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Outer Banks Guide > Outer Banks Blogs > Eve Turek's Natural Outer Banks Blog

EVE TUREK'S NATURAL OUTER BANKS
Sunday, February 22, 2009
The Inner Banks

February 22, 2009


 


 Where does the Outer Banks begin and end?  I could make an argument that the ‘Banks, as a territory, includes the barrier islands and the ocean and sound in close proximity on either side. That would let Roanoke Island and Colington Islands, Big and Little, out, not to mention the mainland of Dare or Currituck or Hyde County, although Corolla and Ocracoke would be dealt in.  But wintertime is a lovely time to visit the Inner Banks, and that is exactly what I have done several times this past week 


 


Just at the time of year when the beaches clear out and rental cottages go (mostly) dark, along come our winter visitors, settling in like a heavy blanket of snow atop the sounds and ponds and lakes of the Banks, both Outer and Inner. This snow blanket is thicker in some years than others. A close look in a thick year (which probably corresponds to thick blankets of snow up north) reveals not hundreds but thousands of Snow Geese and Tundra Swan, bobbing like great down pillows in the water.  They are joined by tens of thousands of ducks, ducks of every size and description: black ducks and ruddy ducks and pintail ducks and mergansers, coots and shovelers and canvasbacks. No wonder Currituck Sound was a sportsman’s paradise, especially in the years when a northern inlet provided salt and fresh water exchange to the northern sounds, as Oregon and Hatteras Inlets do to Pamlico Sound today.


 


Some of my recent Inner Banks expeditions included an attempt, in part, to get closer to some of those birds than I can generally at Pea Island.  I have some photographs to share with you from two of those. On Valentine’s Day morning, Karen Watras (shellgirl) and I went to Elizabeth City via 64 and Columbia, stopping along the way in two places: Pettigrew State Park, near Creswell, and to photograph at some waterfowl impoundments managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, between the Alligator River and Columbia, just west of Dare County.  The difference of those 30 miles or so from Manteo often means colder temperatures and more snow (on those rare occasions when snow falls here, as it did in January), and I was eager to see if the budding trees I have noticed all throughout Dare County had counterparts to our west. Indeed, some of the deciduous trees – those hardwoods that lose their leaves every fall – were showing tremendous red, swollen buds, even larger than those I have seen here, another indication that spring is indeed near at hand.


 


I went online to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission website to follow up on a recent news article about an aerial survey the state does every winter, in conjunction with other states along the nation’s flyways, to document movement and numbers of waterfowl. The surveys show annual fluctuations in populations as well as long-term trends. This year’s survey indicated that waterfowl were already moving northward in response to overall warmer temperatures coast-wide, and documented greater numbers of Tundra Swan in the region compared with last year.


 


We saw a good number of Tundra Swan but no Snow Geese; one tiny “V” of Canada Geese, flying overhead; four Killdeer who kept overflying us, calling loudly, but never demonstrated their “lure-predators-away-from-nest” behavior of dragging a wing, as if broken, along the ground (makes sense if they’ve not laid any eggs as yet); a hawk, probably a red-tailed, perched in a far tree; coots; various other small ducks; and at the end of our walk, a male Downy Woodpecker. These were all as much fun to hear as to see – my hearing isn’t always the greatest, but the day was so still, and quiet, that I could hear the ducks and the swans as they took off, flapping their wings and running atop the water for lift, honking and quacking away, and the killdeer calls seemed amplified in the absence of human noise.  At Pettigrew, we saw large flocks of cardinals feeding on the ground, something I had never seen, but my best image came when one male perched long enough on a bare tree for me to take his portrait, thank you very much!


