Virtual Ranger Hike on Heron Rookery Trail

Indiana Dunes National Park


Good morning, and welcome to Indiana Dunes National Park and our Virtual Ranger Hike Series. I am Kim Swift, and I am here at the Heron Rookery Trail. I am starting this morning at the west end parking lot in the west end of this about a-mile-and-a-half one-way trail that goes along the Little Calumet River, but the reason I'm here this morning is to explore and to do a little botanizing.

So what is botanizing? Well, it's what bird-watching is for folks who love birds, right, but I am out here looking at wildflowers. So I have a few tools here with me. I brought my handy Newcomb's guide to help me identify some of these wildflowers, and I have my trusty camera because that's what I like to do when I come out, and I brought a few, you know, supplies with me. I've sprayed up with some tick and mosquito repellent because this is tick season. We're here in mid and late April and early May. This is a great time to come out here for this trail, but it's also a really great time for the insects to be emerging.

So I like to come prepared, as you can see, and spend a morning out here, and it's just gorgeous. The birds are singing and the sunshine is coming through to the forest floor, and I'd like to invite you to come along with me and let's see what's going here at the Heron Rookery Trail. So, are you geared up? Are you ready to go? Alright, let's hit the trail.

So the trick to good botanizing, I think is to bring a book. I like Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. That's what I was taught with and I enjoy using it. And, I gotta tell ya, you can only go botanizing with other people who like to botanize 'cause I'll tell ya I've brought friends out and family members out on the trail, and they get a little tired of me stopping every few feet. 'Cause here I am, on this trail, and I barely left the parking lot, and I am surrounded by all kinds of cool wildflowers. So, if you really like doing this, I would recommend coming on your own, at least when you get started because it takes some time and you really have to take the time to get to know these wildflowers.

And again there's so many to get to know. Here's my tip and the way that I go about trying to identify using the Newcomb's guide, and I'll use this beautiful white flower here as a good example. The first thing you got to do is take a look at the flower and distinguish what type of flower, and it tells you right here at the beginning of the guide how to do this. So, you count how many regular parts it has as well. In this case, this white flower has one, two, three, regular petals.

And I can see here from the other ones that it's the same, one, two, three. So then, I'm gonna go here to flowers with three regular parts and that's number three. Now, what plant type is it? Does it have leaves? Are the leaves just at the base?

Are the leaves alternate? Are the leaves whorled? Well, in this case, look at these leaves. They are all three-clasped and whorled around the stem around the petal. So, this would be another wildflower with opposite of whorled leaves. And then, when you go down to leaf type, are their leaves at all? Are the leaves entire? Meaning that they don't have any sharp edges. Or, are the leaves toothed or lobed or are the leaves divided? So, in this case I would say that the leaves are entire, so that's number two. So then that tells me that I have a three, and I have a four, and I have a two in here.

And so, I can go to the next section of the book and I can look for wildflowers with that numeric designation, three, four, two. And it tells me to go to page 124.

Let's see if this works. Sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes it does. Because I kind of know what this plant is, so this makes it a little bit easier for me. And look at this, voila! Newcomb's is right. We are looking at a large flower trillium. So it's a fun way to figure out what some of these wildflowers are if you bring out your Newcomb's guide and just get to know some of these really cool plants that are out here. And this trail is the perfect place to do it.

Nice. Oh hi.

So I'm taking a picture of this beautiful yellow shiny-petaled flower right here, and I think, actually, I've helped to identify what this plant is because it's shiny almost oily- looking almost like, maybe, butter. Does it make you think of? It does me, and I believe this is a buttercup. But also to keep on our theme of butter, I've just noticed, hopping along the bank here of the little Calumet River, a bird that has a really bright yellow rump and it's called the yellow-rumped warbler or as one of my good friends likes to call them, butter butts.

So I'm wondering as I'm looking around at this amazing carpet of wildflowers here at the Heron Rookery Trail, why are there so many flowers blooming right now and why here? That's kind of got me pondering a little bit and, so I'm posing that question to you, and maybe you can help me answer it. Or, maybe as I hike along this trail I might find some clues as I go along. So, let's see what we can find as we keep on walking.

So, as I've been pondering this question hiking along here, I think I've seen a few clues. You know the first clue is the river and that's pretty obvious, right. I'm seeing all kinds of impacts of this river rising and falling periodically throughout the year overflowing its banks, streams flowing into the river, and all of this is bringing lots of new soil and nutrients into this plain. That's this floodplain here on both sides of the river, and you can see the wildflowers just extend on the other side of the bank as well, and they extend way into these woods very deeply all around the river. And it occurred to me we do have a couple other places in the park where these spring-early wildflowers bloom in a large profusion like this. And the two of them I think of right away are the Upland Trail, which is at Pinhook Bog, and near Pinhook Bog, which again is in a rich clay loamy soil that is from the moraines of the last glacial period, right. And so that soil is much richer and much deeper than some of the other areas of the park.

