vacation : new life birds on Hilton Head

When we planned our trip to Hilton Head, I researched the refuges in the area and decided to stick with Pinckney Island NWR. It is close to the island, just over the bridge on the way to the mainland, and it promised miles of walking trails. Once we arrived in the area, I have to admit that the alligators put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm for going hiking around in the marshes. I was nearly content to have spotted a Yellow-throated Warbler for the first time just across the street from our rental, in addition to Brown Thrasher, House Finch, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Common Grackle, Boat-tailed Grackle, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Bluebird, Tufted Titmouse, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Downy Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Rock Dove, and Carolina Chickadee just in the residential area where we were staying. In the end I manned up, and we went ahead with the plan and spent a productive Wednesday afternoon at the refuge, spotting several new life birds and revisiting some old favorites.

Just inside the refuge, there was a flock of migrating Whimbrels, with a Black-bellied Plover, a couple of Dunlins, and some Semi-Palmated Plovers mixed in. There was also a larger gray bird that was either a Willet or a Red Knot in winter plumage; having seen both of these birds before we chose not to spend all day squinting through our under-powered binoculars to make a firm identification. Shorebirds are the most frustrating to identify with the binoculars we have; they’re typically farther away with less distinctive coloring than woodland birds, so we’ve learned to do our best and then move on. Once inside on the paths we saw old friends—Northern Cardinal, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Carolina Wren, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher—but none of the tanagers that were rumored to be around. On the mudflats we saw our next new bird, a flock of White Ibis with brown-backed young. Further along, at the aptly named Ibis Pond, we found herons of all shapes and sizes, those we’d seen before (Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron) and two lovely new additions: Little Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron, and an adult male Anhinga (we later saw a female near our house). The Little Blue Heron wasn’t exactly the first sighting; we’d seen a young one the day before along the lagoons where we were staying, and I probably saw one during our trip to Chincoteague five years ago. Nonetheless, this was the first up close and confirmed sighting of an adult bird for me, and it was fun to watch it fly back and forth bringing bits of grass and twigs for a nest.

After hanging out at Ibis Pond for a while, we hiked a loop around what was advertised as Osprey Pond and Wood Stork Island, highly motivated to get a sight of the uncommon and elusive Wood Stork. We never did. What we did catch sight of, though, were gazillions of mosquitoes and a few alligators; the latter sighting led us to conclude that Pied-billed Grebes must not be very tasty, because on two occasions they were the only bird in the water near the enormous prehistoric reptile. During this trek we saw more Eastern Bluebirds, several Great-crested Flycatchers, an Eastern Phoebe, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, the aforementioned Grebes, and a pair of Common Moorhens, but nary a stork. Nor an Osprey for that matter, but we had the excessive good fortune to have an Osprey nest in a palm tree behind the house next door, complete with young that plaintively cried out each morning as its parents harried it from the nest and into the air. Having booked it out the woods at the refuge and left the grass paths behind, we made another circuit of Ibis Pond in the hopes of finding a Wood Stork but only saw a couple more alligators, which apparently aid the nesting birds by eating predators like raccoons should they attempt to go for the nest. Or so the sign near the bench where we collapsed in a haze of citronella spray informed us. On the way out of the refuge, we did manage to see a male Painted Bunting at close range, which cheered our spirits greatly; they nest on the refuge and we’d been unable to flush one on the way in. I consider six new life birds to be a successful excursion, and I left happy; having to bark at some mating raccoons to get them off the path was just icing on the cake.

Overall, Hilton Head was a great place for wildlife sightings. In the lagoons around our housing development we saw several kinds of very large turtles, one of which we had to rescue from the middle of a road—Carolina Diamondback Terrapins, Eastern Mud Turtles, probably Chicken Turtles, and possibly Common Musk Turtles (I believe I saw the distinctive two lines on the head, but they dislike brackish water). We had Green Anoles around the house, and my partner startled a Five-lined Skink out of the bathroom when we visited Daufuskie Island on Thursday. During the boat ride over, we also spotted a couple of new birds—Royal Tern and what we are pretty sure was a White Pelican—and some familiar ones (Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Least Tern, Forster’s Tern, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Barn Swallow and Tree Swallow) in addition to several groups of Bottlenose Dolphins. We saw a whole flock of Black Vultures along the side of a road, with their white hands. Add to these the starfish, crabs, clams, and keyhole urchins we saw on the beach, plus the dead armadillos on the side of I-95 and the mystery snake we saw the heron eating behind our house, and it was quite the wildlife-filled vacation.

