GARY | Elizabeth Kleine hiked over the frozen sand behind the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education in Gary, tiptoeing among the savannah of oaks whose skeletal branches reached like fingers into the moist grey sky.
"I came to see what I can see that I don’t see at home," said Kleine, of Hobart, one of seven volunteers who came out early Thursday morning to count birds as part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore’s participation in the National Audubon Society’s 113th annual Christmas Bird Count.
Counts are taking place across the country from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. Families and students, birders and scientists, armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists, go out on an annual mission—to find and count as many birds as possible.
"This is a citizen science project, and we try to keep a current list and count of birds we see within a 15-mile radius. We compile our data so that we can compare it year after year, to see trends in bird population and health, to help guide conservation actions," said Park Ranger Christine Gerlach.
Each count takes place within a "Count Circle" that focuses on a specific geographic area. The national lakeshore is hosting the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore West Circle, and other circles have taken place at the Tolleston Dunes (formerly Inland Marsh), Hobart and in Porter County at the Indiana Dunes State Park.
Equipped with binoculars, gloves and a bird checklist on a clipboard, Kay Sarti, of Dyer, a retired school teacher whose husband passed away last month, came with her friend Pam Van Rennes, of St. John, as a way to keep active.
"I love being outside and I enjoy helping out and volunteering," said Sarti, whose keen sense of hearing logged a tufted titmouse for the count, resulting in a high-five from Van Rennes.
Gerlach noted some 20 species during last year’s count, and although the region is rife with birds during times of fall and spring migration, the winter is a tougher time for birders.
"The lake is a hot spot for winter birds but the weather really affects a lot of what we see and don’t see," Gerlach said.
"Through the entire year, we see about 300 species of birds here at the property. Last year during our count, one of the groups saw a great horned owl," Gerlach said.
For Kleine, seeing the mourning doves, juncos and blue jays was nothing new since she sees such species near her home and she hoped to repeat an experience from last year’s count.
"Last year we were all done, and who was waiting for us at the end of our trail? A little bluebird! Oh, to see that baby!" Kleine said.