Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Red Herrings Don't Nest in Trees...

I didn't think that wild turkeys built nests in trees, but something that looks like them does; and they do so right in the very middle of Tennessee. The trees were along a large creek at this spot, where the new TN route 840 crosses it, a few miles east of I-65. It's a tad south of Nashville.

We were driving up from Huntsville, AL on our way to the Cedars of Lebanon State Park. My wife had signed herself up to run a half marathon there and it turned out to be a good choice. I don't generally think of cedar trees as making a good woodland -- they're a bit small and ragged, but with a bunch of old and younger ones mixed with a few hardwoods they can make a remarkably lovely woods. My daughter and I discovered this for ourselves, and we learned that Dixon Lanier Merritt already knew it. (I didn't know about him, either, or didn't know I knew, he was a poet, a journalist and a naturalist and you know his work, too. He taught us all that a pelican's beak can hold more than its bellican.) We saw split cedar rail fences made with nothing but the rails and a bit of wire and we found some fresh and some not so fresh woodpecker holes in living cedars. It was just cool enough that we appreciated the burning fireplace and the hot chocolate in the lodge while we waited for the runners. We didn't have all that long after our short walk. My wife finished first in her age group and I think was the second Master female overall.

After the race we checked into the Sleep Inn and took a dip in the indoor pool, ate a pleasant dinner at Painturo's Pizza and Italian restaurant and did a little shopping before heading back toward Alabama, and back past those mysterious nests.

When we drove up on Saturday it was mid morning, 9-ish. The large hardwood trees are along the creek bed and beside a cleared field, probably a crop field in the growing season. 4 or 5 trees contain 15 or 20 total nests: big, messy nests. I'd guess a couple feet in diameter. Some of the nests had large dark birds sitting or standing on them. I tried to make them look white -- snowy egrets would be about the right size and I know they are somewhat communal, although this would be a bit far north for them. Great blue herons were another possibility but I almost always see them alone and think of them as solitary birds. Whatever these were on their nests Saturday morning were just far enough away and just dark enough not to be identified as we drove by at 65 mph.

I was determined to get a better look on Sunday afternoon. When at last we approached the spot, we saw the nests in the trees clear enough -- the light was better somehow and we were ready. But now they were clearly empty. No roosting birds. We were disappointed, but then we spotted something on the ground in the adjacent field. Pretty definitely a flock of wild turkeys, a dozen or more. Too big and fat for vultures, they were black with a bit of metallic bronze reflecting the hazy sunshine. They were only a couple hundred yards from the nest trees. So they were turkey nests? I thought it must be so until I checked the internet -- of course turkeys nest on the ground. Turkey vultures mostly do, too, and even black vultures prefer rocky outcroppings or cliffs but will settle for trees in a pinch. But I did find a photo online that looks much like what we saw: a great blue heron rookery.

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