Posts Tagged ‘nature story’

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

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

Great Blue Heron pair, June 2013

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

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

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

young Brown-headed Cowbird, June 2013

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

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

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

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

Carolina Wren and Brown-headed Cowbird chick, June 2013

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

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

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

Indian Rail at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

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

Indiana Rail, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

Indiana Rail, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

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

Head of the Indiana Rail, June 2013

Indiana Rail, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

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

Indiana Rail, Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

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Fishermen, Falls of the Ohio, June 1, 2013

It’s the beginning of June at the Falls of the Ohio.  I arrived at the river to find a dozen or so fishermen that were up on this cool, grey morning before me.  There are both people and boats in and on the water.  Many fishermen are knee to thigh high in the river balancing themselves on the shallow, but rocky bottom.

Fishermen at the Falls, June 2013

The river attracts all kinds of fishermen.  I see people who have lots of fancy, expensive tackle and for the most part they are using light gear for smaller, sporty, quarry.  And then there are the guys that seem more local and blue-collar.  No fancy gear here that the anglers might prefer.  Rather this is a big pole, five gallon bucket, come as you are affair.  Word has probably been passed down the line that the “shad” are running and it’s a good time to catch a mess of fish.

Skipjack herring at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2013

This is the fish of the day…the Skipjack Herring, (Alosa chrysochloris).  This fish was first described by the naturalist Rafinesque in the early part of the 19th century.  It’s an abundant and beautiful fish found in all of Kentucky’s major rivers and up into the Mississippi River too.  The Skipjack is anadromous which means it migrates up rivers from the sea to breed.  During the right time of year large schools of Skipjacks are congregating under the dams and waiting for the chance to move forward.  The Skipjack gets its name from jumping out of the water like a skimming stone in pursuit of the smaller fishes it eats.  At the Falls, the fishermen are catching Skipjacks to use as bait.  The fish is cut into quarters and set upon large treble hooks in the hopes of catching big catfish.  One fisherman told me he witnessed a 30 pound catfish being caught with this method the previous night.  I recently read that these waters were also once home to the Ohio Shad (Alosa ohiensis) which were first described from specimens caught in the Ohio River at Louisville in the late 19th century.  This fish is so rare now that it is on occasion listed as being extinct.  The Ohio Shad was probably not common to begin with.

dead fish, June 2013

Along the water’s edge the smell of dead fish demarcates the air where water and land meet.  The riverbank is littered with the unlucky who through lost scales and exposed bone are returning to the world from which they came.  There was one unfamiliar fish that I came across and I did a series of photos of it.  Here are several views I made of this new fish.

Yellow-fin Carp with skipjack, June 2013

Fish studies, June 2013

There isn’t anything in the literature about this fish and so I’m going to designate it the Yellow-fin Carp for obvious reasons.  In life, it probably was in the 3 to 5 pound range and I’m surprised it didn’t get cut up for bait as well? It has the tell-tale large eyes that suggest it is a deeper water fish.  It was probably caught by mistake, released, died, and washed up here with the other unfortunates.  Here’s a couple of images made along the riverbank.

Yellow-fin Carp in hand, June 2013

Yellow-fin Carp in hand 2, June 2013

Since this is something you don’t run across out here very often, I thought I would post a few more images that provide a more formal portrait.

Yellow-fin Carp, facing right, June 2013

Yellow-fin Carp, facing left, June 2013

And now for a head-on view of this interesting fish.

head-on view of Yellow-fin Carp, June 2013

People were not the only animals out here after the Skipjacks.  Several bird species including Ospreys, Double-crested Cormorants, Black-crowned Night Herons, and Great Blue Herons were taking their share.  Here is a heron couple that are set up by the tainter gates in the eastern section of the park.   Between catching fish they mirrored each other in a few courtship moves.

