Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Sands of Time at Cape Romain

You don’t usually get to see geology “happening”.  The Appalachian Mountains were once higher than the Rockies are today, but no one has lived long enough to witness the peaks weathering down to comparative rolling hills, the once great mountains reduced to sand.  You can, however, see that very same sand changing the map daily on the Atlantic coast of North America.

Great Egrets over the Atlantic Surf on Bulls Island, South Carolina

Barrier islands are on the front lines of the war between the sea and land.  They protect estuaries, salt marshes, and calm channels on their back side, but the front face (in this case eastern and southern facing shores) is battered by the ocean.  The shape of the islands is constantly changing with every hurricane, every storm, and even every single wave, even on a calm day.  Sand just doesn’t tend to stay in one place.  In general, sand moves down the east coast of North America from north to south, island to island.  A barrier island like Bulls Island in South Carolina receives sand on its north shore from Cape Island to the north.  Meanwhile, it’s losing sand from its southern portion which is deposited on Dewees Island to the south.  Dewees, in turn, gives sand to Isle of Palms, which shares it with Sullivans Island, and so on.

Notice how each barrier island juts out on its northeast side where it receives sand and tails away on the southwest where it's losing ground.

Every hour of every day these islands are shifting.  When a storm comes along, like the massive Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the islands can be altered dramatically overnight, if not swept into the sea entirely.  But the process will start anew with a donation of sand from a neighbor to the north.

Boneyard Beach, Bulls Island, Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge

The plant and animal communities on barrier islands must consequently be quick to adapt.  Most vegetation can adapt readily, and birds are versatile in nesting a few yards further up the shore year after year.  Trees don’t have the luxury of moving.  When a forest of oak, cedar, and pine suddenly finds itself with its feet in saltwater, it’s all over for the trees.  The result is something like the Boneyard Beach on Bulls Island.  A forest refuge for migrating warblers one day, a perch for cormorants in the surf the next.

Lone double-crested cormorant perched on a tree skeleton.
Brown Pelicans are common on Bulls Island.  They roost is large numbers two islands south in the marshes behind the highly developed Isle of Palms.

Bulls Island is protected as part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.  This is a birder’s, botanist’s, and alligator-watcher’s paradise.  You can catch a boat ride out to Bulls island and spend the day there thanks to the folks at Coastal Expeditions in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.  If you really want to get intimate with a barrier island, hire a Coastal Expeditions guide for a barrier island kayak trip.  I can’t say enough good things about their guides.

The mouth of Jacks Creek, Bulls Island's "river". 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Everglades Eye Candy, Anhinga Trail Flavor

A place called Anhinga Trail sounds like somewhere you’d go to see some birds.  At the very least, you’d expect to be rewarded with lots of Anhingas, right?  Well, I’m happy to report the Anhinga Trail does not disappoint.   Everglades National Park has been on our radar for a while and there was a star over this trail.  Sure, it’s known as the most heavily used trail in the park, but it sounded like it was worth dodging a little human traffic for the opportunity to see some cool birds.
Black Vultures awaiting our buddy Dave's death.  Dave waiting for vultures to move so he can photograph something else.

The diversity is stunning.  If you were building a zoo, you wouldn’t think of stuffing this many birds (not to mention a few dozen alligators) together in one place.  The floaters and the waders highlight the gentle half-mile walk.  All of the expected Florida herons make an appearance, as do the coots, grebes, ducks,  and moorhens.  Anhingas, cormorants, and vultures provide a constant backdrop.  Throw in a wood stork or two and you’re starting to get the idea of how crazy this place is. 
A wood stork lounging in a way that we humans might find painful.

Speaking of crazy, the black vultures here have been known to eat parts off of cars.  A few of them eyed up our rental Prius when we drove into the parking lot, so we wrapped the windshield wipers in scary crinkly plastic bags to protect the rubber.
Black Vulture

Most of the birds visible are black vultures.  A few turkey vultures as well.

As you walk the trail, you are literally arm’s length away from strolling vultures and sunning cormorants.  It’s a paved trail and boardwalk.  Not exactly a wilderness trail, but a blessing for those who can’t handle rough terrain for whatever reason.  The first couple hundred yards are atop a dike with a water-filled “ditch” (for lack of a better word) to one side.  Eventually, you turn out into the main waterway and traverse it on a boardwalk.
Green heron.  Always been one of my favorites.

Snack time for a pied-billed grebe.
The highlight of the trip was this American bittern emerging from the vegetation to look around.

