Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Raven Run Wildflowers - Too Early, Too Late

Blue-eyed Mary
Raven Run Nature Sanctuary is a county park on the bluffs of the Kentucky River in Fayette County, not far from Lexington.  Part of the property was acquired with funds from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund. Much of the 734 acres is old farm land, full of invasive plants such as bush honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, garlic mustard, and poison hemlock, just like everywhere else. In the last few years, they had a project to get rid of bush honeysuckle, which appears to be successful in  part, but it's coming right back into the cleared areas. As I drove down the Interstate, I was saddened to see the fringe of green under all the trees - honeysuckle leafing out before anything else. 
Bumblebee on Dwarf Larkspur
But as you head down the trail, past old stone fences, the flowers began to appear. Dwarf larkspur comes in both purple and white, plus a few shades in between. This is the only place I have ever seen blue-eyed Mary. In the creek valley I've heard wild turkey every time I visit the park. Today, I could swear I heard a Broadwing Hawk, although I couldn't call it out of hiding. Might have been a Blue Jay trying to fool me (if so, it worked!), but I didn't hear any other Jay calls all day. 
Dwark Larkspur
Spring Beauty

Dainty spring beauty was abundant, with little pink stripes and anthers. Twice, several teenagers passed me on the trail, talking and walking fast, not looking at any of the flowers. How could they come to such a park and not look at this flowers this time of year? Makes no sense to me.
Early Saxifrage
Good old Kentucky limestone underlies everything, of course. In fact, you risk breaking limbs and cameras both, tripping over the stones in the trail! Where the trail cuts between two big boulders, those limestone loving plants like stonecrop and this early saxifrage grow right out of the rocks.
Squirrel Corn
And just beyond those rocks I finally found both squirrel corn and Dutchman's breeches. the leaves are similar, but you can tell the difference by the blossoms. The Dutchman hangs his breeches on a line with the pants legs pointing up, while squirrel corn (how did it get that name!) has rounded tops.
Sharp-lobed Hepatica and Sessile Trillium
The trail to the overlook on the Kentucky River Palisades hosts hepatica and columbine that I found nowhere else. Of course, the hepatica flower grows on a stalk before the leaves ever come up, so I never get to see them. Columbine also likes to grow right out of cracks in the rocks, but today it was only in bud. However, the twinleaf and cutleaf toothwort had finished blooming all together. Looks like I was both too early and too late at the same time!
Wild Ginger Blossom
One of my spring favorites is the little heart-shaped wild ginger. Under the hairy leaves, one solitary dark maroon blossom may grow down on the ground itself. The flower evolved to attract small pollinating flies that emerge from the ground early in the spring looking for a thawing carcass of an animal that did not survive the winter. By lying next to the ground the flower is readily found by the emerging flies. The color (and smell) of the flower is similar to that of decomposing flesh. Whether these flies pollinate the flower or not is in some dispute.You have to get way down on the ground to get a photo of them at all.
Flower Bowl Hillside 4-16-14
I was disappointed, but not too surprised, at the lack of flowers in the Flower Bowl (as I call it). This valley has always been too steep to farm, and has never been disturbed, as far as I know, so there are an minimum of invasives, and the ground beneath the trees is open, hosting huge numbers of native wild flowers. However, the cold winter, or just the cold snap this week, has affected it, since there were not the wide wide variety of flowers growing on top of each other up and down the hillside.
Flower Bowl 4-16-2010
The first year we went to Raven Run, I was absolutely breathless when we started into the valley. As far as you could see, up hill and down, the forest floor was covered with larkspur, wood poppy, phlox, and blue-eyed Mary. All those flowers were blooming, yes, but not in the outstanding numbers of previous years. The false rue anemone seemed to be most abundant this year. Maybe it would all catch up if I had time to return in a week. In May, we are returning to Natural Bridge State Park for more wildflowers!

Walk on the Wet Side

Vernal pools, also called vernal ponds or ephemeral pools, are temporary pools of water that provide habitat for distinctive plants and animals. They are considered to be a distinctive type of wetland usually without fish, thus allowing the safe development of young amphibian and insects unable to withstand competition or predation by fish. I was surprised not to hear any frogs.
Hays Kennedy Park in Prospect, KY, has a prime example of vernal pools. The long narrow pool is quite shallow. They are called vernal pools because they are often, but not necessarily, at their maximum depth in the spring ("vernal" meaning of, relating to, or occurring in the spring) and by summer, only a few frog puddles will remain.. Vernal pools may form in forests, but they are more typically associated with grasslands. While many vernal pools are only a few meters in width, playas and prairie potholes are usually much larger, but are still otherwise similar in many respects, with high water in wet periods, followed by dry conditions.
The pool usually hosts dabbling ducks such as Mallards, Northern Shovelers and Bluewinged Teal. Last year a pair of Red Necked Phalaropes found this pool, so you don't assume that nothing exciting ever happens here. In March, when we had a slight warm spell, you could hardly walk along the pool for all the goose poo on the banks. I never knew that teals make a peeping cheeping kind of sound. They sounded like baby chicks!
Meadow Larks sing on the other side of the water, but they usually hide down in the grass.
Between snow showers yesterday, the sun came out occasionally, highlighting all the crab apple trees in bloom. They grow so close together, you can tell they haven't been planted by anyone.
At least I think they are crab apples. Don't Bradford pears escape to the wild sometimes? I sank down into the squishy mud, hiding at the base of the trees. This is a very wet place in the spring.
But the only wild flowers would be considered weeds, such as this Dead Red Nettle...
...and the first Garlic Mustard of the season. Poison Hemlock is sprouting right behind the Garlic Mustard. Ah well, this is an easy stop on my way home from Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, well worth the walk on the wet side.

