He’s the dean of
Northwest Indiana birding, the man who put the Dunes on the map as a premier
site in the Midwest to observe avifauna.
He’s a prodigious
archivist who has painstakingly compiled and indexed 40,000 observations,
including species numbers, party counts, daily records, seasonal averages,
and earliest and latest migrations.
He’s a teacher and
a mentor who for years has led weekly Saturday expeditions into the Dunes
and has taken scores of neophytes under his wing.
He’s Ken Brock of
And he’s a 2014
recipient of the American Birding Association’s prestigious Ludlow Griscom
Award, honoring outstanding contributions in regional ornithology.
wrote the book on the birds of the Indiana Dunes. It’s called The Birds
of the Indiana Dunes, it’s currently in its third edition, and its the
gold-standard reference on population trends, migration patterns, and
seasonal hotspots for the 300 or so species which may traverse the Dunes or
tarry here in any given year.
He’s also the
author of the definitive Brock’s Birds of Indiana, based on a
database of 615,000 records, which does for the entire state what his
earlier work does for the Dunes.
But it’s the Dunes
where Brock’s heart is.
A geologist by
trade, Brock moved to Northwest Indiana in 1970--after taking a faculty
position at the Indiana University Northwest--and promptly began birding the
Dunes. It was, at the time, terra incognita, wholly uncharted by any
contemporary birder. Brock changed all that, discovering--among other
sites--the now fabled Migrant Trap in Hammond, a geographical funnel which
draws all manner of migrating birds in the spring and fall.
The one thing Brock
didn’t find, in those early years, was anybody else with a pair of
binoculars. “When I moved to Northwest Indiana in 1970, I was the only
birder around,” he says. “In 1974 I met Peter Grube and together we birded
the lakefront regularly and rarely, if ever, encountered another birder.”
Now, of a Saturday, a birder is unlikely not to run into other
birders, as he or she hits all the usual spots: the Michigan City Marina;
Beverly Drive in Beverly Shores; Cowles Bog; the Green Tower and trails 10
and 2 at the State Park; the Portage Lakefront Walk; the Ogden Dunes Pinery;
Long Lake and West Beach; the concession stand at Marquette Park; Miller
Beach and the U.S. Steel impoundment; and the Migrant Trap. All of them,
sites originally discovered and documented by Brock.
“Today scores of
birders from Chicago and around the state enjoy Indiana’s lakefront
birding,” Brock notes. “During the famous autumn cold fronts, it is not
unusual to find more than two dozen birders lakewatching at Miller Beach. .
. . We have also discovered the spring longshore flights along the crest of
the high dunes. These flights allow birders to stand in one place and see
thousands of birds fly past in a single morning.”
And Brock has had
everything to do with popularizing the Dunes as a birder’s paradise.
“No one has done
more for birds and birders in the Dunes than Ken Brock,” says his close
friend, John Cassady. “Ken has been actively birding this area, and keeping
meticulous records, for 40 years. In addition to his books and the countless
bird classes he has taught, Ken continues to lead a regular Saturday birding
group with an enthusiasm that is infectious. He always has time to help
beginning birders get their binoculars lined up on a bird, answer any ID
questions, or show them the best places to find birds.”
interpretive naturalist at the State Park and no slouch himself when it
comes to introducing folks to the adventure of birds and birding--recalls
hearing of Brock long before he moved to Northwest Indiana. “Ken Brock had
almost celebrity status,” Bumgardner says. “No matter where you birded, you
had heard of him and his work. You occasionally hear about those rare
celebrity encounters where the actual person is humble and friendly. Ken is
exactly that. He loves sharing his birding skills, loves receiving bird
reports from everyone, and continues to have that thirst for knowledge.”
“I run into birders
today who often cite Ken Brock and his birding workshops, taught long ago,
as their inspiration into birding,” Bumgardner adds. “Decades later, Ken is
still mentoring and inspiring the next generation of birders. But these
aren’t just birders. They’re conservationists.”
Pete Grube, Brock’s
early birding partner, remembers a month-long trip he and Brock took to
Costa Rica in 2008. Every couple of days the pair would visit an Internet
cafe in the mountains, just so Brock could “download to his laptop the
latest Indiana birding records.” Then, “in the downtime between birding, he
would incorporate this information into his database, keeping it continually
up to date. What a treasure trove of information he’s compiled. I doubt if
any other state or region of the country can match this.”
Getting started in
birding is easy enough. Buy yourself a pair of binoculars and a field guide.
But if you’re at all serious about it, find yourself a copy as well of
Brock’s Birds of the Indiana Dunes. Because knowing where the
birds are, and when they’re there, is just about as important as
knowing what they look like. And Brock has spent half a lifetime doing the
groundwork for you.