Bathing Beauties

Splish, splash, I was takin’ a bath…

~Bobby Darin and Murray Kaufman

I’ve settled into a routine now of sitting in the chair where I can see the waterfall every morning with my coffee, again at lunch, and often late in the day while working on the computer. The birds seem most active early and late, often before there is much light at all. But video is more forgiving than still photos on my camera so I have started taking short clips of the varied bird life that comes to partake of the moving water for either a drink or a bath. The most frequent visitors are a couple of male Scarlet Tanagers and some (one?) male Black-throated Blue Warblers. Below is a series of (some might say provocative) video clips of who has been caught bathing in our pool. Videos are best viewed full screen.

–Black-throated Blue Warblers have been regular visitors to the waterfall lately

— One or more female Black-throated Blues finally have started coming to bathe and drink

— These male Scarlet Tanagers have been my favorites and they are daily visitors (usually multiple times a day)

–This interaction caught us by surprise

Melissa was next to the camera and started filming for that last clip when a male Scarlet Tanager landed and started splashing. What happened next was a wonderful surprise for both of us. A male Baltimore Oriole landed and essentially chased off the smaller tanager. We have been hearing these migratory birds for a week or more singing in the trees, but had not spotted one. In fact, this sighting is only the second Baltimore Oriole observed since I began keeping records many years ago.

Besides the birds shown and mentioned in the last post, we have had a few more visitors to the pool including a female Scarlet Tanager, a male American Redstart, a Red-eyed Vireo, and a gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk that dropped by in search of a frog meal no doubt. The hawk, vireo, and the Wood Thrushes are the only birds I have not managed to get even a pic of as yet.

Female Scarlet Tanager eyeing the water (click photos to enlarge)
American Redstart male

The female Scarlet Tanager made a very brief visit late one evening so I managed only a single shot that was somewhat sharp. The male American Redstart came in and flitted back and forth, flashing his tail as they usually do. He flew through the spray of the waterfall a couple of times and then took off without settling in for a bath, so no video, just a couple of hurried photos. Can’t wait to see what else visits in the coming weeks.

The Allure of Moving Water

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.  

~Lao Tzu

One of our refurbished pools has a small waterfall. Since the pool was dug on a slope, a waterfall seemed like a logical addition. Besides the aesthetic aspects, there is an added benefit of the sound of moving water, a soothing background element that we can hear from open windows or the screen porch. But one of the main reasons for creating the waterfall was to entice birds to drink and bathe in it. This is especially important in freezing weather when bird baths will ice over. And it is a magnet for a variety of birds, especially warblers, during migration. I’ve moved a lot of tall plants that were growing near that pool to maintain an open view from our house so I can keep tabs on what visits (this will be continuing process since plants often have a mind of their own about where they should be growing).

We can see the activity from the kitchen windows, the porch, and the sun room, places we tend to spend a lot of time in, especially in spring and summer. I thought I might set up a blind outside to try to photograph any birds that came in, but the lighting on the waterfall isn’t great for much of the day. It turns out that many of the birds that visit do so early and late in the day when the low light makes it even tougher to get a decent image. But one day, I looked out the side door and there was male Rose-breasted Grosbeak taking a bath on the large rock that hangs out above the pool. I grabbed a camera and took several shots through the door glass before it flew off (it had finished splashing around, but sat in the water and took several drinks). That convinced me to at least try to get some images, so now I have a tripod set up in the sun room with a telephoto lens pointing out at the waterfall. If I am going to be sitting in the room for any length of time, I crank open that window and hope for a visitor. The down side of that is the open window does provide occasional access to unwanted guests (usually insects of various sorts that I catch and release, although a wren did try to land on the lens one morning). Other times, the window is closed and, if we see something, I shoot through the glass (less than ideal for a sharp image). We left that screen out so I can at least get a quick shot.