Yes, there are plenty of Anhingas here as well.  Several tree-islands in the main marsh were filled with Anhinga nests.
Anhinga.  Our buddy Dave commented on how, in flame, these birds would be a perfect representation of the Phoenix.  Regardless, we didn't set any on fire.
This tree had three active Anhinga nests in it.
And it wouldn't be the everglades without alligators...
As we wrapped up our two-hour, three-quarter-mile walk the trail was starting to get crowded.  I was happy to be on my way out as so many people were starting to clog up the works.  One thing caught my eye, though.  There was a young girl, maybe 9 or 10 years old, looking through a giant pair of binoculars that she seemed barely able to hold up to her eyes.  “Daddy, is that a little blue heron?” she asked.  Her father scanned the area where she was looking and told her it was a tricolored heron and explained the subtle differences – subtle, at least, to a young kid.  The girl gobbled up the information with a big smile.  I remembered nature walks with my dad 30 years ago.  Love of nature may be innate, but it sure doesn’t hurt to nurture it in our young.  The world might just end up OK after all.
Tricolored heron says, "Thanks for caring."

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Buteo Valentine's Day!

Walking along the Red Cedar River this afternoon, I spied some crows harassing a red-tailed hawk as it flew over.  I silently wished the hawk well, commiserating about how it feels to have people/birds bother you everywhere you go.  A few minutes later, the hawk returned and perched about 20 yards away from me.  I slowly got closer to my new friend until I was as close as I felt comfortable, not wanting to scare it away from its new found peace.  For about an hour I stood mesmerized.  What a beautiful animal.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Making Friends on Lopez Island

I had fair warning before landing on Lopez Island, but it still took me by surprise.  I’m not talking about the view of Mt. Baker, the abundance of marine life, or the fabulous birds.  No, it’s the waving that shocks you.  The island is proud of its reputation as an exceptionally friendly isle.  As you drive around, every passing motorist and every pedestrian waves a greeting at you, even if they have no clue who you are.  This isn’t as annoying as it may seem, since you really don’t see that many cars or people on Lopez.  In fact, after our first day there, we were waving at everyone as well.  (And if the wave wasn’t returned we’d just snort and mutter “tourists” under our breath.)  It’s one of those quirks that make islands so endearing.  Then there’s the birds, seals, surf, and Mt. Baker…
Mt. Baker from the ferry landing on Lopez Island.
 You may expect every location in northwest Washington to be wet and rainy, but that’s far from reality for many locations.  The San Juan Islands are heavily rain-shadowed by the highlands of the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island.  While precipitation exceeding 250cm (100 in.) per year is common on the coast, Lopez Island receives only a fraction of that, about 50-70cm (20-30in.) 
The Salish Sea area.

The principle islands of the San Juan Islands.
In our brief stay on Lopez Island we explored two areas by land (Shark Reef Sanctuary in the south, and Spencer Spit State Park in the north) and kayaked around Iceberg Point at the southern tip of the island.
Lopez Island
 Shark Reef Sanctuary is an extra-special place on an island full of special places.  The ideal spot to watch the sun set, Shark Reef is also one of the best wildlife viewing spots in the park.  We spent an afternoon and evening watching the seals on a rocky islet just off shore.
View from Shark Reef Sanctuary.  The Olympic Mountains can be seen in the distance.
 The seals were joined by an army of gulls and terns that included several Heermann’s Gulls (Larus heermanni).  A female harlequin duck drifted through the kelp beds just below the cliffs we perched upon.  We even got a bit of a jolt when we heard some exceptionally loud wing beats just a few feet above our heads.  A bald eagle had taken off from the low trees just behind us and landed out on the islet.  Sarah managed to see a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers on the walk back through the Salal-bottomed forest.
Sunset at Shark Reef.
Spencer Spit is a sandbar that juts out into Lopez Sound toward Frost Island.  The stroll out to the tip of the spit is delightful.  The marshy lagoon area is closed to the public as much of it is critical bird habitat.  Bring a spotting scope or good binoculars to the spit and you can spend a whole day looking at birds.  One bird we didn’t expect to find out here was the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra).  These are denizens of the mature conifer forests, but here was a pair cavorting among the algae on the sandbar.  Turns out this isn’t all that uncommon for crossbills.  They seem to like salty stuff – even the extent of chewing on road salt in the winter. 
Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri)
  For our water-based adventures on Lopez we chose kayaking, and chose the folks at Cascadia Kayak Tours to guide us.  Colin, the co-owner of Cascadia was our guide as we paddled around the southwestern parts of the island.  The rocky shore takes on a whole new dimension when you’re looking up from water level.
Colin from Cascadia Kayak Tours.  Our guide for the day.
 Colin even managed to get us out far enough that we spotted some Marbled Murrelets (Brachramphus marmoratus) floating on the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.   These endangered birds are alcids, relatives of the puffins and murres, but unlike other alcids they nest in old growth forest rather than colonies on rocky islets.  That’s where the endangered part comes in.  Their nesting habitat is disappearing rapidly. 
Who needs solid ground?  A Great Blue Heron standing on floating kelp.
  Our only regret about visiting the San Juan Islands is that we never got past Lopez!  A return trip to explore the other islands - Orcas in particular - is certainly in order.
Want a great guide to natural areas of the San Juan Islands?  Get a hold of this book:
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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chilly Today

