Warbler Watching

The real jewel of my disease-ridden woodlot is the prothonotary warbler … The flash of his gold-and-blue plumage amid the dank decay of the June woods is in itself proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa.

~Aldo Leopold

This final post on our recent swamp trip is about one of spring’s most enjoyable wildlife experiences, the return of the warblers. As my high frequency hearing has waned, I rely more and more on Melissa’s abilities to hear their songs and locate them. And on this trip, she was hearing them throughout our paddle. And she had her spotting skills in high gear as she came up finding what I thought were the trip highlights – a swimming Mink, two Barred Owls close enough to photograph, some cute Raccoons, the flying squirrel, and a few nesting birds. My challenge was to try to photograph them.  And I find warblers to be a particularly challenging subject.

bad warbler shot

My usual warbler image, mostly of where one used to be – note tail feathers exiting top left of image (click photos to enlarge)

But this trip had waves of warblers moving through the swamp at times. On our second platform at Three Sisters, we had birds all around us our last morning, including a swarm of migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers. The rather drab colors we see on this species in winter have now been replaced by bold black and white and intensified yellows. A throng of butter-butts came though our camp that morning, but most were either obscured in the thick understory brush or high in the tree tops, foraging on insects.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler showing off its spring attire

Melissa heard and then found a Prairie Warbler just off our platform and I finally managed a few pictures in the dappled sunlight.

Prairie warbler

Prairie Warbler skulking through the brush

Northern parula warbler

Northern Parula Warblers were everywhere in the swamp, but difficult to photograph on this trip

It turns out, the real photographic test was shooting warblers from a moving canoe. I had my 300 mm telephoto and 1.4x teleconverter on my older camera body with us. Needless to say, I was trying to be careful with the gear and, when paddling, often had it secured in a dry bag in front of me. When we saw something, I would have to open the bag, pull out the camera and then try to shoot from a wobbly canoe (usually in a current) while Melissa positioned us. For some shots, I carefully passed the gear up to her if we could not get the back of the canoe into position. Prothonotary Warblers were singing and displaying all along our route, but when she spotted one carrying nesting material, we pulled over and steadied the canoe on a log in the shallows. The bird did not disappoint.

Prothonotary warbler gathring moss on nearby tree

This bird really liked the moss on one particular tree trunk and made several trips to gather a beak full while we watched.

Prothonotary warbler with moss in bill

Most trips back to the nest were quick, with a brief landing, and then darting directly into the cavity. On this one though, he (I think it is a he because it is very brightly colored) paused on top of the snag for just a moment.

Prothonotary wwarbler head stickig out nest cavity

After depositing the moss, he would come out, look around, and then fly off for more. This time, he stuck his head out far enough so that the sun highlighted his face.

Prothonotary warbler gathring moss on cavity tree

On one exit, he noticed a little piece of moss just below the cavity

Prothonotary warbler gathring moss on cavity tree 1

My favorite pose

Male prothonotaries arrive first on the breeding grounds and begin setting up territories which they defend. They will select a few choice nesting cavities (and the swamp is full of potential nest holes) and gather and stuff them with moss, hoping a female will approve. We wished him good luck, and moved on as this was a big paddle day for us.

The current was stong and the wind was at our back out on the river proper when Melissa saw what she at first thought was a Northern Parula exiting a clump of Spanish Moss dangling on a low branch over the river (their preferred nest site). We turned and started paddling back upstream when she saw the bird return – it was a Yellow-throated Warbler!

Yellow-throated warbler at nest in Spanish moss

A Yellow-throated Warbler bringing material back to its nest site in a clump of Spanish Moss

This beautiful warbler is one of Melissa’s favorites, but frustratingly so, since they tend to be treetop dwellers and, though she hears them often (even at our woodland home in Chatham County), we rarely get a decent look at one. And here she finds one nesting, and down low. Cornell’s excellent online Birds of the World resource (for a subscription fee, but well worth it), states It nests and performs most of its daily activities high in the canopy of these forests. The exact location of nests is usually hard to determine.

