Thursday, March 15, 2007

High Water Low Water

The Ohio River is frozen 3 months of the year, flooded 3 months of the year, and dry the rest of the year. ........Ohio Riverboat Captain

Chuck Parrish worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a historian for his entire career, and he loves talking about navigation on the Ohio River. The river was the Gateway to the West after the Revolution, and the Falls consisted of a series of rapids which dropped the river level by 26 feet in a little over two miles. If you were traveling in a dugout canoe or a flatboat, you could navigate around the sand bars, tree snags and other impediments along the way. However, when the first steamboats appeared in 1811, river commerce became much more important. Before the first canal was built around the Falls of the Ohio, a traveler's only choices were to risk "shooting the rapids" with skillful (and lucky) Falls pilots or to unload the boat and transport everything over land to the other side. Today, the Ohio River is really a series of lakes between dams built by the Corps of Engineers over the last 100+ years. Most of the original Falls are under water permanently by virtue of the McAlpine Dam. We can still get a flavor of what it must have been like in the early days of river travel when the river is in flood or drought. From the deck of the Interpretive Center, the wall on the other side is about 30 feet tall and we conduct hikes during the dry summer months to the fossil beds under that far wall. In the winter and spring, the gates are open on the dam and all the water comes pouring through and over the dam. You might think that the high water doesn't look so bad. At least you wouldn't have to unload the boat to get through. But take a look at the flotsam coming downstream! Summer visitors ask how high the river gets. Sometimes we point to the mark on the sidewalk for the 1997 flood, the biggest flood in recent years. Sometimes we talk about the 1937 flood and point to the third floor windows in downtown New Albany. Usually, I just say to take a look at the large trees along the river bank. Those trees were stripped of bark and branches, traveled over the top of the dam, and were deposited along the shore, quite far from the banks they are standing on. A tree with a circumference of at least 12 feet arrived last spring and was carried away again by the next October. The river giveth and the river taketh away. Be respectful of the powerful river.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Swan Lake

In other cities, cemeteries may just be a place to go after a funeral. In Louisville, Cave Hill Cemetery is a historical landmark and landscaping marvel. To Louisvillians, Cave Hill is treated more like a park than a place of death and despair. Tours are given to both gardeners and history buffs. Many prominent people in the development of our city are buried there, although I must admit I never heard of some of them, even though their contribution was important. When our children were small, we made regular family outings to Cave Hill, carrying a bag of bread to feed the ducks and geese on the lake. The kids didn't care about famous dead people, just the geese. They remember with trembling the time they were chased by a gander protecting his nest.
A few weeks ago, the local newspaper ran a short article and picture of some swans that live at Cave Hill, but moved over to a lake on a nearby golf course, and I thought a nice sunny Daylight Savings Time afternoon could be well spent at Cave Hill. The geese were noisy, as always. If someone offered them bread, they would turn their backs and swim away. If the offer went to the Mallards, the geese would descend with even louder cries as they chased away the smaller competition for soggy slices of bread. When they hissed, we politely moved to the other side of the road, having learned our lesson when the kids were little.
There were two swans on the main lake and three others on a smaller, more private pond across the road. These three were preening and getting all cleaned up, sticking their heads in the water, scratching an itch, and making sure all their feathers were property oiled and in position. A quick flap or two of the wings insured that every feather was in order.
Mourning Doves are common in this area, and I always appreciate how they always stay close to their mates. Mourning Doves are particularly appropriate birds to find at Cave Hill Cemetery, and two posed nicely this afternoon. It's great to find some nice birding close to home.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Early Bird

