The Clown Prince of White Rock

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4486acsConsider the Coot.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4406acsIn the pantheon of White Rock Lake, he is the court jester.

Black of body, red of eye, white of bill, the American Coot is a plain-looking water bird that can’t figure out where he belongs.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4503acsOn water he swims and dives like a duck; but he isn’t a duck.

Consider the Coot. On land he doesn’t waddle, but walks like a chicken. He’s sometimes called “Mud Hen” and his shape resembles a chicken; but he isn’t a chicken.

In the air he’s awkward – but first he has to get there, a challenge for the coot. He takes off by running for a long way across the water while flapping his wings, like a loon; but he isn’t a loon.

Other birds don’t think much of the Coot.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4127acsDouble-crested Cormorants, undeniably snooty, look down their bills from lofty heights at the Coot.

151223_TX White Rock Lake_4158acsGreat-tailed Grackle struts, smug in the knowledge that he outshines the Coot.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_4853acsGreat Egret is studiously cool, ignoring the Coots.

151229_TX White Rock Lake_5177acsYes, the bird royalty treats the Coot with disdain. Not so the squirrels. They think the Coot’s a little nuts.

Perhaps this is why. What sensible bird would hurl himself at a wall of rushing water 5 times his height – for fun?!? Yet that is what the Coot does, over and over again. He walks up the face of the dam spillway until the water knocks him tail over teacups and washes him down the stream bed. Then he walks up and does it again. It’s whitewater kayaking, coot-style.

Coot Collage 2

Click for full-size image

FUN FACT: The American Coot is most comfortable on the water, but his feet aren’t webbed like a duck’s. Instead they have long toes with lobes of skin that propel him through the water. The same lobes keep him from sinking into mud when he’s on shore leave.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4696acsLook out, here come the Coots!

White Rock Lake is a large park in a highly urban area. Lots of folks come down to the shore with bags of bread for the “ducks.” What they get is Coots.

Consider the Coot. The Coot is a rail; rails are usually known for their secretiveness. But he’s a noisy gregarious bird that hangs out in large flocks in the open.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4727aWhich squabble over every bit of junk food tossed their way.

Other birds think this behavior unseemly. Little do they know how magical, how wondrous, it is!

An audience of young urban children is enthralled with his comedy routine. They giggle at his antics, and shriek with delight. For many of them, the park is a rare escape from the noise, the congestion and the concrete of their neighborhoods. The Coot is their first connection with wildlife.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4722acsIf even a few of these children grow to love and defend wild animals and wild lands, it will have started here. In this urban park, in the heart of Dallas, on the wild edge between man and nature.

The promise of the future rests on the wings of the clown prince of White Rock, the American Coot.

151225_TX White Rock Lake_4492acsAll hail the Coot!

A Bird In Hand

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6463acsWildlife photography should always be this easy!

While in Cape May, I stumbled upon a demonstration by the Cape May Raptor Banding Project. This is a research project that captures, measures and bands hawks at several sites in the fall to study migration. The researchers also meet the public to discuss their work, bringing banded hawks for up close observation.

And I do mean UP CLOSE. Usually I’m photographing hawks on the wing in the distance. Occasionally I’ll be lucky enough to see one perched nearby. But here was a chance to see and photograph these magnificent birds 10 feet away – and they weren’t going anywhere!

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6285acsThe birds arrived in these tubes. They’d already been measured and banded. The tubes keep them calm.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6344acsThe first birds out were Sharp-shinned Hawks, male and female.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6335acs“What’s up there? I want to be up there!”

After we’d had a good long look at the Sharpies, they were released. Sharpies live in forests; since they pursue their prey through dense stands of trees, they are speedy and acrobatic fliers. It didn’t take long for them to fly out of sight.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6360acsGetting a Cooper’s Hawk out of a travel tube. One of the two presenters was a young college intern. She handled these birds like a pro.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6375acsEven when they objected. Her free hand is making a motion meant to calm the hawk. Note the talon marks on her left hand!

Cooper’s Hawks live in woodlands, but have become quite comfortable in suburban yards. They take an interest in the songbirds on my feeders from time to time.

Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks look very much alike and are difficult to tell apart. Experienced birders talk about differences in tail shape, head size, eye position and other field marks.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6433acsCooper’s Hawks are bigger than Sharpies, but this isn’t apparent unless you have two next to each other to compare. And since female Sharpies are nearly as big as male Cooper’s hawks, it still may not be obvious. This is a Cooper’s, and a big bird, so I think this is the female.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6501acsAfter the two Cooper’s Hawks were released, the last raptor came out to play, a Merlin. Look at those eyes! Quite a contrast to the yellow eyes of the other hawks. Merlins, in fact, aren’t hawks at all, but falcons.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6497acsThe presenters gave us a good opportunity to see the detail in the back feathers…

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6515acs…and the wings…

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6524acs… and the talons, sporting a brand-new band. Understanding the migration patterns of hawks is important in protecting the birds and the habitats they need for survival.

150926_NJ CM Meadows Hawk Demo_6567acsAnd off goes our Merlin! No longer a bird in hand, disappearing over the horizon like magic.

It was magical to spend this time with these beautiful raptors.

Lost on the Lakes

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1665acsNow, as the cold days draw near, close your eyes and dream…dream of a Michigan summer…

The sun shines brightly in an azure sky laced with fluffy white clouds. All is quiet but for the fading voices ashore and the rhythm of the paddle. Dip, swish, drip, drip; dip, swish, drip, drip.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1527acsThe kayak glides effortlessly across the deep blue of Hamlin Lake toward an island of rich greenery and white sands. A cool breeze brushes warm skin and paints ripples on the canvas of the water.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1546acsAt the small island’s tip, driftwood and old pilings bleach in the sun while a single tree keeps watch. A kayak rests on the shore, awaiting the return of its paddlers from an exploration of the island’s wild interior.

Across Hamlin Lake lies the inviting inlet of the much smaller Lost Lake. A spit of land barely ten feet wide separates the two lakes.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1598acsThe Lost Lake Trail spans the inlet on an elevated walkway. Underneath, an uprooted stump has wedged itself under the bridge. This is the land of drowned forests, cut down and buried under water in the name of progress. Progress complete, the lakes are now a place for play.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1550acsLost Lake is serene, and the water amazingly clear. Every tree stump and aquatic plant can be seen with clarity.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1620The coves offer a sheltered place for water lilies and sedges to grow. On the isthmus, a tree leans at a precarious angle. The peacefulness of a summer’s day is deceptive; the Lake Michigan coast is a harsh environment, and whipping winter winds take their toll on trees clinging to the water’s edge.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1661acsA towering sand dune offers a place to stop, rest and explore.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1681acsIf snails would seek sanctuary from predators, they will not find it here. The shallows of Lost Lake offer no hiding place. Yet again, the crystal clear water astounds.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1712acsA pair of damselflies patrols over a field of water lilies.

150820_MI LSP Lost Lake Trail_5156acsWee mushrooms loom large over moss and pine needles, a landscape in miniature on the forest floor.

150820_MI LSP Lost Lake Trail_5163acsTiny treasures such as this captivate the imagination and tempt the soul to linger.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1728acsBut nearby the narrow entrance to a small cove beckons, dark and mysterious.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1754acsAt its mouth, a fallen log has been eaten away by time like Swiss cheese. In one nook, new life has taken root.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Lake Kayak_1814acsNothing is so tenacious as a plant. It takes but a tiny bit of soil, tucked in a crevice of an old tree stump, for a new tree to sprout and grow. Water, soil, light. What more could a tree wish?

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1900acsMallards splash and bathe by the roots of an overturned tree…

150820_MI LSP Lost Lake Trail_5134acs…while a green frog idles in the shade.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Lake Kayak_1846acsAn intricate entwining of twisted white limbs adorned with greenery graces the shore. Tree sculpture is but one form of Nature’s artwork.

All too soon, fierce winter will intrude upon peaceful meditations of summer. When it comes, find sanctuary in dreams of sheltered coves and sand beaches. The dip, swish, drip, drip of the paddle. The plants swaying sinuously beneath the clear water, the sparkle of the sun on the surface, the sand and the trees reflected there.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1890acsSavor the moments spent lost in reverie… on the lost lakes.

The Guest Request Fest

Critter Radio Logo v3Well, hel-loooo to all you birds, bugs and beasties out there in Critter Land. You’re tuned to KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright. So glad you could join me tonight for the Guest Request Fest.

Yes, boys and gulls, it’s time for you loyal listeners to let us know what you want to hear. Don’t wait, don’t hesitate! Call, text or tweet now with your requests. Miss Opal will make all your dreams take flight, that’s right.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3540acsWe’ll start right in on the ground floor, shall we? Master Grasshopper brings our first entreaty of the hour: “Kung Fu Fighting”.

150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1293acsThe butterfly brigade chimes in with this weighty wish from slim Ms. Tiger Swallowtail. She’s an edgy sort of dame, that’s right. Her fave tune? “Edge of Seventeen”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3502acsFor a Red-spotted Purple, what could be more appropriate than “Blue On Black”? How apt.

