Archive for October, 2010

Along the western section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park is one of my favorite trees.  It’s a large cottonwood tree that you can sit under its roots!  Many years a go the river must have eroded the bank surrounding this tree and enough of its root system was left and continued to grow that a nice sized space was formed.  It’s a favorite place for young lovers and people taking shelter from thunderstorms.  I’ve taking advantage of this “room” while waiting out rain showers and it’s also a handy place to escape the summer heat.

There are other tree formations in the area and many of them are quite sculptural and picturesque.  I find myself taking many pictures in this area.  One day while I was engaged in this activity, I accepted an invitation to hang out and take a break with a new friend of mine.  Although he is shy and doesn’t like cameras, he did allow me to take his portrait and a few images of him in his home.

He doesn’t have a name in the conventional way we have names.  He simply describes himself as the Spirit of the Tree and he has adopted this special cottonwood tree as his charge.  As far as I can tell…what he does for the tree to look after it is “pray”  for its continued good health. 

This is a picture of the “front door” of this tree house.  It does break with traditional idea of a tree house by being ground level instead of elevated.  The “back door” is covered by river scavenged planks .

The Spirit of the Tree invited me in and I took a look around.  Yes, there were beer cans and the remnants of fire pits.  I imagined that this tree was used by homeless people on more than one occasion.  There was even graffiti that some careless person thought was needed in this already special place.  All this causes the Spirit of the Tree much concern and he tells me that it takes a lot of incense and sweet grass to purify the tree.

This is not the Spirit’s first tree, but he did say it was his favorite one so far.  Because it is so accessible by man and the river…it’s just a matter of time before nature reclaims it.  You can see the evidence of this process all around the cottonwood tree.  Once upon a time, there were several other trees keeping this special tree company, but wind and water have taken their toll.  Unfortunately, there aren’t enough “Spirits” around for every tree and so they must be choosy by necessity.

I have included several images of the views out from under this cottonwood tree.  You can just make out the skyline of the Louisville and the fossil beds in the background.  Sitting under this tree…you might think is potentially scary, but I have always found it comforting.

You can see how the roots just drop down into the ground.  They are large and numerous enough to buttress this tree.  There is even a window providing a view of the western side of the park and here it is.

I talked with the Spirit of the Tree for about an hour before heading home.  He told me he chose to reveal himself to me because he had seen me before and felt I was respectful in my dealings with his tree house.  In those instances when indifferent people show up…he climbs the trees roots and branches and hangs out in the woods until they leave and then he purifies the tree again to keep it going strong for a little while longer.  My parting image of the Spirit of the Tree is of him standing on this tree’s amazing roots and looking up at the riverbank.

Because there aren’t enough Spirits to go around to take care of all the trees we need in this world…I think it would be a good idea of everybody who cared about such things would adopt a tree or two for themselves.  Doing so would be good for our spirits too!  To end this post, here is another angle on that really sculptural tree that fell down years a go.

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What he remembered was sitting in the car with his master and enjoying the ride over to the park.  His head hanging out the open window the sights and sounds went rushing by.  He wondered why they didn’t do this more often because it was fun and helped build up their sometimes frazzled relationship.  Upon arrival, the leash was attached and the two of them, dog and owner, went for a walk.  After tugging the master the whole way, they reached a point where they both stopped.  The man took the leash and the collar off and the dog bolted down the beach excitedly.

After chasing a few squirrels and finally having the freedom to follow his nose…the dog realized that his master was nowhere to be found.  The dog did his best to retrace his many footsteps, but it was no use.  The man was gone without so much as a whistle or a “See you later boy”!  Fear began to set in because the dog didn’t recognize where he was or what to do about it.  For a while, he followed a path in the woods and did come across other people, but they were unfriendly and chased him away  In fact, the whole woods was starting to seem mysterious and scary.

The trees were tall and the woods held shadowy places.  Even some of the birds gave him a start.  There was one odd bird with a very large and sharp-looking beak that made the loudest noises and was unwelcoming.

It flew back and forth in the treetops and seemed to be scolding him until he left the area.  There were other unusual and questionable critters out here too.  He was hounded by bugs he had never seen before like this one.

