Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Barrier Islands As They Should Be

A barrier island is just what it sounds like - large sand dunes along the ocean's edge which protect the land from the ocean's rampage during storms. Barrier islands are fragile, constantly changing ecosystems that are important for coastal geology and ecology. Development has posed dangers to these ecosystems and has also increased the risk of property damage every year from hurricanes. The Outer Banks in North Carolina have been heavily developed for people to live and vacation there. This year Hurricane Florence caused billions of dollars of damage because people built on the barrier islands.
The islands are separated from the main land by a shallow sound, bay or lagoon. Barrier islands are often found in chains along the coast line and are separated from each other by narrow tidal inlets, such as the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Barrier islands protect the coastlines from severe storm damage. Second, they harbor several habitats that are refuges for wildlife.
Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons in the world.  The park protects 70 miles of coastline, dunes, prairies, and wind tidal flats teeming with life.  It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. The islands are broad and covered in grass, so ranchers grazed cattle here until approximately 1970. If you didn't know the ocean was nearby, you would think you were in Kansas.
However, these grassy areas quickly fill with shallow basins of water, making important habitat for shorebirds. Don't pull of the road without checking for water first!
The best bird we found on our trip was a Long-billed Curlew! It was great to travel the dunes without see all the houses and condos.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Late Fall in Corpus Christi, TX

Here we are in Corpus Christi, TX, the self-proclaimed birdiest city in Texas. Yes, if you come during migration that's probably so, but we are here in the first week of November, so we are working on confirming Gulf birds we already know for the most part.
Texas roads can be frustrating if you aren't used to them. Divided interstate-like highways are common, but each of them has an "access road" running along it where all the stores and restaurants are. You have to get off at the nearest exit, drive along the big highway, then do a U-turn under it at the next intersection and drive down the other side again to reach what you want. If you are in the wrong lane, tough luck. And if there is construction -- double tough luck. The poor GPS isn't much help.
This morning we drove to Hazle Brazemore Park, where Hawkwatch International has a hawk watching station. How those people can find birds so far away, even with a spotting scope amazed me.The Nueces River is flooding, so much of the park was closed, but the hawk station is on the highest hill in the county, so no problems there. I didn't get pictures of any raptors in flight - too far away to find in my camera- but we saw a Caracara in flight, a beautiful Kestrel and a female Northern Harrier. The counters were excited to spot a Bald Eagle, but I never did find it. Yesterday, they saw 13,199 Turkey Vultures!
Inca Dove
White-tipped Dove
I've been surprised to find 5 of 7 dove species on the bird list. A flock of White-winged doves showed off their white wings. Then we were able to compare the Inca Dove and the White-tipped Dove with its outstanding rainbow neck.

As the clouds blew in, we headed downtown to tour the USS Lexington, now a museum in the harbor. I asked a docent, what they did during Hurricane Hugo, and he said that the ship is actually fastened to the groun - essentially it is a building now, now a ship. They just brought all the planes off the flight deck and battened down the hatches to ride it out. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

OBX - Outer Banks, NC

Bode Island Lighthouse

May was a tough month, since I was sick for almost three weeks, and three different doctors and antibiotics seemed to make little difference. We had reservations at the Outer Banks, and the last doctor said that leaving the Ohio Valley would probably do as much good as anything. He was right.

I've seen those little oval bumper stickers with OBX for years, and it took quite a while for me to figure out what it meant. The Outer Banks (is there an Inner Banks anywhere?) are the barrier islands along the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina, also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because so many ships ran aground there.
There are seven lighthouses still operating along the Outer Banks. We visited two which are almost identical except for the paint job on one, Currituck and Bodie Island. In the old days, lighthouse keepers lived in isolation, since the islands weren't developed then. Their families lived somewhere else so kids could go to school. They would climb to the top of the lighthouse several times a day, lugging cans of fuel for the lights, and polishing the lenses, as well as watching for ships on stormy nights. There were also life saving stations along the coast, not necessarily associated with the lighthouses. The timing of the flashes told ships which light they were seeing.

