Remember the little bird who used to tell you things before anyone else did? One must have told J. that January 5, 2020, was National Bird Day, with a 10 a.m. activity at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center.
Together with several families, we helped to fill the many feeders, logs, and hollow stumps behind the Nature Center with safflower, sunflower, and thistle seeds; peanuts; and other goodies. I was sure the presence of many people clomping around would deter the birds until we went back in, but several hung around in the trees overlooking the feeder area, and the bolder chickadees came in to see what was going on (or to make sure we were doing our jobs).
After breakfast at Third Coast Spice Cafe, a shopping interlude at Molly Bea’s, and a stop at the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, we returned to take photos and for part 2 of National Bird Day — bird bingo. It didn’t take long to spot a cardinal, a titmouse, and a nuthatch eating upside down. The elusive square was held by the Cooper’s hawk. The staff told us they see one perhaps once a week. That no doubt puts a damper on the feeder activity.
After taking more photo, we settled into the very good little library at the nature center, which has books for kids and books on animals, nature, local history, and art. It’s a gem of a resource which I don’t often see in use.
After I spent more than I should (as usual) at the Schoolhouse Shop, we ended National Bird Day with half-price veggie pizza at Villa Nova in Chesterton. Mmmm. No chicken.
December 8, 2019, at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
I’m a little slow but one day years ago when I saw a woodpecker at Promontory Point I realized there are two in the field guides that look very similar—the downy and the hairy. One is smaller but I could never remember which.
Smaller isn’t a good field sign if you haven’t seen both and you’re not sure of the relative proportions.
On a July 2018 visit to Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center, two woodpeckers happened to land on opposite sides of the same feeder, facing each other. In that moment, I couldn’t miss the most obvious differences between the two, despite the similarity (mostly) of their plumage.
The downy is quite diminutive when seen across from his larger cousin, the hairy. More than that, the downy sports a delicate stub of a bill compared to the hairy’s railroad spike—the bill is almost the length of the hairy’s head.
Finally I got it. I will not have trouble identifying either again. There are other differences, but that bill is the most obvious. Now I have in mind: “downy=diminutive”—body size and bill.
As a side note, the downy is the one you’re more likely to see at your typical suburban bird feeder. I can’t be sure at this late date, but the downy is likely the one my dad fed with free suet from the local butcher.
According to Audubon, the hairy requires larger trees and is less likely to show up at suburban feeders or city parks. I’ve seen enough of them at the nature center to know that area (and their feeders) suit the hairy just fine.
December 8, 2019, at Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
I loved many things about where I grew up, like the bird feeders hanging from the wild cherry trees out my parents’ back window. My mother was exceptionally fond of black-capped chickadees, the clowns among snowbirds. Blue jays annoyed my mother because they drove off the chickadees and smaller birds.
The folks at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center seem to have solved this. The smaller finches and snowbirds gather at a tube feeder, while the blue jays and cardinals share tray feeders with gray squirrels (the red squirrels tend to stay on the ground or on the log trough feeders). That’s not to say chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice don’t use the tray feeders, just not at the same time as jays or squirrels.
As corvids, related to crows, jays leave little doubt as to when they’re in the area. The Nature Center is equipped with outdoor microphones to bring the soothing sounds of running water, leaves rustling, and bird chatter indoors. You can be sitting there in a trance, enjoying the peace and small sounds of nature when:
JAY! JAY! JAY!
You’re jarred to consciousness by screeching that’s already loud and further amplified until it sounds like there’s a blue jay in your ear canal. I’ve been known to fly out of my seat almost as quickly as the smaller birds fly off the feeders.
Except the birds on the tube feeders—they can munch on unbothered. If my parents had only known.
December 8, 2019, Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center
I’ve never seen a red squirrel in Chicago. Years ago I’d read the bigger gray squirrel dominates and drives them out.
I’ve now seen both species at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center peacefully (more or less) sharing the feeders. I asked one of the staff why they have red squirrels when Chicago (or at least my part of it) doesn’t. She said red squirrels prefer (or need?) conifer trees.
This is where usage of common names is problematic. The red squirrel of northern and central Indiana, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, is a different animal altogether. Known as “pineys” in Indiana, the red squirrel shares a genus with the Douglas squirrel and Mearns’s squirrel. (Try saying that fast.) When not raiding feeders, these “pine squirrels” feed on the cones of conifers. Wikipedia notes the red squirrel “has been expanding its range into hardwood forests.”
The upshot is I’m not likely to see red squirrels in Hyde Park in the foreseeable future. Through an episode of Urban Nature, however, I learned Chicago does boast a second squirrel species, the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), which I may have seen and thought was a color variation of the gray squirrel. They’re larger, though. According to Urban Nature, they’re found in areas where gray squirrels fear to tread—where predators like coyotes and feral dogs and cats are more common.
There is another squirrel I’m not likely to see—the nocturnal southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans). During a saw-whet owl banding at the Nature Center, we learned the mist nets meant for the owls on occasion trap other creatures, such as bats and flying squirrels. As much as I would like to see a flying squirrel, the researchers would rather not. An ensnared flying squirrel quickly frees itself by destroying the pricey mist net, putting a damper on the evening’s saw-whet owl banding activity. I can almost hear, “Curses! Foiled again!”
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.
