Fall Photos of Lea Island

 (photo taken from Lea Island looking onto Green’s Channel)

I’ve written about it on my old Futch Creek Blog (http://futchcreeknc.blogspot.com/2011/11/lea-island-unspoiled-beauty.html), but it’s worth mentioning again because Lea-Hutaff Island is one of the most spectacular places in our community.

Undeveloped beaches such as Lea-Hutaff are incredibly rare to find. Aside from Bird Island & Masonboro Island, Lea Island (which now also includes Hutaff island after shoaling in the inlet merged the two islands) is the only other undeveloped barrier island in the state of North Carolina.

(The blue dot on the map above represents Creekside Lane)

Lea island is just south of Topsail Island and less than a 5 minute boat ride from the Porter’s Neck Plantation community boatramp. The Audubon Society purchased 35.7 acres (mostly marshlands)of Lea Island for preservation and protection.

The following set of photos represents a 360 degree view of the south end of Lea Island, starting with Rich’s Inlet directly below, leading into Green’s Channel, and then around to the oceanside of Lea Island.

 (Rich’s Inlet–> Green’s Channel)

 (Green’s Channel)

 Sound Side into Lea-Hutaff Island

 (water on left is sound side, water in background is the Atlantic)

(oceanside)

“Over half of Lea Island (Hutaff remains in private ownership) has been protected, and both N.C. Coastal Land Trust and Audubon continue working with remaining owners to protect the lots still in private ownership… During the spring and summer, the island is a haven for nesting shorebirds such as Piping Plover, Wilson’s Plover, and American Oystercatcher, and other nesting birds including Black Skimmer and Least Tern. The island represents the southernmost documented breeding site for Piping Plover, a federally threatened bird named for its melodic call. Clapper Rails nest in great numbers in the marshes bordering the island. Nelson’s Sparrow and Seaside Sparrow are abundant during the fall and winter and the island is recognized as a globally significant site for Saltmarsh Sparrow. At other times of year, numerous migrating and wintering shorebirds flock here, numbering a thousand or more during the peak of migration” (Audubon North Carolina).

(I was a lil slow with my shutter, but you can see the tip of the dolphins dorsal fin)

Aside from providing essential habitat for a myriad of species, Lea Island provides an invaluable landscape for locals and tourists alike to revel and relax. Wrightsville island during its peak season is a prime example of a pristine local beach entirely overcrowded and overdeveloped.

 (pelicans at sunset)

While Lea Island isn’t necessarily threatened by development, there is a significant threat around the corner; Figure Eight Island has used it affluence to persuade our government to change the laws to allow a terminal groin (using now Representative Rick Catlin at the forefront of their push). I’ll write another post soon elaborating on the terminal groins, but its essentially a rock wall built perpendicular to the northern beaches of a barrier island to obstruct natural sand shifting in hopes to avoid erosion.

In this case, Figure Eight Island intends to build a terminal groin directly south of Lea Island, and the small surrounding barrier islands that carve one of the biggest channels (Rich’s Inlet) in our area (not to mention protect us inland during tropical storms).

If you look at aerial photos of Rich’s inlet and Green’s Channel from the past few decades, the waterways and beaches have changed dramatically, as the natural storms and sand shifting have redefined the landscapes.

These pictures below were printed in a Lea Island article from “Wildlife In North Carolina” in 1994.

A research group at ECU (NORTH CAROLINA COASTAL GEOLOGY COOPERATIVE RESEARCH) confirms that “the coastal zone of North Carolina that we know today is not permanent. It has evolved hroughout its history. These changes, which can be both imperceptibly gradual or sudden and violent, continue today and will do so into the future.”

The repercussions of a terminal groin could be catastrophic to Lea island and the surrounding marshlands and small barrier islands. While this impact is uncertain, it is without question that a terminal groin will drastically effect public boater access to this region.

Either way, the Lea-Hutaff Island and its surrounding beaches and waterways are a precious resource to our community! I hope you enjoyed the photos.

 

Fall on Futch Creek: 2012

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Fall is now fully upon us and the woods are glowing bright yellow, orange and red! The cold front that arrived with Sandy helped shift the seasons and change the autumn colored leaves.

 

The birds have also been cued by the cool weather, as the Osprey have traveled south for the season, and the Great Blue Herons and Egrets are gearing up for the colder weather.

This Egret gobbles down a fish after a patient hunt.

 ..Digesting.