It was a frigid day here in Michigan, but I ventured out to see who might be floating on the open sections of the Red Cedar River. I came across two birds that aren't common here this time of year, the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) and the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).  I can't help but think it's got to be cold being either one of these birds, diving into freezing water for fish and emerging into sub-freezing air.  But that's the human in me anthropomorphizing the birds.  The female merganser was having a jolly time.  I was the one who was freezing to death holding the camera to film her.  Wishing I had a faster metabolism and lots of water-proof feathers...


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Sanctuary in Peril

Extinction is nothing to be bitter about.  It’s been going on since the first life crawled out of the primordial ooze, got outcompeted by the second life that crawled out, and promptly vanished forever.  Death is part of life.  Extinction is part of being a unique species.  The bitterness sets in, for me, when the cause of an extinction (or at least a massive extirpation) is the hands of humanity.  In an unceasing quest to dominate nature, man is destroying it.  Even when the affront to natural balance occurred before the age of ecological enlightenment, I can’t help but harbor a grudge.  Such is my mood these days when looking upon groves of ancient Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis).
We returned a day after our rainy hike to take some photos with a dry camera.

It's a rainy afternoon in May.  The central Appalachian highlands can be a popular tourist destination, but this spot is not often crowded and in the rain it’s deserted.  Sarah and I are in Cathedral State Park, one of the jewels of West Virginia’s treasure trove of protected natural areas.  Here more than 130 acres of virgin forest have been protected from the lumberman’s saw.  That may not sound like much, and sadly it isn’t, but it’s the largest virgin tract left in a state that was once nearly completed covered by forest.  (West Virginia started with around 10 million acres of forest.  Today the total uncut acreage is about 260.  It’s called “progress”, I believe.)  In this sanctuary stand dozens of Eastern Hemlocks, centuries-old, up to seven feet in diameter, over a hundred feet tall.  These are behemoths.  No challenge to California’s Sequoias, but impressive for the Appalachians.
Sarah hugs a hemlock.  This tree is likely at least 200 years old.

We walk a couple miles, stopping frequently to admire a giant hemlock here and there.  The forest is alive, bathed in spring rain.  The massive trunks are nearly black, the nurse logs on the floor the tawny brown of sweet decay.  All else is a cacophony of green.  A fine example of what this entire region must have looked like 300 years ago.  And this last remaining gem is safe forever, right?
Not so fast.  Sometime in the 1920’s some nursery stock was imported from East Asia, and along with it came a bug called the hemlock wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae).   Today this bug (it is a “true bug”, order Hemiptera) is threatening the very existence of eastern hemlock and Carolina hemlock trees.
Hemlock wooly adelgid nymph feeding.  NPS photo.

Hemlock wooly adelgids (HWA) consume the sap from the tender shoots of the trees.  Infested trees typically lose most of their growth shoots, cease to produce new growth, and die within a decade or often much quicker.  In Asia, the hemlocks have evolved in concert with the HWA and show a natural resistance to this predation.  No such luck for the hemlock species of eastern North America.  Thanks to a seemingly harmless importation of ornamental trees decades ago, it seems the giants of Cathedral State Park are doomed.
Dead hemlocks in Great Smokey Mountain National Park.  Photo taken by Will Blozan in July 2007 from the top of a giant hemlock in Caldwell Fork, NC.
Is there no way of stopping HWA?  Not that we know of yet.  There has been some success using a systemic insecticide called Imidacloprid.  This is injected into the soil near the tree or into the vascular tissue of the tree itself, something like a vaccination.  This method is extremely labor-intensive and costly, thus it has so far been used only on trees of “high value and high visibility.”  The best hope now rests with biological controls – always a sketchy proposition.  Recently, a beetle native to British Columbia (Laricobius nigrinus) has been released in the east with the hope that it will establish itself and prey upon HWA.  While HWA exist in the northwest and are present on hemlocks there, there is little mortality.  Some conjecture these beetles are limiting the HWA.  Pseudoscymnus tsugae, a beetle native to Japan has also been released and shows some promise as a HWA predator.
An old growth hemlock forest is more than just standing trees.  This nurse log, protected by the shade of the living giants, is a cradle of diversity.

No one knows what the future holds for Cathedral’s hemlocks.  The best advice would probably be to visit now.  Should we lose the old growth hemlock forests, the vision of those giants standing darkly against a spring cloudburst should be etched in the memory of more than a just a few.
What future for this seedling hemlock?

Hopefully this!