Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cowles Bog Trail

The Cowles Bog Trail in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is about a two hour drive from Kalamazoo. I stopped there recently on the way home from a trip to Chicago. The trail is about 4 miles long, with a couple of options. Parking is down a narrow dirt road, on the right, just before the guardhouse for the Dune Acres gated community. (There is another lot close to US 12.) See the National Park Service map (pdf).

The first mile of the trail is very level, lined with Sassafras, Red Maple, and White Birch and includes a short board walk over a wet section (which apparently is not truly a bog.) The next mile is hilly, through wooded dunes which eventually lead to a steep climb down to the beach on Lake Michigan.

I had the beach to myself on a pleasant Sunday, except for the looming steel mills and the loud hissing from industrial smokestacks. With the Chicago skyline barely visible across Lake Michigan, it's clearly not a pristine wilderness experience. The area is important for birds, and I did see a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers flying through the trees. The Park Service has a restoration project to remove invasive species and improve the habitat for native plants and animals.

In some ways it's as interesting to see the resilience of nature amidst heavy industry, as it is to visit a more purely natural setting. It definitely made a nice outing.

Cowles Bog Trail
N. Mineral Springs Road
Chesterton, IN 46304
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a common vine in the Kalamazoo area and it is widely distributed throughout the Eastern US and Canada. It grows in shade or sun and will climb bushes, trees, fences, and phone poles.

Sometimes it is confused with Poison Ivy since it has a similar form and grows in similar habitats. The leaflet count is the easy way to distinguish the plants: Virginia Creeper's leaves are groups of five, while Poison Ivy has groups of three. (In Spring, young Virginia Creeper plants may show only three leaves at the tip of the vine, making them harder to distinguish; usually, there are 5-leaflet clusters farther down the vine.)

Its leaves can turn a spectacular red in the Fall.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sarett Nature Center

The Sarett Nature Center is a great outing, not far from Kalamazoo, with trails, wildlife, water, and woods, but somehow it had been a few years since my last visit. Last week, on the way to Chicago, I couldn't resist a quick side-trip, particularly since Sarett is only 5 minutes from the I-94 + I-196 junction. (Exit 1 on I-196, then west on Red Arrow; Benton Center Road is the first right.)

The nature center had built several new structures recently: an expanded visitor center, a butterfly house, and an impressive elevated boardwalk on a trestle high in the forest.

Of course, the original attractions of the nature center were still in place: a series of trails and boardwalks through woods, marshes, fens, swamps, and fields along Cowslip creek and the St Joseph River. The habitat is great for birds and other wildlife. It's one of the few places where I've seen a Massasauga Rattlesnake. On my short walk this time, I saw plenty of birds, a leopard frog, and a couple of deer. I'd hoped to see some fringed gentian but the one plant I saw had already flowered.

Sarett Nature Center
2300 Benton Center Rd.
Benton Harbor, MI 49022

Admission $3
Free for members
Also free admission for members of the Kalamazoo Nature Center, DeGraff Nature Center, Blandford Nature Center and many others. See the ANCA Membership Reciprocal List [pdf].

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pretty Poison Too

Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is a relative of poison ivy and poison oak and like those plants it contains urushiol, the chemical that causes painful, itchy rashes. While it acts like its cousins, Poison Sumac doesn't look like them. Poison Sumac is a small tree, with compound leaves, rather than a vine or shrub with "leaves of three." It grows in really wet areas-- bogs, swamps-- throughout the eastern US and Canada.

Poison Sumac's green leaves turn red in the Fall (like Poison Ivy.) Poison Sumac is not related to our common Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) which also turns red in Autumn.

Poison Sumac bears white berries (or drupes) in the Fall.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Praying Mantis

There are a number of species of praying mantises in Michigan, some native and some introduced. I don't really know them apart, but based on its size, I think this one may be a Chinese mantis (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis). Praying Mantises are famous for cannibalism after sex, but that doesn't seem to be strictly true. This one blended well with the prairie grasses at WMU's Asylum Lake Preserve.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wooly Bear

Wooly bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella) are an immature stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth. Superstition has it that the width of the colored bands can predict the severity of the coming winter (more black = colder winter). Not surprisingly, there is no scientific evidence to support this.

There is, however, interesting science on how these caterpillars survive the winter. Unlike the Monarchs that migrate to avoid Michigan's cold weather, or other species that overwinter as eggs, pupae, or adults, the wooly bear hibernates as a caterpillar, producing an internal antifreeze that keeps it from freezing solid.

I've seen a lot of these guys in Kalamazoo over the last few days.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Bur Oak

The Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is a tree of the open grassland. They're native to the Great Plains and prairies and are a characteristic species of the oak savanna. They evolved to survive the frequent grassfires of these ecosystem, with thick corky bark that provides fire resistance.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

More Fall Color

Autumn continues its progress in Kalamazoo, despite the unseasonably warm weather. Silver maples seem to be at their peak (at least those growing by ponds & lakes); some have already lost their leaves but most are bright red. Sumac, Virginia Creeper, and Poison Ivy contribute more reds. There are a lot more yellow leaves-- walnuts, hickories, and ash-- than there were a couple of weeks ago. Some oaks are getting a little purple-red and the first sugar maples have started to change.

The National Arboretum has an interesting page on the science of color, which explains why day length, rather than temperature determines when leaves change.

West Michigan Weekly has updated their Fall Color Report.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) are much smaller than the other squirrels I see around Kalamazoo. (Flying squirrels are even smaller but since they are nocturnal I hardly ever see them.) Red Squirrels also quicker than the Fox Squirrels and, for some reason, more charismatic.

Now they are busy filling their caches with food. While they aren't true hibernators, I don't remember seeing them during the winter. Perhaps they're spending the cold months in their nests enjoying their stored harvest.