Great Blue Herons by the tainter gates at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2013


The fossil limestones at the Falls of the Ohio are famous for the diversity of Devonian Age life forms that are preserved within the rocks.  Ironically, the Devonian Age is also known as the age of fishes because they first appear in the fossil record over 350 million years a go.  At the Falls, however, fish are poorly represented in this rock record.  I imagined that if they had preserved as well as other creatures…their remains might look something like this.

dead fish at the Falls, June 2013

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Falls of the Ohio, late May 2013

Another great day at the Falls of the Ohio.  Although it’s late May, we haven’t immediately jumped from a cool spring into a sweltering summer heat.  We still have time for that.  I’m following the deposited driftwood which forms these nice clearings punctuated here and there by small stands of willow trees.  There’s a method to my walks.  I carefully and as quietly as I can listen and look for any bird life in each new area I move into.  If I don’t find any birds than I move around the driftwood looking for interesting pieces and any other water born junk of note.  If an object captures my eye, I usually take a photograph of it in the context of the environment surrounding it.  If it is something really unusual, portable,  and potentially useful…then I may drop it into my collecting bag.  I also try to pay attention to any new flowers or insects that are out since my last visit. I don’t collect anything living since with the exception of fish…it’s against the park’s rules.

Falls of the Ohio, late May 2013

I will also walk the river bank doing much the same thing before heading back into the trees and my studio under the willows.  It’s here at my outdoor “atelier” that I check out my latest finds and with the materials I’ve previously collected…attempt to make art from them.  I was taking a break sitting on a bench I made and letting my mind “go blank” and just listening.  In the trees I could hear Northern orioles, Blue jays, and Catbirds all making their distinctive sounds.  With birds, you don’t need to see them to know they are present.  Small, noisy flocks of Cedar waxwings were flying from mulberry tree to mulberry tree seeking out ripe fruit.  I also kept hearing a “clicking or clacking”  sound originating behind where I was sitting which I mistakenly took for a squirrel moving among the branches.  I would look over my shoulder every now and then, but I didn’t see anything at first.  I didn’t see anything at all…until it moved!

Giant spider on web, late May 2013

Between its cryptic coloration and the dappled light effects of sunlight filtering through the tree tops…I had completely missed seeing the biggest spider in the world!  I know I had to walk by this marvel, but it didn’t register at all until this moment.  The spider wasn’t making any threatening gestures yet…perhaps it was remaining still “thinking” that I hadn’t located it.  The spider on its web was perhaps a dozen feet away from where I was sitting.  Meanwhile the hairs on the back of my neck were on end and I had an acute case of goosebumps all over my body!  Instinctively, I reached for my camera and started taking pictures.

Giant spider, May 2013

Carefully walking around the spider and its web, I snapped off as many images as my nerves would dare.  I still had no idea what it was capable of doing especially in protection of its nest?  I had my stout walking stick at the ready.  Nestled in a depression in the wood at the web’s base was a silk-lined “pocket” that held three white cocoons.  I wasn’t sure if these were egg cases or the wrapped up remains of former meals?

giant spider egg cases?, Falls of the Ohio, May 2013

In trying to describe this spider to you…I utilized my walking stick not only for protection, but to gauge its size as well.  Later in the comfort of my home, I estimated that the length of its body from the head to the tip of its abdomen to be approximately 30 inches or 76 centimeters long.  It’s moving legs made the spider seem much larger, but they were harder to measure.  The legs were perfectly camouflaged resembling the driftwood all around us.  The spider’s abdomen is covered with coarse hair arranged in bands of orange, white, and a bluish-black colors.  Otherwise, the spider is as white as the large river-polished chunks of Styrofoam that wash up on these fabled shores all the time.

Head of Giant Driftwood Spider, May 2013

lower jaws of Giant Driftwood Spider, May 2013

The head of what I’m now going to call the “Giant Driftwood Spider” is very unusual for a spider.  The fact it is nearly distinct (as in insects) and not simply continuous with the thorax makes it different.  The head was not, however, capable of movement.  This spider features four eyes.  It has two, larger dominant eyes and a vestigial pair located between them.  The fangs were purple in color and supported by black jaws used for gripping prey.  The clicking sound I had heard earlier were its fangs rubbing together.  Like all spiders…I assumed that this species is carnivorous as well.? Consistent with true spiders, this giant species also has eight legs, although the Giant Driftwood Spider’s are not uniform.  After watching this great arachnid for several minutes, it surprised me by leaving its web and walking towards the river.  I naturally, followed behind it at a discreet distance.

