Archive for the ‘Birding’ Category

Bald Head Island, NC, revisited

September 27, 2012

We returned to lovely and car-free Bald Head Island, NC, last weekend, partly to check out the new Barrier Island Study Center and also for my final stop (at the Bald Head Island Club) as a judge in the NC Best Dish contest (more on that in another post).

Afterglow of sunset over Southport, NC

The 20-minute ferry ride from Southport started things off on a high note – we had a glowing pink and orange sunset and even saw a pair of cavorting dolphins. We stayed at a lovely house near the ocean, which was quite the treat. We could hear the waves as long as the neighbors’ air conditioning units weren’t humming. (We thought AC was totally unnecessary!) BHI is a somewhat odd mix — an upscale “gated community” feel with a true conservation mission, and a blend of high-income homeowners and the hoi polloi, like us.

Front view of Barrier Island Study Center

The Barrier Island center is a new addition to the Bald Head Island Conservancy, whose mission is to “foster barrier island conservation, education, and preservation to live in harmony with nature.” The Conservancy has long been associated with its protection of sea turtles, which nest in the dunes. (This year’s tally: 70 nests and 63 hatchings — so far!)

I should add here a bit about Bald Head Island, which along with Middle and Bluff islands, makes up the Smith Island complex, which includes 10 miles of beach and dunes, 10,000 acres of salt marsh, and 4,000 acres of barrier island upland and maritime forests. And let me also define barrier island: A relatively narrow strip of sand parallel to the mainland coast that creates a barrier system. I’ll let you in on a secret: the “island“ is really Bald Head Island Peninsula, since Hurricane Floyd (1999) filled an inlet with sand, but let’s not tell anyone.

Tom Hancock, director of conservation at the Bald Head Island Conservancy

The Conservancy runs many nature and education programs, but has long been known as a  “turtles and t-shirts,” spot, said Tom Hancock, director of conservation, during a tour he gave us. Now, because of the study center, it is poised to become a nexus of barrier-island research in a major way, including offering university students semesters “abroad.” Findings here will benefit all barrier- island communities. The energy-efficient building is gorgeous, especially because of the light filtered throughout both floors and the stairs, floors, and doorways made of reclaimed pine salvaged from the Cape Fear River. The study center’s lobby is now the main visitor information stop for the Conservancy, so do check out the building and the Conservancy’s activities. Amazingly, the center was funded solely from grants and private donations, many from residents.

Diane kayaks under blue skies along a tributary of Bald Head Creek

Afterward, we rode on the beach cruisers that came with our condo (thank you!) to Riverside Adventure Co., where we hopped into kayaks and tooled along Bald Head Creek, taking narrower and narrower tributaries, flanked by reeds. Beautiful and peaceful! From a distance, we heard the wedding march from Village Chapel next to Old Baldy, the state’s oldest-standing lighthouse (from 1817), which gleamed in the late afternoon sun. What a day!

Lina enjoys a tailwind on the ride back from Bald Head Island State Natural Area

On Sunday, following a tip from Dr. Tom, we directed the cruisers into a wicked headwind along the packed-down beach toward Fort Fisher State Recreation Area until, at Lina’s urging, we reached Bald Head Island State Natural Area, an area so remote you feel shipwrecked — that is until you see the official marker. An awesome tailwind took us back to civilization quickly, a good thing because the tide was coming in.

We capped the outing by cycling along one of our favorite spots — Cape Creek Road, a dirt road along Middle Island that feels like a step back in time and conjures images of early settlers who once called this land home. I wonder what it will all look like 100 years from now!


A bird’s guide to drip-drying

January 26, 2009

Double-crested cormorant (adult non-breeding plumage) is drying its wings

Wessel gives us this dispatch from Florida:

Kayaking has become one of our favorite pastimes over the past two years. It’s pleasant because it allows a look at the world from a different much lower angle at a pace that’s much slower than usual. Probably because of this much humbler behavior wildlife seems to tolerate kayaking humans better than humans in walking or cycling mode. During our last visit to Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., in December we ventured out on the Intracoastal Waterway. That is to say we stayed on the sidelines, to keep a safe distance from the actual Intracoastal Highway where boats speed by and create impressive wakes.


The full drying stretch

There’s a surprising amount of wildlife. On our trip we saw great blue herons, egrets, and even a dolphin. I tried to take a photo of the dolphin but it tricked me swimming in random directions during 20-25 second dives before re-emerging. I was much more successful with a cormorant perched on a pole with its wings stretched and exposed to the sun. Apparently cormorants need to dry their plumage because they do not have oil in their skin to protect their feathers from getting wet like ducks and other water birds do.

Cormorant's green eyes

Cormorants have intense green eyes

I am a casual bird watcher and didn’t know  much about cormorants. Someone had recently mentioned that cormorants have intense green eyes. This can be seen when the photo is enlarged. When reading about cormorants I learned that the green part is the iris. The extremely constricted pupil is as small as the head of a pin and is hardly visible in my photo. Many other diving birds (e.g. penguins, loons, grebes) also have intensely colored eyes, in all cases due to a combined effect of iris color and constricted pupil. The pupil dilates to a large aperture in the low-light conditions underwater. Unfortunately I don’t have photos to prove that statement.

Tampa’s Super Bowl antidote

December 9, 2008
The Weedon Island Preserve in Pinellas County sits just off a busy highway on the way to Tampa

The Weedon Island Preserve in Pinellas County sits just off a busy highway on the way to Tampa

While Clearwater and St. Petersburg beaches grab most of tourists’ attention in Pinellas County, one of the area’s environmental and cultural jewels sits just off a busy highway on the way to Tampa. So if you’re Super-Bowl bound next month, make sure to add Weedon Island Preserve to your agenda. Because you have to do something other than watch football and drink beer, right? (Don’t answer that.)

The Weedon Island Preserve offers two paddling trails

The kayak and canoe launch from where two paddling trails start

Situated along the shore of Tampa Bay, the park covers 3,700 acres of protected land set among mangrove stands and sabal palm. Wheelchair-accessible boardwalks and 3 miles of hiking trails with picnic areas lead walkers throughout the preserve while two water trails take paddlers around mangroves and over open shallow waters and seagrass and oyster beds. Kayak and canoe rentals are available, so you have no excuse.

The fishing pier is popular with locals, while visitors won’t want to miss the 45-foot observation tower. The last time we were there, with Wessel’s parents, they spotted an armadillo. Big excitement for them! The preserve also is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, and you’ll see birders wandering about with their life lists or whatever they call those things.

The Cultural and Natural History Center opened in the fall of 2002 and has an observation deck

The Cultural and Natural History Center opened in the fall of 2002 and has an observation deck

History and culture get their due here as well, at the beautifully designed information and exhibition center. Try to go when the center is open (hours below) because the exhibits are great. So are the restrooms and water fountains, though maybe those are outside of the center. Oops. I can’t remember. A permanent exhibit installed last year explores the watershed ecology and the island’s history, which included ancient Indian cultures and even Prohibition speakeasies, of all things. In May 2008, a 45-foot canoe buried for about 10 centuries was found buried in mud on the preserve. Archeologists are still trying to determine how best to excavate it. Of course they’re not telling us where it is.

The Preserve has mangrove swamps with tidal creeks

The Preserve has mangrove swamps with tidal creeks

Weedon Island rangers and volunteers run a lot of programs — hiking, bird watching, photography, canoeing, and more, and you don’t have to be a resident to partake. So get out from the behind the big-screen TV and stretch your legs in natural Florida.

Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center, 1800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg, 727-453-6500, The preserve is open dawn to dusk daily, while the center is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except holidays.