These evil-looking flies chased and bit him.  The dog thought about how in his former life he didn’t have to worry about much.  Yes, there was the occasional flea, but the food bowl was usually full.  In the ways of his kind, he was generally accepting of most everything.

After several days, the dog began to get really hungry.  Once he found some scraps near a picnic table and garbage can and he ate greedily.  Later the dog began to feel some odd stirrings within him and he began to visualize the chase.  What if he could run down and catch other animals…perhaps he could even eat them?  He decided to give it a try with the next animal he came across in the park and before long…he had his chance.  Among some fallen trees he came across an unfamiliar animal. 

The new animal had no legs and looked like a wiggly stick.  Still, it moved quickly over the ground and every time the dog tried to grab it with his mouth, the strange animal tried to bite him back.  After a while, the dog tired of this and the stick-animal escaped into some driftwood.

The dog decided to check out the river.  Perhaps something like a dead fish had washed ashore and although this wasn’t his favorite food…his wasn’t in a position to be picky.  The air was still and it seemed sound was carrying well across the water.  Before long he could hear and then smell a human approaching in his direction and the dog quickly found a place to hide.  From behind a large stump this is what he saw.

Whistling to himself the figure we have come to know as the Adventurer was strolling down the path.  The Ohio River was on his right and the sun was shining warmly above.  The season was about to change and the cottonwood trees’ leaves were turning yellow.  The Adventurer had been marooned in the park himself now for several weeks.  The raft that bore him here was still stuck high and dry and he couldn’t continue his journey down river until it rained again.  As the days became weeks, the Adventurer started to yearn for his more familiar surroundings and the company of his friends.  This park was nice, but it wasn’t his home.  He was growing a little wistful himself when he heard something in the bushes off of the path ahead of him.

Parting some branches near a large stump the Adventurer saw one of the most bedraggled dogs he had ever seen.  Talking reassuringly, the Adventurer carefully offered the dog his hand to sniff and was rewarded with a few tentative wags of its tail.  The dog came out of his hiding place and allowed the odd figure to check him out.  Although the fur was matted and full of cockleburs, there wasn’t any sign of injury.  Reaching into his pocket, the Adventurer produced some food which the dog quickly ate.

There was something in the moment that these two very different animals recognized in each other and they bonded.  From now on, wherever the Adventurer would go,  the dog would follow him.  They became inseparable and shared in many stories together at the Falls of the Ohio.


The Adventurer figure we have seen before.  He is made from found insulating foam, Styrofoam, plastic and wood collected at the Falls of the Ohio and assembled there.  The plastic dog toy I came across on one of my walks and this is how he first appeared to me.

Imagine my surprise to see an old childhood friend mixed among the other river debris!  I recognized the character as being “Huckleberry Hound”.  A little research revealed that this dog who spoke in the cartoons with a southern drawl was originally named after Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” which seemed appropriate in my context.  The cartoon first appeared in the late 1950’s and I caught up with it during the next decade.  Huck’s other friends include Yogi Bear and BooBoo, Magilla Gorilla, and others who were cartoon staples of after school television shows.  It’s been awhile since I heard of any references to this character.  Examining the plastic toy, I could find no date or country of origin, but much of the original paint is gone.  I’m sure this is some retro toy since it seems in too good of shape to be older.  My two sons have never heard of Huckleberry Hound and think I made it up!  Okay, to end this post…I’m going to show you another picture of that fearsome snake which I was able to catch with my bare hands!!!  Enjoy.

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After finding all my sculptures smashed, I decided to give that section of the park a rest.  I will eventually return there and make new pieces from the remains.  Today’s walk is along the western section of the park.  It is an area I have come to appreciate more.  In part, because fewer people venture this way and there are different points of interest.  It’s fall migration time and I’m always on the look out for birds.  The birds that are just passing through are of particular interest, but I also like the species that can be found here year around.  I came across this really noisy Northern Flicker on a branch and snapped its picture.

This is a fairly large woodpecker.  In the old guides, this would have been identified as the “Yellow-shafted” form.  The feathers under the wings and tail are a bright yellow which can be seen as the bird flies.  The black “mustache” extending away from its bill identifies this as being a male.

