Deserted Island: Shackleford Banks

At the southern end of a 200-mile string of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast known as the Outer Banks is Cape Lookout National Seashore. And at the southern end of that is an uninhabited island called Shackleford Banks. I spent the day before Thanksgiving there with my parents.

The island is only accessible by boat but there are a couple of ferry services on the mainland in Beaufort. Beaufort itself is a cool little town established in 1709. It’s rich in history and very picturesque but its biggest claim to fame (and my favorite thing about it) is the fact the Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground just off its coast in 1718. The wreck was discovered in 1996 and is the subject of an ongoing archaeological research project.

You can view artifacts from the QAR in the NC Maritime Museum in Beaufort  which happened to be right across the street from our ferry service. So while we waited for our departure time, we got to wander about the museum examining artifacts from straight pins and tiny glass beads to cannon that had been buried under the shifting shoals of Beaufort Inlet for 300 years. To me, that’s a lot of fun and I tried to read every sign in the 45 minutes we had before our boat left.

Our ferry was a flat-bottomed skiff that offered no protection from the frigid late November wind which I thought it was invigorating. My parents looked slightly less thrilled, but 15 minutes of cold wind and spray seemed a small price to pay.

Leaving Beaufort in our wake.

We were plenty warm enough once we arrived at the island and hiked the half a mile through the dunes to the ocean side.

The sound side of the island where the boat dropped us.

My parents hiking across the island.

And when we got there, it was delightfully deserted.

There were just two people on the other side when we arrived and they were just leaving to catch the boat back.

The Gulf Stream passes at it’s closest just off shore here before swinging away to the east bringing with it plenty of shells more common to shores farther south.

I haven’t picked up a Florida fighting conch (lower right) since I was a kid beachcombing in Florida.

A broken queen’s helmet, also not common this far north.

There were also plenty of shorebirds…

…and a lone shrimp boat being swarmed by gulls.

And to my delight, a bonus. To visit the Cape Lookout Lighthouse (and take a photo of it making my collection of Outer Banks lighthouses almost complete), we would have to have taken another, longer boat ride and our mini-vacation just didn’t allow time for both trips. But when I took a closer look at this photo, I realized the Cape Lookout Light is just barely visible on the horizon.

See the tiny tiny lighthouse on the horizon? I say this counts.

And even more delightful, on the walk back across the island, we got to see some of the wild horses that have lived on the island for about  400 years.

Locals say the “banker ponies” are shipwreck survivors. You can find a more detailed history here.

So I’ve added another island to my mental list of favorite places, and I’ll be going back first chance I get.

How about ya’ll? What’s one of your favorite places and why?

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Catching Comet Dust – the Orionids

In 1066, Halley’s Comet appeared just before the Battle of Hastings. The comet passed particularly close to the earth that year and was described by witnesses as a bright new star in the heavens. King Harold of England took it as a bad omen that he would lose the battle to William the Conqueror which we know, of course, he did. And we also know now that the comet probably had very little to do with it.

Halley’s comet swings through the inner solar system making itself visible to all of us here on Earth once every 76 years. It was 1986 the last time it swung by, and it won’t be back until 2061. Since that’s kind of a long time to wait, it’s fortunate that anyone can see bits and pieces of the comet every year in October when the Earth passes through the trail of debris it left on its last pass. This morning, I got up two hours before dawn and went out to watch, and try to photograph, the Orionid meteor shower.

I didn’t see any meteors but managed to photograph three. With 25 to 30 second exposure times, that wasn’t so hard to manage. I pushed the button on the camera and fidgeted in the cold drinking my coffee until I heard the shutter close and then pushed the button again. After an hour, I came in, reviewed the photos, and found 3 faint streaks indicating meteors. Then I drank coffee, ate chocolate eyeballs (my favorite Halloween candy), and watched the X-Files on Netflix until the sun rose and my family eventually got up. Not a bad morning.

So here’s the best of my meteors:

A few other interesting things in the photo: The brightest star in the frame, to the left of the meteor trail, is Jupiter. It appears right in the middle of the constellation Taurus. Almost directly to the left, at the edge of the frame, are the three stars making up Orion’s Belt. The top half of that constellation is also visible in the frame. The star cluster, Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, is also visible at the bottom of the frame near the tree tops. (If you continue the line defined by the meteor streak, toward the bottom of the photo, it will pass just to the left of the cluster.)

I’m just learning about the night sky and at first, could rarely find anything other than Orion or the Big Dipper without help. I use several websites to gather information but my favorite tool is the planetarium software, Stellarium. Here are a couple of screen shots showing the same part of the sky in the photo.

And here’s one with the constellation lines drawn in:

How cool is that? Stellarium can be downloaded for free at http://www.stellarium.org/

Though the best viewing was forecasted for this morning before dawn, the Orionid meteor shower will continue through tonight. See more here:

http://earthsky.org/tonight/radiant-point-for-orionid-meteor-shower

If you liked this post or learning a bit about things that happen in the night sky, you might enjoy the account of the last meteor shower I lost sleep over:  Why I Stayed Up for the Perseids.

One September Morning

I met a traveler on the path.

My appearance did not please him. He seemed suspicious.

He demonstrated his steely gaze. I told him he was cute.

I followed a fluttering and it hid behind a flower. Look. The petal has antennae.

With most of the color drained away, it looks like this. Which do you like better?

I found this one hiding in the flowers.

There’s a second insect hiding in this image. Can you find it?

To be continued…

Carrots or Caterpillars?

My favorite thing about gardening is sometimes you get visitors. It’s not my partner’s favorite thing. She’s still put out, I think, that I didn’t save her carrots. But I was too busy taking pictures.

The problem is a basic difference in gardening philosophy. B is trying to grow food which I think is fun and amazing, but even more fun to me is attracting wildlife. Sometimes those goals aren’t at cross purposes. If you’re talking pollinators, for instance, flowering veggies and herbs are quite handy. They benefit from the visitation of various bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and I get photo ops. But most critters see only two uses for greenery – to lay eggs on, like the mother of all my lovely caterpillars did, or to eat. And if you’re growing food, you don’t want something eating it before you do – I get that. But look:

Aren’t they lovely? Before I tell you what they turn into, let me start at the beginning. Caterpillars are eating machines. Their only purpose is to eat as much as possible in order to fuel the changes to come. All these lovelies, started as eggs which hatched into something like this:

As they grow, caterpillars shed their skin several times. Each of these stages is called an instar and they can look quite different at different instars. This one is the second instar, I think. The first would have been even smaller and looked a lot like bird poo.

This is the maybe the third instar. It’s getting bigger, the color is changing but the knobby things are still present.

Eventually, we get to the fat, happy stage – the last instar before it’s ready enter the chrysalis stage. Most of mine were getting very close to this point.

In the meantime, I got to watch them completely denude B’s carrots of all leafiness.

And I learned that if you poke one, this orange organ will appear. It’s called an osmeterium and it emits a foul smell to discourage predators. How’s that for a superpower?

So for the last two days I’ve been hovering about my caterpillars waiting for one of them to move on to the next stage. This morning I went out and counted. Nine of fattest caterpillars had disappeared! I searched and searched, and found this:

The chrysalis. The last stage. I only found one. Where the other fat little larva went is a mystery. I scoured the garden and surrounding area. I’m afraid that perhaps their foul smelling superpower wasn’t enough to save them from hungry birds, though I prefer to believe that they are just particularly adept at finding a hidden spot to anchor themselves with silk and split their skin that last time to become a chrysalis.

The fun part is what happens inside the chrysalis. The body of the caterpillar will basically liquify and rebuild itself. And in 8 to 12 days a butterfly will emerge. So are you ready to see what kind?

A black swallowtail. (This one is a male.) Maybe my lonely little chrysalis will release a female. And  after it mates, maybe it will find a garden like mine with some dill or parsley or fennel or carrots to lay its eggs on and the whole process will start again.

Garden Variety Fun

A few years ago, my partner and I decided it would be good for us to have a garden – someplace to putter, to plant, to dig in the dirt and grow pretty things and salad things and mostly, serve as an excuse for us to get outside more often. We’re still not really good at it, but we learn a little every year, and I’m always tickled when we manage to not kill something. So here are a few garden things that have made me happy this year.

This was the first bloom on the clematis vine this spring. I planted it just last year and it stayed very small and bloomed just a couple of times. This year, it went crazy (not long after I took this photo), but I neglected to take a picture when it had a gazillion flowers. My mom always had one of these in her garden, and I always thought this color was the most awesome shade of coolness.

My partner and our youngest son love fried okra so she wanted to grow her own this year. They were the only plants in the garden that didn’t wilt during the wicked heat and dry spell in July. And now they’re producing okra quicker than I can harvest them. These things grow fast and are hard to kill – my kind of plant. It makes me feel like I know what I’m doing. I do, however, think okra in any form of food is revolting, but look what pretty flowers they have!

As I was hovering over the okra plants with my camera, a bee flew by my nose, landed on a flower, stuffed himself inside it, and didn’t come out. This is him. I think he went into some kind of pollen coma or something. He just stayed there kind of buzzing under his breath.

Thai basil. Also easy to grow and hard to kill. And it has pretty flowers that attract fun insects. This came up all over the front of the garden a few weeks ago. I thought it died over the winter.

Portrait of a tiny, tiny flower.

Sunflowers make me ridiculously happy. These are my first. They’re of the giant variety and so are taller than me and just started blooming a couple of days ago. I went out to take a photo of one and this Spicebush swallowtail was considerate enough to flutter up and plant himself (sorry, can never resist an awful pun) on my flower.

He really, really liked the flower but got irritated at my clicking at him and sailed off over the house a moment later.

Anybody else have fun stuff going on in your garden this year?

Why I Stayed Up for the Perseids

Because standing in my driveway at 3:00 AM next to a tripod holding my camera taking 30 second exposures over and over of a relatively small section of sky not polluted hopelessly by city lights, streetlights, porch lights and the rising moon on the off chance a meteor might steak through the frame just sounded like fun.

For the record, I was out there for about an hour and a half. Because of the poor viewing conditions, I saw less than a dozen Perseid meteors and I caught an image of just one. It was the second picture I shot, but that didn’t stop me from taking about 50 more exposures of dark patches of sky.

Here is my meteor:

Not perfect, I know, but it’s my first try, and I love it.

If you look near the right edge of the photo, you’ll see 5 bright stars in the shape of a sideways “W.” That’s Cassiopeia. The radiant point of the Perseid meteor shower, the point from which all the meteors appear to radiate, is near the constellation Perseus which is below and to the right of Cassiopeia (and not in the frame). It is made up of fainter stars and is more difficult to see, especially in a light-polluted sky. (See http://earthsky.org/tonight/wheres-the-radiant-point-for-the-perseids for a handy diagram.)

The Perseid Meteor shower occurs each year when the earth crosses the orbit of a comet called Swift-Tuttle which orbits the earth once every 130 years leaving a path of dust and debris behind it. Each August, as the earth passes through this comet dust, we get a light show as the bits enter our atmosphere and burn up leaving bright streaks across the sky.

The best viewing time for the Perseid shower is after Perseus rises above the horizon, which was after midnight. I waited until 1:00 to set up my camera. That would give me a couple of hours to shoot for meteors before moonrise which would lighten the sky even more. After a while, I got a bit bored, and pointed the camera at our front porch, hit the button waited about half the exposure time and then stepped into the frame. And that’s how I made this ghostly self-portrait:

See the bricks through my shirt? Dorky, I know (but it will make a good prop when it’s time to decorate for Halloween). I took a few more dark, star-studded-sky-with-no-meteor-streak photos and then the moon rose.

That’s Venus trailing behind in the little crook in the tree tops.

I went to bed about 4:00 AM and got up about 7:00 and felt like a zombie half the day. It was completely worth it. I haven’t spent that kind of time watching the stars since the last time we went camping maybe, or the last time I walked on the beach after sundown. I wonder sometimes what it was like before electric lights and TV and air conditioning closed us up inside our homes, when people were still more a part of the world we live in and the night sky was the best show on earth.

If you missed the Perseids, don’t worry, there are several more coming up soon. Here’s a link: http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/earthskys-meteor-shower-guide

And for those of you who, like me, have never photographed stars or meteors but would like to try, I found a handy, simple guide here: http://www.steves-digicams.com/knowledge-center/how-tos/digital-photography-101-how-to-photograph-meteor-showers.html#b

 

Pelican

Once upon a time, in another life, I tried to write a poem about pelicans, and it began like this:

“Once I stood on packed sand still
dark with the receding tide on an afternoon
that couldn’t decide not to be winter,
on a barrier island named for wild horses,
at the dune-drifted, grass-whispered margin
of the Gulf of Mexico…”
 

After this point, the words changed and shifted like shoals every time I looked at it. It was never right. The poem hemmed and hawed and finally got around to trying to describe the birds that remind me so much of pterosaurs. Every time I see the creature, I travel back to the Cretaceous in my mind:

 “Pelicans slip the air streams
like ancient machines perfectly designed
for what they need to do, all hooked
bill and hollow bone, sailed wings sending
shadows ripping across the waves…”
 

Or something like that. I put the poem away, unfinished, with all my poems years ago. Now I take pictures. So here are a few photos of my favorite bird, the brown pelican. I think they have inspired me to try to finish the poem. (Maybe.)

It’s amazing how a creature that is so graceful and strong in the air, like a glimmer of prehistory reminding me of the largest flying creatures the world has ever seen, becomes kind of cute and dorky when he’s waddling around on the land.

Just for the curious: The first 3 photos were taken in Edisto Beach in SC last August and the last 2 were taken at the Outer Banks in April.

The Summer Country

It had been about 6 weeks since the last time I managed to get away and go for a hike, just me and my camera. I had come to this very place, an artificial wetland created by the state after they had dammed a local river and flooded the natural wetlands.  It’s a great place to go birding and butterfly hunting.

That day in the spring, the last time I was here, the air still had a nip, a cool breeze ruffled my hair, and fluffy white clouds drifted in a deep blue sky. What a difference a few weeks made. The sky was bleached and pale. The heat was stifling. Not the slightest breeze moved in the trees. The birds, though, were everywhere and they were singing.

The path is actually a narrow road – just 2 graveled tire tracks lined with high grass and wildflowers. It makes a big loop around a marsh and is bordered by pine woods on the outer edge. I glanced down the path and froze. Something was moving in the grass about 20 yards ahead. I squinted. Not a squirrel or a bird. It was brown and seemed to hover about a foot off the ground. I turned on my camera, zoomed in and saw this: 

Can you tell what it is? I was still puzzled, so I waited a moment. And then this popped up:

He watched me for a moment and fled when I took a step. I felt kind of bad for interrupting his foraging.

Part of the fun when I go for a hike is that I never know what I’m going to see. Today there were black swallowtails everywhere.

And not one of them would stop and hold still even for a moment. They would appear out of nowhere, flutter aimlessly about, within tantalizing reach of my zoom lens, and then swoop away again without checking out a single flower.

So I took pictures of the flowers because they didn’t fly away before I could focus.

When I finally did get a bug to hold still for me, it wasn’t a butterfly.

Just after this, I was walking along, thinking about icy Gatorade and wishing for a breeze, when something splashed, squawked and 3 big shapes flew out of the reeds to my left. Since my lightning reflexes kind of misfired, I didn’t get a photo of the mystery squawker(s) until one landed in the top of a nearby tree.

I had no idea what bird this was and that illustrates part of the fun of my little hobby – looking stuff up when I get home. Uploading my photos after a hike is like a present I get to open after I have showered, rehydrated, and collapsed into a comfortable chair with my laptop. It’s even more fun if there is a) a particularly good photo or b) a photo of something I have never seen (or noticed) before.  This one was particularly fun to figure out because it’s a juvenile and because at first I couldn’t find a match that could do this:

This one landed in a neighboring tree and his body language says he is quite alarmed. So he stretches out his neck and raises his crest to make himself appear bigger. But most photos, including the ones in my field guide or on Cornell’s excellent site, don’t show the crest. So it took me a little while to figure out that they are juvenile green herons. I felt a happy, warm glow when I identified him.

Sometimes, I am convinced that I was born in the wrong time. I should have lived in the 19th century when natural history was still such a mystery and explorers all over the world were sketching rocks and fossils and bugs and birds in their notebooks so they could study them later and identify or compare and classify and name the new species. I would like to have lived when Alfred Wallace was still tramping about in the jungles of South America or the East Indies, when Charles Darwin was sailing around the world, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne wrote their fantastic tales, when museums still sent great expeditions all over the world to bring back artifacts and specimens and first-hand accounts.

But this is not the dark continent of Edgar Rice Burroughs or the Gobi desert or the Amazon rain forest. It’s a rather pleasant walk around a big, artificially-designed swampy area with songbirds and butterflies. No leopard waits to sink it’s fangs into my skull and drag me up into a tree, no malaria-carrying mosquito will take my blood and leave me feverish, and I’m not going to stumble across ancient ruins in a clearing or find a plateau full of leftover dinosaurs. But I will get to go home and look up my bird using a world wide web of interconnected machines that not even Jules Verne could imagine and then write a little diddle about it that people all over the world might read within minutes.

Pretty cool really, but still sometimes I have to get away from the machines and come walk where I can’t hear engines. I have to sit by the water to enjoy the weak, bloodwarm breeze that finally sprung up and study the world upside down in the water and flight of dragonflies.

When I got restless again, I walked until I found a bank of purple and white.