Yellow-throated warbler at nest in Spanish moss closer view

Melissa did a great job keeping the canoe in place while the bird came and went with nesting materials

Yellow-throated warbler looking at us

A good view of that brilliant yellow throat that gives this warbler its common name

Yellow-throated warbler just going into nest

Entering the entrance hole in the Spanish Moss with nesting material (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Yellow-throated warbler coming out of nest jusy head

Peeking out of the nest entrance (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Yellow-throated warbler coming out of nest

Our final look at an extraordinary bird

Research shows they usually nest out on horizontal branches high in the canopy in mature forests. In coastal areas with Spanish Moss, they prefer to nest in clumps hanging below branches (like Northern Parulas). But the nests of Yellow-throated Warblers tend to be an average of 30-45 feet above ground in coastal swamps. I’d say we were pretty lucky to find this one at about eye level from our canoe. As it turned out, we didn’t have a decent look at another of these beauties on our entire trip. So, thanks for a special moment in a very special place.

 

Bird Spot

Simply wait, be quiet, still. The world will freely offer itself to you.

~Franz Kafka

Yesterday’s post mentioned the excellent birding we experienced on our recent paddle trip on the Roanoke River. When we arrived at our second camping platform, Three Sisters, the late day light was gorgeous and the sky was filled with all sorts of birds. After setting up camp (and shooing away the vultures dining on the fish skeletons) we sat out on the small dock by the creek for over an hour watching the parade of birds go by. I decided to practice some birds in flight photography to see what I could capture. Here are a few of the results…

anhinga overhead

The distinctive cross-shape of Anhingas soaring overhead was a common sight on the blackwater tributaries of the Roanoke (click photos to enlarge)

anhinga fly by

An Anhinga flying low over the creek. We commented on how many of these unusual “snakebirds” we saw on this trip compared to our previous outings.

wood duck female

A female Wood Duck blasts past our dock in late afternoon light.

wood duck male

Almost all the ducks we saw were in pairs. This is the male Wood Duck escorting the one above.

chimney swift

The real challenge was tying to photograph Chimney Swifts in flight. As you can see, I never really got it right as they are just too darned fast and erratic. It is comforting to know that they are no doubt nesting in many of the giant hollow Bald Cypress trees scattered throughout the swamp.

great blue heron overhead

A Great Blue Heron flying to roost.

great egret overhead

We saw more Great Egrets on this trip than in the past. This one’s wing bones showed through its backlit feathers.

white ibis in flight

As the sun set, large flocks of White Ibis started flying in to the next creek and surrounding wetlands.

I had planned to do some more dock sitting the next morning, but after the water came up during the night, I ended up strolling the short walkway to the platform and trying to photograph the many birds that were active all around us.

blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are always a treat to see up close.

summer tanager singing

This male Summer Tanager sang for much of the morning from high atop a partially defoliated Water Tupelo.

White-breasted nuthatch

A White-breasted Nuthatch knocked off some bark that fell on my head, alerting me to his presence right above me.

White-eyed vireo

A male White-eyed Vireo was loudly singing in thick brush out near the creek. I kept stalking him, hoping for a clear shot.

white-eyed vireo singing

He finally obliged and came out on an open twig for a few notes of pick up the beer check quick, before disappearing back into a thicket.

These images represent just a fraction of what we saw on this trip. Below is a checklist of species we observed/heard during our time in this magical swamp. Tomorrow, I’ll share some highlights of our warbler watching.

Birds: Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; White Ibis; Spotted Sandpiper; Double-crested Cormorant; Anhinga; Wood Duck; Mallard; Canada Goose; Turkey Vulture; Black Vulture; Red-shouldered Hawk; Bald Eagle; Osprey; Barred Owl; Belted Kingfisher; Great Crested Flycatcher; Blue Jay; American Crow; Fish Crow; Common Grackle; Red-winged Blackbird; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; Pileated Woodpecker; Chimney Swift; Barn Swallow; Eastern Towhee; Northern Cardinal; Mourning Dove; Gray Catbird; Swamp Sparrow; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; Carolina Wren; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; White-eyed Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Yellow-throated Vireo; Eastern Bluebird; White-breasted Nuthatch; Summer Tanager; Yellow-billed Cuckoo;Northern Parula Warbler; Black-and-white Warbler; Prairie Warbler; Prothonotary Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Common Yellowthroat; Yellow-rumped Warbler

Mammals: White-tailed Deer; Gray Squirrel; Southern Flying Squirrel; Nutria; Mink; Raccoon; (active Beaver lodges)

Herps: Painted Turtle; Yellow-bellied Slider; River Cooter: Brown Water Snake; American Bullfrog; Southern Cricket Frog

 

Social Distancing – Swamp Style

Yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else of a Dismal Swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.

