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

Thursday, April 30, 2009
More April Treasures

One great thing about being a naturalist is that folks tell you things, and ask you things, and show you things.  We can all learn so much from one another, and for a born researcher, every day can be a surprise. A couple of weeks ago, Ray and Pam Matthews dropped by the gallery to talk a bit about his spring photography, and about these odd little somethings they had found on the beach – not exactly sand dollars, not exactly sea biscuits, the little, hollow, not exactly round, and extremely fragile somethings were all over the southern part of Nags Head, where they had been beach-walking. My kind of somethings, I thought, and made a mental note to get down there, and see for myself. That plan didn’t materialize, but a couple of weeks ago I walked the beach in front of the Ramada Inn in Kill Devil Hills, not too far north of the KDH/NH town line. I saw dozens of the little whatever-they-were’s, mostly broken, but some intact, with indentations that are faintly reminiscent of sand-dollars or sea biscuits. They are about the size of old-fashioned oyster crackers, the lovely, round-ish, light and airy kind, not the flat, six-sided crisps that pass for oyster crackers in Nabisco-land. One end of several of those I picked up was stained a deep grape-juice purple. No amount of googling produced any satisfactory information.  But a friend of a friend – Helen Iwannick, consummate birder – gave me the idea of calling the NC Aquarium for info, which I did.  These “somethings” have a name—heart urchins—and Lauren of the Aquarium staff (who answers her extension, “husbandry” and is obviously a great contact to have) told me they’ve been getting lots of calls about them.

Some years ago I wrote an essay on naming things, on the general public’s and children’s tendencies to ask naturalists or teachers or outdoor program leaders, when seeing an unfamiliar critter, “what is that?”  Sometimes, answering in a roundabout way, by asking questions in response such as what does it remind you of, or what is it doing right now, prompts the curious to look more closely.  That’s a better strategy for learning than just providing a label that has no substantive attachment to the critter in question. The asking-more-questions response works especially well if you are also trying to model how to use field guides, which depend on observation in order to gain the reward of the answer. The best reason to know a name, I wrote then, is not to check off a life list entry, but to have a door to further investigation.  With all that in mind, I described my find to Lauren, and the name provided that doorway to go back to some educational websites for more details. I’ll share those in a later blog. Meanwhile, if any of you know more about these creatures, please do comment.

While walking the Carova beach weekend before last, Pete, daughter Faith, grandson Michael and I all spied dozens, no, hundreds of moon snail egg collars – so named because they look like old-fashioned shirt collars from the day when “shirt collar” was a separate, removable item. Moon snails create a three-part matrix of sand, mucous secretions from their large foot, and their microscopic eggs; they sit in what becomes the center space of the collar (like a hole in a donut), secreting their eggs around them and leaving an opening which they crawl through when they finish laying their eggs.  The collar looks, at first, like a hard, sand-covered, plastic disk or ring.  It is quite strong when submerged in water, and is much more fragile once the waves bring it ashore. The ones we found were well above the tide-line and the eggs had therefore dried and died. The moon snails we found along the wrack line were occupied either by their original inhabitants or had been commandeered by hermit crabs; I found only one that was completely vacant.

In addition to sea stars (they’re not really “fish”), one dried seahorse, one sand dollar and another dried sea urchin, we also found something that might be a sea cucumber (no spines, but the bumpy stripes could be the characteristic warts). I don’t think it is a sea slug (no wild colors, no eye stalks), although it could be, I suppose, some third I-don’t-know-what. I’d found a completely smooth, similarly shaped something from my Ramada Inn beach-walk morning; the lack of bumps seems to belie its being a sea cucumber.  See how fun this is? I could keep myself up half the night (ok, ok, all night) trying to find this stuff out.  (That’s a roundabout way of explaining why I don’t blog everyday. There is plenty to say, but not plenty of time in which to find out, precisely, what needs saying.)

