Birds and Bourbon – Graves and Caves – Welcome to Kentucky

The objective of my so called 50/50/50 Project is to have my passion for birding take me to each of the 50 States, find 50 bird species but far more importantly to experience new places and meet wonderful people.  My visits to many states earlier had confirmed the value of this adventure, but there is no better example of how all these things come together than my trip to Kentucky.  It was originally to follow immediately after birding in Missouri and Illinois, but as explained in previous posts, successes in those two states came more quickly than planned which enabled me to drive through Kentucky and visit Tennessee as an additional state.  With that successfully completed, I was back in Kentucky – with a whole day to explore before meeting my companions the next day for the birding part of the trip.

Heading north on Interstate 65, I stopped to refuel in Bowling Green, KY and did a double take at the gas pump.  Since there have been a couple of times when I almost used the green diesel hose, I now pay attention.  No diesel at this pump, but I was glad I watched as there was a clear reminder that I was not on home turf.  I would not have liked the $8.00/gallon price tag but wonder if my rental car would have turned into a rocket ship.  As an aside, the speed limits seemed to be suggestions only on many of the highways as the majority of cars were traveling 5 to 10 miles over the limits – my kind of place.

Hi Test – Racing Fuel


As I continued further on my way to Louisville I saw a sign for Mammoth Cave National Park.  It was not part of the previous plan, but in part the plan was to have time to react to opportunities as they arose.  This seemed like a good one so off I went through lovely forest to the Visitor Center.  It was already very crowded when I arrived around 8:15 a.m. and the early tours were already sold out.  A guy came to us in line and said he had inadvertently bought an extra ticket for a 10:00 a.m. tour.  I bought it figuring I would kill an hour birding the area.  Otherwise I would have had to wait until 11:00 and that was just too long.

In spring migration, this is apparently a great area, although not so much so this morning, I did find a couple of Wild Turkeys.  Somehow they seemed perfect in this area – conjuring up images of pioneers like Daniel Boone hunting them for the table more than 200 years ago.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

Mammoth Cave is exactly that – mammoth!  Actually a connected cave system more than 400 miles in length it is the longest explored such system in the world.  I may not have been on the best of the tours and I found it interesting but also disappointing.  Groups are taken by bus to a narrow entrance and via a combination of stairways and paths you descent into the cave.  Lighting is fairly minimal but essential as otherwise of course it would be totally black.  At one point they do turn out the lights and it is the darkest dark possible.  Except at the end of this tour, there were no formations, the stalagmites and stalactites that I expect in caves and remember (probably with some distortion) from the only other major cave I have visited – Luray Caverns in Virginia when I was a boy.  There were some passageways that were so tight that I was surprised that some of the “larger” members of our party could make it.  Other areas were large and open.

There are no longer bats in Mammoth Cave having been wiped out by a disease called “White Nose Syndrome”.  Steps are being taken to be able to restore the population.  I am not sure how their presence would have affected the experience.  The only life we saw were large and somewhat diaphanous Cave Crickets.  The best part of the tour was visiting with a family from Mississippi.  The kids were oohing and aahing throughout.

A Mammoth Cave Chamber

Mammoth Cave

I was glad I visited for the experience but it was not the highlight of the trip and would not highly recommend it unless someone really wanted a cave experience.  The area is beautiful though.

After checking in at my Louisville hotel, I stopped at a couple of nearby birding spots.  One was Caperton Swamp where a Blackburnian Warbler had been seen the previous week.  I am missing that photo and although it was unlikely, I figured I would give it a try.  No go of course but I did get my first Yellow Bellied Sapsucker of the year which I knew was likely there.  My last visit was to Anchorage Trail, a great area with mixed habitat.  (I understand the land was donated by the founder of Papa John’s Pizza).  A Winter Wren had been reported there earlier that day and that is another photo “need”.  It is a big area and I had no idea where the Wren had been seen.  I just started birding along a creek and decided to play the Winter Wren calls to be familiar with them.  I instantly got a response and saw a little Wren darting about in brush along the creek.  I had not anticipated that and my camera was not ready.  It darted about but never came into the open again.  This may have been the biggest frustration of my trip so far.  Hopefully I will have better luck in Massachusetts next month.

My best find at Anchorage Trail was not a bird but another birder.  I had wandered along finding a few birds but since the “countable” ones would be the next day, I decided to turn back.  About halfway back a Coopers Hawk raced out of a group of trees and disappeared into some others.  A birder was coming my way from the other direction and we both asked each other – “Did you see that?”  We made introductions and the birder was James Wheat from Louisville.  What made it interesting was that he knew my name and of my project.  My companion for the next day was to be Carol Besse.  I had connected with Carol through a fellow named Rob Lane.  I had found his name on a Kentucky listserv and although he was not free to meet me, he circulated my name and the background on my project to others and Carol volunteered.  Well, small world.  James Wheat had also been contacted and now that we had met in person, he wanted to join us.  It worked out great.  He is a fun guy and a terrific birder.  We said our goodbyes and planned to meet the next morning.