~Henry David Thoreau

I will admit to feeling a little guilty about this, but we recently returned from a two-night camping and paddling trip on the Roanoke River. For the month of April, we had previous plans for two trips to the swamp with friends, and Melissa had one for work. Though we are very fortunate to live in a beautiful wooded setting, we are missing our spring swamp time. So, after discussing if we could manage a trip without putting ourselves (or anyone else) at risk, we decided to go. We both agreed that there is no better place to self-isolate than the camping platforms on the Roanoke. We departed Monday afternoon, following a storm front that left us with a bit of rain and wind for the start of our journey. Our plan was to put in at Gardner Creek between Williamston and Jamesville on Monday afternoon and paddle to the Barred Owl Roost platform the first night. We arrived at the launch site about 4 p.m. with just a slight drizzle. As we paddled away from the highway, the sounds soon became those of the swamp…a peaceful quiet interrupted only by the wind in the trees, a squawk of a Great Blue Heron, or Wood Ducks exploding off the water.

Raccoon in tree

Our first major wildlife spotting was a pair of Raccoons up in a skinny tree along Gardner Creek (click photos to enlarge)

Melissa soon spotted two Raccoons halfway up a skinny tree surrounded by water. One was trying to ignore us by hugging a branch while the other managed to stay partially hidden alongside a clump of Spanish Moss.

devil's Gut after the storm

The sun finally broke through the dark clouds and lit up the trees along Devil’s Gut

Our three-hour paddle seemed to go quickly and we soon were at our home for the night – Barred Owl Roost. This platform is always surrounded by black water, so you really feel isolated and a part of the swamp. And true to its name, we heard Barred Owls cranking up their Who cooks for you calls soon after we arrived. There were also a lot of other birds in, and flying above, the trees – Prothonotary and Northern Parula Warblers, Common Grackles, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, and lots of Wood Ducks.

Berred Owl Roost

One of our favorite camping platforms – Barred Owl Roost

Prothonotary warbler in tree

Prothonotary Warblers seemed to be everywhere in the swamp

Sunrise at Barred Owl

Sunrise looking up through our tent – a Prothonotary Warbler greeted us by delivering his dawn song from the top of the tent

Many of the Water Tupelo trees have been stripped again this spring by the huge population of Forest Tent Caterpillars. In some sections of the swamp, the majority of the trees are bare and look dead at first glance. And leaf debris from the feeding caterpillars literally covers the water surface in some areas.

Forest tent caterpillar

A Forest Tent Caterpillar doing what it does best – chewing on the leaves of a Water Tupelo 

The next morning, we headed down the Gut and out into the river proper for a long day of paddling. Melissa even did an online program with a school class that would have been participating in the Museum’s Shad in the Classroom program this spring as we drifted downriver, giving the students a unique look at where the American Shad live for part of their life cycle. Along the way we saw lots of eagles, herons, and many songbirds (more on those in a future post).

Juvenile bald eagle

Juvenile Bald Eagle taking flight as we drifted by on the river

The wind was at our back and the current was strong so we made good time until we got to Broad Creek, where we headed upstream for a few miles to our next platform. This section proved to be a tough paddle with not only the current against us but the wind as well. The slow pace allowed us good views of a variety of wildlife from White-eyed Vireos (Melissa spotted one in the early stages of building its nest) to a lot of snakes hanging out in tree branches.

Brown water snakes in tree

One of many congregations of Brown Water Snakes in shrub and tree branches along the water’s edge. There were nine snakes in this one tree!

Black vultures at platform

This is not the welcoming committee we were hoping for at our next camping platform

After a tiring paddle, we finally pulled up to our next camping platform, Three Sisters. But all was not as we would have wanted. Someone had caught and cleaned several large fish, including a monster catfish, on the dock at the platform, leaving the skeletons along the shore, This bounty had attracted several vultures (both Turkey and Black) who didn’t care for us interrupting their fish dinner. We used our paddles to push the carcasses into deeper water, hoping the smell would go way (along with the birds).