Driving down to Frisco for the Journey Home PowWow this past Sunday (check out Leslie-MD’s photos under the photo gallery part of the website for pictures of this year’s gathering), we stopped at the Pea Island Visitor’s Center for a quick look around. No avocets to be seen anywhere, in any of the ponds north or south, but I did photograph at great distance what I thought was a red-winged blackbird. Closer scrutiny of the image revealed another mystery, since this bird shows clearly the typical red epaulets of the male bird, but not the overall black color. What is with the pale, buff-colored head, and pale tail feathers?  Enter birder Helen (the same Helen mentioned above), who thinks this is an aberrant bird, with atypical coloring for red-winged blackbirds.  Naturalists do like to know things, and to discover things.  Happily, naturalists typically also like to share things.  So enjoy.




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Here's a heart urchin, although I did not know its name when I found it. Nearly weightless, hollow, and not quite round, it looked from a distance like an egg until I picked it up and saw the indentations.

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Some had dark purple spots on one end.

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The egg collar of a moon snail.

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Another collar from underneath. See the round, drilled hole in the clam shell? Clams are the moon snails' favorite food--after they create the hole, their stomach acid pulverizes the clam and they drink their lunch.

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I think this is a type of sea cucumber. Maybe.

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This seems too smooth to qualify as a sea cucumber. Any ideas, anyone?

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This bird was very far away...but not so far that I could not take at least an "identification purposes" photograph. It perches like a red-winged blackbird, it has the epaulets of a red-winged blackbird...it's one for the record books.

posted by eturek at 11:09 PM

Comments [140]

Tuesday, April 21, 2009
History, mystery, naturally

You’ve probably figured out by now that I tend to be wordy. I don’t just mean I can blather on and on and on sometimes. (I have friends who would question the “some.”)  And yes, I am detail-oriented. (Those same friends might insert “excruciatingly” in front of “detail.”)  I mean that I process in words and through words. I think about words, all the time. As a lyricist, I’m alert to rhythm and rhyme; as a poet, to nuance and levels of meaning.  For the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about the phrase “natural history,” as a follow-on, I suppose, to my last blog about patterns. Fact is, nature has its own history, general and particular, and I want to share some particular history that has prompted mystery for me over the past few days.  (History-mystery, there’s the lyricist at work. I wrote a song once with that phrase in the chorus.  Hopefully this blog entry will be less of a stretch than the lyric was!)

 Osprey updates: some of you have been asking for these. Writing updates about the osprey is a little like writing updates about my neighbor’s son, who will be three this summer. Every day is a new adventure!  Every day brings something new to report!  Well, birds and critters certainly have that same sort of active, changing daily life, particularly in spring.  So here goes…

 First off, I’m tracking a rumor that the osprey behind Lone Cedar are actually long-lost, tagged osprey from somewhere else altogether, and not “our” Outer Banks Lone Cedar osprey at all. Once I heard the story, that someone at the restaurant had been called from an osprey migration project, I went to the nest to see for myself. One was present, and although I tried to photograph its feet close-up, I could not see a band. Stay tuned for more reports if I can dig out more information. Mystery #1.

 Colington Harbour Marina pair: Karen Watras told me a couple of weeks ago that she witnessed the male osprey repeatedly swooping into the flapping Colington Harbour flag that flies at the clubhouse.  Seems this pair has a penchant for pendants.  Last year, the nest included part of a flag, interwoven among the sticks. A couple of years before that, the pair had woven some yellow police tape into the nest, dangling from one side. The Colington flag still flies, but the pair has managed to snag what looks like some black filter cloth for its fabric fetish this year. Too funny.  Now, why this pair wants fabric is mystery #2.

