Posts Tagged ‘birds’

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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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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I ventured out over the weekend to see what I could see.  The Ohio River is still very high, but receding.  All along the riverbank you can see how far the water rose because large logs and plastic trash reveal the high water marks.  Once all this water reaches its “normal” level…there will be a huge amount of trash left behind to challenge any clean-up attempts.  Today I wasn’t out looking for garbage, but other signs of life.  Perhaps it is a bit early to look for migrating birds although I can feel that is just a short time away and getting closer.  Already species like the Red-winged Blackbird are staking out nesting territories.  Species we see all the year round like the Northern Cardinal were singing at the tops of their lungs and I enjoyed standing under one bright red bird that was doing just that!

This particular bird has many rivals.  I could hear many other cardinals singing across the landscape.  I could almost imagine the spaces they were occupying by the volume of their singing…every hundred meters or so it seemed a different bird was calling out.  I wondered how the poor females went about the task of choosing which one to form a pair with?  I did see a few Yellow-rumped Warblers which are usually the first warblers to arrive and among the last to leave.  The other warblers will be winging their way here shortly…or at least I hope they stop here ever so briefly on their way northward.  Over the last two or three years it seems there are more changes to the environs around the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  I know that there are many other better choices all along the Ohio River than here. It seems we have decided to put people’s needs first over what birds might need.  During my wanderings, I did see my first butterfly and here it is…

…this is the Spring Azure butterfly.  Here it is mid March and this tiny ( no wider across than my thumb nail) bright blue-violet butterfly was visiting plants.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t obtain an image of that beautiful blue coloring, but with this species, the underside or ventral wings are more helpful in identifying it.  Since there were no dark marks on the dorsal wing tips, this helped me determine that this butterfly was the male of the species.  I was really excited to see this little wonder and thought that this could be a really uncommon species…but it wasn’t.  It’s fairly common, widespread, and has many morphs.  Formerly, this species was scientifically named Celastrina argiolus, but is now called Celastrina landon. With this species, there is still much taxonomic hair-splitting to do.  It’s just that variable over a large area of North America.

As I walked along the riverbank, I came across a few familiar signs now mostly underwater.  Here’s what happens when you throw “Caution” to the water…you get this view.  And here’s one that partly hides a “No Trespassing” sign near a storm sewer that feeds into the river.

As I moved along where the faint hearted fear to tread, I was hoping that my slogging through the mud and muck would be rewarded.  Earlier I had seen a few Blue-winged teal which is a small species of duck and so I was hoping to see another small, but rare duck that sometimes mixes in with these teal as they migrate.  Today was my lucky day and here are three images of the very unusual  Mud Duck.  This bird likes to really get into the underbrush particularly during floods to take advantage of feeding areas usually restricted to other ducks during normal river levels.  It is a very oily duck and highly buoyant on the water and as a consequence…it almost never dives beneath the surface of the river.

The price of observing this unusual fowl was foul boots.  I became so coated with mud from my knees down that I didn’t worry about my foot gear until I was ready to go home.  This mud is particularly sticky and each rise of the foot is accompanied by a sucking sound.  You definitely need to tie your laces tight, otherwise you risk stepping right out of your shoe or boot.  I stopped every so often to clean the bottoms of my boots because the weight of the mud made each step an additional burden.

So far, I haven’t seen any of the large pieces of Styrofoam that found temporary refuge in my plein air studio.  They are probably half way to the Mississippi River by now.  It may take another week for the water to fully retreat and then it will be even more time before the riverbank dries out some.  I’ll close for now with another flood view.  Over the years, these sycamore trees have been a good marker for high water.

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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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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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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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It’s official, this summer was our toastiest.  I looked at the lead article in the local newspaper and words like historic and unprecedented are being used.  We beat the old record that stood since 1936 by a degree and a half!  In meteorological terms that’s a lot.  This was determined by factoring the daily highs and lows and taking the average temp for the day. Louisville had more than 80 above average temperature days this summer which was more than any other city in the country.  No wonder working at the Falls felt so harsh.  We had a number of high pressure systems that just hung around the Ohio Valley making life difficult for everything including these vultures.  Of late, every year has had something climatically anomalous about it.  Too dry, too hot, too wet, too cool…missing are words like usual, normal, ordinary, and uneventful.

The variety of bird life at the Falls has been down this year too.  When you are a creature that is sensitive to the environment and have the advantage of great mobility…your instincts can tell you to go elsewhere.  I think this is what happened this year.  I will be really curious to see what comes by on the Fall leg of migration.  This year the Black vultures did well as did the Canada geese.  I could count on seeing those two species in good numbers most anytime I came out to the river.

