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Posts Tagged ‘nature story’

What a year it has been for animal watching at the Falls of the Ohio.  The finite landscape at the park keeps continuing to change as the populations of Canada geese and white-tailed deer make their now daily presence felt.  I recall going years before finding a single deer track out here.  Not too long ago as I was working on an artwork in the sand…I was surprised by a doe and two nearly grown fawns that almost stepped on me in their hurry to escape their blunder!  Seeing deer out here has almost become a daily happening.  I’ve also seen several large bucks and managed a good photo of this regal specimen from earlier in the year.

Although some animals seem to be increasing…there are still the occasional rare and once in a lifetime encounters that can occur.  Moments like this are what keep me coming back to these shores and willow woods.  Recently, a red fox streaked across my path and while not a rare mammal was nevertheless a park first for me!  I have also been discovered by an assortment of raccoons, groundhogs, opossums, squirrels, and chipmunks as I bumble through their environment.  Still only two beaver sightings by me since 2003 and none this year.  Evidence of their presence here is everywhere, however, they seem to be the most active at night.  Now my next entry qualifies as a true event and I will linger on this a moment since I was also fortunate to take some nice images to enhance the tale.  Have you ever heard of a Clark’s shrewrat before?  Probably not, no offense, I presume here, but we have trouble remembering our own kind much less anything else alive we share the experience of life with.  Seeing one was my wildlife viewing moment of the year.  Let’s start by looking at one.

It was almost Halloween, a gorgeous late autumn day when hiking in the park, I glimpsed an unfamiliar mammal drinking from a pool of Ohio River water.  In size, it’s between a small house cat and a large squirrel if that helps at all?  As it warily moved around the muddy landscape it moved quickly and stayed very low to the ground.  I was able to observe it over the course of the next few hours and I’m positive it knew I was nearby.  It’s history is interesting.  Clark’s Shrewrat is named after William Clark who is believed to have supplied the first written descriptions and specimens early in the 19th century.  Clark, the brother of Revolutionary War hero General George Rogers Clark went on to his own renown as a leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  What was unclear was whether or not the shrewrat evidence was collected on that epic journey or was of more local origin?  Finding one here is important because it would suggest the latter since Clark’s Shrewrat was never common anywhere over its former range and very rarely seen now.  To date, we have no idea as to their numbers?  Are they more common than we think or on the verge of extinction?

Clark’s Shrewrat belongs to the Insectivorous order of mammals which also includes moles and shrews.  It is strictly carnivorous and will attempt to overwhelm any animal it thinks it can kill.  The bulk of its diet, however, seems to be birds, other small mammals, fish, insects, and is not averse to scavenging carrion.  As a hunter, it is stealthy and overwhelms with surprise and speed.  For prey larger than itself, it often first tires and wounds its victim before administering the coup-de-grace with a surgical bite to the throat.  It is relentless and will pursue fish underwater in otter-like fashion as I was able to observe.  Here it is just before enjoying a shad dinner!

Many years ago, I had two sightings of a mink that hung around for a couple of days.  Experiencing the shrewrat felt similar.  A frenetic, nervous animal in constant motion and ever guided forward by a hunger that it cannot satisfy.  It does seem to be at the mercy of its metabolism.  The few records that exist on its life span seem to suggest a short one of three or four years at most.  Since there is simply not enough information extent on this rarity…it seems the obvious next step is to continue to monitor whether Clark’s shrewrat is indeed becoming established in the park?  I hope so since the park needs to maintain as much diversity as possible.

Now, to talk about a few of the great birds I’ve seen over the year.  I won’t go into as much depth.  Here are a few of my avian highlights with accompanying imagery.  It does seem to becoming more common for uncommon birds to show up at the Falls of the Ohio.  Is this a potential signal that climate change could be at work?  Birds can appear almost anywhere and many do…however, it does seem that many long distance migrants are being challenged by habitat loss and important food items whose timing has been interrupted by a climate in transition.  Nothing like showing up at the usual time for a feast of horseshoe crab eggs, but their spawn happened a week ago and you still have thousands of miles to travel.

This inquisitive creature is called the Bark Bird and I happened to see one this summer.  It’s so named for its habit of searching through the crevices in tree bark as it searches for the small arthropods that make up its diet.  It often goes up and down the tree head first like nuthatches do.

The only true shorebird on this list is the Arctic Curlew.  It uses its long, blue bill to probe soft mud for small worms.  I chanced upon one in June while exploring the fossil beds.  This is an example of a bird that is at risk because the route of its migration is so long that maintaining suitable habitat along its route may prove too great a challenge.

