Birds At Sagunay Lake

by Donald H. Boyd

A number of the small lakes located in Northern Indiana have attracted attention because of their beautiful surroundings and have become more or less popular as summer resorts. Wild life in general is usually abundant about such places but the more timid creatures, as a rule, seek deeper solitude soon after their domain has been encroached upon. The air gun and rifle brought to these popular places by city folk, who are anxious for a little practice on the ‘real thing’, no matter what it may be if it possesses life, often cause tragedies among these creatures, especially the birds.

It has been my good fortune, for two seasons, to make a superficial study of the bird life at a small lake which has not become so popular and which is a paradise for the feathered tribe, on account of its many advantages. This is Sagunay Lake, named for an Indian Chief, said to be buried near its eastern shore. The lake is small, not over two hundred acres, and reminds one of a sunken gem among the rolling hills of that region. A fringe of oak, beech, maple, and sycamore follows the shoreline, and from the dead protruding branches the rattle of the Kingfisher can be heard at any time. These birds must nest some distance away, since the contour of the country is rounded or rolling (in fact it is known as rolling prairies), so there are no abrupt embankments, except along the railroad, three miles away.

western meadowlark (sturnella neglecta) singing among flowers

Wild hardwood timberlands, within a few rods of the shore, very likely harbor all kinds of woodland birds known to occur in that latitude. The meadowlands, which roll down to the lake’s edge in the eastern margin, furnish nesting places to a large number of Larks, Bobolinks, Field, Song, and White-Throated Sparrows. Along the fence-ways, the soft trill of the Chipping Sparrow is heard and, as punctuation marks to all of these, is the simple song of the Meadowlark and the whistle of the Bob-White.

It is the entire northern end of the lake however that proves to be the Mecca of bird life. This margin is an inaccessible swamp of buttonwood, willow and elder, while an occasional tamarack rears its head above this wild tangle of branches; and as if to keep them company, a few swamp elms are scattered about. It would impossible to penetrate this thicket either with a boat or in rubber boots, without cutting a path, which, to all appearances, has never been done. Skunks and weasels, those ravagers of birds’ nests, are not able to use the place as a foraging ground on account of the water, which covers the entire floor of the ‘wilderness’ throughout the breeding season. Hawks and owls find the place a poor one for their prey, since the view above is open to all the inhabitants and once in the thicket, the pursuer loses his quarry. What appears most significant to me, is that the whole swamp is guarded, as it were, by a score or more of pairs of King birds. Along the edge of the thicket, at almost regular intervals, these King birds have placed their nests as though forming the outer guard line for the community. And a guard they prove to be, for upon the approach of a hawk, crow or jay, a terrific assault is made by a half dozen of these frenzied warriors.

Life within the community seems ever at peace. I spent hours in my boat along this margin of the lake and saw no conflicts between the ‘guards’ and the smaller denizens.

Bird life in the thicket was a living panorama. Here a Green Heron would crawl stealthily through the branches, a queer combination of snake and squirrel-like activity. There an American Bittern posed as a statue, apparently all neck, and hard to distinguish from the greyish-brown, bark-covered branches. Sometimes a coot or a grebe could be seen paddling away in the water under the canopy. One or two drake Bluebill ducks flushed out the of the runways at different times as my boat passed along. I did not see the hens but I am inclined to believe that somewhere in the midst of that ‘wilderness’, safe from harm, were the snug nests of these ducks. This is likely true of the coots and grebes, which could be seen on the lake frequently. From among the bushes a streak of yellow or indigo gave evidence of Yellow Warbler and Indigo Birds. Among the tamarack branches, Cedar Waxwings could always be seen.

The Downy Woodpeckers and Tree Swallows were at home in the holes of the dead cottonwood stumps. Redwing Blackbirds were everywhere. From the shore side, Song and Swamp Sparrows were constantly singing. Catbirds would sneak in and out of the thickets. Hermit Thrushes would appear unexpectedly and dash away again. I missed the song of the Marsh Wren, but heard him in a neighboring marsh, where cattails were abundant. Often, in the morning and evening, Tree, Barn, and Bank Swallows swarmed over the lake by the hundreds, how far away they nested I have no idea. If I arose early enough and scanned the shoreline, I would see a Great Blue Heron or two, their morning fishing over with, lumbering off to the heronry several miles distant. Under the eves of my cottage a Phoebe raised her brood, while along the rafters of a small boat shed a Barn Swallow had fastened her nest. Along the public highway, which skirts one shore of the lake, a Red-Headed Woodpecker had drilled out her nest in a fence port. Baltimore Orioles suspended their hammocks from trees along the shore and the call of the Yellow-Billed Cuckoo would frequently be heard among the thicker branches. Each spring a pair of Great Northern Divers visited the lake and enjoyed the fishing in the deep waters.

