Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Picnic On The Beach -- Bottlenose Dolphin Strand Feed on Morris Island -- October 14, 2012

Morris Island front beach -- October 20, 2012

              Having grown up in the boating life, I always delight in an opportunity to go out in the boat with my brother Jimmy, particularly if it involves a trip to one of our favorite uninhabited barrier islands, a favorite haunt of my childhood.  Thus, Carl and I eagerly accepted Jimmy’s invitation to join him on a trip to Morris Island one beautiful Sunday afternoon in October.  Within 10 minutes of leaving the family dock on James Island, we entered into the mouth of Lighthouse Creek and were deciding where along the long expanse of beach to land when we spotted some dolphin splashing next to the beach.  Jimmy quickly turned the boat in that direction because we were excited at the prospect of viewing at close range the dolphin strand feeding.

             Daily strand feeding is a behavior particular to the subspecies of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin of the creeks of coastal waters of South Carolina and Georgia.  Bottlenose dolphin in Mexico and Portugal also strand feed, but not daily like our local pods.  What is strand feeding?  Here is how it works:  In a extraordinary, well-coordinated maneuver, a pod of dolphins (one to six) will corral fish into a tight school and  herd them towards the beach or a mudflat.  Then, in a tight line, they will surge forward, creating a bow wave that pushes the fish up on the shore where they also land, always on their right sides!  There, they catch the fish flopping around on the bank before they slide or flip back into the water themselves.  When the mullet are running strong in the creeks in the fall, the dolphin will repeat this behavior multiple times in short intervals. Shore birds, gulls and waders, astutely watch the dolphins’ behavior and position themselves on the shore to also feed on the stranded fish.  One has to marvel at the teamwork and communication involved as these intelligent, clever creatures expertly time their surge!  Watching them is an exciting, happy event for me!  For more information on these and other feeding behaviors of our local dolphin, I recommend this article, "Dinner is Served" from the 2012 March -April edition of SC Wildlife magazine.  The National Geographic video below also shows in detail how the dolphin accomplish this feat.

              I have been wanting an opportunity to improve upon my strand feeding photos taken 2 years ago in nearly the same location on Morris Island.   Unfortunately, I was not close to the event.  No, indeed, I was on the other side of the inlet on Folly Island.  My long lens did capture it but the quality of the photos was compromised by the distance.  Back in my pre-blogging days, my good friend, birding buddy and fellow nature-lover, Judy Fairchild asked to use my photos in a post for her Dewees Island Blog.  I was quite happy to be able to share this adventure.  You can see her write-up and my photos here.  Thank you Judy for a great post!

              I was thrilled to attempt some photos at closer range.  Jimmy rushed the boat to a point which was within good range but not so close as to disturb the pod from their action.  Funny thing, the dolphin were stranding right next to another boat already beached and right in front of the boat’s owners.  Though we did see the pod perform the strandings a few more times, these first shots from the boat are the best of the day!   

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin strand feeding -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

             Though I am pleased with the results of this photographic effort, I have seen better and so I still aspire to do better.

            Once we landed, the dolphin pod appeared to have stopped fishing for awhile so Jimmy took off on his bike and Carl and I started to explore the inlet area before heading to the front  beach.  I lagged behind hoping that the dolphin would come back.  Sure enough, I turned to look back to see a single dolphin “following” me.  So I turned to watch his approach as he paralleled closely the shore.  I hoped to see another dolphin because I did not expect a solo dolphin to attempt strand feeding.  I was wrong though.  I watched this guy surge and corral to create his effective bow wave pushing up the fish.

One Bottlenose Dolphin surging  -- Morris Island, SC  -- October 20, 2012

One Bottlenose Dolphin surging -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

Mullet pushed towards the beach by one Bottlenose Dolphin -- Morris Island -- October 20, 2012

When he stranded solo though, he did not appear to catch any fish.

Bottlenose Dolphin stranding -- Morris Island -- October 20, 2012

              Back into the water, he swirled and thrashed about.  Hopefully, that last thrash netted him a fish.  I was secretly pleased -- feeling as though maybe he performed that stranding for my benefit!  OK, I realize that is unlikely.  Still the romantic in me likes to think that a wild, intelligent creature might respond to our excitement.

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin pulling off from beach after stranding -- Morris Island -- October 20, 2012

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin leaving beach after stranding -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin -- churning the water to catch more fish --  Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

             Finally, I decided that it was time for me to move on to explore more of the beach.  As I scanned the marsh on the other side of a small creek at the beach’s edge, a Seaside Sparrow popped up and posed briefly for a decent shot.

Seaside Sparrow -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012
            Then I decided to catch up to Carl on the front beach.  Here, we could see the Morris Island Light from a different angle from our normal views from Folly.

Morris Island Light -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

Morris Island Light -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

         In the shrubs, just beyond what was left of the eroded dune line, we found our first-of-season Savannah Sparrows en masse!

Savannah Sparrow -- Morris Island, SC --Octber 20, 2012

Savannah Sparrow on Sea Oats -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

             This lovely Palm Warbler also obliged me with a rather nice pose.

Palm Warbler -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012
              While watching the birds bounce around the shrubs, a brightly colored moth caught my eye.  It’s perched appearance, orange with white stripes and black dots contrasted significantly with it’s in-flight appearance -- bright solid pink and white wings.  I am sorry that I was unable to capture the moth in flight.  Perhaps, next time!

Bella Moth -- Morris Island, SC -- October 20, 2012

At home, I researched on line to learn that this beauty is called “Bella Moth" (Utetheisa ornatrix)!  How appropriate!

            Once Jimmy had ridden his bike the length of the island and back, we headed back to the boat.  Once there, we found that the dolphin were once again strand feeding in front of the beach-goers whose boat was in the first photos.  What a delight to watch this again!!!

             After conversing with the others, we learned that they were on the board of the “Save the Light Foundation.”  We also learned from them that they are out there every weekend as they motor over to the lighthouse for continued repair work.  Thus, they were very familiar with the habits of this pod of dolphin whom they observe regularly.
             This piece of news caused some major boat envy in Carl and myself.  One of these days, we will be buying our own boat for regular treks out to the islands and dolphin-watching!  It is on the wish list!!!!  In the meantime, we will continue to enjoy our trips with my brother!  Thank you, Jimmy for a superb afternoon on Morris Island!

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