Chasing small insects among the fall leaves is this Yellow-rumped Warbler.  This is the park’s most common warbler and one that hangs around longer than any other of the park’s 35 sighted warbler species.  I have seen most of them, but they are easier to identify in the spring when their plumage is more colorful.  Fall warblers can be a challenge and I’m still learning all their nuances.  I have seen more different warbler species this year because I have tried a little harder to look for them.  Still, when you are out on the land, you just never know what you will cross paths with and that is the subject of this post.  I saw my first Water Chick on this expedition and managed a few decent images that I can share with you.  First, can you spot the Water Chick in this photo?

I bet you found this interesting bird?  It’s snow-white in color and has a bright red bill.  It’s only occasionally found in this park and the habitat it prefers matches exactly the kind of landscape you see here.  The Water Chick is usually found near water and also needs dense vegetation to hide and raise its young.  Over the course of a couple of hours I ran into this bird several times and here are a few “portraits” I was able to manage.

The Water Chick is usually found on the ground, but reportedly, is a decent swimmer as well.  Although it can fly it is reluctant to do so.  It much prefers hiding and taking advantage of the local cover where it seeks out small insects and spiders that make up its diet.  I surprised this one investigating a decaying log.  Here’s another image of this bird.

As you might be able to discern…the Water Chick is a small bird and relies on its diminuitive size and secretive habits to go unnoticed.  I believe I heard (not entirely sure though) a low piping sound when this bird noticed me and became alarmed.  It high-tailed it into the loosestrife clumps as quick as can be.  This is precisely the type of ground bird that I worry about being preyed upon by feral cats and in fact, ornithologists report that this species is on the decline for multiple reasons.  While I was birdwatching, I did come across another bird predator.  However, this one is so large that I doubt that it would bother taking a Water Chick.

I see Peregrine Falcons on occasion out at the Falls, but this is the first one I could get a picture of…unfortunately part of the tree obscures the bird, but it’s still distinctive enough to identify this large bird of prey.  I have actually seen these falcons more in the city where they nest on the taller buildings in Louisville.  Like other parts of the country, we nearly lost this magnificent bird to DDT poisoning.  Since banning this pesticide they have made a comeback, but we could use more to help keep the pigeon population in check.  I located the Water Chick one more time before heading home.  It was along the fossil beds that rise above the river level which is still down from an acute lack of rain.

I was on my belly laying on the limestone rocks when these photos were taken.  I think it helps give an idea of what it must be like from this bird’s perspective?  After taking these images, I decided that I disturbed this bird enough and backed off.  I hope it forgives my intrusion, but I had never seen one of its kind before…and maybe never will again?  This bird is bound for our Gulf Coast where it spends the winter in the swamps.  Turning for home, I also came across small stands of this rather large flower and thought this a nice way to end this post.

I’m not sure on the identification of this plant? Many in this stand were over six feet tall.  I need to bring a guide with me into the field to help with this.  In the moment, I’m happy for the color this large flower brings which contributes to the beauty of the season.  Thanks for tagging along on another of my walks at the Falls of the Ohio.  See you later!

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Oh woe is me!  It was starting out to be such a beautiful day.  There was a spicyness to the air that was intoxicating and the willows were alive with birds.  I saw several different warblers and managed a good photo or two!  As I approached what has been my outdoor studio spot for months,  I could tell something was different this time.  A feeling of foreboding began to fill me and my heart sank as I looked around my site.

They were all down and destroyed!  Figures that had been my friends since early summer were lying around my studio smashed and savaged to bits!  The figure I made with Ariana that wore the lacrosse helmet we found together was staring up at me like some ancient Egyptian mummy.  The eye sockets were hollow and I could not find either the helmet or the eyes.  Even the small bird piece that had alighted on this figure’s shoulder was just random bits of broken polystyrene.

Both the Styro-Odysseus figure and the dancing figure that greeted him back from the war were goners now.  It seemed that a particular kind of viciousness was reserved for the heads as they appeared to take the brunt of the attacks.  The violence was not restricted to the “art” and I saw that even the old milk crates I stored found objects in were also now cracked and battered.  There were two other works out here and how did they fare?  What about that Figure with the Long Arm?  Look for yourself.

