Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The West Baden Springs Hotel

Rob writes: Last week, Stephanie and I traveled to southern Indiana and the West Baden Springs Hotel so that I could lead a bird hike at a board retreat that the Indiana Hospital Association was holding. Now, you might be thinking that it sure doesn't sound like that organization has anything to do with birds, and you would be right – technically. One of the vice presidents of that organization, Brian Tabor, happens to be a birder, and he had talked about birding so much around the office that everyone agreed that it would be a fun activity to offer for the guests of the board members.

A view of the hotel from the sunken garden.
I had never birded in the area before, so we made sure to arrive early the evening before the hike so I could scout out a route to take and see what birds we might be able to find. The second I walked out the front doors of the hotel, I knew that the hike would be awesome! The grounds and the hotel are absolutely beautiful. The hotel was originally built in 1902 and at the time had the world's largest free-span dome (a record that actually held that distinction until the Houston Astrodome was built). It had fallen into disrepair until billionaire Bill Cook started a restoration project in 1999. He spent almost $100 million to restore the property, and it certainly shows! Plus, since the property has been mostly protected since 1902, the wildlife that occurs close to the hotel is amazing.

Some of the rooms look out over the open atrium. As cool as this would have been, I was glad to have a room looking over the pool and forest surrounding the property.
The very top of the dome. When lit up at night, it changes colors!
From the beautiful front veranda, there were hummingbirds, Eastern Kingbirds, and nesting House Finches. After just a 30 second walk across the street to the sunken gardens, the birding picked up even more. Gray Catbirds are everywhere, and Brown Thrashers come out in the open on the lawn to feed. Cedar Waxwings feed on the many trees with berries, and you can hear both Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Wood-Pewee singing away. Within a five minute walk, there is a bridge with at least 50 Cliff Swallows nesting underneath it. There are always a number of Turkey Vultures overhead, and if you look closely it is easy to pick out a couple Black Vultures mixed in. But, the bird of the day was found by one of the participants that had hardly been birding outside of her backyard. She found a red bird and knew it wasn't a cardinal but didn't really know what else it could be. It turned out to be a Summer Tanager, and everyone in the group got great looks before it flew off!

Between my scouting and the hike, I birded for a total of about 3 hours and found 49 species! I know that there are nesting Worm-eating Warblers on the property, and if I had time to look around more I would guess that I would find both Hooded and Kentucky Warblers as well. Even with all of those great species, birders rarely visit the area. Now it may not be as good for birding as Goose Pond or the Indiana Dunes, but I can't think of a better spot to spend a few days in Indiana, especially if you have a spouse or significant other that is not a birder. Both West Baden Springs and the French Lick Springs Hotels are historic landmarks that you can spend a lot of time exploring, the properties offer access to 4 golf courses, there are wonderful spas at both properties, and there is a large casino attached to the French Lick property.

The re-opening of West Baden Springs has also had a huge effect on the town of French Lick. While talking with the owner of Micki's Deli and Sweet (you must stop in here is you are in the area - the food is awesome and the sweets are even better), we learned that the town likely would have faded away into a memory had the Cook family not restored the hotels. While it is still a slow process of attracting people back to the area, you can certainly see the growth in town. Buildings are being restored and many new stores and restaurants are opening up.

One of the many awards that the hotel has won since being restored. Wouldn't it be nice to have an award like this for conserving bird habitat and having a positive impact on communities through birding tourism?

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