…crossed the deserts, bare man. I’ve breathed the mountain air, man. Travel, I’ve had my share, man. I’ve been everywhere.” – Johnny Cash
Since leaving NW Ohio, my travels have had a different pace and a different focus (or, better said, a lack of focus). The long drive to Magee and the intensity of the Magee Marsh experience left me wanting to lollygag, find some quiet, and enjoy birding in place. I planned a southern route home, but wasn’t really sure quite which way and I’ve been re-evaluating my plan each day. I’ve spent much more time in states I had no intention of even visiting – Kentucky and Arkansas. Now, I have finally made some westward progress, as I write this from New Mexico. I have been away from home for 6 weeks and I’ve yet to experience even the mildest feeling of homesickness. I have loved being on the road, experiencing new places, being free from a schedule or obligations, and having days filled with open space, so much beauty, and the simplest of pursuits. This feeling quickly changed once I hit the panhandle of Texas (ha!). And now, as I approach the Continental Divide, I am itching to be home! So, that is where I am slowly heading….knowing I still have the summer laid out ahead of me to explore and head back out on the road.
Before my heart turns back over to the west, I wanted to share some of my favorite moments since leaving Magee. After warbler madness, I put down my camera and did not pick it back up until seeing a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Oklahoma. It was a nice break, and I enjoy time to focus on birds without the distraction of the camera. What that means for this post is few bird photos and all iPhone pictures (for example, these wildflowers and fungi from Kentucky and Indiana!).
After my Pileated Woodpecker experience at Eagle Creek Park, I headed to Kentucky with the John James Audubon State Park on my mind. Throughout this trip, I have been regularly consulting the Audubon website for suggestions for birding hotspots…especially in states like Nebraska, Iowa, and Kentucky! So, Audubon’s “Birding Kentucky” page alerted me to the existence of the John James Audubon State Park. I am so happy I discovered this gem! The Audubon Museum, in this park, contains many of the artist’s original works, oil and watercolor paintings, in addition to many of his personal effects that tell the story of John James Audubon’s life and, in particular, his journey into Kentucky. Viewing Audubon’s work was an impactful and awe-inspiring experience. His ability to portray birds and mammals with such realism and accuracy was revolutionary and his legacy is beyond description.
For those who may not be familiar, John James Audubon (1785-1851) was the first person to attempt to describe, and paint, all of the birds of America. His Birds of America included a collection of 435 life-size prints, and continues to set the standard against which bird artists are compared. The Audubon Museum houses a complete set of the very rare and incredibly magnificent double-elephant folios of The Birds of America. His namesake organization, The Audubon Society, provides a brief but informative biography of this man whose name continues to be synonymous with birds and bird conservation. I would also encourage you to visit this website to browse the complete set of his Birds of America.
What I appreciate most about Audubon’s artwork, beyond his unbelievable attention to detail, is his tendency to place birds in an ecological context. His paintings go beyond identification, and teach us something about the bird’s behavior or ecological role. For example, Audubon’s composition of these three Whip-poor-wills includes the leaves of oak trees where these birds find shelter during the day, and the Cecropia and Automeris moths which they feed on.
One of my favorite pieces at the museum was also one of the smallest. This Ruby-throated Hummingbird was likely done in 1821, shortly after Audubon arrived in Louisiana. He used a magnifying glass to capture every minute detail in a combination of watercolor, pastel, India ink, and graphite pencil.
So, if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of western Kentucky, I highly recommend a visit to this impressive State Park. The Audubon Museum was a definite highlight, but the surrounding trails are lovely to explore. Beeches, poplars, sugar maples, and sycamores provided an enchanting backdrop to Indigo Buntings, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and Pileated Woodpeckers. The ethereal songs of Wood Thrushes and Swainson’s Thrushes were heard around every corner. Even the thunderstorms were charming, to this California girl! Although their campgrounds are temporarily closed, they had a ridiculously affordable deal on the most lovely cabins….so I stayed much longer than planned and enjoyed every moment!
I left Kentucky and made my way through southern Missouri, excitedly spotting my lifer Black Vulture along the Millstone Bluff trail and a plethora of species at both the Duck Creek Conservation Area and Mingo NWR. I was impressed with both of these areas, and particularly so with Mingo. A few bird highlights: much better looks at Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Orchard Oriole, Summer Tanager, Pileated Woodpecker, Prothonotary Warbler and so many Indigo Buntings! Were it not for the massive thunderstorms rolling through, I likely would have spent much more time.
Next stop: American’s first National River, and one of the few remaining undamned rivers in the lower 48 stops. The Buffalo River flows freely for 135 miles and winds its way through the Ozark Mountains. I arrived at Kyle’s Landing campground and nabbed a spot right along the river. The landscape was just breathtaking – the forest is so lush with light filtering through every imaginable shade of green, courtesy of the white oaks, hickory, sycamores, cottonwoods, dogwoods, and shortleaf pine. I floated in the river, listed to Northern Parulas, watched Indigo Buntings flitting between trees along the river, observed Black and Turkey Vultures coming in to roost, hiked to a waterfall, crawled through a cave, and kayaked from Steele Creek to Kyle’s Landing. The forest sparkled with fireflies in the evening and I fell asleep to the sound of Whip-poor-wills and Barred Owls. My camera never left my bag, but here are a few cell phone photos that do not do justice to this incredible place.
Between Arkansas and California, my camera continued to rest in my bag, with one notable exception….this spectacular Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! I almost crashed my car when I spotted my first Scissor-tailed while driving through Arkansas, so I made sure to find time in Oklahoma to get a better look. Hefner Lake in Oklahoma City afforded me that opportunity. What spectacular birds! Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are common on the southern Great Plains, in summer. It puts on quite a show in flight – flashing the salmon-pink under its wings and flaring those ridiculous long tail streamers. Both males and females possess the characteristic tail, but the male’s is longer (males average 14-26”, females 11-10”). These birds are known to be quite territorial, and the pair I observed was no exception. After a few moments, I realized they were tending to a nest deep within the canopy of the tree. So, I left these two to care for their young while I hopped in my car and headed west, with California on my mind!