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

Saturday, June 27, 2009
Nags Head Ghosts and Salvo Oats

Salvo Sea Oats, that is. News Flash: The Sea Oats are blooming! I saw newly emerged seed heads in Salvo, and just a few in South Nags Head, Wednesday morning.  Sea Oat seed heads always signal summer’s official arrival for me, as arriving osprey always herald spring. Looking back at photographs from the past two years, I see my initial reaction—that the first sea oats of the season seem to have opened earlier than last year—is correct; I photographed newly emerged sea oats, within a week of opening, on July 10 last year, and July 9 in 2007.  The seed heads open in pastel shades of yellow-green, with almost a hint of iridescence; they quickly darken to a deeper sage-green, still with a blend of yellow, and by mid-summer take on the drier, golden color we usually associate with them. They gradually turn a deep golden-brown in the fall before winter nor’easters strip the seeds and send them flying, in what would seem to be a perfect propagation plan.

Sea Oats actually proliferate not so much by their seeds, but by rhizomes that quickly send spreading, running roots under the sand. Once established, they help trap sand which in turn mounds and begins to form dunes. According to my google search, the northernmost part of their U.S. range is Virginia, although they are found south to Florida and around the Gulf Coast to Texas as well.  Sea Oats more than tolerate salt spray; they thrive under oceanfront conditions, which helps to explain why they are found only near the ocean’s influence, despite the wind’s ability to carry the seeds far inland.

I was headed to Salvo to photograph a huge ship’s anchor, washed ashore near the southern end of the village. On the way, I stopped at Pea Island, a little south of the visitor center, riveted by the densest congregation of Great Egrets I have ever seen here. Hundreds of them were strung out in a long line and roosting in clumps of trees in the center of the pond there. There were a few other birds as well: I saw one Black-necked Stilt, and some Tricolor Herons, one Great Blue Heron, and a few Snowy Egrets. Today I heard a report via birder Helen Iwanik that a pair of Roseate Spoonbills, and even one Woodstork have been seen, hanging out with the egrets also. I commented to Pete that the sight the other morning looked like Florida, so having two other Florida species show up seems fitting, somehow. I am hoping to get a glimpse of those birds here, too, by the middle of next week.

Back in Nags Head, Ghost Crabs are having their own kind of gathering, as it seems to me that I am seeing more holes, and more crabs, up this way than I have for the past couple of years. While on the beach at Salvo, I saw numerous Ghost Crabs there, too, but no shorebirds of any kind, only one lone pelican flying, and only one gull. Odd. The smallest Ghost Crabs dig closest to the water’s edge, while the larger crabs dig their burrows at increasing distances back to the dune line. Their tunnels can stretch down as much as four feet. While they will scavenge for food scraps, as gulls do, they are primarily predators, feasting on mole crabs or clams or even on turtle eggs. They are most active at night, making a Ghost Crab Hunt by moonlight (or flashlight) a summertime adventure for generations of beachgoers.  They are much harder to spot during the day—they get their name from their camouflage coloring and their translucent bodies—and seldom venture very far from their burrows while the sun is out. Even though they are characterized as predators, they’ll eat whatever is handy—visitors told me last summer that their children had been feeding the Ghost Crabs some sort of fruit gummy candy(!) and that the crabs definitely had a preference for blueberry! There is much more to tell about them, but I’ll save it for a later entry.

In the meantime, we are off to the mountains for a quick overnight trip, picking up equipment for the frame shop, so whatever is happening on the Outer Banks, naturally-speaking, will have to happen without me for a couple of days.


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Ghost Crabs are so much fun to watch, if you can spot them in daylight.

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I watched the second crab, in the background, scootch (techinical term) and skitter sideways towards the first crab, and wondered what would happen next. They basically ignored one another, too interested in what the Big Human with Big Lens was doing.

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Big Human was doing what Big Human always does: Hi, Baby! Can I take your picture?!?

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Just beginning to open, but showing their new green seed heads.

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Last year's dry and this year's fresh. The cycle begins again.

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Great Egrets holding a family reunion! Like pelicans, they roost and nest in colonies.

posted by eturek at 10:27 PM

Comments [2]

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In Antoine de St. Exupery’s classic, The Little Prince, the story’s main character tames a fox, at the fox’s request, and both learn lessons about heart connections, and love, and letting go.  What has St. Exupery to do with the Outer Banks?  Two summers ago, on a breezy day much like today, Pete opted to leave the frame shop door open all day rather than run the air conditioning. Later that afternoon, he buzzed me on our intercom. “Do foxes have white tips to their tails?” he asked. I told him red foxes do. He buzzed back: “What if they are grey?” I explained that young red foxes might well appear gray. Why do you ask, I wanted to know. Well….he thought he had a fox in the frame shop. A fox in the frame shop?! I will be right out, I said. And out I went.

