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

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Yesterday morning I got a call from an artist friend who had a visitor she thought I’d like to see—a daylight opossum that she spied lying on her driveway in the sun. I see one sometimes at dusk in our yard and my photos up until now have been mostly just fair. Seeing one in full daylight gave me the chance to take the picture you will see below before it lumbered back out of sight. Opossums are marsupials, the only marsupial species found in North America. Their young are born underdeveloped and spend their first weeks of life in a pouch where they nurse from their mother. Kangaroos and koalas are marsupials, too, but they score higher on the cuteness factor list, judging from little kids’ stuffies. I feel sort of bad for ‘possums, and I always tell the possums I see that I think they’re beautiful. This one’s silver fur practically shimmered in the sun.

While I was there, my friend gave me a book by one of my favorite authors, Julia Cameron. She writes about creativity, but this particular volume is a book of rhymed prayers for children based on animals. I love animals, I love poetry of all kinds, I love kids’ books! What a treat! I drove down to Avalon Pier and watched the surf a little while and read a couple of the poems. No ‘possum poem included, so I read the whale poem instead. One of the things she wrote is that the whale is a gentle giant. I like that. I’ve been thinking a lot about whales and wishing I could see one—Viriginia Beach is having a record-breaking year for humpbacks. I scanned the sea from near to far. No whales in sight. No dolphins—though I’d seen some a couple days before while photographing some surfers at the pier. I’d seen a loon that day too, and sure enough, there was one loon in exactly the same spot on the south side of the pier, very near shore. I assume it is the same one. No pelicans. No sanderlings. One lone willet at the water’s edge. I drove on down the beach to check on things at Yellowhouse, and while I was there, Pete’s son called from the firehouse to let me know they’d received a report of a whale sporting in the surf zone behind Ramada Inn. Off I went! Sure enough, there it was. In fact, at one point I think I saw two separate spouts, and that jived with a report Pete said he’d heard about from the day before, where someone had reported seeing two of them, a mother and calf, a little further north. In one of the pictures below, you’ll see two separate pectoral fins and the position of each one makes me think I am seeing parts of two whales here.

You can imagine I took very many pictures--enough to be able to tell for sure that I was seeing a humpback. Humpbacks migrate past our coastline every year, to join other humpbacks from the North Atlantic on their communal breeding grounds in the Carribean. I’ve lived here since 1976 and only once am I sure that I saw the characteristic plume of exhaled breath and spray from its twin blowholes, and that was in the spring about 20 years ago. So seeing one so close to shore, swimming back and forth feeding, was an incredible gift. I did not see a full body breach, but was elated to see several body parts: the long sleek black back, the tiny (one website called it stubby) dorsal fin on its back, its pectoral fins which are very long with rough edges, its blowhole with what one website called a splashguard around it, and round knobby bumps or tubercles on its head and lower jaw. All these are characteristic of humpbacks in particular. Humpbacks are filter-feeding baleen whales; they strain water back through a system of what look like rough hairs or fibers close up. They gulp their food, targeting plankton, krill, and what this one was going after, tiny baitfish. When several are traveling together, they’ve also created a wild cooperative feeding strategy that involves blowing what looks like a net of bubbles and trapping fish inside. That would be something to see! As it was, I saw it lunge feed once, rolling on its side and opening its mouth wide while baitfish were trying to jump out of the way! Humpbacks don’t feed all year long. They feed in colder waters and live off fat reserves while mating and the females are nursing calves. Only the males sing.

A group of gulls and terns was flying right along with it, which was handy from a photographer’s point of view. They kept dipping down to go after the baitfish and often got caught in the blowhole spray. I spent about an hour in total, trotting back to my car and driving to another beach access south or north depending on which way it was traveling. All in all, it was a banner day, one I won’t forget.

Everytime I think of opposums, I always think of the pun I started this blog with: poss(um)ibilities. The pun always helps me remember that gifts can come along at any time and from the unlikeliest of sources. Thanks, ‘possum, for the reminder. Thank you, humpback, for the gift.

Photos of the adventures are below. Enjoy!

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When I mention 'possums, most folks wrinkle up their noses. I think they're beautiful in their own way.

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This loon--not in breeding plumage but in winter garb--may have been yawning.

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Little whitecaps made finding the whale tricky but the gulls told me where it was. Sometimes it would spout first, sometimes I would see its back first. You can see the blowhole splashguard here.

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Here's a closer picture of its head with the knobby tubercles and the blowhole not obscured by spray. Humpbacks have to choose to breathe, not like us whose breathing is involuntary.

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This view of the head shows some different markings from the other side.

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A fin slap! A humpback's pectoral fins are proportionately longer than other whales' are.

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Based on the position of the fins on either side of the body, I wonder if I am seeing two whales here.

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Lunge feeding. Whales never learned it is not polite to gulp your food.

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I love this. Just the way the gulls are in the spray and the tell-tale splash under them says to me there is more than we can see with our physical eyes...

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You can see the dorsal fin and the characteristic hump here. All these pictures were taken in late afternoon. As the sun got lower, the spray sometimes took on a hue reminiscent of a part of a rainbow.

posted by eturek at 5:05 PM

Comments [11]

Thursday, February 2, 2012
Early Spring...
Last year and this, at the end of January, I let myself miss south Florida, just a little. For three years Pete and I took a winter break at Fort Myers. Last year, I didn’t really miss warm temperatures because several snowfalls on the Outer Banks with some accumulation to photograph brought their own reward. This year, I don’t have to miss warm temperatures because our winter has been so mild thus far—so mild, we’ve even had fog! And I have quince, forsythia, vinca, and Indian Hawthorne in bloom… and daffodils ready to pop open any minute! It’s a record!

