Man in the Limberlost: A side trip to Indiana

The “Jersey Birder” title of this site notwithstanding, I do venture out of the Garden State on occasion and sneak in a bit of birding as time allows. Last week, I drove to Michigan for some family matters that involved a jaunt to the northeast quadrant of Indiana.

I had done some online scouting from home but had little luck figuring out a hot spot near where I’d be staying until I actually got to Indiana. There, a Google search brought up the Indiana Birding Trail website, which has an interactive map that led me to the Limberlost Swamp Conservation Area only a few miles from where I was staying.

The name “Limberlost” immediately clicked in memory. From childhood, I knew about “A Girl of the Limberlost” by Gene Stratton-Porter. Although I’d never read the book, I may have seen a movie adaptation on TV, and Porter’s work was discussed during a class I took in graduate school.

The Limberlost Swamp was the setting for Porter’s “Girl of the Limberlost” and other novels, based in large measure on her experiences growing up and spending much of her life exploring the swamp. In the motel, I read up on Porter and found on Project Gutenberg the text of her first novel, “The Song of the Cardinal,” which is centered in the Limberlost Swamp.

A section of trail in the Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve.

At that point, there was no question I would head to the Limberlost. I struck out the next morning to the nearest entry point, the Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve. I arrived about 9:20 a.m. That was a bit late to observe peak morning bird activity, but how hard can it be to find a cardinal?

Harder than I expected.

Although I passed a marsh that had scores of Canada geese, most birds were shy that morning. Other than several Canada geese on the wing, in my roughly 1.5-mile round-trip stroll I recorded only two blue jays and a tufted titmouse, and I got one out-of-focus shot of it before it flew off. A sparrow dashed by but tucked into tall grasses before I could identify the variety.

I decided to move on and head to the town of Geneva and the Gene Stratton-Porter Historic Site, which proved to be an unexpected joy. The site includes the “cabin” home where Stratton-Porter, her husband and daughter lived for many years. I was even more fortunate to chance upon Jeanne the guide, who gave a few other visitors and me a delightful tour of the property and a thorough and fascinating account of Stratton-Porter, a remarkable author, naturalist and photographer whose life wrapped around the turn of the 20th century.

There’s plenty of information about her online, but I must mention that Stratton-Porter is an inspiration for all of us birders who take photographs. Stratton-Porter taught herself photography, including demanding darkroom work, a necessity when the publisher of her nature works asked for illustrations. Stratton-Porter was appalled that most bird photography of the time was pictures of dead birds posed before the camera. She wouldn’t stand for that, and she spent hour upon hour camped out in the swamp, getting close enough to take photos of birds in their natural settings. That’s an even greater accomplishment considering the difficulty of the glass plates and other clunky, heavy camera gear of the day, which she lugged into the foreboding swamp by horse-drawn carriage.

But what of my quest to find a cardinal?

Canada geese swim away from me in a marshy area of the Loblolly Nature Preserve near Geneva, Indiana, Nov. 5, 2021.

As I was leaving the Loblolly marsh, I stopped along the road to take the photo shown here of the Canada geese. I turned around to head north-northeast toward Geneva, and as I pulled up to a stop sign at the edge of the preserve, a streak of red gleaming in the sunshine shot left to right in front of me.

I’d found my cardinal.

Someday, I intend to return to the Limberlost and hope to hear his song of “good cheer.”

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

3 thoughts on “Man in the Limberlost: A side trip to Indiana

  1. Dan, I love this post! Your adventurous birding spirit is leading you to such treasure. Just happening on the Limberlost Swamp … wow. I did not know about Gene Stratton-Porter and what a devoted naturalist and photographer she was. Of course, John James Audubon was one of the ones shooting the birds to paint and study them. Hope to tag along on more of your treks via this blog!


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