Sunday, December 30, 2012

Birds of a Feather - Mattamuskeet Moments...

For years, Julie, Jay, Hunter and I have shared a love of nature and the outdoors unrivaled by nearly any other family we know. Regardless of our destination or the overt purpose of our travels, chances are we'll gravitate toward the fringes to commune for a few moments with the natural world. It's always been gratifying to know we're "birds of a feather" in that regard. With Julie's expertise in biology and chemistry, and my habit of keeping one eye on the woods at all times (except when I'm driving, of course - Of course!), even a brief errand across town holds the potential for a meaningful encounter with nature. 

Great Egret hunting in roadside canal. Hyde County, NC

So when our travel plans involve greater distances, the opportunities for encounters with nature increase in proportion with the distance traveled. Yesterday we headed "Down East" to Little Washington for a visit with Julie's grandmother. As luck would have it, Julie's parents were also there, so we had a wonderful visit, during which Julie's dad shared several great stories of his experiences surveying a vast tract of land in Hyde County, North Carolina, near Lake Mattamuskeet. 

Great Egret, plumes afurl in a chilly wind

Lake Mattamuskeet is legendary for its critical place along the North American Mid-Atlantic flyway for wintering waterfowl, and here we were, not more than 70 miles away. Vast distances, even with good highways, require time to travel, so we knew we'd have relatively little time at the lake before dark, but we decided to make the trek anyway.

Double-crested Cormorant cruising the shallows of Mattamuskeet

Recognizing the hazards in allowing his swivel-necked dad behind the wheel on narrow roads flanked by 14 foot drainage canals on either side, Jay, newly licensed to drive in NC, graciously agreed to drive. Four bald eagles and innumerable old white farmhouses later, we had passed through Yeatesville, Pantego, Belhaven and Swan Quarter and arrived in the vicinity of Mattamuskeet. 

Belted Kingfisher hiding from view along the shore of Mattamuskeet

Hunter diligently maintained a list of some thirty bird species we encountered along the way, but lists went by the wayside during a magical 30 minutes at sunset on the shores of the lake itself. As Jay turned onto a narrow dirt lane leading to the offices of the Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge,  we were left speechless by the beauty of this place and its inhabitants. Herons, egrets, coots, cormorants, kingfishers and geese in a single sweeping glance. Ducks we could not name settled onto the lake's golden surface, and small perching birds we didn't recognize called from the reeds and shrubs.

American coots excited by our arrival 


A song without words.


As night fell, Dad remembered that he had hoped to see tundra swans. 


The swans obliged.

Feeding quietly in the shelter of the dike.

Oblivious to the watchers.

Mattamuskeet moments...

Friday, December 28, 2012

Paradise in the Parking Lot...

Four calling birds showed up at our local shopping center just as the Christmas rush got underway.

They speak of the sea, but if they be seagulls, they're a few hundred miles off course; more likely they're inland-wintering Ring-billed gulls lured in by the promise of the Golden Arches just across the way... 

They hardly seem to share Joni Mitchell's disdain for pavement and parking lots; 

in fact, it would only take one sympathetic burger-bearing stranger to transform this chilly, barren wasteland into a paradise worthy of Jimmy Buffett. 

At the moment, however, these aerial buccaneers would probably be thrilled just to snatch a few french fried potatoes...

Sunday, December 23, 2012

...My True Love Gave to Me...a Starling in a Pear Tree!

The Callery pear (perhaps you know it as a Bradford pear) came to the US as a gift from Asia early in the last century, and after commercial cultivars were introduced by the USDA in the early 1960's, it was quickly adopted all over America as the perfect landscape tree. Fast growing, nicely shaped, lovely white blossoms in early spring, masses of green leaves in summer and spectacular fall color;  there was almost no concern about its invasive nature since the cultivars did not produce viable seeds.

You met the European starling (a gift from Europe) in an earlier post. It loves the fruit of the Bradford pear, and the pear produces fruit in incredible abundance. Unfortunately, over time, the various cultivars of the Callery pear have become so commonly planted they've managed to cross-pollinate and bear fruit with viable seeds. The root stock used for grafting various cultivars is often from a different seed-bearing genotype as well. When the roots then produce flower-bearing shoots, they can fertilize the blossoms of the grafted cultivar, yielding fruit with fertile seeds.

