Monday, August 26, 2013

Late July at Bear Island WMA: Part 2: The Target Bird!

Snowy and Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Glossy Ibis, Black Skimmers and others -- Pecan Trees Road impoundments -- Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) -- July 24, 2013

          Our hot July days this year here in coastal SC simply were not all so hot, humid or buggy.  As such, when I heard from fellow birders that large flocks of shorebirds and wading birds had arrived en masse to the lowered impoundments at the Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA), I did not hesitate to go see them for myself.  In addition to the large flocks, I was quite interested in adding a year bird to my list -- the Black Tern -- and hopefully, to also see the Wilson's Phalarope -- which would be a new life bird for me!  In Part 1 of this two-part post series, I recounted the very special day of my solo excursion with remarkable and wonderful close wildlife encounters.  If you have not yet read it, I recommend that you check it out.  I included videos of those close encounters!  Those moments when you become an accepted part of the animal's immediate environment are precious indeed.  On that first visit, the Wilson's Phalarope had eluded me.  Thus, I pledged that if  others continued to report it, I would return.  And indeed, that evening, when I checked the eBird reports, someone had seen this bird after I had left.  This second post will now recount the quest for this target bird, the Wilson's Phalarope!

        In the previous post, you learned that I visited Bear Island on a Wednesday and spent most of the day there.  Then, Wednesday evening, I learned that that others who visited late in the afternoon got the bird.  So I gathered more information about this bird's behavior and specific impoundment as well as additional photos from birding buddy, Keith McCullough.  Everyone had said that this bird seemed to move erratically.  But specifically, I learned that this species spins and runs in circles on the ground and in water while it forages.  This bird covers a lot of ground -- never staying in one area long.  Thus, Carl and I were well-prepared with much information when we set out for Bear Island WMA that Friday after work. 

        The weather was delightful -- yet another unusually comfortable July evening!  The skies were mostly sunny with a cool breeze and the position of the sun allowed for well-lit identification of shorebirds -- even without a scope.  I was stunned though in the changes wrought in two days time.  One impoundment that had been nearly completely dry was covered with water and the other two impoundments had a good bit more water as well.   The number of terns, shorebirds and wading birds had diminished significantly in all three impoundments.  The grass on which the bunny had fed had been mowed and the dike with the thigh high grass had been mowed.  I was a little disappointed for Carl that he was not going to see the great numbers of birds that I had witnessed 2 days earlier.  Still, with the much improved light, we were presented with very good photographic opportunities.  Carl was quite thrilled with what he was seeing. 

Young Common Gallinule -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013

Roseate Spoonbill -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013
Black Tern -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013

Black Skimmer -- July 26, 2013

A very early American Coot -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013

Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013

Black-necked Stilt -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013

Greater Yellowlegs -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013

           This time, I focused on scanning the mudflats for our target bird, the Wilson's Phalarope.  I had read that he was often hidden from view behind clumps of marsh grasses.  We knew from the outset that this would be a sort of "cat and mouse" search.  Carl and I split up to increase our chances.  As he often does, Carl went through the tall marshes to sit down at the water's edge.  Due to the number of gators known to this area, this is not something I myself will readily do.  Thus, I was moving down one dike, while Carl was scanning the numerous shorebirds from his position low in the marsh on the other dike.  Thankfully, we had visual contact with each other and cell phone service!  We both spotted the little whirling devil -- our Wilson's Phalarope -- at about the same time!  I was too far away though to be sure initially that this was the bird.  What stood out to me from my perspective were his behavior, his light coloration and upright position and long thin neck.  Carl was closer though and a little more certain that he was on the bird.  He called me and we agreed that we were looking at the same bird.  I headed over to where Carl was -- keeping my eyes on the bird as long as I could.  I had to traverse the tall, thick marsh grasses and join Carl at the edge of the water.  By this time, I figured that Carl had already frightened off the gators that might have lurked there.  I was just following in his footsteps -- not trying to find a new opening in the grass.  Ah yes, the view of our new life bird -- this whirling, dashing dervish -- the Wilson's Phalarope was sweet indeed!  Though I was now close enough to get some rather decent ID photos....

