Photo of a Merlin – taken by Ryan Sanderson. (Photo was not taken at this location but is represented of a bird that could be seen).
Summit Lake State Park consists of 2680 acres of grasslands, open brush, thickets, deciduous woods, mudflats, and marsh, along with the 800-acre Summit Lake. The park is bordered on the east by CR 600 N, CR 500 E, and CR 750 N, and on the west by Muncie Pike. Many of the grasslands and meadows on the outside perimeter of these county roads are also considered state park property. The woods and thickets at Summit Lake are not nearly as extensive as you would find in the Hoosier National Forest, but they do occur sporadically throughout the park. Because of the paucity of cover, and the fact that Summit Lake is in a flat agricultural area, shelter from winter winds is quite limited, making it difficult to find wintering sparrows, towhees, or bluebirds.
Unquestionably, Summit Lake State Park is best known for the waterfowl habitat found in the Nature Area . The Nature Area consists of the three marshes/ponds east of CR 500 E on CR 750 N, and the section of Summit Lake on the west side of CR 500 E. Most of the waterfowl at Summit Lake tend to concentrate in the Nature Area, with the exception of the loons and deep-diving ducks. The park annually attracts among the largest concentrations of migrating waterfowl in the entire Midwest away from the Great Lakes. Many Audubon chapters in a multi-state area conduct field trips to the park during spring and fall waterfowl migrations. When visiting, one should pay particular attention to the small islands located within the lake and marshes. Rare birds usually choose these islands as resting areas during migration. Two of these islands can be viewed inside the park from Sunset Shelter . Another small island is located in the marsh on the east side of CR 500 E, near its intersection with CR 750 N. The three most important islands, however, can be viewed only from the Dam Access Road . You need to get permission from the park manager to bird the lake from the dam. Waterfowl will remain at Summit Lake throughout the winter as long as open water is available.
One of the finest attributes of this park is its easy accessibility to the physically challenged. The lake can be birded for hours without even getting out of the car! With a window-mounted telescope, the lake can be scanned from five different locations within the park. A window mount can also be used to view the lake in one location from CR 500 E and two places from CR 750 N. All of the Nature Area marshes can be thoroughly covered with a window mount as well.
The grassland areas are the second biggest draw to Summit Lake, attracting raptors in the winter and nesting grassland species in the spring and summer. Grassland habitat is pervasive both inside the park and on the perimeter county roads outside the park. There are six separate areas of deciduous woodlands, all of which attract migrating passerines and nesting species. The best woodland locations include Trail 1, Trail 2, Beach Trail, the campground, the park entrance, and along CR 750 N.
Trails 1 and 2 are very wide and well maintained. Access with a wheelchair is possible, especially if the chair has inflatable, motorized wheels. Please be aware, however, that these trails are 1.25 and 2 miles long. The Beach Trail is right next to the parking lot and provides quicker access and much easier hiking. All three trails provide grasslands, open brush, thickets, deciduous woodlands, and lake habitat. Another strategy for those who do not want to attempt the trails is to pull up beside one of the numerous “mini-woodlots” along the county roads which border the park. A word of caution though: when stopped, please be sure to pull your car completely off the road. The use of emergency flashers or a right turn signal is recommended when moving slowly or stopped. Do NOT stop on the road at the bottom of a hill unless you are pulled completely off to the side of the road.
Typical Time to Bird Site: 2-8 Hours
Twenty-five species of ducks, swans, geese, and grebes regularly occur here, with 33 total species recorded over the years. Prime time for waterfowl is October through early December and then again in March. Most waterfowl, however, will remain at Summit Lake through the winter, provided there is open water available. Seventeen species of shorebirds regularly occur here, with 23 total species recorded. The main shorebird flights occur July through October, and then again April through May. Twenty-seven species of warblers have been recorded here, most of which occur regularly during migration. May and September are the best months to find warblers at Summit Lake. Thirteen species of sparrows pass through during migration–April through May and October through November. Overall, October seems to be the peak month for sparrow migration.
In recent years, Red-necked Grebes have been found near the dam in April. Horned Grebes are abundant in the deeper waters of Summit Lake October through December and again March through May. American Bitterns are best found in May and again September through October in the Nature Area marshes. Black-crowned Night-Herons also pass through the Nature Area April through May and August through September. Ruddy Turnstones arrive on the lake islands in May.
In summer, Sedge Wrens can be found in any of the DNR grassland areas along the county roads. Bobolinks are present May through July in the DNR grasslands east of Pintail Pond. Henslow’s Sparrows can also be found in the DNR grasslands east of Pintail Pond from May through August. Grasshopper Sparrows are traditionally found May through early July in a grassy meadow some 75 yards north of the Lake Overlook on CR 750 N. Listen for them singing from the nearby fence. Yellow-breasted Chats are best observed May through early July along Trail 1. Specifically, search the part of the trail that traverses an open meadow with scattered trees and shrubs. Black-billed Cuckoos are present May through early July at the Nature Area around Pintail Pond. Also check the woods past the Lake Overlook on CR 750 N.
