By Puja Bhattacharjee
Plan to navigate through the Horseshoe Casino parking lot and take a short walk along the lakefront before you can get to the turnstile entrance of the Hammond Bird Sanctuary in Hammond, Indiana.
I followed Carolyn Marsh, 72, into the sanctuary early one morning. Marsh cleaned the bird baths inside the sanctuary, meticulously brushing the dirt off them and filling them with clean water. She refilled the squirrel-proof bird feeders with seeds she bought at her own expense. At times, she paused to point out migrating birds taking a rest at the sanctuary.
As she was finishing her rounds, the birders started trickling in. The sanctuary is so peaceful. It was hard to tell there were a dozen people watching the birds through their binoculars from beyond the fences in the sanctuary. But the absolute stillness here is punctuated by noises from lawnmowers, cars and people.
Hammond is a heavily industrialized region, southeast of Chicago, known for the British Petroleum oil refinery, ArcelorMittal steel mill, rail yards and the casino, all on the lakefront. But Marsh, who lives in nearby Whiting, wants to make the area known for the bird sanctuary, the only green patch in sight. It attracts thousands of migrating birds every year during spring and fall.
“It has been an exceptional fall migration with songbirds consistently present from the end of August,” she said. “On the Indiana official state bird checklist, there are 39 warbler species and an incredible 26 of them were seen in the sanctuary,” she added.
Marsh grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side and was a blue collar worker in the steel mills. She bought a house in Whiting as she always dreamed of living on the lakefront and it was “dirt cheap” there. She lost her job when cheaper labor overseas shut down most of the steel industry in the area in the 1980s. Middle-aged, Marsh worked odd jobs but eventually went into early retirement. “I had saved a lot of money so I was OK,” she said.
Then she got hooked on the environment. Several environmental groups trying to clean up the area and preserve open space organized and Marsh started attending their meetings. Prominent among them was Grand Calumet Task Force. The group was pressuring the federal government to clean up the Grand Calumet River, “the most toxic river of North America,” said Geri Wendorf, former secretary, of the now defunct Task Force.
“Our mission has been accomplished. The river now has been remediated,” she added.
The task force also lent its support for a local migrant bird sanctuary. The area on the shores of Lake Michigan became an important stopover site for thousands of migrating birds and butterflies in an otherwise heavily urbanized area.
Marsh got interested and learned all she could about the sanctuary. “For me it was like a full-time job, doing conservation work. I went to meetings sometimes three times a day. There were all these government meetings where they were talking about the birds and bird sanctuary. It was very time-consuming. But I had to do it to learn.”
She found out that Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO), a gas and electric utility company, owned 16 acres on the lakefront which they had used as a dumping ground for waste concrete in the 1950s and 1960s.
Over the years, trees grew amidst the rubble and started attracting migratory birds. “NIPSCO wanted to push the concrete into the water and make a power plant.” The plan was abandoned in the wake of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s.
The City of Hammond developed the Horseshoe Casino and Hammond Marina on the lakefront to give the area a new lease of life. “The city wanted the land from NIPSCO to build condos,” said Marsh.
Marsh, with support from local environmental groups like the Indiana Audubon Society, launched a campaign to keep the land open.
“We never went to court. We fought by building public pressure. NIPSCO owned the property, the city wanted their property. They didn’t give it to the city. They gave it to the Hammond Parks Foundation,” Marsh said. That gift in 1996 made the bird sanctuary possible.
The endangered Kirtland’s warbler was sighted in Whiting Park, a mile away from the sanctuary in May. The same month, a group of birders spotted the rare worm-eating warbler in the sanctuary.
“A lot of gulls come here in the winter. Certain places have a [channel] that keeps the water open. Tens of thousands of ducks come during migration on the lakefront. They will be here two to three weeks and then they fly off,” she said.
Under the deed agreement with the Hammond Parks Foundation, Marsh said, the Hammond Port Authority is supposed to help maintain the sanctuary grounds but doesn’t. She pointed to overgrown bushes, which hide birds from view. “Birders need to see the birds to be able to connect with them.”
“A few years ago, the city wanted to make an asphalt bike trail through the sanctuary and install lights. I told them the birds don’t need light,” said Marsh.
She felt she wasn’t going to win. “I reached out to the biker’s organization and said, ‘You really don’t need to be biking through a bird sanctuary.’ They listened to me.”
The victories keep her going. “Whenever I hit a wall and I say to myself, ‘This is it. I am not going to win.’ Then something unexpected would happen to give me another opening,” she said.
She installed the bird feeders and regularly cleans and fills the bird baths.
“The port authority cares only for the trail in the sanctuary. We go out there whenever necessary. We are not overtly aggressive in that area. We are cautious as a lot of migratory birds come in there,” said Milan Kruszynski, director of the Hammond Port Authority.
The port authority did remove some of the overgrowth. ” We depend on people to point it out to us,” Kruszynski said.
The Hammond Parks Foundation has not responded to requests for comment.
Marsh is worried about who will carry on her work. “The Hammond Parks Foundation has the deed. They too should be active,” she said. “I am a volunteer. I don’t own anything. Technically, they should have volunteer groups. The city has an arrangement with the colleges to have volunteer workers,” she said. Students can work at the sanctuary to learn about birds and earn college credit hours, she added.
Wendorf worries that younger people in the area are not as environmentally conscious. “There aren’t many environmental groups around. That’s a shame. People who were involved in the 1990s are now older or have passed away,” she said.
Marsh encourages people to get active in whatever ways they can. A boy scout came to the sanctuary and installed bird houses last year, she said.
When Sarah de la Rue, an avid birder, moved to Hammond from Idaho in 2010, she sought out Marsh’s help.
“I was looking for the monk parakeet. The Indiana Audubon Society suggested I reach out to Carolyn Marsh,” she said. Marsh showed her around the birding places. De la Rue admires Marsh for what she has done. “It takes a lot of guts to fight the machinery.”
“Attaching yourself to nature is very healing and it keeps you motivated. Instead of looking at nature as the enemy, the bees’ and wasps, you appreciate all that. It keeps you young and curious. You look forward to spring, you look forward to fall,” said Marsh.