March

 

Easter in Puxatawney, 2010

Prognosticator Phil is off today.

The winter crowd has skeedaddled away.

There’s no one left to cheer “Hip Hip Hooray!”

So Phil and friends can just enjoy the day.

 

In North America, they danced for rain.

Odysseus and Abe killed lambs, of course.

Don’t forget the chugalug at Beltane

Or Luke Skywalker, who could feel The Force.

 

In church, two leg mammals hear Mary shout,

“The friend of Lazarus is out about!”

And even though good Thomas has some doubt,

In Puxatawney, he would be a lout.

 

What we don’t understand is Mystery.

Yoda just asks, “Did he his shadow see?”

 

Willets, Huntington Beach, South Carolina, March, 2013

 

 

March 2- Bear Meadows

On our way to pick up Kathryn for spring break, Chris and I stopped to see Bear Meadows.  Mike’s dog Eddie got to go too.  My first priority was to show Chris a very unique and beautiful natural place.  Also, I wanted to see the changes since my January 3 visit.  Here’s a list of the changes:

1.       On 322, there now is a sign post for Bear Meadows Road.

      That’s it.  Everything else was the same.  We had the same four mile crawl on the single-lane, unplowed, hand-packed snowy road to the trail-head.  The trail had a couple of inches of untouched powder snow on it.  Kathryn thought the last snowfall had been on Monday, so no one had been on the trail for at least four days.  The same unearthly quiet enveloped us as we made our way through the Rhododendron forest.  We saw some tiny footprints in the snow and later looked them up on an Animal Tracks of the Adirondacks poster that we’ve had on our wall for a few decades.  They were from a White Footed Mouse, or maybe a different color footed mouse, but definitely a mouse.  We also found four tiny black and white feathers on top of the snow.  We think they might be from a chickadee.  I’m going to show them to the birding group on Wednesday to see if they know -- kind of like “Show and Tell” for grown-ups.  As we tucked the feathers safely in a pocket, Chris said, “He probably got eaten.”   Yeah, that’s true.  Winter is the dying time.

     For plants it is a time of dormancy or death, until spring sunshine makes it possible to grow again.  For animals it’s a time where most of the food is gone.  Some migrate or hibernate, but others stay active in their northern homes and hunt for food in a sometimes frozen world.  No matter what their strategy for getting through the winter, if fall ends too soon or spring comes too late or a freak freeze kills the early spring food, or a spring storm comes up during a flight over water, the animals die by the thousands.  Pre-historic humans were subject to the long fearful nights of winter and must have gotten a huge boost when they learned to use fire to ward off darkness, cold, and predators.  But still sickness and hunger must have taken a terrible toll in their winters.  Even with our heated homes and with abundant food, our death rates are considerably higher in every winter month.  In explanation, pragmatists point to less vitamin D because of less daylight and flu spreading more easily in the cold.  I think it harkens back to our roots when we had good reason to fear the dark and the cold, so it is in our DNA to fear them still.  Fear saps our will and energy.  Stresses that we have the spirit to overcome at any other time of the year sometimes overcome us in the winter.  Everyone has felt their spirits lift with the first breath of spring.  There are volumes and volumes of poems about rebirth in the spring time.  May truly is for lovers.  Love springs eternal in the spring.  By contrast, Death haunts us during the long nights of January and February.

       Seeing no animals or birds on our half-hour hike through the rhododendron, I remembered the Red-Bellied Woodpecker from January and thought he might not have made it.  But in the same clearing around the trail where I had stopped before, we spotted a Red-Bellied Woodpecker busily working high up in the branches.  Possibly it was the same tough guy that I had seen here two months ago.  We also spotted a Blue Jay, but that’s it.  No crows.  No chickadees.  As we walked out, we occasionally heard a few whistles and chirrups way off the path.  Hold on, guys.  The warmth is coming soon.  Can you feel it?  The days are longer; the snow is melting off; the plants are gathering their strength for a sudden burst of new life.  Sure you can feel it.  It’s in your DNA.

 

March 3 – pre-gaming

I have some good trips planned for the last week of March and the third week of April.  One of them will require backpacking about seven miles into a remote backcountry campsite.  A reasonable person would probably ask if I can physically do that in my current state of decay.  My honest response would have to be, “I don’t know.”  Kind of like the time when I was playing right field on a company softball team and chasing a long fly in right-center and the center fielder yelled, “Bill, do you have it?” and I yelled back, “I don’t know!”  I actually did make the catch, but just barely.  I’d prefer to try to dredge up another old softball story or one of my golf jokes than to get down to the business of today, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  Today I went over to the local high school and walked seven miles on the track.  At mile four, a small Red-tailed Hawk landed on one of the telephone poles that they have for stadium lights.  Another larger Red-tail flew in, hovered above her or actually landed on her.  That went on for a couple minutes.  Come on guys!  Get a room!  It took me two hours to complete the walk, so I wasn’t challenging the Peregrine Falcon or Felix Braungartner for the fastest creature on the planet, but I finished without much trouble.  Actually, to be honest, I was tired.  At mile six, two young women jogged up and asked me how my walk was going.  I responded and only realized that it was Kathryn and Rachel when they stopped to walk with me for a little bit.  They ran off, but came back in time to finish the last lap with me.  I told them that they were like the kids on sneaker commercials who run out to follow a famous athlete at the end of his epic training run. 

     “Sure, Dad,” Kathryn said.  Rachel snorted like Chris does when she is resorting to non-verbal communication.

     “If you guys continue to train with me, eventually you could be really good athletes,” I continued. 

     “Sure, Dad” and another snort were their responses.

     I found out that I can do the walk, which is valuable information, and I also found out that I need to step it up a bit with longer walks and introduce carrying a loaded backpack.  I’m confident that I’ll be ready to hike and camp in April.  Chris and I have been going on hour long walks four or five times a week since last June, so that has helped a lot.  I’m including this not to brag about how great a walker I am.  I realize that many of you are smirking at how slow I am.  That’s okay.  My motivation in talking about this is to emphasize that when you take on a new and unfamiliar task, it is exciting, but you don’t just run off and do it.  Think a little about it in advance and, if you have some deficiencies, work on those.  The short-comings could be knowledge of the terrain – get maps.  Or what to eat – get a real cook to help you make a plan.  Or where to stay – ask AAA.  Or whether your physical conditioning is adequate – test yourself far in advance of the start date.

     Even though I’m starting to repeat myself and I’m giving too much advice after I warned you thoroughly to be wary of advice, this topic is very important for anyone who plans on wandering off the grid.  Mike and I were watching some YouTube videos and he tried to show me something that would make this point dramatically.  There was a video posted of a guy doing pull-ups from the top of an industrial crane, seventy feet in the air.  Mike said that the guy was doing finger-tip pull-ups, one-hand pull-ups, and flinging himself up in the air and yelling.  I didn’t get to see it because YouTube had taken the video down.  Obviously they were concerned about a copy-cat getting killed.  When I see something like this, I think, “Wow.  It probably took the guy decades to prepare to do this.  He is probably a martial arts expert and a world class gymnast. I bet he’s done this routine in a gym a thousand times.  He might be the best guy on the planet at doing pull-ups!”  Apparently some people think, “That looks cool.  I think I’ll try it.  Let’s go!”

 

March 6 – Exton Park

This is a really nice birding spot, a couple miles from my house.  It is small, but the excellent quality of the wetland brings in a good variety of birds.  The park is 700 acres, about half wetland and the rest mostly corn fields.  There are 187 species on the park’s bird list, many of them uncommon in Chester County and some of them designated at risk.  West Whiteland is tasked with developing its half of the park as multiuse, including sports fields, so over time the park will change and some of its land will get developed.  The trick will be to do the development slowly and without damaging the wildlife habitat.  The county bought the land in an “open space” initiative about twenty-five years ago.  The alternative was to rezone the land to allow a developer to build a dense townhouse community and a headquarters facility for a pharmaceutical company.  When the development deal was stopped by the local planning boards, the pharmaceutical company located in a neighboring county.  The developer stated that the site would be developed eventually, so the local government should work with him to develop a nicely planned mini-city.  The developer is an honest guy and he is pleased to be proven wrong, so far.  The site is basically untouched, although a few playing fields are now being added.

     A big snow/rain storm hit us on Wednesday morning.  Kathryn had been planning to join me on the weekly Tyler Arboretum bird walk, but the weather was just too nasty.  It cleared up a little bit around 10 AM, so since this was the only morning of her spring break that she was going to be at home, we went out to Exton Park instead.  It was cold and windy, but we still saw a few birds – Red Tailed Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Mallards, sparrows, wrens, and a few others.  For such a nasty day, it was a good walk.

 

March 9 – Exton Park

     Chris and I went for a walk around all the trails in the late afternoon.  It was bright sun and sixty degrees, a promising spring day.  We saw about a hundred Red-Winged Blackbirds, a Flicker, and two Mallards.  I expected to see all kinds of birds enjoying the warm day, but perhaps I don’t understand the flow of their migration.  It may be that some of the birds that were there in December left to go North, but the birds that wintered in the South are not back in Exton yet.