Here’s another migrant, the Land Lark.  Usually, a bird recorded west of the Mississippi River.  I remember that this bird appeared at the Falls of the Ohio after some serious thunderstorms with damaging tornadoes  passed through the Midwest of the United States.  Simple but nice coloring with its green crest and bill and light blue wings against a snow-white body.

This lovely Yellow-tailed Thrush was another unexpected discovery.  Normally, found in the summer in the Hill Country of Texas…I’m not sure why it showed up here?  I was sure glad to see it and I have several other nice images of it.

A new park record…the first recorded instance of the Ohio Valley Blue-bill nesting with park confines.  I came across this bird sitting on its nest which I was shocked to see was an old barge cable that had snagged in a tree.  I think the blue-bill formed the nest by judicious pecking and pruning the fibers of this large rope.  I’ve saved my favorite bird for last.  Not because it is rare, but because the pictures came out so well!  Here is another the Blue-winged Merganser which is small, fish-eating duck that pursues its prey underwater like the shrewrat does.  Also like the shrewrat, this merganser has a bill full of needle-sharp teeth for holding onto slippery fish.

The crest of feathers atop it head give a regal appearance to this small red-eyed duck.  We often see the Common Merganser around here, but this was fun to observe as it pursued small aquatic life stranded in the pools of a retreating river.  I guess as this year may prove to demonstrate, we may see many more peculiarities in the natural world the more we mess with it.  I will continue to record and observe these changes within the park and post them in the trusty riverblog.  To finally end, one more image of Clark’s Shrewrat to savor!  Until next time from the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

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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.

 

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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”.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Rose Mallow at the Falls of the Ohio

We have had some stellar days of late with the air so crystalline and fresh that it has been an added bonus to be outside.  The temps have been manageable as well.  I began this post more than a week ago, but put it on the back burner until now.  I am no doubt busier now than I ever have been (particularly at work), but I’m still finding the time to be involved with my own art.  And I must confess…if I have to prioritize whether to stay home and work on a blog article or go to the river and participate in life at that level…well, I think you know what my answer will be!  I have enjoyed blogging, but must admit to myself that what I do will never be most people’s’ idea of a good read, especially since there are now literally millions of blogs out there!  I do still hope, however, to occasionally connect with folks who are creative and just plain interested in nature.

Rose Mallow, red coloring variant, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2016

Recently, I went to the river to find a wealth of Rose Mallows in bloom.  That is not always the case and there have been years when I did not see any.  They have become among my favorite flowers that I can find at the Falls of the Ohio.  Their blooms are huge and there is some variation in our native hibiscus.  In a relatively small area, I found a patch of Rose Mallows showing off those colors which can range from a solid hot pink, to a snow-white blossom.  Usually, most of the mallows will sport some combination of white or pink with a deep scarlet throat.  I couldn’t help collecting a few seed pods and scattering their seeds in other locations I frequent at the Falls.  I don’t think this is technically legal since there is a park rule against collecting wildflowers, but since none of their seeds went home with me…I’m hoping I’ll be okay to do this?

Red Admiral butterfly, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2016

Late summer is also a good time to see which butterflies are around.  The Falls of the Ohio certainly has its regular species who inhabit its various ecological niches.  Here is one of the park’s Red Admirals and it is visiting a “willow lick” to drink up the sugary exudence seeping from a wound in this tree’s bark.  These wounds occur in various ways, but the most common one is with collisions with large floating logs that crash battering ram-style into these willows during flooding.  This happens mostly in late winter or early spring and it is not out of the ordinary to have these willow trees be completely submerged by the Ohio River.  These willow licks attract a variety of insects ranging from butterflies, ants, hornets, and many different types of flies.

butterflies on purple loosestrife, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2016

Of course, every year is different from the last one and so far I have to say I think this has been just an average year for butterflies.  Usually, one species will be found more commonly than the other species.  For example, I can remember certain years where the Viceroy was the most common butterfly.  I have also seen it when the small Pearly Crescent or the larger Buckeye Butterfly were the most plentiful individual species.  This year I can’t tell that one species is more numerous than another.  I like visiting the Purple Loosestrife stands particularly in the western section of the park during the height of their blooming period.  I know this plant is highly invasive, but it also attracts a large amount of insects and butterflies in particular.  Multiple species gravitate towards the nectar these plants produce.  It’s interesting to watch different species feeding on the same plant like in the above photo.   A skipper species (on top) and fritillary species (on the bottom) are coexisting on this flower because this resource is plentiful and the butterflies are focused.  What these loosestrife stands also attract are predators.  It’s common to come across large orb weaving spiders and praying mantises waiting to ambush a meal.  I have come to think of these loosestrife stands as being important feeding areas for the Monarch butterflies that migrate through our area and this has mitigated my feelings towards this invasive plant.

