Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mammoth Weekend

Three days off in a row in my line of work is pretty dog-gone nice. It doesn't happen often. So, what can a guy and his girlfriend do with three days during the Memorial Day weekend?  Roadtrip.  Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.  Birds, boats, history, camping, fine beers and fine wines (thanks Kevin!).  What more could you ask for?

Was it my first trip there?  No way. I've been there at least 3 times. Natalie, however, had never been to a cave so it seemed fitting. After all, it is from a cave just like Mammoth that her troglodyte boyfriend emerged....

The drive down was quick and uneventful.  Seven hours (plus or minus) basically gets you there.  Fortunately, a camp site was reserved but we could only get it for Friday night; Saturday and Sunday nights were booked solid.  The plan was to get up way early Saturday and head over to the "first come first serve" campground loop. That plan barely worked as we got the last available site.  Camping outside the park would have been tolerated but barely. The big gamble paid off. 

Saturday morning found us in the cave.  The Self-Guided Discovery tour was PERFECT!  No guides. No people in our group (but there were others around). Basically, just the two of us in the world longest cave system (over 390 miles surveyed so far....) checking it out at our own pace.  (Sadly, I didn't think to bring my tripod with me for this little trip.  I could have taken photos far better than the two below as I could have used longer shutter speeds with the available lighting.  I did what I could with what I had.)

One aspect of Mammoth Cave that is just plain overlooked, by so many people, is the importance of the place during the War of 1812.  During this Second War of Independence, British naval blockades prevented the still young United States of America from securing gunpowder from outside sources. Countries without gunpowder during wartime are functionally screwed.  You might as well fling boogers. 

The cave soils were rich in calcium nitrate.  These soils were drenched with water that was pumped in using giant tubes made from the trunks of Tulip Trees.  The water was collected as it dripped through the soils and eventually boiled leaving calcium nitrate crystals (known to gun-folks as saltpeter) that was then shipped off to make gunpowder (when combined with charcoal and sulphur).   The photo below is part of what remains from the original 18th century mining operation.  

Anyone watching the original Star Trek knows this of course. Sulphur, charcoal, and salt-peter in the correct proportions gives you gunpowder.  In the episode "Arena", Kirk shoots the Gorn (the big, green, monster thingy to the rest of you) with a "bamboo" gun using homemade gunpowder.  All this happens much to the delight of Spock and the rest of the crew who are watching everything unfold remotely.

What is more impressive is that the soldiers and chemists of the early 1800's learned how to make gunpowder by watching the episode. The fact that they did so, hundreds of years before the birth of Gene Roddenberry or the invention of the television is simply a powerful testament to their intellect. Life long and prosper.

A short hike around the grounds took us to one of a few cemeteries in  the National Park.  This particular one, the Old Guides Cemetery had a few stones (20 maybe?) but many incredible connections to caves.  

Stephen Bishop, one of the first real guides to the caves and a slave for a large portion of his touring years, is buried there.  Many of the caves features were named by him. 

Some folks buried there are tuberculosis patients/victims. In the 1850's, back when medicine basically sucked, doctors were trying to cure things with no real knowledge of the disease.  Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection of the lungs that often led to lethal consequences, was of interest to a Dr. Croghan.  He thought the damp, cool air (permanently 54 degrees) would help patients hacking up blood and dealing with severe night sweats and fever.  Ooops. Nope. They died.  The stone huts used by the TB patients still stand today.  (As a result of this failure, TB patients started to do the opposite treatment. Instead of cool, wet places, they dried hot and dry.  Many went west to combat the disease, including that crotchety, gambling, gun-fighting dentist from the deep South.)

Our official guided tour was the New Entrance Tour.  George Morrison created this "new" entrance in the early 20th century by delicately expanding an existing hole....with dynamite.  The rickety, wooden stairs used for decades were eventually shut down and the entrance was closed.  A multi-gillion dollar, 280+ step system was installed over a three year period (in the 1980's?) allowing this entrance to be used again.

I took no photos during this part of the tour.  I just wanted to enjoy the place.    Besides, my pictures would have sucked.  The real deal is far better.   Frozen Niagara is simply incredible.

I think it is imperative, also, to stress something here. When a National Park Service Ranger (actually an Interpreter, but that is a different story) tells you to stay in a group, they mean it. They are responsible for the safety of 100 people at a time on these cave tours.  While they want to make it fun and interesting, safety is key, too.  They don't want dopes wandering off.