      When Chris and I started on the trail around the pond, we were greeted by a “con-ca-reeee” song that Chris identified immediately.  It was a Red-winged Blackbird, and we confirmed it by finding the singer and noting his black body and sporty red and yellow epaulets.  “How did you do that?” I wanted to know.  She just knew the sound.  There were lots of these birds in upstate New York, so it must be a childhood memory.  Anyway, I complimented her at doing a good job as my sidekick and added identifying bird sounds to her sidekick responsibilities.  During our Prime Hook trip, I decided that we should do birding as a team and split up the assignments along the lines of the Green Hornet and his sidekick, Cato.  In the TV series, Cato was played by the martial arts expert Bruce Lee, who did all kinds of amazing fighting, athletic stunts, trick driving, and technology wizardry.  So Chrisso’s team contributions so far are:  bird sounds, bird photography, spotting the birds, helping to identify the birds, driving, picking out the hotels and restaurants, general navigation, morale, first aid, and security.  I do everything else.

Address:  800 Swedesford Road, Exton, PA (near Church Farm Lane)  

Directions:  From the intersection of routes 30 and 100 in Exton, go north on 100.  Turn right onto Swedesford Road.  Cross Ship Road.  The park is on your right.

Bird walk:  Thursdays at 8:30.  You are welcome to join it.

 

 

 

March 10 – Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area

Middle Creek WMA exceeded our expectations.  I missed the big event, but was completely surprised to find out that the “big event” is more like the “tip of the ice berg”.  I won’t elaborate.  I’ll just describe the visit.

     During my January visit to Conowingo Dam, a birder told me to make sure that I go to Middle Creek to see the snow geese migration in May.  His advice was excellent, but his time sense was terrible.  It’s in March.  Here are the 2013 Snow Geese and Tundra Swan counts posted by Jim Binder, Middle Creek manager: 

      GEESE – 2/5 – 0; 2/12 – 5000 +;  2/13 – 20,000+; 2/14 – 50,000+; 2/15 – 40,000+; 2/19 -40,000; 2/26 – 25,000; 2/28 – 55,000+; 03/4 – 30,000; 3/7 – less than 5000; 3/11 -5000.

      SWANS – 2/5 - 1900; 2/12 – 3300+; 2/19 – 3000+; 2/26 – 2700; 2/28 – 3000+; 03/4 – 1100; 3/7 – 1100; 3/11 – less than 100.

     So where was I on the weekend of February 23?  Answer:  Prime Hook.  So the fields of Snow Geese around Milford and down around Lewes, Delaware apparently flew up to Middle Creek a few days later and were there around February 28.  The following weekend, I was at Bear Meadows on my way to pick up Kathryn for her spring break.  If I had checked the bird count, I’m sure that I could have gotten my family to go see the 30,000 Snow Geese at Middle Creek on Sunday – at least pretty sure.  But I’ll see it next year – in March. 

     I was kind of down about going to the WMA on the weekend after most of the Snow Geese had left.  They left ahead of the storm that was going to happen on Wednesday (the day that Kathryn and I took the cold weather walk at Exton Park).  Somehow they knew about even without watching Weather Tracker 6.  I called the visitor center and confirmed that the snow geese numbers were still down.  The geese were currently in the Finger Lakes in New York State.  Chris and I had our Sunday afternoon free, so we decided to go anyway, basically as a pleasant drive in the country on a beautiful, sixty degree day.  The WMA manager had answered the phone and suggested looking for ducks on the driving tour and Short-eared Owls north of the Visitors Center at dusk.  That sounded nice.  I guess.

     We found the WMA, no problem.  Although the directions on the web-site seemed a little sketchy, they were actually very good.  Driving down Hopeland Road, there were a lot of cars.  We turned into the first parking area we came to, which was Willow Point Trailhead.  The lot was overflowing with cars and people, coming, going, staying.  All kinds of people.  Some were obviously birders with their optics, but many more were hikers, bikers, and families out for a picnic or a pleasant stroll at the lake.  We left this spot and headed up to the Visitors Center to get a trail map.  The building itself is a beautiful structure – again the large parking lot was overflowing.  Outside and inside, large groups were present in sufficient numbers to refer to them as “milling about”.  Chris was delighted.  I was disgruntled.

     She said, “Think about what this means about how many people are interested.  Maybe some of these people will people read your book.”

     Still I did not cheer up.  We got our maps and a good write up on Tundra Swans and spent a half hour studying the taxidermied ducks, geese, swans, and song birds displayed all around the building.  There was every kind of local duck and goose on display, both male and female.  I plan to come back on a week day when school is in session and spend a quiet half day inside the Visitors Center studying this impressive display.  As we left, we poked our heads into the very nice, well-equipped auditorium, but blew past the interactive exhibits.  The exhibits were obviously a huge hit with the kids, and I expect to check them out on my next visit.

      Armed with our maps, we started the driving tour in reverse.  Don’t do that!  I was thinking that maybe we could avoid some of the crowding that way, and we did for a couple of stops.  But then we found ourselves going against a lot of traffic and not able to enter some spots at all.  Eventually we wound up on some country roads outside the WMA, and we had to turn around, retrace our steps, and start over.  No matter how annoyed you are at being around too many people, do the driving tour and do it in the proper direction.

      My mood picked up at the first stop and stayed up for the rest of the day.  On both sides of Hopeland Road there is water.  On the right side is a 360 acre lake, on the left side is a small pond.  On a stump out in the lake, a Double Breasted Cormorant was preening.  At one point he stretched his wings out completely to give us a great look at his back and wings.  There were several Northern Shovelers nearby and an eagle flew over our head.  It was completely dark, no white head or tail, and not a vulture by its shape and head.  My initial reaction was that it was a juvenile Bald Eagle, until he exposed a brown back and wings in the bright sunshine.  The WMA manager had mentioned on the phone that they had a Golden Eagle all winter, so I studied the bird very hard and saw that he was all dark from below – no white – and his body was dark brown, highlighted with light brown, with some lighter brown on the shoulders and behind.  Probably I had seen my first Golden Eagle.

     Still at the same spot, I noticed a woman going from her binoculars to her field guide over and over, obviously frustrated.  Partly to be helpful and partly because I was curious about what I was missing, I said something to her.  She pointed at some diving ducks making big, sparkling splashes across the lake.  She was thinking Red-Head or Canvasback, both of which I have not seen yet.  I set up the spotting scope, and together we got very good looks and identified the reddish-brown headed ducks as female Common Mergansers.  The males were there too with their dark heads, bright orangy bills and white bodies.  Chris was keeping warm in the car and she had seen Shovelers before and could see the cormorant from the car, but she got out to see the mergansers.  She thinks the males are pretty sharp. She had spotted some black-headed ducks on the pond across the road.  We were thinking Lesser Scaups.  Wrong.  These ducks had white bodies and black heads.   They also had very distinctive bills -- black-tipped, inside that a white ring, and inside that dark grey.  The top of the head was kind of lumpy, but not tufted – so that’s a crown.  It took Chris about ten seconds to pick it out of the field guide – Ring-necked Duck.  So at our first stop, we saw five interesting birds, including three new to me.  Also, the people were friendly.  While we were looking at the Ring-necks, a birder started to chat me up about wigeon.  He was disappointed at having missed the Eurasian Wigeon – well sure! 

     The second stop was Willow Point Trail.  You park; you walk ten minutes to an observation point; you see cool birds and meet friendly people.  In a cove along the trail, there were eighty Tundra Swans, the remnant of the wintering population.  I was surprised to find from the Visitor Center handout written by Chuck Fergus that the swans don’t fatten up in their winter grounds, but actually lose significant weight during the winter months, up to nineteen percent.   So that would be like a guy who weighs 180, dropping down to 145 in four months.  So that explains why they leave as soon as they possibly can.  They’re hungry.  Behind the swans was a big group of Canada Geese, and on a hill behind them a mass of white dots, the last of the Snow Geese.  On the trail to the observation point a stream of people passed us, leaving to go eat dinner.  At the point, there were still fifteen or twenty people hanging out and some of them looking at birds.  A birder named Bill (not me) had his spotting scope set on a Bald Eagle across the lake and we got to see that.  I asked him if he had seen any wigeon.  He responded that he wouldn’t know the difference between a wigeon and a wheelbarrow.  I admitted that I could probably get it correct as a multiple choice question, but not as a fill in the blank.  We saw some ducks out on the lake that had buff-colored bodies with distinctive white rectangular patches on their sides.  Their heads were dark and when they turned into the light, the top of the head was white.  They were American Wigeon.  Chris had befriended a couple who had a Chesapeake Retriever that the owner used for duck hunting.  When I mentioned to them what the birds were, the Retriever’s owner asked me if I had seen the white patch.  That confirmed my identification, and also told me that this duck hunter was as familiar with these ducks on the lake as I am with robins on my lawn.  He was very polite and did not laugh at the city slicker.  Wigeon are small ducks.  When they swam next to some Canadian Geese, the geese looked like some kind of monster bird by comparison.  For example, the ratio of widgeon to goose is the same as a normal human to a 14 foot tall 1000 pound giant.  

     The duck hunter told us that Middle Creek WMA was funded by money from Pennsylvania hunting licenses.  Some weekends so many people come that there are traffic jams.  Many of the observation points and paved trails are new, making viewing the wildlife easily accessible.  The WMA is an excellent example of a place that is balancing the human need for recreation with wild animals’ need for safe places to feed and propagate.  This is an all Pennsylvania project and one that, as a Pennsylvania native, I am very proud to acknowledge.