I took a dozen photos of these flowers trying to figure out the right light and angle to do them justice when this flew into the frame:

And then a male joined her:

And then they were gone:

As they left, they orbited each other like twin suns, each captured by the other’s gravity, revolving in a fluttering ball to within a few inches of my face, hanging there for a moment like some fantastic Christmas ornament and then they spun away.

About then, I realized my tongue felt like parchment. I had left the water in the car because I didn’t want to carry it and my camera too and I was only halfway around the loop. I resolved to pick up the pace, took two steps and found this:

Can you imagine having to shed your skin every time you grew? The next time I am aggravated with the trials of parenting teenagers, I think I will try to remember to be grateful that I don’t have to pick up their old skins along with their dirty socks.

By this time, I could feel my skin burning through my sunscreen, so I really did pick up the pace. I spent the last half mile daydreaming about swimming in a river in Texas where I used to go hiking and fossil hunting. Even in the dead of summer when it hadn’t rained in weeks and I could walk parts of the river bed without getting my ankles wet, I knew where a deep shady pool was that never went dry and the water was always cool and green. But that’s another story.

Chasing Summer

Ever since I first picked up a camera when I was 12 or so, I’ve displayed a tendency to chase pretty bugs with wings trying to still an instant so I could get a closer look. I wasn’t very good at it when I was 12, and I’m not really great at it now, but I have 2 things going for me that I didn’t have then – a compulsive persistence honed by decades of practice (or neuroses management, your call) and a digital camera with a zoom lens.

Now I can take dozens of images of a given butterfly without necessarily having to put myself within arm’s reach – a distinct advantage when you’re dealing with an insect whose spastic, high-speed flight path contains nothing akin to a straight line and can often swoop on a whim over the trees and out of your reach forever.  It also helps that I am finally learning something about butterfly behavior, so I can catch them in relative stillness while they’re feeding, sunning or puddling. But still, the skittish little suckers are fast and erratic and will often fling themselves out of my frame at the last second. So sometimes my butterfly hunts are reduced to photos of things that move much more slowly – like wildflowers.

Next to tropical fish and seashells and the feathers of peacocks, I always thought a butterfly’s wings are one of the most brilliant canvases nature has come up with – all of summer painted on a scaled wing, more exotic than the flowers they feed on. Once I started hunting, it was all about collecting (because that’s the nature of my particular compulsion), so I’m always chasing something I’ve never seen or caught (or a better shot of one I have).

Here are a few of my favorites.

Tiger Swallowtail

Black Swallowtails

Common Buckeye

Monarch

Monarch

Tiger

Gulf Fritillary

Long-tailed Skipper

When I’m not quick enough

Black female tiger swallowtail.

Red-spotted Purple and a Viceroy.

 

Carolina Tiger Rescue

Last summer, we took our sons to visit the Carolina Tiger Rescue, a nonprofit wildlife sanctuary. Their mission is to work toward a day when all wild cats live in a sustainable, native environment, and, when that is not possible, to rescue wild cats in captivity from bad situations, to provide them with lifelong sanctuary where they will be treated humanely and with respect, and to educate the public about their plight.

In addition to tigers, they currently provide homes for lions, cougars, caracals, servals, ocelots, bobcats, binturongs, kinkajous, and black leopards. Many of the cats were saved from misguided people who often mistreated them while forcing them to perform or trying to keep them as pets. We were deeply affected by the cats we met there, their stories, and the people who are working so hard to save wild cats in captivity and in the wild.

If you’d like to learn more about the rescue or the cats who live there (and see some much better pictures than my few snap shots), click on the hyper link above or visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/#!/CarolinaTigerRescue

They discovered Nitro was blind shortly after they took him in, so they made him sanded paths and scent-marked his water bowl.

Rajaji – before our tour guide coaxed him to come say hello to the group.

Rajaji and our guide, demonstrating how just a scent sprayed on a bit of cardboard can entertain a tiger.

I think it was something by Calvin Klein and he really liked it.

Albert, the kinkajou. Our tour guide just fed him some honey and he was still licking the fence.

Coda, the binturong, waiting for the banana he knows is in our guide’s pocket.

Magoo, the ocelot.

Jelly Bean was given up by a zoo that considered him a “surplus” cub.

Jelly Bean has enormous paws (but no claws).

Jelly Bean relaxing in front of his admiring fans.

Nitro again. He really seemed to like visiting with the group.

Lucky liked Gerber’s baby food.