What I miss is the sheer numbers of non-spooky birds and critters we always found in Florida. The mild winter, perhaps among other factors, has meant fewer than usual ducks, snow geese and swan, traditional wintertime residents from Currituck Sound down to Pea Island and south. In fact, the only swan I’ve seen here so far this year in any numbers weren’t on the water at all, but in the farm fields of the Alligator River Refuge on the Dare mainland! I’ve seen snow geese hanging out in farm fields before but never this many swans. Last week, we did take a quick trip to Maryland and learned that the swan and snow geese are later passing through the Eastern Shore as well this year. A quick ride there through Blackwater NWR yielded, instead, the closest side-of-the-road encounter I’ve ever had with a hawk, which I included below for you to see too!

I always watch a spot near Billy’s Seafood on Colington Road for a good-sized flock of ducks that spend their winters there. About ten days ago for the first time this year, I saw the biggest raft I’ve seen in years: at least a hundred birds, nearly all bufflehead pairs. I’ve asked permission for a couple of years to photograph them more closely by accessing a piece of private property, and synchronicity worked in my favor again this year. Just as I turned down the lane, here came the owner who was happy to let me photograph once again. Not as happy as me! As I drove over toward the ducks, what did I spy but a Great Blue Heron. I stopped to take its photo first before driving on—and it let me, being less spooky than usual, for which I said my thanks. Maybe I don’t have to miss Florida after all.

A couple of weeks ago, the OBX chapter of the Carolinas Nature Photographers Association (nope, not a typo, covers NC and SC both) scheduled its monthly outing for a Saturday afternoon in Wanchese. There were a few pelicans there, but not dozens, and hardly any ducks at all. I went back there last week…still just a few pelicans, but also a couple of male “Common Mergansers” – fun-to-watch, colorful little ducks that dive, rather than dabble, for their eats. Usually they spy me and bloop! under they go, only to reappear some distance away, take a breath, and dive again, swimming out of range of even my longest lens.

Today the opposite happened. I saw one lone merganser in the cut where Gallant Fox, my personal favorite boat among the modern fleet, is docked beside the Moon Tillet Fish Company. Sure enough, it dove pretty quickly after realizing I was standing on the shore. At that moment, I had two opposite thoughts. One was, oh well, there it goes. The other was, wait. Maybe, just maybe, it will swim towards me rather than away. I’ve had critters and birds approach before, particularly if I put forth some effort to communicate my appreciation and gratitude for seeing them.       It had happened with a juvenile pelican at the dock on my last Wanchese visit. It happened earlier in the afternoon today with a couple of the adult pelicans. Maybe the merganser would be similarly calmed.

I watched the water for clues as the merganser held his breath, waiting. Sure enough, it resurfaced much closer. You can come closer yet, I will never hurt you, I thought. And it dove again only to resurface at such a close distance that it nearly filled my viewfinder. Seeing something so beautiful so close up always brings a smile, and often teaches me something. Today I learned—in addition to another lesson about the power in gentle, loving intention—that the common merganser has a serrated bill. Google to the rescue! Dabbling ducks (the ones you see upended with their rumps where their heads ought to be) are feasting on underwater plants primarily. The mergansers are meat-eaters; they are diving for little fish or shellfish (even frogs!). Their saw-tooth bill helps them “strain water as they feed” (according to about.com).       The third bird I focused on was unknown to me—it looked like a cross between a gull and a tern and had some behavior characteristics of each. I spent a chunk of time looking at pictures and I still didn’t know! It, too, flew increasingly close, making darting swooping loops near where I was standing. Once it landed in the creek behind the fish houses and swam around a bit while I clicked away. Thanks, baby. Karen Watras and Ray Matthews may have supplied the answer. This may be a Forster’s Tern. Karen photographed what she thinks was one, in Carova, and Ray photographed a whole flock of them in the same timeframe.

Our mild weather continues. If I had a groundhog, he (or she. Why can’t The Groundhog be a she!?) would not have seen its shadow early this morning but would certainly see it now with plenty of sunshine out my window. Time to go back outside! Enjoy.

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Here are the birds in the fields at Alligator River NWR on the Dare mainland.

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Finally! Some ducks!! Bufflehead pairs near Billy's Seafood on Colington Road.

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Great Blue Heron, same spot.

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Not nearly as many pelicans as I expected, either time I went to Wanchese harbor. But every one is special to me!

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Sometimes pelicans just make me laugh aloud! I call this Committee Meeting. (Maybe there is a clue in that title about how I feel today about participating in committees!!!)

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Here's that precious little male Common Merganser. Nothing "common" to me about our encounter. See his serrated bill?

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And here is the mystery bird, that I think we've finally sleuthed out is a Forster's Tern.

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I drove down to Pea Island earlier this week. Still scarce water in the main pond behind the Visitor Center, so no snow geese or swan. Just this small group of Canada Geese standing in the mud.

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Went to Jennette's Pier yesterday afternoon chasing Northern Gannets. Sometimes we see great flocks of them and sometimes none at all. But what made me smile the most? Sure, a pelican!!

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Not From Here. But I wanted to share my close-up and personal hawk encounter from Blackwater NWR, in Maryland. Isn't it just beautiful?

posted by eturek at 12:45 PM

Comments [5]

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