Wilson's Phalarope -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013
 Carl was closer still and he takes top prize for best photos of the Wilson's.  See below!

Wilson's Phalarope with Least Sandpiper -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013

Wilson's Phalarope with Least Sandpiper -- Bear Island WMA -- July 26, 2013

        Success!  We did it!  We found our gorgeous, stand-out target bird together!  OK, some may not think him to be so beautiful -- but to me, he was quite the lovely character.  Carl and I enjoyed watching him as he darted about the impoundment. 

       Thus concludes this two part series on Late July Birding at Bear Island Wildlife Management Area.  Special wildlife moments can be had there for the soloist adventurer or for the whole group -- even in July!  First, the patient, quiet, solo observer can experience momentous connections with nature via close wildlife encounters  -- such as mine from that Wednesday with the large flocks, the Marsh Rabbit and the Least Bittern (see Post One).  Then, Bear Island WMA is also a place where life birds can be sought and then found, and shared and celebrated with a fellow birder.  For me, it was particularly sweet to share and celebrate my hard-sought life bird with Carl!            

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Late July at Bear Island WMA: Part 1 -- Solo Excursion & Close Encounters

Snowy and Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Glossy Ibis, Black Skimmers and others -- Pecan Trees Road impoundments -- Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) -- July 24, 2013

         Many consider our hot, humid and buggy July to be a tough month for birding.  Our resident birds are more difficult to spot since they have stopped singing and are focused on the task of raising their fledgling chicks.  Also, migration has not yet really begun.  In late July, though, several reports from die-hard fellow birders began to trickle in via such web resources as the Carolina Bird Listserv and eBird alerts.  These birders were seeing early arriving shorebirds in great numbers in the drained impoundments on Pecan Trees Road at Bear Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA).  They were seeing birds that I wanted for my year list such as Black Tern and Pectoral Sandpiper so I was beginning to consider a trip south.  Then, on Monday, July 22, came my friend Keith McCollough's report of a Wilson's Phalarope!  That sealed the deal -- even without a scope -- I needed to find that bird.  It would be a life bird for me!

          I set out solo early Wednesday morning, July 24, and was the first of only a very few visitors to arrive in the area of the Pecan Trees Road impoundments.  My decision to go was made at the last moment.  Thus, the people that I invited along could not accompany me on such short notice.  I was not unhappy to go alone.  In fact, though I truly enjoy birding with others, there are times I prefer to go alone.  Some truly remarkable, wildlife moments will only occur if you are alone as you will see from this account of this visit.

         The Pecan Tree Roads drained ponds were very birdy indeed with the following Sandpipers: Least, Western, Semi-palmated and Stilt Sandpipers, Black-necked Stilts, Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs.  These shorebirds were everywhere and were in constant motion.  At the left-hand impoundment before the gate, as I was concentrating on identifying individual shorebirds in rather poor light (backlit on a bright overcast morning),  a huge flock of Glossy Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, American White Pelicans, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Tri-colored Herons suddenly rose up out of an impoundment one road over.  They quickly settled down again -- with most of them moving a little further away and others coming closer towards the Pecan Tree impoundments where I was.  The number of birds was stupefying!  For my eBird report, I intentionally estimated the numbers low as I knew I was going to have to defend them: 75 American White Pelicans; 150 Glossy Ibis; 30 Roseate Spoonbills; 80 Wood Storks, 100 Great Egrets; 60 Snowy Egrets.  Unfortunately, I was unprepared for this precipitous lift-off  and did not get a good photo of this large flock before most had dispersed across a wider area.  I did capture this shot as some of the Glossy Ibis circled back.

Glossy Ibis -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

 Later in the day, I had another opportunity to shoot a smaller group of Glossy Ibis.

