Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bern Swallows

Several pairs of Barn Swallows nest under the porch roof of the Garden Pavilion at Bernheim Forest. Maybe we should call them "Bern Swallows" instead. Don't you just love these little faces peering over the nest edge? They still have little fuzzies on their heads. Awww... Proud Papa protects his family, and we got dive-bombed until we made a tactful and hasty retreat.

Well, Ma, I chased them away. Don't know why these durn people never learn!

Here's our neighbor, still sitting on her eggs.

Crows just like to chase hawks for the fun of it.

The Goose family enjoy Sunday morning brunch at Bernheim Forest. My, my, don't the children grow up quickly!

Papa Brown Thrasher watches to make sure we don't get to close to his mate and nest in the bushes.

A Bernheim Ent has issues with a No Trespassing sign. Not sure if he's for it or agin' it!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Identifying the Invasives

When my focus shifts from birds to flowers, I consistently struggle with the same problem. When birding, there are many field guides to choose from, but all the books for Eastern North American contain the same birds. I only have to use one field guide for that area. When trying to identify wildflowers, however, it takes at least two or three, and even then I have trouble finding the plant in my photograph. One field guide proudly limits itself to "true" wildflowers. Another arranges each plant according to family. If you don't know what family it belongs to, good luck trying to find it. A third book wants you to look for the number of petals and their arrangement on the bloom, then look at the leaves and their arrangement. Even while trying to "key" a flower I already know, my analysis and the book's analysis of these features rarely match, leading to great frustration on my part. Just forget finding a plant not in bloom!

Invasives and weeds are seldom included in the field guides, yet they are the most abundant flowers to be found in most places. The number one clue that a plant is invasive is this abundance. Whenever you see a plant that fills a field, displaying its color over a large area, count on it being an invasive. These pictures are of Poison Hemlock, the same that Socrates drank at his death. All along Beargrass Creek this morning, Poison Hemlock grew taller than my head. Yesterday 15-20 volunteers at the Falls of the Ohio worked all day to clear weeds out of the flower beds, including anything that looked like a carrot, stands of red clover, and too many things I couldn't identify at all. My back hurt all night as a result. I guess it's not fair to equate "weeds" and "invasive" plants so lightly. Native plants growing where people don't want them are considered weeds too.

Are these plants part of the Dark Side of the Force? They can be quite pretty. Honeysuckle smells so sweet. Birds like multiflora rose hips and use the thickets for shelter. The tiniest flowers are intricate in design. Often, they look like orchids under a magnifying glass. I'm sure you all know that invasives out grow the native plants. Bush honeysuckle even changes the chemistry of the soil for its own benefit. It's hard for me to even imagine what Kentucky looked like without all these common plants.
Louisville's city parks were designed by the famous Frederick Law Olmsted, and I attended a presentation by the Olmsted Parks Conservancy group, which is trying to restore, enhance and preserve these parks. They cut down bush honeysuckle, then apply industrial strength Roundup to the stumps to kill the roots. We were surprised when he said that within a year or two, the native wildflowers started coming back up. The seeds were in the ground just waiting for a chance to grow. This is the most encouraging thing I have ever heard about the War against Invasives.

Can you identify these common invasive plants?

Last night was Froggy Night for the Bernheim volunteers, and we joined them on a trip into the research forest to a restored wetland area. The early farmers often straightened the creeks on their farms to provide more rich land for crops, eliminating the natural twists and bends in a stream. Look around your own area. If you see creeks that run against one side of the valley, while the rest is open, most likely they have been straightened. I didn't actually go into the creek, but our expert sat there for a while, identifying the different toads and frogs by their voices. Then he reached out, and came up with this guy, a Fowler's Toad. How could he tell? He looked at the number of warts in the dark spots on its back. Apparently that's the field mark to look for in toads.

My goal in life to to know everything (well, as much as I can absorb), but I'm not so sure I need to know how many warts are on a toad's spots!

Oh, yes. Here's a great birding note to end with. I saw a mature Bald Eagle on the wall of the dam at the Falls of the Ohio last Wednesday, and others saw him the next day. We have seen Eagles quite a few times this spring, and there are reports of a pair on an island a few miles upstream. We are all hoping that they may decide to stick around our area.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bluebird Bonanza

Although my husband is the primary volunteer at Bernheim Forest and Arboretum in our family, I went to represent the Beckham Bird Club today at Bernheim's big Bloomfest event. The table next to ours hosted the Kentucky Bluebird Society, and Mr. Bluebird led a walk to check on the Bluebird houses. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity, since my backyard has absolutely no chance of ever drawing any Bluebirds. It was fascinating to see the baby birds in their nests.