Camera set up at the window (click photos to enlarge)

Here are some of the birds that have visited the past few weeks…

–A female American Goldfinch comes down to the top rock of the waterfall and gets a drink

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, the bird that got me to try to photograph our waterfall visitors
Most of the resident yard birds, like this Tufted Titmouse, are regular visitors, especially if the usual bird baths are not filled or are occupied
The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are regular visitors to the waterfall. They often hover in the spray from the waterfall or sit in this location or on the orange-ish rock to the right and splash around. Unfortunately, they tend to come early in the morning before there is any appreciable light on the pool, making it very difficult to get a sharp image with the telephoto lens.
A female Northern Cardinal gets a drink. I have yet to see a male at the water. They seem to prefer the flower pot base bird bath over near the feeding station.
A female Brown-headed Cowbird stops by for a drink
A few of the birds, like American Goldfinches and this Carolina Wren, hang down off the rocks above to get a drink. Others, like in the next photo, usually stand at the edge (or in) the water and dip in for a drink from a more horizontal position
Yellow-rumped Warbler taking a sip from the large rock just above the main pool
The Yellow-rumped Warblers tend to come in waves
We have had a lot of Northern Parula Warblers near the pool the past couple of weeks
We were excited to see this Cape May Warbler in late April, as it is a new species for the property, giving us 112 species on our woodland bird list
A stunning visitor this week – a male Scarlet Tanager. Unfortunately, like several of the birds above, this was taken through glass instead of an open window, so the image is not as sharp. If I try to crank open the window once a bird is already at the pool, they usually fly off due to the motion

Note that we have seen several other waterfall visitors that I have not yet managed to photograph (did it really happen if you don’t get a photo?). They include Wood Thrush (including a male sitting on top of the waterfall one evening singing his beautiful flute-like song), Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Carolina Chickadee, Purple Finch, White-breasted Nuthatch, and some non-birds – Eastern Gray Squirrel, and Eastern Chipmunk. A few of the these warbler species landed on nearby twigs (like the goldfinch in the photo below) and were checking out the pool before getting chased off by another bird.

Male American Goldfinch (not yet in his full breeding plumage) on a Baptisia stem just above the pool

A lot of birds hesitate and sit and look at the pool before coming into the waterfall. It probably is a bit scary at first with all the rocks that could provide hiding places for predators. But once they have been a few times, they move right in. Looking forward to seeing what else might be attracted to the sound of moving water as the seasons pass and the vegetation around the pool matures. If you don’t have a wildlife pool with a waterfall, you can still get some moving water by placing a small solar-powered fountain in a bird bath or plastic tub. There are also a variety of drip hoses and fountains available at local bird stores for attracting birds. I once poked a small hole in the bottom of a plastic milk jug filled with water and hung it above a flower pot base to provide a slow drip for an hour or so before needing to be refilled. Whatever your method, I’m sure you will find that, just like us, birds have a hard time resisting the allure of moving water.

Walking on Water

Walking on water is better than drowning.

~ Matshona Dhliwayo

A couple of days after we rehabbed our salamander pools, I saw a Water Strider skating across the surface of one. How did it find this new water so quickly? Striders are true bugs (Hemiptera), have wings, and can disperse by flying. Research suggests that aquatic insects are attracted to reflective surfaces (I have seen dragonflies trying to lay eggs on shiny car surfaces). One scientist that noticed how fast Water Striders colonize new bodies of water quipped “the air must be crowded with cruising Water Striders looking for a pond”. However it happens, I’m glad it did, as I enjoy watching these insects and their herky-jerky movements and the dimpled shadows they create on the water.

Water Strider on the surface of one of our pools (click photos to enlarge)

Water Striders (aka water skimmers, pond skaters, Jesus bugs) achieve their seemingly divine mobility through a combination of factors – the surface tension of water and the striders’ long legs that help distribute their weight over a larger area. Plus, those legs have retractable claws that occur before the tip of the leg (so they don’t puncture the surface tension). And the legs and body are covered by hundreds of tiny hairs per square mm, making the entire insect hydrophobic. If they are submerged by a wave or rain, they tend to pop back up to the surface because of air trapped in grooves in these hairs.

