Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘animal art works’ Category

A late winter landscape at the Falls of the Ohio and what has to be one of our warmest February’s ever!  I can’t recall ever having an 80 degree day in winter before…not in Kentuckiana in mid February to boot.  We had just a trace of snow to speak of and while nobody missed living through the freeze and gray monotony of winter…somehow we know “pay backs will be hell”.  The cost will come in more insect and weed pests at least.  It will be interesting to see how many and how severe our spring storms will be.  Will they be full of energy violent and remembered for deluges of rain?

With a name like the Falls Pheasant, you would expect to find this bird here.  Alas, our only native pheasant started disappearing when stands of river cane became less numerous.  Once thought extinct, this colorful pheasant has started reappearing in once familiar places.  I wish I could also report that the river cane is also coming back, but it hasn’t so far.  Perhaps what’s left of these pheasants are the ones who will accept other habitat?  It’s all about being able to adapt with the changes?  Some birds pushed to the fridges of their comfort zones found new areas to live.

This is a young male of the species.  As an adult, the center tail feather becomes twice as long and the head becomes a bright shade of turquoise.  I chanced upon it during a period of high water investigating small islands of trees and driftwood where potential food would become concentrated by the rising river.  The females are so cryptically colored that you can’t see them when they sit on their nests.  The Falls Pheasant produces a small clutch of four white eggs with brown speckles on them.

From his driftwood mound vantage point, the pheasant sees noisy Canada geese he would rather avoid.  Hopping from one bleached and weathered log to another it was soon on the ground.  Reaching a stand of weed stalks, I was so surprised at how quickly the pheasant could completely disappear.  I doubt this bird decided this area was a good place to stake a claim.  The Canada Geese here are aggressive and then there are all the other predators too.  Stray cats, dogs, compete with coyotes, foxes, raccoons, minks, humans, and birds of prey from the air patrol this space.  Better to keep moving on.

Our story doesn’t end here.  Just a few weeks later and at a spot not too far away from where I saw the pheasant…I came across another great rarity.  I have always maintained that “chance favors a prepared mind”.  I think subconsciously, I am always looking around for something different or out-of-place.

It was late in the day with the sun slipping quickly to the horizon line, when I spotted this distinct red color moving through the willow trees.  Hiding behind the trunks as best I could, I was able to get close enough to snap four or five images.  I would need to wait until I got home to make the identification which was a personally exciting thing to do!  This was one bird completely unfamiliar to me and a new Kentucky and Falls of the Ohio record.  This is the Elfin Flycatcher or Sugarbill as it is better known in Northern Quebec.  This bird can truly be considered an “accidental” because it is so far away from its usual home range.  In its winter home of Cuba…it is an insectivorous bird known for its aerobatic hunting of small flying insects that live in the warmth of the tropics.  During the spring breeding season, the Elfin Flycatcher undergoes a long journey along the Atlantic coastline until it crosses over into the coldest reaches of Quebec.  It arrives before the northern insects have hatched and to supplement its diet, it drills into hardwood trees (similar to our Yellow-bellied Sapsucker) to collect the nutritious sweet tree sap that pools in the drill holes.  It feeds on sap until clouds of mosquitoes and midges arise from the waters of the north to change this bird’s diet.

The bright yellow tail and the purple crest mark this as an adult male of the species.  The brown wings were continuously flicking like some nervous tic this bird was experiencing.  How this bird got so far off track is a mystery.  Sometimes large storm events along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast will cause birds to travel great distances to get out-of-the-way.  There is another concern, less with this bird, but more so with other migratory species.  As climate change scrambles the natural clocks, timing is crucial to migrating birds.  Routes have developed over time to source food when it appears and if it doesn’t…what happens to these long distance migrants?

 

This is what has so many biologists concerned.  What happens to all those species that find the changes too challenging and can’t readily adapt?  For now, I will keep making my anecdotal observations from the Falls of the Ohio State Park and work my best to try not to get too depressed about it all.  Drawing a deep breath of fresh air, I picked up my collecting bag and that day’s trophy river finds and turned for home.

