Posts Tagged ‘birding’

Canada Geese, Falls of the Ohio, April 2014

It’s springtime at the Falls of the Ohio and life is less shy about revealing itself.  Wasn’t too long ago that finding even the most common bird could be a challenge due to the harshness and length of our winter.  Now the spring migrants are winging their way northward and even the indigenous species are easier to locate.  This is the time of year when the pair bonds are strongest.  The resident Canada Goose population appears to have overwintered in fine fashion and it won’t be too long before the first goslings are in the water.  As you may have ascertained, this post will be about one of my favorite Falls subjects…birds.

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This is a composite image of three different Osprey that were simultaneously circling my position at the river recently.  The trio were flying in ever-widening circles and taking advantage of the wind currents and thermals.  It’s a thrilling site to observe these fish hawks diving into the water and being rewarded for their efforts with a freshly caught fish in their talons.  I’ve heard about, but not yet seen, the Bald Eagle nest that is just west of the Falls area.  On occasion, I have seen eagles, but considering how near they are to this area I would have thought that sightings would be more common.  I’ve recently seen other birds of prey including Peregrine Falcons, Cooper’s Hawks, and our next featured bird, the Black Vulture is beginning to return to the Falls of the Ohio in numbers.

Black Vulture and dead fish, Falls of the Ohio, April 2014

Black Vulture, Falls of the Ohio, April 2014

Black Vulture feeding on a dead fish, Falls of the Ohio, April 2014

To my eye, it appears that the Black Vulture population has been increasing while our other vulture…the Turkey Vulture presents itself less frequently.  The Black Vultures are more gregarious and aggressive which probably keeps the Turkey Vulture from showing its featherless, naked, red-head more?  Recently, I came across this individual Black Vulture feeding upon a dead fish.  It let me get quite close, but there was also a minimum distance that it would tolerate me.  Whenever I would get closer to its comfort zone, the vulture would grab the fish with its sharp beak and drag it to where that minimum distance was re-established before it resumed feeding.  We did this dance for a few minutes before the vulture decided it had enough and flew away.  My next bird is one that I have never observed in the park before.  Some of my most memorable sightings have come from species seen just once and maybe for a few seconds at that.  Hardcore birders (they wear black leather jackets with chains hanging off them) are familiar with this phenomenon.  Friends have asked me why I don’t indulge my avian passion in a more organized fashion, but frankly I don’t like the sense of competition that can exist in some of these groups and clubs.  I appreciate that birds are fellow life forms that are inhabiting the same time and space with me and are more than feathered abstractions to cross off on some list.  If you pay attention, birds can tell you much about the state of nature and this planet.

Orange-collared Piper, Falls of the Ohio, April 2014

Orange-collared Piper, Falls of the Ohio, April 2014


The new bird I recently came across is the Orange-collared Piper.  It’s a shorebird that undertakes  a tremendous journey starting at the tip of South America and it won’t stop moving northwards until it reaches its breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.  Landing at the Falls, it is a little more than half way to where it needs to be.  This piper is a rather small bird and easily overlooked in this particular environment.  Its white body and head look remarkably like the polystyrene that litters these shores.

Orange-collared Piper at the Falls of the Ohio, April 2014

Orange-collared Piper, April 2014

The bird is so named because it sports an orange ring around its neck.  Other field marks include diminutive size, brown wings, and a sharp yellow bill it uses to probe sand and mud for the tiny invertebrates it eats.  Also true to its name, this bird makes a high-pitched “piping” call it uses while it feeds.  To he honest, I did not hear this call with this particular individual.

Orange-collared Piper at the Falls of the Ohio, April 2014

Both the male and female Orange-collared Piper look about the same.  At its breeding grounds, the pair incubates about five or six tiny, black speckled eggs in a rather shallow gravel depression.  No fancy nest for this bird…it lays its eggs directly on the ground where  cryptic coloration helps protect them from the numerous Arctic predators.  This bird is considered threatened due in large measure to habitat loss and other environmental degradation.  Its amazingly long migration probably also puts this bird at risk since so many things can go wrong on such a long trip.  I watched this particular individual for about forty minutes or so.  It moved among the driftwood in very careful fashion stopping here and there to probe the sand with its sharp yellow bill.  When the bird decided to move on…there was a flash of wings too quick to see and it was gone.  I hope that it reaches its destination and resurfaces at this park again.  I have one final “bird” that I recorded the same day I saw the Orange-collared Piper.  Perhaps you will recognize this one?  It’s most distinctive field mark is the sunglasses it wears while floating on the river.  Happy birding!!rubber duck with sunglasses, April 2014