Look closely at the legs – the first pair is short and used for capturing and holding prey; the second pair are the paddles for locomotion; the last pair help spread the insects’ weight over a large surface area and act as rudders
As members of the family of True Bugs, Water Striders have a needle-like piercing, sucking mouthpart (seen here tucked up under the head)

Water Striders are fierce predators (but harmless to us) and detect their prey through ripples on the water surface. They rapidly (some estimates say they can move at speeds of a hundred body lengths per second) skate over and grab their prey, often an insect that has fallen into the water and is struggling at the surface. They then pierce it with their beak, inject enzymes which dissolve the insides of their prey, and then suck out its body fluids.

A Water Strider feeding on its prey
Carrying a prey item (perhaps a Springtail?)

While leaning on the rock walls of the pools with my camera and telephoto lens, I saw some interactions between some striders. Some seemed aggressive with one strider chasing the other off. Then there were the obvious mating behaviors, where the smaller male would mount a female and remain coupled for a long time.

Mating pair of Water Striders
But there may be a difference of opinion on this mating thing…

A few times I saw the mating pair flip over and that leaves me thinking the female is not always amenable to the male’s intentions. Here’s a quick clip in slow motion showing one such flip.

— A mating pair flips over – perhaps an attempt by the female to throw off the male

Almost ever time I visited the ponds in the past few weeks, I could find mating pairs. I found some images of their eggs online and started looking for them. Females go under water to lay eggs on solid surfaces like vegetation or rocks. The eggs hatch in about 12 days. So far, no luck in finding any, but I did see what I believe are newly hatched nymphs this week.

A Water Strider nymph

Water Strider youngsters resemble the adults (but much smaller) and lack wings (having only tiny developing wing pads). They molt several times before becoming an adult in a couple of months. These insects also apparently have something called wing polymorphism. They may or may not develop wings, and those that do, can have varying sized wings according to the stability of their watery habitat. If the habitat is small and likely to dry up, it is advantageous to have long wings for dispersal. Short or no wings are better in stable habitats like large lakes and rivers and mean less weight and reduced energy costs for movement.

Water Strider and reflection

The next time you are hanging out at a creek, lake, or small woodland pool, take a few minutes to look for leg dimples on the water and try to appreciate the amazing adaptations and behaviors of these bugs that can truly walk on water.

Clean It Out and They Will Come

When your environment is clean you feel happy motivated and healthy.

~Lailah Gifty Akita


I mentioned in an earlier post that we finally got around to cleaning out our two water gardens (aka salamander pools) in November. One had sprung a leak mid-way up its height a couple of years ago. It still held enough water for some critters but was choked with duckweed. The other sprung a leak this fall and drained, leaving a mud flat and lots of aquatic vegetation and their tangled root mats. These liners have been in for over 20 years (they are typically rated for 10) so I consider us lucky. We have a fairly narrow window for pond repairs as I want it to be late enough that cold weather has set in and numbed any Copperheads that might be hanging out in the rock walls, but before the Spotted Salamander breeding season, which can start as early as late December some years. I checked prices locally and online and purchased the liners at a place in Raleigh (prices have increased in 20 years!). I won’t bore you with the details, but I was pleased it only took us about a day each to totally re-do each pond, including cleaning out all the muck, putting in the new liner, and rebuilding and stabilizing their rock walls.

Lots of moving of rocks and debris to expose the old pond liner in the waterfall pool (click photos to enlarge)

–Removing the muck from the pools was the final step – we tried to rescue any amphibians and aquatic insects during the process

Laying out the new liners and then trimming to fit

After getting the liners in place, the difficult part is rebuilding a sturdy rock wall around each pond. Years ago, I purchased some flat rocks and then filled in with the irregular shaped stones that are so abundant on the property.

The first pool to be completed
The second pool has a small waterfall

The waterfall pool is great because we can hear the moving water from our screen porch so I like to think I am somewhere in the mountains when I hear it. The real advantage is as a possible additional attractant for birds (they love the sound of moving water), especially the neo-tropical migrants that move through our woods, so we will see what this season brings.

Our first good salamander rainfall didn’t occur until mid-February. We had a small run of salamanders and we ended up with about ten egg masses. About a month later we had a couple more nights of perfect weather for salamanders, and the bottoms of both pools were covered with spermatophores, followed a couple of nights later by lots of egg masses.