Another Saturday, another trip to Indiana Dunes. First, J. and I detoured to Valparaiso because Rise’n Roll is open until 7 p.m. for the summer (although it’s too bad their customers don’t seem to know that). Afterward we were going to try a somewhat new Mediterranean restaurant, but the wait was longer than I wanted, so we went next door and waited just as long. My spur-of-the-moment decisions are not always logical.
Having watched the Perseid meteor shower, and possibly the International Space Station, at Indiana Dunes National Park West Beach several years ago, I keep wanting to recapture the magic. The NPS doesn’t host the event anymore; it’s at the state park beach these days, minus ranger and guest speaker. It doesn’t seem to be as dark at the beach, though, with Chicago lighting up the night across the way.
After staring at the sky for a while, my eyes play tricks. Stars blink on and off, then disappear entirely. Other lights move erratically, then also disappear. Even without the Perseids (we may have spotted one or two streaks), I saw an entire show.
August 11, 2019
For breakfast, we went to Round the Clock, the two-restaurant chain (Chesterton, Valparaiso). Contrary to the name’s promise, the restaurant closes at night and opens in the morning. This disappointed me vaguely. I didn’t expect Round the Clock to have hours!
On to the Schoolhouse Shop. I wanted to sip coffee with the birds and butterflies in the back area, but since they also had a ginger iced tea I went with that. The cashier told us there were frogs by the water feature if we wanted to sit there, but I opted for a spot closer to the bird feeders and flowers, where a black swallowtail repeatedly evaded me.
Eventually I wandered back to the water and heard a plop that sounded suspiciously like a frog jumping in. As I walked around the edge I heard a second plop. I still didn’t see anything, but a few seconds later I caught a movement followed by a third plop. Eventually I spotted one frog in the water, convinced no doubt he couldn’t be seen. I left for a few moments and when I came back one was perched on an overturned flower pot and another was half sunning on a wee ledge. Later I saw a third one hanging in the water, one leg askew, pretending to be dead or invisible. He reassured me of his health when I got too close. Someone on iNaturalist helped me identify them as green frogs.
I can’t tell you how much I hate to leave the Schoolhouse Shop, although I always do so poorer.
But we had a date with the Emita II, a tour boat moored in Trail Creek by the Old Lighthouse Museum in Michigan City. Last year I’d made arrangements for a tour, but the afternoon excursions were canceled due to choppy waters. I was glad to have a chance to try again. The clouds were gathering but Lake Michigan looked as calm as it ever does.
We arrived early enough to get a table by the rail that would be on the shore/port side going out — perfect. While we waited for everyone to board, I heard a familiar sound approaching. A westbound Amtrak train raced by on the opposite shore of Trail Creek — possibly the Wolverine that leaves Chicago at 1:25 p.m. on its way to Pontiac. It breezed by so fast it was mostly a blur.
Finally 3 p.m. came and we backed out, passing the Nipsco coal-fired generating plant with its cooling tower that dominates Michigan City — I’m told it can be seen from Chicago, although I haven’t yet looked for it. Our host told us the more slender tower marked the location of the Hoosier Slide, once Indiana’s most recognizable landmark. All that’s left of the Hoosier Slide are vintage blue-tinted Ball canning jars.
After leaving the creek for Lake Michigan, we passed Mt. Baldy, a “living” dune that is moving four feet a year, which means at some point it will bury the nearby NPS buildings and parking lot and encroach on U.S. Rte. 12. Mt. Baldy is also famous for mysteriously swallowing a six-year-old boy who was recovered three and a half hours later. The Smithsonian and the Northwest Indiana Times have the story. I tried to climb Mt. Baldy once but had to stop maybe 20 feet short of the crest — stopped by fatigue, steepness, and shifting sands.
Now Mt. Baldy is closed except for ranger-led hikes; the rangers know where the tree holes are. On this day several people were trespassing on the shore side of Baldy. “They’re not supposed to be there,” the boat guide said. I wonder how often that happens. The guide noted that Baldy has an armchair shape vs. a normal sand dune shape due to its ongoing loss of sand. I wonder what its future will be and hope it, unlike the Hoosier Slide, will have one.
After Baldy there’s a series of beaches and dunes, with many visitors as well as boaters just off shore.
I didn’t know what to expect after the dunes, but there was Beverly Shores — and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress Homes. The flamingo pink Florida Tropical House is the easiest to see, but you get a glimpse of all of them (the Cypress House is the least visible).
The round trip takes about two hours. On the way back we spotted a boat with a plethora of fishing rods sticking up and men who likely had more beer than fish.
I also took more photos of Indiana’s only lighthouse. The former lighthouse, now the Old Lighthouse Museum, was tended for 43 years by a woman named Harriet Colfax. Having once tried to pick up a bucket of sand representative of the a single lighthouse oil bucket, I can tell you toting those buckets up lighthouse stairs even once a day would not have been the job for me. I can just haul myself up, with the help of the railing. Yet lives depended on the lighthouse and its keeper.
After dinner at Leeds Public House we detoured to the shore road, something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Eventually we started to recognize some of the eastern beaches, then the Century of Progress houses, then Kemil Beach. It didn’t take much longer than the usual route, except for getting onto it — the turn was blocked by a big utility vehicle and crew.
You could spend the 4th of July eating, drinking, and making merry with fireworks. Or you could take a nearly 40-minute walk on Indiana Dunes National Park West Beach Trail, Loop 2, on loose, sloping sand in 90º plus heat and full sun to look for prickly pear cactus.