Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hang Gliding

Although the Falls of the Ohio State Park is not large as state parks go, it can seem like two entirely different places just in the space of 24 hours. Saturday, we just missed a large mass of rain and storms that passed to the east of Louisville. The day was humid, and exceedingly cloudy however. In the woods along the river bank warblers darted from branch to branch, waiting for a front to move through so they could resume migration. I had no time to focus the binoculars, let alone a camera. Migrating Blue Jays called raucously above.

We have a breeding pair of Ospreys which successfully raised two offspring from a nest in a cell tower by the power plant at the Falls this summer. Our family of Ospreys were out in force all weekend. Flapping mightily in the still air, they circled the same spot on the river for fish. One hovered for a while - has he found a fish? Dive down, and swoop back up again at the last minute. Over several hours, we only saw one Osprey actually catch anything, even though they moved upstream and downstream trying for better luck. Did the dull skies affect their hunting? They must have been very tired and hungry after hours of this. This is a lifetime chance to get FOUR Ospreys in the same shot!! Overnight the rain from upstream caught up with us, and acres of exposed fossil beds were covered with raging rapids as the Army Corps of Engineers opened the gates of the dam. A stiff breeze blew all day, and the solid dark clouds lightened, then left altogether. After yesterday's effort, the Osprey family spent the day just hang gliding, along with the Peregrine Falcon, Black Vultures, Turkey Vultures, and an occasional hawk or two. Fortunately, I walked the fossil beds on Saturday, during the dry, and got some new fossil photos to add to my collection. How many people do you know who take pictures of rocks? The stiff breeze was not enjoyed by butterflies though. I watched several brave Monarchs trying to fly across the river into a headwind that must have seemed like a hurricane to one so small. I don't know if any of them made it across or not.

Now, I have a question for all you bird photographers. On a day like today, I can see the birds high above in my binoculars pretty well, but I'd sure like to get better photos of them. At the Falls, for example, many of the birds will be at least half a mile away. I do not have a real DSLR camera, being hesitant to spend the $$$$$$$ required, and also reluctant to cart multiple lenses around to take photos of both butterflies and birds on the same day. My Panasonic Lumix lets me zoom from near to far so easily, and it weighs very little so I can carry it all day. But I'm zoom greedy, and want to zoom more. What do you all use and find convenient for your good photos? Do you get frustrated changing lenses, and maybe losing the shot of the decade? Is there any way to get the equipment and try it for 30 days or so? Do you get a faster, sharper focus by turning the lens instead of using autofocus? I tried digiscoping and never got more than the inside of the scope's tube, so forget that. Please let me know by comment or email. I appreciate all your knowledge and experience. By the way, I bought a Nikon P90 with a 24x zoom, and it won't focus on birds if there is anything else around them (like leaves and branches). Booooo! I gave it to my husband to use and took back the first one.

Happy Anniversary

Hello. My name is Bailey, and my people (Mary Beth and Brian) are off celebrating their one year wedding anniversary this weekend. That's why I'm here with my feline cousins, Binx and Pippin. I'm pretty happy with the arrangement, as you can see from my smile. Binx and I get along pretty well. Most of the time we just ignore each other and enjoy being on the porch. Sometimes he wants to start a fuss by jabbing at my tail, even though I'm not doing anything to him. Kathy has to speak sternly to him then. I just grin.
Kathy and Dick take good care of me. Dick keeps trying to make me into an outdoor dog, who goes for long walks in the park. Sorry, but I'm a city girl. I go outside, attend to business, and am ready to go back in. How easy can his life get? Once in a while I hear strange noises at night and bark to scare them off. Those people don't realize how close they live to danger when I'm not around. The cats only protect the house from bad cats in the neighborhood, and would not yowl at anything else even if they were invited. I guess it's just a dog thing. Mary Beth and Brian should be back tomorrow and I'll get to go back to my own house that we just moved to this summer. It will be nice to be home again (no offense intended). But it is kind of fun to go online....