And then the other place is also along the Little Calumet River just farther downstream, Chellberg Farm and Bailey Homestead. You can also see these really great wildflowers blooming along that Little Calumet River Trail. So, I think part of our answer about why here is this river. The Little Calumet River helps feed this and helps to provide good nutrients into the soil along this area here. Now to answer the question "why now," I think that's also kind of obvious that you look at where I see all this sunlight coming into these woods right now. The leaves have not come out on all these trees, right.

We have a real good rich woods here, which is also another clue as to why here. We have black cherries, and we have beech trees, and we have sycamores, all growing in these woodlands. But they haven't leafed out yet, so lots of sunlight is reaching the ground, and so, these little wildflowers are taking advantage of that, right? That's why they're called spring ephemerals. They come up for a short time, and they take advantage of this light that is hitting at the forest floor before all the leaves come out, and this is is just a great opportunity for us to be able to witness this amazing display of wildflowers right here and right now.

So I've been returning here to the Heron Rookery every year for twenty years that I've worked here, and so I've come to feel like these are friends that return, and I come to greet them in the early spring days. And so, I have gotten to know them and know little features about them, and you will too if you come and get to know them and learn about them using some of these guides. And so, as I sit here on this log, I can greet a number of them by just looking right here at my feet. So, we have bloodroot, the flower has already finished, but the leaf is very distinctive, this really large kind of low lobed leaf in here of the bloodroot.

Then we also have the spring beauties, again easy to identify with its really simple leaves coming up at the bottom and really pretty honey guides, I call them, that lead the insects right to the center where the nectar are. If we kind of look around on this side, hepatica is just finishing up this very distinctive shaped leaf with the different colorations in it helps me I know that this is a hepatica. And the hairy stems on the flower also, not that one, this one, the hairy stems on this flower kind of give me a clue that that's my friend hepatica. Now this one is just getting ready to bloom. This is lovely solomon seal, and in a week or two these little green buds will open up and have white bell-shaped flowers. And I know this is the solomon seal, which is a little different from some of its cousins because it has those flowers hanging under this tall stem here. So, say hi to all these friends just right here. It's really great to see them again.

Oh look at this here's the prairie trillium in full bloom. Remember the large flowered white trillium we saw earlier? Well here's its cousin. And again, you can see some of the common features, three leaves, three petals, the leaves all in a whorl, but obviously some differences here in that the leaves are modeled and the flower itself is more of a red and deep purple. But this is what we call prairie trillium. So this is some more evidence of that rise and fall of the river here, right, you can see we're overflowed its banks. It's created quite a mess and as well as the streams kind of flowing out into the river have been rising - with all of these nice spring rains that that we have.

And it really is true right, April showers bring May flowers. And in this case it brings a lot of mud as well. So be sure and wear your good boots when you come out here and not your good hiking shoes.

Oh goodness, look at this display. There's all kinds of spring beauties, buttercups, violets, and some of the ruanemone that we had identified before all on this hillside. Not to mention, I also see some of the prairie trillium up there, and I see some geranium, they are getting ready to bloom as well. What a glorious display.

So this wildflower here doesn't need a book, really, because it's so distinctive. These long stalks here with these really adorable little flowers, that if you use your imagination can you see some pants? Maybe? Or, pantaloons or breeches as they used to be called. That's the clue for this plants name. We call them Dutchman's breeches, and it's a really sweet wildflower that comes up here in profusion.

And this, the leaflet kind of has this fern-like look to it and is very distinctive and easy to identify. Not a lot of them left. We're kind of at the end of their blooming profusion, but there's still lots of other things to identify just right here. Again we have more of our prairie trillium that we've talked about, spring beauties, and then oh, look right here. Here's one that we've missed, but it's really fun. The trout lily has a little yellow or white flower that comes up. Again, we're past the prime of it, but that leaf is so distinctive I guess some folks think it looks like maybe the color of trout and the pattern that a trout has on it. And that kind of takes us back to our river because the trout are running right now in the Little Calumet River.

So, I just love sycamore trees. I think it's their bark, really, that fascinates me because it changes as you go up the tree, and it gets whiter at the top. Almost looks like a bone. Like, bones and other colors and patterns of the bark are really fun to notice. And different ages of the trees look very different. The other cool thing about sycamore trees is that they tend to get hollowed out in the center, so a lot of animals take advantage of that and make their homes in sycamore trees, owls, squirrels, raccoons. So, it's always fun to see who else may be enjoying our sycamore trees out here. And this little Calumet River bank is a great home to the sycamores. They like their their roots to be wet and they like water, so you don't see them too often in other places in our park except along this trail.

So, I hope you haven't really enjoyed this little hike that we've done today on the Heron Rookery Trail. This is a great time of year to be out here, but actually any time of the year you can enjoy the Heron Rookery Trail. It's a great path for hiking, for exploring, bird-watching, fishing. A lot of folks do take advantage of the river and catch a lot of really cool fish in this area too. My interest is botanizing and wildflowers, but maybe yours is something else.

Regardless, we have something for you here at Indiana Dunes National Park and with all of our different trails, so I hope to see you on another one soon.


Ranger Kim leads a hike down the Heron Rookery Trail during the amazing wildflower bloom. Learn how to identify wildflowers and discover the mystery of their ephemeral appearance in this beautiful hike.


18 minutes, 39 seconds


Indiana Dunes National Park

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