Saturday, October 31, 2009

Comic Sans Saves the Day

I'm not a big time Halloween person. I don't dress up, and I only get candy that I don't like. Otherwise I'd pig out on it before any little guys showed up. We did enlarge the front porch so Trick or Treaters no longer fall off it backwards into the bushes. However, in my spirit of Halloween, I hope you enjoy this non-caloric comic sans opera. (Remember, I spent 11 years in the IT business. Videos about fonts as people are funny to me!)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fungi are Fun, Guys!

Bread Dough Mushroom

It's been fairly cool and wet this summer and fall, perfect fungi weather. When we go for a hike, I may not find birds, but the fungi are flourishing fantastically! Now, here's the problem. I don't have a good fungi field guide, and when I try to look online, all I find are Latin names. I don't do Latin, thank you. So I have fun making up my own names if no one else in the group knows. I ordered what looks like a good book, and it won't be here for a while yet, so just enjoy my imagination on these. After all, mushrooms can be as pretty as flowers, can't they?
Chocolate Bread Dough

Yellow Frillies

Witch's Butter (someone else came up with this name) - a jelly fungi. Squeeze and it slimes all over your fingers.

Purple Umbrellas

Dead Man's Finger - That's it's real name, and apparently it's fairly rare since the naturalist was excited to find it. I would have called it Duck Head myself.

Frilly Pumpkin Turkey Tails

Birds Nest - this is the real name. If you brush against them the "eggs" burst and the spores are released to the air.

More jelly fungi

White Branch Straddler - it only grew on the bottom of this small branch.

Shelf fungi are fairly common, but this one was quite large. The naturalists pulled one from the tree trunk to show us its root, which was larger than his thumb, as you can see.
Little Orange Pearls

We found a tree at Bernheim that had 10 or 12 different kinds of fungi along its dead trunk. Between the hurricane in Sept 2008 and the Jan 2009 ice storm, Kentucky has an abundance of dead trees. A real fungi feast! We noticed that the fungi and lichens tended to start growing in the crevasses in the bark. You can see them lined up in rows - first a row of Turkey Tails, then a row of green moss and lichens.

Tortellini Mushroom

One of the nicest things about fungi is their willingness to pose as long as you need for the perfect photo. They don't blow in the wind, and they don't move around just as you take the shot. I appreciate that in nature!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reelfoot Birds

We got to see some birds not normally found in the Louisville area. Well, someone said these were White Fronted Geese exploring the lake at Big Oak State Park in Missouri. Now that I'm home and checking the field guide, I don't know what they are. Any ideas out there?
The Reelfoot naturalist let us go into the large flight cage for his two Bald Eagles, who were pretty cool about having visitors. Plenty of wild Eagles flew over our parking lot, but they were too high for good pictures.
From our weekend stay, I'd have to say that Great Egrets were the most common bird we saw. They seem very territorial. Each morning we saw an Egret on the same branches around the lakeshore by our resort. If you walked too close though, they flew off, then returned in just a few minutes.
On our hike around the edge of the lake, we saw a handful of American Pelicans preening. It looks like they are standing on water, but there are lots of submerged branches to take advantage of. It only looks like a bird miracle.
The exciting part came when hundreds of Pelicans lifted on a thermal Sunday morning, wheeling and turning until they were high enough to start flying towards their destination farther south. From one angle, there were invisible, then they turned with a flash of white wings, and the next turn made them look black. It was simply fabulous!

A Bald Eagle called while we visited, and apparently I've turned off both the recording and sound making abilities of my camera, so there is no sound. I pieced together some individual shots to get the characteristic movements. Hmm, I'll have to get into the camera setup again so I get sound with my movies.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Real Reelfoot Lake

Sunday was the best day of our KSNH weekend, because the sun finally came out. Since Reelfoot is on the Mississippi flyway, lots of migrating birds stop here. We visited a wetlands with duck blinds for handicapped hunters. Up to five people can use the drive-up blind, but one has to be in a wheelchair. They were in pretty bad shape after last winter's ice storm, and some hunter will have to clean them up before the season starts. Too bad we'll never see them as just duck watching blinds during the season.
Reelfoot Lake NWR is known for its lily ponds. They should be famous for duckweed as well, since it grows any place where fishermen don't take their boats on a regular basis, resembling a smooth grassy lawn under the trees.
Reelfoot Lake is surprisingly shallow. Many places are 5 feet deep, and the deepest pools are only about 18 feet deep. The wind can blow up good sized whitecaps in a storm though. Many of the cypress trees growing away from the shore are remnants of a cypress forest that grew here before the 1812 earthquake that flooded the area and created the lake. The naturalist said that stumps under the water are still in good condition, while those which are exposed sometimes have rotted. It's hard to determine the age of the oldest trees, since the heart wood rots out leaving a large hollow in the middle, while the rest of the tree lives for many more years.
Bald Cypress trees are deciduous conifers, losing their needles in the winter. "Knees" grow up as part of the root system, giving more stability to their foundation in the soft unstable bottom land. The knees also help oxygenate the trees when their roots are under water.
This looks like a group of knee monks heading for mass in the cathedral. Local people will cut the knees off and sell them at roadside stands. They advise you to boil the wood, then drill a hole up the middle to make a lamp. Sorry, not for me.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Whose Fault Is It?

