Outer Banks 2018: Unbirds

My impulse was to wait until I’d identified all my photos from this trip – or as many as I’m going to – before writing this post. Now that I’ve realized just how silly that is… well, here we are! Our fantastic vacation to the Outer Banks is still with me. I’ve already written about the bird life I encountered, but what else did I see in sandy paradise?

Strikingly, the plant life of the Outer Banks is completely different from the what I’m used to. Whether it’s the sea oats, the beach grasses and sedges, or the wildflowers and vines, I’m always noticing plants I don’t see very often. This year I tried to snap a photo or two of as many plants as I could, since I’m not too well-versed in what grows on the islands. I do know a few on sight – common yucca, Indian blanket, and trumpet vine, for example – but others I know only by feature or not at all. Here are a few snaps of what I saw on this trip (click image to expand).

That’s a tiny sample of the native flora and fauna one wouldn’t see in in-shore environments. As barrier islands, and with the influence of the Gulf Stream, the Outer Banks are ecologically different from many other beaches on the East Coast. I’ll spare the details but there exists a plethora of further reading that can do the job better than I can.

I couldn’t possibly have gone to Hatteras Island without at least one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. My dad and I set out on Wednesday morning for an all-day trip. The fishing itself is always fun, and the success rate of this particular boat is frankly incredible, but the trip alone is worth the price of a seat. It’s a lovely ride out into the Gulf Stream which offers a great opportunity to see things like pelagic birds and flying fish. In many trips spanning more than two decades I’ve spotted dolphins, squid, a sea turtle or two, and more. I relish the feeling of expansive freedom which comes over me that far from land.

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And sometimes: rainbows!

Learning about the fish that are reeled up can be quite interesting, too. This year almost all the fish caught on the boat were grey triggerfish – a funky-looking but delicious bottom feeder. I did see one guy land a red snapper, and another hauled up a remora. The remora is not a desired game fish, but it was the first I’d ever seen. On previous trips, red snapper and black sea bass were pretty common, and the catch has often been peppered with all manner of interesting species, both edible and otherwise. This year our personal catch was a tad light, but it was still enough to feed four with a bit left over.

We spent our last couple of nights on Ocracoke Island. I can’t recommend this place highly enough to anyone seeking a real “get away from it all” vacation. The island is quite small, and accessible only by ferry. (It’s free! You can take your vehicle!) There are miles of out-of-the-way beaches, plus a tiny village with good food and shops, an operational lighthouse, and more. Lodging options include a primitive campground with beach access and several motels, hotels, etc. It’s a popular destination that seems to never feel over-crowded.

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Some least terns on one of those empty Ocracoke beaches

Near the campground is a lovely and very accessible nature trail, the Hammock Hills Nature Trail. I hiked it alone one afternoon at a leisurely place, and had the whole trail to myself. This was quite an experience. Birdsong filled the air. Butterflies and dragonflies galore flitted about among the less pleasant insects (yes, bug spray is a must). Toads hopped aside at seemingly every third step. About halfway through, I nearly trod upon an eastern hognose snake. Even as someone pretty experienced with nature, this was a somewhat startling experience. The snake displayed quite emphatically – it flattened its head to resemble a venomous snake, hissed loudly, and threw in some mock strikes for good measure. All of this is why I’m confident in the species ID. Unfortunately it took a few moments to recover from my initial caution and subsequent marveling until after the snake had progressed to hiding, so my photos are post-display. Oddly, I seem to collect sightings of one species of snake on each visit to the Outer Banks. I’ve photographed a cottonmouth and copperhead on my previous two visits, and I remember a blacksnake and a northern water snake from separate childhood vacations.

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This trip also allowed me to personally confirm an odd little fact I wasn’t quite sure I believed. You see, I’d read somewhere that eyes as small as a spider’s can reflect a flashlight beam at night. I don’t recall the source, but kudos to whoever you are because they unequivocally can. I first noticed it while walking one of the dogs. I saw a tiny green fleck on the pavement of the campground loop road. Assuming it was a tiny shard of glass from the sand, I took a closer look anyway and found this handsome lady carrying her babies:

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Later I sat reading at the campsite and noticed several of these tiny green specks at the edge of a patch of vegetation. I followed them several times, and each time I found a spider at the exact point. The very first one leapt from its cover and snagged a June bug just after I got close. For what it’s worth, June bugs’ eyes reflect reddish-orange pinpoints of light.