Giant Driftwood Spider, May 2013

Giant Driftwood Spider on a stump. May 2013

Giant Driftwood Spider on tree roots, May 2013

The giant spider moved deliberately through the driftwood field pausing once in a while for whatever reason.  Thoughts about what this spider did for food crossed my mind.  Was it an ambush predator secretly lying next to a log waiting for a meal to walk by?  Did it rush and overwhelm its prey with a lethal bite to the body?  I thought this likely since its web by my outdoor studio didn’t seem big enough to capture anything larger than birds or rodents.  I got the sense that this spider was able to go a long time between feedings.  I continued to follow the spider when it stopped at another silk construction it had previously created.

Great Driftwood Spider in yellow silk lair, May 2013

The spider stopped by what I’m guessing to be another silk trap?  The spider may have been trying to hide its form with the silk?  Perhaps it uses a method similar to trapdoor spiders in catching its food?  I will confess that I do get “creeped out” by having spider webs go across my face.  I have always had an aversion to this feeling, although generally speaking…I’m okay with the spiders themselves.  In this particular area, it felt like I was constantly wiping my face which made me very ill at ease.

Giant Driftwood Spider in its lair, May 2013

Giant Driftwood Spider attack!, May 2013

I circled back around to get a better look and when I did the spider lunged for me! With fangs clacking together and its legs gesturing wildly, the spider held its ground, but did not advance towards me.  With stick at the ready and in deep fear, I was prepared to swing down as hard as I could on the spider if I had to.  That’s when it occurred to me how wrong that would be?  Who was doing most of the provoking anyway?  Perhaps the spider was reacting in self-defense?  As with most living things, this spider had as much if not more reason to fear humans.  Even though this was the biggest spider I had ever seen…I was still bigger than it.  With that realization I backed off and took my leave of the Giant Driftwood Spider.  Reaching my home, I couldn’t wait to see the pictures and to tell the story of this remarkable animal encounter.  The world is full of natural marvels and the Falls of the Ohio…has many of them.

willow tree and roots at the Falls of the Ohio, May 2013

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Falls of the Ohio, mid May 2013

It’s mid May and the Ohio River is high at the Falls of the Ohio.  A now warm wind (it was cold yesterday) is driving muddy waves against the shoreline and the willow trees are in their element.  Except for me…there is no one else around.  Bird life, however, is ever-present and I count many newly arrived species that spent the winter south of the equator.  Eastern Kingbirds are establishing their territories and many different birds already have active nests going.  A bright blue Indigo Bunting flies into my sight line long enough to be identified before once again hiding from view in the tops of the trees. Because the river is taking up most of the bank, I’m walking on top of the driftwood on the parameter of the willow environment.  As I slowly walk along, I move as quietly as possible between the trees.  I’m always hopeful of seeing wildlife and although it is mid morning…I get lucky.  Something has caught my eye down the beach at the water’s edge and I reach for my camera.

young Styrobuck at the water's edge, Mid May 2013

It’s a young Styrobuck and it is nervously checking out the river.  The wind is blowing my scent in the opposite direction. This is indeed great luck because this unusual animal is also one of the rarest mammals in this area.  Years can go by between sightings and there is always conjecture on whether they still exist here at all.  Occasionally, tracks are found which renews hope that they still occupy their original range. I decided that this was too great a photo opportunity to pass up and so I changed my plans for the day.  I would follow and record this beautiful and odd animal for as long as I could.

Styrobuck at the river, May 2013

The Styrobuck is one of those hard to classify mammals.  Although genetically a deer…it also shares traits with goats and antelopes.  I recall getting caught up in the discovery in 1992 of a new large mammal discovered in the Annamite Range bordering Vietnam and Laos.  Science calls it a Saola, (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) but it is also more colorfully known as the Asian unicorn.  Anyway, its resemblance to an antelope is striking, but technically it is a member of the cow family.  Just when it was looking like all the big animals on the planet had been discovered…out trotted the Saola.  The mystery of it was amazing!  Of course, the indigenous people had known about it for a long time.  Once in a while, they would catch one in their snares meant for the other forest animals.  Still, it was a great rarity for them as well…a near mythic animal.  It was probably tasty too.

head of a young Styrobuck, May 2013

Styrobuck, detail of head facing forward, May 2013

Styrobuck ,detail, head facing left, May 2013

The Styrobuck is by necessity a very nervous and wary animal.  It is about the size of a small dog and the perfect prey size for many of our predators.  It has large eyes and a keenly developed sense of smell.  There are also old first hand accounts that also suggest the Styrobuck has a sense of curiosity which can lead to its downfall.  Smallish antlers are grown and shed each year after the breeding season in the late autumn.  In the spring one to two fawns are born that remain with their mother until the following  summer.

