Archive for the ‘birding’ Category

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Falls of the Ohio, 2013

I’ve had some interesting birding encounters of late at the Falls of the Ohio and so I thought now is an opportune time to post them.  I took this image of the Northern Rough-winged Swallow recently.  To my eye, this species seems to be on the increase as is its cousin, the more familiar Barn Swallow.  This is especially good since they eat big quantities of flying insects.  Herons (especially Great Blue Herons and Black-crowned Night-Herons) are abundant and since the fishing has been good of late…I’ve seen plenty of both species.  Here are two more recent images.  The first is of a pair of Great Blue Herons that were taking advantage of the recent Skipjack Herring run.

Great Blue Heron pair, June 2013

The most common heron here is the Black-crowned Night-Heron.  They are considerably smaller than the Great Blues and have striking red eyes.  You can find them wading in the shallower waters looking for fish, crayfish, or small frogs.  This image was taken in the eastern section of the park and this bird was perched on a log stranded on top of the dam’s wall.

Black-crowned Night Heron at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

I’ve saved the two most interesting avian encounters for last.  A couple of weeks a go, I was sitting at my outdoor studio under the willow trees when I heard the sound of a young bird pleading for food.  Looking around, I was able to find the hungry bird and I snapped this picture of it.

young Brown-headed Cowbird, June 2013

I recognize that this is the young of the Brown-headed Cowbird.  What is fascinating about this species (and the two other species of cowbirds in North America) is that the adults do not raise their own young.  Cowbirds parasitize the nests of other bird species.  In the case of the Brown-headed Cowbird they have been known to lay their eggs in the nests of about 200 different species of birds.  Usually, the young Brown-headed Cowbird out competes the host specie’s nestlings.  I was curious to see who this bird’s “parents” were and it didn’t take long to find out.

Brown-headed Cowbird chick and Carolina Wren, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

In the case of this cowbird chick it is being raised by a hardworking pair of Carolina Wrens.  The baby is nearly double the wren’s size and vibrates its wings along with calling out to stimulate the wrens to feed it.  Here are a couple more pictures of the wren feeding the cowbird.

Carolina Wren feeding a Brown-headed Cowbird chick, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

Carolina Wren and Brown-headed Cowbird chick, June 2013

In case you were wondering, cowbirds are not the only species to lay their eggs in other bird’s nests.  In Europe, the cuckoo also does this, but parasitizes fewer species.  I often wonder how does the cowbird know it’s a cowbird especially if it is raised by a completely different species?  Obviously, some behaviors are “hard-wired” and innate .  In the early Spring, Brown-headed Cowbirds are early arrivals and always on the look out for other breeding species of birds and their nest sites.  Their courtship is not a thing of beauty with each drab Brown-headed Cowbird female usually being pursued by multiple males.  Moving on, here is a recent picture of an adult male and you can see why they are called Brown-headed Cowbirds.

male Brown-headed Cowbird, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

Recently, I was in the far western section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park where I saw my very first Indiana Rail.  Rails are much smaller relatives of the heron family and other wading shorebirds.  The Indiana Rail is a little smaller than a chicken and rarely seen since it favors dense underbrush and is usually more active at night.

Indian Rail at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

I was taking a break sitting on the fossil rocks when this bird with a long, bright red bill appeared from among the ever-growing vines.  I held still and was able to record this species with a small series of photographic images.  This bird seemed very interested in the holes situated among the rocks.

Indiana Rail, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

Indiana Rail, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

Unlike the cowbirds…both the Indiana Rail male and female participate in raising their own young.  Typically, four or five green mottled eggs are deposited in a loose bowl constructed of decaying river vegetation.  It is believed that the heat generated from this decomposing matter helps to incubate the eggs , but this is still speculative.  There is a lot left to learn about this enigmatic creature.

Head of the Indiana Rail, June 2013

Indiana Rail, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

I watched the rail for about twenty minutes as it poked around the vines that were beginning to cover the fossil rocks.  Every now and then it would use its strong-looking bill to probe the cracks around the drying mud.  Just as mysteriously as it appeared…it disappeared leaving me with this wonderful memory and a hand full of pictures to prove it was here.  See you later!

Indiana Rail, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

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sand sun sign, Feb. 2013

The sun is up and this is supposed to be the pick of the weekend.  So, a quick breakfast and cup of coffee and I’m out the door as soon as I can manage it.  I arrive at the Falls and there is still frost on the driftwood which vanishes except where the deep shadows shade the tiny ice crystals from the warmth of the light.  The Ohio River is noticeably down and I find a way to access the narrow sliver of land that is now high and dry…well nearly.  An occasional patch of sticky mud remains where a pool of water lingered longer than the rest of the river did.