     We decided to complete our day by finishing the driving tour.  In the parking lot, a photographer called out to us, “Don’t quit yet!  In a half hour the short-ears will be out.  Right here.”  We told him we would be back after a quick circuit of the lake.  The tour went right up to the hill where all the geese were milling about.  The official count that got posted was 5,000 and this flock was clearly smaller than the one we saw in Milford.  So that flock was easily 10,000+.  Still 5,000 geese on a hill is an impressive sight.

     We did make it back to Willow Point Trailhead before dusk and joined a line of cars along Hopeland Road to wait for the owls.  Once the sun went down, most of the photographers left, since it became too dark to get a good picture.  While we waited, we spotted a Great Blue Heron perched above her nest at the top of a distant tall tree.  When the owls made their appearance, there were only five birders still waiting, including Chris and me.  Two birds suddenly flew out of the brush on the side of Hopeland Road away from the lake.  Then one of them flew over Hopeland Road into the field on the other side.  I followed that one with the binoculars as he landed in the field.  That was a surprise!  Maybe he caught something and stopped to eat it.  After a few minutes, he was up again and now Chris had the binoculars, and I had the spotting scope on him, or just watched without optics.  He landed several times in the trees across the fields and twice on posts sticking out of the ground.  He was easy to follow with the spotting scope because he stayed close to the ground and mostly level.  As it got even darker, he flew off out of sight.  Short-eared Owls are  medium-sized (fifteen inches) with relatively long, powerful wings (38 inches).  They are brown and light brown, streaked and spotted, with round faces.  From the distance we were observing from, we are going to have to take the WMA director’s word that the ears are short.  Looking at pictures of Long-eared Owls, the ears on them are obvious and the body color much darker.  The other owl watcher’s were just as excited as we were to have been rewarded with such a splendid show.  That included the photographer who had suggested we stay, even though he didn’t get a picture.  All in all, it was a good day at a great WMA.

Directions:  On the PA Turnpike coming east from Philadelphia, get off at exit 286 (old exit 21).  Then take route 272 N (North Reading Road) for 3 miles.  Go past Renniger’s auction house.  Go left at a light onto Route 897.  Go 14 miles to Kleinfeltersville.  Before that, you will start to see signs for Middle Creek WMA.  Keep going.  In Kleinfeltersville, after the stop sign, take the first left onto Hopeland Road.  The Visitors Center is two miles on the right.

Phone:  717-733-1512

Diner:  Park Place Diner on Route 272.  It used to be Zinn’s Diner.  It is really good.  I got prime rib that was excellent.  To get there, retrace your steps back to the turnpike.  The diner is on the right, a little past Rennigers.

 

March 13 – Bird Walk

The folks at Tyler Arboretum were not able to make a 100% positive ID of the feathers that Chris and I had found at Bear Meadows, but everyone agreed that they came most likely from a Downy Woodpecker.  He probably didn’t make it was the other assessment.

     On today’s walk we saw three interesting birds – Fox Sparrows, Pine Siskins, and a Pileated Woodpecker.  My dad used to tell me about seeing these crow-sized, magnificent woodpeckers on his golf course, but I never saw one before.  They breed at Tyler, and the long-time walkers see them all year.  Our bird announced herself with loud booming calls and when we searched the trees where the calls came from, a Flicker appeared.  That caused some consternation over the rule, “You can sometimes mistake a Flicker call for a Pileated, but not a Pileated for a Flicker.”  That doesn’t make logical sense to me, but everyone agreed that the loud, booming calls were not the Flicker.  Then the Pileated showed herself and she was an impressive bird.  She was a very dark black, with some white on the face, and a distinctive bright red crest.  Since she did not have any red on the face, she was not a guy.

     My understanding is that these birds were formerly seen mostly in deep woods habitats, but have recently been spreading into areas near people, including suburban locations.  One of the group commented that he sees two of them every day in his yard.  He lives in Bryn Mawr which is a nice suburb on the Main Line.  He is near Darby Creek which is surely a good draw for the birds.

 

March 14 – Walk Walk 

On our routine walk in our neighborhood at dusk, Chris spotted a large bird roosting in a tree in one of our neighbor’s yards.  From the back, he looked grey and crow-sized, clearly too small to be a Red Tail.  We walked right up under him and he didn’t fly immediately, so we got a good look at his white chest (no bands) and his raptor head and hooked beak.  Maybe it was a Peregrine Falcon?  But we knew we were free-styling on this one.  At the end of our neighborhood, we heard a sparrow in a bush making a huge ruckus with alarm calls.  We saw the raptor again, this time floating into a large pine across the street.  When we crossed over to get another look, two of them flew out and away, showing us their grey backs and feathered wing tips, which meant they were not Peregrines.   When we had seen the bird roosting, we thought he had a long tail, which also rules out Peregrine.

 

March 15 – Walk Walk again

We got a late start and did our walk just after dark.  We heard four different flocks of geese flying overhead.  We think they might have been above the clouds, because we didn’t see any of them.  So the flocks of Canada Geese that we’ve been seeing in corn fields and grassy parks may have just headed north for a summer of eatin’ and lovin’.

     I’ve been thinking a little about the ones who stay behind.  For several decades at least, people in this region have been real upset about the large numbers of geese messing up the golf courses and office parks.  For the last few years, the geese don’t seem to have been a problem.  It isn’t that the geese are gone.  There clearly are more of them.  They appear to have learned where they can go and not be harassed by people.  I saw them all winter in fields on my way to work in flocks of between eight and eighty, always with a few sentries on the edges, alertly staring away from the flock, as the rest grubbed on the ground.

     Over the last few decades, large numbers of Canada Geese seem to have lost the instinct to migrate.  In the past, a few birds stayed behind the northern migration due to injury, or a “defect” in their genetics, or perhaps enticed by food.  If they managed to breed, I suspect that their off-spring just flew north the next spring, guided and driven by their instinct.  The few that did not head north would most likely be those who had “defects” in their genetic patterns related to migration.   Maybe these defects have been happening for thousands of years and the birds that can’t migrate just died off and their offspring got eaten.   But now that humans have cleared out nice lawns for the geese to graze on and eliminated most of the predators, Pennsylvania suburbs have become a good place for a goose to spend the summer.  The initial few who didn’t migrate would find only each other to mate with, since the migrators were off in Canada.  In these conditions, it would not take long to establish a large number of geese with the “defect”.   I would expect that the experiments depicted in the movie “Fly Away Home” related to re-teaching geese to migrate using ultralight aircraft to lead them would work for one generation.  The next generation would still not have the genetics to migrate and would probably just stay in their new home.  I could probably look this up to see if I’m right.  I’m hoping to get emails on this.  

  

3/23- Sat- Chincoteague NWR

I have to admit that I was so excited this morning that I had a hard time sleeping.  I woke up at 4:30 AM and basically just lay in bed waiting for the alarm to go off.  Does this make me a bad person?  No.  It does not.  But it probably indicates that I am unbalanced.

     We got to Chincoteague in the late morning and stopped at the first building which was the education center.  We asked the ranger on duty where to go since we had a very limited visit planned.  He told us to drive down the causeway and look for a big group of birders, and stop there.  “Everyone is looking for the Black-tailed Godwit.  That’s what you want to see.”

      On the way to the causeway, we saw several Great Egrets and a group of Double-breasted Cormorants, but we barely looked at them.  We were on a mission.  The “godwit watch” was large and conspicuous.  While Chris was answering an in-coming cell phone call, I joined the watch and pretended to be appropriately un-impressed by the many Marbled Godwits and Western Willets on the shore ahead of us.  Using my new binoculars (Monarch 7- more on this later) for pretty much the first time, I noticed a few of the birds had big, orangey bills.  “Are those Oystercatchers?”  I blurted out.  Yep, they were.  I went back to the car and got my spotting scope.  Chris put Mike on the phone and I blew him off, thinking we could talk later in the day.  That didn’t happen and I’m sorry about that.  But I’m starting to realize that the hunt for a new bird can be a pretty demanding compulsion.  I joined the group, got my scope focused on a brown bird and asked the guy next to me to look and see if I had the Marbled Godwit scoped out.  “That’s an immature Gull,” he told me, not unkindly.  Over the next hour he showed Chris and me how to tell the difference between Marbled Godwits and the Western Willets.  Both are big, but the Godwit is clearly bigger when you see them together -- 15” versus 18”.  The Godwit has a longer bill, with a slight curve upwards, which is also distinctive.  The Godwit is also darker and browner with lots of dots of color on his sides and backs, giving him his “marbled” name.  The Willet is a lighter brown or greyish.  When I made the mistake of calling them Eastern Willets he corrected me (again very nicely) and explained that the Westerns are here in Virginia now because they are migrating through.  The Eastern Willets are at Chincoteague in the summer to breed.  In the fall they are both here together and really tough to tell apart.