 Kitty Hawk park (Shady Run) nest: This nest has appeared abandoned, but on Saturday afternoon, Karen and I had a chance to go up to the park for a little bit. We watched as an osprey, presumably a female, ignored the nesting platform, and instead laboriously carried twigs and limbs up to the generator at the asphalt plant that abuts the park. Not a good place for a nest, no. Both of us kept saying, what is she doing?  Is this a new nester?  Honey, trust us, you don’t want to build here. Bad neighborhood. Osprey, even if they lose their partner, will return to the exact same nest, so where is the pair that has nested on the platform, and why is this osprey building so close?  Karen went back on Sunday to find all the sticks gone, and no sign of any osprey presence there, as if we had dreamed up the whole thing. Luckily we both have photographs to prove what we witnessed.  Mystery #3.

 If you’ve never seen an osprey gathering the sticks, the process is incredible to watch. The bird flies—at high speed—right for the branch it wants, grasps it with its powerful talons, and snaps it off by sheer strength and speed of flight. I have a couple of photographs below to show you the actual moment of contact.

 Kitty Hawk Eagles: The neighbors report having seen two eaglets thus far, and describe them as being about a foot tall already. I saw just the head of one of the two late Sunday afternoon, and was graced as well with being able to share a view of the mother with Pete’s daughter Faith and Michael, following another Carova beachcombing adventure (most of which will have to wait for a later blog). Now that the eaglets are a little larger, the mother eagle can fly to a nearby perch. I’m waiting for that same behavior to signal the presence of baby osprey in all those nests that I watch.

 Carova’s White Gull: During a recent photo outing with members of the Carolinas Nature Photography Association, to Wanchese at sunrise, we all spied a white gull with pink feet and pale bill. The general consensus was that the bird was an errant Icelandic or Glaucous Gull, out of its normal range. Sunday afternoon in Carova, I saw an all-white gull again. Its lack of any grey, brown, or black made it stand out in the crowd of Herring Gulls, Laughing Gulls, and Great Black-backed Gulls that were its shoreside companions. Is it the same bird we saw in Wanchese?  What’s it doing here anyway, I mean, other than the things gulls normally do, like scavenge the beach for tasty treats. This one was targeting what looked like a beached blowfish. Mystery #4.

  I’ll keep you posted on all my latest mysteries.  Meanwhile, enjoy the images below. 





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Here she is, bringing sticks to a beginning nest on the generator.

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Another osprey has just flown by with a fish, but she didn't seem too excited by its presence. At one point, I saw three at once flying in the vicinity. Who was who is another mystery.

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The moment of contact. Crash!

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Trying to break the end of the limb.

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Another successful foray for the nest.

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Peek-a-boo, eaglet! Welcome to the world.

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Here's a cropped close-up from the previous picture.

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Here's the mother. Even on a gray, overcast afternoon, she still exhibits the majesty that prompted the selection of the Bald Eagle as our national symbol.

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Carova's mysterious White Gull.

posted by eturek at 2:28 PM

Comments [6]

Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Creatures of Habit

How many of you take the same route to work every morning, or when picking up the kids from school in the afternoon?  Call it routine or call it a rut, either way, we tend to form habits.  Sometimes it’s nice to mix it up, turn at a different light, wake up your senses to see something new. But there are advantages to being “creatures of habit.”  That little cliché is full of big truth: critters tend to be creatures of habit, too, and being habitual in our movements can mean that we notice patterns. One way to think about natural history, in fact, is to consider the patterns around us: I always see these birds here at this time of day…that critter is always hanging out over there…gee, I never saw that before; I wonder what that means. That’s what’s playing in my brain, most of the time I am out and about (underlying whatever song is stuck there, that is; right now, I have the entire soundtrack of Mamma Mia as a sonic backdrop to everything else I’m thinking).


Driving most days from Colington Harbour to Yellowhouse, I’m forced to be habitual in most of my movements, unless I want to paddle over to the back side of Jockey’s Ridge and hike in from there, which would add hours to my little 20-minute commute. But I like my commute, precisely for its routine. Driving down Colington Road almost every day for the past 22 years means I’ve been able to notice a lot of patterns. Now I need to ‘fess up that for the first several of those years, I was pretty oblivious. I was, as a Zen master might say, thinking ahead, or behind, and living anywhere but now. In those years, everything I noticed was a surprise. Oh! Egrets! Oh! A Kingfisher!  Now that I am paying more attention, wonder of wonders, I notice more. Being alert to patterns means I can anticipate encounters and prepare for them. It also means I can be surprised by what seems out of place. Those two facets are enough to keep my daily drive fresh.