A Spotted Salamander egg mass as seen from below. The waterfall pool started off with very clear water which made observations and photography much easier (underwater photo taken with Olympus Tough camera)
Egg masses at different stages of development in the waterfall pool (underwater photo taken with Olympus Tough camera)
White embryos, as seen in the center egg mass, indicate the eggs are not viable. Studies have shown that egg mortality can be caused by a number of factors (including freezing) and may reach 20% to 40% of the total eggs laid in some years. Note that the gel of the egg mass itself can range from white-ish opaque to clear. That is the result of specific proteins in the gel. The significance and function of the opaque versus clear egg masses is unknown.
Egg masses are usually attached to twigs or underwater vegetation. I placed several tree branches in each pool for the females to utilize as attachment points for their eggs.
The egg masses grow in size over the first few days due to absorption of water
We ended up with about 100 egg masses in the two pools by mid-March!

I’ve been keeping tabs on the development of the eggs in the two pools over the last few weeks. Most have turned greenish in color due to the presence of an algae that is specific to Spotted Salamander egg masses. The algae probably gain nutrients like nitrogen from the waste products of the developing larvae and the larvae probably get oxygen from the photosynthesizing algae. Egg hatch time is temperature dependent and usually takes 4 to 6 weeks.

An egg mass a few weeks after being laid. Note the green color (due to symbiotic algae) and the progress in the development of the larvae.

The gel matrix holding the egg mass together starts to break down close to the time of hatching. I went out last week and lifted some of the twigs holding the egg masses and the jelly blobs started to fall apart. I gently placed one in a clear container and went inside to get my phone to photograph it. By the time I returned, there was a lot of activity in the container. Here is a quick video clip…

–the final stage of an egg mass – Spotted Salamander larvae breaking free of the gel matrix.

If you pause the video and look closely, you can see the tiny straight appendages dangling down near the head that serve as balancers for the newly hatched larva (there are also branched external gills at the head). After a couple of days, the balancers are reabsorbed when the larva is stronger and can swim and maintain an upright position in the water column.

I dipped in the pool yesterday and found one larva that has grown considerably and is now an active swimmer. Here’s hoping that many of them survive and transform into terrestrial juveniles in a couple of months. I look forward to their return on some cold and rainy nights in the years to come.

Woods Watching

I’m always astonished by a forest. It makes me realise that the fantasy of nature is much larger than my own fantasy. I still have things to learn.

~ Gunter Grass

Things have slowed a bit on the trail cameras out back, but we still get some nice surprises from time to time. Here are a few of them from the past couple of weeks.

In all my years here, I have only seen one Wild Turkey in the neighborhood, and that was years ago, walking down our gravel road. But, in the last year, the trail cameras have captured three, two of them in the past two weeks.

Late note – after writing this, Melissa saw a turkey out back late yesterday afternoon, just beyond our deer fence!

Wild Turkey strolling through our woods

— A different Wild Turkey wanders through the same spot a week later

I moved a trail camera to an area with a log on the ground that had a few interesting looking holes along it that might be some sort of burrow entrance. I left it there over a week and never saw anything going in or out of the holes. But, it was a regular squirrel highway, and one day, this hawk dropped in, perhaps thinking it might partake of a rodent snack, but no such luck.

— An adult Red-tailed Hawk surveying the scene

After a few weeks absence, the Coyotes have made a reappearance on three cameras. Here are two clips. Pause this first clip and look at the Coyote – either a big meal or perhaps soon-to-be pups in that belly?

— A quick day-time glimpse of a Coyote – note the full belly

And this guy looks a bit smaller, maybe a youngster from last year?

— A smaller Coyote on the Opossum log

Looking forward to what other hidden gems the cameras show us in our woods.