Falls of the Ohio, post high water, Feb. 2013

I brought a large and empty collecting bag.  I’m anticipating finding some river treasures to fill it… which I do by day’s end.  As expected, the landscape is different, but the same.  Meaning there is lots of driftwood in a wide variety of sizes with plenty of other junk mixed in.  What is different is the exact context that had existed before is now rearranged.  Big logs have floated to new positions and have been added to by wood originating upstream from Louisville and southern Indiana.  I feel slightly guilty enjoying such a sunny day when I have friends on the east coast that are covered by the deep snow that fell yesterday.

frayed rope archway, Feb. 2013

During bouts of high water, stuff gets snagged in tree branches.  I do a little promenade through this frayed rope archway formed by the river.  It’s muddier under the railroad bridge, but the biggest tangle of catch-all driftwood is also here.  My site is just over this wooden mound and I wonder how it has fared?

female Downy Woodpecker, Feb. 2013

Along the way, I keep an eye out for birds like this female Downy Woodpecker investigating the furrows in tree bark.  I see a Belted Kingfisher, a Red-winged Blackbird, flocks of Canada Geese which are year round residents, Carolina Chickadees, and a Peregrine Falcon flying parallel with the river.  Usually, nature’s colors are subtle this time of year, but I also find this silly bird.  It’s bright non-naturalistic color is a quick tip-off that it is probably made from plastic.

pink rubber duck, Feb. 2013

I find lots of other plastic items particularly toys, but I will wait until later in the week to post those finds.  I did pick up this lucky duck to add to my expanding collection.  I like the two walnuts next to the duck.  How often have I used walnuts as a gauge for scale?

Figure with bear hat at the Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 2013

We are nearly there…just under the willow trees.  Be careful of stepping on milled boards for they are the ones harboring bent and rusty nails.  The sun has climbed higher in the sky and I’m getting warmer.  This bear hat of mine is getting hotter, but I am glad I had it with me earlier in the day.

last year's Styrofoam, Feb. 2013

We have arrived…this is my old spot.  I guess I was partly right.  The river did reach my outdoor studio, but the water didn’t spread last year’s Styrofoam too widely.  The riverbank is slightly higher here and that makes a difference.  Walking carefully over the driftwood, I search over and under the wood.  Before too long, I am able to corral my wayward polystyrene.  I do a little “house keeping” and try to create a semblance of order under the willow trees.

Reassembled studio under the willows, Feb. 2013

I find not only much of last year’s Styrofoam, but some new pieces as well.  I empty out my collecting bag and add to the pile.  Interestingly, I did not find any really big sections and hopefully that bodes well for the river at large.  Some of the pieces I have here I have recycled many times before to make new figures.  I will try to embed these bright white shapes into my subconscious with the hope of creating new and interesting combinations with them.  I’m going to leave it here for now.  My next post will be a show and tell featuring some of the other items I picked up along the way and put into the old collecting bag.  See you then?

Figure with bear hat and driftwood, Feb. 2013

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Styro-witness, Jan. 2013

Today has been a full day.  The Project Reclamation art exhibition I participated in is officially over for now.  I picked up my work from the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany and moved on.  Efforts are underway to see if this might make a traveling exhibit that university galleries might be interested in booking.  I hope so.  Having organized many art exhibits over the years I understand how much work goes into the process of creating a good display.  Once a show ends, I often had this feeling that lots of energies and passion were spent by the artist(s) and gallery for a relatively short amount of time and then it’s on to new art and the next exhibition.  We consume exhibits like we experience so many other things in life.  I think this is one reason why I enjoy this Falls project so much.  It exists outside the normal gallery conventions and isn’t bound by white walls, pedestals, labels, and consignment forms.  The show is ongoing in the context of life at large.

high Ohio River at the Falls of the Ohio, Jan 19, 2013

With my artworks in the back of my car…I stopped by the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  The Ohio River has been up due to rain and snow in the northern part of the Ohio River Valley.  Under the railroad bridge you can get a good sense for the strength of the current.  New driftwood was accumulating and enlarging the wood already present.  I could also see a lot of man-made junk intermixed among the natural debris.

high water at the Falls of the Ohio, Jan. 2013

Just beyond the distant trees in the above image is the approximate location of my outdoor studio.  My “treasure trove” of river-polished polystyrene chunks that I have gathered over the past year may or may not still be there?  Once the river level drops, I will be able to access my spot again.  Regardless, the area will be rearranged by the river…it will be the same, just different if that makes any sense at all?  I may even be able to relocate some of the Styrofoam if it hasn’t floated too far away.  From experience, I know whatever I may have lost is unfortunately too easily replaced.