We joined the Kentucky Society for Natural History on their fall conference at Reelfoot Lake this weekend. As we packed the car on Thursday morning, a quick glance at the weather map showed bright areas of green, yellow and red between Louisville and Colorado. It's going to be a rough weekend, we agreed. Indeed, as we explored the New Madrid fault region, we drove through miles and miles of rain. In addition to being wet, we spent the weekend without technology! Our T-Mobile phones had no signal at all, and the resort where we stayed, although very nice otherwise, had no Internet connections. This was truly a test of our dedication to nature studies! If you aren't familiar with history of the area, New Madrid, MO, was the epicenter of the worst earthquakes in the United States, in 1811 and 1812. The fault was created by a rift that failed about 500 million years ago, and the rift valley filled with sediment. The actual fault is about 25 miles underground, so you don't see evidence of faulting as you would in California, for instance.

Fortunately, the center of the country was relatively unpopulated at that time, when earthquakes exceeding 7 and 8 on the current Richter scale struck over a 3 month period. The fault crosses under the Mississippi River in several places, and uplifting caused the river itself to flow upstream for a while. Liquefied sand erupted in large geysers. The quakes were felt as far away as Canada. I-55 has a rest stop at the site of the epicenter, although they don't publicize it.

Will there be another quake here? Sure, but no one knows when. The damage will be catastrophic when it hits this time, given the size and nearness of cities like St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and, yes, Louisville. A relatively small quake in April 2008 was centered in Illinois, felt in Louisville, and arose from the New Madrid fault system. Seismometers in the area show unfelt earthquakes occurring regularly. NOVA has a good online video about the New Madrid fault system.

The river itself is not exactly what I expected. The Army Corps of Engineers has turned the Ohio River into a series of lakes using dams and locks. Their goal is to maintain a navigation channel nine feet deep at all times. We call it the Ohio Lake here in Louisville.

The Mississippi River also has dams for navigation, but in between the dams the river twists and turns as it did in the days of Mark Twain. We watched a fully loaded coal barge turn almost sideways to make a turn around a large sand bar. A towboat pushing a full load of fifteen barges is like trying to steer three football fields, 365 days a year, in all kinds of weather. The map above shows some of the channels from the last 250 years. Oxbow lakes, such as Reelfoot, are left as the channel changes directions. The land is perfectly flat and fertile, so farmers plant great fields of corn, soybeans and cotton. Migrating Tree Swallows swoop after insects we can't even see, then perch on the power lines. I saw more Kestrels this weekend than ever before.

We drove downstream to the nearest bridge, then up the Missouri bootheel through the fault zone. Not wanting to drive that far again to get back to Reelfoot, we got to ride the Hickman Ferry across the river, back to the Kentucky side. The small boat you see on the side of this photo is on a hinge. When we pulled away from shore, this part swung out and around, so it could push across the river in a forward direction, just as it did on the way to pick us all up.

My next postings will all be about our weekend at Reelfoot, and the cypress swamps and wildlife we enjoyed.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Monarch Migration and National Parks

It's October, and the flowers are starting to die back. Dick is making plans to re-organize the butterfly garden for next year. The roses love the cooler weather we are having, and are full of blooms. From my window, I notice activity around the butterfly bushes.
It's migration season for the Monarchs and there must be at least 15 of them taking a pit stop on our bushes to sip nectar and rest a bit before the nest step in their journey.
I think it's a long trip to ride 8.5 hours in the car going to Wisconsin. Imagine if we had to flap our arms and fly there, or even farther, for our vacations. The wind buffets these small creatures, requiring extra effort to go small distances. Last weekend they looked like pieces of orange tissue paper, tossed by the wind. Imagine reaching the Gulf of Mexico, knowing you have to fly across it without any place to stop and rest.

We watched the Ken Burns series on the National Parks this week on PBS, loving the wonderful photography and hours of research required for it. I wonder if John Muir would have been involved with wilderness to the same extent if he had been born a century later, in 1938 rather than 1838. Luckily for us he was there to push for the preservation of wild places while there were still wild. It's humbling to think of all the people who made our Parks what they are - explorers, environmentalists, kids in the CCC, motorists willing to drive an open car along unpaved roads with no AAA to save them when they had car trouble. Dick and I enjoyed watching the development of interpretation as a skill among the NPS Rangers. And God love whoever designed those ranger hats! You can spot them a mile away! I was especially moved by the daughter of Alaska superintendent, John Cook, who was the fourth generation of her family to serve with the Park Service. If you missed this marvelous opportunity, you can see clips or even full episodes from it online at . Maybe there's still hope for the human race after all. After all, it's always morning somewhere.