 

Read Full Post »

img_5243

The Falls of the Ohio State Park is a place of discovery.  So many new lifeforms have been described by science in the Devonian limestone fossil beds alone.  And of course, the Lewis and Clark Expedition which both began and ended at the Falls of the Ohio did much to help illuminate the breath of this country.  Magic keeps occurring in this amazing place and the following post is about one such recent and personal find…meet the aptly named “Smiling Tortoise”.

img_5304

head-of-smiling-tortoise-albertus-gorman

The Smiling Tortoise or Clemmys helmeti  is a very rare terrestrial turtle now found in just one location in the world which is the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  It was once presumed extinct.  Since being designated an Indiana state park…this elusive reptile has been seen more often in the last ten years than in the previous hundred years before the park came into existence.  Perhaps the added protective status has emboldened it to show itself more?  Park visitors have supplied a steady, if still infrequent sightings of it to the staff at the Interpretive Center.  Over the years, I have learned the best way to find something is to not look for it.  That was certainly true in the case of the Smiling Tortoise.  Although I have always wanted to see a living example, it took 14 years of patience before I came across one last November.

img_5223

We have experienced the warmest and driest Fall season I have ever lived through in the Kentuckiana area.  On such a warm November day, I happened upon a specimen that was gorging on bracket fungi growing on a decayed log.  In my enthusiasm, I took plenty of images and perhaps got a little too close by picking this one up to examine it.  I wanted to check out its shell on its belly or plastron to see if this individual had been tagged by the park naturalists when I carelessly picked one up.  Despite its benign appearance, it possesses a strong bite from a large mouth and its neck can move whip-like as it turns to defend itself from a threat.  I count myself lucky not to have lost a digit, still it bit me!

img_5290

I cut myself with my trusty Swiss Army knife or get poked by something else sharp out here every once in a while and so I have a small supply of bandages that I always keep with me.  Forewarned, but not undaunted, I carefully held the turtle by the top of its domed carapace and held it so it couldn’t reach me.  Above, it is all white, but underneath, there is a little color.  I didn’t have my measuring tape with me, but it’s roughly the size of your head.  Here’s what the ventral side of the Smiling Tortoise looks like.

how-to-safely-hold-a-smiling-tortoise-albertus-gorman

This marvelous creature sports a yellow tail which is stained by the turtle’s own urine and by a particularly musky gland found at the tail’s base.  The plastron has this unusual design and its concavity told me it was a male.  The reason for the slight indentation is to give a bit more of a “foot hold” when attempting to mate with the female of the species which of course, also possesses a domed shell.  This specimen exhibited healed wounds on its feet perhaps when a predator decided to try to eat it?  The fact that this one was still around testifies to the ability of this turtle to take care of itself.  When I showed the park naturalists my images, they were pleasantly surprised to see that this specimen did not have an identification tag on it.  So, this turtle was new even to them!

img_5225

img_5229

After carefully releasing the turtle, I moved away to a discreet distance to see what would happened next?  I followed it as it moved through the woods investigating every groundhog hole and space around the trees and rocks, but what was it searching for?

img_5248

img_5251

Since this is still a cold-blooded animal, the unseasonably warm weather perhaps roused it from its winter hibernation or perhaps it was still looking for that perfect den or burrow in which to over winter?  Not finding anything suitable, the Smiling Tortoise left the riverbank and headed back into the woods.

img_5332

Along the way, I was able to observe a few additional behaviors.  For the longest time, this tortoise regarded a hunk of river-polished Styrofoam.  I saw it poke the waste polystyrene both with its head and front feet.  When it didn’t respond, the Smiling Tortoise moved on.  This next image is going to be a little harder to explain…take a look.

