A History of the 
Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary

The Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary is situated in Chesterton on 42 acres of wetland property on the west side of 11th Street at 1050 South 11th Street between Porter Ave and County Rd. 1100 N in Chesterton. The parking entrance is just north of the west access drive to Westchester Intermediate School on the opposite side of the road.

The property was acquired in two transactions over ten years in the early 2000s. Nineteen acres on the western side were purchased from the Chesterton YMCA by the Porter County Park Foundation (PCPF) in 2002. This land was accessible only from Washington Street which is the northern boundary of the parcel. In 2013, an adjoining 20 acres located to the east with frontage on the west side of 11th Street was purchased from a private owner. This acquisition more than doubled the size of the acreage, but more importantly, it provided easy access to the public with ample space for visitor parking directly from 11th Street. In 2017, the 2.5 acres large Griffin Lake to the west was donated by the Griffin Lake Homeowner’s Association.
The original concept was to develop “an educational area for local schools with a hike/bike trail.” For many years, however, the property remained untouched.  In 2013, PCPF member Richard Maxey started to explore the possibility of cleaning up the land and restoring the wetland to its original condition. Four years later, the Porterco Conservation Trust Inc. was formally established and in that same year, 2017, the entire 39 acres of the predominantly undeveloped wetland was transferred to the Porterco Conservation Trust Inc.  

The Porterco Conservation Trust Inc., currently doing business as the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary, is now engaged in removing the invasive vegetation and developing the property into a habitat to attract birds and other water-related wildlife. This activity continues to the present time. Over the ensuing years, volunteers have completed all of the dredging, hauling, grading, in-filling, landscaping, eradicating, sowing, planting trees and flowers, and cultivating.

The acquisition of the second property in 2013 did not come without a downside. A portion of the land had been used as an informal trash dumping ground by the local community. A major task facing the organization was what to do about this undesirable condition. A cost estimate to safely remove and dispose of the trash amounted to $800,000. This was beyond the financial resources of the Porterco Conservation Trust. Working with experts from IUN and what then was Purdue University North Central in Westville, now Purdue University Northwest, a structural barrier that would be natural looking and that would effectively withhold the debris was researched. The solution approved by the various governing bodies (Indiana IDEM and DNR, US Federal Fish and Wildlife, and the Army Corps of Engineers) was to install what is known as a gabion wall. The gabion wall consists of a bed of well-compacted gravel covered by a 4 ft. tall continuous row of natural limestone rock which is contained in large metal wire baskets.  Unlike concrete or steel, this retaining wall construction is very natural looking and is porous to water. It allows groundwater to flow past it and thus water level does not build up behind it. It fulfills all of the goals of being an effective way to retain the debris, is natural-looking, and is economical to build. Moreover, the expected life of the wall is 50 years or longer.  

The sanctuary is a non-profit organization and is primarily staffed by volunteers who work to recreate the wetland site. The support of corporate, institutional, and private individuals in the form of cash and in-kind services is always welcome. The sanctuary has received numerous donations from companies both large and small, from area tourism and other public institutions, as well as individuals and families. In addition, several area youth organizations have contributed their efforts: the Chesterton HS building trades students constructed a 24 ft. x 32 ft. Picnic Shelter: Eagle Scouts projects have built the well house, picnic tables, sitting benches, site landscaping, and have erected over 20 bat and birdhouses; smaller school groups and individual students have planted flowers.

Through the generosity of donors, four structures have been erected. The Bob and Becky Dunbar Gazebo can be found on the north trail. On the south side, there is the CHS Picnic Shelter and a Viewing Deck which was provided by the Chesterton/Porter Rotary and the Greater NW Indiana Association of REALTORS. In the central area near the gabion wall, there is another gazebo provided in memory of Tom and Diane (Kuta) Nelson. The deck and gazebo offer excellent views overlooking the wetlands.

Natural hiking trails are being created around the wetland. On the north side, there is a trail loop. The year 2017 saw the addition of a Butterfly Garden and in 2018 a water well was installed. In 2019 a connection to NIPSCO electric power was completed. The gravel parking area was graded with gravel fill at the 11th Street entrance in 2019. Landscaping work has been helped by the acquisition of a Case 445RT dozer affectionately nicknamed Louise, and a used Ford 455 backhoe with a recently rebuilt engine! An Argo amphibious vehicle is also used.

On Saturday, September 21, 2019, the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary celebrated its official Grand Opening. This event was attended by over 100 people including local dignitaries: Chesterton Town Council member Jim Ton, Porter County Council member Sylvia Graham and Chuck Roth of Chesterton Feed and Garden.

The northwest Indiana region is a prime area for bird watchers. Hundreds of bird species fly through this area every year as they migrate north and south along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The Dunes are a bird watchers paradise and the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary provides a site for viewing birds in their natural habitat that is conveniently located inside the town of Chesterton. Throughout the endeavor, our motto has been “restore the wetland and the birds will come.” This has been borne out by now frequent sightings of over 67 species of birds which can be found in the wetland property according to the Indiana Audubon Society.

The Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary further enhances Chesterton’s reputation as an Audubon Society sanctioned Bird Town in the State of Indiana.