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.