A portion of this region is included in one of the state game preserves and since game of all kinds have been unmolested for several years, and because of this protection, the birds in general have thoroughly established themselves. This accounts, to a certain degree, for their abundance and clearly demonstrates how rapidly the different species will make themselves permanently at home, when the hand of man is raised, but slightly, in their behalf.

It is certainly a great joy to be able to spend even a short period in a place, where it is very apparent, that the birds hold sway, where they have practically none but natural enemies to deal with, and where even some of these are eliminated. These facts are exceedingly gratifying to bird lovers, since they prove conclusively the expected results of laws enacted for these purposes, and are sufficient arguments for further legislation along advanced lines. Wherever definite returns can be shown as a result of laws past, it is not nearly so hard to enlist the aid of the public and their representatives, in seeing that such ordinances are enforced and improved upon.

Contributed by Jerry Thomas Boyd

Contributor’s Note
Unfortunately this essay, like many of Donald H. Boyd’s writings, does not indicate when it was written. The amount of time he got to spend there suggests it was either early in his life before marriage and a career or later after his retirement. Sagunay Lake is located some miles northeast of La Porte, Indiana, and today is a modestly developed private lake, no longer a paradise for the multiple bird species Boyd observed in the first half of the 20th Century.

The author: Donald H. Boyd

Donald H. Boyd was my grandfather. Although he died when I was nine years old, my few memories of him are vivid and indelible. When I was six years old, I watched him band birds in his house in the Sauk Trail Boy Scout Camp. (This camp was abandoned in 1963 and was located on land that it is now in Burns Harbor, Porter County, Indiana.)

Before banding these live-trapped birds, he held them gently in his hands, on their back, stroking their breast to calm them. When he asked me if I wanted to release one, I was terrified I might crush the delicate creature. But Grandpa assured me I would not. Then he took one and handed it to me to release. It was a small bird, small enough to fit nicely in my little hands. I felt its heart beating furiously or was it my own? He opened the door, I stepped to the threshold with the bird, and following Grandpa’s example, with a toss into the air, watched the bird take flight. That was perhaps one of the biggest thrills of my young life.

While today I can identify maybe one type of sparrow, he could identify ten. Obviously I did not become a birder myself; but I inherited his deep love of the natural world and hold a great deal of admiration for his accomplishments.

Donald H. Boyd was born in 1882 in La Porte, Indiana. Even in his early teens he was observing and collecting information about birds. He went to work for the Standard Oil Company of Indiana in Whiting in 1904. He married in 1906 and his son, my father, was both in 1910. In 1916 my aunt Donna was born. He left Standard Oil in 1933 due to increasing bouts of illness probably attributable to his laboratory job. Illnesses plagued him for the rest of his life but did not diminish his passion for birding. From roughly the mid- 1910s through the 1930s he contributed bird migration counts to the Indiana Audubon Society among other agencies. He corresponded with the foremost ornithologists of his day, including Amos Butler and Sydney Esten, who relied on his expertise and information. He continued banding birds and keeping records until shortly before his death in 1955.

He was an amazing self-taught, amateur naturalist and ornithologist. His incredible patience, diligence, and dedication to keeping detailed and meticulous records of all he observed along the rivers and roadways, on the beaches, in the fields, forests, and dunes of La Porte, Porter and Lake Counties in Indiana, paints a priceless picture of the natural world of that area in the first half of the 20th Century. In addition, he is also notable for his inspiring work as a Boy Scout Leader, and for his history making work with the Standard Oil Company in Whiting, Indiana. Through the trajectory of a life well lived, my grandfather made a remarkable and esteemed place for himself in the history of Northwest Indiana.

Jerry Thomas Boyd
Chesterton, Indiana

More of Donald H. Boyd’s bird essays will be published by the Indiana Audubon Quarterly.
All his documents are housed in the Calumet Regional Archives in the library at Indiana University Northwest campus in Gary, Indiana.

Photo of meadowlark by Steve Byland

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