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Equinox at Bernheim Forest

Although Fall has been sneaking up on us for several weeks, the equinox makes it official now. Bernheim Forest has their ColorFest on Oct. 17, and once again, my volunteer jobs all have great opportunities on the same date so I will have to choose carefully which I can join.
My friend, Tavia Cathcart, is collaborating on a book about Bernheim and says they have few pictures of birds. Well, I can certainly help with that! I sent her about 40-50 of my National Geographic bird photos. If/when they are used in the book, I'll let you all know. I'm pretty excited about it!
This little cutie got perturbed as we followed him around the edge of Lake Nevin. Don't you love his punk hair do? Can there be conjoined trees? This one looks like it had two hearts before it fell in the ice storm.
"Leaves of three, let it be." Both the poison ivy and Virginia Creeper start the parade of fall colors. Yellow is the primary fall color for wildflowers, with Goldenrod dominating the fields and roadsides. It's such a treat to discover a little bug in a photo when you enlarge it. This one is in flight from one sprig to the next on the Goldenrod.
Many different trees have red berries, but this one wins the prize in my book for the most scarlet, vermilion, red I saw. Fire engines should be jealous of this color.
You would expect a flower called Blazing Star to be red or yellow, right? How about this lavender shade instead. The Monarchs love it.
Cypress trees by Lake Nevin join in the color contest as their leaves/needles turn a rusty umber shade before the Garden Pavilion. I need to attend an art class to learn more color names!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Let No Leaf Go Unchewed

Our butterfly garden has been a learning experience this summer. We attracted butterflies all right, not quite the numbers I hoped, but a nice variety of species. Along with the butterfly bushes and cone flowers, we planted three kinds of milkweed, the swamp milkweed, butterfly weed (the orange one), and a tropical milkweed given to us by a fried. Of course, you plant milkweed to attract Monarch butterflies. Three Monarch caterpillars now live on the tropical milkweed, speeding up and down the stems, or pausing to chow down on the leaves. It's hard to tell which end is the front, just as the caterpillars intended. Corinne Mastey, one of the volunteer naturalists at Bernheim Forest, is involved in a program to track Monarch migration patterns. They tag the Monarchs with little identifying dots on the wings, much like bird banding.
We keep looking on the larger swamp milkweed, but haven't found caterpillars or cocoons on it yet. Hopefully, we will find the chrysalis for one of these guys and can put it in a box to watch the butterfly emerge. This plant is shaded by the larger butterfly plant, so I think we'll move it to a spot with more consistent sun for next year.
Milkweed beetles also adore the tropical milkweed plant, especially the seed pods. According to, there are many species of milkweed beetles. The tropical milkweed is an annual in our climate, but we can save the seeds and start them in the spring. Dick is enlarging the garden to add more native plants next year.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Riverland Conservancy