Head of Styro-witness, Falls of the Ohio, Jan. 2013

With my usual access points underwater, I explored the river’s edge just west of the Interpretive Center.  Along the way, I found enough materials to create this Styro-Witness to help me experience and document the day.  Although it was a very sunny day, it was still cool and windy.  The river’s high level had me walking among the bottom land trees and walking over the logs that had been deposited here by previous floods.  Every once in a while, I would walk into cold water hiding under last year’s leaves as the river creeps inland.  The squeaky sound of wood rubbing over wood as logs rolled in the waves was occasionally interrupted by loud cracks as branches were separated from tree trunks.

high water at the Falls of the Ohio, Jan. 2013

I was anticipating seeing ducks and geese, but none were around today.  The Ring-billed Gulls that were so numerous a couple of weeks a go were less prevalent on this day.  Just when I thought I might strike out with the birds…I had another personally notable sighting.   I observed three Eastern bluebirds engaging in “fly-catching” behavior flying from their respective perches to the ground and back.  I couldn’t see any insects at all, but I did see spider silk tangled among the branches and perhaps this is what they found here?  Anyway, the Eastern Bluebird is listed in the park’s checklist as being rarely found at the Falls of the Ohio State Park and in the ten years I’ve been paying attention…these are the first bluebirds I have seen here.  It’s really cold up north now and heading our way.  Were these birds driven here by that frigid weather?  Regardless, I wouldn’t have guessed that mid January would be the time I would sight bluebirds here.  Their wonderful predominantly deep blue feathers were complimented by the orange and white on their breasts.

wooden pallet in the trees, Jan. 2013

This wooden pallet has been snagged in the branches of this tree for at least a year now.  I use it as a reference for how high the river can get.  In the early days of this project, I recall seeing an old refrigerator perched in the top of a tree courtesy of the Ohio River at flood stage.  Seeing an appliance crowning a tree top is a surreal sight not easily forgotten.  I kept walking westward with my latest creation and eventually reached the limit of my walk.

falls photos 026_1_1

The Woodland Loop Trail eventually turns at a small creek that feeds into the river.  Here I found about ten fishermen casting their lines into the high water.  I decided to sit for a spell and watch while making small adjustments to my newest figure.

fisherman at the creek, Falls of the Ohio, Jan. 2013

These fishermen were casting small, bright green and yellow, soft-bodied,  tailed jigs into the creek and having amazing success.  All of them were catching Sauger which is a member of the Perch family and smaller cousin to the Walleye.

hooked Sauger, Jan. 2013

Sauger are predatory fish and have sharp teeth.  Their eyes seem to glow whenever light hits them just the right way and underscores that they normally live in deep, dark water.  Sauger eyes have adapted to gather as much light as possible in the depths.  Apparently, they are very fine eating and all of the fisherman I observed were filling stringers of fish.  Most of the fish I saw being caught were thick-bodied and in the two to three-pound range although they are also capable of getting bigger.  The fishermen were having the best time and there was obvious camaraderie among them especially since everyone was catching fish.  I had a good time too, but it got to the point of my adventure when it was time to get home and intersect with the family.  I stuck my Styro-figure into the soft wood of the log I was sitting on, took one last photograph, and walked away.

Styro-Witness and the fishermen, Jan. 2013

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This was my Labor Day adventure which spanned two days of hanging out by the Ohio River.  The remnants of Hurricane Isaac came through and gave us some much-needed rain.  I was excited to return to my old studio spot and didn’t mind exploring and working through the drizzle.  My clothes got soaked and muddy, but as long as I was able to keep my camera dry…I felt okay and had fun.  It has been two months since I last laid eyes on my Styro-cache.  Most of these polystyrene chucks were collected in the spring.  I had heard that there were a few scheduled river clean-ups, but they obviously didn’t find my spot.  It wouldn’t have hurt my feelings in the least if all this white trash had disappeared.  The more public areas did look better, but I have a feeling that as long as people are around…there will be litter at the Falls of the Ohio.

Because I was dodging little rain showers, I quickly created a figure and moved him out into the river landscape.  A nice family who said they were familiar with some of my other Falls projects happened upon me.  Their daughters India and Esmay were interested in “Mr. Rednose”, so named because his nose is a burnt out light bulb from a string of Christmas lights.  I asked permission from the parents to take the girls’ picture before posting something.  Esmay seemed the most interested and kept sticking her finger into “Mr. Rednose’s” mouth.  It’s cool when people I meet out here get what I do and appreciate my small call for creativity.  I have a real concern for what kind of world our children will inherit.  My own sons are now 11 and 16 years old and I remember when they were much smaller and followed me to the river to make a few memories of our own.

“To exist or not to exist…that is a choice.”  Perhaps meeting little kids inspired me to play dress up with this figure.  But I also kept finding props I could do this with.  This blue blanket was just draped over a log and I wondered why someone would leave this here?  Over the years, I have come across small camps that homeless people would just leave their stuff behind as though they planned to return.  It was eerie when they didn’t.  By the river, I came across yet another potential prop.