150722_DE Bombay Hook_1761aWell, what have we here – a twin tweet! A pair of lookalikes indeed, the Monarch…

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3764acs… and the Viceroy.

Monarchs taste bad, Viceroys don’t, but most butterfly gourmets will shun both. Viceroys are big copycats, and more than once that has saved their silly little – oh, excuse me, family show, that’s right.

Let’s get back to their song, “Me and My Shadow”, shall we?

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3705acsIs that the phone ringing? Yes, I think it is. And who have we here? Why it’s the Rev. Green Frog, he of the roly-poly peepers. What dark secrets have been confessed to the good preacher?

He wants to hear “Your Lying Eyes”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3628acsOn the other side of town, someone is lonely tonight. Jeremiah Bullfrog feels he’s lost his only friend. Here’s a little ditty for his melancholy blues as he contemplates the vastness of the pond – “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.

Miss Opal could cheer up this sprite, that’s right.

150804_PA HNWR Dragonfly_3428acsMr. Pondhawk has a request…

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3557acs…and wait, we’ve got Mrs. Pondhawk on the other line. What a lovely couple – they’ve both asked for that romantic oldie, “I Got You Babe”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3675acsWe have time for one more rhythmic requisition, and it comes tonight from a croaker immersed in self reflection. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, how true!

Oh, my, my, Miss Opal hears her theme song; it’s always too soon to leave you. Another splendiferous edition of the musical petition, the Guest Request Fest, has come to a close.

Until next time, I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright, and this is KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I bid you farewell with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, like me, doing it “My Way”.

150804_PA HNWR Great Egret_3208 acs“Egrets, I’ve had a few…”

Bearly There

Appalachian Spring Title SubtitleDon and I didn’t go to the Appalachians for the wildlife. Well, I did, as you’ll see later. But our main interest was in exploring habitats vastly different from what we are used to in our little corner of the Piedmont. Appalachian mountains, coves, boreal forests, balds – we wanted to experience it all.

It’s not that critters weren’t on our radar; it’s just that we were trying to cover too much ground to spend a lot of time in one place looking for birds and such. What wildlife we saw would have to find us.

150412_TN GSMNP_3949acsAnd it did. A Pileated Woodpecker on the banks of the Little River, a Black and White Warbler near Laurel Falls, a Cooper’s Hawk on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hummingbirds on the feeders of our cabin porch. There were lots of Wild Turkeys and lots of Turkey Vultures. A few gray squirrels. Several very tame deer at Cade’s Cove. Nothing we hadn’t seen before, but all enjoyable to watch. Especially the Pileated.

We did see three species new to us, and none of them were birds. All were exciting. And all were found by somebody else first, and we just followed the crowds.

On the Laurel Falls Trail, it was the children who led the way. We came upon a father and some kids staring intently at the rocky cliff rising above us. “Look!” they said “it’s a salamander!” Sure enough, basking in the warm sun was a six-inch striped long-tailed salamander.

150412_TN GSMNP_4018acsOr so I thought.

We saw three of these critters, and for two months I thought they were salamanders. No warning bells went off in my thick skull. Despite the fact that the animal we saw didn’t look like any of the salamanders in the Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies book. Despite the fact that this little guy had scales. Despite the fact he was basking in the sun, which no amphibian in its right mind would ever do. No, despite all these obvious signs, I stubbornly persisted in believing that I had found one of the Smokies’ famous salamanders.

And I call myself an amateur naturalist? This was amateur hour at its finest.

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove_4450 acsFinally, upon reviewing the photographic evidence I saw what I should have known in April. This was no amphibious salamander, but a lizard, a reptile. In fact, it’s one of the skinks that call the Smokies home. The scales are one clue; reptiles have them, amphibians don’t. But it’s the behavior and the habitat that should have tipped me off. Salamanders are moist skinned critters, and stick to shady, damp places, like under rocks at the edges of streams. Skinks, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded, and like to sunbathe to help regulate their body temperature.

Properly identified at the time or not, these were cute little animals. We saw two that first day on the Laurel Falls Trails, both found by kids.

150412_TN GSMNP_4036acsHere’s Don posing with one.

I found our third skink myself at the base of a farm building in Cades Cove.

150418_NC BRP Hawk_4495acsThere were no such identification issues with our next new species. I knew these magnificent animals frequented this particular area of the park, had almost been expecting them, but did not dare to hope. Yet at the end of a very long day, there they were. They stood out, big and dark in the light green grass of the open field.

