Posts Tagged ‘yellow crowned night heron’

The Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge and Other Stops on a 27 Hour Overnight Trip

April 23, 2015


For the 8th anniversary of my 45th birthday, my wife suggested we go on a nature excursion.  I chose to visit Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge and Spring Island, an upscale development.  Pinckney Island was a worthwhile destination.  The trail on this island is wide and surfaced with hard-packed gravel.  I was able to push my wife’s wheelchair on the trail, so I didn’t have to leave her behind in the car.  The trail goes through maritime forest and salt marsh.  The maritime forest here consists of live oak, Carolina palmetto, and loblolly pine with an undergrowth of saw palmetto.  Quacks sell an extract made from saw palmetto berries that is supposed to reduce the size of enlarged prostate glands, but 2 large trial studies found no evidence it works beyond a placebo effect.  However, the berries are good food for wildlife, and the Indians ate them too.  Cordgrass dominates the salt marsh.  I saw fiddler crabs (Uca sp.) crawling around the mud flats during low tide.


Maritime forest of live oak, Carolina palmetto, and loblolly pine.


Saw palmetto.  Quacks use an extract from the berries to treat enlarged prostates.


Young Carolina or Sable palmetto.


Salt marsh with a maritime forest hammock in the distance.


Fiddler crabs.  Click on the photo to enlarge.

We went to the Ibis Pond about 1 mile from the parking lot.  It’s a freshwater pond covered with green algae, fertilized by abundant bird guano.  Egrets and herons nest in the willow trees growing in the pond.  I saw great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, yellow-crowned night herons, black crowned night herons, and little blue herons. Some had fledgling young in the nests.  I also saw an unusually large boat-tailed grackle, and there were coots swimming in the water.  One bird stymied my attempts at identification, and I saw this bird on the following day at the Savanna River NWR.  It had brownish-orange wings and a striped belly.  The closest match in my bird guide was a Louisiana water thrush, but I’m not sure what it was.  We were about to go back to the car, and I remarked that we hadn’t seen any ibis at the Ibis Pond.  As soon as I said this, a flock of about 15-20 white ibis flew overhead and landed in the trees, but they were too far away to photograph.  A person could spend a whole day on trails here, but the evening winds were too chilly for my wife, and it was past suppertime.  We went back to the car.  I was impressed anyway.


White ibis pond.  I saw 3 species of egrets, 3 species of herons, and white ibis here.  It’s an impressive rookery and worth a visit.


Yellow crowned night heron and nest.  Click on the photo to enlarge.


The boat-tailed grackle in the middle of the photo was bigger than a large crow.  I didn’t know they got this big.


View of the waterway that separates Pinckney Island from the mainland.

Spring Island Fox Squirrels

Reportedly, Spring Island, South Carolina has the densest fox squirrel population in the southeast.  The paper referenced below estimates a population of 187 fox squirrels per square mile on Spring Island compared to 98 fox squirrels per square mile in areas of the coastal plain where they still exist.  (I converted the figures from the square kilometers given in the paper.)  Fox squirrels are nearly absent from the piedmont and mountain regions.  This species prefers mature open woodlands with widely spaced trees and grassy understories, while gray squirrels prefer young dense forests with woody understories.  Fox squirrels were formerly more common in the south because Indians set fire to the woods every few years, creating their favored habitat.  However, researchers discovered that conditions on Spring Island favor gray squirrels, yet fox squirrels are common here.  They believe frequently mowed golf courses, and a field planted in wheat on the island have helped maintain this large population of fox squirrels.  I wanted to see this population because I hypothesize fox squirrels were also common during the Pleistocene when their habitat was shaped by foraging activities of now extinct megafauna. (See:

I suspected Spring Island might be a gated community, and my suspicions proved to be accurate.  I thought I’d con my way on the island.  I told the security guard I was interested in purchasing a property on the island, hoping they would just let me drive on the island.  She referred me to a real estate agent in an office located next to the gate.  The agent was willing to show me the island in his car, but I didn’t want to get stuck with a boring salesman, so I declined the opportunity.  There are lots available on the island for as little as $10,000, but to become a Spring Island property owner requires an initiation fee of $15,000, plus annual dues for country club crap.  I’m a working class dude, not a country club kind of guy.


A black fox squirrel on Callasawatchie Drive about 100 yards before the entrance to Spring Island.  Spring Island is a gated community.  I couldn’t con my way inside without being accompanied by a boring real estate agent, so I couldn’t investigate the densest population of this species in the south.  Click on the photo to enlarge.


