Thursday, April 7, 2011

North Carolina Aquariums

In the past week I have visited two of North Carolina's Aquariums along the coast: Fort Fisher and Pine Knoll Shores. Both facilities have a lot to offer and are wonderful educational resources for the region.

Fort Fisher:
We went to Fort Fisher for work, hoping to find some migrant species that we have yet to encounter in the Onslow Bight (i.e. painted buntings!). Ironically enough, our best birding was in the aquarium parking lot where we heard and/or saw black-and-white warbler, prairie warbler, white-throated sparrows, house wren, and what we believe to be a Connecticut warbler. We did check out their feeders in hopes of seeing the painted buntings that have already been reported there this year, but the feeders were so overrun by boat-tailed grackles and red-wing blackbirds, I'm not surprised they weren't there.

Yellow-Banded Dart Frog

Inside the aquarium was quite impressive, especially their large conservatory where Northern bobwhite roamed and nested freely. There were several freshwater critters including treefrogs, newts, bullfrogs, siren, various fish species, LARGE gators, and a beautiful albino alligator by the name of Luna. They also have several terrestrial species including Eastern box turtles, glass lizards, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake, Northern pine snake, copperhead, and cottonmouth. And all of that is just in the conservatory! They have an extensive collection of ocean fauna including a couple large tanks full of fish! They also had a non-native section where you will find clown fish, HUGE lobsters, and, oddly enough, poison dart frogs. 

Pine Knoll Shores:

Red-Eared Sliders
After visiting Fort Fisher, I decided to check out Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium as well. Although this facility may not be as extensive as Fort Fisher, they really did a great job in providing different exhibits and information with very little overlap with Fort Fisher. Some of the best highlights were the river otters, sea turtles (including a rare white loggerhead named Nimbus), and a huge tank with 3 different species of sharks and lots of large fish. Pine Knoll Shores also has a very nice boardwalk and nature trail that takes you along the saltmarsh and then around freshwater wetlands. It was low tide when I was there so the wading birds were easy to observe, including dunlin, tricolored heron, and greater yellowlegs. There were also several Eastern mud turtles out basking in the wetlands.  

I highly recommend visiting these facilities if you find yourself in Eastern North Carolina. There is a third NC Aquarium at Roanoke Island further to the North that I also hope to visit one day.

Other News:

In my adventures in the Onslow Bight we have been seeing/hearing quite a few birds in the past few weeks including Swainson's warbler, black-throated green warbler, yellow-throated warbler, common yellowthroat, Northern parula, prothonatary warbler, white-eyed vireo, red-eyed vireo, yellow-throated vireo, orchard oriole, and wood thrush. Not too bad, and the best part is that I can now identify all of them by sound alone!

Spring is definitely here as the azaleas and buckeyes are blooming! We have also found morels at 5 different localities. I haven't found these since I lived in Iowa. Yummy!

Until next time,


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wade Tract, Trout Lilies, and North Carolina!


Sorry we have been out of touch lately, but we have a lot to report! The month of February was rather eventful with a trip to the Wade Tract and Wolf Creek Preserve being the highlights. In mid-February, we were fortunate enough to take a tour of the Wade Tract with the Apalachee Audubon Society. The Wade Tract is located in south Georgia and is well known as one of the best-managed tracts of old-growth longleaf forest left in the southeast. The Wade Tract itself is 200 acres of old-growth longleaf pine forest and is surrounded by 3,200 acres of private hunting lands owned by the Wade family. The Wade Tract is managed by Tall Timbers Research Station in north Florida, and is home to a variety of longleaf pine specialists including Bachman's sparrow, brown-headed nuthatch, gopher tortoise, and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The preserve is not open to the public except for scheduled group tours, so it truly was a privilege to see this glimpse of what once covered the entire southeastern US.

Wolf Creek Trout Lilies
The second highlight of our February was a trip to the Wolf Creek Trout Lily Preserve in south Georgia. We had heard about this site last year but missed the excitement, so this year we made it a point to follow the progress of the trout lilies, as their bloom time is very short-lived. The Wolf Creek trout lily population was only discovered a few years ago, and the land was purchased and turned into a preserve in 2010 (to read the full story visit their website!). The species found on the preserve (dimpled trout lily), is not necessarily a rare species, but they have never been found in such large numbers before Wolf Creek. Spotted trilliums are also very abundant on the slopes of the preserve, adding their deep red to the sea of yellow.

At the end of February, I (Aubrey) moved to North Carolina for the summer months. I am working for Virginia Tech as an avian technician in the Onslow Bight landscape. The project I am working for is looking at the effects of red-cockaded woodpecker management on other bird species. This means I will be conducting point-count surveys and nest searches, with some RCW work thrown in from time to time. I was able to learn how to climb a tree using a Swedish ladder on my first day, and I am learning to bird by ear, so I would say I am enjoying myself so far. I even found my first spotted turtle and Venus flytraps! It should be an enjoyable summer with plenty of cool subjects to photograph, so be on the lookout for new photos as the year progresses.