 


A few days later, Pete and I drove north to Virginia, and noticed a large raft of swan close to 168, about 30 miles north and west of the bridge leading into Kitty Hawk (I guess 30 miles was my magic number, this week!)  I’ll include those as well. The atmosphere here was totally different – lots of road noise, as the swan are resting close to a small store, with customers coming and going. The good news in that sentence is that they did not automatically swim or fly out of my view when I pulled up, but the sensory experience of seeing them near Columbia was much richer. One of those customers told me that the swans are there “all the time” – I wasn’t quick enough to ask, all the time, year after year or all the time this winter?  Meanwhile, we have at least two more out of area daytrips set for this week, so my next round of ocean and beach pictures may have to wait yet another week. I’m eager to re-visit Pea Island, and Run Hill, and the back side of Jockey’s Ridge, and and and… so many places…but since we have weeks and weeks together, so much time to share with all of you.  I like not being in a hurry, taking my time, and letting nature show me what I need to see, any given day.



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Coot Runs On Water! Coot Runs On Air! How about this: This coot was a hoot to watch, trying to get airborne.

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The waterfowl impoundments seem fairly shallow, with patches of grasses growing in rows throughout. These managed areas are flooded seasonally for waterfowl.

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Small groups of swan took flight periodically as we walked, in separate directions, around the main impoundment, which was ringed by trees.

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While some swans were content to swim slowly, others decided, at some signal I could never discern, to take off suddenly as a group, reforming their lines when aloft.

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Precision flying at its best.

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It's not that I don't like winter, but I admit, I'm on the lookout for every sign of spring.

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Unlike so many birds that will change their appearance for springtime breeding, our state bird wears his bright coat all year. (I bought a bright red winter coat this year myself -- why not!??)

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Currituck's own Swan Lake, er, Sound.

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So handsome! Or, so pretty! Tundra Swan have matching His and Hers outfits.

posted by eturek at 7:02 PM

Comments [7]



Saturday, February 14, 2009
Spring Has Sprung?

Here is a no-brainer: spring arrives earlier on the Outer Banks than it does in OH, or PA. Now, that given, how to tell when spring is really on its way can be a little trickier here. We’ve just had a week of moderate temperatures, the sort that would signal an early spring in other locales…but the Outer Banks has relatively mild winters. That's one thing I love about living here: spring sprinkles itself all through December, January, and February, given the proximity of the warming Gulf Stream near our coastline and our south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line latitude (and attitude!). Those of us who live here year-round have our own favorite spring heralds. My Mom used to note, on our annual monthly calendar, when the first daffodil bloomed during my Fairfax, VA childhood, along with the first Robin sighting. Those were good indicators there…here, not so much. My first daffodil bloomed yesterday, two days after the first blossom last year. (So maybe all the groundhogs were wrong and this will be an early OB spring, as last year’s was). But this is a cultivated flower, perhaps not as reliable as native perennials.


 


As for Robins, we do see isolated individuals in winter, and I saw a flock of Robins over-flying my Colington yard this afternoon, singing away. Of more import than Robins is the activity of resident Bald Eagles. The pair that nested last year in Kitty Hawk has returned to their nest site; the couple who lives across from the eagles has graciously allowed me entry to their land so that I can photograph the eagles with their permission. The Norfolk Botanical Gardens Eagle Cam recorded a first egg laid on February 10 by the female eagle there; what I can tell you about the Kitty Hawk pair is that the female eagle is spending most, maybe all, of her time hunkered down within the nest. Our assumption is that she has laid an egg, or eggs (she laid three last year). I have not seen the male yet this season, although the couple’s wife reported having seen him briefly on several occasions while she stayed down in the nest. The nest was damaged during stormy winds this fall and winter but the pair has rebuilt it; it is now so deep that only the top of the female’s head shows while she is inside. Eagles typically return to their nests, building them larger and deeper each year; Ospreys do the same. This nest is a bit unusual, not only for its proximity to human activity, but for its former use: before last winter, the nest belonged to a resident Osprey pair who returned in March to find their long-time digs taken over by the eagles, who by that time were extremely defensive, as the nest contained soon-to-hatch eggs. The Ospreys gave up and built a new nest at the end of the same street.  In our area, eagles are not migratory; they stay the winter here but do not use their nest site until nesting season begins. The Ospreys leave the Outer Banks in early September and return by mid-March. For those of you interested in more details about Osprey migration, I can share a web link to a project that has studied migration patterns with banded birds from MA and DE for the past several years: http://www.bioweb.uncc.edu/bierregaard/migration08.htm 


I don’t know of any migration studies specific to Ospreys in NC.  Meanwhile, stay tuned for more Bald Eagle reports as I have them!


