Birdwatcher keeps his eyes in the skies

By Charlie Pearl Published:

Birds are always on Brainard’s mind.

Brainard Lemon Palmer-Ball Jr., the bird-watching guide, is in a good mood when two visitors arrive at the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission off Schenkel Lane on a recent sunny but cool morning.

At 60 and a newspaper journalist, I’ve wanted for a long time to accompany Brainard to a wooded, wetlands area at the edge of Frankfort to see what birds are there.

Kelly Mackey, the 24-year-old photographer and a rookie birder, is apprehensive. Although she grew up near Cumberland Falls and the Big South Fork National River and Recreational Area, she says she never developed an appreciation for nature.

A bird hit her car windshield while she was driving recently and her mother, by phone, said “that’s a bad omen,” and advised her to immediately turn around, go back home and get inside.

And here Kelly is, carrying a heavy camera bag, heading into a nature wonderland worrying about snakes, ticks and mosquitoes and her chances of survival.

The first bird logged on the checklist is a big one – a turkey vulture that surprises them by flying low out of a barn across a dirt path about 15 yards ahead of them.

Brainard – wearing sunglasses, a green Blanton Forest T-shirt, jeans and hiking boots – hopes to show them Red-tailed Hawk chicks in a large nest high in a sycamore.

He’s carrying his $1,500 binoculars, which he says he got for half price, and a small tape recorder, hoping to record the song of an Orchard Oriole.

Walking through thick, high grass, Brainard sees a female Indigo Bunting fly out. They stop and in an ironweed plant, Brainard finds a little nest with three pale blue, unmarked eggs.

“It’s kind of weird because most birds that have an open nest like this have speckled eggs to camouflage them a little bit,” Brainard says.

“Neat,” says Kelly as she clicks off numerous frames.

A native of Louisville, Brainard, 51, and a bachelor, still lives on the 300-acre family farm in Jefferson County. He retired last December after working 24 years for the state Nature Preserves.

He still does volunteer work for Nature Preserves because “I liked my job and they don’t have enough people” because of budget cuts. “You don’t get rich being a biologist for the state, but I don’t need much.”

He has a bachelor’s in zoology and a master’s in biology, both from the University of Louisville.

He says his parents fed birds on the farm, “and that’s how I first got interested. I started watching what was coming to the feeders. My mom took me on my first bird club field trip” in 1973, and he’s been bird watching ever since.

Brainard claims he’s not a bird expert.

Scott Hankla, president of the Frankfort Chapter of the National Audubon Society, disagrees.

“Brainard is an extraordinary birder, probably Kentucky’s very best,” Scott says.

“He goes a lot by ear, bird calls and songs. He’s very good in that respect, one of a kind. We’re fortunate to have someone like him in our state. He does a lot with the Kentucky Ornithological Society.”

Brainard is the author of a KOS book, “Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Kentucky,” published in 2003. He also authored the 1996 “Kentucky Breeding Birds Atlas.”

He’s active in the Louisville Chapter of the National Audubon Society.

Brainard says he knows how to identify birds, “and I know Kentucky birds well, probably as well as anybody. I know the sounds of almost all birds in Kentucky. But there’s a lot of people (nationally and internationally) who know birds way more than I.”

A lot of birders learn the sounds by listening to tapes, he says.

“I don’t listen to that many tapes. I just notice sounds in the field and catch on and remember stuff.”

He’s been on bird-watching trips across Kentucky and “around the U.S. in some of the better places like South Texas, Southeast Arizona, Maine, the Northeast Coast and Alaska.

“I’ve been a few times down in the tropics, which is really different. You’ll see some of our birds down there in the winter – in Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador – but mostly different stuff like Trogons, Toucans and Macaws.”

He says the best places to see birds in the state are in Western Kentucky “because there’s a little greater variety of water birds.

It’s also closer to the middle of the continent where there are a few more migrants going through.

“The Land Between the Lakes area is really good; Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley is probably the single best place.”