There was a minor disappointment at dinner.  Being in Kentucky and knowing that I would be visiting the grave of Col. Harland Sanders the next day (read on below), I went to a Kentucky Fried Chicken “restaurant” for dinner.  This was a favorite of my family when I was growing up but for healthy eating reasons, it has not been an indulgence in recent years.  This seemed like an appropriate time to make an exception.  I ordered a two piece dinner – “original recipe” of course.  Nowadays all fast food restaurants seem to get much of their business from drive through customers.  Just before placing my order, one had ordered 48 pieces of “original recipe” and completely depleted their supply.  My choices were crispy (no way), a single “original recipe” wing or getting my money back.  I opted for the latter and got a salad elsewhere instead.  Well, I tried…

Carol Besse and James Wheat

Carol Besse and James Wheat

I met Carol and James the next morning and we started the day at Cherokee Park where on a “slow day” according to them we picked up about 20 species in just over an hour.  We had a pair of heard only Great Horned Owls – my first owls of the trip.  The major birding though was to be at Cave Hill Cemetery.  When Carol and I had planned the itinerary for the day, Cave Hill worked out perfectly for many reasons.  First the Beckham Bird Club had a walk there that morning.  The Club was founded in 1935 and is very active with field trips and other bird related activities.  Second, the large cemetery has an impressive bird list and was likely to get us a long way to our 50 species goal.  Most importantly to me, among the many thousands of graves were those of three famous folks from Louisville:  Jim Beam of Bourbon fame (more on that later), Col. Harland Sanders, and one of my all-time heroes – Muhammad Ali – nee Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and aka “the Louisville Lip” and “The Greatest”.  Now that is local color at its best!!

There were maybe a dozen birders from the Club and we were guided by Pastor Lee Payne.  Pastor Payne was highly enthusiastic and knew the favorite hangouts of many birds in the cemetery.  A somewhat sad commentary is that he was the only person of color who I met as a birder in the entire trip.  It was particularly important to Pastor Payne that we see some of “his” Great Horned Owls.  He delivered big time as we found at least three and possibly four.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

It was another hot day and this may have slowed some of the birding but we had a number of good birds – 38 species in all.  Still not even a good photo but I finally got a barely acceptable one of a Philadelphia Vireo.  It had been ABA Life Bird #727 and was ABA Life Photo #692.  We also had Cape May and Bay Breasted Warblers – the latter a new ABA species for my 2018 year list.

Pastor Lee Payne Leading the Group

Lee Payne

Philadelphia Vireo


Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

One more good bird before we get to the grave sites.  Almost in unison several of us yelled out “Peregrine Falcon” as a large falcon flew above us.  It was being attacked repeatedly by several of the many Chimney Swifts that were also zooming around.  My photo caught one as it took its shot at the Falcon.

Peregrine Falcon and Chimney Swift

Peregrine and Chimney Swift

A Break from Birding – the Grave Sites

Col. Harland Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken

Colonel Harland Sanders died in 1980 at the age of 90.  In 1930 Sanders was running a service station in Kentucky, where he would also feed hungry travelers. He moved his operation to a restaurant across the street, and featured a fried chicken so notable that he was named a Kentucky colonel in 1935 by Governor Ruby Laffoon.  After closing the restaurant in 1952, Sanders devoted himself to franchising his chicken business. He traveled across the country, cooking batches of chicken from restaurant to restaurant, striking deals that paid him a nickel for every chicken the restaurant sold. His first franchise sale went to Pete Harman of Salt Lake City. In 1964, with more than 600 franchised outlets, he sold his interest in the company for $2 million to a group of investors.

Kentucky Fried Chicken went public in 1966 and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1969. More than 3,500 franchised and company-owned restaurants were in worldwide operation when Heublein Inc. acquired KFC Corporation in 1971 for $285 million. KFC became a subsidiary of R.J. Reynolds Industries, Inc. (now RJR Nabisco, Inc.), when Heublein Inc. was acquired by Reynolds in 1982. KFC was acquired in October 1986 from RJR Nabisco, Inc. by PepsiCo, Inc., for approximately $840 million.

Colonel Sanders

There will be more on this later as I visited the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, KY the next day.  The predecessor of the Jim Beam Company was founded by Jacob Beam in 1795 and has remained in the family for 8 generations.  It was officially branded as Jim Beam Bourbon post Prohibition in 1934 by Colonel James B. Beam.  It is the grave of his son, T. Jeremiah Beam who died in 1977 that is pictured below.  It is immediately adjacent to that of Col. Sanders.