 


I like to watch plants, in the same way my Mom watched her daffodils, for spring signs. Native trees including dogwood are definitely budding and ends of many branches are glowing pink already.  All of these trees will leaf out, or flower, long before our summer Sea Oats bud and bloom. Winter Sea Oats are mere dry stalks, sometimes with a few seed heads still attached, stubbornly clinging like oak leaves to their stems despite winter winds. Their winter beauty lies in their form rather than their fullness, in the patterns that their stems and stalks make, silhouetted against the sky.  When I want a Sea-Oats-in-bloom sort of fix this time of year, I have to go to the marsh and look at phragmites (pronounced Frag-MY-Tees) – a plant with a bad rep, as it often crowds out other marsh vegetation. For years, botanists have characterized the plant as invasive, but I’ve been reading a bit of new research that indicates the plant has thrived in America for thousands of years. Phragmites is found, in one variety or another, all over the world. Native or invasive, it has a firm hold in the mid-Atlantic; the stand I photographed below grows in the Kitty Hawk Town Park, next to the boardwalk, off The Woods road. I admit a certain fondness for its tasseled fronds, especially in winter, and especially when backlit by a winter sun, low in the sky in the afternoon.


 


Our run of fun in the sun days is scheduled for an interruption, beginning tomorrow, with overcast skies and lower temperatures; by Monday, the various weather forecasts are predicting possible snow. This is winter on the Outer Banks, a sort of dance with spring that nurtures hope and freshness, all the way until spring’s official arrival. I have to say, it works for me.



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First Daffodil of 2009! Not a scientific indicator of an early spring, but a cheery, welcome sight nonetheless.

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This nest is huge in every dimension. You have to look closely to see the female's head, barely visible amidst all the sticks.

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I kept watching and clicking, as she would raise her head slightly. I like to think she was letting me know that she knew I was present.

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Pink is a spring color!

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Winter Sea Oats, just stems and stalks now.

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Winter tells me, you have to look for beauty everywhere, all the time.

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Now, I ask you...aren't these pretty?

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Kitty Hawk Park Phragmites. Fuzzier than Sea Oats, and denser.

posted by eturek at 4:28 PM

Comments [3]



Monday, February 09, 2009
2/9/09 - Snowy February Days

Snowy February Days


 


No, not flakes and flurries – egrets!  I just as easily could have titled this entry “Urban Wild,” a catch-phrase among environmental educators and writers, although urban seems too dense and crowded a term for the Outer Banks, at least in February.  On two different afternoons this past week, Pete and I saw a group of Snowy Egrets hanging out, doing what Snowy Egrets do here, in the stormwater drainage canal that abuts the old Nags Head road in South Nags Head.  For a good part of its length, the canal contains a few inches of water without any scum and that is where the Snowy Egrets were.  We also saw one Great Egret a short distance to the north, all by itself, both days.


 


Snowy Egrets are colonial birds; that is, they tend to feed, roost, and nest in colonies, or groups, rather than singly, or in isolated pairs defending a set territory.  The Snowies are often found in mixed flocks, mingling in with Great Egrets, Little Blue and Great Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons and Ibis – at least here, on the Outer Banks.  In other places, like Florida, we could add other similar feeders to that mix, like Reddish Egrets or even Roseate Spoonbills.  I see a few egrets on a regular basis on Pea Island, especially at the eastern edges of the impoundment ponds that are very close to the road, before the Visitor Center. At that Visitor Center, I usually see a few in the large impoundment there; that impoundment terminates in a small cove-like space near the boardwalk’s beginning and when the water levels are conducive to their feeding style, egrets, ibis and herons often share that little space.


 


Seeing more than a dozen Snowy Egrets at once in fairly close proximity to each other (and to me, in the car, here on the Outer Banks) was a treat. Seeing them in the confines of the drainage ditch reminded me how much wildlife lives, even thrives, alongside our human presence – sometimes despite it, sometimes because of it.  The drainage ditch represents one of those “because of it” instances.


