Sunday, April 29, 2012

Natural Bridge, Natural Wildflowers

The last two weeks of April are Derby Festival in Louisville, but Dick and I decided to head for the hills instead. Natural Bridge State Park and the Kentucky Native Plant Society hosted their 31st annual Wildflower Weekend, and since we had not been to Natural Bridge and the Red River Gorge for several years, we decided to go. Of course, our friend Tavia Cathcart, Executive Director at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, was the keynote speaker for Saturday evening, which encouraged us to come here rather than the Smokies. All the spring wildflowers are blooming about three weeks earlier than in most years, so we weren't sure how many flowers would be seen during the weekend, but boy, were we surprised! I don't keep an official life list of wildflowers (although I should probably start one), but I would have added at least 23 new species this weekend! I was amazed that things like trillium and ginger were still blooming, though not in great abundance.

The orchids were the most exciting to find. Just like some of the best birds are found while standing in the parking lot, some of the nicest orchids were growing right next to the main trail going up to the bridge itself. We saw large orchids, such as this beautiful yellow Lady's Slipper...

 and showy orchis within 3-4 feet of the pathway.

The pink Lady's slipper was much more elusive though, and we risked tripping on roots and rocks in the path to scan both sides of the hill for them.

Typically, I envision orchids as large and elaborate, the big flower you wear at the prom. But many orchids are small and inconspicuous, if not downright invisible! This spring coralroot is an orchid, and the closer I stood to get a photo of the minute blossoms, the harder it was to focus.

The birds sang all day, from Carolina Wrens who sounded like they were using amplifiers, to three little Ruby-throated Hummingbirds dive bombing each other at the feeder. I often thought the same Hooded Warbler was following us around, since we heard one no matter where we hiked, along with many other unseen warblers. If I hadn't studied bird song for many years, I could only have claimed 5 or 6 species actually seen. But then a larger bird flew through the trees and sat where I could find it in the binoculars. The most wonderful Wood Thrush just sat and posed for at least 5 minutes! All his relatives or rivals had serenaded us, but this one came out to take a bow!

He showed each profile, then turned so we could see his warm cinnamon brown back and pink legs. This bird certainly made up for all my disappointment with the other birds that stayed in hiding!

Each of the Kentucky State Parks has a dining room with a view, and they hang bird feeders by the windows for the entertainment of the diners. As always, the gray squirrels show off their acrobatics chasing each other up and down the trees, jumping on the feeders, and hogging all the seed. We met a couple who have attended 30 of these wildflower weekends at Natural Bridge and they gave us a tip. "Come back this evening, when the dining room is closed and darkened," they said. "The flying squirrels come then to get their share of the sunflower seeds." We gingerly shined a flashlight to be sure they were present, and the small noctural squirrels weren't disturbed at all.  I got brave and turned on my camera flash, and that didn't bother them either, so I got some marvelous photos of  their shining eyes and sleek skin folds they use to fly! Every few minutes, you would see a faint glimpse of something in the air - another flying squirrel. I've never seen them in the wild before, so it was truly exciting, and I passed the tip along to a little girl in the lobby the next day. Hope she was able to see some.

If you have never been to/heard of Natural Bridge before, look into it. The Red River shaped the Red River Gorge much as the Colorado River shaped the Grand Canyon. Over millions of years, the river cut and left quite impressive rock formations, also known as arches. In the Red River Gorge there are an estimated one-hundred fifty (150) arches, a number surpassed only by Arches National Park in Utah.To reach them, you hike through deep thickets of rhododendron and hemlocks which may be lost to the wooly adelgid in my lifetime. It's like the glaciers - you should try to see them while you can. The rhodies aren't in bloom yet, but on top of the ridges, the mountain laurel are ready to put on a show. They often grow in a crack of the rock out into nothingness. But look at the delicate landing pads they provide for pollinators. Actually, Tavia's presentation was about the tricky ways flowers attract pollinators, so I now appreciate these more than ever.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

New Finds at the Nature Preserve

Every spring I get out the field guides for wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies and fungi, along with the birdsong CD's, to review and relearn things I thought I knew well last year. Many things I can remember, a few more each year (subject to Senior Moments of course). But sometimes I get lucky on a walk at the Nature Preserve, and something I've never seen before pops up. Then I get out all my field books (we could start our own nature bookstore), turning pages looking for a photo that matches the one I took. Sometimes I just have to send my photo to one of my friends who specializes.

The sweet honeysuckle, invading every path, is visited by a black butterfly with white spots which I've never seen before. Fortunately, the first butterfly book I check shows a picture of this to demonstrate the difference between butterflies and moths, since this is actually an Eight Spotted Forester moth, and not listed in the butterfly book at all. It is a showy, day flying, nectaring moth. It has long bright orange hairs on its two forelegs, which look like collected pollen. It has two creamy-white spots on the black forewings, and two on each hindwing, thus its common name Eight Spotted. Yes! I have a match!