In return, the Hooded Mergansers have made their arrival from the North for the remainder of fall, winter and early Spring! (that’s the flock of mergansers in the creek between the egrets in the photo below 🙂

Earlier in the week, I also captured some photos of the Blue Herons and Egret in flight. There’s a pair of Blue Herons who seem to live in the woods across the creek from our dock, as they’re always perched in the trees or wading in the creek along creekside.

There’s something very majestic about the Herons and Egrets in flight– as their large wingspan and long necks make them appear so graceful.

(Heron 1)

Heron 2:

Great White Egret flying at dusk:

Egret flying into sunset:

In the background there’s a Belted Kingfisher flying as well..

Happy Fall, Y’all! I’ve got a lot more pictures of Lea Island I’ll post soon.

And last, my faithful birding companion:

Supermoon and Birding at Lea Island & Futch Creek

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 Super Moon, Super High Tide

The day before my daughter’s birthday we took our boat out to swim along the barrier island beaches off the coast of our neighborhood. Little did we know that May 4th was the day the moon’s closest to Earth, known as a Super Moon. While many recognized this Super Moon by how bright the Moon was, it was most obvious to me from the significantly strong high tide.

 As we approached the two islands that we usually visit, in between Figure Eight Island and Lea Island, the barrier islands were no where to be seen. It was still three hours from high tide, yet the islands were already well covered with ocean water. Presuming it was the peak of high tide– which even on a normal high tide doesn’t entirely cover the island– we made our way to Lea Island. I was astonished to discover the inlet we usually anchor in filled with water, so much that the pathway to the beach had turned into a tidal creek.

(The tide had already pushed this far up the walking path three hours before its peak!)

Lea Island

Aside from the incredbile high tide, one of the first things I noticed as we approached Lea Island were the large number of Red Winged Blackbirds. I’ve seen them throughout the year along Futch Creek, but never realiized thattheir nesting grounds were on Lea Island.

As we walked up the path (now tidal creek) I noticed at least six of them flying throughout the Marsh grasses along the intracoastal side of the island. They continuously called to each other, and I was able to film this one Red Winged Black bird above calling. (It’s not the most exciting footage, as it only calls once, and I appologize for the wobbly footage, as I was holding a wiggly baby!)

Aside from the birds, Lea Island was an unoccupied beach! (Another boater and his son did arrive while we were there, and kindly gave my daughter a sand dollar they’d found without knowing it was her birthday!)

 

There are three military Blackhawk Helicopters flying overhead Lea Island in the picture above– you probably notice them flying over our neghborhood frequently too; they’re incredibly loud!

 We left Lea Island as the sun was setting, and you can see the marsh reeds barely peeping out of the water as the tide continued to rise.

Within two weeks from the Super Moon, there was also a New Moon. With the New Moon comes another strong tide– occuring nearly every two weeks– known as a Spring Tide. Below is a picture on Futch Creek during the Spring tide.

Other bird watching along the creek–

Painted Buntings

Lately I’ve noticed both male and female Painted Buntings frequently–which is surprsing because of their shy behavior–and was excited to see this male female pair on our feeder together. The male Painted Buntings, with a blue head, green back,and red belly, are the most colorful songbird in North America (on right in photo below). Their lesser known female counterparts, shown on the left below, are just as beautiful in my opinion, with different shades of green and light yellow. Female buntings are one of the only true green birds native to North America. They typically hide in foilage or trees, but are also known to forrage on the ground.

 

Egret

Below, a Great White Egret lands in the marsh.

Osprey

Towards the end of last week, every day around supper I noticed a small group of Osprey (usually 3) flying and calling over the Creek and Pines in our backyard. I could be wrong, but it almost seemed like the parents (or one parent and two young) were training the juvenile Osprey how to fly, call, and likely, fish. They would fly in small circles synchronizedand calling, and then perch in separate trees about 25 feet apart. They would then call to each other while perched in separate Pines. The one, seemingly smaller Osprey also sounded like its call was more immature, but who knows?!

Earth Day on Futch Creek: Honoring a Day, Celebrating All Year!

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Spring has sprung and I happily marked Earth day with my first sighting of a Painted Bunting in our backyard! These colorful songbirds spend their winters in South America and breed in two different populations—one in south central US and the other, sure enough, along the Southeastern Seaboard of the Atlantic.

