Thursday, December 27, 2012

Barn Owl

 Barn Owls (Tyto alba) were once common in southern Michigan but in recent decades they have been very rare [pdf], with only a handful of sightings throughout the state.  They are protected as an endangered species in the state.  Barn Owls have been more successful in other parts of the US and have a global distribution, including parts of Europe, Africa, South America, Australia, and Asia.

Like other owls, the Barn Owl is a nocturnal hunter, eating rodents and other small animals.  Barn Owls prefer open grasslands to the wooded habitats of the Great Horned Owl.
The owl pictured here is used in education programs of the Lake Milton Raptor Center.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Country Roads of Indiana

Country Roads of Indiana
Sally McKinney

This small guidebook describes a dozen drives throughout the state of Indiana.  Each chapter gives driving directions and discusses the villages, shops, and vistas along the way.  A few pen and ink drawings illustrate every chapter and a list of phone contacts is included.

Four of the excursions in northern Indiana are reasonably close to Kalamazoo.

1. Meander through Amish Country: Elkhart to Lagrange
Elkhart, Bristol, Goshen, Nappanee, Middlebury, Shipshewana, Lagrange
"For a drive in the slow lane, travel through Indiana's Amish country with its tidy farms, clanging school bells, and horse-drawn buggies.  In two northern counties, Elkhart and Lagrange, about 17,000 Amish live in one of the three major communities in rural America."
Selected highlights:
Elkhart riverside parks and bike routes
Bonneyville Mill County Park
Amish Acres
Deutsch Kase Hause
Shipshewana Auctions and Flea Market

2. From Courthouse to Lakeshore: Crown Point to La Porte
Crown Point, Hebron, Valparaiso, Chesterton, Michigan City, La Porte
"A leisurely drive through northwestern Indiana from Crown Point to La Porte lets you cruise through small-town America, beside small farms, through suburbs, along Lake Michigan's southern shore, and inland to Indiana's small-lake country."
Selected highlights:
Stoney Run County Park
Indiana Dunes State Park
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

3. Wildflowers & Lake Country: Pokagon State Park to Gene Stratton Porter House
 Pokagon State Park, Angola, Orland, Greenfield Mills, Brighton, Mongo,  Ontario, Lagrange, Gene Stratton Porter House
"Northeastern Indiana has long been known for glacial lakes, forests, streams, and patches of wildflowers.  You can come by interstate, but once you arrive, follow the country roads to find nature preserves, hiking trails, boat rentals, small villages, antique shops, family resorts, and scenic waterways."
Selected highlights:
Pokagon State Park
Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area  (Trading Post canoe outfitters]
Gene Stratton Porter State Historical Site

4. Wings across the Plains: Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area to Plymouth
Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Bass Lake, Culver, Twin Lakes,  Plymouth
"Sandhill cranes, the Jasper-Pulaski area's star visitors, stand up to three and a half feet tall, weigh 10 to 12 pounds, and fly on wingspreads up to seven feet.  During the autumn, they leave nesting grounds in the wetlands of southern Canada and the upper Midwest, using the Jasper-Pulaski area as a refuge before flying to marshlands in southern Georgia and Florida for the winter."
Selected highlights:
Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area
Tippecanoe River State Park

Apparently this book is out of print.  Amazon will let you "look inside" and Barnes and Noble may have used copies.  I got this from my public library.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Grand Ledge

Grand Ledge is a small town, a little over an hour's drive northeast of Kalamazoo, named for the sandstone bluffs on the Grand River.  The ledges and a series of narrow islands on the river made Grand Ledge an important tourist destination in the late 1800s.  While the resorts and paddleboat tours are long gone, Grand Ledge still makes an attractive daytrip. 

A 1987 Geological Society of America report [pdf] describes the ledges, their formation, their fossils, and their geology. "The Ledges of the Grand River are the best exposure of Pennsylvanian age rocks in the state of Michigan. Besides their scenic beauty, the Ledges and additional outcrops of the surrounding vicinity provide a unique setting in which to explore and investigate an ancient near-shore marine beach environment." 
Fitzgerald County Park provides the easiest access to the ledges, with plenty of parking ($5 vehicle access fee) and a stairway down to the Ledges Trail.  The park has a few other short nature trails in a downstream forested area.  Other amenities include a playground, disc golf course, restrooms, picnic areas, ball diamonds, a theater, and a small nature center.  The sandstone in the park is covered with velvety lichen, mosses, and ferns.

