Monday, January 30, 2012

Eagle Weekend

Once the CQ Princess finally made its way out into Kentucky Lake around the wreck, we cruised up and down the lake shore looking for eagles. Kate Heyden, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife avian biologist, was our spotter and narrator for the trip.

We learned that no bald eagles were found in Kentucky 40 years ago. In 1980 they "hacked" 44 young eagles at the lake. Eagles return to the area where they learned to fly when it's time to breed, so birds from somewhere else are brought in, and kept in boxes until they are ready to fledge. Juvenile eagles are brown, with mottled areas of white, for about 5 years when they are mature enough to breed and get their white heads and tails. During those years, they wander all over. Kate described a program to track young birds with radio transmitters. The results are mapped online at By 2011, she reported, we now have 98 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the state of Kentucky - almost any good sized lake will have some.

Some of the birds we saw are permanent residents, and they are into their courtship behavior and early nesting. Others migrate to Kentucky from northern states when cold weather freezes the lakes and rivers, making it harder to find food in their home territory.  It rarely gets cold enough here to freeze large bodies of water, and barge navigation keeps the channels open as well should a cold snap arrive. On our cruise, we saw about 27 eagles. In other years, up to 50 or 60 have been found in the same time. This year has been unusually warm up north. I heard they canceled parts of the winter festival in Minneapolis for lack of snow.

Our weather over the weekend was wonderful with blue skies and a strong wind in the morning which died down by noon. Everyone had lots of opportunities to tell the difference between eagles and turkey vultures. Look at the straight line of the eagle wings. A turkey vulture flies with its wings in a V - a dihedral. And sometimes the juvenile eagles have so much white on their bellies, you have to look closely to make sure it isn't a red tailed hawk, especially when they are far away.

After lunch, we piled into four vans to drive through Land Between the Lakes looking for eagles and any other wildlife we could spot. During the weekend Dick and I saw a red fox and red headed woodpeckers. As the sun began to set Saturday afternoon, we came to a popular roosting area for the eagles. With spotting scopes and binoculars we got a great look at about 30 birds coming in to spend the night, but it was far away so I didn't get any closeup photos of them. Every white spot in this picture is an adult bald eagle, and there are many that don't appear in the photo.

LBL is a long neck of land between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, run by the US Forest Service as a National Recreation Area. Summer is the time when most visitors enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, etc. Programs include a planetarium, nature center, an operating farm called the Homeplace, and a fenced bison and elk prairie, while white tailed deer and fallow deer roam freely.

We enjoyed the raptor programs presented at these eagle weekends for years. Once we saw the Little Rock, Arkansas, Zoo do the program, and a docent spoke without actually handing any of the birds. "I could do that!" I thought to myself. So when I retired a few years ago, I joined Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky as a volunteer, to get involved doing programs. At RROKI, however, you learn to do everything required for the care and rehabilitation of birds. It was a special thrill to me to return to the Eagle Weekend as a presenter, not just a visitor! We had 174 people at our program on Saturday evening, and many of them came up afterward for more questions and to take photos. Where else do you have a chance to see these magnificent birds up close and personal!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