Styrobuck in the willow woods, May 2013

The animal I was watching was more than likely born last year and probably newly separated from its mother.  To my eye, it did appear that the young Styrobuck was searching for something in the vicinity.

young Styrobuck, mid May 2013

The Styrobuck certainly was concentrating in an area between the river and the margins of the woods.  If there were any other members of its species around here…they remained well hidden.  Every now and then the young buck would browse on young tree leaves and tender grasses.

Styrobuck in the water, may 2013

My last image of the Styrobuck in the water was taken from a vantage point in the top of a willow tree that I quietly shinnied up.  I could feel the wind shifting and sure enough the young buck caught my all too human odor and bolted for parts unknown.  I shared my images with the Interpretive Center who were glad to receive them.  I hope exposing this one animal won’t lead to a stampede by the public that drives this vulnerable species from our area for good.  The Falls of the Ohio is a richer for having this interesting animal call this place home.

Falls of the Ohio, looking east, May 2013

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Into the light, May 2013

Styrofigure in early May, 2013

Stepping away from the place where it was constructed revealed a whole new world for the Polystyrene Person to explore.  The sun was shining and birds were singing and the Falls of the Ohio were once again turning green with emerging tree leaves.  Driftwood was everywhere along the river and there were plenty of micro-environments to experience.

Polystyrene Person dancing in inner tube, May 2013

Being made of trash caused the Polystyrene Person to be less judgmental of the discarded man-made items it came across.  An old inner tube became a tiny arena perfect for dancing.

figure with plastic cable in the trees, May 2013

alternate view of figure with plastic cable in the trees, May 2013

A tough plastic cable captured by the willow branches during the last bit of flooding became another object of interest.  The Polystyrene Person admired the graceful  arcs and how the cable defined this bit of space.  The white figure played with the cable by walking around and stepping through the loops.  There was still more stuff snagged in other trees.

barge cable and figure, May 2013

Discovering a fraying barge cable tangled in the willow branches and dragging on the ground gave the new figure an odd mental image.  What if this was how the sky was tethered to the earth?  What would happen if this cable broke?  Would the blue sky with its flimsy clouds just drift off into space?  Remembering that this was simply a rope caught in a tree brought the smile back to the figure’s face.

Polystyrene Person among willow roots, May 2013

Standing among the roots of a fantastic willow tree, the Polystyrene Person marveled at how the tree maintained its grip on the earth.  Beneath the larger roots was a dense mat of very fine rootlets that held the soil together.

Polystyrene figure standing in water, May 2013

figure among water and willow roots, May 2013

The figure moved to the river’s edge and couldn’t wait to experience water.  It was such an entirely different sensation than standing on solid ground.  Cold water splashed up onto the Polystyrene Person’s face and being wet wasn’t the most pleasant feeling.  The literal tug of the river caused the figure to scramble up on the roots of a nearby willow to keep from being drawn further into the liquid.  Instinctively, the figure realized that it would be lost if the river was allowed to have too tight a grip.  Pulling the Polystyrene Person  back upon the shore, I explained it was time for me to go home.  I offered two choices to my creation.  It could stay at the river and face an uncertain but potentially exciting future where it more than likely would be destroyed by either nature or the hand of man.  Or, it could go home with me and see a different part of the world.  Perhaps because the river was a little scary, the Polystyrene Person opted to go home with me.

The Polystyrene Person opening my car door, May 2013

Because my hands were full…the figure opened my car door for me.  It’s really a very polite and innocent being.  During the short ride from the river to my house…I asked the Polystyrene Person what it would like to do?  The figure replied that it would like to continue to be out in nature and so I found the perfect place in my yard for it.  Happily, my latest creation takes pride in watching over my spring plants as they reveal themselves during the new season.