A fisherman had left behind as trash this polystyrene minnow bucket and “Mr. Rednose”picked it up.  Since it was beginning to rain more regularly it seemed appropriate to try to use this bucket for a hat and here is what that looked like.

It was about this time that I decided to call it a day.  The rain was coming down more heavily and consistently.  I hid the figure in high, wet  grass where it was waiting for me the following morning.

My second day out here was more about discovering nature.  No sooner had I rescued my figure than I had one of my most thrilling bird sightings.  This time it was an actual bird and not something I created myself!  Walking through the wet grasses I unintentionally flushed a bird into flight that I recognized immediately.  It was a Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis).  It’s a small blackish bird with a short bill.  It has white speckles on its flanks and a very diagnostic rusty-colored nape.  Rails are the smallest member of a group of wading birds that include herons and egrets.  The literature says that they are very secretive and seldom encountered.  You are more likely to hear one at night along the eastern salt marshes, but there are a few that live in the Midwest.  There are over 260 bird species listed in the official Falls of the Ohio checklist, but the Black Rail is not one of them.  This is a second time I have spotted a bird not officially recorded in the park.  I tried to let the park and our local bird club know about my sighting and I hope somebody else was able to see it?   The flushed rail flew to a nearby willow tree and with camera in hand I tried to get a picture.  Unfortunately, I was not successful.  I will, however, look for it again in the same place the next time I come out here.  The Black Rail was not the only interesting creature out in the park today.  Newly minted butterflies were flitting about and I counted several species including the Viceroy which mimics the Monarch butterfly.

This Viceroy was taking advantage of the minerals present in a fairly large bird dropping!  Out of the fossil beds, Great Blue Herons were outnumbered by the slightly smaller and all-white Great Egrets.  Soon the egrets will be moving off to warmer climes, but the Great Blue Herons are year round residents.


Moving away from the river and back towards the willows, I stopped to admire several flowers including members of the Evening Primrose family.  “Mr. Rednose” enjoyed the slight fragrance emanating from this tall flower.


I finished this adventure where it began.  I moved my figure to the place he first took form and where he now stands guard over my Styro-larder.  He might still be there welcoming visitors…or not.  I look forward to returning the following weekend to experience all the surprises both great and small that this environment presents to me.


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The heat is on at the Falls of the Ohio.  It is looking like this will be a summer to remember.  In the Louisville area, we have already set all time record highs for the month of June.  Yesterday, it was 105 degrees here or around 40 degrees Celsius in the rest of the world.  Coupled with the heat is a lack of rain.  So, when it’s this miserable outside…who in their right mind would be walking around under this crazy sun?  That would be me!  I’m here at the river’s edge and imagining that I’m one of the dozens of herons I can see fishing from their spots by the fossil rocks.  I take my shoes off and cool my feet in the river.  This provides some respite.  It occurs to me that perhaps these herons aren’t fishing after all, but have discovered that they can beat the heat by wading in the water?

All the coal flake designs from the last post are gone.  In places, I can see how someone has dragged their foot deliberately across the patterns to erase them.  Why a person would feel compelled to do this is beyond me?  I’m nearly numb to the idea by now.  I am actually more surprised when any of my projects manages to survive for any time at all.  I have the images and that will have to do.  I do have this other coal project going out here.  It really isn’t any thing special.  Just coal defining the perimeter around a patch of grass I noticed growing next to a piece of driftwood.  I imagine that the wood provides some measure of protection from the wind or catches more dew and that is why this very small area of grass is growing.  The coal ring is meant to call attention to this.  So far, it has managed to survive being stepped upon, but if it doesn’t rain soon…I’m afraid my small patch of grass is a goner.

After cooking in the sun for a bit, I returned to my Styro-studio under the shade of the willow trees.  There is a trade-off.  Although I’m not under the direct scrutiny of the sun, I do however, become a tempting meal for mosquitoes and biting flies.  Looking around, I can see that I have had visitors because the Styro-figure I had stashed here has been destroyed and someone has attempted to create another figure from its remains.  An old pair of sun glasses I had previously found was just barely hanging on to the new figure’s eye-less head.  I do like it when people play along and imagine other possibilities.  I was looking through  my  larder of polystyrene chunks and wondering what to make next when I spotted some movement in the near distance.  Grabbing my camera I carefully stalked behind the trees and caught another member of the Falls’ distinctive fauna unawares.  Here is my informal portfolio of the River Cat.

Hiding behind a log I saw the River Cat hunting.  Among its habits…it is an ambush predator that conceals itself along the trails used by its prey which includes other small mammals and birds.

Once it was a common small predator found throughout the Midwest of the continent, but was persecuted and destroyed because it unfortunately developed a taste for chickens and other small livestock.  It was poisoned and trapped and extirpated from the majority of its former range.  Small remnant populations have clung on enjoying the protection they have found in state and national parks.

