Saturday, July 18, 2015

Carolina Beach Meanderings

This post summarizes some more finds, interesting thoughts, musings and such from various meanderings around the coastal Carolinas in March 2015.

 In early March, a cold front rolls east over the Atlantic after blowing through North America, helping to make 2015 one of our coldest and snowiest winters. Of course, the "our" in the sentence doesn't include coastal South Carolina, which escaped without any snow. Not so for North Carolina!
 A northern duck, the Bufflehead, enjoys the returning sun and mild temperatures. These cavity nesting ducks breed in our north. The males get together right after breeding to play cards and tell fish stories.
 A common and very welcome warbler which overwinters in South Carolina, and nests in the boreal forest: the Yellow-rumped Warbler, fondly nicknamed Butterbutt.
 The American Widgeon, a happy couple.
 Smile for the camera.  A Lesser Scaup, another northern breeding duck which seeks, wisely, warmer climes in winter.
I don't see these often amongst the shells that wash up on the beach.  This is the Echinoderm (Sea Urchins, Starfish etc) we call Sand Dollar, and this one is Mellita isometra.  They live just below the sand in shallow water in dense aggregations. note that they are brown or dark green when alive.
Aside from the Sand Dollar, on this particular day (March 10), I found a Speckled Swimming Crab (Arenaeus cribrarius) which had been caught by the retreating tide. With a carapace width up to 6 inches, this crab is found from Massachusetts to Uruguay. Usually in the same shallow waters with sand bottoms as the Sand Dollar, they are found in waters up to 200 feet deep.

The Forster's Terns start March with a black patch behind the eye. By mid March, the trend to a black cap has begun. And VOILA, at the end of March, the handsome tern is dressed to the nines (below).

And speaking of black patches, that reminded me that I found this other handsome fellow by the small stream which flows to the sea to the south of the beachfront condos.  These small predatory birds always stir delight....Loggerhead Shrike, pictured below.
We people of south central Canada anticipate the blooming of our Crab Apples in May, as their pink-red blooms fill our view in urban landscapes.  Crab Apples don't grow in South Carolina. The Bradford Pear (below), a native of China, has filled this "Crab Apple" envy in the south over the last 20 years.
On the same day I took the above photo, son Thomas and I took a long walk along the trails of Myrtle Beach State Park, which, as its name implies, occupies a long stretch of beach within the municipality. The Park effectively conserves some of the native southern Atlantic coastal plain ecological community, including this Red-bellied Watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster), which posed nicely for this photo. These, like the Northern Watersnakes in the Ottawa area, are rather large, up to 4 feet in length. This one was in a Park pond, where it mostly feeds on amphibians, and occasionally, fish.
The diversity of trees in South Carolina is renowned by North American tree enthusiasts. Both northern and southern trees are found here.  I wanted to give you the feel of the trail which focuses on this diversity of trees, so I took photos of both the interpretive signs, and the trees.
First up is the Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), also known as Yellow Poplar.  This tree does range into southern Ontario.

Another tree found in small areas around lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron is the Pignut hickory (Carya glabra)

The White Oak, Quercus alba, although most common south of our region, is occasionally found in Ottawa! I saw and photographed one by the Ottawa river a few days ago.
Note to Park administrators.  The bench below does the job, and is pretty simple to make.

You won't find Loblolly Pine, Pinus taeda around here. It is a signature tree of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, and mostly the southern portion of the Plain...... is the Southern Red Oak, Quercus falcate. These two trees have an almost identical range, which includes the northern neck of the peninsula of Florida, but is absent in most of that state.
Where else will you find both Slash Pine and Eastern White Pine, Sassafras, Bald Cypress, Eastern Hemlock and the State Tree: Cabbage Palmetto?  This is why the forests of South Carolina are special. Diversity. Here are the commonly found trees:

One of the naturalists working in the State Park was very proud of these Atamasco Lilies, a native of South Carolina, below.

On March 20th, I went a tad north to Bird Island Reserve, and found some birds! And a few early beach plants.  The beach dunes are a very harsh environment, and most beach plants don't awaken fully until well into April.

I never tire of shore birds, and these Sanderlings never seem to get they rush into and out of the surf.  A great number of them were seen on this day, which had me thinking about migrating north. And there are many people, I know who believe Myrtle Beach is named for someone's Aunt Myrtle. The myth needs to be dispelled. Pictured below, and found in most parks along the beaches in the Carolinas is the Common Wax Myrtle, Myrica cerifera. The plant whence the local city's name has alternate thick leaves which emit a lovely fragrance when crushed. The leaves are modestly dentate and the plant is evergreen.