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Black Vultures on the Fossil Beds, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

The resident flock of Black Vultures were taking advantage of the fossil beds now exposed on the Kentucky side  of the Falls of the Ohio.  The wier dams were temporarily closed and with it the flow of water.  With the river level reduced much of the sculpted limestone normally underwater is briefly seen again.  Fishermen have been accessing new fishing spots along the freshly revealed fossil beds which turns out to be a boon for the vultures.  Not only do they get to feast on fish left by the anglers, but they also enjoy any other trash including left over fishing bait.  Early autumn is a transitional season among the park’s bird life as residents gear up for over-wintering or prepare for the southerly migration.  Birds from the northern latitudes particularly Canada and the Arctic Circle pass through our area on their epic journeys to Central and South America.

Canada Geese feeding on grass, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

The vultures will fly away, but many of our Canada Geese will brave it out.  We seem to have at least two distinct flocks of Canada Geese sharing the area around the fossil beds.  It’s amazing how intolerant each group is of the other.  There is competition for the best food sites and each group frequently bump into one another with much squabbling.  That’s what makes the next image interesting to me.

Domestic goose mixed with the Canada Geese, Falls, Sept. 2013

Canada Geese can have limits on how much mingling occurs between their own species, but in this case, are willing to accept a true outsider.  This domestic goose seemed integrated into its adoptive flock.  It swam with its wild cousins and accompanied them to a favorite feeding location and was never bothered by the other geese.  Recently, I came across a young Cooper’s Hawk and I was surprised when it did not immediately fly away after I bumbled across it.  There was a good reason why it didn’t leave.

Young Cooper's Hawk, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

The hawk sized me up and then jumped down off the log it was standing on to retrieve something it had dropped.

Young Cooper's Hawk with prey, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

The hawk had what appeared to be a freshly killed Mourning Dove.  After securing its prey with its talons, the hawk seemingly jumped into the sky and  vanished within moments.  I thought I saw it disappearing into the tree tops of a stand of willow trees within walking distance.  I did investigate the area, but never saw the bird again.  I love it when I get to observe behaviors.  Life has a job to do and can’t wait around posing for pictures.  Here’s a different kind of behavior being demonstrated by an American Robin.

American Robin bathing at the Falls of the Ohio, Summer 2013

I love this image which I captured earlier in the summer.  This American Robin is focused on taking a bath.  Its head is under the shallow water and droplets and beads of water are splashed over its body.  Our resident American Robin population is doing well and seem to be increasing at the Falls of the Ohio.  Some of the robins will hang out over our gray winter, while others will seek warmer climes.  My last adventure to the Falls resulted in images of a bird that I had never recorded previously in the park.

Gross Blue Bill at the Falls of the Ohio, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

Gross Blue Beak and flowering plants, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

The Gross Blue Beak is strictly passing through and in fact, this is the first recorded instance of this bird appearing in the park.  Good thing I have all this photographic proof that the bird was here because the resident birders are a skeptical lot.  Reputations and lifetime bird lists are at stake and there is a great burden of proof to produce irrefutable documentation.  This bird has traveled thousands of miles from the edge of the Arctic Circle in Canada and is bound for the Argentine coast.

Gross Blue Beak with corroded aerosol can, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

portrait of a Gross Blue Beak at the Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

The Gross Blue Beak receives its name not because it has disgusting habits that require an out-sized bill.  Rather the “Gross” idea comes from the German word for “large” .  The Ohio River Valley was settled by many immigrant groups and the Germans were among the most prominent.  This bird’s beak is a heavy-duty tool it uses to crack open nuts, crush mollusks (particularly snails), and jack hammer soft decaying logs in pursuit of beetle grubs.  All three of these food sources are found at the Falls of the Ohio.

Gross Blue Beak at the Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

I was able to get quite close to the Gross Blue Beak to snap off these images.  I’ve noticed before that many northern migrants of various species will allow me to approach more closely than the local birds that are around people more.  Perhaps that’s the key?  For the moment, the region around the Arctic Circle has seen less of our influence than other places in North America.  To close, I have one other bird image, but it is noteworthy because of the people in the far distance.  Recently, I received a question about the back wall that is a part of the system in place to produce a stable pool of river water for commercial barge traffic.  I’ve heard that the Ohio River carries more tonnage of goods along it’s 800 plus miles than the Rhine River does in Europe.  The back wall of this dam is quite high up and the actual river level is perhaps a meter or so below the top of the wall.  Beyond the Great Blue Herons, the small band of hikers provides some sense of scale on how the river would be over their heads!  When you are walking the now exposed fossil beds…it’s a sobering thought!

