Friday, March 23, 2012

November Morning Light on Captain Sams Spit & Bird Banding Too! -- Part 2

         Last week, I posted Part 1 of this series on my November early morning to Captain Sams Spit on Kiawah Island. If you have not yet seen that post, this photo represents a bit of that first wonderful part of my morning.

Shorebird Patrol at Dawn -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

         The pinks of the sunrise soon faded, then brightened to the more familiar daylight tones and I decided to cross the dunes to check on Aaron and his birding crew, to see if they needed my help yet.  They had just finished setting up the nets and took me back to a new location for the bird banding the table, now set up in a sunny location due to the seasonal drop in temperatures.  The new area was located close to the Kiawah River, and thus, another wonderful photographic opportunity presented itself.  Before the sunlight warmed the marshes to equalize the temperatures of the air, water, mud and marsh, a mist was rising. 

Mist over the marshes of the Kiawah River -- November 12, 2011

         After a half an hour, we went out to search the nets and brought back a few birds which were quickly processed.  I knew from this first sortie to the nets that this would be indeed another light bird banding day. Thus I confirmed with Aaron, that with his wife and his two other volunteers,  they could easily man the nets.  He promised to call me if it became hectic.  I then permitted myself to explore a bit more this area, the riverside of the spit.  Again, the effects of the early morning light fascinated me as it lit up different grasses wet with dew.  This area also reminded me of the marshes, the creeks and the fields of my childhood stomping grounds in the neighborhood where I grew up on James Island.  Again, I felt that delightful sense of kinship with the place.

Morning light on dew on grasses -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

Morning light on dew on grasses -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

Dew on grasses -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

Light on morning dew and grasses -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

Dew on grass -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011
             As the sun rose higher, life along the river caught my attention.  A dolphin fished close along the bank, but was always too fast for my shutter finger.  Terns fished over the river, and a then, a line of Brown Pelicans flew by, moving up the river following multiple single Double-Crested Cormorants, which had already passed by.

Brown Pelicans over Kiawah River -- November 12, 2011

 Tree Swallows danced over the river hawking insects and sipping water.

Tree Swallows -- Kiawah River -- November 12, 2011

          I captured a few birds in the brush, such as these sparrows and this House Wren.

House Wren -- Kiawah Island -- November 11, 2011

Savannah Sparrow -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

Song Sparrow -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

 And though I did spend a good portion of the morning exploring the riverside, the marsh and the brush, I did also capture images of a few birds in the hand as well!

Golden-Crowned Kinglet -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet -- November 12, 2011
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet closeup -- Look at those eyelashes!  -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

          What a simply wonderful morning from start to finish!  Indeed, I was not so very helpful with the banding this time.  But, I did enjoy the opportunity to see and photograph this lovely stretch of sand and some of the wildlife that inhabits it and uses it as a stopover, refueling area.   I felt privileged to be there, to watch, listen, photograph and also to learn more about the birds in that beautiful November morning light.  I wholeheartedly thank my birding buddy, Aaron Given, for this occasion!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

November Morning Light on Captain Sams Spit & Bird Banding Too! -- Part One

Kiawah Island -- First Light -- November 12, 2011

            By mid-November, most migrating birds had passed through and thus the activity at Aaron Given's (wildlife biologist for Kiawah Island) bird banding station on Captain Sams Spit on Kiawah had become less intense.  Nonetheless, I volunteered to join Aaron to help him again at the nets on November 12, 2011.  If you missed the previous posts on Aaron's bird banding activity, these links below will take you there.  These posts describe in detail the why and wherefore of bird banding, Aaron's objectives as a wildlife biologist for the Town of Kiawah Island and the how-tos of bird banding:

Birding Up Close and Personal -- Bird Banding 101 -- Part 1
Birding Up Close and Personal -- Bird Banding 101 -- Part 2