They spend their time in our neck of the woods from April-October, and breed in nests often formed in open brushlands, thickets, and scattered woodlands. Along the Atlantic coast, Buntings also breed in hedges and yards.

While the Male Bunting has a distinct blue head, red belly, and yellow/green back, the females (and juveniles) bodies are olive green to a yellowish green color. You’d never guess the males violent and territorial behavior from their graceful beauty, but they are willing to fight to death to defend their territory.

With new life forming all around us I can’t help but notice some of the ‘strange’ behaviors of other coastal birds this time of year. In early April, I noticed a large flock of birds (seven to be exact) swirling over our backyard and creek. I was surprised to realize it was a flock of Great Blue Herons, as I’ve never seen them congregate in such large numbers nor so high up in the sky (they usually forage and fly lower towards the creek).

 

Click on the photo to see Herons closer!

The Great Blue Herons are known to nest in colonies, also known as heronries, with the males sometimes nesting with more than one female. They often choose a Pine tree to house their heronry which consists of anywhere from a few to hundreds of nests. Unlike Osprey, Blue Herons find new mating partners each year. Nesting season often starts sometime between February to March with the males flaunting for the females and displaying other courtship behaviors (which is possibly what I photographed here with their sychrnized display).

 

It was very obvious that this flock was following the one dominant Heron, as they swirled together and flew in a straight line following the dominant bird.

 

Around March to April, the male will begin finding nesting material as the females bundle it together into a cozy nest, often in an undisturbed area towards the top vertical branches of tall deciduous trees. While there are few predators to the Great Blue Heron, Crows and Red Tailed Hawks—both of which are present along our portion of Futch Creek—have been known to kill an adult Heron.

Luckily, these birds have evolved over time and instinctually protect their nests, not always built in the safest places— such as this Osprey pair below.

 

Osprey (and Herons) often use the same nest year after year, given nature hasn’t destroyed it, so I wasn’t surprised to find this pair of Osprey using their nest atop a marker on the Intracoastal Waterway between Green’s Channel and Futch Creek. I was surprised, however, when one of the mating Osprey left its nest to chase our small boat as we slowed down to photograph it. With fear in its eyes, this Osprey chased our boat less than twenty feet overhead until we vacated the parameter of its nesting ‘grounds’.

  

Even though animals are often on guard this time of year, there’s still a deep rooted serenity always present in the woods— whether from a family of travelling deer, the growth of new flowers or constant fluttering of butterflies in early Spring. Here are some photos of Spring from our slice of the woods and creek:

  

Above: Dogwoods in full bloom, March-April 2012

 

  

above: Travelling deer from two seprate evenings just before sunset.

Great White Egret flying above and foragging below

   Fat Pelican content along the creek

Above: Futch Creek during Spring Tide (new moon)

 

Futch Creek during a shift of tides.

1st Paddle of the season: Ospreys galore (and more)!

  

 We finally made it out on the creek for our first kayaking adventure of the season, and it was remarkable! We spotted a stingray, three Osprey nests, Pelicans, Belted Kingfishers, Cormorant and Mallard Ducks, Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Hawks and a flock of crows fervently chasing an Owl from their nesting area! The Marsh banks and surrounding woods were abundant with newly sprouted leaves of all shades of green, while the creek was bustling with life. Fish were jumping as the birds were diving, flying, and perching all around us.

 When we set off, I expected to photograph the Osprey nests that I’d sighted last year, but didn’t expect the Ospreys to be perched in their nests with their companions perching guard on the surrounding Pines.  

(Below photos: Osprey Nest #1, located along the North side Futch Creek, just East of Creekside. The 1st 2 photos were taken when only one Osprey was in the nest, the last photo shows the nest after the other partner returns to the nest. Video below of the Ospreys return to the nest– not the steadiest videographer on the kayak, but if you bare with it you’ll see the osprey returning to its partner in the nest! Video of osprey flying/calling at bottom of post too)

 

 

I shouldn’t have been surprised to see one of the Osprey pairs perching nearby the nest, as they’re a loyal species and typically mate with the same partner for life.

(Photos below, nest 2 located along Foy creek, at the entrance to Foy creek from Futch creek. The two creeks connect diretly East of Creekside, after the first oyster shoals).

Below: You can see the male Osprey perched along thePine branch on the far right side of the photo, less than 20 feet from its nest. There were males perched close to their nest, as this one below shows, at two of the three Osprey nests that I sighted.