Great Blue Herons and hikers on the fossil beds, Falls of the Ohio, Sept. 2013

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high Ohio River at the Falls of the Ohio, Feb., 3, 2013

The Ohio River at the Falls of the Ohio is even higher now since my last visit with the fishermen.  We have had some wild weather in the interim.  First it gets unseasonably warm and then a cold front collides with a wet weather system originating in the Gulf of Mexico.  The results of this can be very dangerous as this is the perfect recipe for a tornado outbreak which did occur south of here.  My family was awakened to the sound of tornado warning sirens at 4:30ish in the morning.  We began that day in the basement of our house which was a rude awakening even for the family dog.  Luckily, we didn’t experience any damage although it rained hard and was very windy.  And after the cold front blasted through it became extremely cold and was followed by snow.  I think we have seen the gamut of winter weather and I was glad to hear the “groundhog” did not see its shadow in Pennsylvania meaning that winter would come to a normal end this year.  That is if you believe animals can predict the weather?

floating trash in the river, Feb. 2013

I am certain this time that my outdoor studio under the willows is history by now.  The Ohio River has claimed the spot and my cache of art materials.  Unfortunately, there is a ready re-supply floating in the water.  It seems I begin many a post with what amounts to a weather report, but please bear with me.  My blog concerns itself with the local conditions which are the context that my adventures and stories are set in.  I’m also amazed and concerned that I can detect variations in our weather patterns having lived in this area for so long.  Much of the time I feel I’m bearing witness to events of importance to us all.  What is happening here is also occurring in other places in the world.  As I was walking through the woods on this day, I was surprised by the bird life I was encountering when I expected to see nearly nothing.  My Eastern Bluebird friends were still hanging around and they had company.  I saw White-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Brown Tree Creepers and many more especially near the river’s expanding edge.  I also saw and photographed another amazing bird which makes up the bulk of this post.

Snow Cock at the Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 2013

Snow Cock, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 2013

Fellow bird watchers had put the alert out that an unusual visitor was seen hanging out at the Falls.  A young, male Snow Cock was seen near the Woodland Loop Trail which is a bird not seen in these parts since the late 19th century.  As you can imagine this is a northern bird used to the cold and snow…in fact it depends upon these conditions for its survival.  The Snow Cock (like some ptarmigan species) turns nearly white in winter.  The rest of the year it sports plumage that is more like leaf camouflage.  Regardless of the season, the Snow Cock is a cryptic animal and is shy and retiring.  Except of course when it’s time to choose a mate when the males make it a point to be as noticeable to their own kind as possible.  I was hoping the bad weather would cause this wayward Snow Cock to linger and I was rewarded by its presence.  I took as many photographs as possible.  I have a feeling that I won’t ever see this exact species out here again.

detail of Snow Cock head, Feb. 2013

Snow Cock in natural habitat, Feb. 2013

Snow Cock, back view showing tail fan, Feb. 2013

The Snow Cock is also called the “Snow Turkey” and “Styro-grouse” because of the large fan of tail feathers it uses for courtship displays.  That’s how I found this particular bird which wasn’t all that wary.  The young male was rehearsing his dance and song and establishing a lek or territory where he would fight other males for the attention of the females.  Although this bird wasn’t going to hang out at the Falls forever, it was nevertheless, practicing this important survival skill.  Other interesting field marks included a head crest, an unusual beard growing from his chest, and a long bill for seeds and insects.

Snow Cock at the water's edge, Feb. 2013

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I watched the Snow Cock look for just the right spot to strut its stuff.  It was frequently hopping from one vantage point (usually a tall stump) to the ground and back.  The call of the Snow Cock as you might guess is very chicken-like and not particularly beautiful in its own right.  To my eye, it seemed very interested in the water which was noticeably spreading over the land.  This might be the first flood it has ever experienced?

