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.

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.

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.

Some Days You Get Lucky

I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.

~Thomas Jefferson

Today was one of those days. Coming back home after a doctor’s appointment, a motion caught my eye while driving past a small roadside vernal pool. I slowed and saw it was a Barred Owl that had landed on a snag in the pool. I figured it might have babies in a nest nearby and was looking for a meal of crayfish or salamanders (this pool and another one nearby are breeding pools for Marbled and Spotted Salamanders). I had no camera with me so I drove the remaining few miles back home. I decided there was a chance it might hang around and hunt, so I grabbed a camera and headed back up the road. No cars were behind me, so as I approached the pool, I slowed down and looked for the owl. It was not on the prominent snag perch where I had seen it…bummer. But, then I saw it even closer to the road on a tree branch. I stopped, and stuck the camera out the window and fired off 3 shots. Another car then zoomed by in the other direction and the owl flew off. Luck was with me today.

A cooperative Barred Owl stayed put long enough for a few photos (click photo to enlarge)

Ironically, while waiting at the doctor’s office, I read an email from a teacher that had been on a workshop with Melissa and I years ago,. She encountered two Barred Owls yesterday on a trail and had sent us a note because she knew we would appreciate it. She even thanked us for teaching her about owls and what to look for. A double bonus day indeed.

Still Hanging On

Your growing antlers, Bambi continued, are proof of your intimate place in the forest, For of all the things that live and grow only the trees and the deer shed their foliage each year and replace it more strongly, more magnificently, in the Spring. Each year the trees grow larger and put on more leaves. And so you too increase In size and wear a larger, stronger crown.

~Felix Salten

After placing a new trail camera down along the wet weather creek, I was rewarded with a very nice clip of a beautiful White-tailed deer buck. This is from February 18, about the time most deer in our area are dropping their antlers for the season. As I mentioned in a recent post about Moose in Yellowstone, antler drop is an annual event for male members of the deer family, caused by changing day-length and lowered testosterone levels after the mating season.

–A nice buck poses for the new trail camera (best if viewed full screen)

A week ago, I had a very short clip that showed this buck still sports his nice set of antlers. It is getting a bit late for them to still be carrying their antlers, so I would love to have him drop one or both somewhere on our property. I have only found one antler shed here in all the years of roaming these woods. Rodents make short work of shed antlers for their calcium content.

The same day the large buck above was caught on camera, a smaller buck who had dropped its antlers was filmed. Note the roundish scar between the ey and ear – the pedicle. Soon, new antler growth will begin at this site for next mating season’s crowns.

— This buck has already dropped its antlers. You can see the pedicle as a scar-like mark between the ear and eye on each side of its head

Island Solitude

The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place.

~Rachel Carson

Last week was another first for me – a canoe camping trip to Masonboro Island. Masonboro Island is one 10 sites that make up the NC Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve. This 8.4 mile long island reserve was protected in 1991 and is the largest undeveloped barrier island along our southern coast. It lies between Wrightsville Beach to the north and Carolina Beach to the south. We put in at Trails End Park along the Intracoastal Waterway. We had tried calling the Reserve office on the way down just to ask a few questions about access, but staff were not available. We planned to launch on an incoming tide (a necessity for easy access to some parts of the island) late in the afternoon. As we were loading the canoe, a vehicle and trailer with state tags pulled in and it turned out to be the staff person we had tried to call earlier (some days you get lucky). They had been out cleaning up some trash on one of the dredge spoil islands that comprise the reserve. She gave us a 10-minute overview of where to go and what to expect and we were off. There was a stiff northwest breeze, so the usual 20+ minute paddle took us about 45 minutes. We started looking for a camping spot that would provide a little protection from the wind and settled on an old over-wash area behind a small patch of maritime shrub thicket.

Our campsite the first night gave us some protection from the steady winds (click photos to enlarge)
A beautiful sunset our first night

The wind continued to blow on our second day, finally dropping down late in the afternoon. I was a bit surprised by the lack of bird activity with just a few pelican fly-bys and only a handful of shorebirds in sight during the day. The most abundant was the ubiquitous Sanderling, the energizer bunny, wind-up toy of birds that can be found on any sandy beach. I always enjoy watching them chase back and forth in front of the wave action, gleaning whatever tiny food morsels they can find along the beach. I spent a lot of time just watching their antics and trying to get photos of their high enery movements. They were more cooperative than the other species of shorebirds we saw in terms of tolerating our presence, especially if you just got out ahead of them as they moved down the beach and sat still. They would forage until they got just even with me and quickly run a few feet just beyond me to resume feeding.

Sanderling probing the sand for food

Sanderlings can be found any month of the year on our beaches, but the largest numbers occur during migration in spring and fall. They breed in the high Arctic tundra. Their migration routes and distances vary considerably with the average migration distance from wintering to breeding grounds being over 5000 miles. No wonder they are so busy running up and down the beach feeding!