When the non-native starling feasts on the thousands of frost-softened fruit of the non-native Callery pear, the now-viable seeds are often deposited on fertile ground, creating thickets of pears which out-compete and stifle many native plants. Starlings flock to these fruit-filled thickets, ...

and the "gifts" just keep on giving.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

El Lagarto, Gimme some skin!

El Lagarto. Allagarter.  Alligator. 

The Lizard. 

  That's one heck of a lizard...

Knowing smile replete with dozens of impressive ivories, "el lagarto" basks motionless in the early winter sunshine of piedmont North Carolina. Largest of North American reptiles, an alligator this size is a true apex predator with little to fear other than humans with a hankering for accessories fashioned from lizard leather. Hard to imagine this critter losing its skin in a fair fight.

Hunted to near extinction in many areas by the 1960's, federal laws and effective conservation efforts have restored healthy alligator populations in much of their historic range. The Cypress Swamp habitat at the NC Zoological Park allows visitors an opportunity to observe and appreciate these awesome creatures up close.

Looking quite comfortable in its own skin, el lagarto is arguably more like a bird than a lizard in several important ways, including its four-chambered heart.   El pajaro, anyone? El ave, perhaps?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Song of Spring

Little bird, little bird, sing your song,
That tune you learned just last spring.

Warmth and life and joy it brings...

Sing, little bird, sing your song.

Little bird, little bird, why so mum?

Winter's here; the flowers, they are gone.

Our hearts, they crave just one more song

Of Hope...  Of Love...

Of Spring...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Web of Life

Fall's first "hard" frost is history, but here in the Carolinas, winter has yet to gain full sway. Thunder rocked the night just ended, and the atmospheric clash of titans yielded much-needed moisture here below.

The frost has claimed our intrepid orb-weaver, but her trap lingers on, entangling dozens of  dripping fugitives from the tumult on high. Life-giving water, poised among the fruit-filled branches.

On the very eve of winter's deep slumber, nature hints at what's to come. Winter shall have her turn, but spring awaits...

Water. Seeds. 
Beautiful. Delicate. 
Vital strands in life's tenacious web.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Going Green; Cold-blooded Chameleon

With the advent of winter, reptiles tend to make themselves scarce, even along the relatively temperate 35th parallel. This clever Carolina anole not only found enough warmth to venture forth, it even located a proper canvas for going green during a generally brown season in central Carolina.

A favorite science teacher would likely amend the title of this post with the much more appropriate and accurate ectothermic, as "cold" is such a relative term, and this amazing animal is able to regulate its body temperature by basking in the glow of a rather effective external heat source.

Whether this brief foray is solely about le soleil remains to be seen.

Perhaps the warmth will entice another ectotherm or two to brave the winter chill this afternoon.

If so, at least one little green garbed watcher awaits...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Moment

From time to time, just for a moment,

life and space and light coincide so vividly as to defy comprehension.

Too brilliant.                 Too real.                 Too true.         Too alive.

The mind struggles for an analog, an anchor, a prior moment of comparable clarity... validation...

Too late...

the moment is gone.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Highland Shadows

North Carolina is a dreamland for the naturalist. From our home along the fall line adjacent to the Sandhills in the geographic center of the state, we are less than four hours from the outermost barrier islands in the Atlantic to the east, with similar distances to the 4-6000 foot elevations in the Blue Ridge and Great Smokies to the west. With ready access to such distinctly different habitat, we can experience a broad range of biodiversity with relative ease.

A group of lively shadows gathered in the late autumn sun to contemplate the splendor of the view near Grandfather Mountain from their perch atop Beacon Heights along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The same shadows seem to be huddling for warmth on the silent windswept desert of stone - a silence broken only by the calls of an occasional crow and the merest hint of a breeze whispering amidst the lichen-clad evergreens.