          As it turned out, on that morning, Aaron had a couple more volunteers with him, his wife Amy and a colleague of hers from her job.  This translated into a light duty load for me and more time to enjoy the early morning sunrise on the beach and then the early morning light on other parts of the spit.  Certainly, I used this free time to try to capture the serenity and beauty of the fabulous light and scenery.  First, the sunrise became better as the sky lightened from a bright orange and royal blue to more of a peachy, pinky haze which then was reflected in the thin, receding backwash of the advancing waves.  The color of the ocean had brightened from deep purple to a rich lavender, which was then delicately topped in still a lighter hue from the mist rising off of the warmer water into the cold air.

Kiawah Island at First Light -- November 12, 2011

            The light was changing quickly, yet subtly with every moment offering a new and different perspective -- all of it ephemeral.  I heard the familiar sound of dolphin exhaling as they surfaced, passing me beyond the breaking waves.

Bottlenosed Dolphin passing at first light -- Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011
Then I began to notice the birds moving past me in the orange to pink backwash of the wave action as the color of the surf began to change from slate gray to pale gray.

Passing Willet -- Kiawah Island at First Light -- November 12, 2011
 These early morning sentinels gave me side-long, dubious glances.  Surely they were wondering about my unusual presence in their early morning routine of running the beach at sunrise.

Shorebirds at First Light on Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011
Willets and/or Marbled Godwits at First Light on Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

Willets at First light on Kiawah Island -- November 12, 2011

            Such an exquisite moment, this symphony of sensory perceptions -- the cold air on my cheeks, the soft sound of the waves and the exhaling dolphin, the light chips of shorebirds, the taste and smell of the salt air, and the luminous, soft pastels of the sky reflected in the film of water down the beach edging the lavendar-gray of the ocean -- it was exhilarating!  In that moment, I was filled with deep feelings of peacefulness, gratitude, awe and respect for the powerful beauty of nature and also a sense of belonging in my Lowcountry birthpace.  This is home!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Last Weekend: Listing Birds via eBird and Two Birds of a Different Feather

             I confess to listing birds and to being an eBirder.  eBird is an online service offered by  the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for tracking your bird sightings wherever you go in the world.  It was first launched in 2002 and I have been a user since 2005.  It is becoming more and more popular in its use among birders and is becoming an invaluable tool to the science community for tracking bird populations world-wide.  Personally, one of the features that I like to use, is the Top 100.  It lists the top 100 eBird listers in your area for the year in real-time.  A couple of years ago, I ran neck to neck with a naturalist friend of mine for the first 2.5 months of the year for the top spot in Charleston County.  Eventually, I had to give up the race.  This guy works outdoors.  He essentially birds for a living.  And I work indoors....  Now many more expert birders in my area have begun using eBird tracking  and so I am very happy just be able to remain in the Top 10.  Also, trying to maintain a Top 10 status helps me to become a better birder as I learn more about different species, how and where to find them, and the timing of their migrations.  It also keeps me from being lazy.  Sure enough, I may already have a species on my life list.  But if I do not have it on my year list, then out the door I go to find and study another bird.  The Rare Bird Alerts and Species Alert features on eBird also help me to know when, where and by whom new birds have been seen.  It is such reports as these that pulled me out to find two birds of a different feather (in other words, 2 rare birds for the area) last weekend to add to my year list.