The quintessential Sanderling pose – on the move

At low tide we went back to the sound side of the island and saw why everyone says you need to paddle over on an incoming tide. The large bay we paddled in on was now a giant mud flat. Eastern Mud Snails (Ilyanassa obsoleta) covered the mud. It is hard to imagine how many snails are out there when you look out and see black dots covering the entire mud flat. They feed primarily on microorganisms (e.g., bacteria, blue-green algae and diatoms) that grow in and on the surface of the sediment but will also scavenge any dead fish or other animal carcasses. They are native to the Atlantic Coast of North America but have been accidentally introduced to the West Coast where it is considered an invasive species that is out-competing some of their native snail fauna.

Eastern Mud Snails exposed at low tide

The other notable thing you see at low tide are the oyster reefs along the marsh edges. Eastern Oysters are able to survive being exposed by tightly shutting their shells and maintaining water inside during the low tide cycle. These are incredibly important salt marsh organisms due to their water filtering capabilities (one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day while feeding), shore stabilization properties, and the habitat provided by the structure of oyster reefs. And they are a favorite food of many creatures from crabs to shorebirds to us humans. I also learned a valuable lesson about their habitat. We walked out in our rubber boots to examine some oysters. I stood in one spot for a few minutes and when I started to turn to walk away, one boot remained solidly stuck in the mud while the rest of me did a sideways plop into the thick goo (luckily, no photos exist of this embarrassing moment in the life of a naturalist).

Eastern Oysters (Crassostrea virginica) at low tide

Later in the day, the wind finally started to subside and we decided (well, really, Melissa decided) to move our campsite closer to the ocean in a small break in the dunes. The high tide mark was about 15 feet from our tent, so I kept an eye on the incoming ocean water. But, all was good and it turned out to be one of the most beautiful campsites ever.

We spent the afternoon walking up and down the deserted beach (we were the only humans on the island for our entire stay) looking for shells, birds, and scanning the ocean for marine life (we did finally see a pod of dolphins).

A small flock of shorebirds (Short-billed Dowitchers and Willets) resting on the beach
A pair of American Oystercatchers, one with legs bands

The most interesting birds we observed were several pairs of American Oystercatchers scattered along the beach. We heard many have just recently arrived back here for breeding (they typically nest on sand and shell beaches, at marsh edges, and other areas with little or no vegetation). Oystercatchers are boldly patterned and large for a shorebird and they have a conspicuous long red bill. They use this bill to probe for mussels and other invertebrates in sand and mud and to feed in a remarkable way on oysters and other shelled creatures. As the tide drops, oystercatchers move out onto the oyster reefs and search for oysters with partially open shells. They then use that knife-like bill to stab the abductor muscles that hold the two halves of the shell together so the oyster cannot close. The bird then pulls out and eats the soft parts of the oyster. They also use their beak to hammer open softer shelled bivalves.

American Oystercatcher with leg bands CUT

While watching these fascinating birds, I noticed some leg bands on one bird in three of the pairs I observed. Back home, I searched the internet and found the banding program is run by the American Oystercatcher Working Group. From their web site – Since 1999, over 6,000 American Oystercatchers have been banded in the U.S. and Mexico. Banding individual birds helps researchers learn about demographics, movement, habitat requirements. American Oystercatchers are a species of concern due to declining numbers in recent decades. I filled out the report forms and should soon be notified of the data on these particular birds. I’ll be sure to share when I get additional feedback.

Another spectacular sunset

The wind died and we enjoyed another beautiful sunset, dinner, and the a campfire on the beach (something Melissa has always wanted). She found some abandoned firewood near our first campsite (you must bring your own firewood if you want a campfire on Masonboro). We built a fire below the high tide mark so the next tide would remove all traces and we enjoyed a long and relaxing campfire with the sounds of the ocean and a beautiful night sky as our only companions on our last night on this magical island.

The glow on the horizon just before sunrise
Coyote tracks

The staff person we spoke with at the launch site mentioned that coyotes are on Masonboro and we should protect our food (just as we would from any other critter when camping). We stored our supplies in our “bear canister” and, though I kept a lookout at sunrise and sunset, I never saw any mammals on the island. But on our last morning, we walked down the beach and found a line of coyote tracks that went by our campsite. Some time during the night, the coyote had come down off a steep dune face and trotted in the typical straight line gait until it got to within about 50 feet of the dune break where our tent was set up. It then veered off toward the ocean and returned back to above the high tide mark once it was about 50 feet past us. This is why I like our trail cameras back home so much – you never know what is going on outside after you go to sleep.

The steep dune face of the winter beach

Being by ourselves on a deserted island is a good way to purge some of the world’s troubles from your brain for at least a short while. Masoboro looks like it could be a bit crowded at times in warm weather, but we lucked out and experienced the island solitude for a couple of days and it was good!