Quality waterfowl species found at Summit Lake include Ruddy Ducks , which amass in the deeper waters of the lake from October through early May. Ruddy Duck numbers usually exceed 200 in mid-winter. Northern Pintails , Canvasbacks , and Redheads are present October through March, occurring both on Summit Lake and at the Nature Area. Lesser Scaup can be found late October through April on Summit Lake and at the Nature Area. Greater Scaup can also be found at these locations November through mid-April. Hooded Mergansers are reliable late October through April on the lake and at the Nature Area. On average, about a hundred Snow Geese overwinter annually at Summit Lake. These birds can be found at the Nature Area and on the islands inside the park from November through March. In the last couple years, Greater White-fronted Geese and Tundra Swans have overwintered here also. Look for the Greater White-fronted Geese October through March. They are usually found resting with Canada Geese on shore or out on the islands in the lake. The Tundra Swans are present November through January–mostly on the lake but occasionally at the Nature Area marshes. Late December through March, small numbers of Common Mergansers will search for open water in the deep part of the lake, near the dam.
Short-eared Owls are present at Summit Lake November through April. These birds are found both inside the park and in the grassy DNR properties bordering the park. Walk through the grassland areas to find these birds. From October through April, Northern Harriers can be seen in flight above the grassland areas in and around the park. Huge flocks of American Tree Sparrows can be found from November through early April in areas of scattered brush.
Eared Grebe – (14-Dec-1997) – Lake
Trumpeter Swan – (07-Dec-1996) – Boat Launch
Red-necked Phalarope – (09-Sep-1999) – Nature Area
Greater White-fronted Goose – (01-Apr-1999) – Lake
Eurasian Wigeon – (16-Mar-1997) – Nature Area Marsh
Long-tailed Duck – (04-Apr-1997); (31-Dec-1996) – Both birds on lake near dam
Surf Scoter – (27-Mar-1999) – Lake; 3 birds
White-winged Scoter – (15-May-1998) – Lake
American Bittern – (09-Dec-1998) – Nature Area Marsh
Bald Eagle – (31-Dec-1998) – Dam
Northern Goshawk – (14-Apr-1997) – Pintail Pond
Golden Eagle – (05-Nov-1998) – Lake
Merlin – (06-Oct-1998) – Boat Launch
King Rail – (28-May-1997) – CR 750 N Marsh
Whimbrel – (02-Sep-1996) – single bird at the Nature Area, west side of CR 500 E; (26-May-2000) – 15 birds feeding and bathing on the Nature Area islands
Ruff – (18-Oct-1997) – Nature Area Marsh, east side of CR 500 E; Although this bird was seen by many birders, it was never documented.
White-rumped Sandpiper – One record
Western Sandpiper – (23-Sep-1998) – Nature Area, west side of CR 500 E
Baird’s Sandpiper – (21-Nov-1998) – Dam Islands
Laughing Gull – (05-Oct-2003) – 2nd winter bird at North Boat Launch
Franklin’s Gull – (11-Nov-1998) – Dam Islands; 13 birds
Connecticut Warbler – (20-May-1997) – Trail 2; 2 birds
Lapland Longspur – (21-Dec-1996) – Muncie Pike; 4 birds
Clay-colored Sparrow – (14-May-1994) – Trail 2
Brewer’s Blackbird – (31-Oct-1998) – Lake at CR 750 N
General site information
State of Indiana / Indiana Department of Natural Resources
Park hours are 7:00 am to 11:00 pm daily. The Nature Area and surrounding county roads are always available for birding.
The usual Indiana State Park entrance fee is collected. Also accepted is the annual State Park pass good for all Indiana DNR properties. Use the state parks link below for further details.
You MUST receive permission from the park office to bird the Dam Access Road. The park manager will tell you where to park and how to access the dam. Request a note stating that you’re a birder WITH access permission and attach it to your car windshield; otherwise, you may be confronted by a Conservation Officer. The DNR property outside of the park gates also has restricted access. Most grassland, marsh, and lake birds can be seen or heard without leaving the county roads. Permission should be obtained from the park manager to walk out into the fields.
There is a heated restroom open year-round at the North Boat Launch. Restrooms available at Sunset Shelter are not heated and do not contain running water. Additional facilities are located at the campgrounds and the park office, the latter being accessible to the public only during normal business hours.
Summit Lake has 125 Class A campsites equipped with flush toilets, hot water, and showers. Occupancy is limited to two weeks. If you plan to camp, please be sure to call ahead for reservations as the campground sites are often sold out. Motel lodging is available in New Castle.
Insects: During the summer months, mosquitoes and biting flies will drive you out of the woods. Birding the lake and grassland areas is still possible, however.
Waterfowl are most abundant October through early December and again March through early April. November tends to be the peak waterfowl month at Summit Lake, although good numbers tend to stay through the winter as long as open water remains available. Shorebirds are best found mid-July through early November and again April through May. The main passerine flights occur in May and again September through October.
Goll, John. Indiana State Parks. Saginaw: Glovebox Guidebooks of America, 1995.
Jackson, Brad. “Eurasian Wigeon Visits Henry County. “Indiana Audubon Quarterly 61.1 (1983): 12-3.
Seng, Phil T., and David J. Case. Indiana Wildlife Viewing Guide. Helena, MT: Falcon Press, 1992.
Summit Lake State Park
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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.