Posts Tagged ‘unnatural history’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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After a brief cold and wet spell I made it out to the Falls of the Ohio last Saturday.  The Ohio River was rising as were the temperatures which had dipped into the 30 degree mark  for a few days.  One look around here and there is no doubt that it is autumn in Kentuckiana.  The willow leaves were noticeably yellower and many of the trees were in the process of losing their foliage.  I was scouting around for what else was different in this environment and spotted this tiny butterfly moving about.

This small whitish butterfly was sipping on something on the sand.  I was practically nose to nose with it and recognized that it was a member of the skipper family.  Last year was such a banner year for butterflies at the Falls and to my eye…this year was a noticeable drop off.  After following this skipper for a few yards I was able to take this image of it.  At home I identified it as the Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis) which is considered a very common species.  It seemed rather late in the season for a butterfly, but I was able to observe a few rag-tag Buckeye butterflies and a few tattered Viceroys too.  Funny how I had never noticed this skipper before.  Nevertheless, I felt a sense of personal discovery as though I was the first person ever to see this tiny revelation. It was about this time I heard a distinctive tapping coming from a stand of willow trees.  Somewhere a woodpecker was plying its trade.

With its jet-black wings, white body, and bright red bill this bird is easy to identify…it’s the Pied Woodpecker.  About this time of year the northern population of this interesting woodpecker begins its southerly migration to the warmer climes of Central America.  Although I had added this bird to my “Life List” while on a family trip to Wisconsin…this was the first Pied Woodpecker I have seen at the Falls of the Ohio.  I observed it moving up and down the trunks of the willow trees exploring the crevasses in the bark for small insects.  It likes to move head down in its search for food like nuthatches are known to do.  Every now and then it would use its bill to chip away the wood to uncover the bugs it sought and it seemed quite unconcerned about me taking pictures of it.  I snapped as many as I could as I followed it on its path through the woods.

Soon it came to a grove of trees that were covered in wild grape vines.  The Pied Woodpecker explored the bark here too, but I saw it augmenting its diet with the tiny fruits this vine was producing.  Every once in a while it would make this nasally sound that I tried imitating.  Fortunately, this bird didn’t take offense and fly away.  Perhaps it “cut me some slack” for at least trying to talk to it in its own language…or at least that was my thought at that moment.

From the vine-covered trees, the woodpecker next flew to a large log with a large exposed root mass.  When this tree was living it must have been huge. The Pied Woodpecker didn’t linger here long and I watched its rising and dipping flight pattern as it crossed over the Ohio River into Kentucky.  I wonder if I will ever see another of its kind here again?  That’s the funny thing. There are birds that are considered common and regularly recorded here that I have yet to see.  I’ve seen them elsewhere, but not here at the Falls of the Ohio.  That’s the thing about birds…their extreme mobility can make them unpredictable!

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