Monday, April 14, 2014

More Spring Adventures at Bernheim Forest

Eastern Meadowlark
Saturday morning, I taught a Birding 101 class for about 15 of the Naturalists in Training at Bernheim Forest and Arboretum, for my good friend and mentor, Wren Smith. After the classroom presentation, we went outside to see what we could find with our new birding skills, and to practice using binoculars, which I admit to be one of the hardest parts of birding. By the time I find the bird and focus on it, it's often gone. I'm good at hearing the birds, and identifying the more common ones by ear, but I've never felt comfortable leading a walk and being able to direct people to the actual bird in the tree. However, we heard some good candidates to be called in from the Meadow, including this outstanding Meadow Lark. As soon as I played his call, he sped over to us, circling the group, eyeing us for the rival Lark. He moved from perch to perch for the next 20 minutes, still on the alert, so we got some great chances to view him.
Red-tailed Hawk
Overhead in the clear blue sky a large Red-tailed Hawk showed off her identifying marks for my new birders. A Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture soared close together so they could see the easy difference between those species. Purple Martins chittered around their gourd nest boxes. All in all, it was a terrific morning.
In a week, the wildflowers can change a lot, so after class I returned to the Rock Run Trail, known as the best wildflower spot in the forest. Last week, the creek was full of water from earlier storms, but Saturday, the upper part was dry, as usual, while the lower part of the trail had water from a spring. I don't remember ever seeing so many large clusters of Bloodroot as I have this year. I think of them as being solitary blooms usually.
Yellow Trout Lily with Green Pollinator
On this sunny afternoon, all the flowers were completely open, and the pollinators were busy, busy, busy.  I always enjoy seeing the variety of pollinators, including different bees, beetles and flies. The tiny Pussy-toes were full of eensy-weensy little flies. 
White Violets
Wren suggested I look around the Sun and Shade Trail, near the headwaters of Lake Nevin for more flowers. In the mowed areas, the ground was purple and white with Common Violets and White Violets. 
Magnolia Blossom
Bernheim is famed for its flowering trees in the spring, and the main road was lined with Bradford Pears and pink Magnolias in full bloom. The Dogwoods are just beginning to come out.
In the woods by Lake Nevin, I found the first Twinleaf I've seen at Bernheim. Many were in bloom while the leaves were still small and almost closed.
Only 30 minutes away from Louisville, Bernheim Forest is such a wonderful resource, both in their people, programs and natural resources. I am so glad to to be part of it!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Early Wildflowers

After spending the morning at Bernheim Forest with my grandson and son-in-law, I got home and turned right around to head out again. They have white trout lily in one particular spot there, and if you delay going, you will miss them altogether. 

 Then, of course, are the delicate white bloodroots. They pop up in the embrace of a leaf, and the delicate blossoms only last a day.
Rue anemone, swaying with each small breath of wind...
...and toothwort just starting to blossom.

There will be more of most of these species in the next few weeks, plus many others, but the first I see in the season are always extra special

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring Serenade

Horned Grebe
Today I re-learned a basic fact. In the "Middle of the Lake" means just that. No matter which side of the Long Run Park Lake I stood on this evening, I could not get a closer photo of these Horned Grebe which chose the lake as their night's stopover while migrating north. Sigh. They looked better in the scope, but were busy preening, or just napping as the sun set. This is the first time I've ever seen them with the males in breeding plumage, and it was pretty exciting.

Louisville's newest park is called The Parklands of Floyds Fork, and will eventually connect five parks including hiking and biking trails, playgrounds, and restored wetlands, along many miles of Floyd's Fork. The Fork itself is 62 miles long, not quite enough to be classified as a river, but a wonderful place to canoe and explore. The eastern part of Jefferson County is quickly being overrun by development, and this park will help to save some of it at least.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to drop by the Parklands, hoping to hear Woodcocks peenting. Nope, no Woodcocks tonight, but the marshes had plenty of frogs and waterfowl. So close your eyes and just enjoy the sounds of spring!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Meadowlark Morning