vacation : new life birds on Hilton Head

vacation : all I ever wanted

Last week we took a vacation, our first in four years. It got off to a bit of a rocky start, as we went directly from a family funeral to a full day of driving. Nonetheless, we were glad to be out of town and glad to be seeing someplace new; I’d been only once, about twenty years ago. We spent the week in a house in Kingston Cove, a development in the Shipyard section of Hilton Head Island, which we rented from a neighbor who was unable to use their timeshare week for the first time in twenty-odd years. The house was nice, the block was quiet, and the noisy frogs on the lagoon behind us were excellent; I only wish I had been able to see them in addition to hearing them, but the alligators were quite the disincentive to approaching the bank and peering into the water at dusk. When we weren’t on the screen porch drinking coffee or on the couch watching cable TV, we were on our rented one-speed cruisers riding around. We rode back and forth to the beach and around to various strip malls for lunch, breakfast, and more bottled water from the Piggly Wiggly. I will admit that when I first saw the cruisers I regretted not bringing Pearl, but once I realized that (a) you’re not legally allowed to ride in the road there and (b) cars have the right of way if they hit you and (c) the sand and salt water are uber-bad for a bike, I was glad I left her at home.

Although we weren’t following any set schedule, the week was a full one. We went birding in Pinckney NWR, adding several exciting new birds to my lifelist, which was a trip deserving of its own post. We sat through a timeshare-hawking presentation, and endured various (and seemingly endless) frustrations when attempting to use the Exciting Prizes we received for our trouble, an experience also worthy of its own writeup. At the end of the week, we returned with sunburns, several small keyhole urchin skeletons, and a variety of arts, crafts, and preserves. While we were gone, the yard turned into a blooming green jungle, thank you April showers, and the house is bursting out at the seams with papers to be recycled and belongings to be put away. Everything in its own time: we’re glad we went, and we’re glad to be home.

vacation : all I ever wanted

new life birds at Patuxent and Lake Artemesia

Since getting the car last week I’ve taken two trips up to the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge to walk the trails and look for birds. Last Monday’s visit was on a rainy day, so I didn’t expect to see much. Not much is still something at a place like Patuxent, though, and the very first birds I spotted were a pair of Wood Ducks paddling around in the creek (the trickle of water that I expect will develop into a fuller marsh if we have a rainy summer). They didn’t appreciate my arrival and left with much hooting and flapping, startling a group of snipes up out of the reeds. The snipes were a new life bird for me, and seemed to have changed names between the publication of my older Peterson’s, where they’re listed as Common Snipes, and my newer Sibley’s, where they’re called Wilson’s Snipes. At any rate: I saw a bunch of snipes! Their distinctive back stripes made them easy to identify, and I was pleased to add another tricksy marsh bird to my list.

The walk through the woods was pleasant, but relatively bird-free. I saw some titmice and a heron wading around at the shoreline. Cash Lake Pier is the endpoint of the trail, and it was nice to sit and take in the view of the lake from up there. The Tree Swallows had returned and were swooping over the lake in large flocks. When I arrived at the pier I discovered a pair of Northern Rough-Winged Swallows just hanging out on the railing. I’d only seen them once before, last year at the University Hills pond, and it had been late enough in the season that I wasn’t entirely convinced they weren’t young Tree Swallows. It was nice to have a firm identification; second sightings are still exciting in my book! On Saturday my partner and I had stopped at Lake Artemesia and discovered a young Osprey hanging around. It also wasn’t a first sighting, but it was the first time I’d seen one close enough to be able to get a good look at the head and wing markings. Other sightings had been from the highway in a moving car, so this sighting marked a more firm identification.

I returned to Lake Artemesia on Tuesday, and was pleased to discover a small group of Pied-Billed Grebes swimming about. Unlike at Bombay Hook, there was no mistaking them this time, and I was thrilled to see them. There’s something about the small awkwardness of grebes that I find endearing. The Osprey was still hanging about, and while I didn’t get to see it dive, it did hover directly overhead a few times, which is always neat with such a large bird. I had assumed it was just passing through on its way to the shore and didn’t expect to see it again; now I’m wondering if it will stay and nest. There are also still groups of Ruddy Ducks and American Coots out on the lake, as well as at least one pair of Ring-Necked Ducks still hanging about.