Also, when they turn off ALL OF THE LIGHTS when you are 250 feet below the surface, they want you to experience something many people don't - pitch black darkness. You literally can't see your hand inches from your face.  It is one of the most amazing things you can ever do.  Really. 

So, when he tells you to NOT open a cell phone (which is STUPID anyway because there is no signal 250 feet down) and DONT let kids move their feet if they have the blinky-light LED things, and DON'T take any flash pictures, he means it. 

During the 30 seconds of darkness, at least three lights went off.  One dolt tried to take a flash picture.  Think that through for a moment - " is completely dark, so I will take a flash photo to show my friends what the darkness looks like...." Are you kidding me? These people vote?

For your viewing pleasure, this is what the room looked like before the clowns were sent in...

With the minimal nights sleep from Friday, some hiking and very hot and humid conditions, sleep came pretty easy Saturday night.  Neat and frustrating at the same time were the three Barred Owls in the campground at 0430 hours.  Sleeping is just never easy when they're around.....

Breakfast with bird friendly coffee is always a treat when you the birds you are trying to help. Watching the Wood Thrush flick leaves 15 feet away while a Scarlet Tanager sings overhead is just too cool.  

With lunches packed, mid-day was spent lazily paddling our way down the Green River.  While supposedly named for a Revolutionary War General, it really is green....ish.  Over 7 miles on what has to be the slowest damned river in the world turned our casual canoeing into a bit more effort than I expected.  The spectacular views easily outweighed the air temps and high humidity that combined to melt flesh. Overall, it was wonderful.

The birding was quite slick, too.  Prothonotary, Cerulean, Hooded and Yellow-throated Warblers along with a few Louisiana Waterthrushes cant be frowned upon. I so rarely get to enjoy them in Michigan. The Belted Kingfisher who escorted us for at least 300 yards?  I see them around here, but they never get old.

After finishing the canoe ride and enjoying some of the best Popsicles ever made, it was time to go visit my old buddy Floyd.  He was right where I saw him last time....

Generally speaking, one can not spend time in the region without hearing of the tragic tale of Floyd Collins.  His tombstone suggests he was "..the greatest cave explorer ever known..."  Damn. Now you know how this story ends....

Hoping to find a way that would connect Sand Cave with nearby Mammoth Cave (and thereby allow Collins and the landowners to reap tourist dollars), Collins eventually became trapped in a thin, vertical shaft almost 60 feet below the surface.  (The picture below is Natalie staring off into the Sand Cave entrance. Phoebes were nesting there.)

Imagine standing more or less upright in a tube not much bigger than you are.  Now imagine a stone smaller than basketball resting against your shin and pinning your foot in place.  You can't back up or move forward because your foot can't budge.  The quarters are so tight, you can't stoop over and move the rock.  You are absolutely, completely stuck.

So was the case with 'ole Floyd in January of 1925.  With the newfangled social media (i.e.: radio), people became glued to the story.  (You might argue it was like people today following Kim Kardashian.  In this case, however, Floyd had a brain and his life was truly on the line.)

When news spread, people flooded into the region.  Gawkers, wanna-be rescuers, and even picnicers hung out for days. The National Guard was called in to keep the estimated 10,000 people away from the cave so the real rescue teams could do their work. 

A matching vertical shaft was being dug so a cross tunnel could be made and Floyd could be freed. Sadly, after 14 days, he died.  This was just 3 days before the tunnel reached him. 

He was buried in a glass-topped coffin in the cave where he died.  In the 1920's, Floyd's body was stolen, but later recovered with the leg missing.  The family, as you might expect, had objected to the cave burial/display, as well. When the Park Service acquired the property, they moved him to his final resting place in the Park Ridge Cemetery.  

After a camp dinner (couscous with mushrooms) and dessert (tapioca pudding that really turned out to be tapioca soup), a  short walk to the amphitheater gave us the opportunity to sit in on an interpretive program.  Apparently, the Cave was pretty popular with Civil War soldiers, too.  They went to the cave (when they where on leave, for example) to do the same thing we did - have some fun.  (I had to go back to work when I left the area.  They did, too, but they got shot at.  A big difference if you ask me!)