Snow Cock sipping water, Feb. 2013

Snow Cock by large Osage Orange tree, Feb. 2013

I kept my distance from the bird and quietly followed it through the woods.  I observed it drinking from melting ice and I left it be hanging out near a large Osage Orange tree along the trail’s path.  The wind was beginning to pick up again and more flakes were in the air.  Despite wearing good gloves, my finger tips were cold and painful.  I decided that now was a good time to go home and I did.  I hope the next time I’m out here that the conditions will be more favorable for an extended visit.  I had one other small surprise waiting for me along the Woodland Loop Trail.  I passed the spot by the creek where I watched the fishermen catch sauger and was amazed and amused that the figure I had made from river junk that day was still there!  He was missing his nose, but otherwise he was intact.  I guess the fishermen appreciated him as I do you for tagging along on another adventure at the Falls of the Ohio.

Styro-figure along the loop trail, Feb. 2013

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Since my last visit to the Falls of the Ohio State Park the willow fuzz has peaked.  Cottony drifts have gathered in places that offer some protection from even the slightest breeze.  The way the light shines on this gossamer surface is magical!  Before venturing into today’s avian adventure…a personal blogging milestone announcement as this is officially post number 300!  I hear the champagne corks popping already.  I had little in the way of expectations when I started this Riverblog, but I have been happy with this medium for describing my project.  In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if blogging would hold my interest, but it has.  I have also enjoyed the wide community that is out there and I thank everyone that has stopped by or left a comment.  As regular visitors know…I’m a big bird watching fan and I enjoy the many challenges that this hobby presents me.  A once in a lifetime experience can begin with a quick flash of the wings that may last just seconds.  It causes me to be acutely present in the moment.  Venturing down to the river I see the resident flock of Black Vultures has returned for another season.  I photographed this wary pair looking for dead fish or anything else edible.

The foreground in this image is willow fluff covering the sand.  I find the two vulture species that hang out at the Falls to be really interesting birds and I have posted on them many times before.  There are more furtive species out here as well and I had the good luck to stumble upon a small mixed flock of warbler species.  Among this group were several Magnolia Warblers and I have a few images of them.  I love their coloring with their black streaks on their bright yellow breasts.  Magnolia Warbler is a misnomer since they don’t seem to favor that tree in my experience.  I found these warblers to be very tolerant of my presence and I was able to follow them as they moved from one willow tree to another in their search for small insects.

Warblers are tiny always on the go creatures and their many species are a highlight of the spring migration.  Many of the warbler species I see are passing through our area to points mostly north of here.  I came across another seldom seen bird that I hope you will enjoy.  It’s called the Brown-winged Robin and it too is traveling through the heartland.  I have a series of this bird too beginning with a specimen I found wading through the willow fuzz.  Is this pre-nesting behavior?

Here are a few more shots of this rare bird in the environment at the Falls of the Ohio.  The brown wings are diagnostic as is the bright red beak.

There are many more bird species both real and imagined that I look forward to presenting in future posts!  I hope to continue to share with you the great variety of life that I find in this relatively small place as it reveals itself to me.  One other announcement for folks in my immediate area.  I will be presenting my project at the Pecha Kucha event at the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, Kentucky the evening of June 5.  This will be an outdoor event and coincides with the transit of Venus occurring on that night.  Essentially, this slide show presentation form I believe began in architectural circles and speakers have 20 slides at 20 seconds a piece to present a topic.  It goes by fast so you need to be pithy which can be a challenge! If you are interested in more information just click on my Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest link in my blogroll.  I hope to see some of you out there and thanks again to all who have checked out the Artist at Exit 0 Riverblog over the years!  Now for more willow fuzz!

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Last Saturday was a fun adventure for me and involved a few more people than usual too!  First, the morning light was fantastic and I met photographer Ross Gordon down at the Falls who is working on a photo project of his own.  We walked to my outdoor studio to see how things were weathering.  Everything looked relatively undisturbed.

On our way back to the parking lot, I was able to locate the Pied Woodpecker that had taken up temporary residency in the park.  My friend saw this as a great opportunity for a one of a kind photograph. Here’s Ross in action while the bird looks on with puzzled expression.

After that early adventure I had an appointment at the Interpretive Center I didn’t want to miss. I had received a nice invitation to hang out with Girl Scout Troop # 1008 while they pitched in to help clean up the park.

My friend Laura who works at Gallery Hertz has a daughter in scouting.  Since Troop #1008 had already scheduled a clean up at the river…she wondered if I could join them to talk about what I do in the park?  I began by showing the troop the bottle piece I had just finished and photographed before catching up with them this morning.  After the show and tell, the gloves were put on and the litter bags were distributed as the young women started cleaning up around the Interpretive Center.  They did a really good job too as shown by this large sheet of plastic they pulled out of the underbrush.