      The Black-tailed Godwit never showed while we were there.  Gradually the group whittled down to us, our expert friend, and a younger woman who seemed to be a little more advanced than us.  She asked about the terns that were very abundant.  These pure white, black-capped, black-billed, forked tail fliers were Forster’s Terns.  We also saw a Red-Breasted Merganser.  We spent a lot of the time following the ridiculously large billed and bright-billed American Oystercatchers as they strutted around the beach.  With their striking black and white bodies and with the extraordinarily bright neon bills, you could claim the bird is beautiful.  But the bill is huge!  And it is so bright that he is close to being a clown.  But clearly he’s no clown and makes his living doing the dangerous work of killing and eating oysters.  I apologize to the Goldfinch, Robin, and Bluebird.  My new favorite bird is the American Oystercatcher.

      “Those are Eastern Willets.  We don’t have Western Willets here.”

      The opinion came from a middle-aged birder.  I sensed a controversy similar to the Black-capped Chickadee versus Carolina Chickadee brough-ha-ha.  Just to make sure I wasn’t dealing with a very confident rookie, I asked a few questions.  “Is that a Boat-tailed Grackle?”

      “Yes, it is.”

      “That diving duck, what’s that?”

      “A Bufflehead.”

      I thanked him for his help and decided that the ranger would be the tie-breaker.

      We took a brief walk on the beach and got pummeled by the wind.  Then we headed up a woodland trail to see if we could see the wild ponies.  No luck there.  But we did see three big, light grey squirrels with impossibly long fluffy tails.   The tails looked about twice as long as the squirrel’s body and hung down as a big, fluffy decoration.  These were the endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrels.  The fiasco taking pictures of the Shovelers paid off because Chris took several outstanding shots of the squirrels.  In judging the range of the camera, I estimated that the squirrels were about fifty feet up and about fifty feet away from the trail.  So using the Pythagorean Theorem of a2 +b2 = c2, I figured that the squirrel was about 70 feet away.  This is the first time that I have ever used Geometry in my actual life.  That makes me wonder if birders looking at migrating warblers on a Georgia coastal island need to use Calculus.  Do birders observing the hawk migration on Hawk Mountain in the fall need Differential Equations?  I hope to answer these questions later in the year.

 

Endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel, Chincoteague, VA, March, 2013

     Today’s question for the Chincoteague ranger was about Willets.  Before we got back to the education center, we came up with a second question.  We saw a Kingfisher dive off a branch into a little canal, catch a fish, and fly back to his perch.  He was large,  blue backed, and had a red breast.   Before I could get his picture he flew off.  A few hundred feet later, Chris caught a flash of bright red in the trees to our right and we think probably it was the same kind of bird.  So here’s the question -- female Belted Kingfishers have a little red on them, but only the Ringed Kingfisher has an all red breast.  Those aren’t supposed to be in Virginia.  Could the bird we saw be a Ringed Kingfisher?

      On question one, the ranger called an ornithologist buddy of his.  The bird list for the site just says Willet.  The ornithologist said that this is one of those identifications that advanced birders argue about and that it is next to impossible to visually distinguish individual birds of the two species.  Western Willets migrate through and Eastern Willets breed at Chincoteague, but at any time of the year, it is possible that an individual Willet could be either.  So that was helpful.  It means that if you see a group of Willets at Chincoteague in late winter/ early spring, some of them could be potentially Eastern, but the extreme high probability is that some (and most ) of them are Western.  In the summer, it would be highly probable that some (or all) are Eastern.  In the fall, they are just Willets, because even the experts can’t reliably differentiate them. 

      Question two remained unanswered for the time being.  The ranger paid Chris and me a guarded compliment.  He said, “You two are going to be great birders.”

      When I pointed out that would mean we are currently not great birders, he quickly shot back, “Well, maybe tomorrow.”

      He’s going to send me an e-mail on the Kingfisher.  In the meantime, the score is Black-Tailed Godwits and Wild ponies – zero.  Delaware Fox Squirrel, Marbled Godwit, American Oyster Catcher, and Willet -- four.  Chincoteague wins!

      My last observation has to do with the birding experience and was unexpected.  I also noticed this after the Middle Creek visit when we saw the Short-eared Owls.  It was an adrenaline rush.  I know what these are and have seen them many times as a softball coach.  After a day of tournament softball, most of the girls go off to a pleasant and very social dinner.  Some of them, though, can’t eat for an hour or two.  They have stomach aches, sometimes a headache, and sometimes symptoms that look like an allergy.  They are going through withdrawal from an extended adrenaline rush.  They have been concentrating in a super-excited, super-intense way for hours and when they come down from that, they feel a little sick.  I got that at Middle Creek and Chincoteague.  I bet a lot of birders get that after a good day in the field.

Great Restaurant Recommendation:

      We stopped at three random restaurants in Chincoteague Island and walked out, even though we were really hungry.  They looked dirty and cheesy and the kind of place that seems to proliferate in popular summer vacation hot spots.  Outside of the town on Route 175, just before 175 hits 13, and after my stomach calmed down, we stopped at Ray’s Seafood Shanty and got big plates of fried Oysters.  They were tender, sweet, and juicy.  So I have that in common with my new favorite bird.  I really like oysters.

 

 

Sunset at Cape Charles, Virginia

Still 3/23- Saturday Evening- Cape Charles, Virginia

Cape Charles is at the extreme southern end of the Delaware peninsula.  We stayed at the Sunset Beach Island Resort, which is on route 13 about two minutes from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, if you drive slowly.  This hotel has a lot of negative reviews on the internet, but I think those are unfair.  Our room was very clean and faced the Bay/Ocean.  The view was beautiful.  I don’t care at all that the bathroom fixtures are a little out-of-date.   I do care that we could take a drive from behind the hotel, along a driveway lined with Crape Myrtles to a little beach where I could see lots of Brown Pelicans roosting on wooden pilings and see Oystercatchers on the shore line.

     In the town of Cape Charles, ten miles to the north, we took a walk on a boardwalk that starts at the end of Chesapeake Bay.  It’s a long boardwalk and sets you a decent way out on the water.  Facing back toward the town we saw the town’s cement factory.  Facing out toward the bay, we saw Ospreys, eight or ten of them.  They were catching fish and trying to steal the fish from each other.  One would get a good perch and another would fly from a few hundred yards away to steal the perch.  Then the displaced bird would fly back to the other’s old perch, unless some other bird had a fish.  Then he would go there.  They are strong fliers and very wild looking, with their angular heads and sharp beaks.  They put on a good show.

     At the other end of Bay Avenue are the remnants of an abandoned marina just below the Cape Charles public beach.  We found a lot of gulls there – Ringed Billed or Herring, I’m not sure which -- and about thirty small black-capped gulls mixing in with them.  So were they the reasonably common Bonaparte Gulls or the more unusual Black-capped Gulls?  They had orange bills, which makes them Black-capped.  Bonaparte Gulls have black bills.  We got a lot of pictures, but the bill color isn’t clear on the camera display.  I expect blowing it up on our TV screen will show the bills real well.  Just as important is the behavior.  My Sibley Guide says that Bonaparte Gulls are shy and rarely mix with larger gulls, while Black-capped Gulls will frequently do that.

Restaurant:  Kelly’s  -- it’s a former bank converted to  a bar/ restaurant.  It’s a fun place.  We sat at the bar and had a beer and nachos.  It was the perfect cap to a very pleasant day.

 

Double-breasted Cormorant, Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Island Two

3/24- Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel

In one of Scott Wiedensaul’s books, Scott mentioned that if you cross the CBBT, you can bird on the islands that the bridge/ tunnel is built on. (F13).  So I decided to try it.  In February, I googled “Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel” and from the web-site obtained an application for birding.  Prior to 9-11, birders could just stop on any of the four islands whenever they were crossing the bridge.  You can still stop on Island Four, the southernmost island, without a permit.  But the other three require a police escort.  It doesn’t matter whether you are a single birder, a small group, or a large group.  It costs $50 per hour for the escort and everyone needs to fill out the birding application in advance.  I faxed our forms in to the number on the application then called the operations office of the CBBT to make sure that they got them.  The office personnel were very friendly and helpful and verified that our planned visit was approved.

     On Sunday morning, we pulled off to the right of the entrance to the toll booths for the CBBT about ten minutes before our 8 AM scheduled start time.  There are two buildings.  We parked behind the building closest to the toll booths, walked around to the front of that building, and went in the unmarked front door.  On the right is a glass covered counter for the police room.  That’s what you want.  We introduced ourselves there and in a few minutes two officers came out with the paperwork that we sent in during February.  We showed our drivers licenses.  That’s all you need.  Then we got back in our car and followed the officers through the toll both, stopping to pay the $12 toll on the way through.  From that point on we had complete control of where to stop and for how long.

     We stayed on Island One for twenty minutes.  Almost immediately, we saw the birds I had been hoping to see, the Northern Gannet.  Out in the bay side of the water, there was a fishing boat with fifty to a hundred birds circling above it, most of them big, white, impressive gulls.  Mixed in were a dozen or more, mostly white, more slender birds.  Their wings and bodies were both proportionately longer than the gulls and when we got them in our optics, we could clearly see the black tips of their wings.  They flew faster and more gracefully and suddenly started diving into the ocean.  They didn’t drop and splat like a Pelican (or me).  They flew straight down, then knifed into the water, with an obvious splash, but at a speed that was breath-taking, and one that obviously shot them deep under water.  If you read my dog stories in the Introductions, you might think of William after a face plant demanding a 10, when we just gave his dive a 9.  Gannets get a 10.  There is no way to argue for a lower score.