I’ve learned to look at a small tree, located on the north side of Colington Road just at the western end of the second bridge, as the Belted Kingfisher is sometimes perched there.  Two years ago, a Kingfisher liked to hang out around the first bend in Colington Road, right before the Blue Crab. I haven’t seen one there this year, so I don’t know if the bird I am seeing is the same one, or perhaps an offspring.  I check out little canals on either side of the road, coming and going; if the water levels are right, I spy a Great Egret, somewhere, most days. A Great Blue Heron occasionally visits the small canal near the end of Colington Road, right beside the Colington Realty office. A Brown Pelican has been working the open water at the first bridge here lately.


Birds aren’t all I notice. In early spring, the marsh beside Colington Speedway is exquisitely decorated in luminescent reds and bright greens, as maple seedlings juxtapose against newly emerged leaves. Yellow Jessamine, a native plant in the southeast, has bloomed profusely since early April, and this afternoon, I noticed the first wild red honeysuckle. All of these are, hello, I remember you sorts of treats.  Easter morning, I was treated to the other kind, the out-of-pattern, well-looky-here kind.


I’d gotten up early and gone to a vacant beach access for sunrise, wanting some solitude. The blustery (read, cold) north winds discouraged the morning pelicans; my only avian companions were laughing gulls. On my way back home, I drove into a new development on Colington Road, Sunrise Crossing, which has lots for sale but no homes under construction yet. The land is still, well, land. I’ve driven that road only three or four times; it is not familiar. I had no particular expectations other than the general sense that I was supposed to turn there. I drove slowly to the end and started back out, noticing the jessamine and making a mental note to return with a different lens. All of a sudden (natural history can read like a screenplay, sometimes), I caught in my less-than-perfect peripheral vision a flash of blue. What was that?  An Eastern Bluebird, flitting and hopping on the western side of the road, nicely lit by the morning sunshine. The Bluebird of Happiness on Easter morn, I kept whispering to myself, as I asked its permission to take its picture. It must have agreed, as it stayed still for several photographs, and hopped and flitted between limbs before flying deeper into the trees. I’ve had glimpses of bluebirds, in Colington Harbour or off to the side of Colington Road, but I haven’t seen one that close, for that many minutes, for many years.


I went back today, but no bluebirds were in sight; instead, the combination of jessamine and dogwood caught my eye.  Speaking of dogwood, I’ve noticed they always seem to bloom in time for Easter, no matter if the holiday comes early or late. They bloomed right on time again this year; the week before Easter, I noticed newly opening buds, full flowers still showing what looks like a pale green watercolor wash, and blossoms open a few days longer, with their bright white petals.  Patterns and colors and critters – whether familiar or seldom seen, they are always beautiful.





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I actually took this photograph back in February. Now the tree is fully leafed-out, making it more difficult to spot visitors.

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Backlit maple seedlings are among my favorite spring sights. These are on Tower Lane, off Colington Road.

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Wild honeysuckle just started to bloom. Butterflies love it--hummingbirds, too.

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Very early in the morning...on the first day of the week... Just before the day was dawning...I arose and went to seek...

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Laughing Gulls were up to greet the sunrise, despite the wind.

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The Bluebird of Happiness

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Notice how green the opening dogwood is, and how it opens opposite petals rather than all at once.

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Just in time for Easter.