I watched this River Cat for several minutes before it discovered me!  It wasn’t  sure what I was and it jumped up onto a large log for a better look.  At this point, I wasn’t sure what it was going to do…but I kept on taking pictures.  Here is a close up of its head which illustrates one peculiarity about this beast.

River Cats have mismatched eyes.  There is an old pioneer wives’ tale that the secret to this cat’s hunting success lies in locking its gaze with that of its prey’s.  In effect, it momentarily hypnotizes its quarry before coming in to make the kill.  Whether or not there is any paralyzing effect at all has never been formally proven.

Once this unusual cat discovered that I was neither food nor threat it moved on.  I tagged behind at a respectful distance.  I followed it near the river before it gave me the slip.  Knowing that it was probably hungry, the thought crossed my mind that it might try to ambush one of the wading birds I saw earlier.  Picking up my collecting bag and walking stick I headed back down to the river.  Unfortunately, my luck didn’t hold out and I wasn’t treated to a real life moment where hunter meets prey.  I never saw the River Cat again, but I do have a few photos to prove it was here.

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The stars were in alignment and I got to spend a nice Earth Day at the Falls of the Ohio.  It was a little cold and windy…nothing layering in sweat shirts couldn’t handle!  I found so many interesting objects and spaces that I filled up my camera’s memory card.  I now find myself with a richness of images I couldn’t post in one go…and so I will try to keep it focused in some way.  As proof that everyday should be Earth Day…the official celebration in the park has been moved to May after the Kentucky Derby.  Supplanted by a horse race!  Last night was Thunder Over Louisville which year after year is usually the largest fireworks display in North America and kicks off the two weeks long Kentucky Derby Festival.  Thousands of people were out here partying on both banks of the Ohio River.  They left their trash after the event, but fortunately it looks like the clean up crews are doing a good job and keeping this stuff out of the park.  After all, it already has enough detritus of its own.  Of late, I’ve been really fascinated by how these big barge cables and ropes that wash into here weather over time. They are made of tough stuff, but the river wins in the end.  Sometimes they unravel and drift beautifully from willow root to branch like mutant Spanish moss.  Some of their colors can even be shocking compared to the neutral earth tones of their surroundings.  Here’s one such scene I’ve been trying to describe.  This is one of my Earth Day photographs.

I later came across a nice length of barge cable stretched out across the sand. For fun, I started coiling it and taking pictures of the different configurations I came up with.  Here’s the way it looked stretched out.

When I look at my pictures at home, many of these cable fragments reference fossils.  I get a strong feeling of ancient sea lily crinoids and nautilus-like ammonites preserved in the rock that was silt millions of years a go.  I also played with the spiral form and activated an intimate space with its spring-like energy.

Creating a tighter spiral evoked ammonite shells and wavy tentacles.  Ammonites were coiled cephalopods with some resemblances to our squids and octopi. The ammonites were so successful for so long.  Beginning somewhere in the Devonian they prospered and radiated out to fill all the world’s oceans until the Cretaceous Period crashed.  Their run lasted more than 330 million years and now they are all gone.  We have a way to go to match that record.

In most of the places I walked today I could hear the Northern Orioles singing.  I tried imitating their call notes and once in a while I could get a bird to reply.  I saw various warblers, vireos, woodpeckers, wrens, and more…however, the most memorable bird event happened at my feet.  I stepped too near the nest of a Song Sparrow and flushed the bird that was hiding with its clutch of eggs.  Here’s a photo of the scene.  Can you find the bird’s nest?  Look closely at the dark spot on the left side of the young willow greenery.

And now…lets look a little deeper and closer at this spot.

Inside were four tiny eggs tinged in green and speckled with brown spots.  I’ve read that the Song Sparrow is heavily parasitized by the Brown-headed Cowbird which opportunistically lays an egg of its own among the sparrow’s clutch.  The unsuspecting parents raise the cowbird as their own.  As far as I could tell, this nest was in good shape.  Perhaps having a really obscure nest site has so far protected it from the cowbirds which are common in our area?  Walking further, I came to another nesting site of a different kind near my outdoor studio.  Like the Song Sparrow…this spot was also well hidden.

The tire swing helps give it away otherwise it easily blends into the natural driftwood environment.  I imagine a family coming to play here because there is evidence of children… including a misplaced fuzzy duck toy.  The kids keep raiding my Styrofoam cache, but haven’t made anything back at their fort!  Walking around the structure, I find the door is closed.

I even crawled up on the “roof”  for a look.  The builders have taken a natural space created by interlocking logs and enclosed and defined the space by leaning and propping up other found wood.  It all blends in perfectly.

I moved a few planks and logs aside and could see the interior.  I set the duck back up and snapped this shot.

