Haw-inspiring Hike

One of the reasons there are so many terms for conditions of ice is that the mariners observing it were often trapped in it, and had nothing to do except look at it.

― Alec Wilkinson

I must give credit to our friend, Bill, for the title of this post (hope he doesn’t mind). He is a poet and a wordsmith and used this phrase in an email about a hike along the Haw River we took this past Sunday with his godsons, Turner and Charlie. We hiked along the Lower Haw State Natural Area from the Hwy 64 bridge over the Haw up to our neighborhood, a distance of a little over 2 miles. Temperatures were in the 20’s when we started, but mostly sunny, and the air was still. The river, always special, was especially beautiful, with a fringe of ice along her shores that often extended far across her rocky breadth.  From the outset, the river provided visual delights and mysteries.

Mystery trails on ice

Unusual “trail” on the river ice (click photos to enlarge)

Just a short way upriver from the bridge, we started seeing some winding “trails” on the ice, looking as if someone had pulled a tiny sled in an erratic route across semi-frozen ice.

Beaver trail through ice

An open channel helped solve the mystery

Just beyond those first mysterious ice trails, we saw a partially open channel that had a similar irregular path. This one led over to an island in the river where we could see evidence of beaver chewed sticks piled along the bank. Mystery solved! The initial trails were frozen over beaver channels.

beaver chew marks

Beaver teeth marks on a sycamore log

beaver chew

There is abundant beaver sign all along the trail

From that point on, we encountered many active beaver chewed trees, some quite large. Years ago, when I was doing programs for state parks, I remember reading some facts about beavers – the largest one ever trapped weighed about 105 pounds (although my current reference on mammals says the largest on record was 86 pounds – still a huge rodent).  Average weight for an adult beaver is around 50-60 pounds. I once saw a photo of the purported record tree felled by a beaver – a tulip polar a little over 5 feet in diameter! None of the trees along the trail approached that, although the busy beavers have been gnawing on some pretty large specimens. Beavers are somewhat generalist vegetative feeders in warm months, but this time of year they feed almost exclusively on the inner bark of tree trunks and branches. Other wildlife we saw included a variety of birds – great blue herons looking for open water along the river, and a variety of songbirds trying to find something to eat along the trail. American holly berries seemed a favorite and we saw several hermit thrushes and American robins feeding in some of the large trees. Mixed feeding flocks of other species including Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, woodpeckers (red-bellied, downy, and pileated and a yellow-bellied sapsucker), some feisty yellow-rumped warblers, and a few ruby-crowned kinglets. A beautiful red-shouldered hawk, a blue jay, and some of its cousin American crows, rounded out our bird sightings.

river rock surrounded by ice

An exposed rock in a sea of ice

As I have said before, ice fascinates me. Life as we know it depends on the unusual characteristics of water and one of these is that, unlike most other chemical compounds, when it gets cold enough to turn into a solid, the solid floats (the solids sink in most cases).


crystals in ice

Needles of ice in a patch along the shoreline

I remember a discussion I had about ice with a museum co-worker back in 2006.  I was lucky enough to get chosen as part of an international science and education team to spend a month in the Arctic aboard a Russian ice-breaker (no collusion, I swear). She asked me if I thought I would get bored spending a whole month out on the ice, with nothing but an expanse of white to view. I had said no, and was justified when I realized the incredible variety of forms that ice can take – all beautiful. The ice along the Haw was no different, and showed us its many faces as we gazed upon it from the bank – all magical.

beech leaf on ice

Beech leaf frozen in the surface of thick ice

ice shelf

A small ice shelf next to a riffle area

ice shelf 1

Ice lace edging along the rocky shore next to flowing water

ice waves

Intricate patterns of ice on the surface of an eddy in the river

Frozen haw

The mix of ice and open water along the river

The weather is warming, and ice is melting, but memories of a cold hike along the Haw, with good companions, will stay with us for quite some time. I spoke to our group of my appreciation for those that fought to set this corridor aside, and to the dedicated folks, like those of the Haw River Assembly, that continue to work toward its preservation. Haw-inspiring indeed.


Ice Capades

Ice is an interesting subject for contemplation.

~Henry David Thoreau

Weather changes quickly this time of year. When venturing out, we need to be prepared. Imagine if you live out in it all winter. While snow is relatively rare in our eastern wildlife refuges, ice is common. A sudden drop in temperature on a still January night can lead to quick freezes in all the puddles, ditches and other waterways.

Ice formed overnight in puddles and the edges of open water

Ice formed overnight in puddles and the edges of open water (click photos to enlarge)

Such was the case last week at the Pungo Unit when an overnight cold snap turned what had been a wet field full of hungry Wilson’s Snipe and Killdeer the previous afternoon, into a skating rink the next morning.

Snipe camouflage

Wilson’s Snipe are difficult to see in grassy areas

The day before I had counted 18 Wilson’s Snipe in this flooded portion of an old soybean field. The next morning, the pool was frozen and, at first, I didn’t see a singe bird. Then, as I opened the car door, a snipe stood up and ran. So, I got back in the car and waited.

Snipe hidden in grass

Wilson’s Snipe hidden in grass

Soon, I started seeing lots of lumps in the grass – snipe lumps. The key was to look for dark clumps of “grass” and then check them out with binoculars. Most turned out to be Wilson’s Snipe, apparently waiting for a little warmth before venturing out to feed.

Snipe walking on ice 1

A cautious Wilson’s Snipe ventures out onto the frozen puddle

I watched the first snipe approach the ice rink. It moved out across the frozen surface slowly, much more slowly than their usual walking pace.

Snipe slipping on ice 1

Wilson’s Snipe slipping on ice

The first few steps were almost graceful. But that quickly turned comical as almost every snipe that attempted to cross the ice found itself slip-sliding away. There was usually a quick wing assist to try to stay upright. A few even abandoned the attempt altogether and flew over the ice to the grassy area on the other side.

Snipe slipping on ice

The snipe slip and squat pose

One bird did a butt flop on the ice with both legs shooting out in opposite directions.

Snipe portrait

Better to sit in the grass than try to skate on a frozen puddle

When that bird finally made it across, it seemed to express the embarrassment for itself and the rest of its clan with a slight look of disgust, or maybe it was contemplating another use for that long bill besides just probing the mud for worms.

Swan on ice

A Tundra Swan stands on the frozen edge of the impoundment

After several good laughs, I drove over to the impoundment that has been so productive this season for swan watching. Most of the water was open out in the middle of the impoundment, but I noticed some swans along the edge that seemed to be standing.

Swan on ice 1

No problems walking on ice

I moved to an open spot with a good view and could see several Tundra Swans were gingerly walking on the skim of ice along the marsh edge. Their broad webbed feet have distinctive claws at the the tips of each toe. Perhaps this combination provides greater surface area contact with the slippery substrate and allows the seemingly always elegant Tundra Swan to walk gracefully atop the ice.

Swan flapping on ice

Check this out, Mr. Snipe

As if to reinforce their one-upmanship of the snipe in their ice skating abilities, one swan performed a regal wing flap at the conclusion of a short session of preening, leaving no doubt which species would receive the higher score in the marsh bird ice capades.

Swan against moon

Tundra Swan elegance

And, if there was any doubt of who is the most graceful and artistic of the birds of Pungo, a lone swan flew by the rising moon that afternoon, reminding me one more time of why these beautiful animals are my favorite bird of winter.