Photos courtesy of Ryan Sanderson of a Rough-legged Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk. These are examples of possible birds found in at this location.
The Johnson Beach Hawk Watch Site is located on a stable dune immediately adjacent to the western boundary of the Indiana Dunes State Park (note: there is no direct access to Dunes State Park from the Johnson Beach dune). Located within a quarter-mile of Lake Michigan, this tall dune provides birders with enough elevation to survey the sky in a near-perfect 360-degree radius–with only a few nearby trees obstructing small patches of sky. Hawk watching on the Johnson Beach dune involves vigilant scanning of the sky in all directions, watching for raptors as they approach on the horizon. Although some birds never come close enough for definitive identification, most do, exercising the identification skills of the birders present.
Spring hawk flights in the Dunes were first reported by Raymond Grow and Virginia Reuter-skiold, two early Dunes area birders who recorded hawk flights near Baileytown between 1952 and 1962. Although the Baileytown site has since been destroyed, migrating hawks can still be observed from virtually any location in the Dunes that offers an unobstructed view of the lakefront and adjacent southern skies. The Johnson Beach Hawk Watch Site is now the most popular site to view migrating raptors in the area, largely because of the “stability” of the dune–the vegetation that covers its surface prevents sand from blowing up and into the eyes (and optics) of hopeful hawk watchers. Mount Baldy, the most recent predecessor to Johnson Beach as the primary hawk watch dune, has been all but abandoned for hawk watching purposes, as its lack of vegetation promotes conditions for blowing sand.
The phenomenon that produces excellent spring raptor flights in the Dunes must be attributed to the presence of Lake Michigan itself. During spring migration, hawks enjoy the effortless glide northward over the Midwest, riding on thermals and warm southerly winds. In fact, these raptors will instinctively avoid flying over large bodies of water whose cool surfaces prevent the formation of thermals. As a result, upon approaching the lake, the northward movement of these birds is abruptly altered to a course that parallels the Lake Michigan shoreline. The migrant raptors are thus concentrated in a relatively narrow band adjacent to the lake, creating a flight corridor that passes directly over the Indiana Dunes.
More attention to raptor flights through the Dunes has been put forth since the early 1980s–an effort which has provided invaluable data for understanding hawk migration through the area. We now know that most hawk flights occur between March 1st and May 15th of each year, with March and April constituting the major flight months. The best days for migrant raptors are those with strong, warm, southerly winds. Although a “good” daily flight consists of 100-300 birds, more than 70% of these are likely to be a combination of Red-tailed, Sharp-shinned, and Broad-winged Hawks–the three most commonly observed species during the spring flight. The average season for the Dunes area as a whole produces about 1700 hawks, with the best year occurring in 1992 when 3774 raptors were tallied. The largest daily hawk flight in the Dunes occurred at Johnson Beach on 19 April 1992 when 769 raptors were counted in a 7.5 hour period. In addition to hawks, all kinds of other unexpected birds fly by the dune. Some of the more surprising birds include American Woodcock, Whip-poor-will, Lapland Longspur, Barred, Long-eared, and Short-eared Owls, Common Loon, and Bonaparte’s Gull.
Typical Time to Bird Site: 1-4 hours, depending on bird numbers. All day vigils are held for massive flights.
- In addition to migrant raptors, the Johnson Beach dune is a great place to view passerines, gulls, waterfowl, and shorebirds. Many of these birds fly by the dune in small groups–challenging one’s in-flight identification skills.
- Specialty Species:
- Osprey – Mid to late April
- Bald Eagle – Mid to late March; on average, one bird is seen per week
- Northern Harrier – Late March through early April
- Sharp-shinned Hawk – Throughout April; on average, one bird is seen per hour
- Cooper’s Hawk – March through late April
- Red-shouldered Hawk – Mid to late March
- Broad-winged Hawk – Late April
- Rough-legged Hawk – Mid-April and mid-November
- Golden Eagle – Throughout April; on average, one bird is seen every two years
- Noteworthy Records:
- Osprey – (19-Apr-1992) – 15 birds
- Mississippi Kite – (23-Apr-1992) – 1 bird
- Bald Eagle – (14-Mar-1990) – 10 birds
- Sharp-shinned Hawk – (19-Apr-1992) – 223 birds
- Northern Goshawk – (12-Apr-1983) – 5 birds
- Red-shouldered Hawk – (14-Mar-1990) – 75 birds
- Swainson’s Hawk – (05-May-1991); (19-Apr-2003)
- Broad-winged Hawk – (26-Apr-1984) – 421 birds
- Golden Eagle – (18-Apr-1992) – 3 birds
- Lapland Longspur – (20-Mar-1997) – 1779 birds
GENERAL SITE INFORMATION
- U.S Department of the Interior / National Park Service
- Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Information: 219-926-7561 x225
- Camping facilities are available at Indiana Dunes State Park and at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore’s Dunewood Campground, both of which are accessible on US 12. Hotel / motel accommodations are available in nearby Chesterton.
- Special Considerations:
- Parking: Parking is available at either the National Lakeshore parking lot or at a small cul-de-sac located southeast of the parking lot. The National Lakeshore lot is sometimes closed in March. To reach the cul-de-sac (which is actually closer to the base of the hawk watch dune), take the first right turn immediately after the National Lakeshore lot and follow this road right until it dead ends into the cul-de- sac. The cul-de-sac is big enough for about five cars. The trail up to the dune is easily visible from the cul-de-sac and leads away in a southeast direction. Parking elsewhere (i.e. along the road) may be risky as there are many nearby private residences in this busy tourist area.
- Temporal Considerations:
- Migrating hawks are most numerous in March and April. The best days to see good numbers of birds are those with strong, warm, southerly winds.
- Brock, Kenneth J. Birds of the Indiana Dunes. Revised Edition. The Shirley Heinze Environmental Fund, 1997.
- Brock, Kenneth J. “Indiana Dunes Spring Hawk Flights: 1950-1990.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 68.4 (1990): 165-75.
- Squires, Bobby. “Hawk Movements at the Southern End of Lake Michigan.” Indiana Audubon Quarterly 69.4 (1991): 258.
Author: Ken Brock
Editor: Darel Heitkamp
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