Across the river, the sandstone is bare and Oak Park offers a section that is open to rock climbing.  It may be the only natural climbing area in southern Michigan.  Some argue that it should be closed to climbers.  
The site of the Seven Islands Resort is now a Grand Ledge city park known as Island Park.  A pedestrian bridge connects the long narrow island to the town.  A paved path runs the length of the island and then continues upriver to Jaycee Park.

Google identifies the footpath running from Grand Ledge to Fitzgerald County Park as the "Riverwalk" but local signs label it the "Ledges Trail".  It's not a boardwalk but a dirt path halfway down the riverbank.  It's under a mile from Island Park at the edge of the business district to the railroad bridge that marks the boundary of the county park.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Historic Bridge County Park

Historic Bridge County Park is a small park on the Kalamazoo River just east of the city of Battle Creek.  It's about 25 miles east of Kalamazoo.  Several iron and steel bridges from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been moved from nearby counties to this park and restored.  A walking trail connects the bridges as they crisscross a small creek.

The park wasn't open when I tried to visit last year.  Apparently it was closed for nearly two years due to the Kalamazoo River oil spill.  The park reopened this summer.

The park isn't wilderness by any stretch.  I-94 crosses the Kalamazoo River on a modern bridge directly across from the county park and the drone of traffic is constant background noise.  The paved trail along Dickinson Creek was formerly a county road.  An active railroad crosses the park trail and Dickinson Creek on a double-arched historic stone bridge. There are, however, still natural features.  I saw a trout from one of the bridges and a Kingfisher flying overhead.  New interpretive signs along the Kalamazoo River indicate that this area provides good habitat for otters.

The park offers several benches and picnic tables near the river, a picnic shelter, a playground, restrooms, and a boat launch.  The Calhoun County Trailway will connect the park to the Battle Creek Linear Park and the North Country Trail.

I'm not sure the Historic Bridge Park is big enough to be a destination in its own right, but it's close to the Ott Preserve and convenient to other area attractions.  There are, I discovered, bridge enthusiasts who might make this park the center of a trip. says, "The bridges in Historic Bridge Park represent some of the best metal truss bridge restoration work to be found in the country."  They provide a detailed visitor's guide for the park.   

Historic Bridge County Park
14930 9 Mile Rd
Battle Creek, MI 49014


Sunday, December 2, 2012


A late fall walk in the woods provides fewer distractions: no wildflowers, no colorful leaves, no snakes, no turtles, no frogs.  Birds can be easier to see, since they can't hide in the foliage, and squirrels are very visible as they build their winter nests and harvest seeds and nuts.  My attention was also drawn to some lower-profile flora-- the lichens.

On a recent walk at the Sarett Nature Center,  I noticed a group of trees with interesting displays of lichen on their branches.  I snapped a few pictures and figured I could identify them when I got home.  One branch was covered with the cup-topped stems of the lichen's fruiting body, which I thought would make it simple to classify.

Lichens are composite, symbiotic organisms that combine a fungus and an algae (or a blue-green algae).  The fungus provides the physical structure and the algae provides the ability to photosynthesize.  They can grow where regular plants can not survive and they take many different forms.

My problem came when I tried to identify the lichen; Michigan has over 800 kinds of lichen and I quickly got overwhelmed.  At first, I thought the fruiting bodies matched a picture of Pixie Cup lichen but then I found that many other lichens have similar structures.  Then I realized that in some photos I had multiple different lichen growing alongside each other.   A Harvard webpage on identifying lichens provided this advice: "By far the best way to start identifying lichens is by attending one or more workshop, course, or field trip led by an experienced lichenologist. It is hard to pick up identification skills on one's own and easy to get onto the wrong track, so beginners should seek help in getting started."

See thousands of lichen photos on Steve Sharnoff's webpage.