Millpond Meander

This is everybody’s dream swamp…

~A.B. Coleman (the man who donated Merchants Millpond to the state for a park)

Over a week ago, Melissa and I managed a two night get-away to one of our favorite state parks, Merchants Millpond. I think Mr. Coleman was right, this may be everybody’s “dream swamp”. It combines an open millpond dominated by Tupelo Gum and Bald Cypress, with a beautiful swamp and surrounding hardwood forest. It is a paddler’s paradise and a naturalist’s delight with an incredible variety of plants and animals to observe. We reserved one of the canoe-in campsites and arrived at the millpond late in the afternoon after stopping to see our friends, Floyd and Signa, long-time residents of the area, former park employees, and two of the best naturalists we know. We also met a good friend of theirs that has been paddling the millpond for a couple of decades and returns each year to take it all in.

View of the millpond from our campsite (click photos to enlarge)

We set up camp and headed out to look for wildlife as the sun slowly made its way to the horizon. We heard lots of new spring arrivals – especially Yellow-throated and Northern Parula Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Picking some of these small neo-tropical migrants out can be tricky, especially when they are mixed in with the large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting through the trees and stump island vegetation. But, one warbler was very cooperative, and we followed it around for several minutes as it sang and snagged a few insects.

Our cooperative Yellow-throated Warbler came down low enough for some good looks and pics

We also followed a few gnatcatchers as they gleaned some of the hundreds of tiny midges flying around the stump island vegetative communities common out on the millpond.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with that high-energy look they always seem to have

We headed back to camp and had a relaxing evening around a campfire listening to the swamp sounds we love – Barred Owls hooting, and the beginnings of the many frog calls that will soon flood the swamp. And we were amazed at the abundance of fireflies that kept us company until we headed into our tent.

The next morning we headed up toward Lassiter Swamp at the upper end of the millpond. Along the way, we enjoyed some of the many sights that make springtime in the swamp so special.

Red Maple seeds add a splash of color to the swamp
The showy blossoms of Horse Sugar (Symplocos tinctoria) along the shore of the millpond
Some sliders taking in the warm temperatures
One of several large Beaver lodges we passed on our way to Lassiter Swamp

Entering Lassiter Swamp is like crossing a bridge into another world. There are usually fewer paddlers (we only saw one other canoe up there all day) and the enchanted shapes of the Tupelo Gum (transformed by their interaction with Mistletoe) heighten the magic and mystery of the place. Plus, there are usually some interesting wildlife species to see or hear.

Mistletoe creates unusual growth forms in the branches of the Tupelo Gum trees in the swamp, lending a ghostly appearance to the scene
Another oddly-shaped tree greets paddlers in the swamp
Splashes of spring green stand out in the grays of the swamp
A huge Beaver lodge in the swamp yielded a surprise as we paddled to the other side…
A Nutria (an exotic mammal species introduced from South America into NC in the 1940’s for their fur) resting on the lodge. Nutria are larger than a Muskrat but smaller than a Beaver. They can be identified by their size and white whiskers on both sides of their nose. Sadly, we saw more Nutria on this trip than I have ever seen in the park.

Melissa spotted movement in the water and we heard the distinctive snort of a River Otter. Then another snort and another and we saw six otters swimming ahead, bobbing up and down as they expressed their displeasure (or curiosity). The otter split with two going downstream and the others upstream, but not before a couple swam over to check us out.

A couple of River Otter come over to investigate this strange visitor to their swamp

Along the stream channel we saw an occupied hollow tree base with three Nutria inside. The smallest one had just pulled its tail back into the hollow when I snapped this pic. A little farther along, we saw movement – our otters were lounging and playing on a moss-covered log up ahead…

Nutria hang-out

The otters hit the water and swam upstream, snorting at us as they went (I think it was definitely disapproval this time).

An otter peers over a cypress knee before gracefully sliding into the water

We saw them again a little upstream and all four (one is just off camera) raised up in the dark water to get a better look.