img_5273

Well, your guess is as good as mine on this one!  Even the park naturalists were at a loss.  Something about this discarded large bottle of sports drink that floated into here from who knows where stimulated this behavior.  The turtle unable to mate with this bottle left the area in obvious disgust as it hissed its disapproval.  This was the only sound I heard it make.

img_5292

img_5240

With the day drawing to a close, I decided to say good-bye and good luck to my scaly acquaintance.  I picked up my hiking gear and collecting bags and turned around and headed toward the Interpretive Center.  I was feeling stoked by the experience!  I hope the turtle eventually found an acceptable burrow and is fast asleep as a gentle snow now falls in Louisville.  Until next time from the Falls of the Ohio.

img_5309

Read Full Post »

img_5013

The Falls of the Ohio offers a variety of fishing opportunities throughout the year.  Whether you prefer light tackle action in the shallows or the pull from a fifty pound catfish while sitting on a boat…you can find that on the Ohio River flowing by Louisville.  I always check out what’s happening on the riverbank when I come out here.  I am especially interested in seeing what species are being caught and what’s being used to catch them.  On this warm December day the action was happening in the shallows.  Fisherman were using soft-bodied jigs to catch Sauger (a smaller relative of the Walleye) and this nice White Bass.

img_5009

img_5006-2

The White Bass, (Roccus chrysops) was first described by the eccentric naturalist Constantine Rafinesque who was familiar with the fish life at the Falls of the Ohio.  The White Bass is a big river fish that is also found in impoundments.  This fish can get to be 15 to 18 inches long and a maximum of around five pounds.  We also have a smaller relative, the Yellow Bass that is also found in the Ohio River.  Both species are related to marine sea basses and scatter their eggs without further care of their young.

img_4469

Since there is a lot of fishing activity on the river, I also find a lot of lost fishing gear. Broken poles, snagged line, and lots of plastic fishing lures like this recent example. It’s very easy to snag and lose a lure in the rocky bottom out here. Usually, when I find a lure, it is minus its hooks which either have broken off or have dissolved away.  I also pick up lost fishing floats and have been amazed by how much design variety that fishing tackle can encompass.  On the negative side, I also have a fairly full sandwich bag of lead fishing weights that I have accumulated over the years.  When the river is down during the height of summer, I will check out the dried holes in the rocky bottom that catch and tumble lead and other metals.

If nothing else, 2016 will be remembered by me for the quality of the fishing.  I was able to catch three species new to me to add to a growing list of species I have documented at the Falls of the Ohio.  Check out the next couple of images of a rare Ohio River Bowfin (Amia ohioensis) I angled from under the railroad bridge.

img_4512

img_4514

The Ohio River Bowfin is only marginally related to the better known Bowfin, (Amia calva).  The Ohio River Bowfin has adapted its life to living in shallow rocky streams where it ambushes other fish, frogs, crayfish, and other river invertebrates.  Uniquely, its anal and caudal fins have fused into one large fin that comes in handy for scraping out nests in the gravel bottoms it prefers to breed on.  After the male entices the gravid female into his nest and with a little luck and persuasion, a clutch of about fifty eggs is deposited and fertilized.  The male assumes all parenting duties.  Can also be distinguished by it long slender body and bright orange-colored eyes.  After a few pictures and measurements the fish was released unharmed back into the river.

img_4948

On another river expedition in November, I visited a different Falls of the Ohio location near the Interpretive Center to sample the fish life there.  Within a minute or two of my first cast I caught this near world record Copperbelly Suckermouth, (Catostomidae cupricana).  I was using a hook baited with clam meat which is the principle food of this Ohio River oddity.  The boats anchored in the river are probably going after large catfish.  This view gives you a good indication of the body type that evolved with some fish that inhabit swift flowing water.  Drag has been minimized and the pectoral fins are strong enough to anchor the fish in place as it hovers over the clam beds it prefers.