Polystyrene Person among the Hostas, May 2013

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figure in light by willow roots, Feb. 2013

What a beautiful day and I stayed out for many hours by the river.  It’s been a bit of roller coaster with the weather the past few weeks.  We have fluctuated between below freezing temperatures you can feel in your bones and highs in the 50 to 60 degree range.  Folks around here have been blaming our worse than usual cold and flu season with the variability of the weather.  I don’t know if this is true, but for me…going outside to breathe fresh air is restorative to my physical and spiritual health.  Since I last set foot here the river has again risen and receded.  The large raft of driftwood under the railroad bridge has been dispersed by the high water and actually made it a little less of an obstacle course to maneuver around.  The air over the river is also once again alive with Ring-billed Gulls searching for food.  I’m also hearing both the Northern Cardinal and Song Sparrow practicing their songs in anticipation of Spring.  Their songs make me want to sing one of my own.

sunken tires, Feb. 2013

More evidence of a high river comes in the form of man-made junk that has floated into the park.  I have found tires in all their forms to be good indicators of the entropy in this system.  What once took great amounts of energy and heat to form and use is literally sinking into the sand.  The wheel is one of mankind’s great inventions and here it is just another piece of garbage we have discarded.  I’m out here today not because I’m looking for things to get me down, but rather the opposite!  I’m looking for signs and symbols of the renewal to come.

Styro-figure with foot print, Feb. 2013

Today, I’m looking for a member of the genus Lepus which includes hares and rabbits.  For some reason…intuition I think, has brought me here on this particular quest.  I have heard that members of the rabbit family start behaving oddly during Spring in anticipation of the breeding season.  The expression “mad as a March hare” is an old English expression used to describe this moment.  Of course, rabbits and hares have older associations as well.  The ancient Greeks equated rabbits with the goddess Aphrodite and rabbits have long been symbols of fertility. Logic tells me that if I can locate a hare that Spring will be here in no time at all. I guess I’m putting more trust in the hare than I am the groundhog! The month of February is nearly over and I’m hoping to find signs that hares are in the area.  So far, I’m not having much luck…just the tracks of people who came before me.  I’m not giving up yet though and the day is young.

Styro-figure and frayed cable, Feb. 2013

I’m operating with my “hare brain” switched in the “on” position as I walk around my familiar haunts.  I look in areas that seem likely to me to hide rabbits and hares like this willow tree with an old barge cable wrapped around it.  I’m not sure why this tree is “talking” to me, but I’m going with my intuition.  There are no hares here, and maybe this spot is too close to the river anyway?

Styro-figure by wooden cable spool, Feb. 2013

I walk by a wooden spool for holding large cables.  This is also new and wasn’t here the last time I passed by.  I see there is an opening large enough for a small mammal to hide in and so I go to investigate.  Carefully I approach the spool, but there is nothing here either.  I’m beginning to feel that there aren’t many other places I can look, when I remember there is a section of the park I almost never visit and so letting intuition be my guide…I go there.

East of the railroad bridge, Louisville across the Ohio River, Feb. 2013

The area I trek to is just east of the railroad bridge and dam that catches most of the driftwood that has been pushed from upriver.  This barrier is no obstacle at all when the river is at flood stage.  It is all this driftwood and pent-up junk that flows into the park when the Ohio River gets high.  It’s a tricky, shifty area and frequently muddy too.  All these conditions were present on this day.  It’s not an area the public is encouraged to visit and most people have enough sense to stay away.

colorful plastic garbage, Feb. 2013

As you can see…this area also gets lots of trash too.  This is what I eventually can look forward to receiving, perhaps in the next flood?  This plastic separates so completely with the rest of the environment that I’m surprised it doesn’t compel people to pick it up like it does at the grocery and department stores?

Alien head and plastic trash, Feb. 2013

Naturally, I find weird things here.  It’s not everyday that you come across an alien’s head, but here it is next to other junk.  I find three dolls in various poses tangled in mud and driftwood and other toy bits that floated down with the currents.  I find a little bit of this and that, but no March hares or rabbits.

train on bridge, Falls, Feb.2013_1_1

The soles of my shoes are caked with mud and so I find a suitable stick to scrape away the sticky earth.  I sit on a broad log to do this and take a rest at the same time.  While I work away at my shoes, a train crosses the bridge and I watch it as it crosses.  My mind wanders freely and I remember the unusual art of Joseph Beuys which became a favorite of mine during graduate school.  His work is frequently perplexing and takes getting used to.  I like his art, but found I was more attracted by his ideas and writings.  The value he placed on art as a potential agent to further our own evolution away from the strictly materialistic way we treat ourselves and the planet we depend on inspired me.  His ideas about an expanded notion of art seemed to give art more of a sense of purpose which I also found to be smart and optimistic.