We came across this group of otter several times during our paddle up the swamp

Water levels were a bit low so we encountered several log jams and small Beaver dams across the creek that needed to be “scooched” over as we paddled upstream. We had our rubber boots on and had to get out once to pull the canoe over a log. Then we hit a larger barrier – a log across the channel with a pile of debris caught in the low spot. A couple of feet to one side was a small Cottonmouth attempting to blend in with the stick pile (you always need to check blockages like this for Cottonmouths before getting out up in the swamp). After failing to find a passage around it, Melissa decided to get out and try to pull us over. Let’s just say that didn’t go well (the debris pile turned out to be less sturdy than she thought). After helping pull her back up we decided to let the far reaches of the swamp remain unchallenged for this day. By the way, the Cottonmouth remained calm throughout the process and never even showed us the classic warning pose with mouth agape. I guess it figured we weren’t much of a threat.

Cottonmouth eyeing the paddlers at a channel blockage

We spent the rest of the afternoon paddling back to the millpond and enjoying the scenery and the wildlife.

Reflections on the millpond on a windless day can be stunning

There have been a few changes on the millpond since my days as a state parks district naturalist oh-so-many-years ago. There are a lot of noisy Canada Geese now nesting on the millpond; Nutria have expanded their range into the millpond area; and the first American Alligators have appeared. As we paddled the lower end of the millpond, Melissa saw a large ‘gator lying up against a swollen tree base. North Carolina is at the northern limit of the range of American Alligators, so they are not common in this part of the state. Our friends say there are probably three ‘gators on the millpond, but no babies have been reported in the years since they first appeared. We circled around it, admiring its size and taking some photos with our telephoto lenses. Looking at this guy, we certainly didn’t feel like getting too close (and you shouldn’t either). They don’t pose a danger to paddlers, but you should treat them with respect and not harass them. This individual was a large one, perhaps 9 feet in length and weighing in at about 200+ pounds.

An American Alligator
Such an amazing creature
…and so wide!

After the alligator, we paddled slowly back to camp, and I thought of what a truly great gift this was to the state of North Carolina, this dream of a swamp. There really is no other place quite like it. Thanks to all who have helped preserve it and make it available to the public for all these years and into the future.

Millpond reflections
The last light of the day highlights a Great Blue Heron in a cypress grove
Our final sunset on the millpond…but we will be back

Hunting in Huntington

It’s all about whose where on the food chain.

~Len Wein

My trip last weekend included some time at both Myrtle Beach State Park and nearby Huntington Beach State Park. While hanging with friends at the former park, I was impressed by the amount of bird activity and marine life (from the ocean pier) we saw. Cedar Waxwings were everywhere scarfing up the ripe Yaupon berries. The surprise birthday party for my friend was held at one of the picnic shelters and there happened to be some Yaupon trees along the road edge so I finally took my camera over toward the trees and stood for awhile hoping the flock would come in closer. They were pretty spooked by all the bicycles and cars going by so I managed only a few images.

Cedar Waxwing eating a Yaupon berry (click photos to enlarge)

While sitting at the picnic shelter, Scott saw an immature Red-tailed Hawk fly in and land on a pine limb over the road. It had captured what looked like a young squirrel. We all got up and looked at it and it just sat there looking around. I finally eased over underneath to get a photo. It finally took off and flew into the woods a few hundred feet away and began to eat its meal.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (see the bands on its tail?, that means it is an immature) that captured a young Gray Squirrel

Back at Huntington Beach, the falling tide on the salt marsh side of the causeway revealed a smorgasbord of dining opportunities for the local birds. Great and Snowy Egrets stalked the shallows for small fish.

A Great Egret strikes at a small fish

The Tri-colored Heron and Greater Yellowlegs were mainly going after smaller prey, the abundant transparent Grass Shrimp.

A Greater Yellowlegs catches a small Grass Shrimp at low tide

My favorite hunters were the pair of Ospreys patrolling both sides of the causeway. I was hoping to get a series of shots of one diving and catching a fish, their primary prey (an Osprey’s diet is 99% fish). An Osprey typically soars over a water body at a height of 30 – 100 feet, scanning the water surface for fish. When it spots one, it will usually momentarily hover, and then fold its wings and drop toward the water. I watched as one bird did this time and again and then pulled up before actually hitting the water.

An Osprey begins its dive after hovering for a few seconds
Wings angled and feet dangling are part of the speedy dive. I found it difficult to keep up with the diving birds with my camera

Finally, one bird hovered close to the causeway and quickly started its dive. I tried following it but missed a few images or had some blurry ones as it dove toward the surface near the causeway.

This one turned and headed straight down toward the water near me

It hit the water several feet out in front of me and was so close that I couldn’t get the whole bird in the photos! Their long wings give the extra lift to pull their prey out of the water. Their nostrils also shut tight as they hit the water.

The Osprey briefly disappeared under the water with a huge splash and then rebounded to the surface with wings spread

Studies show success rates for Osprey dives of between 24% and 82% (meaning they don’t catch a fish every time). They have specialized toe pads, strongly hooked talons, and a reversible outer toe, all of which give them a better grip on the fish.

The Osprey flaps and rises up out of the water, a fish in its right foot
It takes a couple of flaps to clear the surface

Osprey are the only raptor that has oily feathers, which allows them to shake off the water as they emerge from the surface, making it easier to lift off with their prey.

The bird clears the surface with powerful wing beats, pulling a Mullet up from the water
Look at those talons!
It looks like a tenuous grip on the struggling fish, but it managed to fly off with its meal

It all happened so fast, I lost track of the Osprey as it flew away, did the characteristic body shake that follows most dives (to shake off the water) and headed to a perch to eat its meal. Ospreys usually orient the fish head first to reduce drag as they fly. On this day, no Bald Eagle appeared to try to steal a meal and I finally saw the Osprey fly far across the marsh to a large dead tree.

All in all, a great couple of hours of hunting at Huntington Beach. Watching all that feeding had made me hungry, so I decided to grab a bite myself and head home.

Huntington Portraits

Portraits are about revealing aspects of an individual.

~Kehinde Wiley

Last weekend I drove down to Myrtle Beach, SC, for a surprise birthday party for my friend Scott. Of course, I had to visit one of my favorite birding and photography spots while I was there, the nearby Huntington Beach State Park. The causeway leading to the beach passes across an oasis for birds with a freshwater lake on one side and a tidal salt marsh on the other. With lots of time with old friends from my state park days, I didn’t make it over to Huntington at prime time of dawn or sunset, but still managed to grab a few mid-day photos of some of the residents. One of the great aspects of this place for photography is that the critters are very accustomed to people walking on the causeway and nearby trails and can be quite tolerant while you capture their portrait.

Great Blue Heron stalking prey among the oysters at low tide (click photos to enlarge)
A Tri-colored Heron moves about swiftly stabbing at small fish and shrimp
Snowy Egret staring into the water right before lunging at a small fish
A Great Egret sporting its breeding colors around the eyes grabs a killifish
I sat with this Double-crested Cormorant for several minutes while it dried its wings and preened. You need to be close to appreciate their eye color.
It is breeding season for the striking Anhingas and this male was looking dapper as it perched near a group of nesting pairs
While sitting with the cormorant, a passer-by asked me “Have you seen any?”. I asked, “Any what?” This is what she and many other visitors are hoping to see along the causeway.


Camera Captures

These woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

~Robert Frost

The trail cameras continue to capture moments in the lives of our woodland neighbors. Here are a some clips from the past couple of months to highlight some of the mysteries of the forest after dark.

Most of the coyote video captures are similar to this in terms of behavior – very focused, trotting through the woods (unless they see the IR camera, and then they tend to flee). Their purposefulness made me think of the Frost poem above. This is the first time on our property that three coyotes have been recorded in one clip.
Another first for the trail cameras – Gray Foxes. Last year we had several weeks of captures of a Red Fox, but this is the first time Gray Foxes have been seen.
An Eastern Screech Owl landed on a slight mound on the forest floor containing numerous mouse runways and holes. The owl is just inside the field of view on the lower left. Did it catch a mouse?
The owl flies to a nearby sapling. I can’t see any prey…
Two nights later the owl lands on the camera. Was it attracted by the IR lights?
A few weeks later, the owl is back and presumably lands on the branch with the camera. This must be a good hunting spot.

— A beautiful Gray Fox stops by the Raccoon den tree one night to check it out

— It has been a while since we saw a Bobcat on our cameras. This one looks smaller than previous individuals. Hoping it can heel whatever is causing the limp.