We must have set some kind of success record, finding 6 of 8 nest boxes with Bluebirds successfully nesting in them. One had eggs only. Another had new hatchlings with their eyes still closed, which we counted by finding the yellow beaks. One little guy was completely buried under his siblings. Another box had one hatchling and a few unhatched eggs. Two other boxes had old nests, but were vacant now.

Bernheim installed a nest cam in a box just outside the education center. Unlike many online cams, this one has a live feed to a monitor in the education center so you can see every movement happening in the box. Mama Bluebird came with a juicy grub, but all the babies were napping, so she ate it herself. Can't let those grubs go to waste!

Another box held babies with their eyes open, and they showed no interest at all, either panic or joy, in the large hand entering their world and moving them around to search for a buried Bluebird sibling. Look at the blue tips on their developing feathers. Mr. Bluebird says that when they are ready to fledge they just burst out of the box and fly away. There is no room inside to stretch and exercise those flight muscles.

We discovered that the ninth box held a nest of Tufted Titmouse babies when the Titmouse mother scolded and cursed at us as loudly as she could directly over our heads. We finally took pity on her (and spared ourselves a dive-bombing) by leaving the box unopened.

As we walked up the hill a way, Mama Titmouse immediately entered the box with a tidbit for the babies, then hurried away to find the next serving.

Thanks, Mr. Bluebird, for a terrific afternoon learning about Bluebirds in wonderful detail. I greatly admire his skill in determining how to open each box, since each was different. His tool of preference? The handy, dandy Swiss Army knife, of course. I was also interested to see the various stages of development in the different nests. My favorite story was when he reached into the nest under a sitting mother, lifted her up to count the eggs, and she didn't move a feather. We didn't find any birds actually on the nest today, but we had a bonus with no House Sparrows in any of the boxes!

Harris Hawk

Our friends from Raptor Rehab of Kentucky attended Bloomfest with some of their favorite birds and mine.

Turkey Vulture

American Kestrels

Green Dragon Blossom

After the great birding opportunities, as the crowds started to trickle off, my flower buddy and expert, Tavia Cathcart, asked if I'd like to go hunting Green Dragons. Dragons? You mean the fire-breathing kind of dragon? No, this is a flower, one I've never seen before, and she was very excited about it.

Most Jack in the Pulpits are finished blooming by this time, but Bernheim's Jacks are in good shape. This one is a Jack in the Pen apparently. Can't imagine was sort of natural law it broke to land in jail!

Flowers and birds weren't the only attendees at Bloomfest. This insect arrived early in the morning, and seemed fascinated with leftover stickiness on the plastic tablecloth I brought from home.

Our favorite blossom is the Wren Flower--a unique forest beauty found only at Bernheim Forest and Arboretum!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rain, Rain Go Away

Have any of the blogger flock from West Virginia wondered what happened to all the rain we had? Plus, what happened to all the rain since we all got home? How about all the rain in Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc.? Well, now you know. It all came to the Falls of the Ohio in Louisville, Ky. I went there Saturday for Birdathon, and this is what I saw. Click to enlarge the photo. See that faint line almost to the trees? That's the McAlpin Dam, about half a mile away, which is 30 feet tall. The water is just pouring over the top. All five gates on the rest of the dam are fully opened so that large logs, refrigerators, tires, barrels, etc. can come over to lodge along our shore.

The cormorants didn't mind, but most other shore birds and waders have gone elsewhere for a while. I did find this Spotted Sandpiper in the brush, and was really excited.

When I got home however, some of my pictures came out looking this this -- waaayyy overexposed. Ack!! I had my new Nikon P90 in shutter priority mode, with speed of 1/60 and expected it to adjust the aperture for the bright light, but apparently it didn't. I returned the next day and took more in superauto mode, which did fine. Then went back to the same shutter setting, and this time it made the appropriate aperture settings. The focus looks a little fuzzier than I expected too. I hope it's not getting sick.

Everyone knows the male Red-winged Blackbird, right? Loud, colorful red epaulets on the shoulders...a real showoff.

The female Red-winged Blackbird is a lot quieter, and harder to find. This lovely girl was picking through the cattail fluff for the softest lining for her nest. Isn't she pretty? Her mate, on the other hand, scolded me continuously while I snuck around looking for a clear vantage point.

I've been keeping an eye on the Cooper's Hawks next door, but couldn't resist when this Red-Shouldered put on a soaring demonstration right above my head.

