Saturday, June 23, 2012

Birdy, Birdy

Turkey Vultures

The last few days have been pretty birdy for me. Thursday evening the volunteers at the Falls of the Ohio met for a sunset get-together. As the temperatures dropped, it became very pleasant. Of course, I was busy trying convince everyone of the virtues of vultures!  As they soared overhead, two Turkey Vultures gave a demonstration of precision formation flying vulture-style. Those great big wings never run into the next bird.

Kettle of Circling Vultures

Large groups of both Turkey and Black Vultures circled around. Maybe they were hunting for supper, and maybe they were just looking for a good roosting spot for the night. The trees lining the Ohio River at the Falls may host up to 25-30 vultures each for the night. Who needs Motel 6? The guys with good spotting scopes also found a Snowy Egret fishing in the shallow water, while both of our Bald Eagles perched on the dam. My eagle expert friends say you can't see the nest at all now for all the leaves, but earlier they found 2 eaglets, which should be ready to fledge any day now. We'll have to keep an eye out for all dark eagles who don't quite have the knack of flying yet.

Kentucky Warbler

Today we joined the Beckham Bird Club for a trip to Jefferson Memorial Forest. Dick volunteers there all the time, but seldom has an opportunity to go birding. Barbara is especially good at knowing her bird calls, which is important under the forest canopy.  We were delighted with the warblers we saw/heard today, including this little Kentucky Warbler, who finally came out of hiding. The Hooded Warbler was shy and did not leave the bushes to greet us.

Common Yellowthroat

A Common Yellowthroat (another warbler) hopped out to give us the eye when we played his call. Who's that in MY territory? he seemed to be saying. A yellow Pine Warbler lived up to his name, warbling from the pine trees, but too far away for a photo.

Worm-eating Warbler

Most exciting though, was finding two birds to add to my life list. At first I thought this Worm-eating Warbler was a Carolina Wren, since I just got a glimpse of him among the dead leaves where he hunted for, you guessed it, worms. Lots of warblers eat worms and caterpillars. I wonder how this one got stuck with the name? I didn't get a photo myself, and borrowed this one from the Internet. Closer examination (a challenging task given the unceasing activity of this bird) shows that he has lots of stripes on his head. He jumped around our position, calling and searching in the dead leaves for about 5-10 minutes -- a terrific performance for our morning.

Summer Tanager

The triumph for me was actually seeing this Summer Tanager. I've often heard this distinctive picky-tucky-tuck call in the forest, but never could track it down. This one sat in the relative open of a nearby tree, waiting patiently for me to take as many photos as I could. The Birding By Ear CD says this bird sounds like a robin that has taken voice lessons. It's cousin the Scarlet Tanager has black wings, and sings like a robin with a sore throat. The field guide says the Summer Tanager is a more southern bird. Anyway, I've been trying to find one for years, and was delighted to increase my life list today! Keep seeking, and eventually ye shall find!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A New Woman

High Rock on Bad Branch
If you asked if I could hike over 10 miles in one day last month, I would have laughed in your face. You've got to be kidding... ME hike 10 miles in one day? When I was in college working as a camp counselor we did a 5 mile hike and I thought I would die before we got back.

And did I mention my fear of heights?

Bad Branch Waterfall
But I did just that and more last week at the Lucy Braun Forestry Workshop at Pine Mountain Settlement School. The first day we hiked around Bad Branch (named for the sulphur smelling water - "branch" being another word for water or creek), then up to the Bad Branch Waterfall. This isn't a closeup photo of the falls, because once we got high enough, you had to climb down large boulders to get a clear view, and I had just enough strength to go back down to the van. The best photo we saw of the waterfall was actually taken from a helicopter!

The day we hiked through Blanton Forest we went to the top where all the rocks are sandstone, and over the eons, large chunks of sandstone have fallen from the top to be wedged in odd angles along the mountainside.

In fact, it was named the Rock Maze, and I think our guides pulled a fast one on us here. When climbing trails, I just followed the person before me, while looking closely at my footsteps to make sure I didn't trip. Suddenly, all I saw were huge boulders. Ben, our leader was nowhere to be found, only Bucky, Val and Pam were with us. We had to decide whether to squeeze through a hole, or try to find a way to climb over or around the rocks. Remember, I'm an old lady with short legs. I have trouble clambering over tall rocks.