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I admit it--I love my forsythia bush. But this Carolina Jessamine is hard to beat for beauty. This particular vine is growing with a dogwood tree in Sunrise Crossing in Colington. A perfect native spring bouquet.

posted by eturek at 8:11 PM

Comments [7]

Wednesday, April 8, 2009
April Awakenings

Each year, as winter winds down and I, along with everyone I know, longs for springtime, I undertake a little ritual I can recall from my earliest childhood: I watch for spring. I examine trees and bushes, watching grey limbs "pink up" and the tips swell, forming buds that eventually unfold into leaves or flowers. The past few years, I have paid even more attention to native plants--those that have grown on the Outer Banks for generations--seeking their rhythms as well as those of the bulbs and flowers I've planted that have come from, literally, all over the world.  Only once, during my first year of college, did I somehow miss the run of days when all the trees began to show their green--until this year, when I had to be away from the Banks for several days, right as warmer April mornings followed late March rains.

The need to be away was greater than my longing to watch, as I kept vigil of another, deeper kind, while my stepdaughter came through a successful heart surgery in Greenville, NC. During those hours and days, as MaryAnn finally awakened from surgery and began slowly regaining strength, remarkable awakenings occured on the Outer Banks as well.

 First, here is the beginning of an entry I wrote on March 30, just over a week ago: Driving down the beach road, I see above and beyond the dunes long, narrow black V's silhouetted against the morning sky, flying toward the spring that both is, and is coming. Is, because the calendar confirms the equinox is eight days past. Is coming, because the cold north winds and grey skies of most of those eight days have felt more like winter's beginning than its ending. By the time I can pull over, get my camera, and walk up the steps to an ocean overlook, the V's are far north, out of sight, but flying in a hope-filled direction. A few minutes later, I spot not a high V but a long, low undulating line of what I suspect are cormorants. Birds on the move--another beat in the complex, syncopated seasonal rhythm spring provides. I've also been noticing a good-sized flock of what turned out to be Cedar Waxwings, hanging out around the Kill Devil Grill on the beach road, flitting around the evergreens beside the restaurant, or flying up to the overhead wires...

Standing at the beach access, watching for more migrants, I noticed rabbit tracks, hopping along the frontal dune; a set of fox tracks trotted right beside the stairway from the deck of the house next to the access. Both fox and rabbit have shared space around Yellowhouse for as long as we have owned the gallery.  I found myself remembering the Easter Bunny who came out and allowed me the privilege of a close approach to take its picture last year, on Easter Saturday, as I closed the gallery. I thought of that bunny off and on all day; later that afternoon, there it was again in exactly the same spot as the year before, wiggling its nose and looking me in the eye as I crouched. I find it easy to believe we were somehow connected--that my thinking of it led it to emerge just at the moment when I would see it, or that it was somehow drawing me to come and be present at exactly the right time. Our friend Karen was at the gallery helping ready for our opening while we were in Greenville; she reported that the rabbit came out, practically at her feet, from under the gallery building, and proceeded to its favorite tiny patch of grass and weeds, content and settled in her presence as it seems to be in mine.

Pine trees just before I left were showing yellow at their tips. Now that the first week of April is past, dogwoods are in full bloom, and the gum trees are in full leaf, where both showed tight buds only a week ago. I'll post photos of them soon. Meanwhile, enjoy these images from the last week of March while I try to catch up to April.


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I suspect these are cormorants by the way they are flying.

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These four were a small part of the line of Cedar Waxwings that convened on the overhead wires near the Kill Devil Grill.

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Rabbit Tracks! Notice the pattern of all four paws. Want to hear something even wilder? The day I saw the bunny, drops on my bathroom sink were in perfect rabbit pattern...when I am in tracking mode, I see tracks everywhere.

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Foxes walk in a perfectly straight line, putting rear paws into the exact tracks made by front paws. Cats come closest to that pattern, while dogs meander all over the place.

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The yellow pine pollen that will soon cover everything, like my car, is about as bright as the tips of these newly growing shoots.

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Here is the Yellowhouse bunny, this year.

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Easter Saturday, 2008. How can you not believe in the Easter Bunny??

posted by eturek at 12:47 AM

Comments [10]

(c) 2009-2010 Eve Turek & OBX Connection, all rights reserved - read 547852 times

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