I hope all of you had a pleasant and relaxing Mother's Day.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Back on the Home Front

Who's to say the birding excitement ends when you come home from a festival? Not me! The echoing thunder outside says it's time to sit down and blog.
The most exciting birds are the Cooper's Hawks who are establishing a nest in the pine tree next door. Last month, I could have sworn I saw a pair of Crows going in and out of that nest. In our absence, I guess the Crows abandoned the nest, or got chased off by the hawks. Hmm, I thought that scenario usually went the other way, with the Crows being the aggressor. Aren't these two beautiful?
I don't think they actually have eggs yet. The female seems to spend a lot of time in the oak. When another Cooper's flew high overhead, she hurried back to her nest to defend it though, eggs or not. This morning she was standing on the edge, surveying the neighborhood. It's fun to hear them talk back and forth to each other. I don't think the human neighbors have any idea of the honor being bestowed on them.
All right, here we go. Hold your breath, 1,2,3....

Our new creek is full to the brim from all the rain in the last 2 weeks. This Robin has decided the creek is just right for bathing.
Magnolia Warbler

I discovered a new park nearby with wonderful birding opportunities in the marsh and wetlands surrounding Beargrass Creek, as it winds through the St. Matthews neighborhood in Louisville. In the midst of apartment complexes, office buildings, shopping malls and car dealerships, the city finally decided to preserve some of the wetlands for a change. It's really the sensible thing to do since Beargrass Creek floods whenever it rains more than 2 inches. In just a little over an hour this morning, I saw 31 species there, including 5 warblers that I located and identified myself-- a major accomplishment for a former warbler-phobe! Now if we could just convince them to perch for a few minutes it would be great! I found two mystery birds. The first was someone's escaped parakeet, playing with the big boys. The second is this one. Any suggestions out there? This is why I never wanted to look for warblers. Or is this some non-warbler?
Every play hide and seek with a squirrel? This is like the child who thinks you can't see him because his head is hidden! If the sun ever comes out again, I'm going back to this park to see what else I can find.
After about 13 weeks the city finally picked up the brush from the ice storm, as promised. YEAH!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Non-Birding at the New River

What's a birder to do when the sun doesn't shine, and the birds sing only from hidden perches, refusing to come out and be admired? I tend to get distracted by other natural features, and the New River Gorge is chock-full of natural features, as well as an enormous man-made feature, the New River Bridge. The New River Gorge Bridge carries U.S. Highway 19 over the New River at a height of 876 feet, making it the highest vehicular bridge in the Americas, and the second-highest in the world. That's all straight down folks. For someone with acrophobia (namely me) it's a good thing the side of the bridge is concrete, and I can't see over when when driving.
One of our trips went down into the Gorge though, down a narrow, switch-backed road. We stopped at the base of the bridge supports for some birding. I must admit, mountain birding makes it easier to see warblers, since the trees are at eye-level and your neck doesn't hurt as much. The bridge was completed in 1977, and before that everyone just drove the narrow winding road down, crossed the river on a one lane bridge with a wood floor, and drove up another one lane road going up to the other side. I don't think there would be much to make me take this trip too often. But think back to the pioneers who didn't even have bridges or paved roads. Although finding land, homesteading, and raising crops and family on your own is hard enough, imagine the endless isolation. What if a family member is injured or ill? When it's time to give birth, your husband may not be able to return with a midwife in time. No wonder so many women died in childbirth. But the sheer loneliness must have been overwhelming. I'm glad to be an Interstate Highway girl, thanks.
View from old New River Bridge
Do I feel guilty about losing the birding focus? Nah....It's all fascinating. Things with roots always cooperate for the camera. How about a Jack the Referee plant found at Smokey's on the Gorge. Touchdown!
Every forest has a few Ents, if you look for them. I found this one at the Opossum Creek Retreat next to one of the cabins. The uplifted arms, long eyes and very long, open mouth remind me of Edvard Munch paintings of The Scream. A Screaming Ent in West Virginia...
Our guides, Connie Toops and Keith Richards, not only excel at hearing and recognizing bird calls, they know the other inhabitants of the biosphere as well.
Is this a blossom on a cedar tree? No, it's the cedar-apple rust, a fungus. Connie found another fungus that looked like a small orange tipped match growing in a puddle, but I don't remember what she called it.
I'm used to Spanish Moss and other kinds of epiphytic plants in the South. Lichens cover the bark of trees here in the mountains, to the point where you can't see the bark at all. I think this airy thing is some kind of lichen as well.
As the week progressed, we saw spring ebb and flow in the mountains. Along the valleys, the leaves were fully grown. In the higher elevations, most of the trees were still bare. How do you like this one? I call it the Red Velvet Oak for obvious reasons.
Birds are a bright flittering part of the forest, delighting us with their song. All the "small life" is necessary for the forest to provide a habitat for the birds. I love looking at anything with a different shape or color, then trying to find how it fits in the ecology. It would be nice if the chiggers, mosquitos and gnats didn't see me as a potential dinner though. I'm still itching and scratching from their attention.