You Can't Get There From Here Anymore

Missing Bridge Span
Every January, the Kentucky State Parks sponsor Eagle Weekends at the three state parks near Land Between the Lakes in western Kentucky. Both resident and migrating Bald Eagles can be found via a cruise on the water or van rides to bays popular with these wonderful birds. Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky was asked to do the Saturday evening program at the Barkley Lake weekend, and I gladly volunteered. I became interested in doing raptor programs at just such a weekend several years ago, so now the circle has turned back to the beginning.
CQ Princess - Eagle Tours
However, when we arrived on Friday afternoon after a 4 hour drive from Louisville, we learned that an accident had occurred on the lake the night before. Normally it takes only 20 minutes to drive across an old bridge spanning Kentucky Lake between Lake Barkley State Park and Kenlake State Park where we would board the CQ Princess for the eagle cruise. The weekend planners tried to contact everyone who had signed up, and many cancelled out altogether. The red mark on this map shows where the bridge was, and the blue line the extra hour and a half detour we took to reach the Princess.
Land Between the Lakes - Western Kentucky
Kentucky Lake was created by the TVA in the 1940's when they dammed up the Tennessee River, making it navigable to barge traffic. All traffic must pass beneath a two-lane narrow bridge built in 1932. I've always hated that bridge! If a semi comes across, there is hardly room for my car! Two sections of the Eggner Ferry Bridge, were destroyed by the northbound Delta Mariner, a 312-foot ship carrying rocket components from Decatur, Ala., to Cape Canaveral in Florida. This ship is much much taller than the normal barge traffic. A fully-loaded barge is 1200 feet long,  but the tow boat is the tallest part.
Delta Mariner
During the dark, it tried to pass under one of the smaller spans designated for recreational traffic, instead of the larger span nearby. The local news said that two local pilots were on board. One can only speculate what the pilots and captain thought they were doing as tons of steel and pavement descended right in front of them. Fortunately, no motor vehicles went down into the lake when the road disappeared - one of my personal nightmares driving over bridges! The steel and pavement were easily seen draped over the bow of this huge ocean-going ship.
Coal Barge going under remaining bridge
Of course the Coast Guard closed the lake to all water traffic while barricades blocked vehicular traffic. At first, we thought our eagle cruise would have to go south along the lake, while we always went north in previous years. By the time we boarded the boat, the Coast Guard decided the bridge wasn't going to fall into the water, and started allowing the backed up barges and our tour boat to pass under the bridge. The bridge carries about 2,800 vehicles a day between Marshall County and the Land Between the Lakes, including many who travel to nearby Murray State University on a daily basis.  For us, the detour was a slight inconvenience, but those folks will have a very difficult time getting to work and school. The hard part will be deciding what to do after they remove the ship and debris. It makes no sense to me to "repair" an 80 year old bridge that was inadequate to begin with, but how will they find the money to replace the bridge with something big enough for traffic to go under it?

Yes, we saw eagles, and I'll show more about them in the next post!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hell's Angels with Wings

Looking out the kitchen window, I was surprised to see a gang of Hell's Angels with wings instead of wheels. Our feeders have been invaded by 50-60 Common Grackles, mixed in with another 30 or so European Starlings. I had not filled any of the feeders yet, and delayed doing so until the mobs went elsewhere after demolishing the few remaining peanuts.

Common Grackles are large, noisy, and gregarious birds that often flock with other blackbirds, cowbirds, and starlings, especially in winter. At feeders they tower over other birds and push them aside to get at food. Grackles typically forage on the ground and roost high in trees or on power lines. All our regular birds - the Cardinals, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Wrens and woodpeckers - stayed safely out of range of these iridescent bullies.

They pointedly looked at me as I watched through the door. "Hey you! Get with it and bring out the seed!"

One or two moved over to the creek for a drink...

...followed by most of the others, drinking and splashing vigorously in the cold water. Hmm, that reminds me. It's time to get out the heater and put out some shallow water that won't freeze for the smaller birds, since the creek is too deep and too fast for their taste.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

"The Birds"

I have never heard anyone say that the European Starling is their favorite bird. After all, they are noisy, they poop all over your car, they eat most of the seeds in your birdfeeders, and they devour a farmer's crops. In the winter they gather in huge flocks, and sometimes you have to wonder if they are just birds, or something else altogether.

Just before sunset, I drove to Jeffersonville, IN, just across the river from Louisville, KY. Last week I saw a "blob" of birds, but couldn't take a photos since I was driving across the bridge at the time. You would agree that photographing birds while driving falls under the same category as texting while driving-- something that should not be done. Tonight I returned for some shots taken while NOT in a moving vehicle. The birds starting moving into neighborhood trees by twos, then tens, then dozens, chattering constantly. They make a variety of noises, none of which could be called melodic by any means. For no reason I could discover, they would all fly out of the tree at once.

Starlings can fly in large numbers, forming a "blob" in the sky, that appears, darkens, then disappears, depending on which direction the birds turn while in the air. In fact, coming up with a descriptive term is a challenge itself. Is it a blob, a flock, a swarm? Actually there is a term I'm not familiar with - a murmuration. How about that one! But it's hardly scary enough, and they certainly do not murmur. I always think of science fiction movies or horror stories at this sight.

Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds comes first to mind. Should I hide underground when the birds start swarming like this? How about the locust invasion in The Ten Commandments? I'm sure many a farmer thinks of them this way. Is it some super strange storm cloud, or how about an alien invasion?  As the cloud of birds changes shape, expanding and contracting, I wonder if it is some large overgrown amoeba-like organism. My imagination runs away quickly!

Why are all these birds flying over the middle of the Ohio River? Apparently they decided that the center span of the bridge (which now carries traffic for three interstate routes) is the best place to spend the night. They jostle each other for a spot on the girders - the girders that we just spent millions of dollars getting painted recently!

The sunset was beautiful, but driving home across the bridge was a little spooky as the birds continued to fill the air above, below and beside all the vehicles. I expect that any low flying bird went splat against a semi.