It’s not an encouraging sight.  All these sculptures had been up here for weeks and many people have had the opportunity to see them and interact with them in positive ways.  Among the other options included taking them home, moving them to another location at the Falls, adding to them in some other creative way, leaving them be until the river eventually found them, etc…  Unhappily, the option exercised was just to smash them with sticks.  One other figure was also out here and unfortunately, she lasted only long enough for one good post until she too was discovered by the vandals.

This is all that remains of Minnie now…fragments of broken Styrofoam.  Minnie was an interesting character and people seemed to relate to her.  More than likely all this carnage is the handiwork of adolescent boys.  I have seen this before…many times over the years.  What is it in the human spirit that finds some strange satisfaction at tearing down what has been built by others?  I don’t understand the pleasure derived from this kind of destruction?  I will admit to feeling down after I encountered all this trauma and I haven’t been back to this site since then.  I did gather up what I could and I intend to make new works if I can lift my spirits up enough to do it.  For now, all that remains are photographs of these sculptures when they existed intact and in the contexts that helped to define them.  Here are a few previously unpublished images.

I know I shouldn’t be too upset since all this stuff is just river-born trash anyway.  I think I keep saying this to myself in part because it’s true and to insulate my feelings for when these black days occur.  These materials had already been abandoned. I can’t take it all home with me and I should just enjoy the ephemeral nature of it all.  Still…

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At the eastern end of the Falls of the Ohio State Park is where I see the most bird species.  It is also the area that seems to trap the most driftwood after we have had a bout of high water.  Material of all kinds collects between the high walls of the dam and the steep riverbank itself.  There is another sizeable collection of driftwood on the other side of the dam’s wall that is just waiting for the river to rise before depositing another layer of wood and debris in the park.  The bowl-like depression created in this space cuts across a few distinct habitats and is also protected from the wind which is why I think the birds like this spot.

On this day I was doing my birdwatching thing and trying to photograph some of the warbler species that migrate through here in the fall.  It’s a real challenge for many reasons.  First, there is still enough foliage around that it is hard to get an unobstructed view of a bird.  Second, the migrating warblers are now much duller in color having lost their breeding plumage, can be hard to identify.  In some cases, the differences can be dramatic between how a species appears in the spring and how they look on their autumnal migration south.  Added challenges also include that these birds are very small and extremely active.  They don’t sit still for long.  On those occasions when I get a picture that I like…I feel more like a fortunate opportunist than as a photographer with any skills.  I know I’m rambling, but I need to set the scene first before getting to the point of this post!  It took a bit of luck and patience just to obtain the above photo of this first year American Redstart and it looked like this bird was going to hang out a bit and I was well concealed and anticipating more images when something very interesting happened.  There was movement in the brush below the bird which flew off and I was left with this quickly snapped photograph!

I just witnessed a failed hunting attempt by the Flat-faced Cat.  It’s an unusual mutation that has occurred among the resident feral cats which seem to be gaining in population in this park.  To me, this is a big point of concern because in addition to the garbage left behind from picnics…they are also preying upon and eating the small wildlife found in the park.

So, where are these cats living?  I have literally found them throughout the park where they can find shelter.  I tracked the Flat-faced Cat back to a den under the driftwood.  The interlocking logs have created a structure that has many natural tunnels and rooms.  It can also be dangerous because the wood is always shifting under its own weight as it breaks down from environmental exposure.  I’m sure that it can’t be an easy life for these cats.

Since our first encounter, I have taken an interest in this particular animal.  It always runs away once it spots me and is now completely wild.  I see it the most when I’m in the Willow Habitat and I think we are after the same thing!  We are both hungry for wildlife, but in very different ways.  I recently observed and photographed this cat hunting lizards basking on the sun-drenched logs.  First an image of its intended prey.

The blue tail marks this as the young of the Five-line Skink.  This is a fairly common lizard in this park and the one most people are likely to encounter.  While I was hiding behind a sizeable willow tree, I saw the Flat-faced Cat attempt another unsuccessful hunt and took these images.