The path west brought encounters with some two dozen bird species, including more than a dozen red-tailed hawks patiently scanning for prey along the fringes of the interstate corridor, a red-shouldered hawk subduing its prey in the grassy median and a barred owl roosting in a leafless wood, a bit too close to the margins for complete obscurity. Skyward focused eyes also spied evidence of other winged species, though it was a bit too nippy for the bald-faced hornets to be out and about.

At our feet was a wealth of nature as well. A tiny copse of mossy "trees" towering alongside the ferns remind us of our purpose in traveling west to locate the perfect Christmas fir.

This woolly worm, or woolly bear caterpillar seems to be enjoying the warm late-autumn sun; its broad orange band seems to be forecasting a mild winter as well.

Despite its ubiquitous blanket of cast off leaves, the forest floor still boasts a bit of colorful flora today. These galax leaves have taken on a lovely autumn hue.

And the dense masses of so-called dog hobble near the Cascades waterfall have taken on a similar cast, while still clinging to the remnants of summer's blossoms. Local lore has it that more than one bearhound has met its end after becoming helplessly entangled within reach of a cornered bear's claws.

Peering into the crystal clear waters above the falls gives the curious observer a fleeting glimpse of living color in the chilliest of climes! This lovely little brook trout coolly stalks the shivering pools in pursuit of sustenance.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Squirrel Feeder

Cliche is the bane of the blogger.

But here is the first shot from my strategically situated mega-seed bird feeder filled to overflowing with wonderful organic black oil sunflower seeds. After nearly a week of waiting, I have yet to see a winged visitor. This morning there were eight eastern gray squirrels waiting impatiently behind this happy camper...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Periwinkle Paleontologists

Marine gastropods explore nooks and crannies formed from the remains of their ancient relatives. At a snail's pace, this modern periwinkle clan traverses casts and molds of bivalve brethren that occupied a nearby shoreline once upon a time... 

Limestone formations in eastern North Carolina often contain molluscan casts and molds formed from ancient sea life deposited eons ago. Between them, the gastropods and bivalves account for some 50,000 extant species in both marine and freshwater ecosystems today.  Long live the mollusks!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Moon and Starlings

Three black birds roosting in the moonlight. High in the old dead oak; as high as the oak will allow, they perch. A trio of starlings, I think, judging by the pointy beaks. Flying south for the winter?

As a child I saw flocks of thousands upon thousands this time of year. Mixed flocks of black birds - red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings. They'd circle and bank above the cornfield out in front of our house, swirling, swooping, settling briefly, then rising as one and repeating... When they settled in the trees for the evening, branches would snap beneath their weight. When a flock passed in the distance, it seemed to stretch for miles.

Where is the flock tonight? Are these advance scouts or stragglers? I wonder.

How far have they come?   How far have they yet to go?

I think I read in the Smithsonian that starlings were released in New York's Central Park more than a century ago by Europeans committed to the idea of establishing a population in the New World of all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's works. These three are a good bit south of Central Park at the moment, for sure. Perhaps, for them this is South. Perhaps their journey is at an end...they have arrived.

There goes the neighborhood!

Friday, November 23, 2012

LIfe on the Fringes of the Futbol Field

Acres and acres of soccer fields in Wilmington are not without their natural niches... the developers wisely planted an abundance of trees along the perimeter.


The oaks are young, but growing; producing lots of mast for the suburban deer herd, although some deer are not particularly fond of the live oak acorns' high tannic acid levels. 

The trees also provide habitat and cover for watchers of an avian ilk.

Loggerhead shrike, commonly called a butcherbird for its habit of impaling small vertebrate (and large invertebrate) prey on wire fences or thorns, seems to have adapted nicely to this new homeland of flat and neatly lined "meadows." This chap meandered from fence, to goal, to bench and back, living up to its passerine name, as it perched and searched for prey on a blustery autumn morn.

This striking beauty clung to a bank above the pond; aesthetic assets aside, the invasive non-native Chinese tallow tree, with it's popcorn-like seeds, aggressively occupies ecological niches once dominated by native species such as the eastern redbud or red mulberry.

Time to head back to the soccer pitch for the mid-day match; be careful not to trample the late-blooming weeds!