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In which I get crabs

July 22, 2008

I know, I know. The title is sophomoric, childish even. But it’s late the night after an epic 16 hour bird swing through the very southern tip of North Carolina. I’m allowed some leeway, you’ll see why soon enough.

With my wife out of town for two weeks I had plans. Big Year plans. Not that my wife doesn’t abide and accept my obsession, cause she does, but with her far away across the sea, I’d have absolutely no obligation to cut my trip short. So in an attempt to pick up some deep south specialties in one fell swoop, I got up well before sunrise and made a run for the border, at least the one shared with the other Carolina for an easy chance at some birds I’d have to have a bit of luck to come across up in my neck of the woods.

First stop? The banks of the Cape Fear River in Bladen County, where Kites of both varieties had been reported earlier in the year. This far downstream the Cape Fear is surrounded by bottomland cypress swamps, the kind that I was hoping would support of bumper crop of winged insects to sustain the raptors I sought. I crossed the bridge, pulled off to the side and stepped out of the car to be smacked in the face with the kind of sticky, sweaty southern humidity you could drink with a straw if you had a mind too. My brand new binoculars immediately fogged up.

When my optics finally became functional again, I set out along the bridge to have a look in the murky depths. I quickly came across an Anhinga, which I digi-binned. It was only a tier 2 target for the day, but I was luck to spot it, it was the only Anhinga I’d get all day.

I hopped back in my car to run past the causeway one more time when I spotted a small pale raptor on a dead twig over the swamp. When I slowed it flew off, but it showed long gray pointy wings. Looks like I found my Mississippi Kite. I would have liked a better look, but you have to take what you can get. No sign of the second Kite species though. Time to move on anyway.

Next stop was the southernmost beach in the state, Sunset, just a hop, skip and jump from the South Carolina border. I’d come here looking for the Twin Lakes, a pair of golf course lakes which are known to be an excellent spot for wading birds. I didn’t know exactly where they were, so I drove out to the beach itself, on a barrier island before realizing how unlikely it would be to find an actual lake on a barrier island. I did take a look at the beach before leaving, but found nothing but summer tourists, which tend to occur in numbers inversely proportional to shorebirds.

On my way back to the mainland I had to stop and wait for the drawbridge to do it’s job. Watching the birds around the causeway, I put my binoculars up to a distant kettle of Vultures to find some had magically turned into Wood Storks! I wouldn’t have been so excited if I’d known what waited for me when I arrived at the real Twin Lakes.

The lakes seemed like nothing special, surrounded by houses and pine trees on one side, a golf course on the other. I picked out some interesting birds though. Lots of Green Herons, a couple juvi Yellow-crowned Night Herons, a flyover Tricolored. It was when I was about to leave when I noticed something big and white halfway up the pine trees. Figuring it for a Great Egret I raised my bins to see at least 20 Wood Storks of various ages sitting up in the trees. Further inspection led to about 30 more, some quite close on each of the twin lakes. It was clear they were as hot as I was at this point, but I snapped a couple photos anyway.

My work done here I hurried to catch the ferry across the mouth of the Cape Fear at Southport. I needed to get back to Fort Fisher to continue my quest. In the interest of making this post readable in a single setting, I’ll sum this part up. There was nothing much here. I had hoped Tropical Storm Cristobal might push something interesting up against the coast, but that was not to be. It was here, however, that I really began to notice the hundreds of little Fiddler Crabs doing their thing on every mud and sand surface along the coast. When walking through the sea grapes they’d scatter like cockroaches when you flip on a light. I even snagged one that couldn’t get away, colorful little bugger, with blues and reds and a neon blue “H” on their back.

But why deal with crabs when there are still birds to find. The next stop up the coast, Carolina Beach State Park, was important for one bird in particular, which ended up being much easier than expected. In fact, here are the instructions for finding Painted Bunting at Carolina Beach:

1) Go to Marina. 2) Park 3) Look out driver’s side window.