I followed around collecting trash with the scouts and made this figure from the junk I found.  I left him standing near a path along the Woodland Trail.

The figure included bits of hickory nuts, wood, and plastic.  The small purple ball was a good find and helped make this piece more interesting. The nose is part of an old corn cob.

My composite figure had to give a little shout out to the troop for their hard work.  In what seemed a short amount of time, an impressive pile of trash bags appeared by the park’s dumpster.  In a great mood…the clean up team assembled for this celebratory photograph.

After the troop left, I hung out at the river for another hour or so.  There was still a little color left in the trees that soon would be gone.

The little dark dot near the center of the above image is a fisherman I had been watching.  He has hip waders on which has helped him get out to a channel where the fish were biting. While working with the girl scouts, the fisherman passed by on his way home.  He was nice enough to show me his impressive stringer of fish.

He had some nice saugers (dark and mottled) and a few hybrid stripped bass.  I’m always pleasantly surprised by some of the fish I see being caught out here.  Well, that’s all the time I have today.  Have a great week and see you later!

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It’s been nearly a month since I last visited the Falls of the Ohio.  My still tender twisted ankle and the brutal heat of this summer has me concentrating on other projects and exhibits.  Admittedly, I haven’t posted much and that periodic malaise that can affect bloggers hit me too.  My ankle is slowly getting better (intimations of mortality!) and with hope the oppressive heat is relenting?  I made the short trip from my home in Louisville to Clarksville, Indiana where the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center is redoing its exhibits.  I’m glad the mammoth skeleton will still be on display and I’m curious what else will be featured?

Each year the center’s foundation stages its “Rock the Rocks” fundraiser which features a silent auction.  I usually contribute one of my sculptures made from the river-born junk I find in the park.  This year my donation is entitled “Priscilla” and she’s a piece I made years a go and predates the old riverblog.  I hope she finds a nice home.  “Priscilla” with her dark eyes has a depth to her that seems to raise many questions.  Well, that’s how I read her!  The main question remains…why do we do the things we do that we know can harm the environment?  “Priscilla” knows she shouldn’t exist.

After my errand, I hung around to look at the Ohio River as it presents itself at the Falls of the Ohio.  Most of the fossil deposits are exposed and in my mind I’m walking out among them which in reality is always an interesting experience.  It’s easy for me to fantasize that I’m on another planet or a different place in time.  I know, however, that it will be a while yet before I wade across the shallow river and back out upon the water-scalloped limestone.  I don’t think my ankle is ready for that test yet.  It would be a long way to limp back.

I stopped and talked with several birders who had their scopes and binoculars fixed upon the distant fossil beds. Summer shorebirds were present including Great Egrets, Caspian Terns, Spotted Sandpipers, and an uncommon siting of an American White Pelican which had just flown away!  I missed it but was glad to hear that it had been seen regularly over the last three weeks.  I recall a few years a go, there was another young male bird that hung around for a while.  Once upon a time they were seen as far east as the Miami River in Ohio, but that was in the 19th century.  Now the pelicans are seen more frequently and might be extending their range again eastward along our great rivers.

I enjoy birds of all kinds and near the birdwatchers, a male American Goldfinch fed on sunflower seeds from one of the center’s flower beds.  I don’t know exactly what it is about the attraction to birds, but it lifts my spirits.  I go back to my car and collect the surprise within.  Although I haven’t physically been out here as much as a usually am…my thoughts don’t stray far from this environment.  I made a new figure in my basement and I’m eager to snap a few shots of it in the context of where the materials I used to construct it were found.

This is “Cubby” and he is eager to see the world.  We walked along the trail together and came across this spot where the morning-glory vines were growing in profusion.  Only in the shade did we find the blossoms still open.  The heat of broad daylight would shrivel them to nothing.  Along our walk we could hear the sound of cicadas and the smell of sun tan lotion was lingering in the air.  It’s the weekend and the park is full of visitors.

As we walk through the grass, the blades come alive with the many grasshoppers that are present.  “Cubby” and I check them out and we also notice a few nice Buckeye butterflies flitting about with their beautiful blue eye spots checking us out too.