Flight Path

Birds learn how to fly, never knowing where the flight will take them.

~Mark Nepo

This is a brief update on the recent posts where I shared a few sightings of tagged birds – one, a Common Raven in Yellowstone, and three American Oystercatchers on Masonboro Island in southeastern North Carolina. First, the shorebirds at Masonboro. When I got home, I searched the web for information on banded American Oystercatchers and immediately came up with the American Oystercatcher Working Group. This is a conservation group of scientists and resource managers created in 2001 to monitor oystercatcher population dynamics and promote the conservation of American Oystercatchers and their habitats. Their web site has information on reporting sightings of banded birds so I submitted my data. Once they verify your observations and the leg band ID, you receive information on the birds you reported.

Here are the three birds and what we know of their stories…

American Oystercatcher with Band CUU (click photos to enlarge)

CUU was captured and banded on 4/26/16 on Masonboro Island. There have been 33 reported sightings since that time. There are 3 confirmed breeding/nesting seasons on Masonboro (the nest was found); In other years, the bird was seen on Masonboro during the nesting season, but a nest was not observed. Winter sightings were at Dewees Island, near Charleston, SC, in December of 2017 and 2018, a distance of approximately 140 miles from Masonboro.

Banded bird CUW

This is the homebody of the three birds, never having been reported more than 18 miles from Masonboro (on Bald Head Island), even in winter. Captured and banded on 4/26/16 on Masonboro. Reported sightings 43 times. Also has 3 confirmed nests on Masonboro Island and has appeared in that location during the other breeding seasons, but no nest was observed.

Banded oystercatcher CUT

The long distance traveler of the group. Captured and banded on 4/26/16 on Masonboro Island. Re-sighted 56 times. Five confirmed nesting seasons on Masonboro (nest found). Observed in Cedar Key, Florida, every winter since it was banded. That is a distance of about 460 miles one way every year.

The map below shows the apparently consistent winter travels of the three American Oystercatchers.

Range map of the migrations of the three oystercatchers I observed

The type of leg band that the oystercatchers had can be viewed and reported from a distance using binoculars, a scope, or a telephoto lens. That type of information gives a data point for any time someone reports seeing the bird. The “tag” on the ravens in the Yellowstone research project includes color coded leg bands for visual observation and a solar-powered GPS backpack with an antenna that submits the birds’ locations every 30 minutes throughout the day. This combination gives a much more detailed view of the birds’ behavior.

The 70 or so tagged ravens are a part of a study looking at interactions of these intelligent birds with their habitat (foraging and roosting sites for example) and with large carnivores (bears, mountain lions, and wolves). In an earlier post, I mentioned I had found out about this research online and had contacted the lead scientist, Dr. John Marzluff. He identified this bird as the female at Tower Junction (the location where she was captured and tagged) with transmitter 7493-2. She was captured on December 10, 2021 and we observed her on 1/20/22 at Tower Junction, patrolling the parking lot at the pit stop and recycle bins.

Common Raven at Tower Junction showing the solar-powered GPS backpack and color-coded leg bands
The colored leg bands… Left – dark blue over gray, Right – light blue over metal

Her data is now visible on the Animal Tracker app (for iPhone and iPad – search for raven and then scroll down to Tower_Junction_female). She tends to move mostly between Tower Junction and Lamar Valley, a distance of about 12 miles. Her longest flight to date has been to an area north of the park entrance along Hwy 89, a distance of about 22 miles. Some of the tagged ravens have dispersed much farther, with one heading up to the Bozeman area, and another, the record-holder, flying up to Alberta, Canada.

The Tower Junction female raven tends to move mostly between that area (the dark cluster of data points is Tower Junction) and Lamar Valley (map from movebank.org web site).

Is she going to carcasses in Lamar or just stopping at places where there are concentrations of visitors? I would love to be out there and recording data on these birds to see what they are actually doing. It is a treat to get a peek into the private lives of wildlife. But, more importantly, this is valuable information that may help researchers and resource managers make better decisions for protecting these birds and their important habitats.