Nestled between the heavy industry, steel mills and everyday hubbub of Northwest Indiana is a diamond in the rough. If one pays close attention, a chance meeting with a great blue heron or snowy egret is a distinct possibility.
That's especially true at the Highland Rookery, on the south side of the Little Calumet River north of LaPorte Avenue at Liable Street.
There’s nothing more spectacular to a nature lover than being able to observe wildlife in its natural habitat.
“The Highland Rookery is a wonderful asset to our town, improving the community’s quality of life,” said Lance Ryskamp, Highland Redevelopment Commission assistant. “It allows residents and visitors the opportunity to observe, without interfering with, a striking and unique natural site.”
Accessible via the Erie-Lackawanna Bike Trail, this bird watcher’s paradise happened almost accidentally, as great blue heron, snowy egrets, owls, native and migratory birds, and even an eagle came home to roost at the marsh. The idea to establish the Highland Rookery as a destination, however, was intentional, “hatched” by local residents and Highland Main Street volunteers, Darlene Barron and Carole Kutcka.
Barron is a retiree who frequently walks in the area and came across the winged residents in their natural habitat.
“In 2014, I noticed that many birds were flocking there, and I saw some nests,” she said.
Barron conducted research at the Highland Library and discovered the best way to access the site. She also learned that when the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission worked to repair the basin to prevent floods, they removed some of trees where the birds had nested. During subsequent visits, Barron saw herons and wanted to watch for a while but didn’t have anywhere to sit. She purchased a town bench and from then on, had a place to perch, watch and take photographs.
Barron had the foresight to envision the site as a destination and, with Kutcka’s help, they approached local organizations including the Highland Redevelopment Commission to generate awareness and obtain funding for the project.
With the Highland Town Council’s support, the cooperation between all of the entities was successful.
Dan Repay of the Little Calumet River Basin Commission and Rick Calinski of NIPSCO oversaw the paving of the NIPSCO parking lot at the substation at Liable Street and the bike trail up to the levee at the Highland Rookery. The Highland Community Foundation assisted Highland Main Street with writing a grant to the Legacy Foundation and provided matching funds. The Legacy Foundation issued a grant for Kutcka to create educational color brochures and a sign on the corner of Liable and LaPorte.
In addition, the grant funded two all-weather benches and two sets of fixed binoculars at the site. The Highland Redevelopment Commission funded part of the project and the Highland Parks and Recreation Department took on some of the maintenance.
The Munster Garden Club also donated a bench in memory of a past president. Other organizations have donated benches and dedicated them, as well.
“The project is an example of different governmental and nonprofit agencies working together for the common good,” Ryskamp said. “The redevelopment commission is proud of the role it played in this project, with special thanks to Darlene Barron and Carole Kutcka, who worked tirelessly to ensure the Rookery’s development took flight.”
As with any project, the rookery comes with its setbacks. Within a day or two of posting Kutcka’s sign, bullets or BB gun pellets had pierced it and then a sign she placed on the trail disappeared and one of the fixed binoculars was damaged.
A 2014 survey by the Munster Garden Club reported about 50 great blue heron in the nests, but today, the number has shrunk. Barron attributes it to fewer trees, as standing water causes them to rot and fall. She notes that there is a general uptick of snowy egrets and black crowned herons in the area, also missing is an owl that would nest each year to have babies.
“I had before and after photos and what I realized was that the tree in which the owl nested had fallen down,” said Barron.
Applying for another grant to improve the Highland Rookery has been discussed, but according to Highland Redevelopment Commission Director Kathy DeGuilio-Fox there are no plans to do so in the immediate future.
Even with its issues, the rookery is a serene bird watcher’s paradise and nature lover’s escape open year-round and beckoning to schools and Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops.
“People like to come out and relax and many bring their dogs,” notes Barron. “It’s very peaceful and that’s what I like about it.”