Sunday, April 17, 2011

Up and Down, and All Around

Shivering in the 40 degree temperature on our final morning at Carter Caves State Park, we joined Evelyn Morgan on a bird hike. Only a few of the roads along the ridge tops are even close to flat, so we hiked down to the stream, then up again to another ridge.  It's strenuous, but beautiful.  All the streams emerge from caves, or another small opening in the sandstone cliffs, then run down the hillside eroding smooth paths from layer to layer in the rocks, growing larger as they are joined by smaller streamlets on the way down. The high muddy levels from yesterday had all gone down, so we enjoyed clear water again. 
After you follow the stream bed for a while, enjoying the splashing sound as it leaps from one rock to another, suddenly the splashing grows louder, as the water swirls around and dives underground! Sometime it seems to sink right down, but in one spot, the water circled around like bathwater in a tub before disappearing! We climbed a steep ridge, then down the other side, and guess what -- the same stream emerged again. The water has an easier time, I suppose, since it only has to go down, and never climb up again!
When you get out of breath from climbing those hills, you can always stop for a little bird watching, and no one will notice the huffing and puffing as everyone scans the trees for that elusive warbler singing just above you!  Today, we focused on the woodpeckers.  Loud drumming on a nearby tree sounded like Pileated, but when we saw one fly across the trail, calling "wacka-wacka," our guess was confirmed.  We saw the pair of Pileated inspect the nest hole in a tree, then climb right in.
The Red Headed Woodpeckers chased each other all through the woods, calling loudly.  I've always wondered why most of the woodpeckers are colored black, red and white in some combination. Think about it...
As we entered the steep valley on the Horn Hollow Trail, it reminded me of our trip to the Pacific Northwest. It seemed to be a mature forest, with lots of dead trees laying on the ground, slowly decaying.  Moss and ferns covered the trees, and other plants got a start in the moss, just like the nursery trees in Olympic National Park.

The moss was ready to produce spores, just as the flowering plants are reproducing, but moss grows its own little forest on top of a log!

Then the trail turned up the hill for the longest, steepest climb of the day.  Moisture stayed in the valley, and sandstone sparkled in the sun, but very few flowers bloomed in the dry upland conditions.  Signs at every sinkhole advised visitors that special permits were required to enter these caves.  In fact, many caves in Kentucky will be closing soon because the White-nose Bat disease is now officially found in Kentucky, along with all the other states nearby.  This fungus infects hibernating bats, and some caves have had almost 100 percent fatalities, so everyone is very concerned. On the uplands, the sandstone is worn to this lattice like appearance, but I couldn't guess if it was done solely by wind, or if water used to flow here.  Can you picture little bats peering through these windows in bat condos?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Little Rain...

We've all heard the phrase..."Into each life, a little rain must fall."  Well, I must say that we've certainly had our share of rain or more lately.  Last Monday, it rained all day and all night.  An stream runs under our house, and when it rains without stopping, the creek rises and floods our basement. Tuesday we found 4 inches of water in the basement.  Sigh...  So the carpet is gone, and the blowers were still blowing when we headed off for the spring meeting of the Kentucky Society of Natural History on Friday morning. guessed it, more severe weather in the South, including another inch + of rain. But what's an inch of rain to dedicated Naturalists in a wonderful place like Carter Caves State Park in Kentucky!

John Tierney, park naturalist for many years, leads us to Box Canyon. Water drops from the branches, and hangs from the leaf tips as rainclouds finally blow away and the sun breaks through.  After a short but steep climb, we turn the corner to find Box Canyon with a waterfall leaping over the edge, something which would not have happened without all the rain of the last 24 hours.  There, we found some good from all the rain after all!  Water dripped, dropped, and slid over every rock face, so I was glad to have my rain coat to keep the camera dry.
As we drove up the hill into the park, I had to stop the car and jump out to see all the wonderful white Trillium growing under the cliff faces!  Since we only have Sessile Trillium at home, I was excited to see these.  Although the petals are white, look at the maroon center - characteristic of Erect Trillium, John says - but Tavia's book says they are Sweet White Trillium.  Hmmm, I'll have to double check with her.