"If we get to the other side of all this and I see an escalator," I warned, "I'm going to push someone off the mountain!" I fully expected to find Ben taking his ease after using the shortcut that no one showed me.

"Oh My God! There is no way to get down off this boulder! My legs don't reach the other side, and there's nothing to hold on to for sliding on my butt!" One of the guides told me to put my feet in her hands. "Is this some sort of team building exercise? Do you make corporate executives pay lots of money to do this?" I demanded.

Well, it worked, and I got safely through the maze. The reward on the other side was an enormous sandstone overhang. I kept looking for Ayla and Jondalar from the Clan of the Cave Bear series. There should have been prehistoric people living in this large dry shelter, but how in the world would they have gotten up and down it with game every day?

The other reward was finding rare plants, such as this roundleaf catchfly which ONLY grows in dry sandstone overhangs! The team building was terrific, because I still needed the team's help to get back down - it was just as steep on the other side.

I learned that by just getting out there and doing it, I can accomplish more than I ever imagined. Over the four days, we hiked around 30 miles all together. And I'm not embarrassed to ask for help when I need it. We've talked about a trip like this for years, and can now cross it off our bucket list. Give it a try yourself sometime! It'll make you new woman!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pine Mountain Flora and Fauna

Cumberland Azalea
Although the peak of wildflowers had passed, we still saw enough blooms to delight our eyes. This lovely bright orange is the Cumberland azalea, not the flame azalea. Ben Begley, naturalist at the Pine Mountain Settlement School, says the Cumberland blooms in June and the flame in May, so they are easy to tell apart despite the similarity in color.

Late-blooming mountain laurel and rhododendrons could still be found in the proper habitat. Laurels prefer the sandy drier slopes and ridges, while rhododendrons thrive around moist stream beds. We didn't see any of the pink Catawba rhoddies though.

Rose Pogonia
The Appalachians are noted for rare plants and animals, and this rose pogonia is a rare orchid found in wet marshy places. This one was in a wet spot, but right out in the bright sunshine.

Pipsissewa, or spotted wintergreen, popped up on each day we climbed in sandy acidic soils. Since it is neither spotted nor a wintergreen, we developed the habit of calling it pipsissewa - a much more fun name to pronounce. It grows low to the ground though, and I had a hard time getting focused on it. In fact, the light levels in the forest were so dark, I had trouble focusing on most things.

Roundleaf Catchfly
Another rare flower is the roundleaf catchfly, to be found ONLY in areas with shaded sandstone cliffs. This one was in a sandstone overhang at Camp Blanton. Even then, only a few plants grew - a very small population.

Eft of a Newt
At Bad Branch on our first day, we had to look sharp to avoid stepping on all the newts, and their bright orange young, all day. I always thought these were hard to find, but you just have to look in the right place.

Ant Lion
As we rested after climbing to the sandstone overhang at Blanton, Ben spotted some large anthills. Not only were the hills large, but they were home to the ant lions. The ant lion larva eats ants and other insects. In sandy regions, ant lion larvae dig a shallow cone-shaped pit and wait at the bottom for an ant or other insect to slip on the loose sand and fall in. When this happens, the ant lion eats the insect. These pit-digging ant lions are called "doodlebugs" in the United States because of the wandering designs they make in the sand while looking for the ideal spot to dig a pit. When it finally finds the right place to dig, the 'doodlebug' makes circles in the sand with its head, each deeper than the last, until its pit is excavated. Then it buries itself at the bottom so that only its head, with jaws open, can be seen, and there it waits for its prey. Look at those huge pincers!

Fence Lizard
The sandy ridge tops were often home to fence lizards, who calmly stared at us, assuming that we couldn't see them.

Click Beetle
My favorite insect was this large eyed click beetle. Click beetles get their name from the sound they make when they flip themselves upright. The loud click is made when they snap a 'spine' under their thorax. This motion helps turn them right-side-up, and is quite startling to a potential predator.

