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.