Black vultures on Chechessee Road, near Spring Island.  I saw more black vultures on this trip than any other species of bird.

I did see a beautiful black fox squirrel on Callasawatchie Drive about 100 yards from the security gate.  It wasn’t a completely wasted trip, but we had an hour before lunch.  I decided to revisit the

Savannah River NWR.

This refuge consists of abandoned rice fields left fallow since the end of the Civil War.  I’ve been here before, and some day I’m going to visit during winter when migrant ducks flock here.  On this visit I walked on an old dike and immediately saw a marsh hawk hovering low over the ground looking and listening for rodents.  Red-winged blackbirds and boat-tailed grackles nest in the high grass.  These are the birds that migrate in huge flocks during early winter.  FYI, the rice dikes are pock-marked with fire ant mounds, and I stumbled over several while looking in the air for birds.  In addition to the 3 birds species already mentioned, I saw red-shouldered hawk, osprey,  black vulture, great blue heron, smaller unidentified herons, great egret, cattle egret, anhinga, cormorant, wood stork, coot, a cardinal, and maybe a Louisiana water thrush.  Near the Savannah River that I think is part of this refuge, I saw several terns.  Reptiles seen included several alligators and young soft-shelled turtles.


Muddy alligator sunning itself at the Savannah River NWR.


I saw a greater variety of birds at the Savannah River NWR than anywhere else on this trip. Various species of blackbirds nest in these grassy wet prairies.


Monday evening we ate supper at Captain Woody’s in Blufton, South Carolina.  They offer signature fish sandwiches on their menu–$13.99 for grouper, $11.99 for triggerfish, and $9.99 for fish of the day.  Their fish of the day was tilapia, a fish I can get anytime.  I picked the triggerfish because I’ve never even seen it on a menu before.  It was delicious, like the best filet of sole.


Captain Woody’s in Blufton, South Carolina.


I ate a giant triggerfish sandwich.  It was delicious.


Anita had a shrimpburger. Even though it had bell pepper in it, she didn’t get sick.

On the way home Tuesday, we stopped by the Schnitzel Shack in Rincon, Georgia.  They offer a menu that is half Thai and half German.  It’s a bit overpriced…I payed $13.95 for what basically were a couple of big fat hotdogs.  The décor consists of mostly Marilyn Monroe memorabilia.  The waitress looked like Marilyn Monroe but without the blonde hair and with piercings and tattoos.  All the best looking young ladies I saw on this trip had tattoos.  If I was a young man, I’d have to reconsider my rule against dating women with tattoos.  I think tattoos are stupid but could learn to overlook them on a woman with a buxom build.


The Schnitzel Shack in Rincon, Georgia.


The menu is half Thai, half German. It’s a bit overpriced.


I ate knockwurst, red cabbage, and German potato salad.  Too bad I had to drive.  Beer would have been great with this.


Lee, James; David Osborn and Karl Miller

“Habitat Use by a Dense Population of Southern Fox Squirrels”

Southeastern Naturalist 8 (1) 2009

Alligator and Heron

July 28, 2013

I once proposed that alligators saved all terrestrial life on earth.  An adult alligator establishes a territory and digs a deep hole in a marsh or swamp where water pools deeper than in the surrounding environment.  These gator holes help them survive droughts and cold fronts, and they also attract other aquatic animals such as fish, frogs, turtles, waterfowl, wading birds, raccoons and other mammals.  Following the fiery K-T impact 65 million years ago, all the dinosaurs died, but crocodiles and alligators along with the animals that sought refuge in their holes, survived.  Everything above ground literally cooked in the superheated atmosphere caused by the friction of asteroid fragments igniting oxygen.  I shared my hypothesis with a paleontologist, but she was skeptical.  She acknowledged that freshwater organisms suffered a lower extinction rate than dry land and marine species.  However, she didn’t think my hypothesis was testable.  Maybe, it’s an exaggeration to claim that alligators saved all  terrestrial life, but ecologists agree they play a crucial role in fostering wildlife populations in the modern day world.

Gator hole in the Big Cypress Preserve in Florida.

The presence of alligators is beneficial for heron and egret rookeries.  Herons and egrets nest in trees located in wetlands, particularly on islands surounded by alligator-patrolled waters.  Alligators do feed upon the occasional nestling that falls from the nest, but they also take a heavy toll on raccoons, opposums, and even bobcats that would otherwise swim to the island, climb into the rookery, and feast on the eggs or nestlings.  The herons in turn benefit the alligators because their manure fertilizes the water and this increases the abundance of fish.