Now, don’t let its cute face fool you.  Out in the woods, this animal is all business when it comes to hunting.  I’ve looked at a few articles on the web about the cat predation problem and interestingly there is some controversy.  There are studies from Great Britain and California that suggest that feral and domestic cats take millions of songbirds and small animals a year.  Societies devoted to cats, however, dispute the evidence and say that there aren’t good studies to back this assertion up.  When all else fails…turn to anecdotal evidence!  How many of you out there who own cats that are allowed to roam outdoors have been “gifted” with dead birds and other little animals on your door steps?  I have a hunch that many cat owners have had this experience.  Now multiply these “gifts” with the millions of cats that are out in the world and the studies probably aren’t too far off.  The studies also suggest that the hunting instinct is so well engrained…that even very well fed cats can’t resist that little chipmunk running around the backyard.

Of course, feral cats are not the only cause for the decline in the numbers of songbirds.  There are pressures of all kinds and habitat loss and environmental degradation play their huge parts.  Still, the domestic cat is not something that occurs “naturally” in our wild environments.  Responsible pet owners should never set unwanted pets loose where they don’t belong.  Responsible owners also have their pets spayed or neutered to further limit the population of unwanted pets.  It’s kinder to all living things to do this. Looking through my archives, I remembered that I had seen another feral cat that looked a lot like the cat which is the subject of this post and here is its image.

I photographed this big tom cat on the fossil beds near the Interpretive Center.  It had only one eye and sported this murderous looking paw!  Who knows it may be a direct ancestor of the Flat-faced Cat?

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When last we visited our couple they were checking out the cascades out on the fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  In the presence of fresh running water they made their commitment to one another. 

There was still more to see and so they set out over the fossil beds by Goose Island.  With the river level low, the island was looking more like a forested hill.  The couple walked nearer the island taking advantage of every little bit of shade they could find.  It was still late summer and the sun was very hot.  The limestone beneath their feet contained the remains of ancient marine creatures that lived millions of years a go.  Every once in a while, the couple stopped and took pictures of the odd formations preserved in the rocks.  Their friends back home would want to see this.

One of the brochures picked up back at the Interpretive Center said that more than 250 species of ancient corals have been identified in the stone out here.  Their mineral homes were perfect for fossilization while the small jelly polyps that were the actual animals disappeared completely.

The brochure continued that more that 600 fossilized marine organisms have been identified out here and that about 2/3rds of them were type specimens.  This means that although some of these fossils have been found in other places in the world…they were first described by science from specimens collected at the Falls of the Ohio.  This is indeed a unique window into the history of life!  The couple felt privileged as though they were visiting some important shrine.

These coral fossils were from the Devonian Age and were more than 370 million years old!  This time is also known as the Age of Fishes because this is when their remains first entered the fossil record.  Although fish fossils are rarely found out here…there are many skeletons and bones of contemporary fish present because of fishermen and the retreating river.  Fish were the first animals to develop backbones and are still with us to this day.  Walking along the couple discovered something more familiar and recent not too far away from them.

It looked to be the remains of a stone wall set out in the now shallow river.  On the park map, the couple could see that this was the remains of the Goose Island Dike.  This was a 19th century attempt to manage and shape the course of the river.  Although it wasn’t a fossil, the uniformity of the stones and the ivy growing atop was pleasing to their eyes.  After a long walk, the couple neared their ultimate destination and the terrain switched from being rocky to sandy.  Around the bend, the couple could see the Lower Tainter Gates and they knew they could walk no farther.

The Lower Tainter Gates are on the western end of the park over the fossil beds on the Kentucky side.  Like many such gates along our nation’s rivers, they were designed to regulate the flow of the water to help commerce and to relieve flooding.  Fishermen both human and not use this area because the water is deeper and better oxygenated.  This is a good place to see the Osprey and Cormorant.  Usually the roar of the water passing through the gate can get loud, but today the river was low and quiet.

Walking up to the immense concrete structure, the couple thought of ancient Egyptian buildings and temples.  The scale and ambition of trying to control the river was all so overwhelming and emotional.  Their reaction to this engineering marvel was impulsive and surprising!