Above, Hepatus epheliticus (Calico Box Crab). This Bird island specimen exhibits more linear patches than the spotty patches shown in the speciment in the guide book, South Carolina Beachcomber's Guide. Many species in nature vary in colour, size, shape and marking.  Biologists go a little overboard, at times, attributing taxonomic status to these variations, while most are no more than individual variation.  The next photo is of a very common bird, a Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis, which varies regionally across our continent. The Maritime version used to be classified as a separate species, Ipswich Sparrow.  The lighter markings on this sparrow indicate Ipswich. The constantly changing classification, made possible through better ability to analyse DNA, moved Ipswich to Subspecies status. Taxonomy is important in Biology, as it provides a way to classify living organisms, enhancing ability of scientists worldwide to more easily recognize traits which give clues on origins and ecological roles of species. 

Some familiar birds spend their winter off the South Carolina coast. As March progressed, some of these birds left for the north, and other more southern migrants began to appear at Huntington Beach State Park. Above: How do the Americans take our lovely Common Loon, Gavia Immer, (above) and remove the black head, neck ring, and red eye? This denizen of our lakes, thank goodness, seems to immediately regain these traits on return to Canada.  There were dozens feeding off the coast, where they winter.

Meanwhile, a Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres,  (pictured below) ran along the beach with the Sanderlings. Like so many of our northern nesting shorebirds,  Turnstones migrate a long way, in this case both coasts of South America, right down to Argentina and Chile. Recall in an earlier version of this Blog, a photo of a few, still in full breeding plumage (the one pictured above, like the Loon, has winter plumage) at Shediac New Brunswick in August, 2014. They stay on their high Arctic breeding grounds for just enough time to raise their brood, and then it is off again, to grace almost every beach in the Americas.
Another shorebird, the Dunlin, Calidris alpine, is a much more energy economical bird. It breed, in North America, along the shores of northern Hudson's Bay and Alaska. It also breeds in the Eurasian north. Pictured below, this flock, and they usually travel in larger flocks, had landed at Huntington Beach State Park for a feed in late March.  You can distinguish them by their long drooping schnozola, which ornithologists call a "bill". Unless you make it to their breeding territories, you won't see them in their stunning rust/black/white breeding plumage.

Huntington Beach State Park has this innovative way of tracking bird sightings.  A "Bird Notes" mailbox with a notebook inside.  Amateur scientists, like your blogger, write in their notable sightings of the day. In this way, we can share!
Further up the beach, this Atlantic Ray, Dasyatis sabina had come to an inglorious end. Common from Chesapeake Bay south, this member of the shark/ray family is commonly caught by fishers.  It is also the reason one shuffles feet if walking in the surf sand. One never STEPS, since stepping on the tail of one of these can be extremely painful. Favoured as prey by the White, Tiger and Bull Sharks, this common fish ranges into coastal fresh water as well as salt/brackish waters (like the Bull Shark).
 Below:  Huntington Beach State Park is known as prime nesting habitat for two very rare species of Plovers. The first two photos are Piping Povers, Charadrius melodus,                          

and the two photos below feature the more southern Wilson's Plover, Charadrius wilsonia.  These were the first Wilson's Plovers I have seen.                          

Another migrant showed up at the end of March. I had been seeing lots of Forster's Terns 'til now.  I was fortunate to observe Royal Terns, Thalasseus maximus,  in lovely breeding plumage, resting amongst the small Bonaparte's Gulls which never did transition to their black heads before I left the Carolinas.
One of the first and last birds I saw, and they are not common here in March, were Fish Crows, Corvus ossifragus, the OTHER crow species.  These coastal birds look like our Common Crows, but they are smaller with very different calls and behaviour.

Meanwhile at Waccamaw NWR, Spring has advanced:

The Dogwood is blooming...spectacular! Along with the Redbud, below, the Atlantic Coastal and Appalachian Spring is oh so colourful.

Tulip trees were emerging, above. And a Carolina Anole, Anolis carolinensis, feasting on an ant colony, stopped to pose, below. This native lizard is the only American Anole which immediately changes colour to blend with its surroundings. When first observed, this small lizard was a bright green, much like the Tulip Tree leaves above.

Below, a small (up to 9 metres) tree at Waccamaw, and not easy to identify. It is another south Atlantic Coastal Plain specialty, and not very common (belied by the name): Common Sweetleaf, Symplocos tinctoria. Very noticeable rounded flower clusters and large, smooth, elongated,  and elliptical Magnolia type leaves identify this plant. The Symplocaceae  is a mainly tropical family of plants.  Finding this species here announces to botanists the beginning of more tropical species as one travels south towards the Tropic of Cancer.

How appropriate to end this edition in the Carolinas with South Carolina`s State Bird.  I  have heard these common birds so many times, yet I have failed, until end of March in Waccamaw NWR to photograph these shy birds. I captured photos of this Carolina Wren, Thryothorus ludovicianus,  singing in the warmth of the Spring afternoon.