As an added treat for having survived all the rain, we also see hillsides full of the Large-Flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, where the white flowers turn pink as they age and are about to fall off. I asked John why we never see these white trillium at home.  Could elevation have something to do with it?  Olive Hill is about 1060 feet in elevation, and I bet many spots in the park are much higher.  He says they have to have a particular pH level in the soil, and here it is just right.

Oddly enough, we saw some very early bloomers still in bloom, while other flowers which I would expect to see in another month (such as Dwarf Iris, Wood Betony and Hoary Puccoon) were starting to bloom too.

Limestone is the favorite habitat for many flowers, including this small Stonecrop, which seems to grow in solid stone.  Moss and lichen are the first to grow on the limestone cliff faces, or on boulders fallen to the ground.  Then Stonecrop, Bishop's Cap, Ginger and ferns root in the moss.
Quick, there's a Newt dashing between the wet leaves. For a little guy, he runs really fast. The 3 inch long slug we find on a damp log waves his eye stalks, but is in no hurry to go anywhere.

Bird song echoes off the rocks- an Ovenbird down in the creek bed, Cardinals in the trees, a Towhee in the brush.  This Chipping Sparrow perched on a fence at the lodge, singing back and forth to another Chippie at the other end of the building.  Isn't he a beautiful little guy!  Tomorrow, we will brave cold temperatures for a bird hike.  With this group, there is always on expert on hand for anything you find!  I just hope the smell from the basement isn't  too bad when we get home.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wildflowers in Charlestown State Park

Charlestown State Park, near Charlestown, IN, recently merged with the Falls of the Ohio State Park, so many of our volunteer activities are now extended to this other facility.  Opened in 1996, it occupies part of a 15,000 acre site formerly run by the US Army as an ammunition plant.  Many of the old rusty, collapsing buildings are still there since the plant shut down after the end of WWII.  Another Army testing ground near Madisonville, IN, has been turned into a National Wildlife Refuge. CSP sits on the banks of the Ohio River, though, at the former Charlestown Landing and Rose Island Park locations. Saturday's Raptor Day Event at the park was cut short due to severe weather that roared through - high wind, hail, thunder, and darkness accompanied by driving rain.  I know because I tried to drive home through the middle of it!

 Our friend and fellow volunteer, Richard Lyons, led the wildflower hike along Trail 6, described as a rugged 2.3 mile trail.  We started down a flat wooded path along the river, where the Dwarf Larkspur, Wood Poppy, and Wood Anemone bloomed in profusion.  This isn't so bad, I thought to myself.  Why is it described as rugged?

In spots along the trail we saw limestone bluffs above our heads through the trees. Downstream, where the city of Louisville sits, the valley is broad and flat, although the Interstate cuts through solid limestone to get there.  At this point, we saw the outcropping of that limestone on the Indiana side of the river.
Then we started to climb, up and up and up.  After the heavy rain the day before, the trail got a little slippery in spots, but the creek flowed without silt on its 200 foot downward journey to the river.  My yoga and exercise at the YMCA is paying off.  I climbed the hill without having to stop and catch my breath on the way up!
Bright green ferns sprouted from cracks in the solid rock, sheltered by moss. Wood Anemone bloomed in the moss atop limestone boulders.

Pawpaw trees sported  little purple umbrellas...

...and one group of boulders hosted a colony of native Columbines, noted for preferring to grow in the limestone.  These may need another day or two to actually bloom, but the spider didn't seem to care as she spun her small web in the buds.

When we returned to the lower level, I admired the red bud trees.  Tree blossoms always intrigue me.
Their flowers are just as intricate as any growing closer to the earth.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Golden Girl

When we talk about Eagles in Kentucky, we usually mean the Bald Eagle, which has a white head and tail. With a wingspread of almost 7 feet, the Golden Eagle is larger than the Bald Eagle, and has a wash of gold feathers on the back of its neck. Golden Eagles are more often found in the mountainous regions of the western states, except, of course, for the Golden Eagle which has come to live at Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky.