The last day of vacation is always a bit melancholy. You want to cram in the last bit of fun, all the things you haven't done so far, but there just isn't time. You know you have to pack everything up and get it all in the car again as early as possible tomorrow morning. It's trite, perhaps, to talk about saving the best for last, but I certainly enjoyed today because we got to do some real birding in some terrific prairie regions.
The Wisconsin Birding Trail has five listings for Sauk County, and we covered three of them through the week. Today we went to the Riverland Conservancy - Merrimac Preserve. Alliant Energy, the power company, operates several restoration areas, and this one is just south of Devil's Lake State Park. The Merrimac Preserve encompasses more than 1,800 acres of forest, prairie, savanna, wetlands and streams in south-central Wisconsin, and provides a wildlife corridor between the Baraboo Bluffs and the Wisconsin River.
Although we found this place through the Birding Trail, the restored prairie simply blew me away. The grass and flowers we taller than we were! Just imagine what it was like for the first settlers, who must have felt buried in grass. I've never seen purple grass before, but several varieties stretched as to the horizon with short or tall purple/reddish grasses. We followed the bio-diversity trail through prairie, wetlands, and oak savanna regions, enthralled with both the plants and animals we found. I'm sure we spent much longer to complete the trail than the planners had in mind!
I kept seeing the prairie as an inverted forest. When forest birds want to hide, they fly up to the canopy where the dense leaves protect them from flying predators. In the prairie, the birds and other animals dive down into the densest grass and flowers, where the crowded stems protect them. Although a hawk or owl can hear or see a mouse on the ground, the vegetation is so thick the bird couldn't possibly capture the mouse once it was in the tall grass, could it? I noticed the same thing about the miles of corn growing in Wisconsin. Mice could hide forever in those forests of standing cornstalks. No hawk could fly into them.
Although the official Wisconsin State Bird is the American Robin, I would recommend changing that to the Turkey Vulture, which certainly seemed the most common bird we saw this week! The Birding Trail book says that Sedge Wren and Lark Sparrows are rare at the Merrimac Preserve. We saw a lot of LBJ's (Little Brown Job's), many of which were sparrows and wrens, but darned if I could see them long enough to decide what kind! All the birds seemed to be in a hurry, and enamored of the thickest branches. One resembled a Meadow Lark, but had a thick beak. Ah! I remember seeing that one before - the Dickcissel! The field guide confirms that the bib is missing in fall. Cedar Waxwings and Gold Finches were easier to locate and identify. Upon investigation, the wren was probably a House Wren. A few fall warblers of generic color and markings joined the anonymous flocks.
Then a raptor flashed by! It turned and displayed a red tail - Red Tailed Hawk we said. But as it turned, it seemed small for a Red Tail, and the face looked white with malar stripes. Could it be a falcon??? I tracked it to a distant tree and got this shot, but the details are unclear. The field guide says neither Peregrines nor Prairie Falcons live in Wisconsin. Sigh... It was probably a Red Tailed Hawk after all. Anyone else have a good guess on little evidence?
A dragonfly couple danced a duet around the wetlands, then flew away.

The wild grapes are just as ripe as those at the winery. I just hope some migrating bird doesn't get drunk on them!

We thought this might be a lupine, but now I don't think so. More investigation is required, but isn't it beautiful? Blue flowers are rare and special to me.

After our walk through the prairie we went back to Devil's Lake to eat lunch. The place was packed with picnickers and swimmers. We decided to get a double kayak and take a spin around the lake for a while. Our was not fiberglass, but inflatable, like a raft -- rather unusual, we thought. Let's just say that we got to see a 360 degree view of the lake as we paddled around, and the double paddles made sure we didn't overheat as they dripped all over us. We returned to shore to dry off, and found this marker on the sunny bench: "Life is a journey, not a destination." Somehow that seemed especially appropriate for our kayak adventure!

Our final adventure for the day was a horse drawn wagon ride through the Lost Canyon. This one wins hands down for being the deepest, narrowest canyon we saw this week. I never would have believed that a pair of Belgian horses could pull a wagon through these rocks! A doe paused to watch the parade go by. At one point, the left horse seemed stuck under the overhang. The driver said he simply had an itch he wanted to scratch on the rock. I did notice several streaks of blue paint on the walls where a wagon had come a leeetle too close! This was a family owned and operated business, and we were glad to see it, since so much of this area has gone the way of big corporations.

In the morning, we will try to pack everything back into the car, including all the rocks we have picked up. It all fit in a week ago, so it should go back now, right?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hikers on the Trail

