Rafi Wilkinson was out hiking with two of his sons two summers ago near Beverly Shores, with the boys, then ages 9 and 12, ahead of him.
“They came running back and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to bring your camera,’” Wilkinson, a ranger with the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, recalled.
He had his camera in a backpack and soon found why his boys were so excited. They’d spotted a barred owl.
Wilkinson had a telephoto lens but still edged closer to the bird slowly since he didn’t want to scare it, and eventually got about 20 feet away before he took a picture.
“I knew that I had a keeper,” he said.
What he didn’t know was that a little more than two years later, that image would grace a car running the South Shore Line four or five times a day between South Bend and Chicago.
Thursday, he was one of the people from the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore, Indiana Dunes State Park, NIPSCO and the South Shore who came together to unveil the passenger car, which rumbled westbound into the station as people took pictures and video with their cellphones.
The image, over the phrase, “Birding the Dunes,” is paired with another image of a park ranger holding a birding guide and a birdwatcher preparing to look through a camera on a tripod.
The state park and the national lakeshore sponsor a birding festival each May and, during the 2017, Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the national lakeshore, said an acquaintance thought it would be cool to have a train wrap for the birding festival.
“We didn’t quite get there for this year,” he said, adding the “great image” will now promote bird watching in the region. “We’ve got this message out there, this fabulous graphic.”
A partnership between the parks, Northern Indiana Public Service Company and the South Shore Line made the project possible, officials said.
Mike Noland, president and general manager of NICTD, which runs the South Shore, said he was able to call on NIPSCO to help promote the region.
“You have a billboard going up and down the highway,” he said.
A double-track expansion will provide high-level platforms and more opportunities for riders to bring their bicycles on the train and explore the area.
“We have such a resource up and down this system,” he said.
NIPSCO was happy to partner in the project and send the message from South Bend to Chicago that the region is more than steel mills, said Don Babcock, the utility’s economic development director.
“Ride the train because it improves your productivity and improves the environment, and it helps build the economy,” by drawing more people here, Babcock said.
The area along the South Shore route offers some of the best bird watching available, said Brad Bumgardner, executive director of the Indiana Audubon Society and a former interpretive naturalist at the state park, adding there are 370 bird species in the dunes.
“Birds are one of the best living examples we have of the connection people have to nature,” he said.