Elk!

150417_NC GSMNP Oconaluftee Elk_4252acsElk used to roam the Smokies and the southern Appalachians, but they were eliminated from the area by the mid-1800s. In 2001 the National Park Service began a program to restore elk to the park. Here’s proof it’s been successful!

150417_NC GSMNP Oconaluftee Elk_4354acsOne of the places the elk like to hang out is Oconaluftee, at the eastern end of Newfound Gap Road, which is where we came upon them that late afternoon. I quickly pulled the car onto a side road and Don and I joined the small crowd of visitors and NPS volunteers watching the elk do basically nothing.

Eleven elk all lying down, placidly munching on grass. What entertainment! One got up and walked across the field, which stirred the crowd into a tizzy.

150417_NC GSMNP Oconaluftee Elk_4403aImagine our excitement when another elk appeared behind us and started grazing just feet away.

150412_TN GSMNP_3929acsWhile Don and I went to the Smokies for the mountains and varied habitats, I was secretly hoping for bears. The American black bear is my all-time favorite animal – let’s be honest, it’s the cute factor. I’ve never seen one before, though. There are an estimated 1800 black bears in the Smokies. That’s two bears a square mile, so my odds of seeing one must have been good, yes?

No. Bears are shy creatures who avoid contact with humans at all costs, unless there’s food involved.

Early in our tour of Cades Cove, Don asked a local what our odds of seeing a bear were. “About 1%”, he replied.

Five minutes later we had our first bear.

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove Bear_4108acsBears in the Smokies frequently cause “bear jams”, carloads of tourists on the side of the road looking at bears. So when we came upon a lot of parked cars and lots of people standing around, all supervised by a ranger, we knew what was going on. Don, being the gentleman that he is, jumped out of the car to see before I could get properly parked.

Our bear was about 200 yards away, and disappearing into the trees by the time I could get my camera on him. I only got a few shots, all blurry.

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove Bear_4132acsIt wasn’t long before I got another chance. This time, a bigger crowd was watching not one but three bears about 300 yards away. A mother and two yearling cubs. We got a longer look, and I tried hard to get good shots, but once again distance led to fuzzy photos. Usually I wouldn’t show photos this bad – and believe it or not, this is my sharpest shot.

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove Bears_4163 acs2But what the heck, I’d finally gotten to see black bears, and here’s the proof!

Don and I had one other encounter with a black bear, and it happened too fast for either of us to get a photo. We were driving home from the Smokies on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mt. Mitchell. It was pouring rain, and the fog masked everything but the trees lining the road.

Suddenly a bear appeared from the woods on the right, maybe 10 yards away, crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods on the other side. We only had time to point and start shouting “Bear! Bear! BEAR!” before it was gone. Not more than 5 seconds, but by far the best look we got at a black bear on the trip.

That quick but exciting view of a black bear was an apt metaphor for the wildlife Don and I saw on our two week Appalachian excursion. Every brief sighting was thrilling, but in the Smokies the wildlife was…

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove Bear_4118acsBEARLY there.

Map GSMNP Bearly There

Winter’s Edge

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1513acsLong gone are the warm days of summer, days when families crowded the beach with their beach blankets and umbrellas, their sand pails and horseshoe sets. The only creatures frolicking in the surf are ducks. The stiff ocean breeze, so welcome when the temperature was 80°, is a torment at 35°. Autumn lingers, but teeters on the edge of winter. The beach is empty.

Of humans, but not of wonders.

At last, the beach is ours!

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1563acsFrom late fall to mid-spring, the Jersey Shore is ours to explore, empty of crowds and noise. Now there are plenty of treasures to collect, shells and rocks and sea glass, safe from the many feet and the mechanical beach-sweepers of summer.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1555acs2Lines of dune fencing stretch across white sand to the horizon.

141128_NJ Holgate_2948acsThe winter birds arrive at the Shore with the colder weather. Long-tailed Ducks bob in the waves. The females seem to have a lot to say to the pink-billed males.

141128_NJ Holgate_2706acsThis sparrow-like bird is a Snow Bunting.

141128_NJ Holgate_2774acsAs we walked along the beach at Holgate one November day, we kept seeing these odd tree sculptures. For a bit, we thought some enterprising soul had placed driftwood on end as an artistic expression. Then we realized that these were the broken stumps of dead trees, and we were walking amidst what once had been wooded dunes.