Glossy Ibis -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

          I next moved towards the other 2 impoundments beyond the gate.  The impoundment on the left side of the road hosted a a large group of Snowy and Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Glossy Ibis, Tri-colored Herons and a few Wood Storks.  My slow quiet approach allowed for an opportunity to observe and photograph these birds.

Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Tri-colored Heron and gators -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

It was a DNR (Department of Natural Resources) tractor passing by that caused them to flush and thus provided the following photographic moments.  This time I was ready!

Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Tri-colored Heron and gators -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Roseate Spoonbills, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Tri-colored Heron and gators -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Now that was a treat!

           A few Tern species -- Forsters, Least, Black and Gull-billed as well as some Black Skimmers -- were hanging out in the impoundments or fishing over them.  I was delighted to see the Black Terns in their darker breeding plumage and also quite happy to add them to my year list.  Many had begun to molt into their Basic Plumage making for a mottled group of birds. 

Black Terns and Black Skimmers -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Black Tern -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Forster Terns, Laughing Gulls and Gull-Billed Terns -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013
 I had to look up the light brown colored Tern in the middle.  He had the shape and size of a Gull-Billed Tern.  I suspected that he was a juvenile Gull-Billed Tern and indeed he was! 

      A photographer arrived and planted himself in a position where he hoped to capture some more of the wading bird action.  He, like me was a bit frustrated with the light.  The most interesting birds were still backlit and the sky was still overcast and hazy.  Like him, I tried a few shots here also and occasionally, the sun broke through the overcast sky.

Tri-colored Heron -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013
Greater Yellowlegs (left) and Lesser Yellowlegs (right) -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Greater Yellowlegs -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

       All this time, I was still scanning the highly reflective mud for a new-to-me shorebird -- the Wilson's Phalarope.  I decided to head down the road between the two impoundments hoping to find an opening in the tall marsh grass that bordered them for a closer view of the peeps.  Suddenly, a bunny -- aka Carolina Marsh Rabbit -- popped out of the marsh for a nibble on the grass bordering the road!

Carolina Marsh Rabbit -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

I wondered how close he would allow me to come before darting back into the tall marsh.  Apparently, he was hungry enough and my slow, soft-spoken approach (yes, I spoke to him) was unobtrusive enough that I was able to sit 8 feet away and photograph and video-record him for several minutes!

Carolina Marsh Rabbit -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Quite the funny bunny!  Such a special close moment of connecting with wildlife!  I thought that surely when I stood up, he would turn tail and run.  No, he continued to nibble.  I finally walked away. 
       As the sun started to break through the clouds more, the day was beginning to heat up a bit.  I was having difficulty identifying shorebirds still.  I still hoped to find those target species -- special species of Sandpipers which could be life birds for me as well as that Wildon's Phalarope.  Thus, before it became too hot to bird much longer, I decided to walk between the 2 left hand impoundments and circle back towards the main road and then loop back to Pecan Tree Road to my car.   I hoped this route would lead me to the area where the huge morning flock of wading birds had lifted off shortly after my arrival.  Many of the birds in that flock had resettled in the same area and thus I wanted to find more Roseate Spoonbills as well as the American White Pelicans.

      The fellow photographer had given up and left and a family fishing had also come and gone.  I ran into them later and they told me that they had left because of the gators.  That made sense.  So I was alone again -- enjoying having this part of the WMA to myself!  Passing between the two impoundments that I had already observed and photographed, I captured a few more shots.

Tri-Colored Heron -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Snowy Egrets and American White Pelican -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

I love seeing how these American White Pelicans just dwarf the other species!

Roseate Spoonbills and Tri-colored Heron -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Roseate Spoonbills -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Yellowlegs -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Rounding the turn, I began wading through thigh-high grass and I wondered about the advisability of traipsing through such thick grass where I could not see where I was stepping.  But the sight (such as the one below) and sounds of new perspectives on the birds I was seeking pulled me on.

