Natural Wonders of Michiana
Explore our community's wild side with Natural Wonders of Michiana. This series will feature different trails in the Michiana area for exploring wildflowers, birds, and other wildlife. Check back every Wednesday for a new activity!
Stargazing at Dr. T. K. Lawless International Dark Sky Park
International Dark Sky week is April 5-12, and there's no better way to celebrate than by stargazing at Dr. Lawless Park, which is one of only 130 certified International Dark Sky Places (IDSPs) in the world. Located in Vandalia, Michigan, the park is a 45 minute drive from South Bend, and it's worth the trip. On a clear night, you can see thousands more stars than you can see within city limits, due to the absence of light pollution.
Speaking of light pollution: International Dark Sky Week was established to raise awareness about this modern problem and its impact on wildlife. Did you know that artificial light can negatively impact animals by disrupting migration, hunting, and reproduction? Learn more here.
To celebrate International Dark Sky Week, the park will be open to the public until midnight each night between April 5-10 (weather permitting). The park will also have several special events during the week, including an Astrophotography class on Wednesday, April 7 and a Basic Astronomy class on Saturday, April 10. Call (269) 445-4456 for more information.
Regardless of where you seek the stars, here are some tips for a successful outing:
• Bring a blanket (or two!). You'll have a better view of the stars if you're lying down, and your neck will thank you.
• Wear layers, and err on the side of warmth. What may feel comfortable en route to the park may feel inadequate once you're lying still on the ground. Be prepared by bringing cold weather gear with you.
• Be patient. Human eyes need 20-30 minutes to fully adjust to the dark, and until then, you won't be able to see the full breadth of the stars.
• Put your phone away! It can be tempting to use it as a flashlight, but nearby eyes will adjust to the bright glow of the screen and will need another 20-30 minutes to acclimate to the dark.
Be safe, stay warm, and enjoy the natural wonders of the night sky!
A Great Blue Heron wades in the shallow lake bed. Rain will help stimulate Chamberlain Lake’s aquatic life.
Birdwatching in St. Joseph County Parks
Natural wonders are never far away in Michiana. With lakes, rivers, forests and prairies nearby, the chance to enjoy diverse scenery, animals and plants doesn’t require a long drive. And while we're past the first day of spring, we are still a few weeks away from the lush greening of trees, blooming of flowers, and influx of migratory species. Though it’s still early, signs of spring can definitely be found while birdwatching in some of our St. Joseph County Parks (IN).
Beverly D Crone Restoration Area
This park south of town is a reclaimed landfill, improved with trails and incorporating grasses and trees that provide habitat for a variety of creatures. Birds are using dead grasses and other detritus of winter to begin building nests. Bluebirds, sparrows, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds and several other species are active right now, and wild turkeys have been heard in the distance. Grassland lovers like the meadowlark and bobolink are on their migratory journey and should begin arriving in late April.
Chamberlain Lake Nature Trail
To the west of the city, off Crumstown Highway, the many fallen trees caused by a devastating tornado create a forest architecture like no other. Towering sycamore branches overspread decomposing trunks, but every tree, standing or not, provides shelter, building materials or food for the many inhabitants of this preserve. Daffodil clumps, butterflies, and competing songbirds are sure signs that spring is in the air. Woodpeckers are busy now, and are heard before they are seen. From the little downy to the large pileated, this park may be the woodpecker’s idea of paradise. Follow the easy 1.1 mile trail all the way to Chamberlain Lake, and you may see a Great Blue Heron, ducks, swan or geese. Many birds on the way to Lake Michigan will make Chamberlain Lake one of their stops.
Ferrettie/Baugo Creek County Park
This 214-acre park on the eastern border of the county has several trails that offer a scenic way to enjoy the peaceful creek and hear some lovely birdsong. The trails pass under Lincoln Highway and the railroad tracks, which makes for a unique experience if a train is passing above. Beyond the road noise of the first part of Portage Trail, the woods and creek become the focal points, especially well-appreciated from the vantage point of the bridge. Hawks patrol the skies and cardinals, blue jays, finches and robins provide music in abundance. While not part of the Indiana Birding Trail, the park is home to many enjoyable birds, especially those who prefer access to water and lots of trees and shrubs.
If you’ve never been to these parks, you’ll be amazed how close and convenient they are. Any one of the three can be reached in 20 minutes or less from downtown South Bend. With shorter hiking trails, you can plan a quick outing without a long drive, but still have the chance to see a great variety of species.
To see a full listing of the parks, nature preserves and wildlife areas managed by the St. Joseph County Parks department, go here.
Check out these other great resources for birding in our area:
And to learn almost anything else you need to know about birds, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology here.
Hiking in Potato Creek State Park
The enchanting Potato Creek State Park is right here in St Joseph County, where you can find the 327-acre Worster Lake. This artificial lake was created in 1977 by damming Potato Creek.
Consider taking frequent walks to discover what might be blooming each week. You will find Spring Beauty, Trout Lily, Yellow Violet, Yellow Marsh Marigold, and many others. (The Skunk Cabbage pictured above is one of the first spring wildflowers, and it is blooming in the park right now!)
Worster Lake provides a unique habitat for all sorts of birds. Frequently in spring, you can hear the haunting call of a Common Loon, or spot a Bald Eagle, Osprey, or Blue Heron. People also visit this park to see the Woodcock perform its unique mating ritual.
This park is recognized on the Audubon Indiana Birding Trail guide, which recommends the best trails for birding in the park. It also links the eBird app for Potato Creek, so you can check for recent sightings of particular birds. We highly recommend you visit this park for Spring Renewal!
Exploring the Woods at Rum Village Park
South Bend’s largest city park, Rum Village Park, is a phenomenal treasure which boasts (on their website) 160 acres with 3 miles of hiking trails and everything is free! They are located at 2626 S. Gertrude St., South Bend. Once there, follow the signs to the Nature Center.
Park Naturalist and nature aficionado, Garry Harrington will be sharing the best kept secrets of this local forest during these Sunday walks:
Sunday, March 28 and April 25 at 2:00 pm
Discover beautiful wildflowers, such as Hepatica, Spring Beauty, Trout Lily, Bloodroot, Dutchman’s Breeches, Squirrel Corn, or Trillium
Hear a Barred Owl calling or see a woodpecker drumming a tree
Hear frogs and toads calling
Meet at the Nature Center, which is open from 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm on Sundays (but closed during the nature walk). Registration isn’t required, but you’ll need to wear a face covering and socially distance. Before or after the hike you’re invited to explore the nature center, which features a dozen live native reptiles, amphibians, and fish, and you can also view birds feeding at the feeders.
You can use this guide Common Spring Wildflowers of Indiana State Parks or take advantage of the many nature guides at the library SJCPL Nature Guides as you explore.
Birding at Indiana Dunes
Few places in the midwest can rival the incredible rich diversity of unique species here due to Lake Michigan and the wetland areas formed by the glaciers. We have 370 amazing bird species, many of which are migratory birds.
For an experience you’ll always remember, grab your binoculars and head to the Indiana Dunes during March and April on a warm day to see migrating hawks on the thermals. Contact the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center to find out the latest sighting of birds and where to go to look for them.
Or if you’re up for serendipity, you can use Indiana Dunes Self-Guided Birding.
Don’t wait too long to register for the May 13-16, 2021, Indiana Dunes Birding Festival. Expert guides will be leading field trips, but limited spots fill up quickly.
Are you an outdoor enthusiast? What local trails or natural beauty have you discovered?