18 September 2017

Eclipse watch of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, banded Piping Plovers and Reddish Egret white morph continues on Bulls.

Sun 27 Aug 2017

For last Monday’s total solar eclipse watch, I really wanted to watch for animal behavioral changes during the eclipse. After many plans, alternate plans, modified plans, and final plans, my wife joined me at the intersection of I’on Swamp Road and Willow Hall Road, both gravel Forest Service roads in the Francis Marion National Forest and home to a known Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCWO) colony. RCWOs take years to excavate a cavity in a living tree (living wood is much harder than dead wood favored by all other woodpeckers) and live as an extended family unit and permanent residents in several nearby cavities. During daylight RCWOs will forage widely through the forest and are known to return to their family colony cavities just prior to sunset for roosting. It was this “return to roost” behavior that I had hoped to observe during the eclipse. 

A scouting trip to this longleaf pine forest location on Friday 11 Aug 2017 in the couple of hours preceding sunset confirmed the presence of RCWOs at the intersection, but I did not observe a specific “return to roost” behavior associated with sunset on that day. Unfortunately during the eclipse watch I did not tally any RCWOs at all. Both the scouting trip and the eclipse watch were relatively quiet bird wise. There are many possible reasons why the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers didn’t return to roost at either sunset or eclipse. Sunset is a much more prolonged and gradual event than a total solar eclipse. As a matter of fact, I was very surprised by the marginal loss of light intensity during partial eclipse and the very rapid change of light intensity as totality began and ended. (Rather than light diminution during the partial eclipse I perceived instead a subtle change of light quality; just prior to totality colors seemed muted but perceived light intensity remained relatively high as measured with a handheld light meter.) 

As eclipse totality began, sunlight intensity decreased so rapidly that I briefly wished for a flashlight with which to write notes on my clipboard. Once my eyes quickly accommodated during totality, I was able to enjoy seeing the eclipse through binoculars, a planet that became clearly visible high in the SSE sky, spots of solar flares, and the beads along the edge of the moon signaling the end of totality. But no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. A negative result, but a result. 

One modest animal behavior that we witnessed, however, related to the palamedes swallowtails that were at our forest location. Several palamedes swallowtails were standing on the gravel roadway in a tight formation; they were vibrating their wings, not really fluttering their wings so much as vibrating wings, bodies, and legs. During eclipse totality all the palamedes swallowtails left the roadway flying off into the woods. Sixteen minutes after totality ended, the first palamedes swallowtails returned and by 22 minutes after totality were once again standing in formation on the roadway. A second animal behavior was the multitude of frogs in the forest that began calling during totality, having been quiet during full daylight and partial eclipse, but calling ceased within 4 minutes after totality ended. 

I caught the CEX ferry out to Bulls Island last Thursday 24 Aug 2017 for the ongoing waterfowl/shorebird survey. I hadn’t been on the ferry for some months, but Captain Wil Christenson and First Mate Nick Johnson graciously ferried me out at the last minute. We were able to share brief stories about Monday’s total solar eclipse experiences and wonder whether the Spartina alterniflora (salt marsh cordgrass) was producing seedheads early. 

Water levels in the impoundments on Bulls remain high (full but not overflowing). Sea oats are growing great on the North Beach, the inlet from the oceanfront saltwater marsh (at Jack’s) has been closed off (silted in) leaving relatively high saltwater levels in that marsh, and the beaches continue to be resculpted by the winds and waves. Fall shorebird migration continues and some summer resident birds appear to have left. 

There were four banded Piping Plovers (PIPL), plus two unbanded, on the North Beach including three that have been tallied on Bulls before. Of particular note was the PIPL banded as: Of,YG:X,O (Orange flag upper L, Yellow over Green lower L: metal upper R, Orange band lower R), also fondly known to her banders as Bahama Mama, so named because she spends her winters in the Bahamas. Interestingly this is the third consecutive migratory season when she has used Bulls Island as a migratory stopover spot. I hope that Bahama Mama will continue to use Bulls during migration; it is fascinating to understand how Bulls Island is so important as both wintering grounds and migratory stopover for Piping Plovers.

Of,YG:X,O, a.k.a., Bahama Mama

There was another white morph Reddish Egret (REEG), presumably the same seen during the last survey (see previous blog posting, below, for picture) and this time it had a red morph REEG friend hanging out in the same location. Misses on this survey included Least Bittern, White Ibis, Western Sandpiper, and Black-necked Stilt.