               My first quarry is a bird that does winter here in South Carolina in certain limited-access locales such as the Santee National Wildlife Refuge and Murphy Island (part of the Santee Coastal Reserve (a Department of Natural Resources property).  By the time these properties have re-opened to the public in February or March, the Snow Goose, my quarry, has already begun its migration north.   I was able to see the Snow Goose on Murphy Island during a Christmas Bird Count last December when access was granted to the island specifically for the bird count.  But of course, I was interested now in seeing the bird for my 2012 list.  This solo bird had first been reported in February in the community of Meggett, SC by a fellow birder.  It had begun to hang out with some resident Canada Geese in a family's large yard complete with ponds.  The birder had also reported that the goose appeared to be mostly blind in one eye.  This would explain potentially why the goose had not migrated.  Thus I tried to find the goose -- another wild goose chase for me! (reference to a previous post on my chasing the Greater White-Fronted Goose at Charleston Southern University).  And sure enough -- he was NOT there!  He had disappeared from the community of Meggett for awhile.  Yet, 2 or 3 weeks later, he reappeared in the same yard and was reported again.  Last Saturday, because apparently the bird has decided to stay put, I found him.  He was easily viewable from the roadside and I was able to obtain these pictures with the big lens!  I have wondered if this bird will indeed attempt to stay throughout our hot, humid summer.  Can it even survive what must be extreme heat?  I hope that if it stays, that it will fare well. 

Snow Goose -- Meggett, SC -- March 9, 2012
Snow Goose -- Meggett, SC -- March 9, 2012

             Here are a few interesting facts that I have learned about this goose from the All About Birds resource site of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Two morphs exist: the white and the blue morph with the dark color of the blue morph  controlled by a single partially dominant gene. Snow Geese pairs mate for life and nest on arctic and subarctic tundra.  Family groups migrate together to the southern coastal marshes, bays, grasslands and agricultural fields.  The range map  from this site shows more precisely where these birds may be seen in the winter.  These family groups remain together through the winter months and travel together during Spring migration only to separate once they reach the tundra.  Hunting of the Snow Goose was suspended in 1916 due to low population numbers.  However, the species had recovered significantly enough that hunting was once again allowed in 1975.  Today, it appears that their numbers continue to increase rather dramatically in certain areas in spite of hunting.

Snow Goose --Meggett, SC --  March 9, 2012
             My second rare bird quarry for the weekend was the Rufous Hummingbird that has been wintering since early January in Jack and Pat Eckstine's yard in Hanahan, SC.  Having visited the Eckstine's last winter to see their over-wintering Anna's Hummingbird, I located their contact information and asked to come see their Rufous.  Now exactly what do the Eckstine's have to bring these rare hummers 2 years in a row to their yard? -- A fabulous wildlife habitat!  They live close to the Goose Creek reservoir, they maintain feeders, birdbaths, snags and cover.  It is indeed prime birding real estate!  They have even had a pair of bald eagles nesting the last few years within sight of their back deck.  This year's Bald Eagle chicks had already fledged and though they do hang out with their parents in the neighborhood, I missed seeing them on this visit.  Still, a rare species of hummer two years running for the Eckstine's -- I am jealous!  Both birds have been banded by Doreen Cubie, our local hummingbird bander and researcher.  And the Eckstine's have very generously "shared" their hummers with the Charleston birding community.   I heard from Pat yesterday that we may have been the last ones to visit this Rufous as they have not seen it since Sunday or Monday.  Of course, being busy precludes long-term views of short visits to a feeder.  She said that she would let me know if she sees it again.  I am just very glad that I saw this beautiful little fellow before he left!

          So here are a few photos of the young male Rufous Hummingbird taken on Sunday.

Young male Rufous Hummingbird -- Hanahan, SC -- March 10, 1012
Young male Rufous Hummingbird -- Hanahan, SC -- March 10, 2012

He was rather shy and he never hovered near his feeder unlike last year's female Anna's Hummingbird whose photos are below. 

Female Anna's Hummingbird -- Hanahan, SC -- December 22, 2010
Female Anna's Hummingbird -- Hanahan, SC -- December 22, 2010

          The eastern United States is the land of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds primarily.  Yet, in recent years, many of the typical western species of hummingbirds have been found to winter more and more in the eastern United States.  Many Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds also over-winter in our area which is why we keep our feeder up year round.  We usually have one or two Ruby-Throats use our feeder throughout the winter and we even had our own male Rufous Hummingbird visit our feeder for a few hours one Christmas Eve.