Roseate Spoonbills and Snowy Egrets -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

On the left, the marsh grass did not obscure the view so much.  There I continued to study the peeps hoping to find a specialty.  Still, I found the same ones -- the Least, the Semi-palmated and the Western along with a family group of Black-necked Stilts.   Finally, having moved beyond the canal and marshes on the right, I arrived at an impoundment mostly obscured from view again by the very tall marsh grasses lining the road.  There, peering through small openings, I found the mother load of white birds -- perhaps it was the white bird convention -- American White Pelicans; Wood Storks, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets.  My photos do not do it justice as the scope of my view was so limited by the marsh grass.  As such, I could only capture a few of the birds in one view.

White bird convention -- American White Pelicans, Wood Storks, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets along with a few Tri-colored Herons and a Roseate Spoonbill -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

American White Pelicans -- Wood Storks -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

American White Pelicans with Snowy Egrets and a Glossy Ibis -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

I also saw a multitude of sandpipers and a 32 Mottled Duck.

A few of the 32 Mottled Duck seen -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

         That was the last truly birdy stretch until I had completed the loop back to my car on Pecan Trees Road.  I did see though a couple of the nearly always evasive Least Bitterns quietly slip into the reeds.  I also saw a cute family group of baby gators!  I imagine Mom was close by but I did not see her.  I was well out of the tall, thick grasses by this time thankfully. 

Baby American Alligators -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

         The light had improved and I began to study the peeps again in the first impoundment outside of the gate -- still hoping to identify a more unusual sandpiper.  The improved light allowed me to capture a halfway decent photo of these Stilt Sandpipers in breeding plumage.  This is the first time I had seen this plumage on these birds.  It is markedly different making it much easier to distinguish the Stilt Sandpipers from others and thus I prefer it over the plain gray look of their non-breeding plumage.

Stilt Sandpipers -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

        As I was studying these birds in the impoundment, I heard a rustle low in the marsh grass separating the road from the impoundment.  Wondering if it was another Marsh Rabbit or a Common Gallinule, I watched.  The rustle became a bird form -- climbing up the marsh stalk -- a juvenile Least Bittern -- not 15 feet from me!

Juvenile Least Bittern -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

I held my breath, sure that he would save himself as soon as he realized I was there.  But no, he continued to climb up his stalk!  He really did not seem to notice me or, if he did see me, he did not care that I was there.  He behaved as though he was looking for someone.  For more than 5 minutes, I was able to observe, photograph and film him until he finally flew off!

Least Bittern -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013
Juvenile Least Bittern -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

I noticed as I put together the video below, that as he climbed higher up the stalk, some ants had found him and began climbing all over his legs.  Ouch!  You can see the ants if you play the video full screen.

           Such fabulous wildlife encounters like this one and like the one with the Marsh Rabbit earlier that morning connect me ever more deeply with the natural world.  If I can enter into their territory solo and unobtrusively -- respectful of those invisible boundaries -- then I can be an accepted part of their environment at that moment.  These are cherished moments indeed!

            The heat of the day had arrived along with some sunshine.  It was 1 pm and time for me to go.  I continued to bird on my way out of Bear Island.  A Loggerhead Shrike posed quite nicely for me as I drove out.

Loggerhead Shrike -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013
I also took delight in seeing this handsome Pied-bill Grebe in the canal alongside Ti Ti Road.  Like the Stilt Sandpipers, this was the first time I had seen this species in full breeding plumage.

Pied-bill Grebe -- Bear Island WMA -- July 24, 2013

Though I had found no special Sandpipers and the Wilson's Phalarope, in particular, had eluded me, I was quite happy with my excursion.  I did resolve to return again if people continued to report the Wilson's Phalarope.  I had not given up on that bird!  The treasure hunt would continue.  This particular day though had brought its own treasures.  From the huge, awesome lift-off of the wading birds first thing in the morning, to the multitude of sandpipers, to the impoundment jam-packed with white birds, to the encounters with the Marsh Bunny and the Least Bittern, I had spent a magnificent day connecting with nature -- happy to live in a place where wildlife encounters such as these still occur.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Francis Beidler Forest Offers New Early Morning Bird Walk!