 In fact, we climbed to the top of 162 foot tall Currituck Lighthouse early in our stay, and it took almost a week before I could go up or down stairs normally again, so I have great admiration for the endurance of the lighthouse keepers. The steps did not spiral around the entire inside of the tower, but only on one side, with a platform to rest on between the flights. Going down was actually harder since it was difficult to see where one step ended and the next began in the open iron work of the steps.

Barrier islands are large moving sand dunes. The entire sound on the inside has only one inlet/outlet to the ocean now, and they have to keep dredging it to keep it from filling in. Parts of the islands are very narrow and protected by the Hatteras National Seashore. After storms, they have to clear the sand off the road again.
Jockey's Ridge State Park
JOCKEY'S RIDGE is the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States, reaching up to 100 feet high. Located in Nags Head, it looks like he Sahara Desert until you reach the top where you can see the sound on the other side. Climbing the shifting sands is much harder than climbing the lighthouse steps! People like to fly kites from the top (although the constant sea breeze makes kite flying easy any where), and you can take hang gliding lessons there as well. Be careful not to get lost though! The state park was formed by residents trying to protect the dune from developers.
Duck, NC boardwalk
We stayed in the little town of Duck, NC, on the north end of the Outer Banks. We were closer to the remaining bits of maritime forest, and there were nice trees and vegetation between all the houses, and sidewalks for walkers and bikers, of which there are many. The town built a pleasant boardwalk along the sound, and shops stay open in the evening. Much of the Outer Banks, lacks this vegetation, yet developers build houses right next to each other and as close to the beach as possible. I have no sympathy for anyone who lose their house to a hurricane here. The residents know to live on the other side of the island.  I was surprised that we saw no "hurricane evacuation route" signs. But when a storm comes, there is only one road and one bridge to go the the mainland.
Coast Guard maneuvers
We found a sailing boat and got a private trip, since no one else signed up for the afternoon cruise. We watched a Coast Guard helicopter practicing life saving techniques out in the sound. That big bird stayed virtually motionless in the air for at least an hour. Since no one else was aboard, they let us take turns piloting the boat, which is actually harder than you would think. Water in the sound runs from 5 - 11 feet deep. So many rivers dump into it, and there is only one inlet to the ocean, that is not salty or tidal. Is the OBX a birder's paradise? More in the next post.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Between Spring Showers

Red-tailed Hawk
Spring has been so indecisive this year. One day the sun shines and temps are in the 60s or 70s, and the next day a cold front sweeps through, leaving heavy rain and/or snow, with temps back in the 30s. Events scheduled for Saturdays have been hit hard, having been changed twice because of predicted rain all day on Saturdays. This week, we have had a couple days of warm, but very windy weather, so I decided to go out. Local birders are reporting some rare species coming through our area, and I wanted to see if I could find any of them.
Song Sparrow
Beckley Creek Park is a favorite birding spot along Floyd's Fork river, and birders have found several Virginia Rails in the wetlands. I joined a group of people already there, and although I didn't see the Rail yesterday, I did find a Wilson's Snipe all by myself. Yeah! Mostly I found Song Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds.
American Kestrel
The raptors enjoyed the clear skies, and I saw many Turkey Vultures, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a fast little American Kestrel. Maybe I'll try for the Rail again tomorrow.
The Sora is a member of the rail family too, passing through Kentucky on its way to Canada where it breeds after spending the winter along the Gulf Coast. This one is using the bird observation area at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, just across the river, as a resting spot. It is sheltered from observation, except for people inside the building. There is a little pond and rocks to shelter in. So far, it seems pretty happy there.
Nesting Bald Eagle
4 or 5 years ago, when they started building a bridge across the Ohio River at the eastern edge of the county, an existing Eagle nest was found right by the construction area. Will all the activity affect it? They couldn't really move the planned bridge, so they just started building. Now the bridge is complete, and the birds seem unaffected. She seems to be counting the cars as they zoom beneath her tree.