The Woodland Fern Garden at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve is lovingly planted with native species and exotic examples of the same kind of plant in many instances. However, the deep mulch is not only favored by many fern species, but by fungi galore. Here's one poking through the wood chips with a bright red stalk, and yes, it does look like what you are thinking. I think this is the Elegant Stinkhorn, which is supposed to, well, stink. If it did, I failed to notice it today, and continued on my walk.

Here's another odd sighting. I looked in the fungus book, but my nephew suggested it might be a slime mold.   Ewwww!

Eastern Towhees have a very distinctive song. I must have heard at least 15 of them challenging each other through the brush. Some day we should ask an expert to run a census on the Towhees. I think we have more at Creasey Mahan than any other place I go birding.

Despite many grassy areas, we have never had any Meadowlarks at the Nature Preserve. Tuesday as I made the rounds of the Bluebird nestboxes, I heard Meadowlarks in two separate meadows! Not only did I hear them, but heard and photographed one! Woo-Hoo! Life is good.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Bird Moms

Mallard Duck Neting in Flower Bed
All Moms have to be courageous, and committed. When you carry a baby for nine months, knowing that it will only get harder after the birth, well, we all need any help we can get, right? But avian moms have it even harder than human moms, I think.

Robin Nest
First, she has to decide where to build her nest. Some birds, such as eagles and ospreys, will re-use a nest from year to year, but most birds start over each time. The location has to be close to food and water resources, yet provide will protect against predators. This Robin chose the top of a tombstone in a cemetery, only 3 feet off the ground - not where you would expect to see a Robin's nest. I don't know if she managed to protect her babies till they fledged or not, but I think a cat would find this nest easy pickings.

Tree Swallow Nest
All human moms enjoy re-decorating the nursery, and will drive from store to store to find the right sheets and wallpaper. Bird moms are choosy too. They need just the right building materials, whether moss, grass, pine needles, twigs, mud or large sticks. This Tree Swallow mom will pull the feathers over her eggs and babies when she has to leave the nest, just like we would use a blanket, to keep them warm in her absence. These are too big to be her own feathers though. Don't they look like chicken feathers?

Chickadee on Nest
Little Chickadees make the softest nests! They start with a base of green moss, then add grass and what feels like dog hair!  They sit in it to mold the space to fit just right. This little mama was brave enough to look me in the eye when I opened the door on her nest box. Without any words or chirps, she clearly told me to Go Away!

Barn Swallow
The Barn Swallows at Bernheim Forest like to build under the porch roof at the Garden Pavilion. The location is fine, but what to do about all the humans who walk beneath the nest, especially after the eggs hatch? Sometimes they dive bomb anyone who gets too close, but that can be exhausting. Or they might poop on the human's heads - always an effective tactic!

Bald Eagle on Nest in Snow
Then there's the weather to deal with. Some birds, such as Eagles and Great Horned Owls, have eggs or young while there is still the chance of snow. I worried about the Cooper's Hawks in our backyard when a big thunderstorm came. She had to sit there no matter how bad the weather got. How many human moms would do that day after day? And when the sun shines, it can be even worse with it beating down on your head.

Osprey Turning Eggs
Nesting birds lose the feathers on their bellies, creating a brood patch which allows the mom to put her warm skin directly on the eggs. But that only heats the top of the eggs, so periodically she has to turn the eggs over so they are evenly warmed.

Feed Me NOW!
Thank goodness that most of us human moms only have one baby at a time to be fed and cared for. These demanding baby Robins look like they are about to fall out of the nest. Some of our Bluebirds at Creasey Mahan have six eggs in the nest. As the babies grow, they require more and more food. A Barn Owl father may have to catch as many as 36 mice each night to feed 5-6 owlets, his mate and himself. Talk about exhausting! Yet, some birds, such as Barn Owls, Robins and Bluebirds, will have two or three clutches of eggs in a season. No wonder birds don't have long lifespans!

This is a busy time of year for all the birds, and we can help them by providing nesting materials, water, and a safe quiet place to nest. If you have cats, keep them indoors. If you don't find any nests in your yard, that's just the way the birds want it. But you can watch all kinds of birds with online nest cams, Eagles, Hawks, Owls, Great Blue Herons, you name it. One way to keep up to date is with  Cornell Unviversity has several live cams as well at, and there are many more. Be careful though. Watching nest cams is like watching soap operas. You can become addicted to the feathered drama each day, but what a wonderful way for people to become interested in birds!