It’s amazing what a month can change around here.  It seems so verdant and overgrown.  We find evidence that some of the recent and powerful thunderstorms have blown over a few old trees.  This seems to happen with increased frequency.  When it does rain, it seems to be accompanied by strong winds and torrential downpours.  There is so much moisture and energy in our weather systems as the fronts move along the Ohio Valley.

It’s been a year of contrasts.  Our spring was so wet and led to some flooding.  Several months later the driftwood evidence is all around.  The park staff have had their hands full re-establishing the walking trails.  Chain saws and small bulldozers are required for that job.  All this wood will just sit here until it decays or washes away with the next flood.  The Ohio River is a dynamic element that continually shapes this park.

I made “Cubby” for an exhibition that will be held at Bellarmine University in September.  It’s a two person show and my exhibit partner, Scott Scarboro, also uses found materials, but his works are of a more urban nature.  He likes using discarded mechanical toys and using sound in his work.  I will post more about that show as it happens.  As for “Cubby”, he derives his name from the unique head-gear he wears.  Last year, I came across the “skin” of a river-exploded teddy bear and saved it into the collecting bag.  This is how that find manifested itself.  To further reinforce the bear cub idea I added a small plastic bear head image that I think came from a pacifier.  It holds his breach cloth in place which comes from the lining of an old glove.  And in case you were wondering…he’s also anatomically correct underneath.  If you are bothering to cover the loins…there might as well be something there!!!  Well, I guess that’s it for now.  It feels good to blog again.

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For me, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a signal that Spring is underway.  I believe I have seen this very same bird in the same Sweet Gum tree for several years now.  Before the tree fully leafs out, he drills neat rows of holes in the tree bark which fill with the tree’s sap.  Visiting often, he then licks up the sugary mixture.  I have seen other bird species utilizing the work of this woodpecker including other woodpecker species, warblers and chickadees.  Before the insects and new seeds appear, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has accessed another food supply which he defends from all the other birds. 

Throwing his head back, this male Song Sparrow is expressing the feeling of the season.  Song Sparrows are year-round residents and have fully taken advantage of all the niches available at the Falls of the Ohio.  This year White-throated Sparrows have been more abundant than I recall from past years.  Every year is different from the previous ones and you never know what to expect next.  This year is off to a very wet start.

This is a male Prairie Warbler I came across recently.  I have “pished” this species closer to my camera’s lens by making little squeaky sounds that the bird found curious enough to follow.  I am hopeful of seeing other warblers before the Spring migration ends.  So far, I have seen Yellow-rumped Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and a brilliant male Prothonotary Warbler attracted by the flooded bottomland trees.  There are thirty-five different warbler species on the Falls checklist and I have had the privilege of seeing most of them over the years.

The Warbling Vireo is another bird that is more often heard than seen.  It’s such a tiny bird and it has the habit of staying in the tops of tall trees.  I found this one on the exposed section of an oak branch.  If it weren’t distracted by trying to attract a mate it would be in almost constant movement in search of the small caterpillars and insects that it eats.

A new bird to add to the old life list is the Blue-tailed Robin.  It’s an infrequent visitor to these parts and so when one is sighted it becomes an event.  You can’t see this in the photo, but there are ten other birdwatchers with cameras and binoculars trained on this fellow as it dances and practices its courtship dance.  Everybody was extra quiet so that this bird wouldn’t spook and fly away.  Here are more images.

The Blue-tailed Robin male does an elaborate dance on a fallen log where it sings and flaps its wings in different positions all the while it struts its stuff.  The real test will happen further north in central Canada where its ability to display and attract a mate will mean the difference between passing on its genetic distinctiveness or not.  No wonder this bird can’t afford the opportunity not to practice!

Singing very high up in a Cottonwood tree, this male Northern Oriole is also singing loudly in its territory.  So far, it’s looking and sounding like a good year for this species!  Nearly everywhere I hiked in the park I either sighted or heard Northern Orioles.  The orange color is so distinctive and it contrasts so well against the green of the surrounding leaves.  There is so much moisture in the air that my camera records this as a slightly foggy picture.  I hope for better images of orioles and the other great birds here.

Another rarely recorded migrant is the Dragonfly Tern.  I found one coursing along the river bank and was able to squeeze off a couple decent pictures.  Like the name implies, it specializes in capturing dragonflies which requires the ability to maneuver at high-speed.  It has swept back wings that give it the acceleration it needs in tight corners.  Here’s another picture of it buzzing over a fallen log near my position.

