Friday, 29 July 2011

Indiana: Yellowwood State Forest

Yesterday I visited Indiana's Yellowwood State Forest, a short drive from Bloomington and one of several forests, parks, and other nature areas to choose from in the vicinity. The park contains a decent-sized manmade lake, and on the way to the trailhead I passed some amazing homes--a strange mixture of lake house, log cabin, and functional farm house, often all rolled in to a single building. It seemed as though everyone had enormous, wooded yards with ponds out front. Yes, I was envious.

Apart from a few residents driving to and from their homes, I was pretty much the only person on the road, and I also seemed to be the only person in the forest--or, at least, mine was the only car parked anywhere near the trailhead. I chose to walk the 4-mile loop known as "Scarce O'Fat" trail. I can't imagine how it came by this name, as it wasn't so difficult that I came back from my walk emaciated, but I suppose this will go down as one of life's little mysteries. You often come by strange names in former frontier areas in the US, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

As I walked, I kept my eye peeled for interesting forest life and activity. Because it was so hot (97 degrees Fahrenheit!), the birds were not singing much and often my own footsteps were the only sound I could hear--until the cicadas started up, that is. I did eventually encounter some ovenbirds, the species whose song was the first I learned to identify many years ago, as well as some woodpeckers and Carolina wrens. I also bumped into a surprising number of rabbits, which I am not used to seeing in the middle of a forest. Invariably, I heard them before I saw them, since they tore off into the undergrowth after hearing my approach. It's amazing how bunnies can sound like a herd of antelope when they are moving quickly enough.

The real action was down on the forest floor, where I encountered several juvenile wood toads:

I kept having to tread very carefully to make sure I wasn't about to squish one underfoot. I reached down to catch this guy for a closer look, and of course the first thing he did was pee all over my hand. Toads and turtles--you always know what to expect. Speaking of turtles, I was on the lookout for some box turtles, as well as snakes, but these toads were the only herp that I managed to find.

I did, however, notice this brilliant green caterpillar being mobbed by yellowjackets:

I am by no means an expert in lepidopterans, so I have no idea what this is; all I know is, this is the sort of caterpillar that turns into a giant, fuzzy adult moth. Or would, if it weren't in this case about to be killed by wasps. If I weren't so terrified of being stung, I would have tried to rescue the caterpillar and place it somewhere safe, but it took all of my bravery just to get close enough for a photograph. I can't help but wonder why the yellowjackets are so mad at a caterpillar--maybe it accidentally crawled too close to their hive?

As the evening began to encroach, a new set of animals became active, and for the first time ever I ran into raccoons in the wild (e.g., not sorting through trash or begging for food in an anthropogenic environment):

One raccoon was halfway up a tree when I walked around a bend; its friend was still on the ground and dashed off to a hiding place once it saw me. For the briefest of moments, before the climber looked around the tree trunk and I could see its mask and white eyebrows clearly through the forest gloom, I worried that I was looking at a black bear cub whose mother was about to show up and read me the riot act. Then I realized I was in Indiana, and that was highly unlikely. Perhaps my paranoia stemmed from recently hearing in the news about the survival school students out west who were mauled by a female grizzly bear who was protecting her young. Luckily my raccoons were not nearly that aggressive.

Of course, the least aggressive of all is botanical wildlife, and I did have some good sightings. Best of all was several saplings of the sassafras tree, my all-time favorite plant. On the same childhood hike where I learned the ovenbird song, I also heard the myth about how the sassafras came by its three different leaf shapes, and I fell permanently in love. (Parents, let this be a lesson: Expose your children to nature early, and with the right guide, and they will love it forever.)

The first thing I found was a gall:

These are produced by plants, in this case a tree, reacting to infection by parasites, bacteria, fungi, etc. I believe this one may be a wasp gall, produced by host trees after female wasps lay their eggs on/in the plant. The larvae munch around as they develop, and then eventually hatch out, which is what causes desiccated galls like this to drop to the ground (I think--my understanding of all this insect and plant biology is a bit fuzzy, I admit). Galls always remind me of the botany treasure hunt I proctored in grad school; one of the items on the list was insect galls, and many students had never seen them before, and/or felt very uncomfortable picking them up, for fear that something nasty would pop out and attack them.

I also stumbled across a collection of the smallest mushrooms I have ever seen:

There must have been thousands of them covering the base of this tree. If I remember my botany correctly, this type of mushroom--with a cap--is in the phylum Basidiomycota. Both within the forest and at its edges, I passed by a familiar Midwestern wildflower: the touch-me-not, also colloquially known as the jewelweed:

The latter name stems, obviously, from the brightness of their coloration, which often practically seems to glow from amidst all the dark green leafiness around each flower. The former name is a result of the fact that these plants eject their seeds by a process known as "elastic dehiscence": in other words, they spew them out forcefully, all in one go. Passers-by can trigger this process with even the gentlest touch, sending the seeds as far as four feet through the air. The first time I remember seeing this wildflower was in my own yard, where I often encountered it during my childhood. We also had forget-me-nots, and the similarity between names caused me always to have trouble remembering which was which, even though they look very different (forget-me-nots are blue). Interestingly, the species pictured above is actually a member of the Impatiens family, and so is related to the many ornamental flowers planted elsewhere in my parents' yard.

Near the end of the trail, I discovered some rough-hewn forest furniture that someone must have made out of toppled trees:

Talk about making the best of a bad situation--you lose some lovely plants, but you make some seats from which to enjoy the view of what remains. It certainly was a nice view, too--very lush, despite the incredibly hot and dry summer that Indiana is having. Yellowwood was certainly worth the 1-hour drive, round trip, and my hike there was 2 hours well spent--definitely more fun than sitting through 2 more hours of conference talks!

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