Welcome to the lake front you never knew!

Lake Michigan. One of the largest fresh water lakes in the world and an engine that has driven, and in some cases still does, the growth of its many surrounding communities. Lake Michigan is also home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife both within its waters and on its coasts. For most of us in the Chicago region a free and public lake front has more or less always been there and we tend to take it for granted. On top of this the dominant habitat type, dunes, are popularly percieved as just big heaps of sand. This blog is about that slice of Chicago Wilderness which is Lake Michigan and the wonderful gifts of nature it contains both just beyond the waterfront and beneath the surf.

If you've been to any of these locations or would like to recommend/request a location for me to go and check out, please do speak up and comment on any post!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Lost Adventure (Part 3 of 3)


      Pretty abruptly the habitat and terrain changed yet again. Now the trail became hilly, being former dunes. This area became more oak (Quercus sp.) dominated and it also where I came across this odd ball…
This hash-brown of a plant actually stumped me from my discovering it until about a week from my writing this post. It is a non-photosynthetic parasite called Squaw or Cancer Root (Conopholis Americana). After finding the first one, I got a big head and thought I had found some rare late succession dune plant. I continued feeling high for about 50 yards when I saw this…

…maybe not so rare. But it was still really cool and new to me so I still felt high. It was also in this area, which is near the end of the trail, that I came across a raging stream. Even though it was just a creek, it was rushing very fast and the sound carried for some distance. Let me put this in perspective though. The day after this trip occurred it rained hard again. I returned to the area briefly during summer and discovered that the sturdy wood bridge which the trail crossed the creek with had been washed away. At this time it was nearly 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep, fast running, and impossible to see through. When I made my summer check back, it was a whopping one foot wide, two inches deep and the entire creek bed was visible.
Besides spending way too much time marveling at the water (I’ve got a thing for running water) the whole pocket created created by winding dunes, dense old growth trees, and the creek was absolutely serene. It was this location that inspired what was to be the original title, “A Slice of Paradise.”
      Honestly of all the trips I took this felt like the longest. But soon I made my way back to the train, classes, and society. I really had no idea this would be my last trip to the IN dunes to date but I think it was quite satisfactory, even fitting, as a finale to the first chapter of my adventures on the shores of Lake Michigan and this blog. While I will be returning (as frequently as I can) I intend to shift the focus of this blog northward. Illinois dunes in the northernmost suburbs of Chicago are very different in character from those to the south of Chi town in Indiana but no less interesting, exciting, and (for most of us) new. I hope you enjoyed reading and I look forward to bringing you the next wave of adventures.

See you in the field!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Lost Adventure (Part 2 of 3)


      Early on I came to some curious clearings. For no clear reason, there was a sudden open sandy area with a single tree growing in the center with the outer rim host to a variety of ferns. What’s more, there were multiple! Even with my skill for making really good guesses at interpreting natural phenomena, I was stumped here. There is no readily apparent reason for these erratics within the forest. Certain areas throughout the trail were denser than others and as a result the trails and surrounding soil had a different character.
In one of the darker areas but with a healthy undergrowth I got a treat. I spotted two wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) skulking along. By the time I had spotted them, they spotted me and were already high tailing it away. I wasn’t able to act fast enough to pull out my camera. It may seem silly to get excited about seeing Turkeys but actual wild Turkeys are very different from domesticated ones. Most of the time you see them in flocks or on pastures. The true turkey though is solitary or with a partner roaming the forest floor. When you see them in this natural state of being, it truly is magical.
      Gradually the going got tougher as several sections of trail were either water logged and muddy or covered by running water forcing reroutes and log hopping. There were also some of the more spectacular areas with the interplay of dimmed light, mosaic canopies, and damp undergrowth of the last spring hold overs. Before long I reached areas where trails, being the low area, had become drainage canals for the hyper saturated soil which literally bled water. You can see that in action in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6i9eln9YrdA

To Be Continued

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Lost Adventure (Part 1 of 3)

      This blog post is the tale of the last Indiana Dunes adventure I took before the 2010/2011 academic year ended and the summer of 2011 commenced. Due to a combination of looming finals, piled up school work, and year-end/summer preparations this trip’s account was never written, I hadn’t even taken the time to weed through the photos I took!
Taking place on May 26th, 2011, the original title was to be “A Slice of Paradise.” I’m not completely sure what possessed me now, several months later, to revisit this untold adventure. Like ancient texts which are usually found in fragments that tell partial stories, there isn’t much that I can use to reconstruct the things that I saw that day other than fond memories and a mess of pictures but the point of this blog is to share the beauties I’ve seen. So even if it’s fragmentary and incomplete, it’s still worth sharing.