(above: close up of male perched next to nest 2)

Ospreys also tend to use the same nest throughout their lifetime, adding more to enhance the nest each season. While I didn’t see an osprey flying with a huge pile of sticks like last year, I did see many bringing small twigs back to their nest. Osprey pairs embark on a five month partnership to raise their young in the Spring, but the incubation phase lasts only 5 weeks.

 

Osprey faced a severe threat in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of insecticides, such as DDT, but recovered (likely from the banning of DDT) and can now be found on every continent except Antarctica. The average lifespan for Osprey is seven to ten years.

Photos below: Foy Creek

 While the beginning of our paddle was graced with breeding Osprey, when we made it up to Foy Creek (which meanders off Futch Creek North behind the Poplar Grove/Scotts Hill Loop area) I was startled by the most spectacular sight— an owl being chased by crows! One crow even bashed into the owl from behind, in an effort to shoo it away from their nesting area.

(You might need to zoom in on the photo below to see the Owl. Their impetuous flight made it difficult to capture with my camera. The owl is flying along the right portion of the picture below the crow.)

The crows pursued the owl within our sight for almost 5 minutes before they went into the woodlands. But the crows were frantically cawing for a good ten minutes after we saw their chase. As we retuned home it was calming to again see different species of birds coexisting, as an Egret and Cormorant happily perched in the sun together.

 

The abundance of wildlife along our creek and neighborhood continues to bring me much joy and fascination. Below are some of the other photos from my paddle of others birds enjoying the creek!

 

Above & Below: Cormorant duck

Below: Pair of male and female Mallard ducks

Below:video of osprey flying and calling

Below: Great Blue Heron flying, known for the way it’s neck stretches forward while in flight.

Audubon Society Recognizes Wilmington’s Coastal Lands and Beaches as ‘Important Bird Areas ‘

(I wrote a couple of similar blogs about this topic on my old blog, but reworked it recently when the Audubon Society released more valuable information about the Lea-Hutaff islands. See www.futchcreekNC.blogspot for detailed blog about Lea Island! Souces at bottom of blog.)

Newly released Audubon data recognizes the Lea-hutaff Island region, located at the base of Futch Creek, as a world renowned Important Bird Area (IBA). IBAs are updated based on Audubon’s yearly Christmas Bird Count, the world’s longest-running volunteer science effort designed to collect information about what and how many birds are in and around North America, and where they spend time in early winter.  As a result of Audubon’s species specific research and surveys, Important Bird Areas (IBA) are continually recognized throughout the state. While these habitats are not regulated nor given restrictions for land use and activities, the IBAs are acknowledged as a significant initiative for bird habitat and land conservation across North Carolina.

 According to the Audubon Society “virtually every conservation planning entity in the state recognizes IBA as priority sites for long-term protection.” IBAs represent the most critical bird habitats in North Carolina, which are essential to one or more bird species during their annual cycle: including breeding, migration, and wintering areas.

                                           Skimmer colony & other Shore birds

  This colony lives on the small ever-changing barrier islands between Lea-Hutaff and Figure Eight Islands. These smaller barrier islands were reconfigured after Hurricane Irene this past summer (2011)

                                          Skimmer flying back to nest with fish.

There are currently 30 IBA locations in North Carolina, and the Lea-Hutaff Islands, a popular local boating destination, is recognized by Bird Life International, a European partner of the U.S. Audubon Society, as a globally significant IBA. The Lea-Hutaff Islands are situated just South of Topsail and directly North of Figure Eight Island, nestled between the Intracoastsal waterway and the Atlantic ocean less than a half mile from Futch Creek.

 Such Undeveloped barrier islands are incredibly rare to find. Lea Island– which now also includes Hutaff Island after shoaling in the inlet merged the two islands– is the only other undeveloped barrier island in the state of North Carolina, aside from Bird Island & Masonboro Island. These barrier islands play a critical role in protecting the mainland from tropical storms and also provide vital habitat for many species.

Highly populated bird colony on small barrier island with popular boating destintion Lea Island in the background during Memorial Weekend, 2011.

Skimmer

The Audubon Society purchased 35.7 acres of Lea Island for preservation and protection. With its tidally flooded saltmarsh and creek system, including intertidal mud flats, along with 3.7 miles of undisturbed beachfront, Lea-Hutaff Island represents one of North Carolina’s best barrier island habitats. Moreover, the Audubon Society recorded that Lea Island supports one of the largest colonies of nesting Least Terns and Black Skimmers. In addition, the federally threatened Loggerhead turtles and Piping Plovers nest on the island.