Because my driftwood structure neighbors like to borrow the Styrofoam I’ve collected…I decided to leave them a present using the biggest polystyrene chunk they dragged over here.  First, I need to improvise a head.

After finding some appropriate limbs…I set the figure up in the corner of the log fort.  I thought it looked pretty good against the new green leaves of the willows.  In my head I heard this little bit of imagined dialogue…”Wait, wait…it’s not yet Earth Day!  That’s been postponed until May 12.  Come back then and bring the family.”…as he waved all wild-eyed and everything.

I’m not sure how long this guy will last?  It would be nice to think that the kids who play here could see this figure as a part of their creative environment.

The root mass from this great log makes up one “wall” of the driftwood fort.  Here’s another view looking back before I moved on to the rest of my day.

I’m going to bring this post to a close with two photos of a willow tree I saw the other day.  These trees are buffeted by the elements and begin to take on character and personality as their will to survive kicks in.  With their branches reaching for the sun…their incredible roots hang on to the mud and are sculpted by the Ohio River.  It’s good to think of trees during Earth Day.

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Dear readers…I have so much to post and have fallen a couple of weeks behind.  The work a day world has been extra busy (and rewarding) of late.  Still, I have made time to go to the river and “do my thing” to maintain my peace of mind.  It’s time now to post my images and tell a story.  The following post occurred two weeks a go when the river was high and I decided to spend the day in the western section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  At this point, I was fairly certain that the materials I found and cached at my outdoor studio in the eastern section were either gone or the river was about to take them.  I ventured forward-looking for “fresh” materials and opportunities.

My walk took me past the marvelous tree that the local kids (among others) like to use as a hang out.  I can imagine many potential childhood memories centered around this tree for the folks who grew up with it.  On this day everything was quiet and in fact I didn’t see anybody out here at all.  That bodes really well if you want to see wildlife.  It has been so unseasonably warm…that I wonder how that will affect how spring unfolds this year?  Later we would set several records for high temps in the lower 80’s for early March!!! Technically, it’s still winter here…very odd indeed.  I had heard that a pair of bald eagles were attempting to set up a nest in the far western section of the park and I was hoping to see at least signs of the birds.  I wasn’t lucky on this day with the eagles, but I did come across a few other interesting wildlife objects courtesy of the Ohio River.  For example, here’s the first goldfish I’ve found out here.

This fish stood out against the river pebbles like a red beacon.  I could have found it with one eye closed! We have other invasive carp species out in the river now, but this was a new one.  An actual goldfish probably wouldn’t stand much of a chance against the river’s natural predators.  The non-native carp that have entered the river system eat constantly and grow really fast and large.  It will be a great challenge to rid the river of them. I picked up the neon goldfish and dropped it into my collecting bag.  Here’s what I came across next in the way of wildlife.

Swimming at the river’s edge I stumbled upon this golden sea turtle.  It was playing among the bubbles and rootlets.  Again, here was an image that was unnaturally beautiful…like the current weather.  The pattern we have been experiencing is that the river will rise and then fall in quick succession as the Army Corps of Engineers regulates the water level for commerce and flood control.  Walking even further west I came across this “elephant’s graveyard” of plastic and my heart sank.  You can pick this stuff up all day long and it seems the next day gives you a fresh supply. Sometimes it feels like you are rolling that proverbial rock uphill only to have it roll back down.  What’s happening up river from us?

As you can see…it’s not a pretty picture.  Mostly plastic containers like old milk jugs and laundry detergent packaging.  As this plastic weathers and breaks down from UV light, the pieces keep getting smaller and smaller without ever completely disappearing.  The next stop could be the Gulf of Mexico. I found one other notable object and set it up among the still bare branches awaiting the new leaves of the year.  This is also the first time I have come across one of these things.

It’s either an artificial palm or banana tree?  As the day continued to warm I wondered to myself about how plants might be reacting to climate change?  Are the warmer weather plants moving northwards and what else will this change? While I was musing on this I received an answer in a most unlikely form.  My “banana palm” was visited by an unusual bird.

Here’s another first! Leave it to the only Banana Palm Mockingbird to find the only banana tree around here.  I watched transfixed as the bird explored the tree and the surrounding area.  A bird of this species is more likely to be seen in Central America than mid America.  I don’t know much more about it.  I saw it investigate the river’s edge for food and here are a couple more images to prove it was here.

Here’s the mockingbird with Louisville’s skyline visible on the opposite shore.

The mockingbird didn’t hang out for very long and soon it was time for me to head back.  I’m going to be off for the next couple of days and will attempt to post more of my adventures…if the call of the river doesn’t get me first!  Have a great weekend everybody!