Jim Beam Grave

For me the real treasure in Cave Hill Cemetery is the relatively simple grave of Muhammad Ali.  The history of this great man is long and complex.  He was an Olympic Champion, Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World (3 times and 19 title defenses), poet, activist, philanthropist and civil rights leader.  He converted to Islam, resisted the Vietnam War Draft, and spoke courageously and openly about race, freedom, war and peace.  In his later years he suffered from many conditions of Parkinson Syndrome but he never lost his mental acuity.  He lit the Olympic Flame in Atlanta in 1966 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2005.  Ali died in 2016.  He was one of the most beloved and controversial figures of the late 20th Century.  Being a participant as a teenager and in college in the turbulent 1960’s and 1970’s, Ali was my hero.  I am emotional and tears run down my face as I write this and recall those challenging and difficult times and his meaningful and courageous life.  Standing at his grave site was important to me – very important and very moving.

Ali’s Funeral at Cave Hill Cemetery

Ali Funeral

Standing At Muhammad Ali’s Grave

At Ali's Grave

Back to the birds…

We had 38 species at the cemetery putting us at 43 for the day.  We had one more stop – the Melco Flood Retention Basin, a restricted access area.  Carol and James both had keys to the locked gate so we were able to visit this completely different habitat.  We finally got some shorebirds and some other good species.  Altogether we only had 23 species at this location but 16 were new for the day bringing us to 59 all told.

The best birds were probably the shorebirds.  We had Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, Greater Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpipers and Dunlin. We also had 4 new raptors: Red Tailed and Red Shouldered Hawks, American Kestrel and Bald Eagle.

Stilt Sandpipers and Dunlin

Stilt Sandpipers and Dunlin

What I liked most about my Kentucky experience were the mixes – mix of birds, mix of people, mix of places.  The birds have been detailed a bit.  Here is some more about the people.

Carol Besse is one of those people that I think anyone would value as an interesting friend.  She and her husband (I hope I have that right) Michael Boggs, started Carmichael’s Bookstore in the funky, cool, hip and friendly Bardstown neighborhood in Louisville in 1978.  It is Louisville’s oldest independent bookstore and has survived and thrived even post Amazon.  In 2014 it was joined by Carmichael’s Kids – a children’s bookstore down the street from the main store.  In the words of Carol and Michael, the stores “although small…offer a hand-picked selection of titles reflecting both the taste of the owners and that of the neighborhoods they are a part of. From the very beginning Carmichael’s has been committed to being a neighborhood gathering place by being open seven days a week and every evening. Both stores are on corners that hum with activity – walkers, joggers, dogs and children, families and couples – lively streetscapes never darkened by the shadow of a big box store.”  I did not have a chance to visit the stores but could easily feel their vibe as I drove by and watched folks coming and going.  I also love that the bookstore gets its name not from a last name but from the combination of the first names CARol and MICHAEL.  Who knew?!

Carmichael’s Bookstore

Carmichaels bookstore

James Wheat is a transplant from Florida and when not birding is in the IT field.  He has the enormously challenging responsibility of organizing the Christmas Bird Counts for the Louisville circle.  He is also active in other Louisville area birding organizations.  He was great company and was super in the field with a terrific ear and a quick eye and it was also clear to me that he was well organized and a “get it done” guy.  He would be a wonderful aide in organizing the logistics of a big year or a 50 state kind of project.  It was also great that the mosquitoes seemed to prefer him to me.

Kentucky Bourbon

I had an open day after the great birding with Carol and James and before meeting up with by birding companions in Indiana.  When I first thought about some special local aspects for a Kentucky trip, two iconic events came to mind:  “The Kentucky Derby” and a University of Kentucky vs. Louisville basketball game.  Timing was not right for either but I traveled through some thoroughbred horse country and was taken by its gentle beauty.  I also thought about Kentucky as the “Bourbon Capital” of the world and found that tours were available at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, KY and thought that would be fun – another new experience that came to me because my passion for birding had taken me to Kentucky.

My visit to the distillery was very interesting including a tour that took us step by step through the entire process of manufacture, aging, bottling and distribution.  Jim Beam is the largest selling bourbon in the world and has many products under the Beam umbrella.  At the end of the tour we had an opportunity to taste many.  I am definitely not a connoisseur but even I could discern the differences of the differently aged and proofed forms.  I am going to let some pictures speak for themselves and may write up details another time.

Jim Beam – Clermont, KY

Jim Beam

Jim Beam Poster

Jim Beam Barrel

The pour

Beam Tasting

I continued north to Indiana with a first stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – but that is a story for my next blog post…








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s