Heron rookery in Venice, Florida.

alligator eating an opossum

Alligator tearing up a possum.  Possums are notorius egg-eaters.

The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) is one of the most spectacular birds of America, and they are common–I see them quite often everywhere.  Green herons (Butoroides stroutal) are supposed to be the most common heron, but I’ve only seen them a handful of times.   Great egrets (Cameroides albus) are about as common as great blue herons, though they seem more tied to larger bodies of water.  By contrast, I’ve seen great blue herons flying over busy highways and hunting in small creeks.  Little blue herons (Egretta caerulea) are supposed to be uncommon, but I’ve seen them more often than I’ve seen green herons.  I saw a yellow crowned night heron (Nyctocorax urolicea) for the first time this summer at Wakulla Springs, Florida.  It was shy and ducked into the weeds.

Great gray heron catching a European rabbit in the Netherlands.  Great blue herons also prey upon rabbits and rodents.  Audubon kept a great blue heron as a pet.  His children were upset when it swallowed their sleeping pet cat.

Yellow crowned night heron with a crayfish.

Scientists studying the Clarks Quarry fossil site near Brunswick, Georgia expressed surprise over the relative lack of abundance of alligator fossils, though the site yielded plenty of remains of aquatic birds.  Alligator fossils were found here, just not as many as one would expect.  Random chance may explain why there were fewer alligator fossils than expected, but I recently realized a possible alternative explanation.  Fossils from Clarks Quarry date to ~14,000 calender years BP.  This was before sea levels and the water table rose to  those of the present day.  Between ~30,000 BP-~7,000 BP, swamps and other wetlands where alligators thrive were rare relic habitats.  Moreover, winters were harsher and summers cooler, even in south Georgia during much of this era.  Alligator populations were at a low ebb in Georgia during the Ice Age.  Yet, they continued to live in low numbers wherever suitable habitat remained.  Alligators withstood the fire of the K-T impact and the icy dry conditions of the Pleistocene.  They are amazing survivers.

Wakulla Springs, Shellpoint Beach, and The St. Marks Wildlife Refuge

June 6, 2013

The drive from Augusta, Georgia to the Florida panhandle takes over 7 hours.  I chose a route of mostly back country highways that bisect farmland, abandoned farmland, and second growth forest.  I saw almost as many species of birds while traveling on these back roads as I did when I visited Wakulla Springs State Park the following day, but spotting birds while driving 60 mph is not as enjoyable as spying them on a leisurely boat ride.  We stayed at the Best Western Hotel in Medart–a beautiful, clean, and spacious base of operations for my natural history explorations.  I went for a swim after the exhausting hot drive and was excited to find a dead giant waterbug in the swimming pool.

Wakulla Springs 001

Giant waterbug. (Lethocerus ? sp.).  They prey on tadpoles and minnows by grasping them with their front legs and sucking the life out of them.  They’re considered a delicacy in Asia. 

Wakulla Springs 002

Courtyard of the Best Western Hotel in Medart.  It’s newer and nicer than the Wakulla Springs Lodge.

We went to Wakulla Springs State Park the next day, and the rich variety of wildlife quickly eliminated any doubt over my choice of vacation.  Even my wife and daughter were impressed, and they don’t share my love of nature.  The cost of admission is $6–a pittance compared to the value.  We saw 4 manatees and big schools of mullet right away before we even went on the boat ride.

Wakulla Springs 007

Mastodon leg bone excavated from Wakulla Springs.  Most of the Pleistocene mammal fossils were collected between 1859-1930.  I doubt there are any left to find.  During the Ice Ages many rivers in Florida dried up and the river beds consisted of isolated springs instead.

Wakulla Springs 004

Here’s a big school of mullet in the crystal clear waters of the spring.  I tried to take a photo of the manatees, but they weren’t at a good angle and they don’t show up clearly in the picture I took.

One of the flat-bottomed boats was handicapped accessible, so my wife was able to go with us.  Rides cost $8 per adult.  The captain serves as a guide and identifies all the plants and animals on the 45 minute journey.  A flat bottomed boat is necessary because the water is shallow, except where it bubbles up from a deep underground cavern.

Wakulla Springs 008

Map of the springs underground.  Several roads are as much as 200 feet above the underground part of the springs.  Signs on the local roads let drivers know this fact.  I guess that’s so drivers won’t be surprised if the road collapses.