Railroad bridge with bunny, Feb. 2013

Bueys often referenced animals in his art and believed that they were more aware and in tune with the world than we are.  The hare in particular was an important symbol to Bueys because it mediates between the earthly and spiritual realms.  Hares are burrowing animals and line their nests with their wool.  The insulating properties of felt became another material that Bueys incorporated in his art.  While I was sitting still and reflecting on the work of a favorite artist…the hare appeared!

The March Hare in late February 2013

It must have just emerged from its burrow under the logs and debris and was still covered with mud.  It looked in my direction with ears pricked up and our gaze locked upon one another.  Holding still for just a split second, I was able to capture this image before it disappeared back into the earth.  I exhaled in the knowledge that Spring was one day closer to arriving.  I savored the moment, gathered my things, took one last look across the river and headed for the skyline of Louisville over the Second Street Bridge.

The City of Louisville across the Ohio River. Feb. 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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It’s hard for me to believe that October has come and gone.  There isn’t much sand left in 2012’s hourglass.  I’m virtually alone (if you are only counting people) at the Falls of the Ohio today and it’s understandable.  The weather is cool, gray, and an occasional spit of rain falls against my face.  I like it out here when it feels a bit lonelier because my chances of seeing wildlife increases.  Such was the case today when I explored the area next to the tainter gates and under the old railroad bridge.  This area is sheltered a bit from the wind and many times I have found birds in the high grass and low trees near the sloping riverbank.  Today I observed Song Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Mourning Doves, and Hairy Woodpeckers in immediate proximity to each other.  In the sky, the first of the Ring-billed Gulls has arrived and a pair of Osprey with their broad wings searches for unwary fish too close to the surface of the water.  Many of the tree leaves have dropped and it looks like we will have a bumper crop of cockle burrs as I pull dozens of them off my shoe laces and socks.  Their prickly hooks irritate my skin as they work through the fabric of my clothing.  On days like this I’m just trying to attune myself to the subtleties of this landscape and I’m amazed at how often my patience gets rewarded here.  As I was walking to photograph uprooted trees against the flood wall…

…I spotted something shockingly white moving near the water’s edge.  Carefully moving as close as I could…I recorded this image of another rare bird seldom seen at the Falls of the Ohio.

A few more pictures in relatively close succession and I was able to identify this beauty as the Lattice-necked or Brown-winged Ibis.  I prefer using the Lattice-necked moniker because the long neck with its unusual patterning is distinctive to this bird alone.  I happened across an individual that was hunting for food and stalking the margins of the water.  I did observe it feeding on black snails that were common on the rocks. I recall from my old art history days that the ibis was a sacred bird to the ancient Egyptians and often was mummified to accompany dignitaries on their journeys to the afterlife.  In my mind I made the association that this ibis species in front of me was sacred to the life of this river.  Enough gabbing, here are a few more pictures.

This ibis species is more commonly seen around the Gulf coast and points south of here.  Every once in a while, a storm or hurricane will blow a few individuals into the heartland where they are a welcome treat to the hardcore birders.  The Lattice-necked Ibis has always been less common than the other larger shorebirds.  It is less aggressive than the herons and egrets which out-compete the ibis for prime nesting and feeding sites.  This bird did spy me and flew away, but only a short distance away.  I was able to catch back up with it and captured these final images of this graceful and dignified bird.

Here is the same ibis that found a nice fishing spot next to a small whirlpool. Every now and then a little fish would get caught by the rotating water only to find itself food for the lightning quick ibis.

I felt refreshed and energized by my encounter with the ibis.  I left the river  with a song in my heart which I whistled all the way back home.  Above me, two osprey I had seen earlier were circling in the clear, cool blue sky…another blessing of this day.

BONUS FEATURE…in process shots of how the ibis was made.  The head and body are pieces of Styrofoam I found out at the Falls of the Ohio.  The bill of the bird is a plastic handle from something…perhaps a feather duster?  The bird’s eyes are two small pieces of coal.  The neck I’m guessing is the plastic arm of a hanging flower planter?  At the base of the neck, I attached a small bit of white plastic hose I came across. The brown wings are the soles of two mismatched shoes I found.  The tiny tail and legs are found wood.  These are all the materials that make up this sculpture which owes something to the tradition of decoy making.  Thanks for tagging along with me on another adventure by the Ohio River.

