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.
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.
We visited my parents’ graves at Logan Valley Cemetery, located across from the high school. A cousin I haven’t seen in decades had left flowers at my dad’s grave. His flag holder for veterans still has a metal medallion. The newer medallions are plastic thanks to theft. Once upon a
In Sinking Valley, this little mare and her young’un attract customers to Hilltop Farm. There’s also a wee donkey.
On to Whipple Dam State Park, which was new to me. It’s yet another part of our legacy from the Civilian Conservation Corps. As it was Labor Day and central Pennsylvania isn’t rich with beaches, a college-age crowd had gathered at Whipple Dam’s postage stamp of sand to play volleyball and stand in the relatively shallow water. Despite the crowd, the surrounding woods gave the lake and beach an isolated feeling that reminded me of Pewit’s Nest in Wisconsin.
We’d passed the road to Shaver Creek Environmental Center and stopped on the way back. The buildings were closed for the holiday, so we relaxed on the deck’s Adirondack chairs. I kept hoping to hear a creek.
On the way to the park, V. spotted a plant she thought might be teaberry (ICE CREAM!). According to the folks of iNaturalist, it’s partridgeberry. Pretty, but perhaps not as weirdly tasty as teaberry. If you can’t get teaberry ice cream, try Clark’s teaberry gum. You won’t thank me, I think. It’s an acquired taste, associated with childhood 50 years ago.
August 10, 2019
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.
And so ended another Indiana Dunes adventure.
June 25, 2019
Lyft is my new favorite thing — as long as I can afford to use it once in a while. I love creeks (even more than Lyft) and while in Ann Arbor had a hankering to visit Parker Mill on Fleming Creek. My left leg has been protesting lately, and I don’t have to walk far there to see the creek and a little bit of the woods. I discovered it’s only a little more than four miles from the bed & breakfast, which in Chicago would get me only halfway to downtown. I fired up the Lyft app.
The driver mentioned he takes his dogs to Parker Mill Park. “You feel like you’re in the country but you’re not at all.” I asked him if I’d have a problem getting back. “No, this is a main road between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. I live in Ypsilanti.” I asked him what kind of dogs he has. “Shiba Inus,” he answered. One of the few breeds I know a little about. He told me about his, a dominant female and a rescue male.
As he left me in the parking lot, he pointed out what looked like typical exurb apartment blocks going up next to the park. Look in that direction and you won’t feel like you’re in the country anymore.
There have been a few changes at the mill. There’s a new Bison pump (for filling water bottles?). Two slides descend from it, and before I left someone pumped water for their dog. He looked like he wondered why he couldn’t get his usual dish, but made a half-hearted attempt at a few slurps.
Some rocks may have been rearranged, with new concrete forms (seats?) added. A new set of steps with a red handrail to match the pump has been added. These steps and handrail made it easier for me to get down to the creek, although they aren’t exactly rustic.
I headed under the overpass, where the water seemed deeper than I remember. When I turned my head to the right, the water sounded faster, more urgent. When I turned my head to the left, it sounded deeper, like the flow had decreased. I did this a few times with the same results. Since the creek’s flow didn’t change every time I turned my head, it must have been me. My hearing loss is mild to moderate in the left ear, moderate to severe in the right. I heard more, higher frequencies when my left ear is turned toward the creek. It’s a disturbing feeling, especially since the first ENT I saw (almost 15 years ago) said the loss will progress. It doesn’t help that usually fluid sloshes about in my right ear, partially blocking it.
I continued along the creek under the road until I reached the footbridge over the creek into the woods. Two women, not middle aged but not young, ran toward me, screaming. I briefly looked for the ax murderer who must have been pursuing them. I didn’t see one, and the women slowed down, laughing breathlessly. “A HUGE bumblebee! HUGE!!!” If I could arch my eyebrows like Spock, I would have. Just then, an average-sized bee buzzed by. They fled in terror, half screaming, half laughing. The bee, unimpressed and uninterested, wandered off.
After that, I didn’t see anyone as I wandered through the woods along the creek. I went mainly in the direction that reaches a dead end at a wire fence. I didn’t have steam to go the other way, especially since in late June the weather had finally turned hot, which drains me of any little energy I have. My Osprey ultralight stuff pack, water resistant and not letting any air through, either, was glued to the sweat soaking my back.
I spotted one flitty red admiral that wouldn’t stay still for a photo, and a tree with picturesque mushrooms that weren’t going anywhere.
At last the creek drew me back, although no matter how hard I looked I couldn’t find crawdads. I wondered if the water flow had changed and disturbed them, or if I couldn’t spot them in the deeper water.
This side was more populated, especially as the afternoon progressed. Cyclists, hikers, dog walkers, even a man on a bike accompanying a woman who was trying to manage the downslope behind the mill on old-school roller skates. She was young (20s) and fit, and it cheered me to see her grasping the wooden fence, stiffly and awkwardly taking baby rolls forward, finally crashing in slow motion into the grass where there was a break in the fence. This wasn’t her first rodeo; she was wearing thick knee pads.
A sloppily dressed man, smoking and yelling (presumably into a headset, although I didn’t see it), came along, unclear on the concept of a relaxing walk in the park. Maybe his doctor told him he should walk more.
A very old man came along, slowly and gingerly making his way down the steep paved walkway the roller skater hadn’t mastered. He was moving faster than I had.
As on my previous visits, ebony jewelwings flew around, sometimes landing to rest and sun on the rocks near the water. An eastern comma glowed with color when its wings opened, then disappeared when its wings closed.
Near the mill, a big, much-injured tree shelters a picnic table. I half expected a druid to emerge from its trunk and wondered if some of its wounds had been lightning strikes.
I hated to leave and hope to return.
Finally, what would Pollinator Week be without a bee covered in pollen?
Thanks for stopping by.
We’ve had the eastern tiger swallowtail. Here’s a female black swallowtail, equally colorful in her own way.
Here’s video of a persistent male.