The after sunset hours were spent doing exactly what many folks do when camping - sit around the campfire, have some social drinks, and chat.  The beverage on hand was a wonderful bottle of wine given to me as a gift by my buddy Kevin.  I should tell you, too, that it was not a real campfire.  It was a camp fire.  Really.  Not quite as warm, but every bit as cool. 

Breakfast was at the Park's motel followed by the short walk to the Historic Entrance. Ready with camera and tripod for some photography fun in the cave (what I should have done Day 1), we were saddened to see the opportunity was lost.  In an attempt to get folks  who missed out of official tours into the cave, they open up the self-guided walk only on really busy days. Memorial Day was apparently  not busy enough. No self guided walk.  No expanded photography options. No happy photographer.  Damn.

With the morning slipping, it was off to Detroit.  Three stops were made.  The fossils at Falls of the Ohio State Park were cool.  You can't pass up 390-million year old fossil beds, right?  

But, for me, the cooler stop of the morning was the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park.  It is not as flashy as other National Park sites, but it is certainly worth a stop if you are in the area.  While the actual location of the home is not known, Abe, our 16th president and known vampire hunter, was born here in 1809. The memorial, with 56 steps (based on his age at the time of his death) and the 16 posts (inside the memorial), 16 windows, and 16 rosettes (he was, after all, the 16th president) predates  the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC by a few years. Yes, folks, America really loves Abraham Lincoln (even if many people today don't realize he was very possibly (or perhaps even probably according to some) gay).  Oh, what will the Republicans do if historians confirm this.....

In any case, the star attraction in the Visitor Center is the family bible.  Not just any bible - the family bible that dates back over 200 years.  I'll be the first one to tell you that book is basically nothing but trouble.  But, knowing Lincoln was a prolific reader, incredible writer and outstanding public speaker, it really is pretty cool to see what is most certainly the first book he ever read. 

Can one imagine me traveling without a stop for quality beer?  That can't really happen, can it? Of course not.

Hofbrauhaus sits in Kentucky immediately south of Cincinnati in upscale town of Covington/Newport.  Modeled after the 400-year old Hofbrauhaus in Germany, this place is, as you would expect, German from top to bottom. The Munich Weizen is pretty damned good stuff. If you like beers with cloves and 'naners, you'll be fine here!

By 10:30pm, we were home and one final fact was clear - Michigan roads suck. Sure, I've known this for years.  But you really get to see firsthand just how bad they are when you go someplace else and then come back......

The Cruze, by the way, behaved like a champ.  For the trip, 23.6 gallons of fuel at an average speed 53.5mph yielded an average fuel economy of 40.5 mpg. I'll take it.  The trip was 960 miles. 

I added ten new species of birds to my Kentucky list.  It now stands at 108 species. I'm not sure how Natalie's bird list checked out, but she certainly had fun, too, even if she did share a weekend with a caveman.....

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not So Common

Some dictionaries define "common" as"widespread" or "ordinary".

Obviously, some dictionaries aren't up on their current events.

Take the Common Tern, for example.  Sure, they may have been common once upon a time, but certainly not now. With the loss of habitat, colonies are few and far between.  Michigan officially lists them as a Threatened Species. Apparently, there has been chatter about listing it as Endangered at the Federal level.

So, how cool is that they nest under the Free Bridge that connects Trenton and Grosse Ile?  

With the breeding colony being monitored by the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, biologists and volunteers get to head down there and learn a few things.  Counting of nests, eggs, and chicks is just part of the deal.  Lots of cool info is ripe for the taking.

Natalie is a volunteer with the project and is was on the lucky folks who gets to the enter the colony. 

A few days ago, I had permission to make my way down to the concrete and gravel pad with her and see the birds up close. I passed.  I think it would have been neat to see a nest of one of Michigan's rarest birds, but there was something I was just not comfortable with....

I don't like being shat upon.  


When one walks in or near the colony, the frustrated adults go airborne and go nuts.  They fly inches from your head.  They take pot shots at your scalp (they can draw blood if they score a good hit).  If timing is just right, their little pooper opens right up and you're wearing their breakfast.  I'm sorry, but that does not sound appealing.  Poop belongs in a few places - my shirt is not on the list.