We didn't see any live bears, which is a good thing, I guess, since I know I could never outrun one if needed. Of course, the saying is that you don't have to run faster than the bear, just faster than the guy behind you! Everyone sure jumped when a large branch fell nearby though. We all thought it was a bear. Ben told plenty of snake stories too, since rattlers and copperheads are common in the mountains. He checked the territory of a resident rattler at High Rock on Bad Branch trail before we passed in that direction on the way down. I would like to have a snake photo for this trip, but am just as glad we didn't actually find any.

Next post - how I became a changed woman on this trip!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ferns and Fungi

When you hike through an "old growth" forest, you expect to see lots of trees, but the smaller plants are easier to see since they are closer to eye-level. If you gaze up at the large trees, you are guaranteed to trip on the roots, causing great damage to your hands and knees, let alone your camera when it hits the ground! So this post will focus on the ferns and fungi we found in the forest.

Stinkhorn Fungus
The Kingdom Fungi includes some of the most important organisms, both in terms of their ecological and economic roles. By breaking down dead organic material, they continue the cycle of nutrients through ecosystems. In addition, most vascular plants could not grow without the symbiotic fungi, or mycorrhizae, that inhabit their roots and supply essential nutrients. Other fungi provide numerous drugs (such as penicillin and other antibiotics), foods like mushrooms, truffles and morels, and the bubbles in bread, champagne, and beer.

Varnish Shelf Fungus and Pleasing Fungus Beetle
Most fungi are saprophytes, feeding on dead or decaying material. This helps to remove leaf litter and other debris that would otherwise accumulate on the ground. Nutrients absorbed by the fungus then become available for other organisms which may eat fungi. Many fungi are parasitic, feeding on living organisms without killing them. Ergot, corn smut, Dutch elm disease, and ringworm are all diseases caused by parasitic fungi.

Magnolia Cone Fungus
This magnolia cone fungi will only grow in dead fruits of magnolia trees. See the small filaments? If you dig under the leaves on the forest floor, these filaments look like little strings in every shovelful. Certain orchids cannot reproduce unless their seeds fall into ground containing specific fungi. We tend to think of fungi as undesirable in our homes or gardens, and between our toes, but nature depends on these lifeforms.

Coral Stemmed Fungus
Although we usually picture the standard mushroom shape when we think of fungi, we only see the fruiting part of the organism above ground. They don't produce their own food, but can display bright colors or just dead looking white tissue. I'd love to know more about them, but I'd have to learn an entirely new language just to discuss their parts!

Indian Pipes
You would think these white Indian Pipes were fungi as well, but they aren't. They lack chlorophyll, thus the white color, but has a mutual relationship with small, wood-rotting fungi that free nutrients for this plant's use.

Climbing Fern
Walking in the old growth forest makes me think about the great swamps of the Pennsylvanian and Mississippian ages - the source of coal in Eastern Kentucky, which is our blessing and our curse.

In spots, we saw ferns growing waist-high along the trail....

Spleenwort in Rockface
...while other small ferns grew only in the cracks of a vertical rockface.

Once we found a boggy spot with spaghnum moss and netted chain fern so thick you left a footprint if you stepped in it, so we didn't.

Ferns reproduce by spores found on the bottom of the fronds, and they can be used to help identify the species. Little bugs will curl up in a frond to lay their eggs. It's wonderful to see the inter-relationships in the forest.

Biodiversity is the key word to scientists and ecologists studying the Eastern Kentucky forests. The biodiversity of this region is greater than that of most of the other temperate areas in the world! If mountaintop removal continues, many of these species will be lost forever when their habitats are destroyed. They survived the ice ages, but may not survive the age of man.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

From the Mountaintop

Cumberland Plateau from High Rock on Pine Mountain
Last week, if you had asked if I could hike ten miles in a day, I would have laughed in your face! But now I am a new woman who CAN hike ten miles one day, followed by five to eight miles each of the following three days! Of course, my feet hurt so much I have trouble sleeping at night, but that's a small price to pay for this wonderful experience at the Pine Mountain Settlement School's Lucy Braun Forest Study workshop. We talked for years about going to see the remaining old forests in Eastern Kentucky, and this was just the way to do it. Pine Mountain is an overthrust fault running approximately 120 miles from northeast to southwest. This means that the sedimentary rocks which normally lie in horizontal layers tilted up as they pushed over existing rock to create the mountain. Lucy Braun was a geologist and botanist who devoted her life to the study of plants and conservation campaigns to save wilderness areas and other natural sites in the 1920's and 1930's - something that women just did not do then. We explored nature preserves such as Bad Branch, Lilley Cornett Woods, Blanton Forest and Black Mountain, finding an incredible variety of rocks, plants and animals.