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At long last I’ve made it back out to the river!  It’s been about eight weeks now since my last visit.  Today I have a double purpose…the first is to drop off one of my Styrofoam and recycled material sculptures for an annual fund-raiser that the Falls of the Ohio State Park Foundation hosts every year.  I’m glad to do this and hope my donation does well in their auction.  Despite the years I’ve been making stuff out here it still strikes me that most of my materials are literally trash.  I suppose I will never get over that. It seems to me that it takes a certain kind of person who would want to own one of these creations!  The other more fun purpose is to check out what’s different along the river and maybe make something new.  Immediately, I can see that the hot summer continues to take its toll.  At first, it was the relentless heat, but now that is coupled with a serious lack of rain.  The river is low and everything looks dry.

Over the course of this summer we have had just enough rain not to be considered a disaster area.  This is hardly a ringing endorsement and I find a small laminated notice tacked on to a bulletin board that reinforces how dry it is.  I think to myself that some of the people I’ve encountered out here over the years who do shoot off fireworks or build fire pits are not likely to read or heed this warning.  When I’m in the park, my preference is to move away from the most public areas and so with my walking stick in hand I head down the Woodland Loop Trail.  I’m still not confident enough to want to test my repaired knee too vigorously, but this trail is fairly easy.

The trail is shaded which I welcome since it’s still over 90 degrees out here.  I pass many what I would consider late summer blooming plants that have flowered earlier than usual.  I did see several stands of tall Pokeweed plants with their black berries, but even these weeds have wilted leaves.  I guess what moisture these plants could muster up went into the production of their fruit?  These berries are a favorite food of several bird species.  In the past, I have used the intensely dark purple juice from Pokeweed berries as a pigment in some drawings I have made.  This color, however, is fugitive and ultimately fades in the light.  As I walk, one distinctive sound I keep hearing is the tell-tale sound of gray squirrels gnawing on the rock-hard walnuts that are  clustered around the few walnut trees along the trail.  There’s not much meat inside one of these nuts and it seems like a lot of work for little reward.

Out on the exposed fossil beds the sun is baking, but under the shade of the trees it is still fairly green.  Since my last visit,  however, I noticed a lot of dropped tree limbs and a few whole trees that have keeled over and appear to be the result of wind damage.  I have seen a few birds including two Hairy Woodpeckers and as I walk along the trail I keep getting scolded by Carolina Wrens who resent my intrusion.  In the distance I recognize the calls from the Killdeer plovers that are looking for food along the water’s edge.  The rarest and most unusual bird, however, is  just up ahead.

I’ve only seen a couple of the more common and native Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds this year…and so I was taken aback and delighted to come across what I later identified as Isaac’s Hummingbird (Archilochus isaaci ).  To my knowledge, this is the only recorded instance of this Cuban species reaching this park.  I’m guessing that Tropical Storm Isaac (purely coincidental, but also appropriate) which is threatening the GOP conference in Tampa Bay at this moment may have blown this rarity our way?  Hummingbirds of which there are over 300 hundred recorded species have been known to wander thousands of miles away from their more familiar haunts.

I came across this hummingbird dozing on a fallen branch.  It would open its eyes every once in a while and regard me.  I kept my movements to a minimum and completely forgot about my aching knee in the process of creating a few images of it.  I was able to snap off six pictures before it took off.  As you can see, this bird (also known as the Yellow Saberbill) has a bright yellow bill it uses to extract nectar from flowers.  Its light blue body, brown wings, silver tail, and whitish-head are diagnostic of this species.  I don’t know what it is about the Falls of the Ohio, but I have seen other unique hummers out here before.  Digging through the archives…I present two of them again.

This is the ultra rare Arctic Hummingbird appearing at the Falls of the Ohio to sip nectar from the equally scarce Ice Blossoms.

I encountered this Cumberland Greencrest back in 2010 not far from the place that I saw the Isaac’s Hummingbird.  Both of these rare hummingbirds stayed in our area for a couple of days before moving on.  This is what keeps me coming out here…I just never know what I’ll find or discover! This was a short, but eventful trip and I thank you for tagging along.  Here’s another view of the river with the exposed Devonian fossil beds.

