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The beauty of Central Ky. Wildlife Refuge through the seasons

Trees in various stages of their fall transitions were reflected in the glassy surface of Island Pond at Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge, in southwestern Boyle County, on October 29.
Trees in various stages of their fall transitions were reflected in the glassy surface of Island Pond at Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge, in southwestern Boyle County, on October 29. Greg Kocher | Staff

FORKLAND — As I crouched to photograph a cluster of large orange mushrooms, I heard a low hum and a faint, but insistent, squeaking to my right.

Turning toward the sound, I saw a male ruby-throated hummingbird hovering like a tiny helicopter. His red chin sparkled in the mid-July sun, and he appeared to be as curious about me as I was in the golden trumpet mushrooms. He continued to hover for a few seconds, then flew away.

The moment was reminiscent of an episode recorded years ago by the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County. As he was reading outside one day, a wren perched on his shoulder and hopped onto the corner of the book in his hands. Merton mused that we can only truly know a living thing when we see it as it is in the wild, rather than dissected on a laboratory table.

A few of these moments have happened at Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge, a 500-acre preserve 13 miles southwest of Danville. Within its borders, one gets a good sense of the topography and diverse wildlife one can see in the Knobs, a 230-mile-long arc of hills that border the inner Bluegrass region.

Picture, if you will, a big U-shaped smile across Kentucky. The smile is the arc formed by the Knobs, so-called because of their conical hills. The big grin begins and nearly ends at the Ohio River, running from Lewis County in the east to Jefferson County in the west. At the bottom left-hand corner of the smile is Boyle County and the Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge.

The sanctuary, operated by a non-profit organization since 1965, has 10 trails that take a hiker through forest, past ponds, and into clearings, so that the view is always changing as a hiker walks up and down the hills of hickory, oak, pine, paw paw and poplar trees. Heightening this sense of ceaseless change is the passage of the seasons, each with its own sights and sounds.

On Feb. 9, for example, the refuge was covered in snow. The drive on Ky. 1822 over Parksville Knob was like driving through a tunnel as the tree canopy bowed low under the weight of wet snow. The only sounds to be heard that day were the occasional cawing of crows, the whinnying call of a downy woodpecker, and the crunch of snow beneath Timberland boots.

By late spring, the forest floor was covered with ferns and May apple. The refuge was a riot of sound, mostly from the warblers and other migratory birds that had settled down to nest and raise their young. One songster heard but not seen was the indigo bunting, a tiny finch of deep iridescent blue that flits into the brush once it's been spotted. Researchers have determined that indigos migrate at night and, like sailors of long ago, orient themselves by the stars and constellations. In addition, young male indigos settling on a breeding territory for the first time will not sing their father's song, but will copy the songs of their neighbors.

In August, the bird songs had quieted somewhat, to be replaced by the color of wildflowers and mushrooms. The fields were full of purple coneflowers, their petals drooping from bristled centers. Meanwhile, thanks to this year's abundant rain, the forest floor offered up all kinds of mushrooms.

By early October, the woods had again turned quiet, except for the rustle of dry leaves and the hoarse, screeching calls of gray squirrels. Seed once again filled feeders by the bird blind, so chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches gave an aerial display as they swooped in to eat. The woods were just beginning to blaze; the reds, oranges and yellows of the leaves sewed a big patchwork quilt that nature threw over itself as it prepared for another winter's snooze.

"To the attentive eye," essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again."

These serendipitous moments make a walk in the woods rewarding. And they're there to relish for anyone who will take the time and who has the patience to seek them.