Week Ending June 22, 2014

This week got off to an early start. At 4:30 AM on Monday I had to get up, and I was headed down the road from Ely, MN at about 5 AM towards Indiana. Of course, the weekend's dreary weather had gone away, and been replaced by beautiful sunny weather for my day in the car. I drove down Highway 1 & Highway 2 to the North Shore of Lake Superior, seeing what I believe was a Long-tailed Weasel on the way that ran across the road carrying what appeared to be a small bird. This was the extent of the wildlife I saw til I reached the shore, where I did see a couple of White-tailed Deer along the roadway. I decided not to stop at the state parks nearby, just so that I could get a little more driving done early. However, when I got into Wisconsin, it was still so nice out that I stopped at Amnicon Falls State Park for the first time. I got here about 7:30 AM, and just parked along the river that flows through the park (the Amnicon River). The falls & rapids are all very close to the entry road so I didn't have to walk very far. Seeing it for the first time, it was quite a beautiful section of river, very similar to the rivers on the north shore that also flow into Lake Superior. I walked along the rapids and falls for a half hour or so, hearing mainly Chestnut-sided Warblers but not actually seeing any. I left and got back on the road, and did eventually make it to my mom's house in Indiana by about 4 PM after traveling I-80 instead of I-290 to avoid the 15 odd dollars in tolls there. 

Wild Rose at Plum Creek Nature Preserve!

On Tuesday, I was pretty exhausted when I got up. We had wanted to get down to Turkey Run State Park, about 100 miles south of Munster, but the weather didn't seem to be warranting the drive, and my mom had to be back early evening for an appointment. So I used this as an opportunity instead to get my oil changed since I'd already put about 3000 miles on my car since I'd left Virginia. After getting that taken care of, and not wanting to burn a day, my mom & I went for a hike at nearby Plum Creek Nature Preserve just across the Illinois border from Dyer & off of Route 30. The last time I was at this preserve, I was pretty young, but I do remember it being in either the fall or spring, with little foliage, and I remember vividly sitting still in the woods while my dad walked a large circle around me, and chased a Ring-necked Pheasant right by me, one of the few I've ever seen up close. This time, I didn't see or hear any pheasants, but my mom & I did see a surprising amount of wildlife that I wasn't expecting. When I go to Minnesota, I expect to see a lot of wildlife, just because it is very forested, and very uninhabited. When I'm in Indiana, I don't, just because of the number of people, and the environment being very suburban. But I have to say that there was actually plenty here this trip. Right away, we saw a Common Yellowthroat, several Eastern Bluebirds, some Black-capped Chickadees, and also my first of the year Rose-breasted Grosbeak (a female).

Unknown species of butterfly/moth at Plum Creek Nature Preserve.

Walking along the well maintained trails, we also sighted quite a few White-tailed Deer, which all appeared to be in quite healthy shape. The ones I'd seen in Minnesota were all very skinny, showing ribs through their hide, either from the rough winter, or just having birthed fawns. Either way, this was not the case in Indiana, a very healthy group of deer must have had plenty to feed on even in this bad winter. Also along the trail, we got another unexpected surprise, my mom spotted a Red Fox running down the trail quite a ways off that I hadn't even noticed. We tried taking a second trail to get us closer to where it looked to have dove into the woods, but we never did get a chance to relocate it. This trail traveled across a meadow where I saw several Indigo Buntings, and even more bluebirds. I also could hear a number of other species that I couldn't identify. I thought perhaps some orioles might be present just based on the habitat but never did see any unfortunately. Walking back along the same trail we saw even more deer, which must be quite common in the preserve. Since the weather was very very muggy and about 85-90 degrees, we kept the walk fairly short and headed back to the parking area, finding some Barn Swallows feeding nearby.

A Blue Jay looking for an easy meal in the picnic area at Turkey Run State Park.

On Wednesday, the forecast was for more rain in northwest Indiana so we followed through with our original plan from yesterday and drove south to Turkey Run State Park. Turkey Run is probably my mom's favorite park in the area, and its a beautiful place. Sugar Creek, a tributary of the larger Wabash River, flows through the park and is usually filled with canoeists & tubers. The trails through the park follow along the river, and the smaller creeks that feed it, most of which travel through deep canyons before emptying into the shallow wash of the larger Sugar Creek. The downside to Turkey Run is that it is about 2 to 2.5 hours away from Munster, so we got there around 10 AM, and grabbed lunch right off the bat. While eating, we had a Red-headed Woodpecker poking around over us, and a Blue Jay & Eastern Chipmunk also came in probably looking for food. When we hit the trails it was pretty hot & humid again like yesterday, but the sun was out fortunately. We walked the trails we usually enjoy, crossing the pedestrian suspension bridge and then heading up the canyon to the Punch Bowl. There was a surprising amount of families walking, I guess because school recently got out, but once past the Punch Bowl it really cleared out, this just happens to be one of the most popular hikes because you get to walk up the creekbed, and it gets pretty interesting trying to stay dry as the creek runs swiftly over sandstone in increasingly tighter spots. Throughout the canyon we saw a number of swallows, and heard some Pileated Woodpeckers, but the crowds probably kept the birds at bay. After we saw the Punch Bowl, which is just a small waterfall where the creek begins its run in the canyon, we headed up to higher ground. Here a family was watching as a rather large Eastern Ratsnake was climbing a fallen tree. Nearby I got some shots of some Chipmunks, which fortunately for them, were far enough away from the snake to not get caught. The trail continues on the high ground, going up and down a lot of stairs before reaching the head of another deep canyon. Here the trail goes down through a series of 3 ladders that are bolted to the canyon sides. It was amazing to feel the temperature gradient change between the top and bottom of the canyon. It had to be at least 20 degrees cooler at the bottom which was a wonderful shift. In this canyon as well, there was a number of swallows flying around, probably Bank Swallows I think. We continued down the canyon until we reached the banks of Sugar Creek again then headed upstream along the shore.