Here’s a symbiotic side note…several fresh water clam species use the Copperbelly Suckermouth as an intermediate host during part of their life cycles.  The nearly microscopic clam larvae attach themselves to the fish’s gills where for a short time, the larvae suck blood and grow before dropping off the fish to complete their life cycles in the gravely bottom. The host fish are left unharmed during the process.

img_4954

img_4956

A sneak peek on why this species is called the Copperbelly Suckermouth.  It’s undersides are a deep, rich, red to orange ochre color that is particularly intense during the Spring breeding period.  The strong sucker mouth is located on the fish’s ventral side and is flanked by barbels that help it locate food in the river’s bottom.  This was also strictly catch and release as was the case with my next fishy find.  As with most bottom dwelling fish at the Falls, one should limit how big a meal you make from your catch.  Toxins are more prevalent in the lower reaches which then are ingested and stored in the fish’s fatty tissues.  This particular species, however, has minimal food value.

img_4930

Another day and location at the Falls of the Ohio and another unexpected catch!  Using a grasshopper I caught on the bank and a beaver-chewed willow pole I found nearby, I fashioned a rig with an old line and a hook and caught this Kentucky Killifish, (Cyprinodontidae gargantua) by jigging the grasshopper around the shadows cast by the fossil-loaded limestone.  I dropped the grasshopper into just the right dark hole and pulled out this beauty.

img_4933

This is a giant among the killifishes as most are under a few inches in length.  Its blue eyes are distinctive.  Small invertebrates in the form of insect larvae are its main food item, but experience has shown it will go for whatever it thinks it can swallow using its relatively tiny mouth.  This fish has no food or sport value what so ever.  During the summer breeding period, the males of this species can get very colorful in an attempt to impress.  Still, a very nice way to cap the year with a new fish to add to the life list!

img_4999

Fishing on Mars or the Falls of the Ohio?  The setting sun has colored the dried riverbank a lovely Martian red.  Here explorers are doing what we do…searching for life in the most promising place we know which happens to be by the water.  I hope 2017 manages a way to be kind to our rivers and freshwater everywhere.  I’ll end my fishing story with a look inside the box where I keep my found fishing lures.  See you next year…from the Falls of the Ohio.

img_5902

 

Read Full Post »

Landscape at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

I have always felt that if you did the research, you must publish your results.  Here it is the tail-end of July and what?? not a single post this month from the Artist at Exit 0!  Of course I have been out to the river on a couple of occasions and had a wonderful time.  So far, it has been a relatively easy summer.  We haven’t had spells of daily high temperatures pushing a hundred degrees that have marked some previous summers.  Knock on wood.  Every year and every season is different and 2016 will no doubt climatically distinguish itself locally in some way before this annual orbit around the sun is history.

Trumpet Creeper Vine, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

According to the WordPress folks, this is Riverblog post #450!  They are much better at keeping count than I am and so I will trust them on that.  I mention this not in the way of a boast, but rather from personal amazement that I have found enough content out in the Falls of the Ohio State Park to help keep it going!  I have a good friend who is also an artist and he used to blog on WordPress.  He stopped writing right around his 500th post!  He became a little disappointed that it was so time-consuming and didn’t lead to more sales or artistic opportunities.  I guess he also got to a point where he had said everything he wanted to say?  This post will combine a couple of river adventures together and is set for the western section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  It’s getting to be high summer.  I can tell by the heat and the blooming trumpet creeper vines growing on some of the cottonwood trees.  Have you ever noticed that many of these trumpet creeper flowers have large ants in them?

Purple loosestrife at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Where moist conditions are prevalent out here, you will find great patches of Purple loosestrife plants growing under the cottonwoods and willows.  The loosestrife is by far more common in the western section of the Falls of the Ohio.  Despite being a very invasive species, they do add a beautiful pinkish-lavender color to the landscape and insects (particularly butterflies) seem to love their nectar.