I ride the bus to work every day, and to arrive at the office by 8:00, I must leave home shortly before 7:00 in the morning. All winter it has been dark at that time of day. Sometimes the street lights would turn the frosty grass into lawns of crystal, sparkling in the lamp light. Mostly it was just cold and dark though. Now that it is early March, the skies are lighter in the morning, and the birds serenade me down to the bus stop. It's fun to hear the different species establishing their territories.
Today, as I left the door, I noticed two birds in the neighbor's tree. "Biggest doves I've ever seen," I thought to myself. The closer I got, the less they looked like doves. In fact, it turned out to be a pair of Sharp-shinned Hawks! What a terrific way to start the morning! It is worth missing the bus to go get the camera for some photos. I can always drive and still be there in time. Since the sun wasn't officially up yet, the camera saw mostly silhouettes against a gray sky. Also, remember that these birds were 30 feet straight up from the street, an awkward angle any time of day. Photoshop Elements did some serious editing to make the details visible, but this is good practice too.
Sharpies have a reputation of hanging around bird feeders in suburban yards to enjoy the "fast food," but I haven't noticed any around here. Two summers ago we had a pair of Coopers' Hawks nesting in between the back yards, but didn't know it until the fledglings showed up in the lawn sprinklers. The male of this pair flew away for a few minutes and then came back to land on top of his mate. Perhaps they are shopping for a nesting site on our street. The female flew out of the tree and into a spruce across the way. I had to laugh when at least half a dozen smaller birds burst out into the open at once. They sure looked surprised!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Muscatatuck Ducks

Today is a sunny, crisp Winter day in Indiana and Kentucky. I've been feeling guilty about sitting around watching old movies so much, and decided to take advantage of the weather to go birding. At first, I wanted to go Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Northern Indiana to see the Sandhill Cranes, who should be heading North again. However, a close look at the Indiana map shows this area to be a 3.5 hour drive into a snow covered area. Maybe I'll book that trip for next Fall when it's dry. How about Muscatatuck NWR, an easy day trip? Good idea, I congratulated myself.
Muscatatuck has a nine mile auto-trail, where you can stop and look whenever you see anything interesting. I took along the spotting scope and was very glad, because the first set of lakes had the best viewing of the day. Canada Geese were everywhere, of course, honking loudly. Two geese make enough noise to be mistaken for twenty geese! Around this area, I saw:
  • Northern Shovelers
  • Green -Winged Teal
  • American Coot
  • Hooded Merganser
  • American Wigeon
  • Kingfisher
  • Great Blue Heron
  • 2 River Otters
  • Red Shouldered Hawk
This is my first time to actually see the Merganser, Wigeon and Green-Winged Teal. They looked exactly like the pictures in the book, so when one bird had a white crown and another a chestnut head and green eye patch, I had no trouble identifying them. The hawk came circling over the lake and landed in a tree on the other side, too far to really focus on, even with the scope. BUT it came in calling Keer, Keer, Keer, so I knew it was the Red Shoulder rather than the Red-Tailed hawk. These lakes are often quite shallow, and dark spots sticking up are usually bits of tree. However, I watched two such spots and saw them disappear. The scope revealed that they were River Otter eating fish for Sunday brunch.
    Ducks like to sit in the middle of the lake where I can't get a close picture of them. Today I learned that if I can see them well enough for a good photo, they can see me. Wild ducks are very flighty, and will take off on the slightest hint that someone is coming. Geese don't have that problem, and will pose nicely for anyone who wants their picture. I finally got smart when I found three Hooded Mergansers in a secluded pond. There were two males and one female, so I figure some heavy duty courting was going on. I walked on the downstream side of the dam until I was just about even with them. They were busy enough that they didn't notice me for quite a while, and I got some good photos.
    The Turkey Trail is only a mile long, so I set out on it. Muscatatuck has so many water fowl because they have lots of water. They flood the moist soil units in the winter to be sure there is enough water, so any trail gets marshy at least in spots. Winter is a good time to hike in these areas. If it is cold enough to freeze the muddy spots, you can walk over them without sinking in up to your ankles! I did have to take a few detours when the path was completely flooded though. I didn't expect to see any snakes in this weather, and when one was stretched across the path, I was surprised to say the least. A quick picture was followed by a gentle prod with a stick to see if it was alive. The whole body lifted up, and I must conclude that it was frozen. I heartily recommend the bookshop at the Visitor's Center. They have a wider variety of nature books than any park or refuge I have ever seen. They also had terrific photos as posters or post cards, which were taken by a photographer named Mark Trabue. Many of the photos I saw at the NWR can be seen (and probably purchased) online as well.