     We moved on to Island Two pretty quickly.   There we saw the same fishing boat again and a lot more Gannets.  We also saw a group of about 30 cormorants on a concrete wall, quite a few Great Black-backed Gulls, some small black duck-like birds with yellow bills, and some Rock Doves (i.e., Pigeons).  What the heck were pigeons doing on a little island out in the ocean?  This island was the farthest out from land and the wind was ferocious.  We guessed about 40 MPH.  The officers told us that sometimes it gusts at 100 mph.

     We spent more time on Island Three, about one hour.  We figured out that the flocks of black ducks with the yellow bills were actually Black Scoters.  Mixed in were Surf Scoters.  These were very similar to the Black Scoter but had obvious big white patches on the backs of their heads and weirdly colored bills that were white, yellow, and black, maybe with a touch of red.  The color accentuated a knob behind the bill and made the while anatomical unit look misshapen.  We watched the diving Scoters for a while on the bay side of the island.  Then we walked around to the ocean side to see what was there.  There was a flock of about 300 Herring Gulls sitting on the flat top of the island.  We tried not to spook them but we did, and they took off with a blast of commotion.  So we walked over their fishy smelling area and glanced over the guard rail.  On the rocks below were about 200 cormorants peacefully hanging out.  They seem like reasonably nice birds.  Two small birds with a dark ring around their necks and dark markings on their faces plopped down on the abandoned gull area, poking around for something to eat.  They were Semi-palmated Plovers.  Back out in the water, we saw a Red Breasted Merganser and knew what he was without help this time.  There were several diving birds with pointed bills and flat, angular looking heads, mostly dark grey, with white fronts.  Chris got some pictures of them and later we were able to match them up with pictures of Horned Grebes.  So that’s what a grebe is.  Our two hour time slot was almost up and we were real cold, so we were going to quit a little early, when two of my favorite birds flew in.  The two Oystercatchers posed dramatically on the rocks about twenty feet below us, as Chris snapped off half a dozen nice pictures.

     Then it was time to pay up and leave.  The CBBT doesn’t collect your fee until the end of the visit in case you want to quit early.  So if you schedule two hours, but only stay for one, you pay $50, not $100.  If you pay with a credit card or need a receipt, you need to go back to the office.  So it’s easiest to either write a check or fork over the cash.  We paid, left our escort, and continued south over the bridge/tunnel.  Island Four is open without an escort or a reservation, but we were too cold to stop and on our way to meet our cousins in Virginia Beach, so we kept going.  But really, it was a pretty good birding fix.

 

3/24- Continued, Virginia Beach, VA to Huntington Beach, SC

In Virginia Beach, we met Sue and Matt and had an excellent gourmet dinner at a fine restaurant/hotel, The Founders Inn.  We can’t keep eating like this all week, or I will gain a hundred pounds!  It was very nice to visit my cousins.  They live ten minutes from the famous Back Bay NWR and I hope to see that on a future visit.  The Great Dismal Swamp is nearby and would also be something I’d like to visit.  More good news, Sue and Matt said that they would like to read this book, so now I’m up to five readers.  Only 95 more and I’ll meet my target!

 

 

 

3/25- Huntington Beach State Park, SC

We are staying for a week in the Murrell’s Inn Hampton which is three miles from this spot that was rated by a number of visitors as one of the top - or the top - birding spot in South Carolina.  So I bought a weekly pass.  That probably was excessive.  The $5 daily admission per person was probably a better deal for Chris and me this week.  But it’s not a big deal.  I see it like I see my frequent overdue fines at the Chester County Library.  It’s a contribution to a worthwhile organization.  

      The weather didn’t actually suck on Monday, but it was challenging.  All up and down the east coast, there was an unusually harsh weather-maker.  Delaware got four inches of snow – even in the heart of winter that would be an event.  Pennsylvania got the same.  On our drive from Virginia Beach to South Carolina, it rained the entire way.  On Monday, the rain had stopped, but there were steady thirty- five MPH winds all day.  The ranger at the entrance to the state park told us that he had personally measured gusts up to 45 MPH on Monday.  So it was a tough day for a walk on the beach.

      After entering the state park, there is a causeway that you can drive over or walk over with a salt water marsh on one side and a fresh water pond on the other.  On our way in, there was a stately Mute Swan on the pond and nothing visible in the marsh.  We parked and found one of the access spots to the beach.  It is a long and pretty beach.  I expect that when the weather is nice, it has a lot of people on it, but today Chris and I were sharing miles of coastline with four or five people in winter parkas.  The wind was steady and pounding.  Up in the air we saw squadrons of Herons and Pelicans hitch-hiking north in squads of eight to twelve.  That makes sense.  Any bird going north might be able to get there almost as fast as we could drive, riding this tail wind.  We also saw Gannets again.  They were close enough to shore that we didn’t need binoculars to see their wingtip markings, or the splashes as they dived into the ocean.  It was a wild beach day and these acrobatic birds were perfectly in control, slicing through the wind with ease.  They spend their whole life out on the water and only come into land to breed.  Being this close to land is unusual, but for the Gannet, the 35-45 MPH winds are probably just business as usual.  Watching them handle the wind currents so effortlessly, I realized we were getting a special treat.  And for the day, I was disloyal to the Oystercatcher and switched my favorite bird to the elegant Gannet.

      Now that we know what Horned Grebes looked like, it wasn’t hard to identify several flocks of them, diving for fish in the rough surf.  We also saw a few Semi-palmated Sandpipers, but basically the wind-swept beach was swept free of birds.  We tried a trail through a wood with pine and Live Oaks.  The oaks are pretty cool trees with many trunks extending out from the same spot and forming the base for a large leafy canopy.  There were little grey birds flitting around in the bushes and the trees, only showing themselves enough to be tantalizing.  Finally one of them sat in the open on a branch for twenty seconds, so we could see it.   It looked like a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, a common bird in the area, but totally new to us.  The path followed along an impoundment and occasionally there were observation look-outs that looked over the water.  There we saw some Yellow-rumped Warblers, which we knew from seeing them in Prime Hook.  These also are pretty common in the area.  Out on the water, there were several grebes, but these looked a little different from the flocks of birds in the ocean, and certainly were behaving different.  These looked like the more uncommon, Eared Grebes.  Mixed in with them were some ducks that we hadn’t seen before.  These had a white bar right across their faces.  When they flew they showed white patches on the back of their wings.  These were Blue-winged Teal.  They are very pretty birds. 

     That’s all we saw.  I’m not leaving out the robins and sparrows and crows and other common birds.  The birds were either not there or hunkering down waiting for the wind to stop-even on the reasonably protected woodland path.  On the way out we saw a single Snowy Egret and a Great Egret.  The much smaller Snowy Egret was easy to identify contrasting its smaller size and black bill, with the yellow billed larger bird.

Restaurant:  Nance’s Sea Food -- while we ate oysters again, we actually did some decent birding.  We sat at one of the prime tables in the back of the restaurant.  The whole wall is windows that overlook a marsh that is a giant oyster bed.  There were waterman out in boats picking the oysters for the restaurant and also lots of Forster’s Terns putting on a display of great flying and awkward splashing.   They seem to fly around with a lot of sharp turns in a group feeding frenzy.  Every minute or so, they hit the water feet first, making a big splash.  At one point a Bald Eagle flew over.  It was entertaining and obviously the oysters that we were chowing down on were excellent.  John Yow, the armchair birder, has a second book called “The Armchair Birder Goes Coastal” in which he has detailed write-ups of twenty-eight coastal birds.  In his Oystercatcher write-up he described how the birds either quickly snatch at the open oyster or quickly cut its muscle so it can’t close or smash closed shells to get the oysters.  He quotes C.J. Maynard from 1896, “specimens which I shot after they had been feeding a short time were so crammed that by simply holding a bird by the legs and shaking it gently the oysters would fall from its mouth.”  (F14).  Right now, that would probably work on me.

      Outside the restaurant we saw another common bird in the area that is new for a Pennsylvania boy.  It’s the Rusty Blackbird.  These small-billed blackbirds have a nice buff colored breast that gives him his name.

 

3/26- Huntington Beach State Park- Day Two

We got up late.  Real late.  We really like our hotel room.  Chris and I were married for years before we had kids and that was like a very long, romantic date.  We enjoyed our phase being “parents first”, but now it is also nice to reconnect with the love of my life on our first full week trip without kids in a quarter century.

     Chris sometimes has a hard time putting up with me.  Like today I was fun to be with in the morning, but a real pain in the butt in the afternoon.  Back at the state park, I wanted to see new birds, but nature was not cooperating.  The wind had died down, but it was still cold for the region.  Out on the marsh boardwalk, I got to see a Great Blue Heron eat a fish which is always entertaining – if you don’t get out much.  I did see a solitary shore bird running around the mud-flat near the heron.  It looked a lot like the Marble Godwit with the spotted back and sides, but the bill didn’t seem quite right -- too small and pointed.  Also I wasn’t sure about the legs.  Does a Marbled Godwit have yellow legs?  Duh!  Yellow legs means it’s a Yellow Legs.  So was it a Lesser Yellowleg or Greater?  Chris had been at the Nature Center and just came up behind me.  She pointed out that the huge bird that I was looking at in my binoculars was only about fifteen feet away below us.  It was obviously about robin-sized and a Lesser Yellowlegs.