Yes, it was that easy to find a gaudy, gorgeous male, a subdued, but still lovely female, and weirdly, an immature American Redstart following them. It looked stunning though my new bins, but sadly, I don’t have technology that would have allowed me to take a photo in less than five minutes. Though in retrospect I should have just digi-binned it, which worked on the Anhinga pretty well, though the Anhinga doesn’t move much.

A trail followed the coastline for a bit and I, eager for a chance at Glossy Ibis or Cattle Egret, took off down it. It was around this point I realized the fortune that could be made inventing a car that runs on sweat. I could have just wrung my shirt out into the fuel tank and gotten home no problem. It was hot is what I’m saying. The Ibis and Egret were no shows but I did hear a couple more Painted Buntings, never saw them though. It’s amazing how such a brilliantly colored bird can be rendered effectively invisible just by not moving.

Time for one last stop, further up the coast to Wrightsville Beach, where I hoped to be able to pick up some shorebirds that had heretofore been difficult to find. I found success at the far north end of the island, where a nesting area is roped off. Not only were the expected Willet and Laughing Gulls around, but also the first few migrants of the season. I found Common Tern, Short-billed Dowitcher, and several little Least Sandpipers. Further back were some sharp Wilson’s Plovers (another tier 1 target), Black-bellied and American Golden-Plover singles (nicely side by side), a Greater Yellowlegs and a nice Whimbrel.

I’d noted lots of movements on the flats, which were exposed by the falling tide, but it wasn’t until I walked down closer to the water that I saw why. Lined along the shore, engaged in some sort of arthropod orgy, where tens of thousands of Fiddler Crabs.

As I looked into the tidal pools I could see they were thick and cloudy with millions of eggs and the males were going nuts trying to fertilize them all. Here’s how it works. Fiddlers are semi-terrestrial, but like all crustaceans, they need to lay their eggs in water. So the female lays and carried the eggs underneath her body for a couple weeks, then one day, she rushes to the sea as the tide goes out and shakes all the eggs off her body into the water, where they are fertilized by the males.

I actually saw this behavior, the females rushing into the water then shaking violently to get the eggs into the sea, the males crawling all over themselves to get to the water to fertilize them. It was wild, and I was lucky that I happened to catch the exact low tide where this was going on.

The other animals, meanwhile, were having a feast. The shallows were filled with little fish darting in and out of the clouds, and the deeper parts of the tideline hid bigger Blue and Stone Crabs, not too picky to take what they can get from their smaller brethren. And then there were the birds. The Wilson’s Plovers with their big crab-crushing bills, the Whimbrel, chasing them right down into their burrows with that thin curved beak. You’d see a mass of crabs scurry out of the reeds all together and then bounding after them, like a Labrador after a tennis ball, would be a gangly Willet. Crazy crazy stuff.

At about this time the sun was getting low and I wanted to stop at one more place on the way home for some reported Least Bitterns (Epic Fail), so I headed out, making it home in time for a shower, a meal, a recounting on this here blog. Eight new birds for the year. I’m back, baby.

  1. Mike permalink
    July 22, 2008 9:26 am

    Sweet trip! It’s nice to have the time to really ease into finding the birds on your list. Too often, other obligations make birding a hit-and-run affair.

  2. John permalink
    July 22, 2008 3:30 pm

    That’s a lot of crabs! It looks like rush hour traffic.

  3. July 22, 2008 5:03 pm

    @Mike – You said it, typically I have to hit and run on long trips. It was certainly nice to have no obligations.

    @John – Rush hour indeed. It’s like I-40 to Raleigh in the evenings, but the crabs were more polite and organized…

  4. Christy permalink
    July 22, 2008 9:30 pm

    Great blog….looks like your trip was certainly a success…I think I’d feel a little googly (is that a word)if I met up with all those crabs though…almost like a weird sci-fi version of ‘The Birds’.

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