Cabbage White butterfly on Purple loosestrife, Falls of the Ohio, Late June 2016

I am sure to visit this area several times while the loosestrife flowers continue to bloom.  Over the last several years, I have come across more butterfly species feeding off of these flowers including many swallowtail species (Tiger, Black Swallowtail, Spicebush, Pipevine, and Giant Swallowtail).  These flowers are also favored by several different skippers which occupy this strange position between being true butterflies and true moths.  It seems skippers possess qualities of both lepidoptera groups.  Here is a nice Silver-spotted Skipper ( Epargyreus clarus ) I came across also feeding on the odd blooms of a Cephalanthus buttonbush.

Silver-spotted skipper, Falls of the Ohio, Late June 2016

There were other butterflies out on this sunny day, but I didn’t get good pictures of all of them.  I did see my first Red Admirals of the year.  I did manage this image of a Tawny Emperor ( Asterocampa clyton ) butterfly using the camera on my cell phone.  It takes a bit of stealth to get the phone near enough to take a good image without scaring your subject away.  Over the past two years, I’ve become accustomed to taking my cell phone with me on my trips to the river.  I love that the device is so small, lightweight, and fits in my pocket and gives me a few more options than the digital SLR that I have.  I have to imagine that these little digital cameras are just going to continue to get better and even more useful.

Summer time butterfly at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

I am also on the alert for any bird movements or sounds in the area.  On this expedition to the Falls of the Ohio I scored big by sighting two new bird species for my life list and getting decent pictures of both to show to any of you unbelievers out there!  After walking in direct sunlight for over an hour, I decided to cool off by walking in the shade of the large cottonwood trees that grow along the edge of the river.  I especially like the way this cottonwood tree fills the whole photo frame.  When these trees release their fluffy, light seeds it can almost appear as though it is snowing in slow motion.  The cotton fluff builds up and forms wind aided drifts on the ground.

Large, Cottonwood tree, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

I had directed my reverie up into the canopy of the trees when an unfamiliar bird flew just above my head.  This bird is fast and I got a quick sensation of colors…light blue, white, and green.  I was extremely lucky to get such good pictures of it in full flight.  Check out how the tail feathers help with lift and aerial maneuvering…perfect for high-speed flight between the tree trunks.

The Mosquito bird, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

I was elated when I realized that what just went whizzing by my ear is a species I have not seen in the park before.  It has a couple of common names.  Some people refer to it as the Cumberland Mockingbird (Mimus appalachians ) and around here I’ve heard people call it a “Mosquito bird”.  This specimen was actively picking off in midair several small flies that I could detect in the sunshine flying over my sweaty head.  The thought occurred to me that this bird and the Zika mosquito have moved into our area at about the same time.

The Mosquito Bird, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Diving Mosquito Bird, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

The Cumberland Mockingbird seemed to be able to “read” the air and wind currents around structures like trees and high river banks.  I observed it daringly flying and diving very near objects in its pursuit of an insectivorous meal. I saw it chasing another Falls of the Ohio specialty, the Eastern-eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus ).  This is the largest member of the click beetle family and can get 2 1/2 inches long.  It is said that its cryptic coloring is meant to mimic bird droppings.  As it happened this beetle was able to escape becoming the Cumberland Mockingbird’s lunch by hiding under some loose tree bark.

Eastern-Eyed Click Beetle, Alaus oculatus at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

These click beetles always seem to be out at the Falls of the Ohio during the summer months.  They are harmless as adults.  Their larvae grows in decaying wood and are carnivorous.  Our area usually has an abundance of decomposing wood because of periodic flooding and the water-logged trunks that come with it.  I decided to move out of the shade because the mosquitoes were catching up with me and using me for snacks.  Not even an actively feeding Mosquito bird could turn these small flies away from their blood mission.