     Since there were so few birds on the marsh, we decided to take the 2.5 mile walk on the beach to a jetty north of the park.  The wind was much less than on Monday, but there were even less birds than before.  No Gannets, migrating Herons, or Migrating Pelicans.  Still there were a few grebes off shore and two Common Loons.  On shore we saw more Semi-palmated Sandpipers and more Semi-palmated Plovers.  Out on the end of the jetty were five cormorants roosting on a tower.  We saw them from really far away with the spotting scope because the wind had picked up again and there was no way we were going to go out in the ocean on the jetty.  If I got blown off, Chris would not be able to save me because her lifeguard certification expired decades ago.  Anyway, we found lots of live star fish, sea urchin, and spider crabs.  No new birds.  Back at the car, I crashed.  I was especially disappointed that the grey-billed loon wasn’t a new and exciting bird, just a non-breeding bird.  I turned on the state park, the birders who had recommended it, and the tourism industry of South Carolina.  Obviously the state park had been oversold as a premier birding spot!  The teen-ager manning the desk at the visitor’s center told us that because of the cold, the fish had moved to deeper water, so the marsh birds were somewhere else.  She couldn’t suggest any other birding sites in the state, although she thought there were others.  Hey!  Give her a break.  She is a nice kid, just not a birder.  I remained polite in public.  But in private, not so much.  After a few hours, I started to get sane again.  People in the Piggly Wiggly grocery store confirmed that this weather was extremely unusual and that it had been in the seventies most of the winter.  So the birds aren’t at the park this week.  It isn’t a zoo.  They need to eat, migrate, and reproduce.  Being seen by humans is not part of their agenda.  So Chris and I regrouped and planned a side trip for tomorrow to the Santee NWR on Lake Marion in central South Carolina.  She’s still annoyed at me for being such a downer after the beach walk.  When I told her that I had a stomach ache, she said, “Good!”  At least she didn’t shoot me and turn me upside down to see if oysters would slide out.  She probably considered it though.

 

3/27- leaving for Santee NWR

Having my first bad day trying to be a birder forced me to ask myself, “why am I doing this?”  Is it the score-keeping of seeing how many birds I can identify, or the treasure hunt to score a rare bird?  I hope it isn’t that.  I went through a lot of that with sports and eventually realized that if you don’t like the activity by itself, winning at it doesn’t make it fun or worthwhile.  If you are a player or coach, you need to love the practices as much as the games.  You need to roll with the strike outs and celebrate the hits.  If you are a spectator, you need to enjoy the games, even if your team loses, or about half the time, you won’t have a good time.  You have to care or it becomes just plain, mindless motion.  But you have to keep caring under control and maintain perspective.  Sports, birding, NASCAR, whatever -- these aren’t your job.  Focus on the pleasant passage of time.

      So for me what is birding about right now?   It was supposed to be about learning about nature and finding an activity that Chris and I could do together outdoors.  And have fun together.  We did that fine yesterday.  So what’s the problem?  There isn’t any.

 

3/27- Insanity in Santee NWR

Actually nothing really crazy happened, expect for the alligator incident.  And there was the wild boar.  Also there was an issue with an Osprey.  But at least, as far as we know, nobody was killed or too badly injured.

      Santee NWR is located on the shores of Lake Marion in the center of the state.  If you ever drove from the Northeast to Florida on Route 95, you drove right past it.  The visitor center is located on the shore of Lake Marion and can rival any of the other NWRs for its beauty and picturesque location.  The lawn outside featured a Cardinal singing his heart out in welcome and a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds snagging a meal at the feeder. Inside, we got good advice on how to view the refuge, voted on the photography contest, and got a look down into a replica of an Osprey nest that was authentic in every way except for smell.  Somehow I don’t think the smell of rotting fish would enhance the experience, but that’s just me.  Our host suggested that we start with the 7.5 mile car loop at the Cuddo Unit of the park.  There are four sections to the refuge:  the Bluff Unit which is farthest west, closest to 95, and has the visitor center; Dingle Pond Unit on the eastern side of 95; Pine Island a little farther west; and Cuddo, which is about 15 miles from the Visitor Center.  All are on the lake shore and have excellent hiking.  In addition to the car tour, Cuddo has a canoe trail, and some good hiking. 

      After entering Cuddo, the road goes through a pine forest.  On this early spring day, it was full of bird song.  We got out and tried to actually see the critters, but they didn’t show themselves just yet.  But it was warm, sunny, not windy, and just plain nice.  Chris would say “magical”.  Actually, I think she did say “magical”.  A little farther on, we parked at a little parking lot with a number on it.  We spotted several Blue-grey Gnatcatchers and this time didn’t have to say “I think”, we knew them like we were native Carolinians.  There were several American Coots on a pond which puzzled me.  The coots were supposed to be rare and the similar common Moorhens were supposed to be abundant, but the rest of the day we saw tons of coots, but not a single Moorhen.  I plan to write an email to the rangers, when I get back home.  If they say I had the ID backwards, Moorhen will be underlined.  So was I right, or did I actually see Moorhens?  Or maybe I just forgot to send the email.  Ya think?

      We heard some chicken-like clucks back in the woods, so we stepped over the parking spot fence and followed a path along a little canal.  Eventually the canal flowed into a large pond where we saw a big black water bird with a long, snaky neck, our first of many Anhinga’s.  The refuge turned out to be an Anhinga ghetto and we saw them all day long.  I saw a white and black quail-like bird on a nest on the ground but couldn’t point it out successfully to Chris.

      Farther ahead, the road had a pond on one side and a big field on the other side.  Both sides were full of Tree Swallows, flashing their beautiful blue green backs as they demonstrated the 5 D’s of being a swallow: Dodge, dip, dive, duck, and dodge.  Or maybe that was in the movie, “Dodge Ball”, I forget.  The swallows were thrilling and a sure sign of spring.

      We stopped on the road along the lake to watch a large bird circle above us.  He kept circling until we got out our field guide and went through all the raptor pictures and identified him as an Osprey.  That was fun.  At the lake, we took the time to set up the spotting scope to look at a bird standing on a rock, far offshore.  We think it was a cormorant.  It looked like a cormorant with a white breast. Could it be a color morph?  We stopped along a road that ran away from the lake and saw a flash of blue on a small warbler-like bird.  It took off quickly into the woods, so we didn’t get a great look at it.  But by the process of elimination and looking at the site bird list, it was most likely a Prothonotary  Warbler.  So the warbler madness has begun.  I was hoping for weeks of guidance from my birding group friends at Tyler Arboretum, but today at Santee, Chris and I will have to go it alone.  I made a very solid ID of a Hooded Warbler.  There are several warblers with black markings on their faces, but the black throat and hood of this little guy makes him look like he is planning a robbery at the nearest Piggly Wiggly.  We’ll be able to ID the robber as a Hooded Warbler.  But which Hooded Warbler?  They are common at Santee.  It could be any one of them!

      We saw some Yellow-rumped Warblers.  These are easy and also common at Santee.  We got really stumped by a pretty bright yellow breasted warbler that tantalized us for fifteen minutes, high up in a huge kind of tree that doesn’t grow in Pennsylvania (remember, I’m starting with birds and moving on to plants, insects, and other stuff later).  His breast was bright yellow; he might have been another Prothonotary Warbler.  His back looked more like a Pine Warbler.  We never did figure it out.  Fortunately, some much easier to identify birds flew into the same tree.

      First was our old philosopher friend, the Red-bellied Woodpecker.  He was joined by a Downy Woodpecker, and then a Northern Flicker.  All three are common in Santee.  Then a not-so-common-in-the-spring-at-Santee woodpecker joined the woodpecker quartet.  For a little while we thought it was a Red-naped Sapsucker, because it was a sapsucker with a red throat.  That would be big news, because those birds are all in Mexico right now.  Actually the fourth woodpecker was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.   It also has a bright red throat, in addition a yellow tinged belly and he’s an occasional spring visitor to the region.

      “Hey! What about the alligators, osprey, and wild pigs?”

      I’m getting to that.  In fact, just a little farther up the road, in a canal along the road, there was a huge alligator.  It was a big one.  Probably eighteen feet long, old, grey, mean looking.  He was asleep in the sun and although our running around and saying “Holy Crap!” about twenty times scared everything else away, the alligator continued his nap.  A local guy drove up and stopped.  He told us some alligator and snake bite stories and told us that the bend up ahead was called Alligator Ally.  There usually were quite a few gators there.

      He was right.  The first one we came up on was a monster.  He looked to be twenty feet long.  Scarier than that was how wide he was, at least three feet across.  He was awake and looking at us.  We got out of the car to take pictures.  He was thirty feet away, no fence and no guardrail.

      “He can’t move fast, can he?” Chris asked.

      “Actually, yes he can.”

      “No!  How fast?”

      “I think over short distances, up to 30 MPH.”  