From what I can see “anecdotally” the Canada Geese are on the rise here.  We have few predators to challenge them.  I have seen some very large flocks out on the water and they are keeping the grass clipped short along the riverbank too.  Friends told me that in the “old days”, you could find large stands of native river cane on the margins.  That’s something I don’t ever recall seeing out here.  One of the values I place upon this blog is to act as a record of the environment as I find it.  We have journals and first hand accounts of what this place looked like two hundred years a go and I believe that two hundred years from now…people will still be interested in the Falls of the Ohio and how it has been changed by civilization.

One of my favorite summer birds are American Goldfinches.  There is something cheerful and friendly about them.  The male with his bright yellow and black plumage is an unmistakable bird.  Many times I have watched the dipping and rolling courtship flight and listened for their call notes.  In the past, I have seen this species in mass, but not this year.

I’ve had conversations with people bragging about their fishing luck or skill, but none of them can hold a candle to a cormorant.  The Double-crested Cormorants in this picture are able to find and catch fish when nothing else can.  Of course, it helps to be able to swim and pursue prey underwater!  These birds are wary and very hard to approach.  In other places of the country, fishermen have persecuted this species because they compete very successfully against the rod and reel.

One of the few interesting and new birds to write about is the Azure-winged Mockingbird.  I have encountered them by my studio under the willow trees.  They are fearless and will drive away larger birds.  Among their notable features is the way they flash their wings against their bodies which makes them look more aggressive.  I have wondered as I make my Styrofoam sculptures, if these birds are drawn to the mosquitos and gnats that find me!  This is not a common bird and has been rarely recorded here.  I expect that in a few weeks, it will be winging its way to Central America.  I wonder if this year’s events in the Gulf of Mexico will compromise it and other birds in some way?  The forecast for this holiday weekend looks great and I’m anxious to spend a bit more time out here on my projects.  I’ll close with one more image of my mockingbird friend and a sculpture still around from several weeks past.

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Today is supposed to be the hottest day of the year.  Walking out my front door this morning I’m surprised by how warm and humid it is already.  When I reached the Falls, I decided to take cover from the direct sun by walking along the Woodland Trail.  All the combined vegetation produces a spicy fragrance.  Vines are in their glory and in areas of good sunlight they have grown over some of the trees.  Birds are hunting for insects among the leaves.  They listen for the locations of singing cicadas.

And, once in a while they catch a cicada as this male Northern cardinal has done.  He’s not the only bird moving through the canopy. 

Grackles are stalking along the tree limbs.  They always seem to be just out of reach of my camera.  I had a bit of better luck coming across two Downy Woodpeckers chasing each other in the interest of courtship. So, they didn’t focus on me.  The male held still long enough for me to capture this image.  He’s waiting for the female to make a counter move and then it will be his turn again.  They flew between tree trunks for several minutes.

I’m heading out to the western section of the park.  As suspected there are fewer people in this area.  After crossing the creek, I was looking for the trail leading to the river when I came across this unexpected floral surprise.  I do remember seeing escaped hibiscus blooming among the driftwood collected along the eastern dam.  Perhaps these are the same plants that were transplanted here during the last flooding incident?

I will admit to not knowing my plants as well as I do the animals.  And so, if I’m wrong on the identification of this plant, please let me know.  In the interim, I will keep looking at my guides for other possibilities.  What made this encounter even more interesting…another blossum was less than ten feet away.  I wonder if this plant came from the same source up river?

These large blooms along with the heat and sticky humidity added an extra jungle-like quality to the walk thus far.  Although it’s hot, I’m grateful I have my long pants on instead the cooler shorts.  There are stinging nettles, poison ivy, and sharp-edge grasses around to irritate your skin.  It’s a big relief today to walk out from under the trees and into the light.

I haven’t yet reached today’s destination, but I’m back at the water’s edge.  I accidently frightened away a pair of Great Blue Herons from the rocks they were hunting from.  I’m going to continue this adventure in my next post.  I have many more nice pictures and I eventually made a piece.  On this day, however, it was mostly about the walk.  Before closing, here’s another bird picture.  It’s a Black-crowned Night -Heron fishing in the shallow, but swift moving river.  He would hold his left foot off to the side while in the water.  I wondered if he did this so that fish bumping into the leg would alert him?  Maybe this helps in water with poor visibility?  That’s it for now…I look forward to sharing this outing the next time around.