Three Sisters platform view

The view from our dock

The wind helped dissipate the aroma and we were able to finish our day relaxing on the dock at our campsite, watching the comings and goings of an amazing variety of birds.

smilax berries

The vegetation surrounding our campsites was diverse and beautiful…here are the bright red berries of Coral Greenbrier (Smilax walteri) and flower buds on Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

While we sat enjoying the late day light, Melissa heard something back in the forest that concerned her…a growing whining noise (no, not me), reminiscent of a cloud of mosquitoes we had once experienced. We gathered our gear and headed for the tent, expecting to be swarmed, but nothing happened. We discovered the sound source later that evening as our tent light attracted literally thousands of the tiniest mayflies (non-biting) I have ever seen.

Three Sisters dock after water rise

During the night, the water level rose about 6 inches, flooding our dock

The next morning, the birds put on an amazing show for us (again, more pics in the next post) and we finally dragged ourselves away and headed out for another long paddle day.

barred owl

Barred owl scanning the shallows for a meal

The route Melissa chose included a 2+ mile paddle upstream on what is known as the “Cut” (Cut Cypress Creek). This is a narrow creek that connects Broad Creek to the Roanoke River upstream of Devil’s Gut and allows us to do a circuit route without paddling against the much stronger current on the river. The Cut has an intimate feel and is a great place to see wildlife because it is only about 20 feet wide in most places. Though we had heard many owls, we had not been close enough for a photograph so at one point I asked Melissa to find us a close owl in sunlight. Literally 30 seconds later, she spots one down low (in the shade, but still…). She was proving her naturalist skills throughout the trip, spotting amazing critters everywhere and hearing tons of songbirds. One of the coolest finds was a Mink swimming across Broad Creek. It disappeared into the swamp forest before I could get my camera out of the dry bag, but it is always a good day when you see a Mink.

adult bald eagle

Adult Bald Eagle on the river

Once we hit the river, we could relax and let the current help carry us. A few miles passed quickly and the we headed back upstream along Devil’s Gut. Once again, our pace slowed, and we saw more wildlife as we paddled along the edges of the swamp.

osprey in flight

Osprey taking flight as we paddle underneath

turtles

Basking turtles were a common sight

Melissa spotted another Raccoon feeling its way along the edge of the swamp. We drifted over for a closer look and spent the next 15 minutes watching it search for food. It barely even looked at us the entire time and was focused on digging and sniffing in the shallows.

raccoon with meal

A Raccoon snacks on a tasty treat found on a log

It seemed to make a point of walking along every log it encountered and on one, it found something to snack on. We could see what looked like a red rope that it grabbed and was loudly crunching. Close looks at the images once we returned show what looks like an amphiuma (an aquatic salamander common in these swamps) that something else may have caught and partially consumed.

raccoon on log

The Raccoon traversed every log in its path and this one brought it close to our canoe

As we neared the end of our paddle, I once again asked Melissa to find me another owl to photograph. This time it look a little longer (maybe a minute) and she spotted one sitting inside the edge of the swamp in a cypress tree.

barred oiwl 1

A more cooperative Barred Owl allows me to capture a quick portrait

Just before we reached our launch site, she saw something down low on a tree trunk on one of the few spots of dry land we saw on the entire trip. It was a flying squirrel clinging to the tree, out in broad daylight. We watched it for several minutes and it moved a little, but mainly just clung to the tree. Not sure what was happening, but it added another species to our impressive list of wildlife along the river.

flying squirrel

A mystery as to why this Southern Flying Squirrel was out in daylight (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We paddled over 30 miles and had been totally isolated on the river for two and a half days, seeing only some fishermen at very safe distances. It was the prefect way to self-isolate and get some much needed outdoor recreation. We give thanks to those with the foresight to preserve this magical place and to create the paddle trail that allows such great access. More on the trip in the next two posts.

 

 

Swamp Break

Each mile on a river will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road.

