Kenneth J. Brock always enjoyed nature and being outdoors but he wasn’t in it for the birds. After completing a B.S. in Geology and spending four years in the Navy as a navigator aboard C-130 transport planes, he returned to his home state of California and began working on his PhD at Stanford University.
“I had an office mate who always wanted to take me out birding,” he said. “When you’re a graduate student you’re always so busy, but I finally agreed to go. Now I’m a birder, and he’s probably a billionaire.”
Brock's birding has paid off, though, and on April 6 he will receive the prestigious American Birding Association's Ludlow Griscom Award for 2014. This honor is awarded to birders who have increased the knowledge of ornithology in a particular region.
He is one of a group who go birding on a regular basis, they frequent the dunes looking for migratory birds such as Jaegers, also called also known as the Arctic Skuas.
“They’re my favorites,” said Brock. “They’re predatory and nest in the tundra of the Artic and catch lemmings—those animals said to march into the sea and eat other birds’ eggs. They perform the same role as hawks do on land and are often called the hawks of the sea.”
Jaegers have some pretty cool moves said Brock.
“They’re just super-duper fliers,” he continued. "They fly like paragon falcons, they follow a tern who has caught a fish, doing circles around it until the tern drops the fish and then the Jaeger swoops down and catches the fish before it hits the water.”
For lovers of Jaegers, there’s few places better to be than Northwest Indiana—well, I suppose you could hang out on the Arctic tundra but really winters here are bad enough.
“We see more here than in other areas because they fly lower over the lake,” said Brock noting when it’s Jaeger traveling season, birders come from hundreds of miles away. “I think we get more Long Tail Jaegers than any other place.”
This year Northwest Indiana was also big on snowy owls, those pretty snow white birds that look so wise (and they are smarter than the average bird said Brock noting that really isn’t saying much).
Since retiring from Indiana University Northwest, Brock has gone into birding big time including serving as director of a year-long bird survey of the five sites under consideration for the Chicago area’s third regional airport as well as currently serves as a member on the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Technical Bird Committee. He also is a formerly regional editor for the national journal North American Birds and is currently a board member in the Flora Richardson Foundation and the Northwestern Indiana Migratory Bird Association.
His interest in Hoosier ornithology has led him to visit almost every one of the state’s 92 counties.
“I haven’t been to Switzerland County yet,” he says.
He also remembers coming across a white winged tern in 1979.
“They used to be called white winged black terns,” he said. “They’re actually European and so you don’t find them out here much if any at all.”
Brock spotted his at Roxanna Pond, a marshy wide spot in the Grand Calumet River that he said has just been restored.
“It was the first inland report of one in over 100 years,” he said.
Though his wife isn’t a birder, she’s a good sport about the whole thing.
“She called me the other day to tell me she’d seen a pelican near Striebel Pond in Michigan City,” he said.
Being the dedicated birder he is, Brock headed over there. And sure enough there was a pelican.
“You don’t see them this far north very often,” he said. Then he sighs. Like the fish that got away, there are birds too that did so.
“I wasn’t into birding when I was in the Navy and there was a week when our ship was getting fixed in Bangkok where we just waited around,” he said. “Think of all the wonderful birds I could have spotted.”