      “You’ve got red sneakers on.  Maybe they chase red like bulls do,” Chris continued in the tone that wasn’t panic yet, but was getting there.

      I got to use a really old joke – “I’m not worried.  I don’t have to outrun the gator.  I just have to out run you.”

      That did it.  Chris grabbed me and pulled me back to the car and wouldn’t let us get back out.  There were a lot of decent sized gators ahead, but none as big as that giant.  We got some good pictures from the car.

      Now the pig, where did we see him?  A big 200 pounder crossed the road in the swampy area beyond Alligator Alley.  We got pictures of a second pig when the road bends to the left at Woods Road.  Apparently wild pigs are pretty common.  The Wacramow NWR is closed the entire month of March because of wild pig hunting.  Who knew?

      At one of the refuges, I read a tip that cars are pretty good bird blinds.  Sometimes staying in the car gets you a better look or at least a longer look, at the bird.  That worked well for us with an Osprey.  Hearing some loud screeches, we stopped.  They were coming from directly above us where an Osprey was perched.  We snapped off a bunch of pictures and got a lesson on the Osprey call that will be hard to forget.

      That’s pretty much it for Cuddo, except for some Purple Martins that I forgot to mention.  I thought we would see Barn Swallows, but not a one showed up.  We finished the day back at the Visitor Center.  We were hoping to see the endangered Swallow-Tailed Kites, but they weren’t there today.  There is a thousand year old Indian Mound there, which is also the sight of an important Revolutionary War battle won by Francis Marion, A.K.A. the Swamp Fox.  We went up a hiking path for a ways.  Then we realized that is was getting late.  No one else was at the center and we hadn’t seen any people for hours.  Walking deeper into a swamp on a path we didn’t really know seemed a little chancy.  So we backed off and ended our day with a little rest on the shore of the lake.  We also got a nice surprise as we saw a Brown Nuthatch crawling up a tree trunk.  Outside the refuge we saw Wild Turkeys and Cattle Egret.  It was a great day for watching birds, but more than that, it was a lot of fun.

 Alligator Alley, Santee NWR, South Carolina

 

Alligator Alley, Santee NWR, South Carolina

 

No Particular Place or Time- A comment on misleading headlines

Yeah.  I know that my lead in to the Santee NWR write-up implied that something really dangerous or nasty happened relating to alligators, wild pigs, and osprey, but if you go back and read it, you’ll see that I said “as far as we know, no one was killed or too badly injured”.  That’s a true statement.  That cheesy kind of writing is everywhere in the media and careful readers like you should be on your guard against it.

      Here’s a particularly nasty example that I saw in a headline this week, “M___ D__ Gay Shocker”.  Below the headline -- “the guilty terrible secret he is hiding from his wife”.  The actual story is that the famous actor had a brother who was gay and who died a long time ago.  He felt terrible and guilty that he wasn’t able to do more to help his brother whom he loved very much.  And, no, he probably never mentioned this to his new wife because it happened so long ago.  Not one word of the headline was false, but it gave a completely opposite impression of the actual story.

      Here’s a more subtle trick that I see a lot.  It’s the use of pseudoscientific lingo and credentials to give credence to a totally made up hypothesis.  This one comes from the newspaper they give away free at hotels.  It costs a dollar in stores and newsstands, but I can’t imagine anyone would pay for it (that’s a true statement about my imagination.  Probably a few idiots do pay for this rag).  Anyway, their story was about the increase acidification of the ocean due to the burning of greenhouse gases.  Their claim was that since the Industrial Revolution began the oceans have gotten 30% more acidic.  Their evidence was “a report” from a 2009 committee with a name that had “ocean” and “scientific” in it.  Chris and I just formed a committee called “The 2013 Committee for the Study of Oceanographic Phenomena and Climate Change.”  Our report (this is it) reports that since last week the oceans have become 30% less acidic.  Hooray!  Problem solved.

      The story was about decreased oyster production, a 100+ million dollar industry.  It featured a farmer telling how the increased acidity is killing his oysters.  You know, I might be just too stupid to understand all this science, but couldn’t it be that all the pollution that we dump in the rivers and oceans has something to do with it.  And could it also have something to do with “over harvesting”.  No probably not.  It’s probably CO2 from fossil fuels.

 

3/28- Pawley’s Island

We got up for breakfast, went back to bad.  We got up for lunch and went sight-seeing.  It’s a rough life!  As we drove by Huntington State Park, we stopped in to do a bird check.  We drove the causeway and walked the marsh boardwalk.  The Mute Swan was back on the fresh water impoundment.  There was a very cute elementary school field trip on the boardwalk listening to a ranger talk on oysters, but no birds visible in the marsh.  So on we went, south to Pawley’s Island.

     As a resort island, Pawley’s Island is very exclusive.  As an historic area with 150+ year old buildings and pirate lore back to the colonial era, it is unique and interesting.  As a beach, it is exquisite.  We walked the north end of the island at extreme low-tide.  The ocean is really shallow for a long way on the north end, so you can walk far out onto sand bars that are submerged at high tide.  Across the channel between us and the mainland, on a patch of sand far away from any humans, a big group of gulls with black heads was resting with birds more than twice as big.  We just had binoculars.  With those we could see that the bigger birds had big black and white bellies, and huge orange beaks.  We went back to the car to get the spotting scope and beach chairs.  That was a pretty long hike, but when we got back, the birds were still there.  With the scope, chairs, a birding book, and a bottle of water, it was relaxing work to view a flock of 26 Black Skimmers.  See, I counted them.  The moderate wind was jiggling the scope too much to get a really clear picture, but at least it’s clear enough to see what they are in the picture.  It’ll be a nice souvenir.

      These big birds are about the same height as a Willet, about 18 inches.  They are much heavier, 11 oz versus 8oz, and have much bigger wings, 44” versus 26”.  (Thank you Mr. Sibley.) Their bills are unique.  The top bill is long and big, the bottom bill is significantly longer.  It’s mostly orange, but the tips are clearly black.  They use their big beaks as a scoop to slice through the surface of the water to pick up small fish.  They do most of their fishing at night.  They apparently spend their days standing on a beach.

 

3/29- Francis Marion National Forest

We took a field trip south towards Charleston to the Cape Romaine NWR / Francis Marion National Forest Area.  Our first stop was at the Sewee Education Center on Route 17 in Awendaw, phone number 843-928-3368.  It’s a very nice facility and the staffer on duty gave us some good suggestions on whether to skip the boat ride out to Bull Island, which is the major birding location for Cape Romaine.  We figured that we’ve been on the coast a lot already this week and that the island might be a repeat of what we’ve been seeing (and in some regard what we haven’t been seeing).  The national forest seemed like something really different, so we chose two locations of this 22 mile long forest that had potential for good birding.

      The first spot is called I’On Swamp and the turn off from route 17 is a quarter mile south of the education center.  After that it is three or four miles on a narrow, pot-holed, country lane.  Go very slow, or your SUV will need a new alignment.  Following the map that we got at the Sewee Center, we found the trailhead in one of those sketchy backwoods places that get into movies like Deliverance.  We took our wallets and credit cards and anything else of value.  It’s a pretty spot, just very isolated.  This part of the forest is a former rice plantation.  South Carolina and Georgia grew 90% of the nation’s rice prior to the 1850’s.  A plaque that the forest service set up out on the trail dramatically makes the point about how difficult rice production was here in the Carolina swamp.  Step one was to pull out every tree by hand.  Standing on the former dike, looking out into the former rice field, you see nothing but thousands of trees -- big ones -- growing in standing water and mud, surrounded by bushes and vines.  That first task would be daunting.  Next would be to dig by hand canals and dikes, sectioning the land into rectangles that could be flooded and drained during key points in the growing season.  Then, using mules with special foot coverings to keep them from sinking into the mud, the workers would spend endless, back-breaking hours to plant, irrigate, and harvest the crop.  And all of this would be done in unbearable heat and humidity while suffering from chronic malaria.  No wonder that after emancipation, rice production in the Carolinas ended.

      The trail is on one of the former dikes of the rice planation.  In most spots it is only four or five feet wide with water and swamp on both sides.  At one point it leads into a spot where it becomes a big circle.  We went to the left and had to stop after about a half mile because the trail was completely submerged.  There were lots of warblers that were green on top and yellow below, probably Pine Warblers, but on this particular day it was enough to see pretty birds in a swamp.  We weren’t after warblers anyway.  We were hunting the endangered Red Cockaded Woodpecker that lives in this particular mature pine forest/ swamp.   We backtracked to the “T” in the trail and continued over a little wooden bridge to see if we could get around that way.  Because of all the recent rain, that part of the swamp was also very wet.  The water on both sides came right up to the edge of the trail.  We heard a very loud slap in the water behind us and turned around quickly enough to see a big alligator tail sink into the water about eight feet behind us.  Remembering Chris’ reaction to my red sneakers when we saw alligators at Santee, I commented on her choice of a red jacket for hiking in a swamp.  I got the “Oh, really!” look from her.  We kept going, excited by the lure of the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker and also by the mystery of the swamp itself.  It was bright, green, and teaming with life.  Full of sound and yet eerily quiet.  On both sides, the stagnant water hid beautiful secrets and real dangers.  I looked into the former rice plantation that was now a reclaimed wilderness.  Many souls had died on this land more than 150 years ago.  They died of sickness, exhaustion, snake bite, alligator attack, and heartbreak.  Behind me I heard, “Bill, this is kind of creeping me out.”  I looked left and right.  The swamp water came right up to the path on both sides.  Up ahead a splash of sun created a nice warm spot on the path, perfect for a large, reptile to lounge on.  I was tempted to break into a song and see if a lounging lizard would appreciate my lounge lizard imitation.  But I kept my joke to myself.  Any of the logs on the path or in the water could be a gator.  It’s true that if people leave the gators alone, they usually leave people alone.  The key work in that sentence is “usually”.  I looked back and I saw that Chris had taken her red jacket off and was hiding it under her shirt.  It was definitely time to leave.  The swamp would keep its secrets.