~Bob Marshall

It has been a hectic spring at work so we decided to take a break last week and do something we both love to do – paddle in a swamp. We both blocked off 3 days some months ago to allow for a couple of nights camping on platforms on the Roanoke River, one of our favorite get-away spots. Turns out the weather had other plans, and, with the forecast for our second day calling for cold rain and wind, we almost canceled the whole trip. But my swamp queen convinced me that one night in the swamp is better than nothing, so off we went Monday morning to paddle Gardner Creek and camp on the Barred Owl Roost platform. As I have mentioned before, the platforms are part of an amazing (and underutilized) resource for outdoor enthusiasts along the Roanoke River. Information and reservations are available through the Roanoke River Partners web site.

Melissa in canoe

Melissa in her element – a canoe in a swamp (click photos to enlarge)

We put in where Gardner Creek crosses under Hwy 64. Melissa arranged with a local teacher she had met on workshops for a quick shuttle (during the teachers’ lunch break). Melissa drove our car to to the take-out point at the boat ramp in Jamesville, and the teacher brought her back to our starting point (a 5-minute drive instead of a 5-hour paddle).

Swamp along te Roanoke River

Spring is just beginning to show in the swamp

Gardner Creek is one of our favorite paddles, a narrow, winding blackwater stream. One side was clear cut several years ago, but there is a slight buffer. The other side is a beautiful huge cypress-tupelo gum swamp. April is a great time to paddle as things are just starting to green up, and the wildlife is more active.

bald cypress leaf out

Bald cypress needles starting to emerge gave the swamp just a hint of green

red maple color

Splashes of color from red maples

red maple seeds 1

Red maple seeds are firetruck red

Scattered along our route were bright splashes of red from the strikingly colored red maple seeds. By the time I am writing this, there will be white patches from hawthorns and shadbush blooms, yellow streaks from the newly arrived prothonotary warblers, and the greens from leaf out will start to fill in the gaps. But we were there on the cusp of color in the swamp.

Barred owl

Barred owls were numerous along our paddle

Our main companions along the way were the birds, both year round residents and new arrivals. At the launch site, we heard our first barred owls, a sound that would escort us along out route the next 24 hours. I had left my usual camera and lenses behind and just had my waterproof point-and-shoot for this trip, a decision I soon regretted with the great close-up views of some owls within the first few miles of our paddle. Several anhinga, osprey, red-shouldered hawks, a yellow-crowned night heron, and a plethora of pileateds made for pleasant birding both days (see bird list at end of post).

Fragile forktail

Fragile forktail damselfly

beaver lodge along Devil's Gut

A huge beaver lodge along Devil’s Gut

Other wildlife included some basking turtles, a gorgeous damselfly, and a muskrat.

river herring and swamp scene

Our highlight was what was under the water’s surface

But our highlight for the trip was what was just beneath the surface of the water…the fish, thousands of them. With the water level’s dropping, fish were coming out of the flooded swamps and feeding along the edges, often right at the surface. We talked to a few fishermen who were catching white perch and “bream”. We also saw a few huge fish jump clear of the black water, probably some carp and maybe bass. But the dominant fish, by far, were the river herring. It is spawning time on the Roanoke, and schools of herring were concentrated in the creeks, one of which was where our platform was located. They were breaking the surface as we paddled, becoming more common the farther up the creek we went. Finally, at our platform, we could see into the shallow water and watched in awe as hundreds of fish swam by in small swirling schools of silver-gray. With the onset of darkness, the activity intensified (do they spawn mainly at night, or was it feeding activity?) and the splashing was noticeable all around us.

Nearing the platform

A gnarled cypress trunk greets us as we near the platform

Barred owl roost platform

Home sweet home, Barred Owl Roost camping platform

view from platform barred owl roost

View from the platform

We slept without the usual rain fly to see the stars twinkling through the treetops. Occasional barred owl choruses echoed through the swamp throughout the night. The temperatures dropped, and, by morning, cloud cover came in with the approaching storm. It was time to pack up and head for Jamesville.

barred owl carcass tied in fishing line

The tragedy of discarded fishing line

The day before, we came across a particularly poignant tragedy. After enjoying close views of a couple of barred owls on the way in, we were heartbroken to find a dead owl that had somehow become entangled in some discarded fishing line. It looked as though a lure was tossed and wrapped around a tree branch. I imagine the fisherman yanked and broke the line, but left it dangling from the branch. The barred owl had it tightly wound around the tip of its wing, perhaps flying into the line or maybe the lure that swayed in the wind. We cut the owl loose, gathered the remaining line, and found ourselves trying to collect any discarded line we found along the rest of our route (and there was way too much of it tangled in tree branches). It is certainly one of those things that takes a toll on wildlife and just doesn’t disappear from the landscape if left behind.