Eastern Garter Snake along Sugar Creek at Turkey Run State Park.

My mom got quite a scare near here as she jumped upon seeing an Eastern Garter Snake cruise out from it's hiding spot near the trail. I somehow missed it completely and had walked right by, but fortunately hearing her jump got me a chance to photograph it before it disappeared completely. Moving further upstream you head up about a hundred stairs and top out high over the river, giving a great viewpoint. From there, the trail descends slowly and returns to the suspension bridge area. Here my mom crossed and went up to the visitor's center while I kept going upstream. I made a loop from there to the far east end of the park, crossing the river, and then going back downstream to the bridge before going back up to the parking area. Along the way I saw a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches, and American Crows. I also heard a number of woodpeckers but didn't get any shots. At the far east end, you cross on a covered bridge, which gives you a look towards the new roadway bridge not far away. There was a number of swallow nests built up on the underside of the roadway bridge, and after shooting a lot of photos, I could finally tell that these were Cliff Swallow nests, which was the first new life bird I got to add on my trip! I believe I also captured some shots of Bank Swallows, a bird I know I've seen before, but have  never properly identified upon seeing. This should be another one to add to my list. The standard songbirds lit the rest of the path for me walking back to reunite with my mother, Northern Cardinals, American Robins and Tufted Titmice were all over. At the visitor's center, they have a nice wildlife observation room with a number of feeders just outside the glass. We saw Brown-headed Cowbirds, American Goldfinches, and a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as well, which now that reminds me I did see a hummer in the first canyon we walked early on as well. After that we headed back up to Munster, pretty soaked from the heat & humidity, but another 2 birds on my life list richer.

A beautiful little Common Yellowthroat seen at Plum Creek Nature Preserve.

Friday was the next day I was able to get out, though Thursday & Friday both were overcast days. Again with the weather looking like rain, my mom & I just did another trip to Plum Creek Nature Preserve and yet again saw an unusually high number of wildlife. Just like the last time, we saw a Common Yellowthroat right away, though this time I was able to get good photographs of it as it incessantly jumped from shrub to shrub trying to avoid me. We also got some great looks nearby of more White-tailed Deer, finding a pair of fawns still showing off their white spots as well. No fox sightings this time, but we again followed the same path as before, and when we reached the meadows area, my mom finally got to see a beautiful Indigo Bunting flying around & perching in a tree. Also nearby was a number of Eastern Bluebirds, and also a very chatty House Wren, both of which were probably the same birds we had seen the last outing in the preserve. Returning to the woods from the meadow, we saw more deer, and had a pair of Turkey Vultures fly in right near us and perch on a long branch about 20 feet off the ground. Its amazing how big these birds look when you get to see their wings spread so close, and I still think they're beautiful birds even though many will state that their naked heads make them offputting. The weather continued its hot & humid assault, making that something like five days straight. We did see some rain in the distance but never received any right over us fortunately. On the route back towards the car I saw an Eastern Wood-Pewee, a number of dragonflies, some damselfies (the same beautiful turquoise & black ones I've seen in North Carolina), and even more deer. By the end I think we saw 5 adult deer, and a pair of fawns for a total of 7 on the day, many more than I'll typically see while out on my typical Virginia hikes. Saturday I did get out for about 4 miles of walking, but just around the neighborhood I grew up in Munster, of which my mom did the first 2 mile loop.

One of the many White-tailed Deer encountered at Plum Creek Nature Preserve.

To be honest I was just all around exhausted from the 2 weeks straight of taking photographs and being outdoors so it was nice to just get back and relax on my final day. Sunday I left at 4 AM from Munster and headed back to Virginia. The 950 mile ride is pretty gorgeous this time of year, with the mountains of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and western Virginia completely greened up & of course I got a beautiful blue sky to drive under. I opted not to revisit the site of the Purple Gallinule sightings in Waynesboro, VA, thinking that maybe I'll get my shot next weekend with Ruth if we get up to the mountains, but I'll have to see how I feel after all this driving. I made it back to Virginia Beach at about quarter after 6 PM, which with the loss of an hour for time zones, made it a 13 hour drive, much faster than I've ever done it before somehow, perhaps it was due to the 2 stops for about 10 minutes or less each time to gas up, hit the bathroom, and eat more or less simultaneously. Unfortunately with my arrival back home, my vacation was finally at an end, but I was very happy to get home to see Ruth & to enjoy my special welcome home dinner of homemade fried chicken. That was the closest thing to wildlife I really got to see on the day, and definitely the most delicious.

A rather large Turkey Vulture perched low to the ground at Plum Creek Nature Preserve.