      It is important to preface the whole thing with the information that it had been raining the past two days and the night of my arrival was the heaviest downpour. I don’t have any pictures or memories of my arrival the night before so it must have been pretty un-noteworthy as is often the case. So the day of exploration begins at the Dunewood campground which is the national park’s camp. At the end of the campground is a trail head that leads to the Lycokiwee trail which is what I would be traversing all the way to the Dune Park train station. The trail itself winds along the back edge of the Indiana dunes farthest from the lake. So while there’s still a sand foundation, the area is completely dominated by late succession woodlands. It also skirts the main high way through the national park but you very rarely see or hear its presence. The morning arrived without much event. The sound of birds was lacking mostly due to the great amount of moisture still filling the atmosphere. Even though sunrise was well past and it was effectively no
longer raining, the cloud cover still shrouded the woods in a perpetual, gentle darkness. Nearly every area was saturated or flooded to some degree. Low areas were constantly draining into lower areas in a gradual progression to near by creeks or marshes. The first segment of trail was fairly solid with multiple underpasses for water so hiking was easy.

To Be Continued

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Different Directions (Part 4 of 4)


       Before long, you approach the final dune which is built on a foundation of willows creating a fence along the ridge of the dune forcing you to walk around. But once they are crossed, you emerge on the beach, home of Sea Rocket (Cakile edentula) and Pig Weed (Amaranthus sp.) our own native tumble weed! In the fall you can see this pink plant break off at the base and bounce along the tops of the dune vegetation.
This is also the place where any shorebird that's possible to see in the Chicago region, can be seen whether it’s the increasingly rare Red Knot (Calidris canutus), a striking American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana), the rebounding Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), or a Willet (Tringa semipalmata). You will always have a guaranteed Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) or Spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia) on any day. I also neglect to mention that just beyond the beach are phalaropes, huge rafts of ducks during winter such as both Mergus mergansers and all Athya ducks that when viewed through a telescope literally blacken the already dark and treacherous looking lake. Occasional Bald Eagles (Haliaetus leucocephalus) and Osprey (Pandion halietus), plus a wide range of gulls/terns and rails also grace our shores in cameo sightings (excepting herring and ring-billed gulls which are always present).
       So half of this was bits of the adventure I did take on the above date and the other half is shameless promotion of a site I’ve come to love deeply. Whether you’re a nature person of any kind it doesn’t really matter; it’d be a shame for this treasure to be unknown to you and not be visited at least once.
There has been one thing running consistent through this blog, beauty, and Montrose Point has it. It may not be the same as some of these larger and natural state places I’ve been to thus far but for the distance and for a place that was birthed by a few committed bird watchers and stewards, Montrose is a miracle…“A Forgotten Treasure.”

Thanks for reading. See you in the field!

Edward Warden

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Different Directions (Part 3 of 4)