This bird soon will be off to the Great Lakes region where it also breeds.  It barely scratches together a depression in the sand and gravel that it considers a nest.  There are usually two eggs laid that are heavily speckled like the small pebbles that surround it.  It winters in South America and travels thousands of miles each year.

On my way home from the park, I chanced to see this Red-tailed Hawk on top of a utility pole and recorded its image.  It is one of our more common hawks, but since I haven’t featured it in the Riverblog before, I thought I would include it in this post.  As the year progresses, I hope to feature other birds that stop at the Falls of the Ohio. For me, the difference between a successful trip and a really successful adventure sometimes hinges on seeing one nice bird!  In closing here are two Canada Geese.  One is real…

…the other is just a tracing in the sand I made.  Happy birding !!

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Today there is a leafy smell in the air at the Falls of the Ohio.  Already, most of the leaves are on the ground and every gust of wind takes a few more away from the branches.  I often think about John James Audubon walking these grounds two hundred years a go looking for birds to draw.  Many of his earliest avian subjects were captured on paper here.  Audubon’s time at the Falls gave him training as both an artist and naturalist that would serve him well later in his career.  In my own eccentric way, I’m creating an alternative ornithology that parallels the genuine one.  Here is the day’s birding adventure.

I usually hear the Carolina Chickadees before I see them.  They are to my mind comical birds because they seem to get into every position possible in their quest for food.  They will examine from every angle whatever it is that is the object of their attention.  Most of the time I see this bird in pairs which makes me wonder if the males and females stay together year round?  I will have to read up on that.  As far as I can tell, there isn’t a good way to tell the sexes apart in this species.  You can walk in the woods and not see or hear anything …and then suddenly it seems the birds find you!  I’ve noticed that different species will flock together as they travel through the woods.  Here’s a sampling of what I saw along with the Chickadees today.

Migrating southward from their boreal homes in the north, Golden-crowned Kinglets mix freely with other species.  They are tiny, ever on the go birds, and it is difficult to photograph them.  The kinglet in the above picture is a male identified by his orangey crest.  The female’s crest is pale yellow.  This is another bird I hear before seeing with their “dee, dee, deee” call notes.  It’s common to see woodpeckers and their allies joining into this group.  Here’s a female Downy Woodpecker plying its trade among the tree bark.  The male has a red dash on the back of his head.

 Woodpeckers have adapted very stiff tail feathers that they use to brace themselves as they hammer away on the wood.  You can see the same thing on a bird that is so cryptically colored that it is easy to miss.  I saw several Brown Creepers flying with the Chickadees and Tufted Titmice today.  This was the better of the Brown Creeper images and you can see how easily it would be to overlook this bird.  Notice its stiff, v-shaped tail feathers that it uses to brace itself as it probes the wood.

Looking just like wood bark, the Brown Creeper will fly to the base of a tree and work its way up.  It is looking for small insects that are hiding in the crevices of the bark.  These bird are also very small.  It’s also common to see this bird also traveling in the company of migrating nuthatches.  Such was the case on this day, here is a White-breasted Nuthatch that was on an adjacent tree to the creeper.

Aptly named, this nuthatch has a snowy-white breast feathers.  It likes to explore the tree’s surface in a head down position and has this nasal sounding call note that it frequently gives as it hunts for food.  Of course, I have saved one specialty for you that is very rarely glimpsed at any time of the year.  Patient birding rewarded me with this sighting of the Thick-billed Thrasher that was also traveling with these other birds.

From this detail, it is easy to see why this bird is called the Thick-billed Thrasher.  It is a seed eater and specializes in pine nuts.

Males and females of this species are also difficult to tell apart.  I spotted this bird resting among the willow branches in the eastern section of the park.  I noticed others of its kind exploring the leaf litter for whatever food supplements its main diet.

A final look at the this thrasher doing something a bit unusual.  This bird has discovered some barge cable wound around a branch and it seems to have stimulated a nesting response.  It sat on this rope for a few minutes before moving off with the rest of the traveling birds.  The Thick-billed Thrasher’s ultimate destination are the pine forests of the southern United States.

On my way back to my car, I made one other special bird sighting.  I also heard these birds before I saw them and immediately looked up into the sky.  Flying high above me in wavy, v-shaped formations, flocks of Sandhill Cranes were winging their way south.  For me, this is another sign of the season and I always associate the coming of very cold weather with seeing these cranes.  I wonder if Audubon felt similarly?