Yesterday was another beautiful day after a stormy night, so I returned to Lake Artemesia to see if anything interesting had blown in. I wasn’t the only one to have this thought: I encountered two other people with binoculars at Lake Artemesia. The first was kind enough to let me know that Palm Warblers begin to travel through in the company of Yellow-Rumped Warblers this time of year, and the second alerted me to the presence of a Horned Grebe in breeding plumage on the Lake. I had seen the Horned Grebe in winter plumage hanging around, and did see it when I arrived, but I hadn’t noticed the other in among the Ruddy Ducks. This both confirmed my identification of the one in winter plumage—still nice for me with my level of experience—and allowed me to backtrack a bit and catch sight of the grebe with a splash of gold across its head. Since Horned Grebes are migratory, it’s rare to see them in breeding plumage this far south, and I’m thankful for the opportunity. Backtracking also led me to find a single Double-Crested Cormorant out on the water; I’d only previously seen them from afar on the ocean, so getting a good look at the cheek-markings was fun as well. The final gift of the morning was a male Eastern Towhee on the path near the parking lot; I’d seen my first female Eastern Towhee on the nearby Paint Branch trail about a month before. I’d sighted male towhees out west, but this was the first male of the eastern subspecies that I’d seen.

Following such a successful trip to Lake Artemesia, I couldn’t resist the urge to head up to Patuxent and see what had landed on the lake there. I am glad I did, as I had a great time! The first bird I saw was another new life bird, a Swamp Sparrow. I suspect I’ve seen these before, at Point Pelee and the University Hills pond, but this was the first time I was able to be absolutely sure. As I was standing watching the sparrow, I became aware of an overwhelming chorus of frogs. Amphibians are my first love, and so I following a footpath—likely a deer trail—through the grass to the edge of the creek. What to my wondering eyes did appear but a horde of toads emerging from their hibernation in the mud and chasing each other around in attempts to mate. One of my housemates in Ann Arbor witnessed this spring event years ago in a park near where we used to live, and I was so jealous. So jealous! Imagine the nicest material item you’ve ever wanted it being given to the most obnoxious person you’ve ever met, and then multiply that by about a thousand: that’s how jealous I was, not because my friend was obnoxious but because frogs and toads are my first love. At any rate, all that was washed away as I got to stand and watch all these toads acting kooky. As a visual aid, I offer you this photo of one small stretch of the creek (see how many toads you can find in it):

Toads mating at Patuxent.

Following that excitement, I was happy to just walk in the woods and enjoy myself whether or not I saw any birds. Near the trailhead I saw a pair of Eastern Bluebirds hanging about a nesting box; although I know they’re common out here, this was still only my fourth sighting and their bright coloring remains startling. In the woods I encountered an Eastern Phoebe, another bird that I’ve only seen a couple of times before; it was perched above the trail bobbing its tail and singing away. Along the shore there were turtles crowding every rock and log; like the toads, they were coming out of hibernation and seeking the sun. Up at the Cash Lake Pier I found both another Double-Crested Cormorant and a fellow birder—the binoculars give it away every time. I walked over to say hello and he was kind enough to point out a Common Loon out on the lake, another new life bird for me! As with bluebirds, loons had loomed large in my imagination, birds that were never sighted yet deeply loved and exotic to someone raised inland. He also pointed out the nesting platform that the circling Osprey seemed to be using; I look forward to returning through the summer and watching for young birds. As if those sightings weren’t all enough, I saw a Hermit Thrush in the woods on the walk back to the car, another bird that I’d sighted only once before—in the backyard of our most recent house in DC—and I was happy to get a second look.

Trips like these remind me of the positive side of being a relative novice at this birding stuff: I’m almost guaranteed to see something I’ve never seen before on each trip, as many common birds are still new. It also reminds me how lucky I am to have moved to an area with such diverse habitat, within reach of so many parks and refuges. It wasn’t something we took into consideration when choosing our house location, but being on the northeast side of the District in the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River watersheds has yielded one pleasant surprise after the other.

new life birds at Patuxent and Lake Artemesia

visiting the southernmost tip of Canada

But whenever I’m honest, something in me / still looks for fresh water that feels like the sea.Carrie Newcomer

standing on the southernmost tip of Canada

When I was a kid, I used to go to the beach at Point Pelée nearly every summer with my grandparents. I didn’t swim in the ocean until I was in high school, and to this day I sputter with the saltiness when I first go in. For me, as a kid, large bodies of water were Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. I couldn’t swim to the other side, and there weren’t sharks; that was all I needed to know. Only within the past couple of years have I been in Lake Huron, thanks to the hospitality of a friend with a family home up north, but I hope to eventually swim in all five.

