Sunday, December 03, 2006

Winter Wildlife Wonderland

Winter arrived with a vengeance last week, when the temperature dropped by some 35 degrees overnight in the midst of high winds and rain. On Saturday, however, the sun came out and we decided to enjoy the spate of sunshine at Salato Wildlife Education Center. Salato is the headquarters for Kentucky's Department of Fish and Wildlife, with wonderful exhibits of Kentucky wildlife, including live white tail deer, elk, bison, turkeys, black bears, wildcats, and two Bald Eagles. The two fishing lakes attract a variety of water fowl as well. Some small birds posed for their pictures against the bright blue sky, enjoying the clear weather too. This little Song Sparrow patiently sat on a branch while I took several pictures in the classic "bird on a stick" setting. The Blue Jays were out in force, darting from tree to tree. One was high on a bare branch and we weren't too sure what it was, since we failed to bring binoculars (we won't do that again), and could see only the gray belly. The long lens on my camera seemed to hint at black markings on the face that made me think it really was a Blue Jay after all. As always, click on any picture to see a larger version.
Bluebirds are relatively new to me, so it's always a thrill to find one. I'm glad to add them to my list of birds who stay around during the winter. At first the flash of blue wings looked like an Indigo Bunting. Then he posed on a rail and we clearly saw it was a bluebird. I got brave with Photoshop too and used the cloning tool for the first time to eliminate a small branch that couldn't be cropped out. The Red-bellied Woodpeckers were making chips fly from the trees in their noisy hunt for bugs, but it is a challenge to get more than their bellies when you are standing on the ground directly under them. This one doesn't seem to have much "red' on the belly. I'll have to look up the females and see if they are paler than the males.
On the fishing lake, we saw a few ducks, and the males all had their breeding plumage. The last ducks I looked at in July were in eclipse, and very dull looking. This time the male Mallards had bright green heads. We saw a male Black Duck, and there was no risk at all of mistaking him for a female mallard. But we were most excited to see a male Wood Duck looking like a little lure painted in vivid colors to draw in the wild birds for duck hunters. They all followed us as we walked around the lake, and I was amazed at how fast they can swim! Inside the educational center are aquariums, and stuffed animals and birds on display, with samples of the various skins to be touched and identified. The main hallway has displays of hawks and other birds in flight, which most people probably didn't notice. After studying all the hawk books since September, I did pretty well at identifying them, especially since they just hung there unmoving. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel! After making my guesses, we found the printed guide identifying each of the birds, and I was encouraged to get so many of them right. Salato is well worth a visit next time you get a chance. I look forward to returning in Spring when the flowers start to bloom.