 


In Florida, where birds are myriad, the Snowies exhibit feeding behavior that one of my bird guides notes as typical, but that I have never witnessed on the Outer Banks.  There, they fly low over the water, trailing their yellow feet (birders call these “golden slippers”) in the water, to help lure fish to the surface, and then reach down while on the wing to grab a fish in mid-skim.  To someone watching or trying to photograph the procedure, the egrets look to be running atop the water.  I watched them in Florida on several occasions, as the different birds took turns flying out over the water from the bank, hoping for a catch, and then returning to their shoreside perch to allow another bird to try.


 


Their other feeding behavior is what I witness here: they walk along in the water, often scuffling their feet to stir up the bottom, and then swiftly nab whatever meal surfaces.  And what’s for dinner?  Snowies like tiny fish, such as minnows, or tiny shrimp.  I saw one Snowy Egret, once, seaside, just at the beginning of the 4WD area in Corolla, in July, wading around at the water’s edge.  It looked doubly out of place, foraging on the beach, and all by itself. 


 


 


 


I often have the experience when outside, particularly with my camera, of having folks ask me what it is we are all looking at.  Usually, they seek a name, some verbal shorthand for the life being lived out in front of their view.  I used to just parrot the name until I devised a more complete answer.  Now, unless I sense impatience, I like to point out what helps us know one another, even in a crowded room: a particular appearance, or manner of dress, or hair style; or the sound of a voice, a laugh, a cough; or typical behavior, like talking with your hands, or telling long involved stories, or being shy and quiet.  Birds and critters are like that, too, I like to say, and when we watch long enough or often enough, we begin to notice those aspects that tell us “Snowy Egret,” “Little Blue, juvenile;” “White Ibis.”  Color and size can be a good first clue, but these can fool a new observer, especially when young birds are involved.  Snowies are distinctive, if you can get a look at the whole bird, in that they are the only egret/heron with a black bill, black legs, and bright yellow feet.  Great Egrets show the opposite: a yellow/orange bill with black legs and black feet.  Of course, if you first spot them in the water (they are called “wading birds” for a reason), you may not see the feet at first.  This is where behavior comes in.


 


Sometimes behavior gives a more complete picture and helps sort out who’s who, especially in large groups, and especially when talking about “not-breeding-season,” when appearance and behavior can change. While the Snowies are scuffling and walking, they often lift their yellow feet out of the water as they take a step.  Great Egrets, by contrast, stalk slowly, then stand perfectly still for long minutes until a meal swims within range of their long, pointed bill.  Reddish Egrets, and sometimes Tricolored Herons, run in the water, often with their wings spread to cast a shadow and help them see their next meal more clearly.  The Reddish Egret’s erratic moves, or “dances,” are fun to watch but tricky to photograph; the Tricolored Heron is less jerky in its motions.  I have many more Tricolored Heron feeding photographs than I do of Reddish Egrets!  The White Ibis forages while in constant motion, walking and stabbing at the bottom continually; crabs or crayfish are favorite foods.  I admit, I knew the Snowies were themselves, partly from their look (small, white bird with black bill) and partly from what they were doing where (wading in shallow water in a group, scuffing the bottom); seeing one scratch at the bottom, lifting its foot all the way into view, confirmed what I knew.  And how I knew what I knew came not so much from being told, once upon a time (“that’s a Snowy Egret over there; there’s a Great Egret over here”), or even reading (I do love my field guides), but from watching, watching, watching…and then asking or reading to help give some context to what I see.  So why am I telling you all this stuff?  Partly to help you see the Outer Banks all year, even when you must be away from it.  Partly.  Partly to help you see your own world, your daily, wherever that is, with perhaps a little more curiosity, and even more joy.


 


  



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Not the most picturesque location, or the best time of day for a photograph...the South Nags Head Drainage Ditch, shooting into a late afternoon sun...but a great subject and a great sighting: Snowy Egrets!

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Snowies have bright yellow feet; while the outside of their lower leg is dark, seeing the leg from the back shows the yellow, too. This is a "Back-To" shot for "Salvo"!