When we are on the trail, we usually don't run into many people, especially in the "off season" we've had this week in Wisconsin. If we find another hiker coming towards us, we nod and say hello pleasantly, while continuing to walk. We appreciate it if they bring their large dog to heel while we pass, as most do.
The Bluff Trail at Devil's Lake was a bit different today. We climbed more of those stone steps to reach the 500 foot high bluff trail, but this time the steps were surrounded by trees, and I could handle it. This is the first weekend after Labor Day, and many people where trying to get in another outing at the park while the weather is perfect. But some of them just irritated me no end. One guy wanted to dispute the name of the lake. "The Devil destroys things. I call it God's Lake," he said. We nodded and quickly continued climbing the stairs to the bluffs, having caught our breath a bit. He passed us, and we found him eagerly disputing scripture with his fellow hikers at the next lovely overlook. Without nodding, we went on. It went like this across the entire trail. Then we saw three young people, college age, and nodded to them. They were followed by another five, then another six, then I lost count. Since all of them carried notebooks and pencils, I asked one, "Are you from a geology class?" Bingo! Score one for Kathy. There were about 100 of them from the University of Wisconsin, on a field trip to see the rocks. They talked, without ceasing, both to each other and to friends on their cell phones. Some had music playing through earphones. "Why would someone come to this beautiful place and spend time talking on the phone?" We shook our heads in dismay. Then the Disputer showed up trying to preach to these students at another overlook. When he started talking about granite, and how it got there, I knew it was time to leave. (The rocks are quartzite, not granite.) The students didn't quite know how to wiggle out. We come to Nature to relax, to put our lives in perspective. Today it was a struggle, but we managed with the help of our friends. How often do you get to take photos of vultures from above? I threw away lots and lots of blurry vulture pictures along with empty sky pictures. When vultures fly at your eye level, you realize how fast they are soaring without flapping a bit. I'm feeling better already, encouraged by the vultures to take the high path, and not let lower things irritate me. Silence is worth everything. You can rise above things that bother you.
Since our visit here a mere three days ago, it seems that autumn has set in. The False Solomon Seal leaves fade to yellow, against the crimson of their berries. Other leaves turn gold and yellow, while more merely look wilted and ready to fall of without changing color at all. The seasons move as they should, no matter who hikes on the trail, whether anyone appreciates them or not. It's just what they do.
Down on the lake, we saw a few crows in a dead tree, while a Kingfisher darted about, finally landing farther away than we could photograph. We quietly walked towards it, taking shots every few steps. You guessed it, we approached its comfort zone, even though we were still at least 50-60 feet away from its branch overhanging the water, and it flew off. When something gets too close, just fly away, it seemed to say. There are other fish in the lake.
The Tumbled Rock Trail along the lake water has an asphalt path that winds and disappears without notice. How anyone ever got hot asphalt in between these boulders to form this trail is beyond me! It must have all been done by hand, since the trail is too small for machinery to traverse. Perseverance pays. Just keep on keepin' on, even then the trail is hard to find. The quartzite rocks are covered with lichens where the sun shines, but if you bend over a bit you see marvelous swirls of color, laid down by oceans so long ago I can't even guess how old they are. Sometimes only a tree or another boulder seems to restrain a huge rock from falling to the water. Imagine having to carry that weight and responsibility on your shoulders for thousands of years. You think you've got it tough, cookie? Things could be lots worse.
Our last friend was a turtle sunning himself on a rock. Get tough, he seemed to say. Just let things roll of your shell and turn your back on those folks who would annoy you. The lake and the sun are still here. Just chill out and don't bother making judgments about other people. It doesn't help you, and it certainly won't affect them.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Aldo Leopold Legacy

"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." Aldo Leopold
Until Dick brought home a copy of A Sandhill County Almanac, I had never heard of Aldo Leopold. Now I see his thoughts and quotes so many places. He is often regarded as the father of conservation and land ethics. He was instrumental in developing the proposal to manage the Gila National Forest as a wilderness area, the first such designation, in 1924. After a transfer to Wisconsin, he continued to pursue difficult questions about how people change land and how people might be encouraged to practice conservation rather than exploiting the wealth of the land. He worked as an educator, philosopher, ecologist and wilderness advocate.

