birdlife of the Michigan City Area, Indiana.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 57.2 (1979): 94-113.
Brock, Kenneth J. Birds of the Indiana Dunes. Revised Edition. The Shirley Heinze Environmental Fund, 1997.
Brock, Kenneth J. “Laughing Gull at Michigan City Harbor.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 58.1 (1980): 19.
Brock, Kenneth J. “A Second Marbled Murrelet Record for Indiana.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 64.2 (1986): 77.
Brock, Kenneth J. “Thanksgiving Day at ‘The Harbor’, Michigan City.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 55.1 (1977): 9-11.
Brock, Kenneth J., and Lynea Hinchman. “Frigatebirds Return to Indiana.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 67.3 (1989): 117-119.
Brock, Kenneth J., and Ted Cable. “Winter Incursion of White-winged Gulls in Northwestern Indiana.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 55.4 (1977): 116-8.
Buskirk, William. “List of Birds–Michigan City–Dunes 1962.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 40 (1962): 63-4.
Grow, Raymond. “Rare and Semi-Rare Winter Visitants in Northern Indiana.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 30 (1952): 31-4.
Keller, Charles E., Shirley A. Keller, and Timothy C. Keller. Indiana Birds and Their Haunts: A Checklist and Finding Guide. Second Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Landing, James. “Exotic Bird Records for Michigan City, Laporte County, Indiana.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 40.1 (1962): 15-16.
Landing, James. “Jaeger Migration in Northwestern Indiana.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 44 (1966): 32-7.
Landing, James. “The Occurrence of Arctic Species in Michigan City, Indiana.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 41.4 (1963): 63-4.
Segal, Simon. “Additional Notes for Michigan City Harbor.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 32.1 (1954): 8-10.
Segal, Simon. “Michigan City Harbor Observations.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 31.2 (1953): 37-38.
White, Mel. National Geographic Guide to Birdwatching Sites – Eastern U.S. Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 1999.
LaPorte County Convention and Visitors BureauInformation on Michigan City and other LaPorte County parks, restaurants, and accommodations.
Michigan City Harbor Lighthouse and BreakwaterPhotos and history
Author: Ken Brock
Editor: Darel Heitkamp
Photo Credit: Ryan Sanderson
LaPorte County, Indiana
DeLorme Page 19, Grid A-11
GPS: 41º 43′ 38.6″ N
86º 54′ 18.6″ W
From the South: to reach Washington Park take I-65 north to SR 43 (exit #178, just north of Lafayette). Exit north onto SR 43 and continue north when the highway changes name to US 421–some 17 miles after leaving I-65. Michigan City lies 65 miles to the north on US 421. Once in Michigan City, US 421 is called Franklin St. Drive north on Franklin St. through Michigan City to E. 4th St. Turn right (east) on E. 4th St. and proceed for one block to Pine St. Turn left (north) on Pine St. for one block to the intersection of Pine and US 12 (this intersection is within a mile of the lakefront). Proceed straight, cross US 12, and the street will change name from Pine St. to E. 2nd Street. The road soon crosses Trail Creek at a drawbridge and changes name (once again) to Franklin St., but only for a very short distance. At the next intersection one can see Washington Park straight ahead; veer to the right (east) onto Lakeshore Drive which runs parallel to the lakefront. The first left off of Lake Shore Drive leads directly to the Washington Park parking lot. In season, there will be a fee collector present at the booth just before entering the actual lot. To leave the lot, one must exit to the right (west) of the entrance and follow the one-way street back around to the Trail Creek drawbridge, which itself is two-way. After crossing the drawbridge, the street again becomes one-way and curves to the right, eventually connecting with Washington Street. Proceed south on Washington St., cross US 12, and drive to at least 9th Street before turning left (east) onto one of the cross streets. This will take you to Franklin St./421 South, which by this point is two-way again. Turn Right (south) onto Franklin St./421 South.
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Indiana Audubon Society's mission is to stimulate interest in birds and their protection; to serve the needs of youth, civic, church, schools and other groups by providing information concerning birds; and to educate the public concerning the necessity for conserving and preserving Indiana's natural heritage, its unique flora and fauna.