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Here is a Florida Snowy Egret, trailing its feet in the water to lure fish up from the bottom. (Taken January, Shark Valley, Everglades). My new challenge is to observe and photograph this feeding behavior here.

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Another Everglades shot--this one at a pond on the way to Flamingo, FL, and the western side of the 'Glades.

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Back to the 'Banks: This Snowy Egret seemed out of place, wading in the waves, by itself, in July!

posted by eturek at 3:14 PM

Comments [7]



Friday, February 06, 2009
How Cold Is It?

February 6, 2009: How Cold Is It?


 


Thermometer #1, the bank time display, said 27 about 7:15 this morning. Weather Underground reports under 30 degrees for early morning, with a “right-now” temp, mid-morning, of 31, and a forecast of a high of 43. What is even more unusual than the run of cold mornings is the still air. (Weather Underground also reported a “wind gust” of 5 mph!)  This would be a perfect morning to shoot reflections of ducks or egrets in one of the many ponds, but all the ones I checked out this morning, from Kitty Hawk to Colington, were capped with a layer of ice, and no ducks or egrets were in their usual places.  Instead, I saw a pair of egrets flying over Henry’s Restaurant in Kitty Hawk about 8:30 a.m., headed south, and a Great Blue Heron standing on ice alongside Colington Road, that flew south at my cautious approach.  (Birds here tend to be spooky.  I guess humans with long lenses look scarier here than they do to birds in Florida.)  So you’ll have to take my word for both sightings.  I keep seeing a good-sized raft of either Buffleheads or Hooded Mergansers hanging out in the sound near Billy’s Seafood, but I don’t know which they are. (Colington Road is not one of those “Pete, stop the car” sort of places).  They were absent this morning; I missed the flash of their collective white heads in the morning sun.


I ventured into Kitty Hawk Woods and quickly encountered the limitations of words and images in thinking how to convey to you the deep, round quiet, the stillness that I always associate with the word “sacred,” that gradually filled with bird-chatter and song: first a wren, then chickadees, finally a cardinal pair, singing a morning canticle of call and response.  There were other singers and callers whose voices I recognize but cannot yet identify.  I did not walk in the woods long—I wanted to go to the ocean before returning home—and the chickadees and wrens followed me back toward the car, keeping mostly out of sight, their songs giving away their locations. 


The Kitty Hawk beach revealed more gull tracks than human footprints and I walked the beach with only a few gulls riding the nearshore break for company.  Gull tracks reveal their three toes as well as the webbing between them, reflecting their swimming abilities; sanderling tracks, or those of other shorebirds like sandpipers and willets, lack the webbing.


A thin sheen of ice marked the previous high tide mark in wide swaths rather than a thin calligraphic line.  While the Outer Banks does experience occasional days of genuine cold, a deep freeze is not routine winter weather for us, and I wonder where the pelicans are (Wanchese, perhaps, as they congregate in winter near the fish houses in the harbor); and the terns, so prevalent in the warm of five days ago; and the sanderlings.  As I left the beach, a small band of grackles flew in, and an intrepid Mom with a bundled-up toddler trudged happily south, looking at the shell beds.  I mentally wished her good luck, as the only large whole shells I saw were a few surf clams. One, upside down, held frozen sea water while another rested on ice, a wordless winter reminder.


Far more prevalent today than shells were feathers, of all sizes and contours, from fluffy down to long flight feathers.  Some smaller feathers were all white while the larger ones were black or dark gray, typical gull plumage.  These next weeks will reveal increased molting, as birds will shed their winter coats in favor of their breeding colors prevalent in spring.  I looked unsuccessfully for loon feathers—tiny black feathers with two white tips, like eyes—which I have found on the beach, but only in winter. None today.  I have never seen a loon, although one birder reported a loon in the canal across from Pirate’s Cove last spring, and a friend who worked for years along the causeway watched a loon every morning for several spring weeks in the sound near Pond Island.  I love that I still have so much to discover and learn, to explore and to see.  That’s what lures me out-of-doors, over and over: the reconnecting with what I already know and have come to love, the anticipation of the surprise of an encounter with wild, and the stretching out into newness.