The river has flooded again in the last week, after the huge floods in March, so people are trying to ge things cleared up. The gates on the McAlpin Dam are still lifted allowing the water to flow through as fast as possible. Debris clogs the sidewalks leading down to the fossil beds at the Falls of the Ohio, but that's not too much of an issue yet, since the fossil beds themselves are still under water. Management at the state park don't hurry to clear away debris in the spring since it can reappear so quickly.
 The river is still high and so muddy that it looks like milk chocolate rather than water!
The Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday in May, and the party starts two weeks before the race itself. This year it's starting even earlier since someone erected this giant ferris wheel within the ramp of the Big Four Bridge. The Bridge attracts huge numbers of people wanting to walk across the river. The ferris wheel will be here until after Derby. As soon as there is a nice evening with a good sunset, we plan to go down and ride it too!
Here is the little Sora enjoying an algae snack from the pond.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Snowy Owl in Kentucky

One bird guaranteed to get all the birders in Kentucky excited about making a road trip is the Snowy Owl! However, it's hard to get your birding ethics straight when it comes to this bird. On the one hand, you want to leave it in peace when it comes this far in the winter, so some birders will say they saw one in such and such county, but not where. Others are eager to share the location so the rest of us have a decent chance to add this rare bird to our life lists.  The first sunshine in over a week made my decision to find this bird an easy one.
Thanks to GPS, I drove right up a little country road to this barn. I knew this was the place as I joined 6-7 cars along the side of the road. Can you imagine what the owners must be thinking! I've seen notices on the KY Bird List about this bird since the beginning of March. It moves around a little in the neighborhood, but has been easy to find overall. Since it has been so stationary, John and Eileen Wicker of Raptor Rehab took a look and thought there was nothing wrong with it. Look for Snowy Owls sitting on or near the ground in wide-open areas. They often perch on rises such as the crests of dunes, or on fenceposts, telephone poles, and hay bales. When they fly they usually stay close to the ground. In winter, look for Snowy Owls along shorelines of lakes and the ocean, as well as on agricultural fields and airport lands. I missed seeing the Snowy a the Louisville Airport a few years ago. Snowy Owls breed in the treeless arctic tundra.
Oh, you didn't see it in the first photo? Here's one a little closer. The only part that moved was its head, which it turned around as sounds or movement attracted its attention. Snowy Owls do a lot of sitting. They sit still in the same spot for hours, occasionally swiveling their head or leaning forward and blinking their big, yellow eyes to get a closer look at something. When they hunt, they use extraordinary vision and hearing to draw a bead on their prey—maybe a vole scurrying beneath the snow—and then fly, or even run, over to pounce on it.
Snowy Owls are white birds with varying amounts of black or brown markings on the body and wings. On females this can be quite dense, giving the bird a salt-and-pepper look. Males tend to be paler and become whiter as they age. The eyes are yellow. Someone at Fish and Wildlife said they thought it was a female, but I think it's a male given the subdued barring. He didn't open his eyes much, squinting as the sun broke through the cloud cover.

Raptor Rehab has taken in 2 Snowy Owls in the almost 9 years I have been there. The first, in 2015, died of an anuerism. The second arrived last fall, having been hit by a car. She recovered quite well, and one of our volunteers drove her to Wisconsin about a week ago where she was released. It was great to work with them close at hand, but rehab birds can't be added to my life list!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Holy Moli!

