Saturday, April 26, 2014

Migration Madness

American Avocets - digiscoped
A few weeks ago, I noticed I wasn't receiving notices from the KY Bird List. Inquiries revealed that it's dropping people randomly, and I should just re-subscribe. Good thing, or I would have missed the notice about Willets and American Avocets at the Falls of the Ohio. A cold front moved through the night before, and all sorts of birds were showing up. The Avocets breed in the northern plains area and winter in the Southwest. Every few years, however, some show up in the shallow water below the dam at the Falls of the Ohio. My friend was there with his good scope and had already located them (which I would have had trouble doing on my own) and we saw about eight of them yesterday afternoon. By evening, another birder said she also found a flotilla of 58 more birds swimming in the deeper water behind the dam! You just never know what's going to turn up at the Falls! But it takes time and persistence to find something good, because there's no predicting what will show up while you stand there.
Willets - digiscoped
I'm used to seeing Willets when we go to the beach, but I think it's the first time they have shown up here. They too breed in the northern plain-southern Canada area, wintering along the Gulf and Atlantic shores. Again, they were all perched on the same rock, at least half a mile away from our observation point. If Tom hadn't found them first, I might have missed them altogether. Would you have know what they were without someone telling you? Granted, the scope alone gives a better view.
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
Then I wandered down the Woodland Trail, since Tom's wife was down there with the warblers coming through on migration. The Falls of the Ohio State Park does not have a lot of acres, but it is the only patch of woods and shallow water for far around. I call it a green oasis in a jungle of asphalt. As I joined her, we were surrounded by more birds calling than I have ever heard there! Hooded Warblers, Yellow Warblers, Yellow Throated Warblers, Northern Parulas, Gnatcatchers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, and may I didn't recognize at all. We played the call for the Yellow Warbler who was certainly perched just above our heads from the sound of him, but could not entice him to come down and play. Same for the Parula. The buzzy little Gnatcatchers were so busy hunting caterpillars, it was hard to focus on them before they jumped to the next branch.
Summer Tanager
I got lucky with an otherwise silent Summer Tanager. Cardinals are very common at the Falls, and I had to look two or three times to be sure this was my nemesis bird, and it was. Hooray!
Warbling Vireo
One other bird came briefly into view, a little larger than many of the others. Colleen confirmed this as a Warbling Vireo, a life bird for me. Hooray again! But no more than 10 minutes after entering migration heaven, the sun came out, the clouds blew off, and it got real quiet in the woods. The Yellow Warbler and Parula still called, but the large variety of song stopped.
Bald Eagle Nest - Shippingport Island - digiscoped
Well, since I'm here anyway, might as well run down to see if I can find the Eagle nest on Shippingport Island. The island is in the middle of the river, and the nest must be close to a mile away from shore. When I first looked, I got lucky, since the male was sitting on a branch nearby, and I spotted him and the nest. Another birder says he's seen two little fuzzy heads a couple times. but he has telescopic eyeballs as well as a good scope! By the time I got my phone lined up for a photo through the scope, the male had moved off. Can you see the nest? That dark blob in the middle? In a few more days, the leaves will cover it entirely. The first year or two that this pair tried to nest, they failed, but I never heard any guesses why. This must be the third successful nesting at least. Pretty cool to have them right in the urban area.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Raven Run Wildflowers - Too Early, Too Late

Blue-eyed Mary
Raven Run Nature Sanctuary is a county park on the bluffs of the Kentucky River in Fayette County, not far from Lexington.  Part of the property was acquired with funds from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund. Much of the 734 acres is old farm land, full of invasive plants such as bush honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, garlic mustard, and poison hemlock, just like everywhere else. In the last few years, they had a project to get rid of bush honeysuckle, which appears to be successful in  part, but it's coming right back into the cleared areas. As I drove down the Interstate, I was saddened to see the fringe of green under all the trees - honeysuckle leafing out before anything else. 
Bumblebee on Dwarf Larkspur
But as you head down the trail, past old stone fences, the flowers began to appear. Dwarf larkspur comes in both purple and white, plus a few shades in between. This is the only place I have ever seen blue-eyed Mary. In the creek valley I've heard wild turkey every time I visit the park. Today, I could swear I heard a Broadwing Hawk, although I couldn't call it out of hiding. Might have been a Blue Jay trying to fool me (if so, it worked!), but I didn't hear any other Jay calls all day. 
Dwark Larkspur
Spring Beauty

Dainty spring beauty was abundant, with little pink stripes and anthers. Twice, several teenagers passed me on the trail, talking and walking fast, not looking at any of the flowers. How could they come to such a park and not look at this flowers this time of year? Makes no sense to me.
Early Saxifrage
Good old Kentucky limestone underlies everything, of course. In fact, you risk breaking limbs and cameras both, tripping over the stones in the trail! Where the trail cuts between two big boulders, those limestone loving plants like stonecrop and this early saxifrage grow right out of the rocks.
Squirrel Corn
And just beyond those rocks I finally found both squirrel corn and Dutchman's breeches. the leaves are similar, but you can tell the difference by the blossoms. The Dutchman hangs his breeches on a line with the pants legs pointing up, while squirrel corn (how did it get that name!) has rounded tops.
Sharp-lobed Hepatica and Sessile Trillium
The trail to the overlook on the Kentucky River Palisades hosts hepatica and columbine that I found nowhere else. Of course, the hepatica flower grows on a stalk before the leaves ever come up, so I never get to see them. Columbine also likes to grow right out of cracks in the rocks, but today it was only in bud. However, the twinleaf and cutleaf toothwort had finished blooming all together. Looks like I was both too early and too late at the same time!
Wild Ginger Blossom
One of my spring favorites is the little heart-shaped wild ginger. Under the hairy leaves, one solitary dark maroon blossom may grow down on the ground itself. The flower evolved to attract small pollinating flies that emerge from the ground early in the spring looking for a thawing carcass of an animal that did not survive the winter. By lying next to the ground the flower is readily found by the emerging flies. The color (and smell) of the flower is similar to that of decomposing flesh. Whether these flies pollinate the flower or not is in some dispute.You have to get way down on the ground to get a photo of them at all.
Flower Bowl Hillside 4-16-14
I was disappointed, but not too surprised, at the lack of flowers in the Flower Bowl (as I call it). This valley has always been too steep to farm, and has never been disturbed, as far as I know, so there are an minimum of invasives, and the ground beneath the trees is open, hosting huge numbers of native wild flowers. However, the cold winter, or just the cold snap this week, has affected it, since there were not the wide wide variety of flowers growing on top of each other up and down the hillside.
Flower Bowl 4-16-2010
The first year we went to Raven Run, I was absolutely breathless when we started into the valley. As far as you could see, up hill and down, the forest floor was covered with larkspur, wood poppy, phlox, and blue-eyed Mary. All those flowers were blooming, yes, but not in the outstanding numbers of previous years. The false rue anemone seemed to be most abundant this year. Maybe it would all catch up if I had time to return in a week. In May, we are returning to Natural Bridge State Park for more wildflowers!