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I stood on this sunlit path, looking up into silence, as songbirds slowly filled the space with melody.

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Go, Gulls, Go!

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With early afternoon highs hitting above 40 degrees, and a forecast for low 50s tomorrow and low 60s for Sunday, this ice won't last long.

posted by eturek at 1:27 PM

Comments [17]



Thursday, February 05, 2009
OB Midwinter: Anything But Bleak

Introduction


 


Say “Outer Banks” and I bet most of us picture—I myself picture—the shimmering edge of our landscape, not even a landscape at all, really, but a moving, meandering tideline of possibility, of freshness, sea-meets-sand. Throw in some golden sea oats, maybe a golden sunrise, and there you have it: the quintessential Outer Banks. In, say, September. But what about those other Outer Banks?  The Outer Banks of February?  In a rare snowfall?  Denuded of the sea oats and grasses that signal summer, the winter seascape is no less beautiful, just different.  Many of summer’s critters, taken for granted in July, are gone – or changed into winter coats, living out winter habits. Others are suddenly and conspicuously present as the earth swings away from its summer heat in the mid-latitudes of fall. And what of the barrier island westward of water’s edge, of maritime forests, of scrub thicket and high, windswept dunes, of wetlands and black needlerush, of the other water’s edge, sound-meets-sand?


 


For the beginning of my adult life, living here now nearly 33 years, I scarcely noticed the subtle changes of seasonal rhythms here on our beloved Outer Banks.  I was busy with job and home, with friends and family, and my outdoors time centered on recreation more than on reflection.  But for more than 20 years, I’ve tried increasingly to stroll more and stride less, to observe rather than glance, and (forgive the cliché) to wonder as I wander.  I invite you to wander and wonder with me, as we meander through an Outer Banks year.


 


Early February


 


So far in 2009, this week typifies the swings that form part of the character of winter, Outer Banks style. While the northeast is firmly entrenched in snow and ice, February greeted us with a mid-afternoon high of 59 degrees (officially, that is; the little temperature reader on Pete’s Yukon said 62); plenty of sunshine, and moderate breezes that increased to winds by late in the day. We celebrated what will be the first of many precursors of spring by driving up to Corolla with our grandson Michael and his Mom Faith, who had not been north of Duck for many years. 


 


Michael found a whole channel whelk, so whole I made him throw it back into the outflowing sea, as the shell still housed its critter.  The whirled and whorled shells that wash up on our beaches are usually whelks—not conchs, which are a southeastern species.  This one was a beauty and will no doubt grace someone’s bathroom shelf by next summer, if the sea tosses the shell up again within the eye of a hungry shorebird.  Channel whelks have a flat, gentle spiral at their top, as if someone sculpted a smooth walking path from lip to tip.  Knobbed and lightning whelks, in contrast, have knobs and protrusions along the spiral; the shells gradually wear and smooth in the tumble of the surf.  Whelks are carnivorous, using the lip of their shell and their large snail’s foot to chip at and then pry open clams and other bivalves.  I touched the operculum – the hard plate which protects the soft snail within – and the whole thing twitched, letting me know the whelk was still alive. 


 


Up the beach, we noticed that the prevalence of larger surf clams and oyster shell fragments suddenly changed for what must have been several hundred feet (note to self: pack tape measure in truck) to smaller, whole white clams, piles of razor clams, stringy clumps of fine kelp roots and unhatched whelk egg cases.  When whelks hatch, they look just like their parents, only in miniature; the tiny whelks are about 1/16 of an inch long, and each egg sac contains dozens of baby whelks.  Hatching inside seaweed beds makes sense for such tiny creatures who need safe places to grow and feed.  We all picked up different treasures—my favorite find was this worn, shiny, thick heart-shaped fragment I think originated as an oyster shell—and I kept an eye on the ocean for any pleasant surprises, like dolphin.


 


We did not see any dolphin, but we did see a persistent, huge, frenzied mixed flock of gulls and terns working what must have been a school of baitfish well offshore.  The afternoon sun flashed on large black-tipped white wings, and our binoculars confirmed Northern Gannets, a bird of the open sea who is a winter visitor here, among the flock.