Dodo of the Ohio, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Dodo of the Ohio in courtship display, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Returning to the sunlight seemed to do the trick of chasing the noisome insects away.  I moved away from the shade of the trees and returned to the intermittent light by the fossil outcroppings nearer the riverbank.  All was right with the world.  A cormorant was swimming in the river as an osprey flew overhead with fish in talons.  I was happily engaged in my little world…when I heard the most unusual animal call of all.  I just had to find out what could make such a mournful noise!  I found a likely spot along a trail and just went quiet and motionless.  If the gods were with me then I had a good chance of seeing this mystery animal which was continuing its two-syllable call as it drew nearer to me.

Dodo of the Ohio with Passionflower and fruit, Falls of the Ohio, July 2016

Dodo of the Ohio and Passionflower, Falls of the Ohio, July 2016

There was a movement low to the ground and a parting of vegetation when a dingy white bird emerged onto the trail in front of me.  It puffed its body up and displayed its tail feathers in a showy fan.  A few wiry blue feathers on his head forms a crest that moves and down with the hopping dancing motion this species requires for courtship.  With a certain amount of fanfare, my first ever “Dodo of the Ohio” ( Pseudo dodo kentuckiana ) let itself be known that it was looking for companionship.  I had also found it in the context of a flowering and fruiting Passion flower vine ( Passiflora ) growing over the sand.  A pair of round, green fruits seemed to be the object of the dodo’s attention.  Our dodo is not at all related to the extinct species, but it is far from being a common bird.  Fortunately, it can fly, albeit weakly.  This at least keeps it off the ground while it sleeps at night.  I watched the dodo for several more minutes before it flew off.  The chance meeting of these two exotics was an amazing and unforgettable happening that helped make July an incredible month.  See you again sometime soon from the Falls of the Ohio.

Passionflower vine, Falls of the Ohio, July 2016

 

Read Full Post »

Early morning view on the Ohio River, mid March 2016

Went out to the river, but to tell you the truth…I thought it would be too high.  Just a couple of days earlier, the Ohio River was once again over its normal banks.  Every year is different and this year the tail end of our winter was marked by warmth and high water.  Although the riverbank was muddy, I was happy to be able to walk around.  I’m having a show at a friend’s place in May and I was on the lookout for more washed up materials.  As it played out, this first official day of Spring would be a more memorable one than I had first anticipated.

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf or Hammerhead, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf in view of Louisville, KY, March 20, 2016

One of the reasons that this can be an interesting time of the year at the Falls of the Ohio is the annual Spring migration of neotropical birds.  I have been known to set my collecting bag aside and just hit the woods on the look out for migrating birds.  The first time you see a male Scarlet Tanager or a Rose-breasted Grosbeak will make a bird watcher out of a lot of people.  This past weekend, which is still a bit early for the usual migrants…I came across something totally unexpected that I couldn’t identify at first.  I didn’t get many pictures, but what I have is here.  If you have never seen (or much less heard of) Heisenberg’s Hammerkopf, (Aviana indeterminus)…you wouldn’t be alone.  Hammerkopf translated into English is hammerhead and that description seems to fit.  Heisenberg’s bird is about the size of an American Robin.  Among the features that stand out the most are its massive red bill and the petal-like feathers found at the base of its neck.  The wings can be brown or white and it has been known to have a crest, but some individuals have been seen that don’t have this feature.  There is no consensus as to its overall population, but a few individuals seem to make the news each year.  This bird is an enigma and it seems to prefer things that way.

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

The individual I came across is a second year male.  Looking at the info there is on this species did say that the unusual ruff of feathers around its neck could turn bright red as the bird matured and was ready for the breeding season.  What little there is in the scientific literature suggests that this is a highly variable species that can be found anywhere at any time.  With this bird, you really can’t pin down where it originates and it doesn’t seem to have a “normal range”.  It seems to be a very uncommon bird with a world-wide distribution.