Postscript:  My friend Don Lawler turned me in the right direction by suggesting the hibiscus I saw and photographed are in the mallow family.  The white flowers have been identified as being examples of the Crimson-Eyed Rose-Mallow.  The pink flower is from the Swamp Rose-Mallow.  Interestingly, both flowers are considered to be conspecific, meaning they are the same species!  That would explain their proximity to one another at this location.  Their scientific name is Hibiscus palustris.  You learn something everyday!

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The river is falling, but is not yet in summer pool.  Day by day the extensive Devonian fossil beds are revealed a little at a time.  The limestone surface is scalloped by the actions of the Ohio River and appears to be the landscape from another world…because in fact it is!  Throughout the rocky matrix are the fossilized remains of ancient marine creatures that populated this reef over 375 million years a go.  While my thoughts are lost in deep time, a procession of stately Canada geese glides by which brings me back to the present and my own animal existence.  It is really hot out here today and I brought extra water to drink.  Slowly the first eight geese becomes a large flock as more and more birds reveal themselves that were hiding behind the huge rocks that mark the Kentucky side of the fossil beds.  From my vantage point I count 83 geese which are the most Canada geese I have ever seen here at one time!  In the warmer weather months, the number of bird species here is less than in the spring, but the indigenous birds are entertaining and I enjoy noting aspects of their respective behaviors.  Here are two new birds I haven’t previously featured and I hope you will like them as I do.

It’s definitely cooler in the deep shade of the woods, but the mosquitoes are more numerous.  I can’t get myself to put poison on my skin to keep them away and so I try not to let them get inside my head.  I suppose that they don’t bother me as much as they do other people.  Maybe I don’t taste as good!  While cooling off by the big trees I came across this unusual species and it’s called more commonly the Bumble Bee Bird.  I think its scientific name is something like “Turdus bombus”, but I could be wrong.  “Turdus” is the genus of thrushes and” bombus” refers to bumble bees.  Seems to make sense.  So, you are probably wondering why this clumsy looking bird is named what it is named and I will show you why.

I came across this specimen hanging out at the forest’s edge where many morning glories were present.  These flowers grow close to the soil and sand and in places form thick blooming carpets.  Kind of pretty in an understated way.  Here’s the same bird hopping around some other morning glories, but is he just admiring the flowers or is there some other purpose afoot?

He’s in the deadly serious pursuit of something to eat, but not just any unfortunate creature or seed will do.  This species is aptly named because it has evolved to eat the large bumble bees that pollinate these flowers.

The bird waits for the bee to enter the bloom.  The bee has to get deep into the blossom to reach the sweet nectar it needs.  This is the moment when the bird comes from behind the bee and with its large red bill, seizes the bee crushing it and its nectar-filled abdomen.  The bee had no ability at this point to defend itself.  Stealing the nectar, the bird then tosses the dead bee into the air, catches it, and then swallows it head first.  It’s a doubly good meal and worth the expenditure of energy.

Also found in the cool of the forest is this little bird which is aptly named the Melancholy Dove, scientific name “Columbina melancholia”.  Smallest member of the dove family likely to be found this far north.  It is usually by itself or with a few of its kind and represents the antithesis of a former Falls of the Ohio resident…the now extinct Passenger Pigeon which congregated in immense flocks.  The Melancholy Dove is also recognized by its blue bill and sad expression on its face.  It is not an especially rare bird and I spot this species across the park during the summer season.

I found this bird sitting in a small garden near the Interpretive Center where it seemed unconcerned about the park visitors.  A nearby bird feeder has made this bird especially trusting and I fear that one of the many feral cats in the area will find an easily ambushed snack waiting on the wing.  Contributing to their melancholy name is the soft, plaintive coo…coo-coowee sound it makes during the breeding season.

On my way to my vehicle at the end of the day I came across this dove sitting by the Lewis and Clark statue.  It brought back to mind a mental image of a nice pen and ink drawing of this bird that was in one of the personal journals carried by one of the enlisted men that formed the crew of the Corps of Discovery.  I don’t remember the name of the soldier, but he had a fine eye and a sharp quill.  There were a few notes scribbled in the margins commenting that it was too small and not worth the effort to eat!

As summer settles into its now familiar sweltering pattern, I’m looking eagerly to the time when I can cross over the shallow water and explore the Kentucky side of the fossil beds.  There isn’t as much junk to find to make “art” from, but it’s a contemplative landscape for me that has also become something of a seasonal right of passage.  It takes all day to walk across the rocks and I’ll need plenty of water to keep me hydrated, but it is such an interesting place and I look forward to sharing it with you.  Stay cool everybody…the weatherman is calling for some hot ones this week.

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