      On the way back out we took our time in the areas where the dike was wider and eventually led into a forested area.  We got pictures of big bugs that looked like leaves, leaves that looked like bugs, and butterflies.  We didn’t see the endangered bird, but we had a hike that we’ll never forget.

I’On Swamp, South Carolina, March, 2013

                                                   

Francis Marion National Forest, Part Two

Twelve miles north of the Sewee Center on Route 17 there is a series of trails called the South Tilwin Trail.  This location had a much less adventuresome setting with a nice safe-looking, public parking area with a nice, dry, flat road leading into a pine forest.  We chose a five mile hike that hit most of the edges of this part of the refuge and cut across it in both directions.  We were out to walk first and see birds, if we got lucky. 

     After a pleasant mile walk across the forest, the path ended at a large impoundment on Tilwin Creek.  The forest service had built a dock out on the water, with benches surrounded by an observation blind.  We sat comfortably for a while and watched Great Egrets, Anhinga, Buffleheads, and a Belted Kingfisher.  Then a Tri-Colored Heron flew in and perched on a nearby stump.   This was a special treat for me, since we had seen tons of Great Blue Herons, but none of the smaller, more secretive herons.

     Energized by a rest at the observation blind and some snacks, we walked along the back edge of the refuge.  We were on the edge of a tidal marsh and, when a large cruise boat floated past just across the marsh, we knew that we were very close to the Intra Coastal Waterway.  We saw dozens of egrets, and their pure white bodies and ballerina-like grace was enchanting in this clean and sunny haven.

      We found another bird blind, this one on the edge of a meadow full of tall yellow flowers and edged by giant pines.  When Chris spotted a small woodpecker in a pine tree, we suddenly got back into the Red Cockaded hunt.  But then we caught the flash of red on its head and saw that is was a Downy.

      The first trail led to the back of the site and then turned to parallel the Intra Coastal Waterway where we saw the egrets.  Then it went back along the edge of the property and then we took a section that followed a series of impoundments straight across the refuge’s center.  We scared up a Great Blue Heron and more black ducks showing us their orange feet as they quickly retreated from our noise.  We got a great look at a small brown, pot-bellied, spotted breasted bird with a distinctive white eye ring perching in a low bush.  With all those details we were sure we would be able to ID it later.  But Chris thinks it’s a Wood Thrush and I think it’s an Oven Bird.  Both have all the field marks that we noted.  One’s a small, pot-bellied thrush.  The other is a large warbler.  And both are common in the area at this time.  Now I know to look at the face and my memory says it looked like the plainer face of the Oven Bird.  I could use another quick look at the bird in the bush.  A flock of Wild Turkey ran up the trail ahead of us and a Bald Eagle flew overhead.  And then a little black and white woodpecker flew over us and landed in a branch over the trail.  No red.  Maybe it could be a female Downy, but it sure looked like that differently striped Red Cockaded Woodpecker.  We were astonished, but that didn’t stop us from getting pictures.

      The trail ended at a dike with salt water marsh on one side and Snowy Egrets and a fresh water impoundment on the other side -- with an alligator.  There was a pile of Egret feathers on top of the dike.  Obviously the gator had made a meal of one of the birds.  Just as we were leaving the site, we got a cell phone call from home.  There was a dock on the pond side, so we sat on the dock and chatted with Mike about work stuff.

      It was a pleasant ending to a fun day in a National Forest.  On the way out we saw the ranger and she stopped to talk.  We showed her our pictures of the woodpecker and she thought at first it might be a sapsucker, then she changed her opinion to thinking it was probably the endangered bird.  On the way back to the hotel, I commented that this hike was a highlight of our trip for me because I felt like an expert birder, hunting down a rare bird in the wilderness.  That night I got out the guide book and the camera and saw that I had taken a decent picture of a female Downy Woodpecker.  That took a lot of wind out of my sails, but I still feel that the hike was a highlight.  Sometimes you see the Black-tailed Godwit or the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.  Sometimes you don’t.

 

Snowy Egret, Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina

 

 

3/30 – A last walk on the beach

On the last day of our birding trip to South Carolina, Chris and I got up before dawn and took another bird check at Huntington Beach.  There were a few bird photographers, both on the causeway and on the marsh boardwalk, taking pictures of egrets and herons.  The weather was actually warming up to be pleasant and we took a few more pictures of snowy Egrets, including one standing on a bank, so that you can see his feet.  His legs are dark black and his feet are bright yellow.  It looks like he’s wearing plastic rain shoes.  Like the big egrets tell the smaller egrets, “Don’t stand in the water without your rain shoes, or you’ll catch a cold!”

      In the bushes around the start of the boardwalk, we saw two Wood Thrushes and got good looks even a few pictures.  These were Wood Thrushes, not Ovenbirds.

      The beach was really nice and there were more people and birds.  We saw lots of Willets and took pictures of them until our camera battery ran out.  Whoops!  We also saw Wilson’s Plovers which had black bills and no black on the face, but the same black ring on their breasts as the Semi-palmated Plovers that we’d been seeing all week.  There were lots of terns and gulls and they were flying around fast and splashing into the ocean.  There were both breeding Forster’s Terns with their black caps and orange bills and non-breeding ones with black bills and a pirate mask across their eye on an otherwise white head.  We finally got to see Bonaparte’s Gulls.   They look just like the Black-Capped Gulls, but a little smaller with black beaks.  And as a parting present from the beach, one Gannet coasted over the surf then flew straight away from the land and finally out of sight over his ocean home.

      So I have some good feelings about Huntington Beach State Park.  As a family camping spot, it is ideal.  Clean, safe, places to ride bikes, interesting ranger talks, access to a nice beach, a forest walk, a marsh walk, big pretty birds like egrets, alligators when it is warmer (we didn’t see any).  Probably at certain times of the year there are lots of very interesting birds there and we hit it after some unusual weather.  But I also know that at least some of the people who are calling it the premier birding spot in South Carolina, have not been to any other spots to bird in South Carolina.  I asked them.  They’ve been going to this park for more than a decade, and they say “yes, it is the premier birding spot in S.C.” and “no they can’t think of any names of other birding spots”.  That’s fine.  Herons, egrets, and pelicans are among the most beautiful and impressive creatures in nature.  This park has a wonderful variety of habitats.  Just don’t plan to bird here for an entire week.  The National Wildlife Refuges are where the action is.  Also there are salt marshes, ocean beaches, rivers, ponds, lakes, fields, swamps, and forests all over this beautiful state that are teaming with wild life.

 

3/31- Easter Sunday

We had planned to stop near Annapolis on our way home, but when we got to the hotel, it was still early and we weren’t tired.  So we cancelled the reservation and just went home.  That way we had the entire Sunday to spend with Rachel and Kathryn.  While we talked and they cooked, I made a dream catcher. 

      A dream catcher is a Native American Indian artifact.   It’s a loop with string tied inside in the pattern of a spider web.  To the web you attach feathers, beads, small stones, and other small objects.  You hang it over your bed and it protects your dreams.  It keeps out bad thoughts in the night and gathers your pleasant dreams to keep them in your safe haven.

      I started mine with two thick ordinary hangers.  I cut off the bent ends and used pliers to straighten the hangers and then I used picture hanging wire to attach them together in a loop.  Around that I twisted strips of colored cloth from Chris’ mom that we have in our attic.  Before I covered the wire, I tied pieces of plastic string to it and then tied those to each other to make a pattern that looks like a spider web.  I got the string from Rachel’s bracelet making kit, but I expect fishing line would work almost as good.  I also stretched some of the picture hanging wire on the inside to make the web stronger and give the pattern variety.  I ran the wires and string through beads and buttons and also just tired them together.  Then on the web I hung a few objects that remind me of my kids when they were small -- a Stars pin from travel softball, a plastic poison dart frog, and a Disney Cinderella Statue.  I covered the outer ring with the cloth strips, tied on some feathers using white thread, and attached a small piece of leather as the hanger.  The leather was a left over piece from a softball glove repair kit.   It’s a very pretty dream catcher.

(NOTE TO ANYONE WHO DOESN’T LIKE BEING ARRESTED AND FINED OR IMPRISONED – Don’t pick up feathers, eggs, or nests that you find on the ground.  Possession of protected bird feathers is illegal by itself.   How could the rangers regulate poaching, if the poachers could just say, “I found these rhino horns lying on the ground”?  Don’t take a chance at being arrested, especially when you are in a remote back area, far from your home and support systems.)