POSTSCRIPT:  The inspiration for this particular post comes from another WordPress blog I enjoy entitled “Ekostories”.  Isaac Yuen is its creator and he’s an aspiring environmental writer.  Issac has a talent for weaving stories and making connections about responsible stewardship of our planet.  At the time of this writing, Isaac has a wonderful post about a book entitled the “Flight of the Hummingbird” that I think you may enjoy…so please check it out.  Here is his link:  http://ekostories.com/ Finally, one last peek at this elusive hummingbird checking out a flower blossom.

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A gray day with the Ohio River rising and I’m exploring this huge driftwood mound created by last spring’s flooding.  Over the last few months this section has seen other minor floods and even a fire.  It’s interesting to me to see how the river has a leveling effect as it flows under and moves the driftwood pile. The shifting reveals new “treasures” that were formerly buried.  I’m out here to see what I can find and possibly reuse.  Soon I uncover a sign that tempts me.

Yes, I have a found sign collection as well and you can see it on my Pages section where I keep other collections of stuff I have stumbled across.  First, let me tell you why this particular sign caught my eye.  In this neck of the woods, we still remember the now mythic frontiersmen who explored and settled this great land.  Daniel Boone, Audubon, Lewis and Clark, and one Davy Crockett are among these pioneers.  Seeing this sign caused me to “flash forward” and I speculated what Crockett’s descendants were now doing after taming our great wilderness.  Did they as Joni Mitchell once sang “…paved paradise and put up a parking lot” and here was the sign to prove it?  As signs go, this one was interesting because it’s double-sided and the reverse message is different and says “Life Vest Required” in red stenciled letters.  Here is a detail that I like.

I was contemplating whether I wanted to drag this heavy and muddy sign with me when an unexpected thing occurred. Life happened! My activity flushed out a bird I didn’t recognize and it flew right over my head and landed in an area of bottom land just east of the railroad bridge.  I kept my eyes on it the whole time and I saw where it landed.  I forgot about the sign and grabbed my camera gingerly stepping over the driftwood.  I would hate to twist my ankle again as I anticipated my rendezvous with this rare bird.  After quietly searching the underbrush, I located it and excitedly snapped the following images.

I have the honor of announcing the first documented sighting of the Temperate Bird of Paradise ever seen at the Falls of the Ohio!  I found it at the water’s edge skulking among the litter and downed logs.  FYI, this is the only bird of paradise found in North America (hence temperate) from a family of birds that are almost exclusively tropical.  You are more likely to encounter a bird of paradise in New Guinea or the Aru Islands than here.  Interestingly, the first tropical examples to reach Europe were ethnographic specimens and the prepared bird skins were missing their feet and sometimes their wings.   This resulted in the early European naturalists assuming that the birds of paradise were forever on the wing kept aloft by their magnificent feathers.  (That’s a true story!)  Here are a few more pictures of this magical bird.

What this bird has in common with the other birds of paradise are very unusual feathers that the males use in courtship displays.  You can see the wiry, blue, flower-like feathers near the base of the tail.  In the wild, the males compete against each other for the affections of the females by wildly dancing and showing off their unusual plumage.  Once mating has occurred, the female builds a nest near the ground and the male takes off and plays no part in raising the young.  The particular bird I was observing was a juvenile male and lacked the small tuft of feathers found on the heads of the adults.

While I was taking these pictures and recording my observations, a train was passing overhead on the bridge.  I could tell it was making my visitor uneasy.

The diesel locomotives were noisy as they hauled their great loads over the span.  My bird of paradise began walking nervously back and forth and then flew away.  I was, however, able to snap one more image of it before it disappeared for good.  I returned to the area over several days, but it definitely left the area.  This is my final picture of the bird of paradise at the Falls.

Because this was a juvenile male, I’m hoping that this signals that the Temperate Bird of Paradise is on the increase and this young bird is seeking out new territories.  The bird initially became rare during the hey day when exotic bird plumes worn on fancy hats were all the rage.  Since then, habitat loss and the fact it is a ground nesting species makes it more vulnerable.  Excitedly, I rushed home to view my pictures on the computer!  I forgot all about the sign and I’m not sure it is still there anymore?  The rising Ohio River may have reclaimed it.  The next time I’m out there, I will look for it and the rare Temperate Bird of Paradise in case it returns.

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