Huge Bald cypress along Gardner Creek

Swamp sentinel

We beat the approaching rain and got loaded up and headed home, sorry to be leaving but happy for our time in this great watery woodland. One slight disappointment was that our platform showed some signs of age, effects of high water this winter, and some abuse/negligence by previous campers (luckily, not a typical thing we see out here). Melissa mused that in a future life she would love to take on the job of maintaining the platforms and leading interpretive trips in the swamp. Who knows, there may be many more swamp trips in our future (and that will be okay by me).

Bird list:

Wood duck, Anhinga, Great blue heron, Yellow-crowned night heron, Barred owl, Osprey, Bald eagle, Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed hawk, Turkey vulture, Black vulture, Wild turkey, Belted kingfisher, Fish crow, Pileated woodpecker, Red-bellied woodpecker, Downy woodpecker, White-breasted nuthatch, Carolina chickadee, Tufted titmouse, Northern cardinal, Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Northern parula, Yellow-throated warbler, Common grackle, Red-winged blackbird, Eastern wood-peewee, Tree swallow

Roaming the River of Life

A river is the most human and companionable of all inanimate things. It has a life, a character, a voice of its own, and is as full of good fellowship as a sugar maple is of sap. It can talk in various tones, loud or low, and of many subjects grave and gay…For real company and friendship, there is nothing outside of the animal kingdom that is comparable to a river.

~Henry Van Dyke

Roanoke scene

Scene along the lower Roanoke River (click photos to enlarge)

After spending some time camping and hiking in the mountains, it seemed appropriate to have a totally different type of experience by paddling a few days on one of my favorite rivers, the Roanoke. The Roanoke is a mighty river, meandering over 400 miles from the mountains of southwest Virginia to Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. In places, the flood plain is immense and provides habitat for countless animals and plants, and solace for any who paddle though it. The Nature Conservancy has helped protect over 90,000 acres along the Roanoke and calls this area the largest and least disturbed bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem on the East Coast.

Tent on platform

Tent on the camping platform at Three Sisters

One of the things that makes this river so special for paddlers is its series of camping platforms. Roanoke River Partners coordinates a reservation system on over 20 camping platforms along the lower Roanoke and its tributaries. On this trip, we were going to paddle about 28 miles over three days, staying at two platforms – Three Sisters on Broad Creek on the Roanoke, and Otter One, on a different Broad Creek off the Cashie River.

Roanoke Outdoor Adventures

Captain Heber of Roanoke Outdoor Adventures

A trip like this would normally require a couple of cars, one at the starting point and one at the take out. But, we decided to opt for a local outfitter, Roanoke Outdoor Adventures, run by Captain Heber Coltrain. Heber is a local guide that rents canoes and kayaks, can help you plan a trip through the area, and provide shuttle service. He is knowledgeable about the region and its history and I can recommend his services to anyone planning a trip in this region.

Roanoke shoreline showing defoliated trees

Roanoke shoreline showing defoliated trees

Putting in at the NC Wildlife boat ramp near Jamesville, one of the first things you notice is a lack of leaves on many of the trees along the shoreline. At first glance, it looks as though the Tupelo Gum just haven’t leafed out yet this spring. A closer look shows they have, but the leaves have all been consumed, almost every leaf gone!

Forest Tent Caterpillars

Forest Tent Caterpillars resting in a characteristic patch on a tree trunk

The culprit? A huge outbreak of Forest Tent Caterpillars Malacosoma disstria. Unlike the more familiar Easter Tent Caterpillars, these munchers do not build the communal silk shelter we commonly see in the forks of certain tree branches in early spring. Instead, they create a silk pad on the branches or trunk of a tree and congregate on it when at rest or molting. Early stages are almost all black with conspicuous hairs. As they mature, they acquire blue sides and footprint-shaped white marks on a dark background along their dorsal surface. Their primary host along the Roanoke seems to be Tupelo Gum, although we saw other species, such as Sweet Gum, that had been stripped. These outbreaks can occur over many years (this is at least the second year for this area) and must have a huge impact on tree growth and survival as well as impacts all along the food chain. Tree flower and nectar production are almost nil and the resulting lack of fruit can impact many mammals and birds.