Sure enough, wedged into a low box, against the back of a dark shelf where Pete kept moulding samples was a young fox, about the size of a junior cat—not quite full grown cat size, but bigger than kitten-sized. This was a gray fox, not a red fox, and its tail was not tipped with white after all.  It was too wary to come out of hiding, but not so wary that it fled at our voice, although we wished it would run out the way it ran in. We called animal control, who supplied us with a live trap, and we put cat food in it, at the officer’s advice. Pete took to calling fox “Freddie.”  Freddie lived in our frame shop for 10 days. Clever fox, to keep fed and not get caught in the trap.  Judy Bailey, aka backpacker, scolded us for treating the fox like a feline when it is a canine; she had us put dog food in the trap instead, and we moved the water dish inside as well. Within a couple of hours Freddie was safe in the trap. Judy and I let the fox go back into the thicket where the mama fox presumably lived. All’s well that ends well.

Judy was right, of course; foxes are canines. But gray foxes in particular have interesting feline habits. They can climb trees, for one. And both gray and red foxes have vertical slit pupils, as cats do, rather than the round pupils common to dogs (and humans). The slits increase range of vision in poor light, or at night. Even when the pupils contract and the slit narrows, there is still some vision all throughout the range. Finally, both foxes tend to walk in a straight line, more like a cat than a dog; dogs tend to meander all around, sniffing out this and that and the other. The fox habit of placing its rear paws in the impressions made by its front paws, leaving a single, straight line of tracks, has been said to influence some Native American tribes’ practice of “fox-walking,” a handy habit for disguising how many braves walked single file over any given area.

Since the summer of 2007, we have had seasons where the fox left its scat (read, poop) in our parking lot. I can tell you that its favorite food is persimmons, when they are in season, but that it will eat sea oats in a pinch.  I have never found any hair in its scat, so the Yellowhouse bunnies and mice have been safe, I am happy to report. Harmony exists here, apparently.  We’ve seen a fox since from time to time and wondered if it was Freddie, or Freddie’s mama. It always stops at the sound of Pete’s voice; after all, Pete talked to it for 10 days straight that summer. We estimated, from its size and the fact that it had its teeth, that the fox was about 8-9 weeks old when it found—and tamed—us.

As I mentioned in my last blog, a customer—Sherman, from TN—spied a grown fox beside the frame shop a couple of weeks ago, and was kind enough to email the picture he had taken from our parking lot. That picture was the first clue we had that once again, a mama fox had kit foxes nearby, as the photograph shows she is clearly nursing babies. A couple of days later, I heard the mocking bird give an alarm call at the edge of the parking lot beside the gallery as I was leaving one evening. I peeked to see what caused the bird’s agitation, and there was the mama fox, making her crossing over to the vacant lot beside the gallery. She trotted past but turned and watched Pete and I both after she reached the safety of the thicket’s edge. I am hoping to see the kit foxes—but not in the frame shop—soon. Whether this is Freddie’s mama, or Freddie is actually Fredericka and all grown up, we have no clue.

Meanwhile, the young eaglets are flying now. I’ll include a photo of the older of the two branching, taken a couple of weeks ago. I watched this bird pump and flex its wings for 16 minutes before launching itself into the air and circling back around to the nesting tree. No telling how long it was preparing to fly back before I got there, or how long it took to decide to leave the nesting tree in the first place!

Finally, dragonflies have arrived.  Dragonflies are migratory; twice in my life I have been on the beach to witness Dragonfly Migration Day. As far up and down the beach as I could see, what appeared to be hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of dragonflies, flying very slowly and nearly bumping into me, came across the Atlantic and onto shore, heading west. The other day I noticed dragonflies for the first time this year around the beach road. I stopped at Jockey’s Ridge in late afternoon and found dozens there, all atop the branches of the low trees that grow alongside the accessible boardwalk and overlook.  More signs of summer’s approach, as is our recent bout of hotter, humid weather and late afternoon thunder-squalls and sun-showers.  Those squalls often birth rainbows over the ocean as they pass, so keep a weather eye eastward!

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Sherman, from TN, spied and photographed mama fox. Thanks, Sherman!

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A closer look at Mama Fox, while she is looking closely at me.

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I call this picture, Fox I Contact--a bit of punning, and a lot of love.

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Here's Freddie. (Or Fredericka). Wedged into the back of a shelf in the frame shop, taken on the first day of summer, June 2007. Notice how beautiful and colorful its fur is, and its vertical slit pupils.

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A couple of days before I took the branching and flight photograph, the pair of young eaglets sat together outside the nest. The younger is preening, an important exercise to keep feathers in optimum flight condition.

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I think I can...I think I can...I think I can...this went on for 16 minutes while I watched. Of course, the eaglet had flown from the nesting tree over to this snag, but it needed a lot of preparation to make the leap back.

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Finally, the eaglet leaped off and circled around back to the tree. See the outstretched talons? This same motion will be used later as the eaglet grows and learns to catch its own prey--predominantly fish, here. Everything is a lesson for survival.

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All the while, the mother eagle watched her eaglet from the nesting tree, occasionally whistling encouragement.

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Dragonflies! How many can you spot, at the ends of the branches? They seemed to be everywhere. Taken late afternoon at Jockey's Ridge.

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Up close and personal. Dragonfly experts can tell them apart by the color of their compound eyes, wing patterns (spotted or plain), the color of their jointed bodies, and their perching positions.

posted by eturek at 9:13 PM

Comments [6]

Sunday, June 7, 2009
May Excursions

 So much is happening right now, as spring rushes toward summer, that I can scarcely keep up with the pace of change. I’ll have to fill two blogs over these next few days—and then I will be behind again, I am sure!

West and north of Oregon Inlet, in a stunningly successful example of Humans Helping Nature—as if we were connected, as if we were not aliens, which is what I believe—lies a broken strand of sandy pearls: the Bird Islands. These islands are actually manmade, in that they were created, and are periodically expanded, by the dredging operations that keep the boating channels open from Roanoke Island down to Oregon Inlet. Islands have stories, too. These islands begin as piles of wet dredge spoil, but they don’t stay that way. They go through predictable stages of vegetative succession. First, the sand dries. In a fairly short time, grasses begin to sprout and grow, which in turn provide the stability for low shrubs to grow. Where do the grasses and shrubs come from?  From the ever-present Outer Banks breezes. Wind is the main colonizer of the islands, carrying seeds from the barrier islands and the mainland. 

Joanna Burger, in her book A Naturalist along the Jersey Shore, describes the process from the birds’ point of view, and points out the value of the created habitat for ground-nesting birds that need dry, sandy areas, like terns or Black Skimmers; once the islands become vegetated with thicker shrub growth, gulls and pelicans take over. The oldest islands, covered with small trees, are preferred by herons and egrets. The islands west of Oregon Inlet are in various stages of succession, and provide roosting and nesting areas for a wide variety of birds.  When the birds are nesting, the islands are off limits, but can be viewed from a safe distance from the water.  (During the Wings Over Water festival in early November, one of the highlights is a boat trip to Pelican Island, after the young birds have fledged. Participants can actually tramp around the island with a naturalist.)

In a series of fortuitous events, I recently met Sarah Gardner and Brian Horsley—charter boat captains who specialize in fly-fishing trips along the Outer Banks, and whose boats are docked at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. My dad used to fly-fish and his dad made split bamboo rods and tied his own flies, so I guess I felt an immediate affinity to these two folks. They are both excellent photographers, love the outdoors, and know their birds as well as their fish, and after a couple of long conversations, Sarah and I arranged for her to take me out for what became two wonderful mornings on the water, motoring around the bird islands aboard Fly Girl, her 23-foot center console dreamboat. Dreamboat for me, as I have been itching for a way to see our birds from a safe, waterborne platform, so that I could transport my longest lens. Sarah is an expert captain, maneuvering her boat, as poet ee cummings might write, just so close and close enough: close enough to see but not too close to scare the birds, which would never be my intention. (In case you hadn’t figured this out by now, I just love them.) Our first morning excursion ten days ago lasted a little more than an hour before rain drove us back to the dock; the weather on our second outing, just this past Wednesday, was sunnier and we spent about three hours on the water, motoring from island to island.

One of the islands is covered mostly with grasses and a little shrub vegetation at its peaks. (“Peak” seems a funny word for an island that is not much taller than the sand dunes running along the Beach Road). Just as Joanna Burger reports, a fairly large colony of Black Skimmers is living there. We saw 50-60 at a time take to the air on our first visit as the group was unsettled by a group of over-flying crows.  On our second morning, the crows were nowhere around, and we saw only isolated individuals, although we could hear the colony as she idled the boat’s motor. We saw some terns as well, although the Black Skimmers seem to be the predominant dwellers here. Black Skimmers are named for the color of their wings and their method of feeding: their lower bill is much longer than their upper, and they fly dipping their lower bill in the water, scooping up small fish. We watched a couple of birds fly past the boat repeatedly, first in one direction, then the other, working the edge of the marsh and stirring up bait fish: seafood buffet, all you can eat breakfast.

Pelican Island, in contrast, is a long-established dredge spoil island, with vegetation that creates a pelican’s paradise. Here, pelicans nest either on the ground, lining a shallow sandy depression with grasses, like the fronds of phragmites, or in low shrubs, making shallow nests of twigs. (In Florida, they nest much higher up in the mangroves.)  The Brown Pelican, like the Bald Eagle, suffered a population crash during the DDT era, as pelican eggshells became so thin that they broke under the weight of the incubating mother birds. I saw my first Dare County pelican in the early-to-mid 1980s on the Manteo waterfront. Now, 25 years later, give or take, Pelican Island is home to thousands of roosting pelicans.  Pelicans are colonial birds; that is, they nest in large groups, or colonies. Each mother bird lays between two and four eggs in one brood per year. They are not territorial in the least.

Back in 2005, I had the privilege as a USFWS volunteer to go onto the island with wildlife biologists, interns, and other volunteers in order to band the juvenile pelicans. Our group banded about 300 the day I was there. The adults would fly to a respectful distance at our approach, keeping a watchful eye as we picked up the young pelicans by what would be their elbows, if they had arms instead of wings, with one hand, holding their bills shut with the other. The young pelicans did not really want to be carried, akimbo, to have a small metal band put on their leg, and kept flapping their bills and their feet at us. I held all the birds I carried tight against my chest, crooning to them all the time. We threaded our way around hundreds of nests in order to carry the birds to a central spot where the biologists were recording the bands being used. Some of the interns just plunked the babies down wherever; I kept trying to memorize the route I had taken so I could return the youngsters to their own nest. Looking at the island again through my long lens four years later, it became more obvious to me how bonded parent and babies are, as adult birds would move around, take off to feed, and then return to the colony. We saw one bird, not yet in adult plumage, carrying a twig to a nest, ala osprey-fashion. USGS reports that Brown Pelicans take three years to change from their overall brown-gray plumage to the characteristic adult breeding coloration of chestnut nape, white neck with a touch of yellow, along with a splash of pale yellow on the top of the head. While females can breed after three years, males wait longer (so says my Birder’s Handbook). So what was this guy doing, practicing for his Big Date? I say "guy" because the males gather; females build. So I assume this was a young male.

Baby pelicans are born featherless, and look like miniature dinosaurs; I watched one hatch four years ago on the island and took its photograph minutes later. By a week old, the babies are covered with white fluffy feathers; by three weeks, their wings already show some brown as they begin to lose their baby feathers. Banding has to occur before the young fledge; my banding trip took place in mid-July, and was the second of three for that season. Capt. Sarah and I saw only a couple of baby pelicans our first week out, and babies all over the place this past week. Judging from their fluffy white feathers, I’d estimate all the baby pelicans we saw were only about a week old. My Birder’s Handbook reports that incubation lasts about a month, and that the young fly in 71-88 days.

In addition to Black Skimmers and Pelicans, we also saw terns, and egrets, and ibis (oh my!), and I have been back to the eagles’ nest several times in the past couple of weeks, too. As if all of that was not exciting enough, a customer reported seeing our Yellowhouse fox the other day and was kind enough to share his photo with me, to share with you; I saw the fox myself a few days later and will include those photos in the next blog. I can tell you this much now: pellies aren’t the only mamas about. Finally, I believe Dragonfly Migration Day occurred since I last blogged as well; we’ve gone from no dragonflies to dozens of them, all over the brush at Jockey’s Ridge, the other afternoon. So much to see, so much to say, so much to share…




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Black Skimmers kept taking off and landing as crows swooped over the colony. This island is perfect for the skimmers: still very sandy, with lots of broken shell material.

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Black Skimmer Skimming. They feed by feel, not by sight. Birder's Handbook tidbit: they are the only birds whose pupils, like some foxes' and cats', close vertically as a slit rather than maintaining a smaller, rounded shape.

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Sometimes the Skimmers will turn their heads nearly upside down to nab a fish; bait fish were jumping all around as the Skimmer made its repeated passes.

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Our first close view of Pelican Island, just before the rains shortened our trip. Birds are everywhere!

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Pelicans regurgitate fish for young birds. This bird doesn't yet have its white down, so it is less than a week old. Notice the older baby bird with its parent in the upper left corner.

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The more, the merrier...

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Newly hatched. Taken while banding baby pelicans, July 2005. A Lifetime experience.

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This group banded together... (Bad pun, I know. I couldn't help myself. Are there any good ones?!?) Seriously, aren't they most wonderful?

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Carrying a twig to the nest. This young bird might be 3-4 years old, as it shows the beginnings of adult plumage.

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Here's a last look where we started, Black Skimmers in luminous light.

posted by eturek at 10:55 PM

Comments [8]

(c) 2009-2010 Eve Turek & OBX Connection, all rights reserved - read 561342 times

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