Two years ago this spring Melissa and I took a long weekend getaway to Pennyrile State Park in Kentucky. (See my post on 13 May 2012.) This is where the West Kentucky Amateur Astronomers (of which I am the current president) host the Twin Lakes Star Party each fall. We rented a lakeside cabin there and stayed three peaceful days and two nights. It is a great place for relaxing and bird watching, and we enjoyed it so much we wanted to do it again this year.
On the way up we decided to swing by the new Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters & Visitor Center, which has just been built along the shores of Kentucky Lake east of Paris, Tennessee. We drove down a winding access road to find a long low building with tan walls, a brown roof and rock trim blending into a wide grassy peninsula. In addition to providing a headquarters for the NWR staff, the building will also provide an environmental education facility for students from local schools as well as the general public. The new building should open this summer and I have agreed to do an astronomy public night for them in September.
I was very glad to see full cutoff lighting fixtures in their parking lot! These kinds of fixtures keep the light shining on the ground where it is needed and not up into the sky where it just contributes to light pollution.
Driving up the southern half of the Trace through the Land Between the Lakes, we stopped to take a tour of the 700 acre Bison Prairie. This is a 3.5 mile “drive-thru” habitat with reintroduced herds of bison and elk. Although we saw no elk this trip, we did see plenty of bison.
As we slowly drove by the herd we saw three girls (we guessed they were Murray State College students) who had parked their car at the road and walked well out into the field within 100 feet or so of a lone bison. (According to posted rules you are supposed to stay in your car if bison are within 200 feet.) They were all three standing together with their backs to the bison. One of them held a camera at arm’s length to take a “selfie” with the bison in the background!
After we had passed, I continued to watch curiously in the rear view mirror as a park ranger rapidly drove his truck up to the girls and pointed meaningfully back toward their car. They were lucky the bison was lazy that day and didn’t decide to charge them. According to park information, they can run up to 35 miles per hour which would allow them to cover 100 feet in just a few seconds.
After our LBL drive, Melissa and I made our way up to Pennyrile Park where we took up residence again in “our” lakeside cabin. The cabin has a nice large deck facing the lake that is a wonderful place to watch birds from and we found ourselves spending most of our time on the deck. The afternoon was quiet and relaxing and we settled into our “zero-gravity” chairs to listen to the wind in the trees and the birdsong. I could hear a couple of Gray Catbirds nearby as well as Titmice, an Eastern Phoebe, and a Wood Thrush. As I scanned the trees with binoculars, I spotted a smallish bird with a black “hood,” a light gray breast fading into a white belly, blackish wings, back, and tail, and a white band across the end of the tail. Its voice was a rapid chittering similar to a Chimney Swift only louder. A quick check of Peterson’s allowed me to identify it for the first time as an Eastern Kingbird. It was back in the U.S. apparently after wintering in South America as many birds do.
We enjoyed dinner that evening on the deck and sat watching the gloaming progress until weariness finally overtook us and we moved back indoors.
The next morning we ate our free continental breakfast at the lodge and sat at our favorite table to watch the geese and ducks on the lake. We had arrived the day before on a Sunday afternoon just as everyone else was leaving. On a quiet Monday morning we had the restaurant almost to ourselves.
A day outing to Henderson, KY brought us to the John James Audubon State Park again where we made another tour of the museum, watched a couple of videos on the history of the park, and took a walk in the 700 acre woods. The park lies right next to one of the busiest highways, densely packed with gas stations, stores, billboards, and fast food restaurants, that I have ever seen.
It was like passing through a time warp into another world.
When we got back to the cabin, I again took up residence on the deck, inspired by the art and journals of John James Aububon to look for more birds. Circling and diving over the lake was some kind of swallow, but I couldn’t tell what kind. I could also hear a Red-Bellied Woodpecker calling and drumming in the distance as well as the song of another new bird that I did not know, a fairly complicated series of twelve or so rapid notes (3-6-3) repeated in the same pattern. I followed the new song around the trees until I finally got a clear view. It was a dark bird with a black head, a brick red breast, belly, and rump, and black wings and tail. Again to Peterson’s and another new bird was identified, a male Orchard Oriole.
As the late afternoon progressed, a gibbous Moon rose over the lake, two days before full.
Once again, I sat on the deck and just enjoyed the sounds of the birds and the cool wind in the trees. The Sun slowly sank below the horizon allowing Mars and some of the brighter stars to come out. The moonlight sparkled on the water.
The next morning, I decided to walk from the cabin a short distance to the Pennyrile Lake dam. In the pine trees along the trail I first heard, then observed another male Orchard Oriole (or maybe it was the same one as the night before). Then, nearby, I also spotted an immature (first year) male, yellow with olive wings and a black patch under the chin.
While walking across the dam, I watched the swallows perform their aerial acrobatics over the lake. It was increasingly windy but the wind did not seem to deter the birds. Close observation of their markings and their voice identified them as Rough Winged Swallows; another new species for me. These were the ones I had seen flying around the cabin but they had been too fast to identify and I could only see them as silhouettes against the sky. As they flew over the dam, the spillway, and the lake, I could make out their brown backs and wings, their white belly, and the dusky brownish color under their chin. They circled and dove in playful flight, uttering a harsh rolling “trit.”
As I came back up the hill toward the cabin, I saw the male Orchard Oriole again, but this time he landed next to a female. The female was very similar to the immature male, having a yellow body and olive wings but it lacked the black patch under the chin. So, I saw a male, an immature male, and a female all within about 45 minutes!
By late morning, Melissa and I reluctantly departed Pennyrile State Park and drove to Kentucky Dam Village just to sight-see. On the way there, we crossed both the Cumberland and the Tennessee Rivers and saw the dams across these rivers. At Kentucky Dam Village, we stopped at the lodge and walked outside to view the bird-feeders on the side facing the Tennessee River. There were Common Grackles and Chickadees. There was also a beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker. These gorgeous birds have a completely red head while the body and wings are a starkly contrasting black and white.
After eating too much lunch at Patti’s in Grand Rivers, we drove down the northern half of the Trace through LBL and from there on to home. We have come to really enjoy these getaways to Pennyrile and they are rapidly becoming a tradition with us.
Until next time…