Coal for Christmas…2018 Comes to an End Monday, Dec 31 2018 

Coal Barges trapped against the dam at the Falls of the Ohio State Park

Runaway coal barges on the upstream side of the dam at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

What a poor excuse for a blogger I have turned out to be!  Just my second post of what has been an extremely active year which, however, is not ending on positive notes!  Just in from the news room…2018 was Louisville’s wettest year on record.  We are just over 69 inches (it is pouring now as I write this) of rain for the year breaking a record created in 2011.

That’s not that long ago and welcome to the new norm.  When I started my Artist at Exit 0 River Project, I was partly curious if could I “witness” climate change within the relatively small confines of this well understood park situated in my own backyard?  Certainly, the increased levels of precipitation over time point to this.  The Ohio River during 2018 had high water moments and February set a new all-time record for rainfall for that month.  The river had high water moments during July, September, and December a couple of times.  We have had monsoon-like storms that literally have dumped billions of gallons of water on our area.  Almost everything dealing with the weather is becoming an event.  The city is digging out a couple of massive stone catch basins for all the excessive rain water that overwhelms our sewer system with some of these storms.

The disaster currently playing out breaks my heart.  On Christmas day we all got coal for presents.  An upstream tow pushing 15 barges loaded with coal broke loose hitting our Second Street Bridge.  Of course, the river was way up and at least six of the barges have sunk releasing by a current estimate about 9000 tons of coal into the river!  There are still barges trapped against the dam (see above photo) This is an ongoing, unresolved situation and even more coal could end up in the water.  I will stop here with this, but 2019 will begin this way.

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Final Styro-figure group of 2018.

This is an image of my last figurative group of 2018.  The river has knocked them down now, but parts of them haven’t completely drifted away.  After the loss of my first absurd Styrofoam group of the year, subsequent high water events and vandalism prevented this from going much farther.  Much of the second half of 2018 was taken up in maintaining my various “plastic gardens” scattered throughout the park and skirting around encroaching waters.  This, however, has always been my main site which is easy to access and plentiful in terms of found materials.  At this site, I continued working with found flip-flops creating double spiral designs and meandering patterns dug into the sand.  I continued working with found cigarette lighters which remains this year’s medium for me.  I have estimated that I have picked up at least 800 spent cigarette lighters this year alone!  I continued to create and maintain other plastic assemblages from debris found in the park.  I have worked with found balls, soft drink bottles with questionable contents, and aluminum can bottoms which are the only part of the aluminum can that survives the river here and yes I have worked with coal too.  Rather than tell you…here are a few images to show you.

Found plastic assemblage in the western section of the park nestled in the root system of this wonderful tree.

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Found plastic assemblage created on site in the eastern section of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Found plastic assemble with purple jack-o-lantern in the western section of the Falls of the Ohio.

Last look at this plastic assemblage set up in the western section of the park. High water eventually took this piece down.

Double Spiral Found Flip-flop Arrangement

Found flip-flops were used to create this double spiral design.

Meandering pattern made with found flip-flops.

This piece eventually incorporated over 160 found flip-flops picked up in the park. Wiped out in early December.

Found Flip-flop piece at my outdoor atelier at the Falls of the Ohio

Final flip-flop piece before the river rearranged my studio site during late December.

Found cigarette lighters on a great pine stump.

A great pine stump was the site for this found lighter project.

Found lighter piece in discarded tire

Lots of sunken tires out here and they make good micro sites for projects.

Meandering found cigarette lighter design on found mattress

This mattress came in with the river and makes a good site for these found lighters.

Sunken tire and found soft drink bottle with contents piece

Found soft drink bottles with contents set in a discarded tire.

Found soft drink bottle with contents piece.

The colors come from sport and other soft drinks in their plastic bottles.

I also did my share of smaller figurative pieces.  Here is a favorite that originally was a slow motion video shot with my iPhone.  I started to play around a bit more with video by offering small video “tastes” of some of the things I do to amuse myself at the river.

My bird observations have manifested themselves in found objects that have become their own creative ornithology.  Here are a couple recent favorite sightings of these very rare birds.

Butcher Beak looking for food

A high Ohio River has this Butcher Beak searching for food near the water’s edge.

Black-tailed Tern

On Sand Island by the Falls of the Ohio, I spotted this rare Black-tailed Tern in migration.

Young male, Violet-tailed Bowerbird

A 2018 highlight was coming across this Violet-tailed Bower bird finding river treasure for its bower.

I realize that I can’t post everything I made this year, but here were a few of the projects  that still resonate with me.  I will keep making art and seeing where life goes from here.  I hope we all have a great 2019!  I will be watching with interest what happens with our coal spill.  I have already tested out a few ideas.  See you next year from the Falls of the Ohio.

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From this Summer…a coal man formed in a drift of coal dust and gravel.

Death Takes a Float Trip

2017 Favorite Wildlife Sightings from the Falls of the Ohio Sunday, Dec 24 2017 

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.

Rare Winter Birds Tuesday, Mar 7 2017 

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.

The Smiling Tortoise Sunday, Jan 29 2017 

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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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Fish Stories from the Falls of the Ohio Saturday, Dec 31 2016 

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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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KMAC Goes to the Library Wednesday, Oct 21 2015 

Text as Material: Nina Katchadourian’s “Sorted Books” On September 19, 2015 the museum opened a special KMAC In The Community exhibition featuring Nina Katchadourian’s Kansas Cut-Up from her ongoing “Sorted Books” project. The exhibition is located in the newly designed 40,000 square foot award-winning Southwest Regional Library building that directly serves the Shively, Pleasure Ridge … Continue reading KMAC Goes to the Library