Francis Beidler Forest -- August 3, 2013 

              Those of us South Carolina birders who know and love the Francis Beidler Forest, an Audubon sanctuary located in the Four Holes Swamp area of our coastal plain, have often wondered what it would be like to visit the very birdy swamp in the wee first daylight hours!  Well, we need not wonder anymore.  The Francis Beidler Forest now offers once-a-month early morning (7 am) guided walks around the boardwalk on the first Saturday of every month!  This walk begins 2 hours earlier than their normal operating hours and is led by the new Education Manager for Beidler, the talented and enthusiastic Matt Johnson!

Matt Johnson -- Education Manager for Francis Beidler Forest Audubon Sanctuary -- August 3, 2013

             If Matt's face and name seem familiar to you, then you are likely a fan, like me, of the PBS  Emmy-winning television series, Expeditions with Patrick McMillan.  As a graduate student at Clemson University, Matt worked with Patrick on the show as an occasional guest host and as a producer.  You can learn a bit more about Matt's background in this SC Audubon blog post.  Or, better yet, sign up for one of these walks!  The next one takes place on Saturday, September 7 at 7 am.  How do you sign up?  Just call the office at Francis Beidler Forest: 843-462-2160.  

          Being eager to see and hear the swamp in the early morning hours, Carl and I, along with Pat Campbell, master woodcarver from Isle of Palms, attended the inaugural early bird walk last Saturday, August 3.  Even though August is a hot and quiet month for woodland birding, we found the experience to be delightful, just like our host!  Matt has an excellent ear for the various bird songs and calls and a good eye for picking out critters navigating through the swamp.  Our first such critter was a rare Spotted Turtle.  I am sorry to say that I missed on that photo as it was rather dark and the camera was not ready.  I did, however, capture a shot of this juvenile Mississippi Kite who likes to hang out on a snag close to the center.

Juvenile Mississippi Kite -- Francis Beidler Forest -- August 3, 2013

          One of the potential obstacles that you may encounter as the first person on the boardwalk are the spider webs traversing the walk.  Carl saved me from running head on into this gal as I was looking to my right rather than straight ahead.

Neoscona Orb Weaver -- Francis Beidler Forest -- August 3, 2013 

           Since we are well past the breeding season, we did not see a large number of bird species but we certainly heard them in the canopy.  Again, with August being a fairly quiet month for woodland birds, we got this list of the typical August birds.   I imagine though that as migration picks up, the early morning stroll around the boardwalk will garner more diverse species.  Thus far in my early August walks on the sea islands, I have already seen a Yellow Warbler, a Black and White Warbler and a pair of Redstarts!  Just imagine the possibilities for the swamp in September!

          Other photos from our boardwalk stroll include this cooperative Yellow-Crowned Night Heron.

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron -- Francis Beidler Forest -- August 3, 2013

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron -- Francis Beidler Forest -- August 3, 2013

This Barred Owl also obliged me with a nice profile shot.  Look at that beak!

Barred Owl -- Francis Beidler Forest -- August 3, 2013

           Carl and I thoroughly enjoyed our walk around the boardwalk with Pat and Matt.  Matt is an affable birding guide with a great deal of talent and a strong desire to help others learn about birds and about Francis Beidler Forest.  The team at Francis Beidler chose well indeed when they selected him for the position of Education Manager.  Matt is eager to meet more Lowcountry birders.  Like many of us, he already knows many names just via the eBird lists.  Thus, again, I recommend that you take advantage of this new opportunity to visit Beidler in the early morning hours.  Both the birding and the guide will delight you!  Call the office and reserve your spot for the first Saturday of the month -- 843-462-2160.  

Note:  Yes, the new boardwalk is now under construction but the old boardwalk will remain accessible for most (For the mobility-impaired, please call the center for more details).  You may have to hike across the forest floor in the initial stages to reach it but the Center plans to make that as easy as possible.  See this SC Audubon blog post for more information, or again, call the center, if you have additional questions.