The birds of Belmont and Bracken Hill

 Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

All winter long, pileated woodpeckers and their smaller cousins, the red-headed, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers hammered away, echoing the carpenters working on the Sunroom Restoration at the House of the Singing Winds. Lately, eastern bluebirds have added to the human and avian percussion section with their warbling melodies.

Birdsong is such a welcome and spirit-lifting sound, bringing relief from winter’s cold and snow. “Real birders” can identify individual voices of these spring arrivals, but nature’s music — like art — can be enjoyed without specialized knowledge.

Both birds and art-lovers flock to T.C. Steele State Historic Site, but for different reasons. As a flower and shrub covered clearing amidst deep hardwood forests, the site’s ridgetop setting provides the edge habitat needed by birds, and scenic views enjoyed by humans. Where there are hills, there must be valleys, and Salt Creek and Hunnicutt Valleys, depicted in many of Steele’s paintings, are a fine prelude to what awaits above.

Last week’s heavy rains caused Salt Creek to overflow onto the fallow fields bordering T.C. Steele Road. I was concerned, since a flooded road could mean a long detour, but all was fine — even more than fine as I spotted several migrating sandhill cranes feeding in the cornfield stubble transformed into a temporary wetland.

As I stopped to watch, I wondered about their diet. Had the floodwaters washed up fish or frogs into the fields? That’s what’s on the menu for great blue herons, which are similar in size to cranes and prefer the same marshy areas. Time for some research.

It turns out that the sandhills feed on corn, left from last year’s harvest, with perhaps an insect or two as an appetizer. But they may have been attracted by the water, since they were gone in two days, along with the puddles. This year, the rains coincided with their migration, and it was the first time I’d seen them there.

I also learned that the herons’ arrival comes a week or two after the cranes pass through — but they stick around. In summer, these large herons can often be seen flying over or wading in Salt Creek’s shallows. I’ll be glad to welcome them back.

Passing by the same field earlier in the week, a large shape in a tree caught my eye. A resident bald eagle was eyeing the field for a possible meal. What a treat to see! Even though Selma Steele found the Belmont grocery lacking when she moved here in 1907, the area wildlife isn’t complaining.

Soon daffodils will add color to the drab winter landscape, but for now, birds are on the move. So bring your binoculars to Brown County for some birding on what was in the Steele’s time known as Bracken Hill.


On my way to work I spotted these Wild Turkeys in a neighbor’s yard. The ‘tom’ seemed oblivious as I pulled in the drive to take a picture. And the hen seemed just as oblivious of the tom. Maybe she hoped if she ignored him he would just go away.


Their breeding season begins in March, but it seemed like he wanted an extension. I’ve heard that Benjamin Franklin nominated the Wild Turkey for our national symbol, but the eagle won out. The Bald Eagle is impressive, but I imagine the turkey was more helpful in ensuring the survival of the early American settlers.

They were so important to early Hoosiers, that like the white-tailed deer, turkeys were extirpated from the state by the early 1900s. Poor planning, I guess. And perhaps proof that the ‘Good Old Days’ belong to no particular decade or century. For all the benefits of Selma Steele’s time, it’s very unlikely that she would have enjoyed the sight of Wild Turkeys in her Brown County backyard.

In the early 1930s, the Indiana Department of Conservation tried to bring Wild Turkeys back home again to Indiana — Brown County being one location. Although this attempt failed, they were later successfully reintroduced by the Indiana Department of Fish and Wildlife. Indiana Ruffed Grouse were traded for Wild turkeys from Missouri, and this time it ‘took’.

I remember the first time I saw Wild Turkeys. I was working at a construction site across the highway from Brown County State Park. I don’t know if they were disturbed by the crew’s arrival or if they were ready to leave anyway, but suddenly four or five large objects noisily took off from nearby roosts. I’m sure I was more surprised than they were.

When looked at aerodynamically, bumblebees aren’t supposed to be able to fly. When Wild Turkeys fly, they look like they’ll crash and burn — it’s almost embarrassing to watch. In 1820, Audubon observed turkeys crossing the Ohio river from the Indiana side. Several didn’t make it and were drowned. I wonder if they were just showing off.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.