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One last post before all of 2011’s sand runs through the hour-glass!  Here are a few of the many rubber duckies that I have come across at the Falls of the Ohio over the years.  I thought it would be a fun way to end the year. If you would like to see more ducky images…I’ve posted a new collection, “Kentucky Lucky Ducky Collection” which can be found in my Pages section.  Have a Happy New Year and may 2012 be kind to all!

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First, I would like to thank all the people who checked out my last post on the box turtles.  The response has been pretty overwhelming and I’ve enjoyed everybody’s comments.  The Eastern Box Turtle isn’t the only turtle to be found at the Falls of the Ohio State Park and this post is about that other mysterious and rare reptile. It’s called the Cottonwood Turtle (Terrapene populus) and its habitat overlaps that of the box turtle.  On a warm and humid morning I was exploring the eastern section of the park around the debris line formed by a retreating Ohio River.  Plastic bottles and containers and the ever-present polystyrene chunks helped define the high-water mark.  We have had so much rain here and it’s officially Kentuckiana’s wettest spring on record!  I was mesmerized watching and listening to the Cedar Waxwings pursuing each other from mulberry tree to mulberry tree and whose fruits are just now beginning to ripen to a glossy black.  The air was filled with the fine downy fluff produced by the catkins of our giant cottonwood trees and seemed like so much snow falling in ultra slow motion.  The chances of inhaling this fluff are real and white airy drifts were forming on the ground where the air currents pushed this gossamer material with its tiny secret of seeds within.  With so much going on, I was surprised to catch a slight bit of movement inside a nearby hollow log.  I remained still and this is what I saw.

Emerging into the light of a new day was this very ancient looking turtle.  Of course I recognized what it is and determined to follow it and make a record of my observations.  I kept a discreet distance away and tried not to make any sudden movements or loud noises so the turtle would act as naturally as possible.  I kept up with it for a several hours and then I had to pull myself away for home.

The Cottonwood Turtle is characterized by a high-domed carapace that the original inhabitants of the Ohio Valley used for war and ceremonial helmets.  Unlike the box turtles which it shares some affinities with…the Cottonwood Turtle cannot retract its head and limbs fully into its shell.  This makes it vulnerable to predators.  I watched my turtle crawling over the plastic and Styrofoam debris left by the last flood.  It seemed to be going somewhere with a purpose and I followed discreetly behind it.

The previous night we had another tremendous rain storm with high winds.  Mud, broken branches and leaf litter evidence can be found everywhere.  I followed my turtle to a large cottonwood branch and saw it engaging in the activity that gives this remarkable reptile its name.

Over the course of about an hour, I watched the turtle carrying mouthfuls of the Cottonwood fluff to a hole that it had previously prepared.  It made about a half a dozen trips back and forth from the downed branch to what looked to my eye to be an abandoned groundhog hole that the turtle retrofitted for its own purpose.  The fluff was carried  into the hole where a special chamber was being prepared for this turtle’s eggs!

Here is the Cottonwood Turtle about to finish laying her eggs.  I observed about five ping pong ball-sized eggs being deposited upon their bed of cottonwood fiber.  I suppose the fluff cushions the eggs and perhaps as this material decays provides some modicum of warmth to assist in the incubation?  From what I have read, new turtles should be emerging from their subterranean nursery after sixty days.  After the turtle covered her nest with her back legs she moved on.  From this moment, the eggs and baby turtles to be are on their own.  I gently uncovered some of the soil and photographed this single egg.  Afterwards, I placed the egg back into the nest, re-covered it and went on my way happy to have witnessed this ancient rite of life.

It occurred to me on my walk back through the tangle of bottomland, that this turtle might be benefitting the tree as well?  I haven’t heard or read anything concerning a link, but what if?  The fluff contains minute seeds and the act of burying them might aid in propagating this tree.  The turtle places these seeds a little deeper than usual which might encourage stronger and deeper root growth.  Since this area is frequently altered by the river, it would make sense for the tree to have a deeper hold on the soil?  I came across another downed cottonwood branch and admired all the fluff it was producing.  It all looked so beautiful and magical in broad daylight.

Overhead the orioles were collecting their own materials to build their amazing hanging basket nests.  And the Cedar Waxwings were fueling up on the mulberries in preparation for their long migration up into the north country.  One last image of one of these waxwings.  Such an interesting and beautiful bird so uniquely marked.

Although I may have fooled some people out there (wink, wink)…the Cottonwood Turtle doesn’t actually exist!  I made it from junk I found here in this very real environment at the Falls of the Ohio.  The shell or carapace is the cushioning from inside an old bicycle or motorcycle helmet and I have found several of these helmets after the last flood.

I used three pieces of Styrofoam…the shell, head, and one piece under a chunk of fiberglass-like material to fill the space inside the helmet.  Limbs are pieces of found wood attached to the lightweight fiberglass.  Everything is joined and pegged together with wood skewers.  I did use some found plastic for the actual neck and mouth of the turtle.  The eyes are round lead fishing weights and the nostrils are pieces of coal.  Thanks for tagging along!