The last place I might expect to find the Laysan Albatross nesting is on a golf course in an upscale resort community on Kauai, but that's where we found a small colony of birds today. Of course, the public isn't allowed on the course, but since we are staying at the Makai Club, associated with the Makai Golf Course in Princeville, we could join a caravan of about 20 golf carts for a sunset tour of the course. The holes all looked the same to me, green with sand traps, but in 2 or 3 places, a hole overlooked the ocean.
 The threatened Nene goose seems quite happy to live on the course, grazing on the short grass.
I was astounded to find a small breeding colony of albatross at Ocean Hole 6 and 7. (Moli is their Hawaiian name). They are a large bird, with a wingspan of six feet or more, and can weigh up to 22 pounds, although the male is bigger than the female.The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (meaning Midway and Laysan) are home to 99.7% of the population.The Laysan albatross is colonial, nesting on scattered small islands and atolls, often in huge numbers, and builds different styles of nests depending on the surroundings, ranging from simple scoops in the sand to nests using vegetation. Laysan albatrosses have a protracted breeding cycle. They breed annually, although some birds skip years. They eat fish and squid, usually at night when the food rises to the surface, flying to Alaska to feed after the breeding season.
Juvenile birds return to the colony three years after fledging, but do not mate for the first time until seven or eight years old. During these four or five years they form pair bonds with a mate that they will keep for life. Courtship entails especially elaborate 'dances' that have up to 25 ritualized movements.
The breeding season is from November to June, and the rest of the year they spend at sea. The albatross can take advantage of air currents just above the ocean waves to soar for hours or days without flapping its wings. They do rest on the water to feed or sleep, but have been know to sleep while flying to avoid predators.
Both parents take turns incubating their single egg for almost two months before it hatches. As we gathered around the birds, this adult stared us squarely in the eyes and boldly walked through the crowd of admiring people, headed to his chick hidden under a tree behind us. When you only get one chick at a  time, you have to take extra good care of it.
We watched this chick tapping his parent's beak until she finally opened her mouth and regurgitated something for it to eat. An albatross named Wisdom hatched in or around 1951. In 1956, at the estimated age of five, she was tagged by scientists at Midway Atoll. The USGS have tracked Wisdom since she was tagged, and they have logged that Wisdom has flown over three million miles since 1956. To accommodate her increasing longevity, the USGS has replaced her tag a total of six times. In December, 2016, Wisdom (at the approximate age of 66) hatched and reared another chick. In December 2017, she was breeding again. Most albatrosses lay every other year, but Wisdom has successfully hatched a chick every year since 2006.

Blue Skies of Hawaii

After the luau last night, we spent an hour and a half stuck in traffic in our shuttle because of a rock slide on the road home. This morning, we checked early and thought the problem was fixed. However, we ended up sitting in traffic again for an hour when we should have been arriving at Lihue Airport for our small plane tour of the island. The good news was that the other couple scheduled for our flight was also stuck in traffic, so they held the flight for all of us.
After so much rain earlier in the week, we had a perfect sunny day to fly. The airbus held six passengers, all with a guaranteed window seat for taking photographs.
Our boat trip up the coast didn't give anything close to the views from the plane. Of course, it helped that we had sunshine. Look at the coral beds - we saw them on every coast.

We flew up the famous Waimea Canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of the Islands. Kauai is the oldest island, and has eroded into weird cliffs and promontories over millions of years. The soil is bright red from oxidation of the iron in the soil.
When Hawaii went out of the sugar growing business, some farmers got smart and discovered that coffee grows very well in Kauai. You have probably heard of Kona coffee, but they have larger coffee fields here in Kauai.
The Na Pali coast has no roads or resorts on it, and is particularly known for its sharp cliffs and steep canyons. Yet, the early Polynesians often lived in valleys in this part of the island.
Many waterfalls are double or triple falls. This one was used in the movie Jurassic Park. The first Indiana Jones  movie was filmed here in part as well as South Pacific and Blue Hawaii. The resort office keeps a collection of movies filmed in Hawaii, and we have watched several this week. It's fun to recognize a landmark you just saw in a movie!
The clouds built up as the afternoon progressed, but that didn't bother us. By 4:30, it was raining though, which is common here. If you ever get a chance, take a flight around the islands. It's the best view you will find!