Saturday, March 09, 2013

Owling in Paradise


And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry, my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away

I remember hearing John Denver sing this song when I was in college, and yesterday I went birding at this very place. In the late 1950's, the Bucyrus-Erie Company got the contract to build the world's largest shovel, to be known as the 3850. It took two years to build and each piece was shipped by rail to the new mine at Paradise, to be named the Sinclair Strip Mine. Roads had to be built and a special rail line was made. Special rail cars were made just to haul some of the parts of this big shovel. The assembly of the shovel took eleven months. Once the mine became operational, some of the construction people became miners. In the mean time, TVA was building the world's largest power plant nearby. In the early 1960's, the Sinclair Mine became operational as well as the Paradise Steam Plant. For the next twenty-five years, Sinclair Mines and Paradise Steam Plant were partners in the production of power.

In 1986, the Sinclair Mine had removed most of the coal in the area. The 3850 Shovel was not through. It had been a "star" and the center of attention for almost three decades and it had one more job to perform. With fanfare, the news media, a lot of the miners, the company that built the machine and the company that operated the machine, State and Federal Government and the EPA looking on, the 3850 had one more big dig to make. It would now be used to dig its' own grave. The 3850 faced the new pit and started to dig. It settled into its' final resting place and was soon covered with the Kentucky soil and rocks that it had been digging for a quarter of a century. Peabody had to reclaim the barren pits under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, and now Kentucky Fish and Wildlife operates the Peabody WMA there.

Preston and Shari Forsythe live nearby and regularly post to the KY Bird List about the birds they see at the Sinclair unit at Peabody WMA, and they invited me to join them for an evening of "Owling in Paradise." Glad I went with someone experienced, since I would quickly have become lost of the gravel roads in the gathering darkness.  Arriving about an hour or so before sunset, we were immediately treated by 5-6 Short-eared Owls chasing each other around on one of the warmest afternoons in months.

As we drove slowly with our windows down, Shari spotted what she thought to be a Mockingbird perched nearby. Closer inspection revealed a Loggerhead Shrike glowing in the sun! We all expected to see them in Florida, but this is the second I've found in Kentucky this winter.  Shrikes hunt the same small mammals as the owls and harriers in this area.

At times, the Harriers and Owls would chase each other. Territorial disputes? There seemed to be so many birds in the same place that the mice didn't stand a chance.

The Paradise power plant still operates with TVA, and the smoke billowing from the towers has a distinct yellow tinge to it. I wonder what their scrubber capacity is. I am definitely torn by this issue. I want a clean environment for our wildlife and birds, yet I depend on electricity just like everyone else. I don't like strip mines (and definitely not mountaintop removal), but since the mines closed, the economy of this area has taken a big hit. Not prosperous looking by any means. Some of the lakes and ponds have water, but I didn't see cattails growing along the edges. I assume Fish and Wildlife keeps an eye on the acid levels here, but I do wonder a bit...

We hoped to get a glimpse of the Pan-STARR comet just after sunset, but a layer of haze or clouds blocked our view. While standing on the highpoint of the S2 area, we must have sighted 14-15 owls, given that it's hard to keep an accurate count of rapidly flying birds. Driving out again, we found another 4-5 owls perched in branches, looking all around as we crept up to them so I could take a quick photo through the car window.  Wonderful owling this trip, but I'm still working on a really good closeup. As Scarlett O'Harra said, "Tomorrow is another day."

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