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.

HUNTINGton Lives Up to Its Name

Great Egret fyl by

A Great Egret flies by on the marsh side of Huntington Beach State Park, SC (click photos to enlarge)

My first stop on my trip south was to one of my favorite photography destinations, Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. There always seems to be something to photograph there, especially along the causeway that separates the salt marsh from the freshwater pond. Two great habitats adjacent to one another provide plenty of opportunities for seeing all sorts of interesting critters. This is especially true if you time your trip to coincide with low tide on the marsh side occurring close to sunrise or sunset. Such was the case last week when I stopped in for the afternoon on my way south – the tide was falling and skies were partly cloudy. But, by Huntington Beach standards, things were pretty slow on this cold day.

White Ibis probing

White Ibis probing for prey in an oyster bed

There were plenty of ducks on the pond side, but very little activity on the marsh side of the causeway (which is where the good light is in the afternoon). Finally, a couple of White Ibis landed and started feeding in a tidal channel amongst the exposed oysters. They probed and swung their head from side to side. Periodically, they would open their long bill, and with a snap of their head, gulp down some unseen prey.

White Ibis with Grass Shrimp

White Ibis with what looks like a Grass Shrimp

When I examined the images later i saw what looked like small, clear shrimp as their primary taste treat, most likely a common species known as Grass Shrimp.

White Ibis with small fish

White Ibis captures a small fish, most likely a killifish

Every now and then an ibis would land a bigger meal, usually a small fish resembling a killifish of some sort.

Great Blue Heron strike

Great Blue Heron strike

Another wader joined the ranks of the ibis and began searching the retreating water for its dinner. Although I was hoping for a big fish capture (it missed on this strike), the Great Blue Heron seemed content to snack on the Grass Shrimp as well.

Snowy Egret hunting

Snowy Egret hunting

The last wader to join the hunting party was a gorgeous Snowy Egret.

Snowy Egret hunting 1

Snowy Egret uses a quick jab for small prey

Snowy Egret hunting 2

Snowy Egret deftly grabs a Grass Shrimp

Snowy Egret hunting 3

Snowy Egret sideways head snap with Grass Shrimp

Snowy Egret eating grass shrimp

Snowy Egret gulping Grass Shrimp

Snowy’s tend to be a little animated in their hunting style, with quick steps, jabs, and then, unlike the upward head snap of the ibis, a sideways head jerk followed by a gulping bill gape.

Snowy Egret strike

Snowy Egret strikes deeper for larger prey

Snowy Egret strike close up

Snowy Egret strike close up

Snowy Egret with goby

Snowy Egret snags a bigger meal

Suddenly, the Snowy Egret ran and plunged its stiletto bill deeper into the channel and emerged with a most unusual-looking prey.

Snowy Egret with goby close up

Snowy Egret with goby

It had a long, skinny fish, with a pointed tail and odd dorsal and anal fins. After looking online, I think it must be a goby, perhaps a Sharp-tail (or Highfin) Goby, Gobionellus sp. These elongate bottom-dwellers inhabit estuarine mud flats in the southeast.

Snowy Egret swallowing goby close up

Snowy Egret gulping down goby

After carrying the fish around for a minute or two, the egret finally managed to gulp it down.

Snowy Egret swallowing goby at end

Snowy Egret swallowing goby

That seemed to satisfy the Snowy Egret and it flew off down into the main marsh.

Bald Eagle fly by

Bald Eagle cruises over the marsh hunting for any easy prey

Right after that, one of the local Bald Eagles cruised overhead, scanning for any easy meal it could catch, or steal from another of the hunters found at Huntington Beach. I was getting hungry myself, and as a cloud bank started to move in, I headed south to Savannah for the next leg of the trip.