In 1935 he purchased a "worn out" farm on the Wisconsin river. He and his family lived his philosophy, planting thousands of pine trees, wildflowers and other plants while living in the "shack", a former chicken coop. From this refuge he wrote much of A Sand County Almanac. When we planned our trip to Wisconsin, we kept looking for Sand County on the map, and only when we arrived did we realize that Sand County was fictitious, referring to the sand in which farmers try to raise their crops. Leopold died in 1948 of a heart attack while fighting a fire, before his work was actually published. As we walked from the shack to the river, I felt that Leopold would have been pleased with the results of his labors, so many years ago. The river flows serenely and cleanly.
The prairie grasses and wildflowers flourish.
Small Leopard frogs jumped from river to the shoreline grasses as we walked along the sandy edges.
A Great Blue Heron had danced on the sand.
Now the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center has been constructed to foster his Land Ethic. True to his spirit, it is constructed to be completely in harmony with the environment, and won the Platinum LEED ® Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2007. Part of that certification requires that materials be obtained within 500 miles of the building. They did even better, using many of the pines Leopold himself planted, thinning the forest while making more space for other trees to grow. The solar panels on the roof generate all the electricity used by the Foundation, and selling any excess back to the local power company. Their solar water heater on the roof heats water to 200 degrees. When the weather is nice, as it has been all this week, they actually open the windows, and the system shuts down automatically. No need to heat or cool the outside! We met a young architect while walking around, who came to admire this structure, and we told him that Bernheim Forest's visitor center had also won the Leeds award as well.
Since the Leopold Center is on a road officially designated as "rustic" by the state of Wisconsin, we drove through miles of farm country early in the morning to reach it. Several family groups of Sandhill Cranes rewarded us for taking the road less traveled.
Unlike the birds I've seen in spring, however, these Cranes were all perfectly silent. Maybe they have said everything that matters for now.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Wisconsin in the Dells

Much of Wisconsin was molded by the last blast from the Ice Ages, which flattened any geological features it encountered. Southwest Wisconsin is just beyond the farthest expansion of the lobes of ice, so it avoided being flattened. But from that position it was covered by massive Lake Wisconsin during the Ice Ages. When the lake drained, the remaining river valley was blasted by the rushing water, forming the famous Wisconsin Dells.
The Cambrian sandstone (that's more than 500 million years old folks) is some of the oldest exposed rock in the world. It is also incredibly soft in most places. You can rub it off with your finger without even trying. When the river swirls into whirlpools, the rock erodes in odd shaped semi-circles. Small creeks make eerie canyons where the sides almost touch until the stream pours into the lake. For a geology buff, this is really cool stuff. Small ferns cascade down the cliffs towards the cool moisture.
Erosion continues as the river rises and falls, chewing into the soft rock. Where the necessary minerals are included in the sandstone, it makes a harder cap atop the more eroded rocks. You can see tilted sandstone beneath other horizontal layers. How would you like to have this for a vacation home? At one point, we all got off the boat and climbed up to look at Stand Rock and the famous Jumping Dog. Yes, there is a dog that jumps across the five foot gap between these two rocks. Why? Who cares about a jumping dog? H.H. Bennett is the photographer who made the Dells famous after the Civil War. He made his own equipment, mixed the chemicals to put on a glass plate, hauled the lot on site, took a picture, and developed it right away before the chemicals decomposed. Thank God for digital cameras! It was impossible to take any action shots because of the time required to expose the chemicals. Any movement just showed as a blur. Bennett invented the camera shutter to reduce the time required for a photo, enabling stop action shots (the favorite of many photographers!). What has that got to do with a rock? To prove his stop action shutter, his son jumped across this gap, while dad captured him in mid-air, something that could not have been faked. I was impressed!
As we enjoyed the perfect weather on the lake, I kept asking myself where the birds were. This area is perfect for Ospreys and Bald Eagles. We finally saw one Osprey, and I believe this one is a juvenile Bald Eagle. Everyone who agrees, raise your hand. Vultures, of course, have been everywhere.
To lose our "lake legs" from riding a boat for 3 hours, we drove down to Mirror Lake State Park to just hike around, enjoying nature. A Wisconsin Ent greeted us with rounded eyes and mouth. Crimson berries from Jack-in-the-Pulpit glowed in the shady forest. These northern Jacks look much larger than ours in Kentucky.
Forests of ferns lined the trails. Some day I'm really going to take a good fern class so I can these beauties apart when I see them.
Sunset in Wisconsin. The perfect way to end the day!