Two years ago, local artist Liz Corsa and I had a lifetime adventure with a Northern Gannett—thanks to Uncle Jack and OBX Connection, in fact. Jack posted a report in mid-February that a large bird seemed stranded and wounded on the Nags Head beach. Liz and I investigated and found a beached Northern Gannet. Liz wrapped the bird in a quilt and I drove her, holding and crooning to her charge, to Roanoke Island Animal Clinic, where Dr. Mark Grossman discovered it was unharmed, just dehydrated and unable to launch itself back into the air from the sand. Once his staff placed it in the sound, it was able to get airborne again and head east.  Every time I see the gannets, I remember the morning that one shared with us, and whisper my own thanks at being so close to such grandeur.


 


As we made our way down the beach, some of the gulls and terns began working the nearshore waters, flying over and diving between a good-sized raft of Red-breasted Mergansers, both males and females. Since mergansers are found in my Sibley’s and Audubon’s bird books among the “duck-like birds” category, and since I am used to seeing Hooded Mergansers in the brackish water ponds of Pea Island, I was startled to see so many ducks riding the breakers or ducking under like good surfers when the wavelets were about to crest. But Red-breasted Mergansers prefer salt water in winter; they are fish-eaters, so these Mergansers were certainly in the right place. 


 


Sanderlings in their winter plumage worked the shoreline; one bird braved a gull to approach (and evidently claim rights to) a sand shark, one of three we saw.  One group of sanderlings was joined by this pair of…I did not know what. Sandpipers, probably, but who?  One of the gifts of being able to photograph while on my outdoor expeditions is the chance to identify a bird or critter later, and thus find out more about it.  I belong to the crowd that would rather describe something than merely give its name and dismiss it, so I can tell you that this pair of birds stayed close together, foraged similarly to the sanderlings but did not mind getting wet feet, and seemed generally a bit less skittish.  The birds were larger than their companions, but much smaller than willets, and my photographs confirm slight differences in their coloration, although both were drab in browns, tans, and creams. Every adventure, if it is a good adventure, leaves more questions, more quests, than tidy answers.  Using my Sibley’s Field Guide to the Birds, Eastern Region, I glean through the possibilities. Some birds are too small; others have bills that are too long, or upcurved, like godwits or downcurved like curlews, or too stubby, like most plovers. I focus on two: Red Knots or Black-Bellied Plovers. Both birds are named for how they look when putting their best foot, er, wing, forward in the competition for springtime mates rather than their appearance in midwinter.  I finally decide we saw Red Knots: the yellowish legs, and general shape and size of the bill become my deciding points. I’d love to see the pair in about two more months; then I would know for certain.


 


Now, two days after our excursion, and the day after both Sir Walter Wally and Phil predicted six more weeks of winter, I look out at bright white-grey skies, the sort that mean more snow in northern locations, and keep checking the weather channel to see if the forecast for some flurries tonight and tomorrow still holds. I wake up to furious flurries that don’t stick as the sun comes out and warms the air to nearly 40 degrees by mid-afternoon. Welcome to winter on the Outer Banks: from 60 degrees to 30 in the space of a day, with always a gift for the watchful eye.



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Outer Banks in September. What's your first clue? Those golden sea oats!

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Can you see the small heart, upper right, nestled within the larger?

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This Northern Gannet was beached, probably by high winds, in mid-February 2007. Its story continued happily with a return to life on the open seas.

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Dozens of male and female Red-breasted Mergansers worked the bait fish along with gulls and terns. These three are males. (I love 'em; their hair looks like mine, and not just in the morning!)

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One of the day's mysteries was why the gull moved off and let the little guy have a turn at this sand shark.

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Red Knots and a Sanderling. I tell folks all the time, a scientist's and naturalist's best tools are our eyes!

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Michael's find: A Channel Whelk -- still in the shell that bears its name.

posted by eturek at 11:27 AM

Comments [11]



(c) 2009-2010 Eve Turek & OBX Connection, all rights reserved - read 168421 times

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