White Oak
First, my definitions had to change. I'd always thought Lilley Cornett Woods was "virgin" forest that had never been timbered. The correct terminology is "old growth" forest, which has many large trees over 200 years old, along with seedlings, saplings and young trees. My image of large trees with little or no undergrowth was completely wrong. The canopy of trees is broken by gaps formed when large trees fall, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor. The rotting logs provide vital nutrients to the entire community. Biodiversity is the key word for old growth forests, and this area in Eastern Kentucky has one of the highest levels of diversity in the country.

As I concentrated on my footsteps, trying not to trip on rocks and roots in the trail, I thought about the early pioneers. They had to get lost. They must have been discouraged, struggling up one steep hill, only to find another on the other side, while they slashed their way through rhododendron thickets in the creek beds, commonly known as "rhoddy-hell." I'll never understand how they settled this territory.

 The idea of "virgin" implies that it is the same as it was before Europeans arrived, which it is not of course, even though it has not been commercially timbered. Natural disasters such as storm and fire change the forest. Before the 1930's the dominant tree in the forest was the American Chestnut - until the chestnut blight arrived. All the mature trees died, but small ones still grow from those old roots, until they reach the size to bear fruit. Then the chestnut blight kills them off again. So logging is not the only thing to change an old growth forest.

Hemlock Wooly Adelgid
Now the hemlock wooly adelgid is a great risk to all these forests. It is a small insect that lays its eggs on the hemlock tree, and the larva suck the juices out until the tree dies. I want to cry when I see this damage and wonder how the forest will adapt. Some trees are being chemically treated, a process which must be repeated every four years or so. There is great hope for a beetle which eats only wooly adelgids (we all hope!) Yes, I know, what eats the beetle?

Mountaintop removal
Exotic plants, animals and diseases, brought from other parts of the world by man, are bad enough. But then humans decided deliberately to kill the mountains with a process called mountaintop removal. It wasn't bad enough to dig holes inside the mountains for coal, or to strip off the sides of a mountain. Now the coal companies just take the entire mountain down. Every plant and every animal is dead. No matter how hard environmentalists work, the coal companies and the politicians always seem to win.  This is the view from atop Pine Mountain looking into Virginia. I saw a similar landscape in Washington state, but they called it Mt. St. Helens, and the destruction was caused by a volcano, not human beings.

Jobs and electricity and supposed to be the reasons justifying such destruction, yet I understand that much of the mining is mechanized and large numbers of jobs are not being created. When the coal seams are depleted, what happens to the jobs? They plan to just tear down another mountain. Our group was joined by Hugh Archer of Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, which fights the greedy and short-sighted companies by purchasing land at risk, particularly in the Pine Mountain corridor. It's a challenge though, to raise the money and negotiate with property owners who expect a premium over market value for their land. Much of our hike was on property saved by KNLT.

The next few posts will explore some of the diverse life forms we found on our hikes, including these bright red little newts. So come back for more...

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Not Just Another Vulture Photo...

Anyone who has followed this blog for long knows that I like vultures. I love watching them fly so effortlessly in the sky. I like watching them eat dead fish at the Falls of the Ohio, then rise all at once to circle on the thermals. I am so disappointed that Eo, our Turkey Vulture at Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky, does not seem to like me, but knowing he can send you to the hospital for stitches when he bites, I have wisely chosen not to press the issue with him. Any time I see vultures overhead, I pull out my camera for another photo. Well, today it paid off. I saw a small bird mobbing a Turkey Vulture at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve this afternoon, and quickly aimed, since the action was almost overhead. And look at this shot! A Red-winged Blackbird is chasing the vulture! Click to make it larger and you can see all the details. WhooHoo!