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The Ohio River has receded by the Falls of the Ohio.  For many weeks the river was loath to relinquish the territory it had recently flooded.  I ventured down the river bank and explored the more eastern section of the park.  The following post is some thoughts and images made during this expedition into a very moist and muddy area filled with debris and wildlife.

While exploring the park it is not unusual to run into others who are curious to see what the river has left behind.  Sometimes just a nod of recognition and some small gesture to reassure that one poses no threat is made and each party then attends to their own business.  And then sometimes a more sustained conversation occurs where information of mutual interest is exchanged.  Such was the case on this trip where I ran into this fellow of short stature with a bulbous blue nose who had been investigating the same stretch of river as me.  We tagged along with one another for a short time before family duties called me home.  I believe our initial conversation had something to do with the muddiness of the area.  In places, things looked safe and dry enough to stand on…and then the mud below would reach up and grab you by the ankles.  Sometimes small, blue crabs would pop out of their holes to check out whether the trapped parties would be good to eat.

In my case, I am simply too big for them and once the crabs realized this they scuttled away.  Getting back to “Mr. Blue Nose”,  (funny how we didn’t think to ask each other’s name?), we were both astonished by the debris left behind by the retreating river.  After witnessing several other high water incidents over time…this is fairly representative of the stuff we found.

As you can see it’s mostly plastic containers, polystyrene (aka Styrofoam), and lots of shredded bark and wood chips.  Every once in a while, something more interesting would turn up.  While exploring, Mr. Blue Nose and I found two sign fragments and I kept these for my Found Painting and Sign Collection.  Here are the two precious finds.  The first one is kind of self-explanatory.  I like to muse that this is one way the universe communicates to me by leaving these things in my path for me to ponder.

I’m not sure what it is asking…Please don’t litter or Please, only you can prevent forest fires, whatever its actual message, this is at least a polite sign.  The other one is more reclusive, in fact it is “shy”.  Here’s a picture of this enigmatic sign.

I like the hand-routed and painted “sign” for a person.  I think this fragment may originally have asked dog owners to leash their pets…but its shy and won’t tell me for certain.  Other found treasures included my second banana of the season…naturally it went into the old collecting bag to later join the other artificial produce I have found out here over time.

I also find other kinds of foam out here.  Here’s an interesting found sculpture made from polyurethane.  I have come across busted aerosol cans of this stuff where the foam has expanded out resembling entrails.

Mr. Blue Nose called my attention to a log that something had torn into and he wondered what could do this kind of damage.  Chunks of bark and soft decayed wood were scattered all around. 

I was happy to inform my new friend that this looked like the work made by a Pileated Woodpecker and I showed him images of this great bird I had taken just a few hours earlier.

Since no one can verify that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still alive along some wild river in Arkansas…the Pileated Woodpecker has the distinction of being our biggest living woodpecker.  For years, I have observed a pair of these crow-sized birds in the park.  This one is the male and can be identified by his red mustache.  The female lacks this and has more black on its head.

The Pileated Woodpecker has a large bill that goes through wood in a hurry.  Carpenter ants and beetle larvae can be found in these decaying logs and make up the main diet of this magnificent bird.  If you look closely at the photo above you can see a nice grub about to be swallowed.  This bird was so intent on looking for food that I was able to get closer than usual to it.  A couple of weeks a go, I found a Bessbug beetle which is a nice sized insect that uses decaying wood in its life-cycle.  This beetle is also known as the Patent-leather Beetle.  Here’s an adult I found sunning itself on a piece of Styrofoam.  These beetles can get nearly two inches long or about  five centimeters.  I wonder if our country will ever adopt the metric system?  Anyway, these beetle grubs make nice woodpecker snacks.

Thanks to my new companion we were able to make one other nice bird sighting on this day.  Mr. Blue Nose alerted me to some commotion happening in a nearby stand of trees. 

My friend said that he saw several blackbirds (grackles) chasing a larger bird from tree to tree.  I have observed this behavior before when birds of prey are present.  I gathered my camera up and went to see if I could find out what was the object of all this attention.  It turned out to be this beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk.  Here are a couple of pictures of it before the smaller birds drove it out of the area.

I always feel lucky when I see such beautiful birds in the park.  Before flying away, I saw this bird’s mate arriving and the two flew away together.  Soon it was time for me to fly away too and I left my companion on the river bank.

We parted near the railroad bridge and perhaps we will see one another again?  My last image is from an overlook area popular with visitors who want a better view of the tainter gates.  I have taken many pictures here over the years, but this one is different.  To give you an idea of how high the river was…this log was deposited on the fence by the retreating river!  Or, I hope so…I would hate to think it jumped up here!  So long for now!!

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