One thing we did to pass the time was walk along the beach, looking at the small wonders that wash up from the depths. We collected a couple of shells but I really enjoy looking at the patterns created by the forces of wind and water. Below are a few shots of natural patterns we found as we enjoyed the island and nearby beaches.

Live Oak tree canopy on the beach at Fort Fisher
Algae swirls on the coquina rock outcrop at Fort Fisher at low tide
Wind ripples on dry sand on Masonboro Island
Patterns in the sand from water caught in low spots on the upper beach
Sand patterns from water in pools on the beach

Day-tripping

I just take it one day at a time, and it always leads you to the right place.

~ Kyle Massey

My two recent trips to Pungo were two day trips, leaving home before dawn and leaving the refuge after sunset. While not the ideal way to do this, even a day trip ca yield some great wildlife moments. I shared some images and stories about the dominant winter birds (Tundra Swans and Snow Geese) in my last post. This one covers some of the other interesting wildlife I (we, on the second trip) encountered.

The first thing I saw was an adult Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree in someone’s yard on the way in to the refuge. The hawk seemed to be surveying the hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding in the corn field across the road. (click photos to enlarge)
A flooded portion of a cornfield across the canal on private land had this Greater Yellowlegs patrolling the shallows.
Just beyond the shorebird was an immature Bald Eagle out in the field. There may have been a small carcass of some sort as there were also a couple of crows just out of camera view.
Another car pulled up and the eagle took to the skies.
Farther down the road was an immature Red-shouldered Hawk surveying the roadside canal. They feed on amphibians, small reptiles, birds, and small mammals, as well as invertebrates like earthworms. Why is it the hawks that don’t fly away as I approach are always surrounded by a thousand sticks in the background (or right in front of their head)?
I watched this hawk for about 10 minutes before yet another car pulled in and it flew to a perch a little farther back from the road
A few deer were out grazing along some grassy roadways
February is the month when large flocks of blackbirds (mostly Red-winged Blackbirds) flood the fields with their undulating swarms and noisy antics. This field was near one with a few hundred Tundra Swans feeding on the waste corn (the swans can be seen in the background as a white line)
Zoom in to see the red epaulets of the male birds. Females are all brown (streaked). There are also several Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in with this flock (can you find any?)
Turtles were out basking in the sun in many of the canals. One log in a swamp forest along the road had this beautiful Spotted Turtle.
I stepped out of the car to receive a phone call (much to my surprise since most of the refuge has no cell phone service) and was surprised by a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds foraging in the swamp next to the road.

On my first trip, I saw 4 River Otter, a family grouping (I think) that I have seen on other trips to Pungo this winter. The next week we had a 9 otter day, with three groupings of 2, 3, and 4 otters seen at different times and locations. I didn’t try to get close to any but did get to spend quite a while watching a group of 4 where one had a very large fish that it didn’t want to share.

This otter was swimming with two others and decided to climb out on the back across the canal from where i was standing

–A group of River Otters on a canal bank, and one of them apparently doesn’t want to share any of its huge fish meal

A pair of otters came up out of the canal and started running down the road toward me. They eventually thought better of it and returned to the canal.

We stopped the car to look at an American Bittern, one of two we saw in Marsh A, when I heard squalls across the canal. It turned out to be the otters arguing over the large fish one had captured. For the next hour, we had this beautiful bird on one side of the road and the four otter on the other. Melissa stayed with the otter while I went back and forth trying to observe and photograph both wildlife events. There were a few other cars nearby but they were mainly concentrating on the thousands of swans in the shallow water of Marsh A just down the road.

An American Bittern slowly moves through the grasses looking for prey. I watched it catch three items but could never clearly see what it caught because it was behind a clump of grass each time.
When the bittern was among the grasses, it was very difficult to spot due to its streaked camouflage. Here it creeps across an opening and you can see that intense look they always seem to show.
Another bird that is a master of disguise is the Wilson’s Snipe. Their streaked plumage blends in perfectly with their primary habitat – edges of wet marshy areas or muddy fields of patchy grass. You can drive by and never see one, and then stop, look around, still nothing. But if you make a noise or get out of your car, they can explode into the air right in front of you and then zigzag to a landing spot only to vanish once more. This one has its back toward me.
I took dozens of photos of a group of snipe right next to the road and managed only two shots where they are out in the open enough to see the entire bird.
One of the snipe finally walked across a small area of open water and gave me a chance for a reflection photo

On one trip, I introduced myself to a woman I follow on social media that I recognized walking along the road. She is an excellent photographer and visits Pungo way more than I do. She was trying to get a photo of a screech owl she had found in a hollow next to the road. She was gracious enough to show me the tree, though the bird wasn’t visible at the time (she said it would slide down into the hole when a car drove by and it had been a very busy day on the refuge). I thanked her and checked on the tree later that day, but still no owl. On my second trip, I spotted the owl the first time I drove by, but the light was terrible. I decided to wait until late that afternoon when the low angle sunlight would flood into this group of trees.