P.S. I was unable to conduct a survey in early Sept as everyone was in hurricane prep mode prior to hurricane Irma. I do have a report on Bulls to share from the Coastal Expeditions web site:


17 August 2017

Piping Plovers, a rare white morph Reddish Egret, Least Bittern juveniles, and yellow-flowered water-lily

Wed 16 Aug 2017

Early fall shorebird migration continues on Bulls Island over the last two waterfowl/shorebird surveys while many summer resident gulls, terns, and shorebirds remain. On the Wed 26 July 2017 survey the heavens opened up dumping 2.70 inches of rain on the island, most of it in about 45 minutes. Fortunate timing for me, I walked off of the North Beach with the leading edge of the rain and into the protected environs of a pickup truck. Then the rains, thunder, and lightening really came down hard and fast. Safe enough, I merely ate lunch and occasionally peaked at the shorebirds resolutely hunkered down in the oceanfront saltwater marsh at Jack’s Creek; having no where to go, they seemed simply to endure. After that deluge there was merely light rain on and off for the rest of the day. The Fri 11 Aug 2017 survey offered a more typical hot and humid weather pattern and was, thus, much less remarkable on that story line.

Summer resident species including Black-necked Stilt, Black Tern, Least Tern, and Least Bittern continue in high numbers. I was able to take a passable photograph of the first juvenile Least Bitterns that I recall having ever seen. Can you see two juveniles in the first photograph? There’s a hint at the end if you need help.

juvenile Least Bitterns

mature Least Bittern 

Other species of note included American Avocet (5, all already showing paler basic plumage), Marbled Godwit, Great Black-backed Gull, and Common Tern. Returning migrant species included both Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Sandpipers. 

On both surveys I tallied Piping Plovers (PIPL), at least two of which were banded. On the 26 July survey all four PIPL flew before I could read any bands, but on the 11 Aug survey I was able to read bands on two and have submitted a report back to the banders. Dr. Peter Paton (Dept. of Natural Resources Science, Univ. of Rhode Island) writes back that one PIPL (banded with a green flag bearing “T2K” code): “T2K is a male banded on 19 May 2017 at Napatree RI.” I bumped into Melissa Bimbi Chaplin on the North Beach while she was multitasking on nesting turtle patrol, seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus) (there are North Beach dune plantings of this federally threatened species that she was checking on), and shorebirds. Melissa had been seeing these same banded PIPLs for about three weeks on Bulls, but we don’t yet know if Bulls is merely a migrant stop-over site or will become the main residence of these specific birds. 

Reddish Egrets (REEG) have also been back in their usual location at the oceanfront marsh at Jack’s. I tallied an immature juvenile REEG on 26 July but was really surprised by a rare white morph Reddish Egret on 11 Aug. This white egret first caught my eye because it was “dancing” for its food; I’ve seen other egrets and herons do fair imitations of the typical REEG “dance,” so I was thinking that this was just a Snowy Egret that had learned the dance from a Reddish Egret. When I finally got around to scoping this obvious bird out of hundreds of other birds at the same marsh, I immediately knew that it was neither a Snowy Egret (wrong leg color and bill color) nor an immature Little Blue Heron (again wrong leg color and bill color). A quick check of my field guide confirmed: Reddish Egret, white morph. 

Reddish Egret, white morph

Keith Bradley was doing a botanical survey on Bulls for the refuge and rode out and back with me on the 26 July survey. He, too, was fortunate to have a truck as a retreat from the day’s deluge. He was pleased to see the abundance of yellow-flowered water-lilies to be found in Lower Summerhouse Pond. However, rather than being the common and widely dispersed fragrant water-lily (or sweet water-lily, Nymphaea odorata, typically bearing white or, more rarely, pink flowers and seen in great abundance at Donnelley WMA, for example), these yellow-flowered water-lilies were an entirely different and far rarer species, Nymphaea mexicana. Restricted primarily to the immediate coast from N.C. down and around to Mississippi, this species is probably introduced. (Radford, Ahles, and Bell. 1968. Manual of the vascular flora of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, UNC Press.) Bulls Island is always producing rarities it seems.

water-lily, Nymphaea mexicana

My eBird checklists for the two outings are available at:


Looking ahead at the tidal calendar suggests the following dates to consider for our next survey:

Thurs 24 Aug 2017 5.6 ft high tide forecast at 10:30 AM
Fri 25 Aug 2017 5.5 ft high tide forecast at 11:17 AM


Hint: Can’t find the second juvenile Least Bittern? Look just above and behind the first, out-in-the-open bird for the head and neck of a second in profile facing right.