Walk on the Wet Side

Vernal pools, also called vernal ponds or ephemeral pools, are temporary pools of water that provide habitat for distinctive plants and animals. They are considered to be a distinctive type of wetland usually without fish, thus allowing the safe development of young amphibian and insects unable to withstand competition or predation by fish. I was surprised not to hear any frogs.
Hays Kennedy Park in Prospect, KY, has a prime example of vernal pools. The long narrow pool is quite shallow. They are called vernal pools because they are often, but not necessarily, at their maximum depth in the spring ("vernal" meaning of, relating to, or occurring in the spring) and by summer, only a few frog puddles will remain.. Vernal pools may form in forests, but they are more typically associated with grasslands. While many vernal pools are only a few meters in width, playas and prairie potholes are usually much larger, but are still otherwise similar in many respects, with high water in wet periods, followed by dry conditions.
The pool usually hosts dabbling ducks such as Mallards, Northern Shovelers and Bluewinged Teal. Last year a pair of Red Necked Phalaropes found this pool, so you don't assume that nothing exciting ever happens here. In March, when we had a slight warm spell, you could hardly walk along the pool for all the goose poo on the banks. I never knew that teals make a peeping cheeping kind of sound. They sounded like baby chicks!
Meadow Larks sing on the other side of the water, but they usually hide down in the grass.
Between snow showers yesterday, the sun came out occasionally, highlighting all the crab apple trees in bloom. They grow so close together, you can tell they haven't been planted by anyone.
At least I think they are crab apples. Don't Bradford pears escape to the wild sometimes? I sank down into the squishy mud, hiding at the base of the trees. This is a very wet place in the spring.
But the only wild flowers would be considered weeds, such as this Dead Red Nettle...
...and the first Garlic Mustard of the season. Poison Hemlock is sprouting right behind the Garlic Mustard. Ah well, this is an easy stop on my way home from Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, well worth the walk on the wet side.

Monday, April 14, 2014

More Spring Adventures at Bernheim Forest

Eastern Meadowlark
Saturday morning, I taught a Birding 101 class for about 15 of the Naturalists in Training at Bernheim Forest and Arboretum, for my good friend and mentor, Wren Smith. After the classroom presentation, we went outside to see what we could find with our new birding skills, and to practice using binoculars, which I admit to be one of the hardest parts of birding. By the time I find the bird and focus on it, it's often gone. I'm good at hearing the birds, and identifying the more common ones by ear, but I've never felt comfortable leading a walk and being able to direct people to the actual bird in the tree. However, we heard some good candidates to be called in from the Meadow, including this outstanding Meadow Lark. As soon as I played his call, he sped over to us, circling the group, eyeing us for the rival Lark. He moved from perch to perch for the next 20 minutes, still on the alert, so we got some great chances to view him.
Red-tailed Hawk
Overhead in the clear blue sky a large Red-tailed Hawk showed off her identifying marks for my new birders. A Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture soared close together so they could see the easy difference between those species. Purple Martins chittered around their gourd nest boxes. All in all, it was a terrific morning.
In a week, the wildflowers can change a lot, so after class I returned to the Rock Run Trail, known as the best wildflower spot in the forest. Last week, the creek was full of water from earlier storms, but Saturday, the upper part was dry, as usual, while the lower part of the trail had water from a spring. I don't remember ever seeing so many large clusters of Bloodroot as I have this year. I think of them as being solitary blooms usually.
Yellow Trout Lily with Green Pollinator
On this sunny afternoon, all the flowers were completely open, and the pollinators were busy, busy, busy.  I always enjoy seeing the variety of pollinators, including different bees, beetles and flies. The tiny Pussy-toes were full of eensy-weensy little flies. 
White Violets
Wren suggested I look around the Sun and Shade Trail, near the headwaters of Lake Nevin for more flowers. In the mowed areas, the ground was purple and white with Common Violets and White Violets. 
Magnolia Blossom
Bernheim is famed for its flowering trees in the spring, and the main road was lined with Bradford Pears and pink Magnolias in full bloom. The Dogwoods are just beginning to come out.
In the woods by Lake Nevin, I found the first Twinleaf I've seen at Bernheim. Many were in bloom while the leaves were still small and almost closed.
Only 30 minutes away from Louisville, Bernheim Forest is such a wonderful resource, both in their people, programs and natural resources. I am so glad to to be part of it!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Early Wildflowers

After spending the morning at Bernheim Forest with my grandson and son-in-law, I got home and turned right around to head out again. They have white trout lily in one particular spot there, and if you delay going, you will miss them altogether. 

 Then, of course, are the delicate white bloodroots. They pop up in the embrace of a leaf, and the delicate blossoms only last a day.
Rue anemone, swaying with each small breath of wind...
...and toothwort just starting to blossom.

There will be more of most of these species in the next few weeks, plus many others, but the first I see in the season are always extra special