Wild Ideas

Rappahannock News - - COUNTRYSIDE - PAM OWEN wil­dideas.va@gmail.com

Crit­ter en­coun­ters on the Outer Banks, part 1

This year I spent the au­tum­nal equinox on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, look­ing for wildlife spe­cific to this coastal ecosys­tem, es­pe­cially tiny crit­ters.

Al­though decades ago a friend of mine and I had started rent­ing a large beach­front house in Corolla that we shared with friends over La­bor Day week, I’d rarely been able to make it down in re­cent years. Over that time, her fam­ily had taken over the ar­range­ments, this year rent­ing a huge house on Pine Is­land a bit later in the month. With the help of friends in the group, I made it down for what we thought might be the swan song for this an­nual rit­ual.

For the first three days, we mostly stayed in­side, watch­ing the ocean roil and tear at the beach as Hur­ri­cane Jose passed by. Go­ing out­side meant be­ing scoured by mois­ture-laden, per­sis­tent winds of 30 miles per hour or more, with higher gusts. Fi­nally, on Wed­nes­day (Sept. 20), the wind and ocean calmed, and we en­joyed sunny skies, gen­tle breezes and day­time tem­per­a­tures in the 80s for the rest of the week.

I spent most dawns on the beach watch­ing ghost crabs, which had fas­ci­nated me since my first visit to an At­lantic beach as a child. At night, these small land crabs ven­ture into the surf, hunt­ing small prey and scav­eng­ing for other bits of food brought in by the waves. Their col­or­ing helps them blend into the sandy en­vi­ron­ment, ap­pear­ing ghost­like as they scurry around the beach. As the sun comes up, they dig bur­rows away from the surf, tak­ing shel­ter in them from sun and preda­tors dur­ing the day.

As with ob­serv­ing other skit­tish wildlife, I’ve learned that sit­ting still and soft­en­ing my gaze to bring my pe­riph­eral vi­sion more fully into play en­ables me to eas­ily de­tect the crabs’ move­ment in the dim light. By my be­ing still, the crabs also be­gin to take me for granted as part of the scenery. Oc­ca­sion­ally one would stop its ex­ca­vat­ing and stare at me — or per­haps past me — from the edge of its bur­row. Was it as­sess­ing me as a po­ten­tial preda­tor, pon­der­ing the mean­ing of its life in the face of the im­men­sity of the ocean, or just tak­ing a break from its daily ex­ca­vat­ing?

Among the shore­birds work­ing the beach were sev­eral species of gull, in­clud­ing her­ring, laughing and ring-billed. And ubiq­ui­tous lit­tle sander­lings, em­blem­atic of the Outer Banks, con­stantly fol­lowed the waves in and out, for­ag­ing for prey car­ried in by the wa­ter. Fly­ing over the wa­ter, skim­mers and pel­i­cans also searched for food. We saw no dolphins or whales this year, per­haps be­cause of Hur­ri­cane Jose.

Some­times I watched the dunes from a deck. Grace­ful sea oats waved from their tops, and the shel­tered side was thick with waxy shrubs and other plants, of­fer­ing good habi­tat for in­sects, lizards, cat­birds and other small­ish an­i­mals. Large drag­on­flies and yel­low cloud­less sul­phur but­ter­flies of­ten flew over the veg­e­ta­tion, never alight­ing. On the other side of the house, at­tached to the car­port, a large black and yel­low gar­den spi­der had con­structed a web that, while shabby, snared enough in­sects to keep her fed.

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of the won­der­ful weather, a few house­mates joined me Wed­nes­day morn­ing for one of my fa­vorite short walks on the Cur­rituck Sound side of Corolla, near the Cur­rituck Beach Light­house. The boarded walk­way there took us through thick wet­land for­est and through marsh that has mostly been taken over by tall, non­na­tive grasses and reeds. At the end, a pier of­fered a great view of the sound. The tide had re­ceded, leav­ing ex­posed mud­flats marked by the tracks of birds, mam­mals and snakes. Out in the sound, a small blue heron hunted in the shal­lows, while a flock of el­e­gant royal terns nois­ily staged ex­cur­sions from a bar of mud that stuck out of the wa­ter.

After the walk, my friends headed for the light­house while I strolled over to the Whale­head Club to look for more wildlife. Orig­i­nally built for well-off wa­ter­fowl hunters in the 1930s, the house had been re­stored to its former art deco splen­dor and turned into a mu­seum. The well­groomed grounds ad­join a county park and of­fered beau­ti­ful old live oaks, a small pond, and a spit that reaches out into the sound.

As I walked around the pond, I saw nu­mer­ous east­ern painted tur­tles pok­ing their heads above the sur­face and dozens of small frogs jumped into the wa­ter. In the shal­lows, a small blue heron hunted for such prey.

But what re­ally caught my eye were the nu­mer­ous drag­on­flies fly­ing around the shrubs, grasses and reeds along the pond’s edge. Oc­ca­sion­ally they alighted but, typ­i­cal of these in­sects, quickly flew off when I ap­proached. As with the crabs, I sat on the ground and waited for them to come to me. I was soon re­warded with closeup views of the most com­mon dragon­fly at the pond, the east­ern pond­hawk, a medium-sized species found around wa­ter through­out much of the east­ern United States. While the males are a lovely pow­dery blue, the fe­males’ neon-green col­or­ing is more eye-catch­ing. A few dam­sel­flies, cousins of the drag­on­flies, alighted briefly near me.

In ex­am­in­ing the veg­e­ta­tion, I also found a lovely black jump­ing spi­der with white mark­ings, Eris

flava. But the big­gest thrill for me that day was to dis­cover a one-inch, bright­green frog — a squir­rel treefrog — asleep on the thin brown trunk of a tiny, dead holly right in front of me. I might have missed it had it cho­sen to take its daily slum­ber on any of the sur­round­ing green plants in­stead.

Later that day, I in­dulged one of my fa­vorite Outer Banks rit­u­als — eat­ing a crab­cake at the Blue Point res­tau­rant. This year, some of my house­mates and I ate on the new out­door deck, which of­fered great views of the sound. Tak­ing a break to walk along wa­ter’s edge, I dis­cov­ered a young north­ern wa­ter­snake mak­ing its way through the wa­ter, quickly dis­ap­pear­ing into the thick veg­e­ta­tion of the marsh there.

The day ended with a beau­ti­ful sun­set, drinks on the beach and, for me, more wildlife ob­ser­va­tions — a day in par­adise for this crit­ter lover.

(See the slideshow for this col­umn on­line at rapp­news.com/wil­dideas, and read about more crit­ter en­coun­ters on the Outer Banks in my next col­umn.)

BY PAM OWEN

As the sun rises, a her­ring gull lands on the beach at Pine Is­land.

BY PAM OWEN

The grow­ing dawn light re­veals a tiny ghost crab also busy ex­ca­vat­ing a bur­row.

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