About roadsendnaturalist

Retired naturalist/educator living and learning in NC.

Moving South Along the Parkway

It was as if all the world might be composed of nothing but valley and ridge.

~Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

This is part two of our trip last month down the Blue Ridge Parkway. After the crazy weather at Mount Mitchell, we headed to our next destination, a somewhat out of the way campground, Balsam Mountain Campground, near the end of the parkway. Along the way, we experienced various timelines of spring as we changed elevation, moving back into early spring (with barely any leaf out on the trees) when we climbed higher, and then getting into a more summer-like forest cover down near Asheville. I love that about Spring in the mountains – if you miss something you can change elevation and experience a different part of the season all over again. There were impressive displays of azalea and trillium as we drove south so we pulled over at several spots to admire them.

Large-flowered Trillium along parkway (click photos to enlarge)
Pinkshell Azalea was in bloom in the higher elevations
View along the road to Balsam Mountain Campground

We settled into our next campsite at Balsam Mountain Campground and were pleased that the nearby RVs all had solar panels, so we heard only one small generator and only for a short while (there are no hookups at this campground). Having camped here before, we knew the highlight of any stay is to walk (via a half-mile nature trail through some beautiful trees) or drive over to the picnic area for sunset. And it did not disappoint!

The thing to do when at the Balsam Mountain Campground is walk to the picnic area for the amazing view of the sunset

Blue-headed Vireos were constantly calling around our campsite. Our second morning we saw one gathering nesting material off the ground and then Melissa saw it go to a nest right next to the nature trail. We walked over, she positioned herself near the tree, and I walked away. The birds came back, bringing some plant fibers (and maybe spider web?) and molded the nest. Melissa took a few shots and then we left them alone to their business.

Blue-headed Vireo adding to its nest (photo by Melissa Dowland)

After breaking camp our second morning, we decided to drive the one way gravel road from the nearby picnic area all the way down to Cherokee, a distance of about 23 miles. It passes through gorgeous forest with multiple seeps and springs and plenty of wildflowers, birds, and bugs. It’s a really pleasant drive where you can go at your own pace and stop to look and listen with relatively few other travelers along the way.

Doll’s Eyes flower with some beetle pollinators
Canada Violet was abundant along the gravel road
Umbrella-leaf in flower – note the huge leaf that gives this mountain plant its common name
I have seen these before and have not yet been able to identify them. I think they are a cocoon of some sort (most have a hole in one end where something probably emerged), and are about 1/4 inch long. They are laying on the surface of leaves or on the ground. If anyone knows what this is, drop me a note in the comments section.
A male Scorpion Fly. These were very common along this road. They feed on decaying vegetation and corpses of invertebrates (occasionally vertebrates). The curved abdomen tip of the male is not a stinger, but is used in reproduction.
This critter caught my eye (probably an inch+ in length and looking very Ichneumon wasp-like). Never seen one before – it turns out to be an Antlered Crane Fly (Tanyptera dorsalis).

We stopped several times along the road to get out and look at plants, insects, and listen for birds. There were lots of warblers singing (Blackburnian, Black-throated Greens, and Black-throated Blues especially). At one point, I was looking at some cool insects and I noticed Melissa looking off in the trees at something. She had found a Black-throated Green Warbler nest! It was some distance off the road but clearly visible in a gap in the leaves if you were standing in just the right place.

Black-throated Green Warbler sitting on her nest

We mosied on down to where the road becomes two-way and eventually intersects a paved road. We turned and headed to Cherokee, passing by a parking lot for a waterfall, so we decided, what the heck. After a short but steep walk, we were both blown away by the beautiful Mingo Falls. Looks like a popular tourist spot and I can see why.

Mingo Falls in Cherokee, a truly beautiful waterfall visible after a short walk on a well-maintained trail

Thunder chased us back to the car and we headed to our next overnight destination, Sky Ridge Yurts. Melissa has taken her teacher workshops to this location the past two summers but I had never been. I had signed us up for one of the two cabins (the yurts were booked) for the last two nights of our trip. The plan was to go backpacking after our stay at Balsam Mountain but the weather was looking foreboding and my aching knee was not cooperating (Melissa swears it starts hurting as soon as she utters the word, backpack). Luckily, the cabin I had reserved was available earlier in the week and they allowed us to switch our dates, and we are so glad they did. The next day it rained, and rained, and rained some more – all day in fact. We would have been soaked and my knee would have been like, “I told you so…”.

Our oasis for the full day of heavy rain – this is the calm before the storm

We had a wonderful two night stay in the cabin and then headed out for some more camping and hiking before being chased back home a day early with another significant storm front. More on this last part of our trip in the next post.

Mountain High

Sunsets are proof that no matter what happens, every day can end beautifully.

~Kristen Butler

It’s been awhile since my last post and a lot has happened since then. Melissa and I took a couple of weeks to head to the mountains last month and then it has been busy here at home. So, the next couple of posts will catch up on our mountain adventure. We started at the place we were married, the beautiful Celo Inn. There are new innkeepers now, but the place is still as charming as ever.

One of our favorite mountain getaways, the Celo Inn (click photos to enlarge)

Our first afternoon we caught up with an old friend and former co-worker, Charlie, who now lives in Burnsville and has hiked every trail in that part of the state it seems. He gladly shared a couple of his favorite spots with us and so we headed up the Pinnacle Trail (aka, the Secret Trail) the next morning. It is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near the entrance road to Mount Mitchell State Park. The trail slowly ascends through a beautiful woodland setting to a rock outcrop with a phenomenal vista of parts of the Black Mountain Range. Charlie told us he almost never sees anyone on this trail, hence the moniker of The Secret Trail. But, we had two group of hikers join us at the summit. When asked, they said they saw it on the All Trails app (secret no more I guess).