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf at the river's edge, March 20, 2016

Heisenberg's Hammerkopf investigating goose tracks, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

This individual kept surprising me.  I almost felt that it “changed” the more I observed it.  By that I mean at first I found it by the mud and then it changed habitat by going into the trees.  I lost track of it for a short while, but rediscovered it at the water’s edge.  From there, it moved back under the willow trees where I eventually lost it for good.  I saw it use its large bill to delicately probe the mud and hammer through a driftwood log and in both cases wasn’t sure of what it was eating if indeed it found anything to begin with?  I just saw enough of this bird to pique my interest, but I have had bird sightings that have lasted mere seconds that were satisfying enough to last a lifetime.

Chiel collecting driftwood, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

While I was out exploring the Falls environment, I did come across another individual who can vouch for me that this strange bird was indeed out here.  I struck up a conversation with him and as it turns out he is also an artist.  His name is Chiel Kuijl and he is from the Netherlands.  He has a residency at the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, Kentucky where he is working on a unique outdoor rope environment.  He was looking for select, interesting pieces of wood that he could incorporate into his art project and the Falls of the Ohio are a perfect place to do this.  Talking with Chiel, one of the things he is enjoying most are the new and unfamiliar birds he is encountering in this country.  I asked if he had ever seen a Heisenberg’s Hammerkopf before and he said that he hadn’t and it was really unlike what he was accustomed to back home.  I am sure I will see Chiel again, but what of the hammerkopf?

Final view of Heisenberg's Hammerkopf at the Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

I don’t often make an appeal to the larger blogging world, but if anyone should happen to see this bird or something similar to it…I hope that you will post pictures of it.  It might make an interesting research project to see where in the world this species will turn up and what it might have to say about those particular places where it is found.  For now, I will leave it here and hope you will follow along the next time I am hiking at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Goose tracks in the mud, Falls of the Ohio, March 20, 2016

 

Read Full Post »

Flooded trees at the Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

Imagine my surprise to return to the same spot I had been working at last week…only to find it underwater!  Such was the case on my latest foray to the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  In the week since I was last here, we did experience one day where it pretty much rained all day long.  Still, in my experience, the intensity of that storm would not account for all the high water I was seeing during this visit.  Flooding in February is commonplace, but also usually tied to snow melt in the upper Ohio River Valley.  Perhaps what I was seeing was a combination of heavy rains upriver from Louisville and snow melt?  Regardless, this required a change in plans in the field.  I decided to go where nature would allow me to go.  In this case, high, dry land was to be found in the western section of the park.  I had to walk widely around the edge of a rising river, but this interstitial zone between wet and dry is often a very interesting place to explore.

 

Found green plastic toy Tug Boat, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

Found, green plastic tug boat toy, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

Among today’s discoveries includes this green plastic, tug boat that floated in with the high water.  This, however, was not the only transportation related toy that I found on my walk.  Here is something else that I came across.

Found plastic doll car, Falls of the Ohio,  Feb. 7, 2016

It’s missing two wheels, but this plastic toy car may have given a Barbie-sized doll a ride once upon a time.  How long had this piece of plastic been floating in the river?  I like to go down to the river’s edge because this is such a dynamic place.  You never know what might be washing ashore while you are there!  Soon I reached an area that was crisscrossed by downed trees and logs that had floated in which forced me away from the water and higher up on the riverbank.  That’s when I made another significant discovery.

The emergence of the Red-eyed Tortoise from it's burrow, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

Detail of head of the Red-eyed Tortoise, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

As I was walking, I heard the distinctive sound of leaves rustling on the ground and I knew an animal was nearby.  I followed the sound to its source and came upon a very rare creature that appeared to be exiting an abandoned groundhog’s burrow.  I took a couple of quick photos and backed off.  This proved to be a good move since my actions did not necessitate a full-scale retreat back into the hole it was emerging from.  Hiding behind a tree, I let the tortoise take its sweet time as it fully came to the surface.  I was practically holding my breath the entire time and for good reason.  It’s not everyday that you get the opportunity to photograph and study one of the world’s rarest reptiles…the Red-eyed Tortoise (Gopherus helmeti).