I didn’t realize, until I moved out East, how much my sense of myself was defined by growing up around those lakes. When people out here hear ‘Midwest’ they think Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas. While I’m sure those places are nice, I think Michigan, Indiana, Ohio. Now, when people ask me where I’m from, I say the Great Lakes region.

My trip back to Point Pelée this summer was motivated somewhat by nostalgia, and a desire to share one of the favorite places of my childhood with my partner, and somewhat by an adult understanding of the significance of the park as a wildlife refuge. Along the lines of nostalgia, we went the whole nine yards: changing outside in the doorless spider-laden ‘rooms’, with one of us holding up the towel to block the other from view; dashing into the water to avoid the black flies, which weren’t so bad due to the drought, all the while yelling out ‘ooh! ouch! my feet! the stones! watch out for that dead thing!’; and, finally, bobbing from cold current to warm current back to cold current again, with exclamations of ‘did you pee or is that pollution?’ all the while. Following on the reminiscing I shared with a fellow bed and breakfast guest regarding the prevalence of dead fish on the beach during our youth, and how they never phased us and we just picked them up and threw them at each other, I told my partner we could get out when he saw a dead fish float by. Since that didn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon, we instead got out when we noticed that we were the only ones in the water and I conceded that I had, in fact, neglected to check the water safety posting at the Visitors’ Centre, a revelation that sparked cries of ‘my skin is burning, my skin is burning!’ from my faithful companion. Thankfully, a couple of families arrived as we were leaving, saving me from further castigation. Once we were safely back in the car, muddy feet and all, he turned to me and said, ‘This was your childhood beach-going experience? I’m so sorry.’ People from ocean states just don’t understand, although I did assure him that there are in fact sandy beaches with clean water in the Great Lakes system, we just didn’t happen to be near any of them.

Childhood nostalgia thus dispensed with, as well as could be with only being able to make the smaller loop of the marsh boardwalk, we moved onto the adult attractions of the place. Namely, the walk to the Point and the sighting of bazillions of birds. Most of the birds were ones I’d seen before, but I did add a new lifer, Bonaparte’s Gull. In addition to that treat, we saw several birds I’d only seen a few times before, including a Cuckoo and a clearly identified Swamp Sparrow. I missed the sight of a Red-Headed Woodpecker, flying along the golf course as we drove into the park, which would have been a new life bird for me; my bemoaning of this fact led my partner to say over and over ‘I wish I’d never seen that !@#$% bird!’ Mostly what we saw were barn swallows—in the nests, newly fledged, gathering food for each other—herons, and kingbirds. We also saw a pair of yellow warblers that were annoyingly difficult to identify. Their consistent bright yellowness led us to conclude, with some reliance on the frequency chart purchased at the Visitors’ Centre, that they were likely simply Yellow Warblers, but we were never able to catch sight of any definitive markings, despite our best efforts. It all comes of being novices, I suppose.

The Point itself was fun. I didn’t remember being down there as a kid, and it was pretty thrilling to walk along a narrow strip of land until your feet were surrounded on all three sides by lapping waves. The nerdy aspect of standing on the southernmost tip of Canada was not lost on us either. We stayed to enjoy the sunset of the western side of the Point, and then drove back to Windsor.

visiting the southernmost tip of Canada

wild irises at University Hills pond

Wild yellow irises along the pond bank.

On Sunday afternoon, I took my recently repaired and returned to me babycam up to the University Hills pond. This past week irises have popped into bloom all around the banks of the pond, which pleases me greatly. Irises are my favorite flower, and yellow is my favorite color, so I couldn’t have asked for a nicer development.

Besides the appearance of the flowers, things at the pond have been pretty status quo. The goslings haven’t hatched yet, and the two ducklings are nearly doubling in size each time I spot them. I’ve seen a couple of interesting birds—a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visiting the irises and a Red-shouldered Hawk circling above the trees—but no new life ones. I’ve continued to see plenty of turtles on each visit, ranging from the large Eastern Redbelly Turtles sunning themselves out in the water to the small Musk and Mud Turtles, one of which I surprised at the edge of the reeds. And, every now and then I catch sight of a Bullfrog, but I have yet to spot any other frog species. I suspect the bullfrogs have totally colonized the place, and being cannibalistic bullies, they don’t coexist peacefully with many others.

No sign yet of the Snapping Turtle I saw there last summer, but I keep looking!

wild irises at University Hills pond