Once a year, usually in mid to late summer, the dam is closed and the water retreats off of and exposes the ancient Devonian fossil beds. It is an other worldly landscape of blonde-colored rocks that preserves in limestone the proof that life existed over 400 million years ago. This exact place during that time too ancient to imagine was in the latitude of the present day Bahama Islands. Then it is was a marine reef supporting early salt water animals, most especially a large variety of corals. Today, this is a fresh water environment defined by the Ohio River. My goal is to cross over to the Kentucky side (where the majority of the fossil beds are located) by wading through the shallower areas near the tainter gates. Unfortunately, and unforseen by me, all the recent high water has made the riverbank a slippery muddy mess and the current that is allowed to flow through a channel by the dam is still too strong to wade through. I got almost half way across and found the footing treacherous. I didn’t fear for my personal safety, but I didn’t want to risk dunking my camera and phone in the water. Thwarted today, I will need to make better provisions for that the next time I attempt this.
So, I did the next best thing which was to explore the riverbank and nearby Willow Habitat. The resident colony of Black Vultures was hanging out under what shade some of these willow trees could provide. The bird in the above image is a sentry maintaining its post outside of where the main group of birds were resting under the nearby trees. The vulture flock doesn’t seem as large as it has been in the recent past. Perhaps the prolonged conditions of having a high river forced some of these large birds of prey to seek greener pastures? The vultures would allow me to only get so close before jumping into the air in search of thermals to lift them even higher. I continued my modified trip by walking towards the fossil cliffs below the Interpretive Center.
It was a very hot day and in places you would come across areas that were once very wet and had dried revealing a wonderful network of cracks.
I’m proud of myself. In addition to wearing a cap…I made sure to bring along plenty of drinking water on this very hot and humid day. Here my bottle is wrapped in a heavy mil plastic bagel bag. I used this to keep the other items in my pack dry just in case this bottle leaked. I continued my hike to the fossil cliffs when I could see something snow-white in color moving along the ground. At first I thought this was a piece of paper disturbed by the breeze, but soon noticed it was moving in bird-like fashion. I continued approaching very carefully yet deliberately and had my cameras at the ready. Here is my first image of what would soon be many.
Switching over to higher magnification, I could see my new bird was a species I had never encountered out here before. In the comfort of my own home I was able to identify this little guy as the Yellow-collared Sandpiper (Caladris fascinati). This is a tiny shorebird more at home in the Pacific Northwest and has rarely been recorded east of the Mississippi River. This is the first recorded instance of this bird at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. So, what was it doing here so far away from home?
It is not unusual for this park to record rarities during the migration seasons in early spring and autumn. To see this bird here outside the normal times shorebirds would be migrating through our area makes me think this bird is here by accident. Perhaps one of the monster storms we have experienced this year blew this little one way off course? Looking at my reference guides, I identified this as being a juvenile of the species. You can tell that by the pink bill. Once fully mature, the bill turns dark, nearly black in color. I have recorded other juvenile shorebirds migrating through the park on other Falls of the Ohio adventures. In particular, I remember seeing juvenile Golden Plovers and once…even saw a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher. What makes these sightings all the more incredible for me is knowing that a few short weeks ago…these birds were beginning life as eggs in shallow nests located in the high Arctic tundra. Normally, the Yellow-collared Sandpiper migrates down the Pacific coastline of the United States, crosses into Mexico, and winters in Central America. This is a journey of several thousand miles.
I observed this bird for about a half hour or so. I watched it feeding around the margins of small pools of water that had puddled on the fossil beds. It used its pink bill to probe the soft mud in search of the tiny invertebrates that make up the bulk of its diet. The bird seemed not to be concerned about me and I took many photographs to document its presence in the park.
The mouse-like bird moved like a wind-up toy on the fossil rocks. When it moved, its tiny legs seemed to be going as quickly as they could. The sandpiper had a curiosity for the world and checked out every clump of vegetation and crack upon the limestone surface as potential sources for food. Perhaps it was the hawk that flew high over our heads casting a fast shadow upon these ancient reefs that scared it away or perhaps it just grew tired of my company…regardless, the Yellow-collared Sandpiper flew away in a blur of brown wings. I thought I could detect a high “peep” call note as it went skyward. Heading back to my vehicle, I had one more pleasant surprise in store for me. While this is not on par for rarity, seeing the beginning of the Monarch butterfly migration going through our small piece of the planet is still an awesome occasion. Like the Yellow-collared Sandpiper, the Monarch butterfly has a very impressive migration of its own as it moves from Canada to Mexico and back again. On my way home, I said a little prayer asking for the continued safety of all the small things moving through the world. I guess that’s it for this time at the Falls of the Ohio.