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The river is up and when it crests this weekend…it will be right under flood stage.  I’m fairly sure that this piece I call “Brass Eagle” (after the plastic sign on his head) is gone.  He was guarding my stash of Styrofoam in the Willow Habitat in the eastern section of the park.  This area of the Falls is usually the hardest hit by the rising waters, but when the river recedes…there will be riches in detritus, maybe.  The Ohio River has fooled me before.

In the angle formed by two large logs, I had stashed away materials for future art use.  I’m not averse to recycling my past projects.  As you can see, Brass Eagle is a bit of a head hunter.  Searching through the winter driftwood, I located a few noggins that formerly belonged to previous sculptures.  On rare occasions, I have even come across parts of works that I had made years a go.  Now, these foam chunks are either down river or scattered in different sections of the park where I might find them again.

At the moment, there are a number of friends and co-workers who have either recently had or are about to have babies and I drew this picture in the sand for them.  I like how this pregnant figure seems protected by the wood and the light on the water seems hopeful to me.  I did find an anonymous sand drawing that I thought was fun.  This squid reminds me of the sea monsters drawn on the old maps as a symbol of the unknown!

I recently came across the remains of a camp fire that caught my eye and camera.  Doing a little detective work, I’m guessing that this fire was started using some flammable substance as an accelerant.  If you look at the unburned edges of the wood, they are just so crisp and clean.  This fire amazingly stayed in place and didn’t burn all the wood available to it.

This weekend I will be visiting the Falls and seeing what’s new.  The park is always in a state of perpetual change which attracts me to it.  If the river is too high to work my familiar locations, then there is always birding!  For me, this signals the arrival of spring in the way that crocuses and daffodils do for gardeners.  I even have an individual bird that I look for!  For the last three years, what I believe is the same male, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has defended a particular Sweet Gum tree at the edge of the Interpretive Center’s parking lot.  I will be looking for him again.  For the moment, I have been enjoying the birds that stayed over the winter…like this Song Sparrow.

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Walking through the willow habitat two days a go, I came upon a dead Ring-billed Gull laying belly down in the last of our snow.  It was missing its head and I thought some other animal had made off with it.  When I turned this bird over on its back, the head was detached and hidden under the body.  A single spot of blood on its belly was the only other sign of damage that I could see.  I assumed that a bird of prey had captured it and perhaps disturbed, had abandoned it before it could make it a meal.  I had never been as close to this type of gull and I admired its white feathers, red orbital ring, and the black banding on its bill that gives this bird its name.  I placed the head in proximity to the body, and took this final portrait.  Then I walked away.

That was last Saturday and I returned the next day to explore a different area of the park.  Spring is near and the endemic birds are starting to feel it.  I watched a pair of Downy Woodpeckers courting and the Cardinals, Song Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens were all singing.  I can’t wait for the migratory birds to start passing through!  As I was walking along, I came across yet another dead Ring-billed Gull and thought how odd I should see another one of these so soon after seeing the first.  At least with this one, I could see that something had been eating it.  I took its picture too and left it.

About a hundred yards away and near the concrete staircase that leads up to the Interpretive Center, I found a third dead gull!  I carefully examined this bird, but could find no signs of damage.  This bird was so fresh that death had yet to stiffen it.  I saw no evidence that a bird of prey had captured it.  I guessed that perhaps one of the few Peregrine Falcons that live near here might be a good candidate for our gull killer, but now I’m not as sure.  The bit of damage I found with the other two, may have resulted from some ground dwelling animal finding an opportunistic meal on the riverbank?  What happened to this third bird?  Was it sick, frozen, or had its internal clock reached its expiration date?  Here are images of this unfortunate, but still beautiful bird.

This was how I found it lying on the rip-rap.  I carefully lifted it up and spread its wings for a photograph.  I could see the diagnostic white spot among the black tip of each wing and the dusty yellow of its webbed feet.  The bit of red along the gape of its bill (which I first mistook for blood) is a sign that this bird was approaching breeding condition. 

Our Ring-billed Gulls arrive at the Falls of the Ohio in autumn and overwinter.  By the spring, they usually migrate back to the Great Lakes region where they are among the few gulls found in the interior of the country.  In the years I have been visiting here, I had never come across a dead one before and now I have seen three in two days!  Has anyone else out there recently observed something similar happening with this species?  I can’t end on such a sad note.  And so, I offer this last image of Ring-billed Gulls doing what they do best…flying.

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