Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Lost River, Lost Lifestyle

The Karst landscape of southern Indiana's cave country is overwhelming in Orange County, near Orleans. The fields are dotted with sink holes of many different sizes. One study found 1,022 sink holes in an area one mile square, and this is deemed to be typical. Although the focus of our trip was the Karst, I enjoyed the birds too. In the country, the Red-winged Blackbirds were abundant. I was excited to see so many Meadowlarks perched on the telephone lines. Purple Martins lived in apartments at every farm house. On the river, large black water birds, which I thought some sort of domestic goose, ended up being Mandarin ducks, 32 inches long with red feathers on their faces. I only saw one Kestral, although this looked like ideal hawk territory.
The Lost River starts above ground, winding its way through the fields, providing water and homes for fish and wildlife. After a while though, the river disappears altogether, sinking into swallow holes, leading it to underground caverns and streams. When it rains hard, the underground system fills up and the stream overflows into the normally dry river bed for a while. It may even boil up into a spring as it escapes the pressure of confined passages. Millions of years of flowing water are in action here, molding the topography.
The Gulf, as the locals call it, is where two caverns have collapsed, leaving a big footprint in the ground. At one end, it is about 10 feet tall, while at the other end it is closer to 90 feet tall. When it rains, up to 10 feet of water can collect in the bottom of this natural pit. Drains at the other end allow it to all seep away in a short time into the underground system. Minute fossils of the Mississippian era have been worked loose from the dissolved limestone and gather like sand along the drain areas. Around the Gulf we saw and heard a Northern Parula, Eastern Towhee and Prairie Warbler.
The river is only one vanishing feature though. Many of the well kept farms are owned and operated by Amish farmers. During our tour of the river with the Naturalist @ Heart group from the Falls, we paid a stop at one such farm, where the women were selling fresh strawberries on the front porch and just happened to be removing fresh-baked bread from the oven. We saw entire families working in the garden, and laundry hanging on the line. It reminded me of my grandmother's house and garden, and the long hot hours we grandchildren spent picking strawberries. Our guide said that when the Amish bought a farm, they took the satellite dish off the roof and the phone out of the wall. I saw no power lines going to the house. We discussed the dangers of pesticides and pollutants entering the water supply and how those risks affected farm wells almost immediately. A large portion of at risk babies at the regional hospital are from Amish families because of the untreated water.
Sometimes I fear the consequences of losing touch with the land. If some catastrophe struck, our urban/suburban society would fall apart in short order and violence would be the rule rather than the exception. We would be unable to feed ourselves, through lack of land but mostly through lack of knowledge. We depend so much on technology, and I don't think the technology will be reliable in an emergency. Too many of us no longer know how to be self-reliant. Even the small towns are dying all over mid-America, and have been for years. If I had to live on a farm, with little communication with the world, working from dawn to dusk just to keep my family going, I could. Do I want to? Not really. But I'm glad someone still can. They may be our hope at some time in the future.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Woods are Alive with the Sound of Birdsong

The overcast morning skies were not encouraging for either birdwatching or the upcoming Kentucky Derby on Saturday. As the day progressed, the skies lightened and the sun broke through. The birds sang louder than I've ever heard them at the Falls. Although I saw Great Blue Herons, Black Crowned Night Herons, Ring Billed Gulls, and a few Caspian Terns across the water, the real find of the day was over 100 Double-crested Cormorants standing on rocks or on the wall of the dam! I counted them and was amazed at the total.
I've always had trouble identifying warblers, so small and well camouflaged in the leaves. They dart away just after I've focused the binoculars, and I have a hard time noting any field marks. As you might guess, they are not among my favorite birds. I've always thought that I'll be a real expert when I can recognize warblers the way I recognize Herons! Derby Day brought plenty of warblers to the Falls. Even better, Brainard Palmer-Ball, our expert, dropped by while I was out on the Bird Deck and right away he identified two warblers I'd spotted. A little black and white bird with yellow near the shoulders and on the rump was a Myrtle Warbler. It hopped around in the cottonwood tree long enough to get the scope on it for a close view. Another bird in the nearby tree was a Palm Warbler. Watch for the rufous cap on his head, Brainard said, and sure enough I saw that slight distinction. Later on, I saw a bird that resembled a Towhee, but was much smaller, and Brainard mentioned that he had seen a Bay Breasted Warbler on down in the woods.
I was unable to get photos of any of the warblers, but was thrilled to hear and photograph many other birds. The Oriole taunted me from the branches all morning, but finally made a break across the parking lot and landed where I could truthfully say I'd seen him. The Indigo Bunting came down to investigate some bugs on the ground, his blue feathers bright against the mud colored stones. A Wood Thrush flew just in front of me before landing in a nearby tree and singing E-o-lay. I got some good pictures of a bird I thought might be an Oven Bird, and sent them to Brainard for verification. He says it is a Swainson's Thrush. There were lots of them in the woods, and I have seen them on other occasions too.
The dead trees along the river bank always have good nesting cavities, but most of them seemed inhabited by Starlings. One old tree had at least three holes with nests right above each other like a high-rise apartment building. A Northern Flicker flew back and forth to that third nest with food for the babies inside. Heard but not seen were a Red-eyed Vireo, White Throated Sparrow, Downy Woodpecker and PeeWee. Just as I prepared to pack up for the day, a black and white Eastern Kingbird bird did some loop-de-loops and landed in the top of a tree. I don't know what horses ran in the Derby this year, but I had a winning day birding at the Falls!