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Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Little Differences

Man, it's been a while, but after dealing with the cable company for a while, we're back and we finally have internets again! In the meantime, James and I visited the venerable Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. Read below to find out how it went!

When you travel just one state over, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the state you’re in and the state you left. Sure the landscape is pretty much the same, and yes the people still talk with the same southern drawl. And of course you can’t exit the highway without there being a Bojangles’ within spitting distance. But then the skyline starts becomes dotted with palm trees, there’s an indoor shooting range next to a cabaret, and you realize you just passed a Planet Hollywood. Sure enough, you’re in South Carolina.

Not to mention, the nature is slightly different too. As soon as I stepped out of the car at Huntington Beach State Park, I noticed a nasally buzzing coming from the nearby trees. My suspicions were confirmed when we found this small brown cicada being serenaded by a Black Widow, a different species than the big green buzzers we have in the Piedmont. The windows of the nearby restrooms were dotted with Green Treefrogs, not the Grays I’m used to up north. And as soon as we stepped out onto the causeway, James and I noticed a horde of American Alligators basking upon temporary islands.

Living inland, I don’t get to enjoy these ancient looking reptiles nearly as much as I should. The ‘gators on Mullet Pond ran the size gamut – we saw young ‘uns just three feet long and still bearing their juvenile striping; and we saw giants, including one that we estimated to be eight feet long, at least! But most rested somewhere in the middle, and as we watched him, this six-footer sidled up towards the shore, perhaps eyeing a Snowy Egret hunting from a nearby dock.

Slowly but surely, birds began to fly into Mullet Pond as the tide began to rise. A steady stream of Wood Storks accumulated against the far shore until they numbered nearly eighty individuals. Around here, the only time I get to see Wood Storks is during post-breeding dispersal, so it was nice to see them so close up.

More birds flew in, some common ones like Least Sandpipers and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. But among them we spotted some Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, plus a fantastic-looking Reddish Egret that decided to land and dance around for us about a hundred yards out. But most surprising were a trio of American Avocets that flew in - not surprising that they were avocets, but rather that they retained the bay-colored head of breeding individuals. It's only the second time I've seen birds in this plumage, the first being out in California. I've got to say, they're one of my favorite shorebirds.

All around us, I could see White Ibises flying and feeding among the myriad of birds along the causeway. It’s always a treat to see them, even though they’re a mainstay of any coastal Carolina adventure. But while I watched them pick at old clusters of oysters in the low tide, I noticed a large flock of altogether darker birds – Glossy Ibis, the much more uncommon of the two species. They’re not particularly difficult to find around here during the summer, and indeed I found several flocks totaling near a hundred individuals. But for some reason this is a bird that I’ve only ever found in South Carolina, never in my home state. Sometimes, the little differences work against you.

We decided to sidetrack and check out the bird feeders that lined the nearby Nature Center. Although I was expecting them because I’d heard their song pretty much everywhere I turned, I was surprised at the sheer number of Painted Buntings that visited the feeders. Sure, I expected one or two at any given time, but I once had seven in one binocular-view! And not just females and juvenile either, but nice males like this one that sat up in a bush for James to photograph.

The rest of the feeder residents weren’t nearly as colorful. There were Northern Cardinals of all sexes and ages, a pair of Brown Thrashers, and a couple young Mourning Doves. But there was a bird I enjoyed even more than the Painted Buntings – a male Eastern Towhee. Now, towhees are regular feeder visitors in my part of the country, but down in South Carolina, they get a totally different subspecies from us, and one I’ve wanted to see for a long time. They call it Pipilo erythrophthalamus rileyi, and it differs from your standard towhee in one distinct way – rather than being red, the eyes of P. e. rileyi are bright white, a field mark that can be seen even from a distance. In any case, it’s a lifer subspecies for me, if that’s even a thing!

After the feeders, James and I decided to hit the beach to see what we could find. Unfortunately, the beach seemed to be dotted with umbrellas and surf-fishing poles – not birds. All we could muster were a couple Willets and a small flock of Sanderling, so instead we occupied our time my checking out the many crabs of Huntington Beach. We found one big ol’ Ghost Crab, which I would have captured were it not that it pinched me in a botched attempt (I’m fine, by the way; barely punctured the skin). But far more interesting was this Horseshoe Crab we found lounging in the ebbing tide. I’ve found these guys before, but never alive, which this guy certainly was – I mean, he almost stabbed me with his tail when I tried to pick him up!

Once we reached the fabled jetty (which is, by the way, a pain in the ass to walk out to), we found a whole lot of… nothing. Not a single bird to reward us for our effort. Now convinced we’d made the journey in vain, we promptly turned around and headed back. James noticed a small flock of terns and Black-bellied Plovers by a lagoon in a protected zone just off the beach. We couldn’t venture closer, but my scope aided in identification – Royal, Sandwich, and Common Terns made up the bulk of the flock, and a pair of Wilson’s Plovers ran around nearby. But then a bird flew in that neither of us needed a scope to identify.

With just a hint of its future plumage starting to show in its face, this stunning Black Tern shown out against a flock of mostly white birds. Another flew in, this one even blacker than the last, and the first I’ve ever seen anywhere close to breeding plumage. It seems a little early for these guys to be heading down the coast, but then again it is nearly August. Shorebird migrants should be hitting the inland reservoirs in a couple of weeks, but thankfully it’s already begun on the South Carolina coast. Any earlier and we would have been skunked, but out here we’re right on time. It’s those little differences that make a trip like this worth it.

That's not even the half of it! Check back on Wednesday to find out how day two of our South Carolina adventure turned out!

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