The bird life is spectacular.  I saw a cattle egret rookery, common egrets, a great blue heron, little blue herons, a green heron, a yellow crowned night heron, a white ibis, wood ducks, pied billed grebes, anhingas, ospreys, coots, prothonotory warblers, red-winged blackbirds, crows, mockingbirds, and blue jays.  I also heard a woodpecker.  This was the first time I’d ever seen 3 of these species–the yellow crowned night heron, the white ibis, and the prothonotory warblers.   I have seen ospreys before, but this was the first time I ever saw an osprey nest, though I saw one again the following day at Otter Lake.  The guide said just about every tree snag was home to a wood duck nest.

Wakulla Springs 011

Cattle egret rookery.  I really need to get a telephoto lens.  Cattle egrets are common all across the rural countryside now where they hunt for insects stirred up by livestock and farm machinery.

Wakulla Springs 020

White ibis.  This was the first time I’d ever seen this species.

Wakulla Springs 017

If you enlarge the photo, you can see the wood duck in the middle of the picture.  Wood ducks are abundant here.

Alligators and large turtles known as Suwannee cooters were common.  We also saw a soft shelled turtle.

Wakulla Springs 016

Alligator in the upper left hand corner.  The Suwannee cooters were too far away for me to get a photo.

The water was so clear I could see the bottom everywhere, even in the deepest part of the spring, despite the guide’s claim that the water wasn’t clear enough that day to see the bottom in the deepest part which is 90 feet.  Looking into the spring was like looking into an aquarium.  We could see all the fish.  Mullet swam in big schools and was by far the most abundant fish, but I saw several long-nosed gar, 3 black and white sunfish, a warmouth sunfish, and someone else saw a bowfin.  Little red crayfish crawled on the sandy bottom.  It’s easy to understand why native Americans inhabited the area around Wakulla Springs for 15,000 years.  Spear-fishing was a cinch.  They had such a great variety of easily obtainable animal and plant foods that they could remain well fed without agriculture.  Fish, duck, turtle, squirrel, manatee, and deer were available protein year round.  Duck potato (Sagitteria sp.), cattails, wild rice, nuts, and acorns provided the starches.

Originally, Wakulla Spring had a mostly sandy and limestone bottom, but invasive hydrilla now covers much of it and gives the water a greenish tint.  The water wells up from deep underground, and the chill surprised me when I went for a swim after the boat ride.  I saw cold blooded reptiles swimming in the water and mistakenly assumed the water would be warm, like a bathtub.  Instead, the water temperature was at least 20 degrees F cooler than the air temperature.  What a shock.

The woods around Wakulla Springs consist of white oak, live oak, hickory, sweetgum, cypress, red maple, ash, loblolly pine, pond pine, willow, dogwood, and wax myrtle.  The trees are large and much of the tract looks like it holds virgin timber.  The productive hickory supports an abundant population of gray squirrels.

Wakulla Springs 026

Picnickers left their lunches unattended while they went swimming.  Crows and squirrels were in the process of looting their food.  I saw a crow fly off with half a sandwich.

Wakulla Springs 003

Spanish moss covers this white oak in the parking lot.  It had unusual leaves for a white oak.

Wakulla Springs 027

Hickory trees are abundant here.  This 3-pronged one is quite large.

Wakulla Springs 023

This cypress tree is 5 feet in diameter.  Scientists cored it and found it to be 200 years old.  A cypress tree next to it is less than 1/2 this tree’s size in diameter, yet scientists found it was 600 (yes 600) years old.  It had s stunted growth due to nutrient deficiency.

Wakulla Springs 012

Pickerel weed (the purple) and duck potato (Sagitteria) blooming.

Cypress wood is rot resistant.  The guide noted a leaning dead cypress snag in the middle of the channel that looked like it was about to fall over.  He said it looked that way when he first started working in the park…in 1957.  Pickerel weed and duck potato were blooming.  I saw 2 kinds of grape vines growing in the woods including muscadine and some type of bunch grape that had a lot of young grapes on it.  As we left the park, we saw a white tail deer feeding in the middle of the day.

Shellpoint Beach

We arrived at Shellpoint Beach about midmorning and had the whole beach to ourselves before other sunbathers joined us 30 minutes later.  I didn’t find any interesting sea shells.  Oyster shells were the only common ones here.  Shellpoint Beach juts into Apalachee Bay and is known more for fishing than swimming.  There are seasons for grouper, red snapper, sea trout, cobia, and scallop harvesting.  There are no waves over 8 inches and those are caused by boats.  Laughing gulls and boat-tailed grackles hang around the pavilion, hoping to share scraps with picnickers.