Painted Trillium
Giant Chickweed – note how it looks like the flower has10 petals, but it is actually 5 petals that are each deeply divided

The trail had an abundance of wildflowers and bright green meadows of sedges under the gnarly trees. Painted Trilliums and Giant Chickweed were scattered all along the walk.

Bright green meadows of sedge were a highlight as we hiked the trail

Several birds kept us company along the way, including a couple of Canada Warblers that gave us a few good looks before flitting into the thickets. But the real treat was coming out of the trees into a shrub thicket and then climbing a rock outcrop to a wide-ranging view of the mountains beyond.

View from the Pinnacle

The next morning we headed to another trail near the Inn that Charlie had shared. One plant of interest he had recently seen on his hike there was large numbers of a larkspur species, so we were hopeful. This trail was in the valley and was flat and easy through the forest.

Sweet Shrub flowers are pollinated by beetles that crawl in for the fruity smell and become temporarily trapped by the unusual-shaped flowers

Sweet Shrub, Calycanthus floridus, was abundant, especially as we neared the maintained meadow.

View from the meadow along the trail

Past the meadow was a tremendous variety of wildflowers, including the larkspurs, which, unfortunately, had already gone to seed.

The unusual flower of Pipevine, Aristolochia macrophylla. This one had fallen off a plant high overhead. The pipe-shaped flowers trap flies inside for pollination. Downward pointing hairs that block the exit eventually wither and the flies can escape.
Puttyroot flowers, Aplectrum hyemale

One species I was thrilled to find was Puttyroot. We have a few of these in our woods back home, but I have never seen it in bloom (they apparently don’t bloom every year if nutrient conditions are not sufficient). Like another orchid in our woods, Cranefly Orchid, this species’ leaves (or leaf in this case as each plant has only one) are only present in the late Fall – early Spring when the tree canopy is bare. The leaves wither before the plant sends up a flower stalk. A sticky substance can be obtained from the roots and has been used to repair pottery and even glaze windows, hence that common name. Another name for this orchid is Adam and Eve. That name refers to the way two adjoining corms are joined by a slender stalk of rhizome.

A Puttyroot leaf, one per plant, occurs in winter and then dies back prior to the orchid flowering. This is a photo from our woods taken last February.

After our hike, we headed for our next overnight stay, the campground at Mount Mitchell State Park. Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet, is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. While temperatures reached an unseasonably warm 90˚ F at home during our travels, we wore our down coats on several days in these high mountains (just one of the many reasons I love it up here). We stopped at several overlooks on the parkway to take in the views and look at wildflowers. One spot had an incredible display of False Solomon’s Seal (aka Eastern Solomon’s-plume), Maianthemum racemosum. I’ve never seen such a solid stand of this plant!

A large stand of False Solomon’s Seal along the parkway

Since it was still early in the day, we bypassed the road up to Mt. Mitchell and headed to Craggy Gardens for a short hike. The grassy area at trail’s end is surrounded by rhododendron, although it was just a bit too early to see blooms. But, there were plenty of other things to observe…

Isolated tree at Craggy Gardens
I love the pattern and structure of the foliage of False Hellebore, Veratrum viride. All parts of this distinctive mountain plant are toxic.
Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa. The flowers attract a lot of pollinators and, later, the red berries are a favorite food for many bird species.

We finally headed up to Mount Mitchell and set up camp. We have camped at this site (site #1) before (there are only 9 sites, so it is easier to remember which ones you like). It is convenient to the parking lot and used to have a great view of the mountains and sunset. We were amazed at how tall the Fraser Firs had grown in the few years since our last visit. As we were finishing cooking our dinner, the Park Superintendent came up to warn campers of a severe thunderstorm warning for the area with potential for strong winds and hail. There was one dark cloud out to the west, so we started securing our site and, as a light rain started to fall, we headed down to the truck to eat our meals while the storm passed. As we sat in the cab, we noticed some small hail pellets begin to fall. Their size and intensity grew quickly and soon we were wondering if our windshield was going to survive this onslaught. Here is a quick sample of what it was like.

— Part of the intense hail storm as seen from inside our truck

The hail storm lasted perhaps 20-30 minutes, definitely the worst such storm I have experienced. It ended abruptly with hints of sunlight streaming through breaks in the clouds. We got out and looked around in amazement – the parking lot was covered in hail of all sizes and it had been washed into piles by the heavy rain that accompanied it. One other thing stood out after the storm – the intense smell of fir needles in the air. The hail had stripped off countless branch tips of the trees and the air was heavy with that tantalizing smell!

The parking lot after the storm
The ringed layers inside a hail stone show how different layers of ice are added as the hail circulates inside the thunderstorm due to strong updrafts.
After all that, a beautiful sunset over the mounds of hail along the road
Another view of the sunset

We were happy to see our tent had come through unscathed, although a little bit of rain had come in the vents which we had accidentally left open. Our truck fared pretty well but has a few tiny dents to remind us of the day (a smaller car parked next to us showed a much more dimpled surface). We tried to get a campfire started, but, as is almost always the case at Mt. Mitchell, the firewood up there seems to prefer to smoke rather than burn (I guess that comes with living in the clouds). We did have a welcome visitor at camp as we headed to bed – a beautiful Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander that emerged from a hole under our tent pad frame. More on our travels in the next post.

Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander

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.