So, from the safety of the bridge, I watched from above as Natalie, wearing a construction helmet and old shirt,  went into the colony to switch out the game camera memory cards. (Game cameras, triggered by motion, are used to detect any predator troubles during the breeding season.)  With her shirt slowly becoming speckled, I managed the only one fair photo:

It is worth mentioning that this shot was not the easiest to get.  I flinch.  Alot. Just as I thought I was about to score a photo of a passing bird, one sneaks up on you.  Out of the corner of your eye, you see it coming.  Passing inches from your head, they scream and squawk.  Your instincts kick in and you flinch.  Its that simple.  Good luck holding your camera steady with repeated passes of pissed off parents!

So maybe, when Natalie returns for the next round of work, I'll join her again. I would certainly like to try and get more shots.

While Common Tern poop on volunteer shirt might be a common occurrence, I don't think it will be common for me.  I think I'll stay on the bridge. 

I Have The Answer....

I have the answer.

It's darn near summer.  We all get hot.  It happens.

The answer is.... Speed Stick.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Season Underway

Temperatures in the low 80's.

Grilled Cabernet-Basalmic Burgers with Sautéed Mushrooms and Onions.

Roasted Potatoes with an Arugula-Pistachio Pesto.

Fresh green beans.

Dark Depths Baltic India Pale Ale from Sam Adams.

A superior summer meal. The grilling season is officially underway.

Damn, I'm good.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, May 11, 2012

One Good Tern

So, while everyone else has been driving the one hour (or more) to Northwest Ohio for their spring birding, I have been staying a bit closer to home as of late. That is not to say I won't be taking a road trip or two in the next six weeks.  But for now, staying close is just fine in my book.  

In the meantime, much of my birding has been at Lake Erie Metropark.  Walks in the order of three or four miles have been quite productive.  Flickers are nesting.   So are the Grosbeaks.  A few days back, I managed to hear the calling Pileated Woodpecker that was observed by Natalie.  It was my 251st park bird and only the second park record in....forever.  

19 warbler species have been tallied so far, too. Sure, one can score 19 species in Ohio in 30 minutes, but I also not getting elbowed and prodded by the masses.  For the most part, I have had them all to myself. For the record, the Bay-breasted Warbler is one of the most under-rated warblers in North America.  A complete stunner, if you ask me.

With so many people in these parts are thinking "songbird" in the month of May, a brief visit to the Lake Erie shoreline is always a good idea.

Take this Forster's Tern, for example.  

First, note the actual name. It is NOT a "Forester's Tern".  "Forster", not "Forester" (that is a Webelos Badge).  It amazes me how many people who screw that up. 

Named after Johann Reinhold Forster, a naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook on his second Pacific voyage, this bird is not hard to see along the coastal waters of the park.  But don't let that fool you.  Like so many other species in the Midwest, numbers are slipping as a result of habitat loss.  Wisconsin and Illinois list it as "Endangered". Michigan lists the species as "Threatened" but you wouldn't know it from local observations. They seem quite common. But statewide? That's a different story...

Having one feeding within 35 feet of you?  You cant beat that.  With an almost "floating" quality to their flight (unlike the lumbering but smooth wing beats of their the larger cousins, the gulls), these dainty terns pack quite a wallop.  Any minnow or other tiny fish that dares to come too close to the surface of the water could easily get snatched with that fancy looking orange/red bill.  No chewing.  No tearing. Just a drop, a grab and a swallow.  I watched him do it for 20 minutes right in front me.  I might as well have been a ghost as it paid no attention to me whatsoever.  

I would be remiss if I left out another small detail. At one point, a second bird joined the first.  Any knowledgeable birder or master punster knows why.  

Do I have to say it?

One good tern deserves another.....

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Wasp For The Road

Pizza and beer.  Wine and cheese.  Birds and the month of May. They pair up so nicely, don't they?  

With the day off from work (two in a row!) but thunderstorms in the forecast by lunch time, I opted to stay close to home. While the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was present again, I thought my home base, Lake Erie Metropark, needed some birding attention.

Between 9am and 2pm, I covered at least 4 miles on foot.  Marsh edges, mature woods, scrub thickets, and lakeshore.  Cultured picnic areas were covered by car.  Basically, the only place I did not look for birds was the men's room.  "Soup", known to others as "fog", was quite thick limiting my open water birding options but I managed.  

By the day's end, I managed 66 species.  I won't lie. I was thinking more like 75 or so.  11 species were warblers so that was cool.  But it is still early May. Another good warm front from the south and things should be really bustin' along.