          Here are some interesting tidbits of information on the Rufous Hummingbird that I have garnered from the All About Birds site.  The Rufous nests farther to the north, even in southeastern Alaska, than any other hummingbird species!  As measured by body size, it has the longest migration of any other bird species -- 3,900 miles one-way from Alaska to Mexico, it flies 78,470,000 times its 3 inch body length. Also, this hummer is the most common of the western species that winter in the Eastern United States and is known to be extremely territorial at feeders.

          Since I mentioned last year's Anna's Hummingbird, here are some intriguing facts about it.  During the first half of the 20th century, this hummer was known to nest only in Southern California and Baja California.  But with more and more plantings of exotic plants occurring throughout the more northern and central parts of California, so too has the Anna increased its nesting range.  The range map also shows that some Anna's move northward in winter migration.   The Anna's thrilling courtship display involves sharp dives from 130 feet in the air towards the ground with its heads directed towards the light so that it reflects the bright iridescent pink of his head and throat.  The male also make a sharp curious noise with his tail feathers during these dives.  On rare occasions, Anna's have been found dead with an impaled bee or wasp on their beaks, which caused them to starve to death!

            To conclude this post, I am happy to say that last weekend's quest for new birds for the 2012 list resulted in the successful addition of these two birds of a different feather: the 'Meggett' Snow Goose on Saturday and the 'Hanahan' Rufous Hummingbird on Sunday, as well as four other more common birds: Seaside Sparrow, Nelson's Sparrow, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher and Northern Parula.  This brought my total count to 141 birds so far this year and gives me the rank of 7th in the State for eBirders.  Still the top 10!  If you visit the links above for different species on the All About Birds pages, you will find under each range map, the option of clicking on an additional link to a dynamic map of eBird sightings.  You can then change the dates to see where the birds have been sighted at different times of different years or multiple years.  Pretty cool!  eBird is indeed a useful tool for those of us who want to list birds, keep track of our sightings and learn when and where to find different species! 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

September's Forgotten Solitary -- Oops!

          The regular readership of Pluff Mud Perspectives will remember a recent post entitled, September Birding at Patriots Point Nature Trail & Mystery Birds.  In it, I described three non-sequential days of birding during peak migration season along the Patriots Point Nature Trail in Mount Pleasant, SC.   I am not sure what thought processes today led me to realize that I had neglected to include in that post a very nicely photographed bird.  How could I forget this wonderful bird that "walked on water."  It was my best look ever at a Solitary Sandpiper.  And somehow, I had unintentionally omitted him.   This can only mean that he merits his very own post!

          So here is his story.  After watching the large flock of Bobolinks take flight from the reeds and ferns around a retention pond.  I noticed this fellow walking out from under the brush at the side of the pond.  He walked out on top of the very thick duck weed on the pond!  I never knew duck weed could be so thick as to support the weight of a decent sized sandpiper.  He was quite beautiful and perky!  I so enjoyed watching him.  What a cooperative subject!

Solitary Sandpiper -- Patriots Point Nature Trail -- September 11, 2011

              This is a bird that we will only see in the migration season as it breeds in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska and it winters in the tropics (Latin America and parts of South America).  It has earned its name because it generally migrates solo rather than in flocks.  Another interesting tidbit -- this sandpiper nests in trees, in old nests of other species!  I found these interesting bits of information on the subscription site Birds of North America Online -- a service sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The American Ornithologists' Union --  a tool that I have found to be repeatedly useful as I learn about different birds.

Solitary Sandpiper -- Patriots Point Nature Trail -- Mount Pleasant, SC -- September 11, 2011

              I am so glad that I FINALLY remembered to publish his photos!  What a shame it was to leave out the Solitary loner!  The plus side, however, is that I have taken the time now to learn something more about him, and then, in turn to share this information with you.  As it turns out, relatively little is known about this tree-nesting species!  This makes him a rich area of for future research --  perhaps for some future, aspiring ornithologist.