Installation view of show at Artists' Own Gallery, Lafayette, IN, Aug. 2016

Artists' Own Gallery, Lafayette, IN....Aug. 2016

Gallery shot at Artists' Own Gallery, Lafayette, IN, Aug. 2016

View inside my exhibit at Artists' Own Gallery, Lafayette, IN, Aug. 2016

Another reason to be feel grateful is that I have another solo art exhibition and it is currently up at the Artists’ Own Gallery in Lafayette, Indiana.  It’s a co-op space and the duties of running the gallery fall upon the member artists.  I was invited by one of the members to show at their downtown, Main Street location.  The exhibit which is entitled “At the Intersection of Culture and Nature” features a selection of my Styrofoam sculptures along with a few more dye sublimation prints on aluminum I had made of site specific projects that are now gone.  It is all stuff I have found and experienced at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  On the morning the show opened, I gave an artist’s talk and had a nice group present to hear more about how this work came to be.  I even sold a few pieces to help offset the costs of printing my photos and renting a van to haul it all around!  I really liked having the opportunity to show off my “Crying Indian” sculpture once again and it looked completely different in a gallery context as compared to where it was first shown outdoors earlier this year at Hidden Hills Nursery and Sculpture Garden.  All the Artists’ Own artists I met were welcoming and I appreciated their hospitality!  The exhibit will remain up until mid September and so if you find yourself in the area…please stop by and enjoy all the great art on display throughout this beautiful gallery.  Meanwhile, back at the Falls of the Ohio…

Styrofoam stash at the Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2016

Figure idea, head and body, found Styrofoam, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2016

On my first visit back to the river after my show opened, I had this general feeling of well-being.  I went over to my stash of Styrofoam that I had collected this year and starting putting shapes together.  I soon came up with the requisite head and body for a new and large figurative sculpture I wanted to make.  The large chunk of polystyrene that I used for the figure’s body had been collected months ago, however, it was still a bit waterlogged and heavy to move.

Head of the Grateful Man, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2016

Head and shoulders of the Grateful Man, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2016

Without doing any direct carving, I just accepted the forms that the river had provided for me and went with that.  I did make a few small holes to insert the found objects that would serve as this figure’s features.  The mouth is a piece of wood that looked like a “mouth” when I found it.  The eyes are part of the hull of a Black Walnut that I split in half and inserted into the head.  The nose is a bright orange, Styrofoam fishing float found that morning.  For the ears, I used parts of the sole of an old shoe and then I added a small plastic ring to separate the head from the body which has become my custom over the many years of doing this activity.  The rest is just driftwood picked up on site.Large Figure in Ecstasy, found materials from the Falls of the Ohio, August 2016

The resulting figure is much bigger than me and after I assembled it…I went scouting for a good location to make my pictures.  As you may remember, the large piece of Styrofoam that is the figure’s body was water-logged and so I set it up relatively close to my outdoor atelier.  Although the figure looks to be praying, what I was going for was a trance-like state of ecstasy?  I know I have felt this sensation of being outside one’s self where you feel a part of or kinship with the other living things around you.  Behind the figure is a large log with intact root mass that washed into here during the last good flood.  In this photo, a small flock of Canada Geese does a respectful flyover of their own.

A Canada Goose flyover, Falls of the Ohio, Aug. 2016

Large Figure in Ecstasy near downed tree, Falls of the Ohio, August 2016

I seem to have started a personal blogging trend where my posts are getting on the long side!  So, this looks like as good a place to wrap this up as any.  By now, my ecstatic figure is probably history and martyred like so many other figures I have left in the park before.  I tell each piece I make and leave behind that this will likely be its fate unless some kind soul takes pity and takes it home with them.  These figures seem to understand.  It’s all about being present in the moment when we are at our most alive.  I have more stories to tell and art to share, but will hold of for now.  Until next time from the Falls of the Ohio.

Three Clouds with Figure in Ecstasy, Falls of the Ohio, August 2016

 

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Katinka waving, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

I had an unexpected rendezvous at the Falls of the Ohio recently.  I caught up with my friend Katinka as she was taking a walk along the riverbank.  I have always loved the way she looks when the sun strikes her face at just the right angle and creates this wonderful glow about her.  We are meeting by chance which is often the best way to go.   The two of us decide to walk together for a while.  She had an earlier start today than I did so I asked if she had seen anything on this beautiful morning that struck her as being memorable in some way?  Immediately Katinka answered that there was a tree near the water that impressed her as being particularly heroic.  Together we sought out the spot where it was rooted.