Forest Tent Caterpillar folding leaf

Forest Tent Caterpillar folding a leaf

There is one generation per year and we were there as the caterpillars were starting to pupate. They fold a leaf by stringing silk across the edges. The silk strands contract as they dry, pulling the leaf sides together.

Forest tent caterpillar making retreat

One night’s work by a caterpillar

Overnight, we saw one leaf shelter almost completed in a Smilax vine along the platform. Once the shelter is complete, the caterpillar pupates inside. Adult moths emerge in a couple of weeks and lay eggs in the tree canopy. The eggs hatch next spring as the tree leaves begin to unfurl. There are some species that probably benefit from this seemingly endless abundance of larval lunch meat – most notably various parasites and predators. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are caterpillar specialists, and probably have good years during the outbreaks, and we saw and heard plenty. We also saw several of the ubiquitous swamp canaries, the Prothonotary Warblers, beating the two-inch larvae on tree limbs before gulping them down.

Prothonotary Warbler bringing moss to nest cavity 1

Prothonotary Warbler male bringing moss to a potential nest cavity

As we unloaded our gear the first afternoon, a bright yellow male serenaded us in his attempt to lure a lady to a nest cavity he was actively preparing.

Prothonotary Warbler stuffing moss into nest cavity

Prothonotary Warbler stuffing moss into nest cavity

Prothonotary Warbler singing at nest cavity

Prothonotary Warbler singing at nest cavity

As he sang, he gathered dry moss from a nearby log. With a beak full of moss, he flew up to a hollow snag, and stuffed the moss into the future bedroom and nursery. In between, he frequently battled another male from across the creek, defending what he hoped would be an attractive spot for a future mate. His is a busy life in the swamp.

Ours was a relaxed life. We swam frequently to cool off, and enjoyed the peace and quiet as we paddled toward our take-out miles away. We crossed through to the Cashie River at one point and paddled thorough part of the vast Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge. All along our journey were sights and sounds that make me want to return to what was originally called the River of Death, for its frequent huge floods. But, to me, the vast wilderness along this stretch of river, and the large acreage under protection by various public land agencies and conservation groups, makes this a River of Life. Time spent paddling on the Roanoke is truly a retreat from a bustling modern world, and a means to glimpse the beauty and mystery of the many secrets of a swamp.

Moutain Laurel and lily pads along the Roanoke

The contrast of Mountain Laurel and lily pads on a north slope along the Roanoke River below Jamesville

Large cypress nect to platform

Huge Bald Cypress tree next to camping platform

Wasp milking aphids

Wasp milking aphids for honeydew on a Tag Alder in the swamp

Lily pads and tree reflection

View of the swamp from one of the camping platforms

Prothonotary Warbler in threat display to other male

Male Prothonotary Warbler in threat display to another male

Cashie scene

Cashie River scene

Roanoke Ramblings

A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the very earth itself.

~Laura Gilpin

I spent this past weekend in a magical place, a place I have been many times, but that still draws me back – the Roanoke River. The Roanoke is a major river that flows over 400 miles from its headwaters in the mountains of Virginia to where it meets Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. A wonderful non-profit group, the Roanoke River Partners, gave life to a series of camping platforms along the Roanoke that serve over 1200 campers annually (reservations required). Camping on these platforms is a truly unique experience and one that I have been lucky enough to do a number of times in several locations. This trip was to two platforms that I had never visited – The Bluff and Royal Fern.

Camping platform along the Roanoke River

Camping platform along the Roanoke – the Bluff (click photos to enlarge)

The first night was spent in one of the more terrestrial of the platforms – The Bluff. It is one of the few with a screened in area and a pit toilet (platforms in the swamp require that you bring your own latrine). It is, indeed, on a buff overlooking the river. That first afternoon, we saw some of the first hints of Spring in the swamp – Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warblers searching for insects in the treetops, flower buds on Dwarf Pawpaw trees, and my first snakes of the season – a large Black Rat Snake, and a true denizen of the swamp, a Cottonmouth.