       Passing beyond the aforementioned oak grove, a path and wall of large limestone blocks separates the hedge from the dunes. After indulging your natural urge to hop from stone to stone, which are so big you’d think they came from the pyramids, a sand prairie opens.
Bordered by a break-wall on the south end and a fence splitting the area from a public beach to the north, the fairly large prairie is dominated by the dark pink little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum). The resulting short and sparse grassland is also dotted by young native black oaks which are a recent introduction here. At this point you can hear the lake breaking on the beach but still cannot see it due to the first, and largest, dune covered by towering Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides). The break wall to the south creates a unique situation where water splashing over on high wind days creates a calm wetland and frequently is the favorite location of shorebirds who scavenge what has been tossed there by the waves.
       Once you crest the cottonwood dune the habitat changes into one dominated by marram grass (Ammophila arenaria). The small ridges throughout are dense with vegetation in contrast to the just exited prairie though also short in nature. The low area that ensues frequently becomes flooded and in some areas is swamped by horse tail (Equisetum arvense) and various small rushes (Juncus sp.) as indicators along with different species of goldenrod (Solidago sp.), silverweed (Argentina anserina), and a plethora of other plants making it a veritable botanic paradise. Within some of these ridges also resides some more unique wildlife ranging from Seaside Sparrows (Ammodramus ), Sedge Wrens (Cistothorus platensis), Pipits (Anthus rubescens), Meadowlarks (Sturnella sp.), transient owls such as Short-eared (Asio flammeus) and Snowy (Nyctea scandiaca), a slew of different insects, and a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) pair that one year successfully raised 4 pups. In this last case, I distinctly remember my first time seeing them and it was the first time I’d see any Fox at all. It was sunset and I was about to abandon my attempts to find them when a fox ran out to the peak ridge of a dune and began to sit and watch out across the public beach. While I stood awe struck by the beautiful creature who’s coat was only accentuated by the red hued sky, 3 grey pups emerged and began playing under the protection of their parent. It was a shot out of Nature or a wilderness documentary but right there in front of me, in Chicago of all places! I didn’t have a camera that day but the memory will never fade; I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.

To Be Continued

Monday, August 15, 2011

Different Directions (Part 2 of 4)

       There are basically two entrances to the magic hedge: one from just beyond the back of the beach house, and the other further on down the road toward the harbor pier. Either one will lead you straight through a tall, dense fence of berry trees to a larger than expected savannah. When you emerge, the first impression you get is probably one of the African savannah with a large field of golden grass and flowers with huge solitary trees scattered throughout.
The entire expanse is surrounded by thickets of naturally small trees preventing you from either hearing or seeing the lake which you know is close by. Some edges are dominated by sumac (Rhus sp.) and their scarlet drapes of fruit which in most cases are not actually poisonous.
There are also large stands of dogwoods (Cornus sp.) and young ash’s (Fraxinus sp.) which create a low, dark and intimate canopy above short undergrowth making the perfect home for thrushes. Venture into this later area and you are able to find one of the most breathtaking natural views; a bird speckled, golden prairie fading into the rolling black Chicago skyline. Just before the beach another stand of trees but of the larger variety (primarily Oaks) dominates and creates a minor woods area that is also home to huge silk nests of tent caterpillars in the spring.
       This entire area is what’s called the magic hedge. As habitat of this type, mostly prairie and savannah, it’s not exactly exemplary. There is a good number of weeds/invasives, diversity is not exceptional and as a result doesn’t have a lot in the way of permanent, resident wildlife. But due to its location abnormally jutting out into the lake and sheltering landscape, it is a stopover magnet for migrating birds. As a result, it (along with the dune area) is doubtless the premier bird watching spot in Chicago hosting nearly every bird that has ever graced the city and frequently having first (and sometimes only) time records for the city. http://theorniphile.info/montrose.html
To Be Continued

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Different Directions (Part 1 of 4)


       I should start off by saying that perhaps doing a blog post about this location is a little unfair. Montrose Beach bird sanctuary (also called the magic hedge) and dunes. Unlike every other site I’ve gone to and subsequently written about, I have already been here many times. I have thoroughly explored both the flora, the fauna, and the habitat in general. I’ve actually seen the dunes shift due to the frequency of my visits. Not only that, but I have a pretty deep personal attachment already in place since a great deal of my first time and life sightings of both animals and plants has occurred here. And on top or all this, it also one of the most well documented natural areas within the Chicago Park District system and most of the info is readily available.

So why write about this place?

       Well, just like the other dune restoration projects I reviewed on the south side of the city, it does deserve some time in the light of this blog. But on top of that, I can also safely say this is one of the most gorgeous, amazing, biologically diverse, and easily accessible sites you can visit right in the heart of this metropolis. It is also the first such attempt at turning a public municipal beach into a sanctuary of this sort and its success is the model for all other dune projects undertaken within the city. It deserves to be brought to your attention.
To Be Continued