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.


  1. What a treat to view you videos and see the PBGR and STSA in breeding plumage!
    Ann Shahid

  2. To see the Greater and Lesser Yellow legs together is a work of art, not to mention the peach fuzz on the young Bittern's head, and the Spoonbills look like they are line dancing in the photo by themselves. Lovely! Pam F.