December 8, 2019, at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
While at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center watching birds and gray and red squirrels (no chipmunks this time), I noticed a melanistic gray squirrel coming in. In all my years in Hyde Park (40!!! Eek!), I’ve seen only one, in Jackson Park between 56th and 57th Streets. On a visit to my late aunt in NW Washington, D.C., I’d seen several in the neighborhood. According to Wikipedia, there’s a reason for that:
Eighteen Canadian black squirrels were released at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., near the beginning of the 20th century during President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Since their introduction, the population of black squirrels in and near Washington has slowly but steadily increased, and black squirrels now account for up to half of the squirrel population in certain locations, such as the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral.
Wikipedia mentions them in the Quad Cities area of Illinois:
Black squirrels are well established in the Quad Cities area along the Iowa-Illinois boundary. According to one story, recounted in the book The Palmers, they were first introduced on the Rock Island Arsenal Island. Some of them then escaped by jumping across ice floes on the Mississippi River when it was frozen, and thus populated other areas in Rock Island.
I hadn’t seen one at Indiana Dunes or Indiana before. This one looked lighter and more grizzled than other melanistic gray squirrels I’ve seen pictured, so it may have had one copy of a mutant gene vs. two.
Gray squirrels have two copies of a normal pigment gene and black squirrels have either one or two copies of a mutant pigment gene. If a black squirrel has two copies of the mutant gene it will be jet black. If it has one copy of a mutant gene and one normal gene it will be brown-black. In areas with high concentrations of black squirrels, litters of mixed-color individuals are common.
To me, this is the most interesting part of the Wikipedia entry:
The black subgroup seems to have been predominant throughout North America prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, when America’s old growth forests were still abundant and thick. The black squirrel’s dark color helped with better concealment from its natural predators (owls and hawks) in these very dense and shaded old growth forests. As time passed, extensive deforestation and the hunting of squirrels for their meat and pelts led to biological advantages for gray colored individuals; their light-gray color became advantageous in their newly changed habitat. Today, the black subgroup is particularly abundant in the northern part of the eastern gray squirrel’s range. This is due to two main factors. Firstly, black squirrels have a considerably higher cold tolerance than that of gray squirrels. Secondly, because the northern forests are denser and thus darker, the black squirrel enjoys the advantage of better concealment when viewed from above within this dimly lit habitat.
And after a healthy meal of seeds, it returned to the Indiana Dunes woods whence it came.
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In December I’d checked out Horseshoe Curve from the parking lot, but hadn’t been up to the top since September 1988 — er, 31 years ago . . . Not long after, a visitor center and 288-foot funicular were built and opened in 1992. Not knowing anything about the funicular, I was surprised to find it doesn’t run constantly, only on the hour and half hour.
We spent about 15 to 20 minutes looking over the exhibits while waiting. I appreciated the one showing how the Curve had been carved out — I’ve never been able to visualize it or how it would have looked before. Another highlighted the wreck of the Red Arrow in 1947, which killed two dozen and injured more than 100.
The funicular cabins, which were made in the Durango and Silverton Railroad shops in Colorado, ascend and descend at the same time. They pass at a circle part of the way up (or down). I expected the cabin to veer to its right, but they swing to the left to pass. Very British.
Up top the cars from the summer derailments (two!) are visible but not close. We’d picked up a list of scheduled trains at the visitor center, but am not sure we matched any that went by to it — certainly not the “Oscar” (trash train) heading west. In addition to the Oscar, we saw an intermodal plus helper locomotives returning in pairs as they do. No Amtrak — the eastbound Pennsylvanian had gone through earlier. I’d be on the westbound Pennsylvanian later in the afternoon, while it was still daylight.
While we watched the trains we found ourselves plugging our ears. One thing I didn’t remember from all those years ago was the screech of metal on metal, the wheels and brakes as they fight the curve and the incline.
It seemed fitting we got a wave from the locomotive of the last train we saw — one of the few times I’ve seen a woman engineer.
Our final shopping stops were Hillside Farm, where I bought whoopie pies, and Ridgeside Cider Mill, where V. picked up their first cider of the season and I added to my soap collection.
Years ago a relative had posted about Tytoona Cave (more formally, Tytoona Natural Area Cave Preserve), the name an awkward mashup of “Altoona” and “Tyrone.” Previously, its location had seemed a mystery to me, and December wasn’t the best time to visit it. I’d looked again recently and found out it’s connected (more or less) to Arch Spring in Sinking Valley which my cousin had pointed out to me a couple of years ago. Now I could find it easily on Google Maps — as it turns out, it’s on T495 off Kettle Road, less than a half mile from Ridgeside Cider Mill. Off we went.
There’s a slight cutout parking area, with the trail entrance marked by green barrels. Steps, some eroded, built in 2001 by the Tytoona Cave Preserve Committee and members of the Huntingdon Co. Cave Hunters, lead down into the sinkhole. Normally a stream flows into the cave, but it was bone dry. This made walking in without hiking shoes a lot easier.
If you walk far enough into the cave, you can sign a register. I didn’t make it nearly that far. I didn’t have a flashlight, and was surprised by how dark it became a short way in. It’s easy to see why people in Tytoona Cave videos wear helmets with headlamps — it’s too dark to see the low ceiling that your head will hit.
The stream bed through the sinkhole may have been dry, but there was running water somewhere in the darkness. In this video, the cave walls and ceiling amplify the sound, but I suspect the cave’s water would make a respectable noise without the help.
It felt weird and creepy to hear water rushing nearby without being able to see it. If I’d had a light, a helmet, and a better physique, I wonder if I could have gone as far as the register or even the first sump . . .
On the way out, we saw a poster about Pennsylvania bats. Short version: Tytoona Cave is not the best place to find them.
And so back to packing for the return trip on the Pennsylvanian and Capitol Limited.
First, we returned to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, where the buildings were open. The center has a discovery room with amphibians and reptiles.
On the earlier visit, we hadn’t noticed the raptor aviary behind the main building. Shaver’s Creek is home to a surprising variety of raptors — peregrine falcon(s?); bald and golden eagles; broad-winged, red-shouldered, and red-tailed hawks; barn, barred, eastern screech, and great horned, screech owls; and black and turkey vultures. My favorite was black vulture Matilda. I’m not sure I’ve seen one in flight ; turkey vultures are more common at this latitude. I know I’ve never seen one this close up. No photo due to the cage, but Matilda has a surprisingly sweet face attached to her bald head. The darker coloring may make them more appealing than turkey vultures to human eyes.
Before leaving, I sat by the windows overlooking bird feeders. As seems to happen to me, a hummingbird flew up, looked at me tauntingly, and flew off before I could take a photo. Typical.
Off to elk country in Benzette (sometimes “Benzett”). This time we didn’t see any elk at the campground. We made a stop at the visitor center, where tables with local goods had been set up next to the gift shop. It was here I discovered Moonshine Chocolate . . .
At the Winslow Hill overlook, we didn’t see anything at first, but a handful of turkeys and a white-tailed deer family (buck, doe, two older fawns) appeared.
After we ate dinner at the Benezette Hotel (where none of us ordered the elk burger), this one crossed the road while following others into the woods.
In another place, we joined a little crowd watching a small herd at some distance, including nursing offspring.
In all. we counted 45 to 50 elk (or wapiti), including this last one on a rise next to the road.