Eileen Wicker received a phone call from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, asking if she would like to have a Golden Eagle for our education program. A raptor center in Tennessee would be closing due to the illness of the director, and all the birds needed new homes. This eagle is a full amputee, that is, the entire left wing is gone. She had been in a cage for 18 years without being handled or used for education programs. We were warned that she was aggressive, but this was the chance of a lifetime, so John and Eileen drove to TN to get her in September 2010. Under current law, a bird that must have a wing amputated is required be euthanized; however, this bird had been grandfathered in and allowed to live despite this condition making it difficult for her to keep her balance.

Once at the RROKI center, John kept her in a roomy cage where she could have quiet while adjusting to her new surroundings. He started sitting in her cage, reading a book, so she could become accustomed to people. After a while, he put jesses on her legs for a short time. Eventually, he worked to teach her how to sit on his gloved hand for short periods. This is the hardest part for her, since she has a long wing on one side, but none on the other, and has a hard time keeping her balance when not on her motionless perch. By March, 2011, he started taking her to programs where we could set up a perch for her, to familiarize her with groups of people talking and standing nearby. She has become a new star at RROKI!

She does not like wearing jesses (leather straps) around her legs. They flatten her leg feathers down – not attractive at all. She easily learned how to loosen them and pull her foot out, so she's quite an escape artist. When she is at a program we have to keep an eye on her so she doesn’t remove the jesses and walk off!

LG&E is sponsoring our Golden Eagle, as they have supported us in other endeavors for many years. Our eagle was called Charlemagne at her previous home, and everyone agreed that she needs a better name, so the employees at LG&E held a contest to name the Golden Eagle. The winning entry is (ta-DAA) Aurelia, which is Latin for Golden. So welcome to Kentucky, Aurelia, our golden girl!

Friday, April 01, 2011

Next Generation of Birders

Birders and nature interpreters always worry about where we are going to find the next generation of birders, and how to get children outdoors. Today I had a wonderful opportunity to introduce about 200 1st and 3rd graders to birding, and enjoyed it immensely! To be honest, I was surprised at how eager the children were. Spotting scopes always generate interest though.  Frost covered the grass as I drove down a dirt lane on Ashbourne Farm. 
About 100 yards away from Harrod's Creek, I spotted a large sycamore tree with four blobby looking nests.  Gazing around the valley, many other trees had nests as well, probably 10-12 in total.  Some had Great Blue Herons on the nest, while others looked empty, for now at least.
 While I waited for the children to arrive, Herons flew around the trees, and called their rough squawk from a distance.  In other words, there was plenty of action.  When the children arrived we talked about what Herons eat, how they catch fish, and how they feed them to their babies. 
When the moment arrived to actually look at the birds through the scope I asked the first child, "Do you see the big blob of sticks?" "Yes," she replied.  "Do you see the white head and yellow beak of the bird?"  "No..."  You guessed it.  While we were talking the birds had flown away.  Well, as the morning progressed, some groups of children actually got to see the Herons in flight, some saw them sitting on the nest, and others only got to see the nest.  That's the way birding goes though, right? One little girl already knew all about Herons, though I didn't get a chance to find out how she came to be so interested and knowledgeable. The best part was the reactions of the children at the scope. "Awesome!" "Fantastic!" "Cool!" "I SEE IT!"  I think we made an impression on most of them. 
 On the way home, I decided to do a little birding of my own and stopped at a favorite small park.  It has a   "Managed Meadow," a small vernal pond which will dry up and disappear by July.  In the spring, however, there are always some ducks to be found.  Today the Blue Winged Teals were peeping along the shore, sounding more like baby chickens than ducks!
 Many people walk their dogs in this park, and ducks are more temptation than a Labrador Retriever can resist, no matter how much his owner yells.  I now understand why Blue Winged Teals have that name.
 The Teals were joined by a solitary Bufflehead female...
...and several pairs of Shovelers. Do you realize how many shots I took trying to get both of them with their bills out of the water?
 The guy behind me probably thought I had car trouble when I pulled off US 42 directly into the grass.  I couldn't resist jumping out for photos of some darling foals grazing in the grass with their mothers.
Congratulations to this Milkweed pod that survived the winter.  Now it's time to open and let the wind blow all the seeds to a location where they can grow and become feed for this summer's butterflies.  I'm ready for some warm weather again!