Wakulla Springs 030

Nice pavilion at Shellpoint Beach, Florida.

Wakulla Springs 031

Apalachee Bay, Florida.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge sprawls all along the coast of Apalachee Bay.  I visited the northern half during the heat of midday which is the worst time for viewing wildlife.  Nevertheless, I saw a turkey as soon as I pulled into the refuge.  Near the lighthouse, several naive juvenile cotton rats foraged at the base of the palm.  They didn’t know they were supposed to be afraid of us.

Wakulla Springs 034

St. Mark’s Lighthouse.  It’s 180 years old.  It’s not open to the public.  I assume park officials are worried about liability issues.  Too many suicides.

Wakulla Springs 036

Young cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus).  It didn’t know it was supposed to be afraid of us.  Herons eat these mammals.  I’ve seen these quite often in roadside dtiches but never close up.  I didn’t realize they are a cute animal, especially compared to invasive Norway rats.

Wakulla Springs 039

A saltwater storm surge killed these loblolly pines in 2008, creating an open habitat.

Wakulla Springs 038

A freshwater lilly pond within the wildlife refuge.  Home to alligators, largemouth bass, shellcracker bream, bullhead and channel catfish, and warmouth.

Later that evening, I went to the southern part of the St. Marks NWR to look for fox squirrels.  An article in The Eagle Eye, a pamphlet published by the refuge biologists, reported the presence of fox squirrels in a pine flatwoods near Otter Lake.  I didn’t see any fox squirrels, but I spotted a pair of endangered cockaded woodpeckers.

Wakulla Springs 044

I saw  2 red cockaded woodpeckers in this vicinity.  I didn’t even bother trying to photograph them without a telephoto lens.  Refuge officials maintain this environment with fire which is evident from the abundance of burned wood on the ground.  Frequent signs say “We prevent wildfire with prescribed fire.”  Actually, prescribed fire is no more beneficial than wildfire.

This pine flatwoods hosts loblolly pine, live oak, southern red oak, runner oak, saw palmetto, grasses, and ferns.  The mosquitoes weren’t bad this time of year in Florida but a species of yellow-green horsefly or deerfly was bothersome.  They thought I tasted good.

Wakulla Springs 045

There’s no swimming at Otter Lake.  The sign warns of alligators.  I heard sheep frogs here.

Wakulla Springs 048

There’s an osprey nest in this snag.  Note the osprey at the top of the tree.

To top off my trip, while I was driving home through Emanuel County, Georgia, I saw some endangered wood storks foraging in a flooded ditch in a farmer’s field.  I was satisfied with seeing a white ibis and wood storks until I arrived home and read a vintage ornithology book written in the early 20th century.  That author saw 25,000 white ibis on a wet prairie in Florida and 5,000 wood storks at a rookery also in Florida.  The Florida of 1910 is gone forever.

Wakulla County Eats

We dined at 3 restaurants in Wakulla County during our stay.  I thought Barwick’s Seafood and Deli was the best,  I ate grilled mullet and it was excellent, though I suspect it was broiled or sauteed rather than grilled.  All the local family restaurants have $12 entrees and $9 sandwiches.  Popular items found at most of them include fried seafood of all kinds (mullet, shrimp, flounder, catfish), grilled grouper sandwiches,  and pulled pork barbeque smothered in an overly sweet sauce.  An interesting breakfast item on the menu at the Coastal Restaurant is mullet and eggs.  Mullet is really abundant in Florida.  Many of the locals order farm raised catfish instead.  Catfish is bland compared to mullet.  One stand offers smoked mullet dip.  Most of these restaurants could shave a few dollars off their prices, if they didn’t serve ridiculous oversize portions.  No wonder Americans are so fat.  I had 5 slices of mullet on my plate, plus a big pile of french fries and hushpuppies and a salad bar.  Do Americans really expect dinners this large?  I’m a member of the clean plate club and managed to finish my portion, but I exercise hard everyday.

The worst restaurant was Hamahocker’s Barbeque.  I ate their smoked brisket.  I’m pretty sure smoked brisket is supposed to be more tender than shoe leather.  The potato salad tasted like someone dumped a load of sugar on it.  I like my own cooking better than any restaurant, but I can’t cook when I’m staying in a hotel.