At one point, I found myself basically nose to nose with a Palm Warbler.  Before I knew it, I was watching two of them in a tiny little thicket.  They had no concerns with the ugly guy taking pictures. At times, they were literally an arm's length away. 

If you check out a range map, you can see this bird has already covered some significant ground.  Conservatively, Michigan is halfway from Florida to Hudson Bay. That's a haul!  But they're not done.

So you have to ask yourself how they can possibly manage such an incredible trek. A key part of a migration of this magnitude includes the munchies.  You don't fly 2,000 miles without eating. Whether you eat as you go, or eat, get fat and then go, food is certainly key.

So what do Palm Warblers eat during migration?  Insects.  Well, cripe, that is a pretty big group of critters, huh?  Wouldn't it be cool if I could be more precise?

If you look closely, you can actually make out what the little fella was eatin'. 

While they can eat a wide variety of insects and other arthropods (like spiders), there is no doubt this one wacked a wasp.  The body structure and antennae are clear.   Unless I am missing my guess, that whitish stripe down the abdomen is not for decoration or show - I think it is the wasp's innards getting squeezed out.  Mmmmmmm...

While you and I might curl our nose, keep in mind this is just the sort of thing Palm Warblers and other migrants get to munch on during those long and dangerous trips every spring and fall.

Wow.  Sucking on wasp guts.  I'll stick to bagels and cream cheese during my travels, thank you very much.....

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Texas Gem - #349

I was off today.  With NO motivation to clean the disaster that was my kitchen after the gourmet pizza and snob beer dinner I hosted last night, I was gearing up to head out the door for some birding.

At 8:46am, my phone rang. My good buddy, Kevin, had some words that changed my day in seconds.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Lower Huron Metropark.

By 9:15am, I was on-site and soaking in the view of one of North America's most stunning birds.

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are, in a sense, their name.  While the long tail feathers are reminiscent of scissors blades, that is not really the "business end" of the bird.  The quick snapping bill reenforces their hunting style - "flycatching".  Despite the name, it is not limited to flies.  Any insect (be it dragonfly, butterfly, grasshopper or beetle)  of reasonable size is functionally screwed if one of these birds is in the area.  After a a brief flight, they grab the meal out of mid-air and often return to the same perch.  

As I sat down tonight to doodle this post on this blog that you all waste your time with, I was struck by something kind of neat. According to my bird notes, my first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was recorded near the McDonald's in Wichita Falls, Texas. The date? April 30, 1992.  The two sightings (today's bird and the TX bird) are separated by almost exactly 20 years!  Cool.....I think.

While finding them in the land of creepy politicians is not hard, seeing one in Michigan is quite a bit different.

As you can see from the range map below, this bird was just a wee bit from home.  Every now and then, however, the species wanders about the Lower 48.  There are over 10 records for Michigan, but timing is sooooooo key.  Knowing about it is one thing, but getting there in time to see it is completely different.  They don't usually linger for long, as I understand it. 

So, as it turns out, it was my 349th bird for my Michigan checklist (I was mistaken Mike - I think we are tied) and the 279th bird for my Wayne County (Michigan) list.  I have seen this species in eight states - Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, and now Michigan.  

Interestingly, it is the state bird of Oklahoma (meaning they are everywhere!), but I have not yet seen one there.  Somehow, in my numerous travels through the Sooner State, I've missed it.  How? I have no idea. 

That should change this summer....

(I would be a complete ass if I did not give credit where credit is due.  Nathan Crawford found this bird.  Without a phone in the field, he busted a move to the Oakwoods Nature Center  (eight miles as the flycatcher flies) where he tracked down Kevin (the Supervising Interpreter).  Kevin called me and I was onsite with him shortly thereafter.  After the bird's presence was re-established (after all, Nathan had to leave to find Kevin - the bird easily could have fled after that), I sent the word out with emails from the field. People were thanking me throughout the day for doing so.  The hat-tip and the beer go to Nathan (for finding it), Kevin (for confirming it and continuing the chain of communication) and Steve Jobs for developing the iPhone.  I was just the dork pushing buttons. A smart chimp could have done that!)

(It is also worth noting that my photo is cropped and was taken using a 400mm lens at 50 feet.  I realized the bird was working the fence by the road. After beating up the park police and parking where I damn well please securing permission from park police to park on the wide shoulder , I waited for the bird to move down the fence towards me. Using the car as a blind, I shot a few images. At no point, was I pestering this bird.)