In Franklin County in June, there’s probably a hundred species of birds, he says.

“I’ve seen a hundred in January in a day,” he says. “In early May, I’ve seen and heard 187 in a day in Western Kentucky.”

The birding guide says he likes “plants, animals, scenery, everything about nature, but birds are a little bit neater because they’re real mobile.

“You can see something different any day that you totally don’t expect. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does you don’t forget it.”

This year on May 11 Brainard was working on the family farm getting ready to paint a barn roof.

“I went around a corner of the barn in my truck to get a ladder and this little bird popped up off the ground and flew up and landed on a utility line,” he recalls.

“My binoculars were right next to me and it was a Rock Wren – a bird of the U.S. Southwest. It’s the second time one has ever been seen in Kentucky.”

He went to his computer and notified other birders.

“For the rest of the day about 30 people came over to see the Rock Wren. I’m sure we will never see that bird in Kentucky again, so that made May 11 pretty special.”

Two winters ago in Franklin County, Brainard saw a rare-for-here Scott’s Oriole. Its habitat also is the arid desert land of the U.S. Southwest and Mexico.

“It should have gone south and went east and stayed in Franklin County for a few weeks with folks feeding her,” Brainard says.

In December 2008, employees of the Frankfort sewer department saw a Bald Eagle in Bellepoint. After looking at photographs, Brainard verified it but says he still hasn’t seen a Bald Eagle in Franklin County.

Since 1973 when he first started birding, Kentucky has lost a couple of species: the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bewick’s Wren, says Brainard. They’ve declined in other states as well but haven’t become extinct overall, he says.

Fifteen minutes before the three of us arrive at the big sycamore, Brainard notices two Red-tailed Hawks soaring above, circling the area.

“They’re watching us,” Brainard says. “They’re not happy we’re here.”

Soon the hawks are screaming at the intruders and warning their young.

Kelly asks if they’re going to come in closer.

“If they do, I’m probably going to freak out,” she says, from the back of the line.

“They pick off the one in the back normally, the young one with shiny camera equipment,” Brainard says, joking.

Soon they see the hawks’ big nest through binoculars and the camera, but the young ones aren’t in it.

That’s OK. We see many colorful birds, butterflies and dragonflies on the short journey including a blue-eyed swamp darner dragonfly that Brainard says he hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

In the field, Brainard does a little “pishing” – hissing, shushing and squeaking noises – in imitation of the scolding calls of certain small songbirds. Birds approach to see what’s going on.

The number of different birds marked on today’s checklist turns out to be 42 – not bad for a 45-minute walk.

Kelly freaks out a little when she gets the report a butterfly has landed on her shirt.

But she enjoys seeing a Great Blue Heron liftoff from the wetlands and numerous Red-winged Blackbirds. And she gets a second chance to photograph a turkey vulture up close when it again flies out of the barn in front of them near the end of the trek.

Back at Brainard’s 2001 brown Ford Escape, I ask if he ever disliked his name.

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird,” he says. “Kids in school used to call me Brainless and Brain-Nerd. I appreciate it more now that my father is no longer living. I never considered changing it. But I used to wonder if I ever had a son would I name him Brainard Lemon Palmer-Ball III.

“That would seem to be pretty rough, wouldn’t it?” he says, laughing.

His uncle, Shirley Palmer-Ball, was parks commissioner and ABC commissioner in Republican Gov. Louie Nunn’s administration.

Just before getting in the car, Brainard looks up and sees a pair of birds chasing a much larger one.

“Watch this,” Brainard says with excitement in his voice. “Those Eastern Kingbirds are going to land on the back of that Red-tailed Hawk.”

And just as Brainard calls it, the Kingbirds land and get the Red-tailed Hawk out of their nesting territory.

“That’s common,” he says. “They’re aggressive and do that to keep crows and hawks from robbing their nests.”

Kelly is impressed with the expert and elated to exit the woods and wetlands alive.

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