Moskoff, William. 2011. Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cypress Gardens in December

Reflection of Bald Cypress -- Cypress Gardens, Moncks Corner, SC  -- December 26, 2011
              With one week left in the old year, Carl and I decided that we should take advantage of a Teacher's Pass, that was about to expire, which would allow us free admission to Cypress Gardens in Moncks Corner, SC.  Like many of the gardens in the greater Charleston area, Cypress Gardens is located on the site of a former rice plantation, Dean Hall.   It had been a few years since out last visit.  We had heard that they had expanded their trails and we decided that we needed to stretch out legs and check out those new trails. 

Trail Map for Cypress Gardens from SC State Trails Program

            We arrived early in the morning and began exploring first the Northern Nature Trail.  This trail circumnavigates a swampy woodland which included the usual cypress and tupelo gum trees bordered also by several pines.  This habitat is known to be a rookery for vultures.  Though it was not nesting season, the vultures still used this area for roosting.  Needless to say we saw MANY vultures -- both Black and Turkey.

Black and Turkey Vultures -- Northern Nature Trail -- Cypress Gardens, Moncks Corner, SC -- December 26, 2011
Black Vulture -- Northern Nature Trail -- Cypress Gardens, Moncks Corner, SC -- December 26, 2011

            We returned to the Main Trail and we were very pleased with the general "birdiness" of this area -- Carolina Chickadees, American Robins, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, Golden Crowned Kinglets, Pine Warblers, Brown Thrashers, Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Flickers, Downy Woodpeckers, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Wood Ducks (very shy), Song Sparrows, White-Throated Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Gray Catbird, Northern Cardinals, etc.  Carl captured these 2 wonderful images of the 2 morphs of the White-Throated Sparrows: Tan-Striped and White-Striped.

White-Throated Sparrow -- Tan-Striped Morph -- Cypress Gardens -- December 26, 2011 -- Photo by  Carl Miller
White-Throated Sparrow -- White-Striped Morph -- Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller

             I have often found Northern Flickers difficult birds to photograph as they rarely sit still and they love the treetops.  So here is my best effort of the day.

Northern Flicker -- Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011

              After exploring the Main Path, we ventured off down the Perimeter Trail where we saw Brown-Headed Nuthatches, White-Breasted Nuthatches, many American Robins, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, more Wood Ducks, of course and this Pileated Woodpecker. 

Pileated Woodpecker -- Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011

           We backtracked back along the Southern Nature Trail where I found this fabulous fungus growing on a stump.  Not sure how to identify it, I asked a couple of naturalist-friends for some help.  Keith McCullough of Charleston County Parks fame, responded that it was indeed a shelf fungus, likely in the phylum Basidiomycota.  He said....

"Many shelf fungi are associated with wood decay and have a unique system of pores rather than gills.  What you are seeing are basically reproductive bodies as other parts of the fungus are inside the wood, helping it rot away.  They also lack a stem.  Some do have gills, and a ventral image may be necessary for a specific ID. "

A Fungus -- Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011

Since these were growing from a short, rotting stump, the ID made sense.  Keith is hoping to learn more after sharing the photo with a mycologist friend.  So there may be a follow-up comment in the future.          

          After the completing the Southern Nature Trail, Carl and I rejoined the Main Path again.  Along both trails we encountered some very old camellia plants blooming quite nicely.

Camellia -- Cypress Gardens -- December 26, 2011
Camellia with bee -- Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011

       After exploring the gardens and the woodland trails, Carl and I were drawn into the courtyard by the sounds of exotic birds.  Cypress Gardens has an area where they keep exotic birds that, to my understanding, have been given up by owners who could no longer care for them.  We visited these curious, friendly birds a bit prior to entering the Butterfly House.   The Butterfly House is a large green house full of exotic plants and with several species of butterflies flitting about.   Carl and I were both captivated by what we learned of the life cycles of the butterflies as we could see different stages of development unfolding before our eyes!  Carl took the following photos of the life stages of the different butterflies. The caterpillar below has hung himself in a J shape -- just before he forms his chrysalis.