The couple embraced and shared a long kiss.  Later they would remark on how wrapping their minds around deep time and the beauty and continuity of life caused them to appreciate their moment together even more.  Having reached the destination of this day’s hike, the couple turned around and retraced their steps.  They had the rest of their lives ahead of them and in the bigger scheme of things…would just be a kiss or the blink of an eye.

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I was walking through the woods on a sun-dappled day looking for migratory birds when I came across a new friend.  We talked for a little while before introducing ourselves.  Both of us remarked on the dry weather we have been having and I said that it’s official now.  September was the driest ever in the commonwealth of Kentucky since records have been kept dating back to 1871.  We have had a spits-worth of rain… that’s it.  Overall, this has been our third driest month ever, beaten only by two Octobers over the course of the past century.  We both wondered if this was an omen for this October?  We certainly hope not.  Having created some common ground, I introduced myself and she said to call her Minnie, Minnie Buckethead.

As it turned out, Minnie is an interesting old lady with a fascination for everything in the woods.  I asked if she had seen any migrating warblers and she had.  American Redstarts, Black and White Warblers, were moving with small groups of other birds including Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice.  I had seen nothing.  I definitely need to get up earlier in the day to catch the bird show.  Perhaps Minnie was taking pity on me and she said that there were a few other things happening in the woods and would I like to see them?  How could I turn down such a nice offer from an old lady?

We walked over to a large willow tree and I saw Minnie crane her neck and squint her eyes from the sun and she scanned the willow bark.  “Here” she said and I checked out what she was pointing at.

At first I thought it was a bee, but it was larger and more robust and not as big as a bumble bee.  There were others.  Walking around to the shady side I could determine that they are hornets of some kind.  The hornets and other insects were licking whatever was exuding from the willow tree.

“Don’t worry, they won’t get you”, she said.  The hornets were so preoccupied with the sap that they were quite tame.  Walking around the tree gave us this sight.  Three different species of butterflies also taking advantage of the willow bark.  The one in the foreground is the Red Admiral.  Although I hadn’t seen the hornets doing this before, I did say to Minnie that I had observed many butterflies on these willows and wasn’t it nice that so many living creatures could set aside their differences to take advantage of this common resource.  She just smiled.

I was appreciative of Minnie showing me the tree and so I tried to impart a little knowledge to her about the local cicadas.  I had come across a dead female in the sand,(identified by the hypodermic needle of an ovipositor she uses to lay her eggs under the thin bark of a tree).  I asked Minnie if she knew anything else about their life cycle and she said she didn’t and so I went on.  I told her that after the egg hatches under the bark, the nymphs drop down and burrow under the ground and attach themselves to the tree’s roots.  With this species, after a couple of years of sucking tree juices, they emerge from the ground and become adults which for cicadas, is a brief moment in time.  They mate, lay eggs, and then die after a glorious two weeks or so.  You find their split skins where they transform as juveniles into adults near where they emerged from the ground.  Here’s a pictures of the dead cicada, the split cicada skin, and a fresh adult.

With any life cycle it’s hard to know exactly where to begin and I suppose that’s the classic which came first question… the egg or the cicada? I’ll leave that to brighter minds than my own for now. 

Minnie listened attentively and then asked me to follow her.  She had something else to show me before we parted company.  We walked away from the willow tree to an area where several large logs were decomposing.  She pointed a thin finger at a yellow patch on one log’s side and I could see it was some type of fungus.  It seemed to be spreading outward as it broke down the tissues inside the tree. 

It was both fascinating and oddly repellent. On another nearby log was yet another fungi which I could identify as a fresh bracket or shelf  fungus.  The bright colors also seemed on the lurid side to me.

Minnie talked to me about what a wonderful system that nature has created to break things down after death.  Like these fungi were doing to what were once living trees.  She talked about how life depended on materials being able to decompose in order to release the nutrients that are needed for life to move forward.  This is what it means to live naturally and that we should look at the systems that the planet has in place and to learn from them.  With that, I took my leave and waved good-by to the old lady in the woods.

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