I don’t have any pithy observations to tie the whole thing together, so I will just say that Outer Banks wildlife is cool and leave you with a few more photos.

12 Months of Nature: February

Winter Beaches

Say the word “beach” and you conjure images of summer: swimming, surfing, beach volleyball, sunbathing – all enjoyed despite how uncomfortably hot it is. We’ve built a sort of cultural mysticism around beaches as a land of eternal summer. Of course this isn’t how reality works, but here’s the thing we seem to forget: In the winter, beaches don’t stop being beaches any more than mountains cease being mountains or forests cease having trees.

021-2I pitched this to Laurel as the best February option from Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year, and was met with skepticism. She gave me a certain look, grunted, and said something to the effect of “but beaches are so BORING in the winter.” She’s from Cape Cod, so this is perhaps an understandable line of thinking, but I was flummoxed. All I could think was, “What?! Not for a naturalist! All the same stuff is there but there aren’t as many people screwing with it!” Meanwhile I’m sure she was thinking, “what the heck is wrong with him? You can’t SWIM in the OCEAN in FEBRUARY.” Both of us were right. I had assumed defeat until a warm spell and a warmer forecast prompted Laurel to say on a Thursday evening “maybe we should do your beach thing this weekend.” YES!

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A horseshoe crab with slipper-shell jockeys and a “regular” crab companion.

We chose as our destination Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park, with a short side trip to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Both were new to us and each rewarded us immensely for the choice. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive for those of us in the Maryland suburbs of DC, so doable as a day trip. Dogs aren’t allowed on the beaches during the spring and summer months for ecological concerns, but they are from November to April (just one more reason to go in the winter). We arrived and after getting our bearings at the nature center we immediately hit the trails. The Seaside Nature Trail was nice but a little tough to follow, offering the opportunity for a quick side trip to the fishing pier. The Walking Dunes Trail/Saltmarsh Spur was excellent and just the right length to occupy a relaxing afternoon.

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The dogs were SO ready for this.

The 70-degree weather was certainly pleasant, but it did throw a slight monkey wrench into my winter beach plans in the form of lots of other people. Not that I’m an unrepentant misanthrope, but generally speaking the more people present the less happy the naturalists among them. I promise I didn’t begrudge anyone else their good time. Anyway, all that to say that the beaches were pretty well picked over in terms of interesting shells. That certainly didn’t stop us from finding some nature here and there. Horseshoe crabs littered the beach alongside razor clams and softshell crabs. The birding was quite good as well, as I will get to momentarily.

Along with mid-Atlantic beaches come their ecological companion, salt marshes. These, too, can be fun to explore in winter. Waterfowl who spend their springs and summers on the tundra or otherwise north of this area can often be found here, as can a number of raptors. There is always a certain serenity to the salt marsh which can be especially pleasing in winter. Cape Henlopen has acres of this habitat to explore.

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On top of all of this, we discovered the entramce to the Dharma Initiative…

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They were studying us the WHOLE TIME!

Anyway, back to nature. As I mentioned, the birding was superb. From the fishing pier I was able to pick out a horned grebe, a red-throated loon, and some buffleheads amid the gulls. In the salt marsh we spotted a couple of hawks we couldn’t quite identify in addition to a dozen or so turkey vultures, and I got to observe a flock of about 30 green-winged teals as well. At Prime Hook the bird of the day was the northern pintail, with some American black ducks and great blue herons thrown in for good measure. The pintails in particular were gorgeous birds, and a new one for me. The real treat, however, was the enormous flock of snow geese congregating by the entrance to the refuge and spotted on our way out. The flock was easily a thousand strong, and was the second one we saw on the day (the first we passed on the way out and only glimpsed briefly from the highway).

Nerd alert! It is common practice for experienced birders to scan a flock of snow geese looking for that odd-man-out, a Ross’s goose. They’re very similar to snow geese but much less common in the mid-Atlantic (though I believe there have been a few spotted in Maryland this year). Descriptions of how to distinguish the two say things like “smaller, with a more rounded head” and to look for some blue on the beak. So, were there any Ross’s geese in this flock? I have no earthly idea.

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles