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.

Chincoteague was Misty

Delmarva Fox Squirrel

Delmarva Fox Squirrel (click to enlarge)

I was looking forward to the final stop on the refuge tour, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, as I had seen a ton of wildlife there a couple of years ago on a winter visit. But the afternoon I arrived, it was gray, rainy, and windy. Turns out the theme of the next 24 hours was gray and misty. I decided to wait until the next morning to venture in and the first critter seen was a large gray squirrel that wasn’t a Gray Squirrel – it was an endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel.  It is roughly twice the size of our Gray Squirrel and lives in mature forests of mixed hardwoods and pines with a closed canopy and open understory. Habitat loss and probably over-hunting contributed to population declines that led to this species being placed on the Endangered Species List. From 1969 to 1971, biologists relocated 30 Delmarva Fox Squirrels to Chincoteague NWR and released them. The population of squirrels at the refuge has since grown to over 300  and Chincoteague  remains one of the best places to see this beautiful animal.

Snowy Egret with feathers flared 1

Snowy Egret (click to enlarge)

Driving on I could see a gathering of white birds in a roadside marsh channel. There were a half dozen Snowy Egrets running around catching something and interacting with one another when one egret would impinge on another birds’ space. I pulled over to a nearby safe spot and the birds could have cared less.

Snowy Egret catching shrimp

Snowy Egret catching shrimp (click to enlarge)

Turns out there was shrimp for breakfast! The tide was moving water rapidly in the channel and shrimp were flowing with it past a shallow spot that made for easy pickings for the sharp-eyed egrets. They were all dashing about, grabbing and swallowing shrimp.

Snowy Egret with feathers flared 2

Snowy Egret with crest flared in threat display (click to enlarge)

A couple of the egrets were apparently higher on the pecking order and would fluff up their feathers and chase other birds away anytime they would get into a prime shrimping spot so there was a lot to see and photograph. Crest raising is an important threat and territorial display in egrets and one guy in particular was using it to the fullest.

Great Egret preening 2

Great Egret preening (click to enlarge)

Just down the channel a Great Egret stood on a fallen tree and was making itself more presentable for the tourists. It was methodically preening every feather, including the long nuptial plumes, or aigrettes. Early in the breeding season adults grow long plumes on their backs, which they raise in courtship displays. Those plumes were considered fashionable for ladies’ hats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, shockingly, it is estimated that more than 95 percent of the Great Egrets in North America were killed for their plumes in those decades. In 1903, plume hunters were getting $32 an ounce for the ornate feathers. Plume-hunting was banned, for the most part, around 1910, and Great Egret populations started to recover. The Great Egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America, which was founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers.

Great Egret gulping

Great Egret gulping (click to enlarge)

I watched this bird delicately preen itself for many minutes before it made one quick move that showed it was not all grace and elegance. I’m betting it wishes the shutter had not been firing at that moment.

Blue Grosbeak male

Blue Grosbeak male (click to enlarge)

During a brief few minutes of sunshine, I walked part of the Wildlife Loop, a paved 3.5 mile  loop through managed wetlands that is kept closed most of the day for hikers and bicyclists to enjoy and then opened for cars later in the afternoon. It is a great place to see a variety of wildlife and it started of with a Bald Eagle flying overhead. Next, a gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak jumped out of the grass. Then, uncharacteristically for this species when it is anywhere close to me and my camera, it landed close enough and stayed long enough on a perch for me to grab a few quick shots.

Black Skimmer flock at rest

Black Skimmer flock at rest (click to enlarge)

Driving back out toward the beach I came across a flock of Black Skimmers resting on a shallow sand bar. They are such comical-looking, yet beautiful, birds. As I have mentioned before, they ae a favorite of mine, so I spent the last hour of my time on my “refuge tour” hanging out with the skimmers, trying to capture their beauty and precision as they sliced through the shallow water searching for a meal.

Black Skimmer flock 1

Black Skimmer flock (click to enlarge)

Black Skimmer skimming 3

Black Skimmer skimming (click to enlarge)

Check out the lateral compression of this bill – it really looks like a knife blade slicing through the water.

Black Skimmer flock landing

Black Skimmer flock landing (click to enlarge)

Black Skimmer in black and white

Black Skimmer in black and white (click to enlarge)

My time in a few of the refuges of NJ, DE, and VA was awesome but now I am headed to my favorite place on the planet, Yellowstone, for a couple of weeks. I imagine the blog posts will be less frequent and perhaps a bit shorter due to limited internet access and cellular service throughout much of the park. But I’m sure I’ll have some images and adventures to share when I return.