Cottonmouth

Cottonmouth showing why it is so named

We encountered the Cottonmouth while walking over to get a closer view of an Eastern Screech Owl in a cavity in one of the large American Beech trees that dotted the slopes along the river. Cottonmouths typically display a threat posture of raising their head and gaping their mouth, showing the white insides, a very effective means of letting you know that they are there, and to not bother them.

Cottonmouth 1gg

How a Cottonmouth poses for its picture

Since I did not have any of my telephoto lenses on this trip, a picture of the owl or warblers was out of the question, but the snake was more than cooperative for a few snapshots.

Roanoke River

Sunset along the Roanoke

It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon and a great place to relax and listen to the sounds of the river forest. Other wildlife sightings included a pair of Wood Ducks, undoubtedly nesting in one of the abundant tree cavities, another red phase Eastern Screech Owl the next morning (two were visible in separate tree cavities), a Wild Turkey, and several Pileated Woodpeckers drumming and investigating possible nest or roost sites.

The next day we made a special trip to Creswell to dine at one of my favorite local restaurants, the Main Street Eatery, for the last time. My friend, Sharon Maitland, reluctantly closed the doors to this jewel of a place this weekend. She and her staff have been an oasis of good food and warm smiles for me and my clients these past two years and will be sorely missed. I was happy to get the chance to dine there one last time and thank her for providing a touch of class for my winter outings to the nearby refuges.

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 2

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek

After lunch, we put in at Conaby Creek ,just north of Plymouth, and began the short paddle out to the next platform. While most of the swamp was timbered decades ago, there are remnant Bald Cypress trees along the banks that give you a glimpse of what it must have been like two hundred years ago. The huge trunks reach skyward, many draped in Spanish Moss, some with giant branches covered in Resurrection Fern. Looking at them in black and white seems a fitting way to honor their presence as guardians of the swamp over the centuries.

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek

Bald Cypress trunks may appear as delicate brush strokes in the swamp scene…

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 3

…reaching above the surrounding trees…

Buttress base

…or as massive anchors, holding the swamp in place.

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 1

They seem to embrace the swamp and invite you in…

While the ancient trees speak to us in neutral tones, the swamp itself is coming alive with color.

Spring colors in the swamp

Spring colors in the swamp

When we arrived at the platform, I took a few moments to appreciate the colors and patterns of the awakening plants…

Ash leaf beginning to unfurl

Ash bud beginning to open accompanied by a Carpenter Ant seeking food

Maple leaves opening

Maple leaves opening

Tag Alder leaf backlit in the setting sun

Tag Alder leaf backlit in the setting sun

When we arrived at the platform, one thing became very apparent – the website had meant what it said…Black Bears are known to visit this platform/area often. Campers should be prepared for a potential bear encounter. All of the posts on the platform had been chewed by bears, and a couple of nearby Sweet Gum trees had the bark ripped off by bears seeking the sweet sap as I have so often seen in the woods of Pungo.

Royal Fern camping platform

Royal Fern camping platform

Now, readers of this blog know that I like bears, but the amount of bear sign here was a little disconcerting to be honest. But, we did what you do in bear country and put our food and toiletries in bags strung in the trees, and I had brought bear spray, just in case.

Canoe at camping platform

Serenity in the swamp

It turned out to be a spectacular afternoon and night in the swamp with no bear encounters. There is a Bald Eagle nest a couple of hundred yards away from the platform, and we saw and heard a couple flying above the towering Bald Cypress trees that surrounded us. As a brilliant moon rose, we were serenaded by a chorus of snoring Pickerel Frogs and all three of our common owls (Great Horned, Barred, and Eastern Screech). The next morning, a trio of Red-shouldered Hawks put on an impressive display of aerial acrobatics, while warblers (including my first Prothonotary of the season) moved through the cypress branches overhead.

I know many of you are probably stuck on the image of the Cottonmouth and the possibility of bears in the swamp and are thinking, no way… but I have not seen that many Cottonmouths and no bears on my years of paddling the Roanoke. And, trust me, there is nothing like camping on these platforms to really get away from your usual hectic lifestyle. I have camped out there many times and have always come away wanting to spend more time in these magical places. It is well worth the trip.