Caterpillar in J shape just prior to forming chrysalis -- Cypress Garden Butterfly House -- December 26, 2011 -- photo by Carl Miller
The next photo shows a chrysalis.  You can see a wing formed through the shell!

Chrysallis -- Butterfly House -- Cypress Gardens, SC  -- Photo by Carl Miller
In this final photo (greatly enlarged), you can see eggs which we saw deposited by a Dryas Julia Butterfly.  The actual size of the egg was about the size of a 12 point font period.  Yet, Carl's enlargement shows its corn cob knobby appearance not visible to the naked eye!

Butterfly eggs greatly enlarged in photo -- Butterfly House, Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller

             While Carl focused his camera on the butterfly life cycle, I took aim at the small exotic bird species.  Unfortunately, the names of these birds escape me.  The volunteer could tell me the names but she could not tell me which one was which.  Perhaps, one of this blog's readers will come to my rescue and post a comment to let us all know.  Here are the cuties!

Little exotic bird in the Butterfly House -- Cypress Gardens -- December 26, 2011
An exotic quail in the Butterfly House -- Cypress Gardens -- December 26, 2011
Little exotic beauty in the Butterfly House -- Cypress Gardens -- December 26, 2011
These little beauties were feeling quite amorous and we saw several of them mating and elsewhere in the flower beds we found some eggs.

         Though the exotics were incredibly cute, they were not the show-stoppers in the Butterfly House.  They did not quite have the personalities of this next pair of captive birds whose home is the Butterfly House.  That distinction goes to Cypress and Tupelo, a pair of captive Wood Ducks!  They did not come as a pair to the Butterfly House.    I did not hear the whole story but I understand that they came separately and are a replacement for "Woody," a captive wood duck that had preceded them.  Both ducks are unable to fend for themselves in the wild so they are here, the very pampered residents, who are very much acclimated to interacting with humans.  Both enjoyed chattering with us humans and pretty much annoyed each other as they vied for attention.  Though the macho (male) Cypress was indeed a looker, I confess to preferring (the female) Tupelo's sass and free spirit.  Here's Cypress!

Cypress -- Butterfly House at Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011
Cypress being fed some crickets by a volunteer -- Butterfly House at Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011
Cypress -- Butterfly House at Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011
Cypress -- Butterfly House at Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011

And not to be outshined, here's Tupelo!

Tupelo -- Butterfly House at Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011
Tupelo -- Butterfly House at Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011
Tupelo loved playing in the pool with the koi and turtles -- Butterfly House at Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011

            And here they are together!

Tupelo and Cypress -- Butterfly House at Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 2011

To end the Butterfly House set, here's a turtle close-up.

Red-Eared Slider at the Butterfly House in Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011

            Carl and I ended up staying at Cypress Gardens much longer than planned.  Who knew we would be mesmerized by the life cycles of butterflies and the antics of a pair of clownish Wood Ducks?  We prefer to see wild animals in the wild and not as captives.  Yet, we can learn much about animal life and their potential for personality in this setting that would not be visible to us otherwise.  This setting for these ducks in the Butterfly House assured us that this captive pair received much stimulation and interaction, if not downright pampering.  A Butterfly House such as this one serves as a great educational resource for young and old alike.

            We are looking forward to another visit soon to Cypress Gardens.  With Spring coming, it is perhaps soon time to venture out there to see reflections of azaleas in the dark waters of the Cypress Swamp and to hear the Prothonotary and Parula Warblers sing!  In the meantime, we cherish our winter images of the natural beauty of this dynamic wildlife habitat and garden.

Winter Swamp reflections -- Cypress Gardens, SC -- December 26, 2011 -- Photo by Carl Miller