The birds of Belmont and Bracken Hill

 Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

All winter long, pileated woodpeckers and their smaller cousins, the red-headed, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers hammered away, echoing the carpenters working on the Sunroom Restoration at the House of the Singing Winds. Lately, eastern bluebirds have added to the human and avian percussion section with their warbling melodies.

Birdsong is such a welcome and spirit-lifting sound, bringing relief from winter’s cold and snow. “Real birders” can identify individual voices of these spring arrivals, but nature’s music — like art — can be enjoyed without specialized knowledge.

Both birds and art-lovers flock to T.C. Steele State Historic Site, but for different reasons. As a flower and shrub covered clearing amidst deep hardwood forests, the site’s ridgetop setting provides the edge habitat needed by birds, and scenic views enjoyed by humans. Where there are hills, there must be valleys, and Salt Creek and Hunnicutt Valleys, depicted in many of Steele’s paintings, are a fine prelude to what awaits above.

Last week’s heavy rains caused Salt Creek to overflow onto the fallow fields bordering T.C. Steele Road. I was concerned, since a flooded road could mean a long detour, but all was fine — even more than fine as I spotted several migrating sandhill cranes feeding in the cornfield stubble transformed into a temporary wetland.

As I stopped to watch, I wondered about their diet. Had the floodwaters washed up fish or frogs into the fields? That’s what’s on the menu for great blue herons, which are similar in size to cranes and prefer the same marshy areas. Time for some research.

It turns out that the sandhills feed on corn, left from last year’s harvest, with perhaps an insect or two as an appetizer. But they may have been attracted by the water, since they were gone in two days, along with the puddles. This year, the rains coincided with their migration, and it was the first time I’d seen them there.

I also learned that the herons’ arrival comes a week or two after the cranes pass through — but they stick around. In summer, these large herons can often be seen flying over or wading in Salt Creek’s shallows. I’ll be glad to welcome them back.

Passing by the same field earlier in the week, a large shape in a tree caught my eye. A resident bald eagle was eyeing the field for a possible meal. What a treat to see! Even though Selma Steele found the Belmont grocery lacking when she moved here in 1907, the area wildlife isn’t complaining.

Soon daffodils will add color to the drab winter landscape, but for now, birds are on the move. So bring your binoculars to Brown County for some birding on what was in the Steele’s time known as Bracken Hill.

Chasin’ Away the Blues

great-blue-heronToday was the third morning I sighted a Great Blue Heron on my drive to work, in the same area as before. About a mile north of T.C. Steele State Historic Site, Salt Creek runs westward on its way to Lake Monroe. The turn-off onto T.C. Steele Road is at the little town of Belmont, about halfway between Nashville (Indiana) and Bloomington. Ahead of me was the bridge that crosses Salt Creek, and over the creek, flying parallel to it, was the heron.

These herons are large birds, deserving of the name great. How you’d describe them further would depend on whether you saw them flying, or ‘at rest’. When they are hunting (for fish, frogs, reptiles and crayfish) they appear to be resting, until they use their spear-like beaks to jab their prey. Blink, and you’ll miss it.

Flying is another matter. If they were walking, they’d be sauntering — with an occasional stagger thrown in. The only bird I know that looks more awkward in flight is the Wild Turkey. I’ve never seen a Great Blue Heron at rest, on the nest, but I hope to someday.

They prefer tall trees, (usually near water) often nesting with other herons in ‘rookeries’. Apparently they don’t watch Home Improvement, but maybe they should. Their nests have been described as piles of sticks, added to over the years without benefit of Planning and Zoning.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

Selma Steele placed this garden sculpture by her lily ponds. Today,  it is stored away — out of sight due to damage. I hope it can be restored soon and returned to its former spot. The Koi swimming in the ponds won’t need to worry about this heron (or crane). I’ll do more research, but meanwhile I’m calling it a Great Blue Heron.

I have learned that Great Blue Herons were more prevalent in the Steele’s day, just as Belmont was more of a town then than it is now. The road that the Steeles took on their way home was much rougher too, but there were compensations. Likely, they saw even more herons than I have and were just as uplifted by the sight, as they began the steep climb to The House of the Singing Winds. It’s hard to have the blues when you’ve just seen a Great Blue Heron.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.