 Skimmer on nest.

 You can see how vulnerable the shore bird nesting colonies are, only protected by stakes requesting boaters and  their dogs stay on the parameter of this small barrier island from April-October.

 An endangered population of Great Lakes Piping Plovers, made up of only 54 pairs of birds, have been given specific attention due to their early winter arrival to Lea-Hutaff Island and a few pairs annual return to these specific islands for three years in a row. “Birds have a keen sense of place, and for some, Lea-Hutaff Island is one of a kind,” notes the Audubon Society.

Lea-Hutaff Island is the Southernmost documented breeding spot for the Piping Plovers and also provides a haven for other nesting shorebirds such as Wilson’s Plovers and American Oystercatchers. Even though the Lea-Hutaff Islands are specifically recognized in the Audubon IBAs, the entire coast of Wilmington all the way down to Southport is highlighted as an IBA.

  Skimmers flying together near Lea-Hutaff and Figure Eight Island.

 “The IBA program is a wonderful tool for highlighting North Carolina’s ecologically significant habitats and locations,” says Curtis Smalling, IBA Coordinator and Mountain Program Manager for Audubon North Carolina. “IBAs provide so much more than just prime bird habitat. These special landscapes also provide clean drinking water, healthy populations of other species, and in many cases, special opportunities for people to connect to nature through recreation, education, and engagement.”

For more information about the local conservation efforts of Audubon Society visit their blog at http://ncaudubonblog.org/ or their IBA website at http://nc.audubon.org/new-edition-important-bird-areas-north-carolina-available. To help take part in protecting these valuable local barrier islands go to http://www.togethergreen.org/p4p/penniesBarrierIslands.aspx.

Photos courtesy of Stephen Polk, from May 2011. Memorial Weekend is one of the busiest time of year on Lea Island.

“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”– Frank Lloyd Wright, (1867 – 1959) architect

“Birds should be saved for utilitarian reasons; and, moreover, they should be saved because of reasons unconnected with dollars and cents. . . [T]o lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, or a myriad of terns flashing in the bright light of midday as they hover in a shifting maze above the beach – why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.”– Theodore Roosevelt, (1859-1919) 26th President of the United States, historian, naturalist, explorer

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A New Year: Admiring the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

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The New Year quickly passed, and it seems the wildlife has been just as busy surviving this sporadically mild winter. A couple weeks into the new year, when I was sitting on our dock in the late afternoon just after the tide dropped to high tide falling, I noticed something bobbing through the creek. While I first thought it was a duck, it was a DEER swimming through the creek, with it’s entire body submerged under water below its neck. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have my camera on me, but sure enough the next day Carol J. captured a beautiful photo of SIX more deer crossing the creek to the uninhabited woodlands across the marsh!

With this unusually warm winter, some birds seem to be confused. I’ve noticed many birds– including the Osprey and Green Heron– that usually migrate South for the winter. This Osprey photographed below pecks at its fresh catch in a dead tree snag across the creek (A favorite spot to perch for many birds of prey, including the Osprey and different varieties of Hawks).

While I know with certainty that there have been some Green Herons hanging around town in some of the small retention ponds (in Mayfaire and behind Home Depot off Racine), I’m unsure if this photo below is a Green or Blue (or Tricolored) Heron. Even though the Green Herons typically migrate to South America, this bird’s figure with its short neck leads me to believe it might be a Green Heron (although zooming in its colors more resemble a Tricolored heron).

Despite this unusually warm winter, Futch Creek has endured some freezing mornings.

And some of the permanent residents of the creek, such as the Great Egret and Blue Heron (and Osprey this year) are toughing through the cold.

Yet despite these grey and dreary winter days, there have still been some spectacular sunsets over the creek; and this new full moon has been bringing up the water at high tide with its extra srong pull (known as a spring tide).

Some creatures seem to be happy as ever this time of year, and rightfully so, as there are 100s of baby fish living under our dock right now. During these colder months I’ve noticed the Pelicans coming up creek much more often…some arriving each morning for their breakfast. Carol also captured some amazing photos of one Pelican enjoying its breakfast (3 flip photos–  the pictures speak for themselves):

And I can’t forget to mention the simple beauty everpresent in our marshlands and woodlands, such as this blue jay.