Red-eyed Tortoise, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

The Red-eyed Tortoise was first discovered by naturalists early in the 19th century.  The Falls of the Ohio (and on the Indiana side of the Ohio River) is the southernmost point of this uncommon creature’s range.  Perhaps they were never plentiful to begin with?  Everything I was witnessing about this tortoise seemed to suggest that it is not only slow, but likes to take its time.  If this animal had a motto it would be something like, “Hey, what’s the big hurry”?

Red-eye Tortoise at the river's edge, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

I watched as the tortoise very deliberately walked to the water’s edge.  What I knew from books about this reptile was that it is omnivorous, but if it is hungry for live food than positioning itself near a rising river driving small animals up the bank would increase the chances of successfully catching a meal.  Unfortunately, I did not witness anything so dramatic.  In fact, during my time in the presence of this tortoise…I did not see it eat or drink at all.

Red-eyed Tortoise and Cottonwood tree roots, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

Red-eyed Tortoise, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

The tortoise lingered at the edge of the river for a while.  It very deliberately examined the driftwood.  Perhaps this was part of its hunting strategy?  There was something I was very curious about and it had to do with the temperature.  Most reptiles are cold-blooded and require the sun’s energy to warm them up.  Was this also true for this tortoise?  Although it was warmer today, it was still far from spring-like temperatures and so how was this reptile able to deal with the coolness?  The secret resides in its unique shell design and composition.  During the colder days, the tortoise’s carapace is made from a hard, foam-like material that not only protects it from blows, but also insulates and retains what heat this animal is able to generate.  In the warmer weather months, special vents in the carapace do the reverse and provide cooling ports that keep the tortoise from overheating.

Red-eyed Tortoise with found plastic bottles, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

I did catch one other puzzling behavior and it was in connection with a cache of river-born plastic bottles that had accumulated next to a large, downed log.  The tortoise appeared to initially be interested in them, but one sniff had our hard-shelled friend reacting adversely and it moved as quickly as it could away from that area.  I did not personally check out these plastic bottles, but I theorized that one of them was probably still carrying its toxic, noxious contents that the tortoise picked up on?  Regardless, it did beat a retreat away from the river and I followed from a respectful distance.

The Red-eyed Tortoise returning to its burrow, Falls of the Ohio, Feb. 7, 2016

The last view I had of the Red-eyed Tortoise had it going head-first back down into its winter burrow.  There was a brief “flurry” of legs as dirt and leaves were used by the tortoise to seal the hole back up.  I made a mental note of the area where this burrow is located, but also realized that with the advent of warmer weather…this whole section of woods would transform in practically unrecognizable ways.  Perhaps this is for the best because even with the purest of intentions, I would not want any undo harm to come to it by drawing unnecessary attention to it.  I would be very selective about who I would tell about this tortoise’s existence and even more careful about who would see the images I made of it.  Of course, I hope I will get the chance to see it again, but I’m also prepared to have this be the one and only time I had this direct experience with it.  With the tortoise secure again, I collected my belongings and with the sun setting on my back…started on the long hike back home.  It had been a very special day and one that I would savor for some time to come.

Sun down at a flooded Falls of the Ohio State Park, Feb. 7, 2016

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Exposed fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio, mid August 2015

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.

Black vulture on the riverbank, Falls of the Ohio, mid August 2015

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.

cracked, drying mud at the Falls of the Ohio, mid August 2015

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.

Artist at Exit 0 re-hydrating, Falls of the Ohio, mid Aug. 2015

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.

The Yellow-collared Sandpiper at the Falls of the Ohio, mid August 2015

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?

Yellow-collared Sandpiper, Falls of the Ohio, mid August 2015

Yellow-collared Sandpiper, Falls of the Ohio, mid August 2015

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.

Yellow-collared Sandpiper at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, mid August 2015

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.

Yellow-billed Sandpiper on the fossil beds, Falls of the Ohio, mid August 2015

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.

Monarch butterfly feeding at the Falls of the Ohio, mid August 2015

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: