Monday, March 28, 2011

A Drive in the Country

What a busy week is coming up!  I have classes to teach Cub Scouts to Leave No Trace, a raptor program, and another for 200 school children about nature.  I will man a station at a Great Blue Heron rookery on a farm in Oldham County.  The directions to the farm seemed a little unclear, so I decided to drive on out there today, and make sure I knew how to find the place. Since I eventually had to call someone else to verify the location, this was a wise move on my part!
I usually don't drive any farther out into Oldham County than Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, but there is a lot of beautiful countryside if you go on out US 42.  It changes from subdivisions of large expensive houses to horse farms on both sides of the road.  I wanted to go slowly and rubber-neck, but cars behind me wanted to go fast.  I spotted a Kestrel on one phone line, then a Redtailed Hawk on another.  This time I found a driveway to park in temporarily while I dashed back for a photo. The birds are unconcerned about cars that keep moving, but they get anxious when I walk in their direction, even though I'm on the ground and they are up on a phone line.
I have no idea how large Ashbourne Farm actually is, but it looked pretty big as I pulled in.  The view of hills and valleys is breathtaking.  It's an actual working farm, with people planting a large garden, burros and cattle in the field, and a collection of chickens where I parked my car.  In fact, these hens seemed quite attracted to my Prius.  I don't know if they'd never seen a Japanese hybrid before, or if they thought I might have stirred up some bugs to eat, but about eight of them rushed over to walk around it as soon as I got out.  I didn't see them kicking the tires, but couldn't really understand any of their quiet clucking comments.
One little red hen in particular gave me the once over. When I was a little girl, my grandparents had chickens, and I was supposed to collect the eggs when I visited their farm.  I must have been about six years old at the time, and those hens absolutely terrified me!  I wasn't about to go into the coop by myself and put my hands under those birds sitting on a nest.  No Way! So look what I do now...I pick up hawks and owl to hold and think it's fun.  There's no predicting, is there...
These looked by Guinea Fowl to me, and they all ran around the yard in groups, chirping and singing, and making whatever noise Guinea Fowl make.
 I've gone to the Kentucky State Fair for years, and we always like to see the cattle, so I know their breeds pretty well, but we just stroll through the chicken exhibits and I don't really know many of their names.  It's amazing what the breeders have done with them.

We are all familiar with the phrase about "ruling the roost," and this guy is pretty confident of his role in farmyard life.  After giving me the evil eye, he took a big breath,...

 ...threw his head back and let go with a loud series of crows, just to let me know who is the boss around there!  Early morning has nothing to do with crowing, because this was at 3 in the afternoon.  I think it's a territorial thing.
This poor little hen must listen to him all the time, and she doesn't look happy about it.  When he finally stopped, she pulled her head out of the straw, and looked at me as if to say, "See what I have to put up with every day?"

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Raptor Release

 Jefferson Memorial Forest of one of the nation's largest urban forests with 6,218 acres of forests, trails, camping and fishing.  Today they celebrated Raptor Day, and Raptor Rehab of Kentucky, Inc. brought birds to the event.  The weather was quite chill, so congratulations to everyone who attended, including all the volunteers!  The highlight of the day was a release of two Redtail Hawks and three American Kestrels which had been in rehabilitation and were now ready for return to the wild.  As you see, one of our volunteers really got into the spirit of the release and almost took flight herself! (Be sure to click on any picture to see a larger version.)
Just watch the flight of this immature bird circling the field, eventually landing in a nearby tree to see where he was.  As soon as he landed, a pair of crows immediately began to caw loudly, mobbing him to chase him away, as crows do whenever they see a hawk.  I don't know how they found our hawks so fast.

Of the three Kestrels to be released, two were anxious and ready to go, bursting out of the crate as soon as they saw the sky! The third one was more reluctant, and John had to encourage it to take off.
I love working with these birds! Wish you all could have been there too!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On Territory

As I walked down the trail at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve this afternoon, I heard the clear song, Drink your tea! in the nearby brush.  Eastern Towhees are some of my favorite birds, but since they like the low dense brush, it's hard to find them at all, let along get a clear photo. This may be my chance, I thought, and stepped off the trail into the leaves.
If I had to depend on my stealth in the forest to find food, I would surely starve to death.  Trying not to snap more sticks than absolutely necessary, I walked toward the sound of the Towhee.  This bird must be on territory, since he sat in one spot singing continuously, for at least 15 minutes while I searched.  When I stepped to one side of the tree, he seemed to be in the opposite direction. When I moved that way, he seemed to be back in the original spot again.  Finally, I looked straight up, and there he was!  He has my vote for stud Towhee of the forest!  All the other males better look somewhere else for their territory this year.
Creasey Mahan has a Bluebird trail with houses donated by the Louisville Audubon Society.  We had birds in some of them last year, and hope more will be occupied this year.  As I drove in, one pair of Bluebirds checked out the box they had nested in last summer.  But of course, Bluebirds aren't the only ones who nest in those boxes.  This Tree Sparrow sat on the utility line above the Nature Center, just where he sat last spring while his mate cared for her eggs in the box.
BUT there is a squatter in his box!  He wasn't too happy about this and flew down a few times to drive the interloper away.  House Sparrows are pretty stubborn though, and I don't think this one plans to leave.  That has to be the most determined face I've ever seen.
Mockingbirds are very territorial, of course, and prefer to perch on the highest spot in their territory.  At home the Mockingbird will chase others away from the feeders with little provocation.

I went back to the Falls of the Ohio for a while, to see how the river is receding.  The Ohio is no longer flooding, but not back in its banks by any means, and debris leaves a clear high water mark along the shore.  This Hairy Woodpecker is the first I've ever been able to photograph.  He must be after some yummy bugs that drowned on this floating log.

I must really like the Internet.  I am webmaster for two different websites, Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve and Beckham Bird Club, plus my own blog.  This week I started a nature blog for the Nature Preserve called KY Natural Inquirer.  Tavia and I will work on it together, focusing on the seasonal changes and natural questions that arise at the Preserve. Hope you will enjoy it too.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Floods and Feathers

Oh my! While this Mallard drake gleams serenely in the sun, lots of things are going on. The earthquake in Japan - such a difference between it and the one in Haiti. Even in the videos on TV, I did not notice the buildings completely collapsing as they did in Haiti. Of course, the Japanese probably know more about earthquakes and how to survive them than anyone anywhere else. One of the volunteers at Raptor Rehab is a pilot for UPS, and she flies all over the world. We learned that she was in a hotel in Osaka when the quake struck, and had to walk down 44 flights of stairs. I had to go down 13 when someone pulled the fire alarm in college and thought I would die! She'll be aching for days. We were all glad to hear she's OK. Just hope the airport gets working so she can fly out again.
This morning I went birding with Beckham Bird Club at a lake I'd never been to before near Elizabethtown, KY. We saw a good variety of water birds, including a Horned Grebe in breeding plumage (a first for me), and the first Tree Swallows of the season. A Red Shouldered Hawk carried a snake away in the distance. The Ky Birdlist has reported a Ross' Goose here, and we found it with a group of domestic gray geese. Over 200 Sandhill Cranes flew over on their way north.
We saw more American Coots than I've ever seen in one place together too. I didn't realize how small they really are until some swam next to this Mallard. You expect Gulls to swoop and dive down to the water, but not Crows! These Crows were out there swooping with the Gulls like they do it every day, and came up with something in their beaks. It almost looks like Cheetos...I'm sure Crows will eat Cheetos, but why would Cheetos be floating in the middle of a large lake?
I was impressed with the accurate predictions about the tsunamis after the quake, and how quickly they crossed half a world. We have flooding on the Ohio River too, but nothing as bad as other places. Some of the lower roads are covered. You can see the size of the logs that float downstream and end up at the Falls of the Ohio.
Those large logs get past the dam because the Army Corps of Engineers just opens the gates entirely, as you can see from this photo of the dam, just above a railroad trestle at the falls. What you can't see is the rest of the dam extending from the gates to where I am standing, which are completely covered with water. I know the dam is about 30 feet taller than the fossil beds, and it's completely covered. Water extends from shore to shore.
Downstream at the George Rogers Clark cabin, the dam is also completely submerged. This photo is taken from the cabin and you can barely see the gates at the lower end of the dam by the LG&E power plant, shut down when the river gets too high. It must be over a mile from the cabin to Shippingport Island and the power plant.
Last spring we had the very first Bald Eagle nest in Jefferson County, KY, here at Shippingport Island in the middle of the Ohio River. Unfortunately, the nest failed, and no young hatched. People have asked me why, but I never heard any theories. Well, the same pair are back, and she's sitting in the same nest (you can barely see her - remember the distance). I ran into some birding friends who really know their stuff. They asked if the male was around but I hadn't seen him. They shook their heads sadly. They think the nest failed last year because this male is a dead-beat dad. He didn't do his share of incubating the eggs while the female hunts, nor did he bring her fish while she sat on the eggs. Thus the eggs were exposed too much during bad weather last spring and died. I wonder if Eagles ever divorce?

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Let's Go For a Walk

"Let's go for a walk," my daughter said. "I've got the day off, and have never seen Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve. You always talk about it, so Bailey and I want to go." What a wonderful idea! And how nice to have your adult daughter suggest it! The sun is shining through the bare trees, while buds and small plants bravely poke their way out from winter's hiding.
We started down Mahan Lane and said hi to the volunteers working to prepare the six acre fern garden for more planting. Things were quiet at the Frog Pond, so we headed down towards the waterfalls and Little Huckleberry Creek. One of my favorite places is Hidden Spring, and as we climbed up to its outlet, I saw a slight movement on the ground. It's a beautiful common garter snake, about a foot long.
The March Open House Saturday is going to be about snakes. One of the naturalists from Salato Wildlife Education Center in Frankfort will come on March 19th with some of his snakes, but I thought it would be great to have a local representative. Mary Beth had a plastic bag in her pocket, so we caught this one, and put him in a tank back at the office. According to the internet, they eat earthworms, frogs, and mice, among other things. In turn, they provide an important food source for many birds and mammals. The red-shouldered hawk, in particular, relies on the collection of snakes to help feed their young during the nesting season. This little guy felt very strong as he wrapped around my fingers. And his tongue is red! When the event is over, we'll take him back where we found him for release.
With all the rain we've had in Kentucky lately, the creeks on the Preserve were full, but not cloudy at all. The Fallen Rock waterfall usually just trickles behind the stones, but this time the water actually falls over the front of the rock. Other springs burst from the limestone hillsides, merrily rolling toward the largers creeks, and ultimately, the nearby Ohio River.
Bailey, my granddog, had a great time. She's spent most of her life as an apartment dog, and isn't too interested in taking walks when she stays at our house. But all the smells intrigued her, and she stayed as far out on the leash as it goes the whole time we walked the trail. Finally, she couldn't stand it any more, and had to wade in the creek. "After all," she said, "I am a Retriever!"