Eastern Screech Owl (red color morph) resting in a hollow tree opening. There are a lot of branches in front of this tree, so it is difficult to find a spot for a clear view.

We were trying to not disturb the owl and be discreet in our attempts to get a photo so as to not attract a crowd that might disrupt the little guy’s napping. The owl didn’t seem to mind our vehicle slowly driving by and stopping for a few seconds, so we did a couple of back-and-forths, hoping to get a clear look. After admiring this beauty on several drive-bys, we decided to move on and let it rest comfortably. I wonder how many times I have driven by this bird (and others) without seeing it? I guess that is one reason to keep going back…there is always something new to observe, even if only on a day trip. Here’s looking forward to many more in the future.

Our final look at the resting owl as it was facing into the setting sun. The golden light actually makes it even more difficult to see this color owl since the surrounding trees all take on a reddish-golden hue in the low angle light. I have seen both red (generally called rufous) and gray color morphs on the refuge. No one is quite certain what advantage, if any, a bird derives from being one color or the other.

Those White Winter Birds

Twenty thousand birds moved away from me as one, like a ground-hugging white cloud…

~Michael Pollan

I managed a couple of trips to my favorite NC winter place recently and was rewarded with some wonderful scenes of wide colorful skies, masses of birds, quiet moments of watching wildlife, and some surprises. I’ll cover much of the events in this and the next post. Today, I’ll focus on the birds, specifically those elegant white birds of winter – Great Egrets, Tundra Swans, and Snow Geese (well, egrets can be seen any time of year actually). In addition to the Pungo Unit, I spent some time at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, where I enjoyed watching some Great Egrets hunting in the flooded impoundment. Their typical hunting strategy involves walking slowly in shallow water, and moving their head and neck to get a closer look at potential prey. They then either strike quickly or lean in close to the water and, with incredible speed, slice through the surface to snag a meal. Their preferred food is small fish, although I have seen them take invertebrates, fairly large fish, and a friend recently reported one catching an amphiuma (a large aquatic salamander). Below is a record of one that walked by me several times spearing tiny fish.

A Great Egret does the leeeaaan for a successful strike (click photos to enlarge)
A Great Egret spears a small fish, and then did it again, and again, and…

Over at Pungo, the water levels have finally come back up to normal in the impoundments and the swans are appreciating it. There were a few thousand in Marsh A and many more in the flooded corn field along D-Canal Road. Even though I have taken hundreds (no, probably a few thousand) photos of swans over the years, I enjoy watching and listening to them so much, I always manage to spend an hour or two sitting in the car at Marsh A and taking it all in.

One of the most elegant moves a swan makes is the wing flap They do this frequently as part of preening and also after interacting with other swans in the so-called triumph ceremony
I never tire of watching (and listening) to swans taking flight…the huge wings flapping and the slap, slap, slap of their large webbed feet hitting the water surface as they run to gain lift
A few swans engaged in acrobatic bathing – rolling over in the water, flapping, splashing, dunking their heads and necks, and then shaking it all off before repeating the process

–A quick video clip of a swan taking an energetic bath

A lone Snow Goose swims among thousands of swans in Marsh A

I always hope to be where the Snow Geese are at sunset. They typically fly off the lake and head out to a field to feed a half hour or more before the sun goes down. If you are near, the sights and sounds of thousands of birds flying overhead are something you never forget.

Snow Geese landing in one the fields at Pungo already occupied by a few hundred Tundra Swans

–The sunset show of thousands of Snow Geese circling a field at Pungo (taken the same day as the photo above, but from the other side of the field)

A bonus on our last trip was the rising moon. We kept waiting for the Snow Geese to fly off the lake and head to the fields, but they were still on the lake at 5:30 p.m. (much later than on the trip where I filmed their flock behavior). We waited at a field with hundreds of swans feeding as that is usually a good bet where the geese will go when they finally lift off for their evening feed.

Tundra Swans across a rising moon

Melissa finally spotted the geese flying off the lake at about 5:45 p.m., but they didn’t head our way. Instead they flew north, so we hustled over to “Bear Road” and, sure enough, there was the flock of thousands of Snow Geese circling the corn field (the corn had been knocked down in the last few days so was prime for the birds). They kept circling for about 15 minutes, an unusually long time this late in the day. I managed a few images of geese flying across the moon while we watched. At last, birds started to drop into the field, but they only only stayed a short time before taking off and flying back to the lake. They may be getting antsy to head north. I probably won’t see them again this winter but I have promised myself to spend more time down there next year!

Snow Geese flying across the moon – they will probably be gone within days (if not already as you read this)