A friend went to Long Run Park yesterday, and posted beautiful photos of a Wood Duck pair he found, so this morning Dick and I headed for eastern Jefferson County in the bright spring sunshine to look for Wood Ducks. Although we scanned every inch of shoreline, particularly the small protected coves, we did not find any Wood Ducks. All our hours of listening to bird calls on tape came into good use though, since all the birds were singing loudly!
I love the sound of Meadowlarks, and they were everywhere this morning. One flew across the road before us, so we got out and played their call on my phone app to see if we could get a good look at him. He dashed out of the grass, over our heads, and into a tall tree where he could get a good look around for competitors.
 We casually walked his way, still playing the call from time to time. He eyed us from above, and eventually flew down, circled once, then dropped back into the grass. No fooling this guy! He knew exactly where that sound was coming from. Once he was sure we were no threat he got back down to whatever business was on hand for this morning. It was a real thrill for us to see him gleaming in the sun though!
Lots of other birds were enjoying the sunshine too. We saw more Blue Jays than any other bird I think, both calling "Jay Jay" and chasing each other around. I don't remember seeing so many of them at once, and thought they might be migrating, but the field guide said they are year-round residents in Kentucky. Someone had put a pile of dog food kibble on the ground and both Jays and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were taking advantage of the gift.
Cardinals chipped back and forth...
...while Grackles gave us the evil eye from overhead...
...and Red-winged Blackbirds called from almost every branch it seemed.
A pair of Red-shouldered Hawks circled each other, calling "Keer Keer", followed by a silent but majestic young Red-tailed Hawk up among the Turkey and Black Vultures.
Then a very unusual bird caught our attention. Instead of a "mottled" duck, this looked like a "model" duck - otherwise known as a model airplane with pontoons. The engine was quiet enough to not disturb the birds and we had fun watching it fly around. Tomorrow the temperatures should drop again, so I'm glad we got out there while the gettin' was good!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

March Lions and Lambs

The word 'March' comes from the Roman 'Martius'. This was originally the first month of the Roman calendar and was named after Mars, the god of war.  March was the beginning of our calendar year. We changed to the 'New Style' or 'Gregorian calendar in 1752, and it is only since then when we the year began on 1st January. The Anglo-Saxons called the month Hlyd monath which means Stormy month, or Hraed monath which means Rugged month.
Song Sparrow
Well, the ancients certainly knew what they were talking about when they named this month, didn't they? On Tuesday, it's sunny and warm, Wednesday morning is blustery, rainy and cold. On Tuesday, Beckham Bird Club has a wonderful hike at Bernheim Forest with our guest, Greg Miller, of "The Big Year" fame. He's a regular guy, very nice, with a rough history. Greg says he now gives speeches about a contest he didn't win, and a book he didn't write, which was made into a movie he didn't star in. He did serve as the avian consultant for the movie though, and got to meet all the cast. The casting director did a great job with Jack Black taking Greg's part. Black nailed Greg's mannerisms right on. He was most touched by a letter from a man who started birding with his son after they watched The Big Year together, because Jack Black was in it.
Eastern Bluebird
By the next morning, winter had returned, and a few of us braved the elements to join Thor Hanson, our evening speaker and author of a terrific book about Feathers:the Evolution of a Natural Miracle. Following feathers from the dinosaurs to ladies' hats, he was a delightful speaker at our annual dinner, and endured the unpleasant weather the next morning in good spirits. If you are interested in birds, I recommend his book.
Red Maple Blossoms
The sunshine gleams so bright and warm,
The sky is blue and clear.
I run outdoors without a coat,
And spring is almost here.
Then before I know it,
Small clouds have blown together,
Till the sun just can't get through them,
And again, it's mitten weather.

Sunrise and sunset are close to twelves hours apart today, and the birds and plants seem to know that spring is here, and willing to take a chance on the weather. The early bloomers are out, and bees are looking for them. I, on the other hand, go out whenever the sun shines, and wrap up in my favorite blanket on days like today, when it is going to rain/sleet/snow once AGAIN! But I'm more than ready to have it be spring every day!

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Unusual Birds

Red-necked Grebe
This winter is setting a record, for me at least, when it comes to unusual birds in Kentucky. I've found five life birds (including the Long-tail Duck Ta-Da!) in all this cold weather. Normally I have to travel someplace warm and far away to find new life birds in January and February, but this year they have all been close to home. Today I added the Red-necked Grebe to my list. Birders have been finding them all over Kentucky in the last week or two, and I've never even heard of them before.
Red-necked Grebe and Canada Goose
They are large, compared to other grebes, and here is one posing next to a Canada Goose for comparison. Most of them seem to be in non-breeding plumage, just gray with a little white on the cheek.
Grebe Diving
At least today I didn't have to risk my safety on icy roads. As much as I love my Prius, I found that it does not do well on icy, slippery roads. Today's challenge was simply finding the bird each time it emerge from a dive, and trying no to cuss every time it dove out of sight just as I focused on it. Sigh
Red Necked Phalarope
 Somehow the Ohio River is a magnet for lost birds. We have a nice normally unfrozen river easily viewed from any altitude. Last year we had a Red Necked Phalarope...
Western Grebe
...and a Western Grebe show up. When hurricanes blow on the east coast, we keep an eye out for unusual birds, such as a pair of young Black Baked Gulls who landed at the Falls of the Ohio, and refused to move unless a fisherman got within about 3 feet. American Pelicans don't belong here, but several have started stopping in at the Falls each spring and fall. When the river isn't in flood, the Falls provide a safe dry place to land and recuperate from long perilous flights. It's certainly easier and cheaper to just drive to Indiana to see rare birds than to go to the other end of the country!