Portrait of Katinka, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

We don’t have to go far and as it turns out and I’m already familiar with this tree.  It’s a Black Willow and it is growing through the metal holes of an old discarded car wheel.  I noticed this one…and another similar tree growing through a tire in the western end of the park a couple of years a go.  I can understand why Katinka thinks this tree is “heroic” as it tries to thrive while wearing a metal and rubber yoke.  I keep wondering what will happen next as this tree moves through time?  Will the limbs growing through the holes eventually get pinched off?  Will the willow send out roots all around this wheel eventually elevating it off the ground?  How is this tree going to accommodate this wheel?

Katinka with the willow growing out of a tire, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Katinka with willow and tire, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

I have documented this tree through a few seasons and so this was a good time to take a few early summer shots.  The tree seemed healthy and was certainly taller than before.  I noticed that after this year’s high water subsided, that the tree had shifted a bit as the tire settled into the earth.  Linking the tire with the tree is an unusual union of the natural and artificial and Katinka agreed.  She said that she couldn’t help but feel that the tree got the worst end of this bargain…but we shall see.

Katinka at the Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Katinka said she detected a theme developing and that she had witnessed other “unusual pairings”.  She asked me to hold out my hand and on my palm, Katinka placed the soft, hollow, plastic body of a toy animal that was missing its head.  She found this on the riverbank too.  Interestingly, nature seems to find a way to express life and in this case, a small seed landed in the dirt that had filled the toy’s hollow body and had sprouted!  This qualifies as a very small niche indeed.

Seedling growing from a plastic animal, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

I placed the plant/toy on the sand and then I wished it well.  Simple as that.  I followed Katinka to our next spot.  She had seen something earlier and wanted to look at it again in case it was something that could fit the evolving theme of her tour of the Falls of the Ohio.  After a little searching around the vegetation around the willows, we found what we were looking for laying on the surface of the sand.

Hair band? with sprouts, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Once upon a time, this was an object that required hook fasteners to adjust.  In this found instance, the hooks from the cockle burr and other hardy plants have hitched a ride and their seedlings are using the man-made fabric for a substrate to germinate upon.  Perhaps as the plant continues to thrive and grow, it can jump off its host by spreading its roots far and wide?  I mentioned to Katinka that I knew a place that demonstrated a similar kind of union occurring between something artificial and natural and would she like to see that?  It was just a short distance along the water line and the sound of the river filled up any need for conversation.  The river can be satisfying in that way.

Snagged and disintegrating barge cable, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Reaching the spot, we could see a golden-yellow, tangled mess that was once a part of a large, tight, barge cable.  At some point, the cable was cut and floated down the river and was now stuck joining two separate willow trees together.  The yellow arc was swaying in the slight breeze.  Subsequent floods and even birds picking on this large rope for nesting material have continued the process of fraying it.  I thought there was something very art-like in the way this cable called attention to itself and the space around it.  In places at the Falls of the Ohio you can find other trees that have snagged lengths of this synthetic barge cable in their exposed root systems and limbs.  Here is another example of this as a river wave plays jump rope.

Barge rope snagged between two trees, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Both Katinka and I agreed that the snagged barge ropes offered us vivid examples of how the stuff we make interacts with the rest of the world.  While we were looking at the ropes, a new protagonist arrived via a muddy Ohio River wave.  A large plastic gasoline container became the latest piece of junk to become beached at the Falls of the Ohio.

Katinka next to a gas container, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Katinka with fuel can, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

So far, Katinka and I had spent the morning together looking at examples of how nature was dealing with us through our surrogates…the trash we create and discard.  We both agreed that perhaps we should spend the rest of our time together just looking at the beauty that is nature.  Although the Falls of the Ohio State Park is a rather small and some would add a rather limited place…I can usually find something that seems extraordinary and perfect in its own way.

unknown, immature fungus, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

Moving to the nearest decaying log I found a small and completely unfamiliar fungus seemingly bubbling up from the wood itself.  All fungi have an important role to play and gives rise to the idea that nature’s creations are rarely superfluous like our own tend to be.  I qualify that with a “rarely” since it seems to Katinka and I that what seems troubling about man is that out of synch quality with nature that we now seem to embody and in fact embrace.  What was nature thinking about when it gave rise to us?  The fungi have a purpose…what is ours, perhaps to usher in the next great period in the history of life?

freshly hatched baby turtle, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

One more small and seemingly miraculous discovery before calling it quits for the day.  I spotted something moving over the shallow, water-covered fossil beds and a quick flash of the hand produced this freshly hatched terrapin.  Katinka checked it out before releasing back to the same spot where I had found it.  I hope it doesn’t run into any herons or raccoons that would make short work of it.  This was a nice way to end the day!  As my friend and I parted I watched Katinka as she immersed herself in a bed of violet flowering vines.  Until next time from the Falls of the Ohio.

Katinka in the vetch, Falls of the Ohio, June 2016

 

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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

 

 

 

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