Lots of new photos have been added so be sure to check out the New Photos gallery for updates to your favorite galleries! We also added two new galleries since our last post: Mammals of North America and North Carolina.

Eastern Gray Squirrel
Jones Lake State Park
North Carolina

Thanks for reading!

- Aubrey

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Galleries

Check out the final gallery additions from our 2009 travels (sorry it took so long!): Oregon, Northern California, and Southern California!
Heceta Head Lighthouse and Sea Lions on the Oregon Coast.
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Sequoia Vs. Boulder

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Christmas Bird Count: Part 2

In addition to the gathering of friends and family and a bounty of food, the Christmas season brings with it the much anticipated Christmas Bird Count. This year, Aubrey’s mom, Sue, joined me in doing my second Count of the year. Kudos to Sue for her eagerness to participate after two long days of driving down from Iowa. Also in our group were my good friend Emily and a pair of biologists, Brad and Amanda from the USFWS and NOAA respectively.

We left the house at 0330 and arrived at our destination about 0445. We did a little owling and then as the sun came up we went to the guard house at the Gulf Power Plant where we navigated the attendant through a series of communication errors. In a nutshell, access passes and all associated paperwork was taken care of well in advance as has been done for years. However, somebody in middle management neglected to pass this information to the attendant, so after a series of early morning phone calls to the higher ups on Saturday, the problem was resolved. It’s not everyday you get to call the boss at sunrise on his day off. After that we slipped thru the security gates and checked off our target species, black-crowned night herons. The species only turns up in one or two spots and in small numbers in the Count Circle so it was important we compare the numbers to the previous year’s records and add the species to the List. A total of 9 birds were present in the warm water discharge canals. While scoping the canal we were also provided the opportunity to educate and interact with a few workers who were curious about what we doing.

After a bit of birding we left the restricted access area and entered Maher farms, a very large tract owned by real estate baron, St. Joe Corporation. Although I am not terribly familiar with the property’s history, as I understand it, St. Joe tried to farm Shrimp in the 70's and 80's after altering the hydrology of the salt marshes to control salinity. Apparently, the venture failed due to pathogen control issues. This is very similar to what the Federal Government did to establish the renowned St. Marks NWR in Wakulla County - dike and dam salt marshes and control hydrology to provide migratory waterfowl (duck) habitat. In any case, the tract consisted of a series of canals and dikes and roads. The uplands consisted of recently thinned pines (the heavy equipment was still on site and there was fresh green wood, so they were in only days before). After we exhausted the canals and woodlands we turned our efforts and energy to the marshes, open water areas, and mudflats. Unfortunately we weren’t able to cover a tremendous amount of ground due to Brad’s bum knee and the tide not being conducive to covering more ground.

We covered several miles in stiff winds and cold weather, but in the end, it was worth it. We picked up quite a few species of shorebirds (plovers, sandpipers, gulls, terns,) and aquatic birds (ducks, herons, grebes, egrets…) along with numerous raptors. One of the highlights for the group was spotted by Eagle Eye Emily, who located 58 great egrets in a very distant salt marsh. I also picked up a life bird: the swamp sparrow. The robins were out in full swing- one flock we estimated 1500 birds and to be honest it was conservative - I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more than 2500 feathered friends in that group. By the way, that many robins generate a lot of noise.

We ended the day approximately 12 hours after the sun came up and headed for a local restaurant where we swapped stories and warmed up with food/beverages (although our service was poor and food cold, but you get the idea). After dinner it was a 90 min drive, making it nearly a 17 hour day.

- Matt

Bay County CBC Species List:

1. Bufflehead

2. Hooded Merganser

3. Red-breasted Merganser

4. Common Loon

5. Pied-billed Grebe

6. Horned Grebe

7. Brown Pelican

8. Double-crested Cormorant

9. Great Blue Heron

10. Great Egret

11. Snowy Egret

12. Tricolored Heron

13. Reddish Egret

14. Green Heron

15. Black-crowned Night Heron

16. Turkey Vulture

17. Osprey

18. Bald Eagle

19. Northern Harrier

20. Red-shouldered Hawk

21. Red-tailed Hawk

22. American Kestral

23. Clapper Rail

24. Black-bellied Plover

25. Semipalmated Plover

26. Killdeer

27. Greater Yellowlegs

28. Willet

29. Spotted Sandpiper

30. Western Sandpiper

31. Dunlin

32. Short-billed Dowitcher

33. Wilson’s Snipe

34. Laughing Gull

35. Ring-billed Gull

36. Forster’s Tern

37. Royal Tern

38. Mourning Dove

39. Great Horned Owl

40. Belted Kingfisher

41. Red-bellied Woodpecker

42. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

43. Downy Woodpecker

44. Blue Jay

45. Tree Swallow

46. Carolina Chickadee

47. House Wren

48. Golden-crowned Kinglet

49. Ruby-crowned Kinglet

50. Eastern Bluebird

51. Hermit Thrush

52. American Robin

53. Gray Catbird

54. Northern Mockingbird

55. European Starling

56. Cedar Waxwing

57. Yellow-rumped Warbler

58. Pine Warbler

59. Palm Warbler

60. Common Yellowthroat

61. Eastern Towhee

62. Chipping Sparrow

63. Nelson’s Short-tailed Sparrow

64. Song Sparrow

65. Swamp Sparrow

66. Northern Cardinal

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Eve

To celebrate the end of the year we headed to some of our favorite public lands in the region: Wakulla Springs State Park and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. It finally warmed up after another early cold snap here in North Florida, so it was a beautiful way to spend the last day of the year. Many other families must have thought the same as both parks were very busy.

Our first stop, and the main goal of the day, was Wakulla Springs. Wakulla Springs is a popular tourist stop, with people coming from around the globe to see one of the deepest freshwater springs in the world. Boat tours provide visitors with a rare opportunity to see Florida’s wildlife up close, including several species of birds, alligators, turtles, and even manatees during the winter months. The cave at the source of the spring is 185 feet down and on a clear day, you can see all the way to the bottom. Unfortunately, the water is usually too dark from overgrowth of plant life, likely caused by human impacts (i.e. fertilizer runoff). I have never been to the park on a day when the glass bottom boat tours are running, and the rangers will inform you that this may only happen a couple of days out of the year. Even if you can’t see to the bottom of the spring, the waters that flow from it, forming the Wakulla River, are usually crystal clear, making it easy to see the fish, turtles, and manatees swimming below.

We had heard from several sources that there was a large group of manatees seeking refuge in the warmer waters of the spring this winter, and Matt had only seen manatees in south Florida. We arrived a little before noon and were fortunate enough to get the last seats for the 12:00 boat tour. We saw the usual suspects (alligators, Suwannee river cooters, common moorhens, and black vultures), as well as an American bittern, bald eagle, and three yellow-crowned night herons. Before we even got on the boat, Matt got a glimpse of the manatees hanging out near the dock, but we got an even better look from the boat. During the tour we saw six manatees! During the winter months they seek out warmer waters such as Wakulla Springs, which is a constant 69 degrees year round. These gentle mammals often fall victim to boat motors as is evidenced by the scars visible on their backs.

After we accomplished our manatee goal at Wakulla Springs we headed south for our annual winter visit to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in search of wintering ducks. We came up with a decent species list and enjoyed the warm weather. Some of the highlight species were redheads, northern shovelers, dozens of tricolored herons (the highest density we’d ever seen), another American bittern, and, I believe, a marsh wren. We also saw thousands of peeps (e.g. little shorebirds such as least sandpiper) that, without a tripod for our spotting scope, were next to impossible to identify. Even with a spotting scope I’m not sure I would have been able to ID them, as peeps are one of the hardest groups for me to identify! We just wanted to do some leisurely birding, and to give you an idea of how hard we were trying, at one point Matt was snoozing in his pickup while I walked one of the dikes. A full list for the day can be found below.

The final highlight of the day was a mother alligator with her babies resting on her back! Even though they are common, I will never get tired of alligators.

New Year’s Eve Bird List:

1. Pied-billed Grebe

2. Brown Pelican

3. Double-crested Cormorant

4. Anhinga

5. American Bittern

6. Great Blue Heron

7. Great Egret

8. Snowy Egret

9. Little Blue Heron

10. Tricolored Heron

11. Green Heron

12. Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron

13. White Ibis

14. Wood Duck

15. Mallard

16. Northern Shoveler

17. American Wigeon

18. Canvasback

19. Redhead

20. Scaup (Greater or Lesser?)

21. Bufflehead

22. Hooded Merganser

23. Black Vulture

24. Osprey

25. Bald Eagle

26. Northern Harrier

27. Red-shouldered Hawk

28. Common Moorhen

29. American Coot

30. Semipalmated Plover

31. Killdeer

32. Willet

33. Gulls

34. Belted Kingfisher

35. Red-bellied Woodpecker

36. Eastern Phoebe

37. Marsh Wren?

38. American Robin

39. Gray Catbird

40. Yellow-rumped Warbler

41. Savannah Sparrow?

42. Boat-tailed Grackle

Happy New Year!

Aubrey and Matt