141128_NJ Holgate2902-5 Pan acsThe dunes at Holgate, looking west toward Barnegat Bay. The southern tip of Long Beach Island is a part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. It didn’t always look like this. Only a few years ago, it was a thicket of dune plants and shrubs. Then Superstorm Sandy paid a visit, inundating the entire area, breeching the island from bay to ocean in places. These weathered roots, trunks and branches are what are left of once vital vegetation. Devastated, but starkly beautiful.

FUN FACT: These plants were flooded with water, but died of thirst. Why? Fresh water flows easily into a plant through the tissues of the roots, a process called osmosis. But this was a saltwater inundation. Ever have a salt shaker gum up in humid weather? Salt absorbs water very easily, pulling water from the plants into the soil and leading to dehydration. It also interferes with the chemical processes by which a plant obtains nutrients. The combination of nutrient and water deficiencies has laid waste to the dune plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1480acsThis is what a healthy dune community should look like. Stone Harbor Point.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1520acsGood fences make good neighbors.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1489acsDune fences make good dunes, and if successful, good dune grasses and plants.

141122_NJ Stone Harbor Point_1552aGood fences make good backdrops for wildflowers, still abloom in mid-November.

141122_NJ Hereford Inlet_1646acsOne doesn’t have to go far from the beach to find woodland critters. The gardens at Hereford Lighthouse provide a fine place for squirrels to make a living.

141122_NJ Nummys Island_1892acsIn the late light of day, a pair of American Oystercatchers squabbles.

Even on the edge of winter, wonders abound at the wild edge.

Junior Prom

141017_Chincoteague NWR_9813acsIt’s prom season at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Fall is the time for young birds to gather in flocks and socialize. Like teenagers at the junior prom, they strut, preen and dance. Juvenile White Ibises show off their moves.

141018_Chincoteague NWR AM Swan Cove_0168aJuvenile birds have their own fashion style; they never dress like the grown-ups. White Ibis favor brown; Little Blue Herons wear white. It’s all so confusing. Especially when the adult chaperones are around. Here’s an adult White Ibis in white plumage with four young Ibis. In front is a Greater Yellowlegs; center rear is a Great Egret, and all the way in the back a juvenile Little Blue Heron.

141018_Chincoteague NWR AM Swan Cove_0464acsA Tri-colored Heron paces the dance floor.

141017_Chincoteague NWR_9868acsIn the evening the birds come to the woods along Beach Road. Loblolly pines offer a nice perch to soak up the late day sun. Twelve Snowy Egrets, three White Ibis… and a partridge in a pine tree?

141017_Chincoteague NWR_9649acsA shy young Black-crowned Night-heron waits for a dance invitation.

141018_Chincoteague NWR_0849axsDouble-crested Cormorants hang out in the small stream that bordered the road. Somebody’s gotta handle the refreshments.

141018_Chincoteague NWR_0841aGreat Blue Heron. There are a lot of wallflowers at this prom.

141017_Chincoteague NWR_9753acsThe highlight of the evening is the crowning of the Prom King and Queen. This year the honor goes to a pair of White Ibises.

141017_Chincoteague NWR_9784acsProm pictures are de rigueur.

141017_Chincoteague NWR_9816acsTime to take a bow. It’s been some enchanted evening!

Wild Horses

141017_Chincoteague NWR_9571 aThundering hooves pound the grasslands. Over the rise the herd appears, horses with manes flowing in the wind of their own passage. Their varied colors of chestnut and sorrel, palomino and pinto mirror the reds, tans and golds of the canyons and mesas that edge the Plains.

Say “wild horses” and this is the image that springs to mind, mustangs roaming the deserts and prairies, an echo of the Old West. Coastal salt marshes and maritime forests are not where you would expect to find these wild creatures. Yet the southeastern coast is dotted with small herds of ponies. One of the most famous of these herds lives in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of Assateague Island National Seashore in Virginia and Maryland.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1230 acsLocal legend says that the Assateague ponies are descendents of horses that struggled ashore from a shipwreck. More likely they are the offspring of tax-evaders! Farmers in the 17th century would turn their animals loose on the island to avoid the taxes levied on free-roaming mainland livestock.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Beach Road_1728Today there are two herds on Assateague Island. The northern Maryland herd is owned by the National Park Service, and roams free in the Assateague Island National Seashore. The southern Virginia herd is privately owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Once a year, on “Pony Penning Days”, they are driven across the channel to Chincoteague Island. Many of the young foals are auctioned off before the herd is swum back to Assateague. This helps keep the horse population at a healthy level, and proceeds benefit the fire company.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Beach Road_1742 aLone horse under a loblolly pine, the predominate tree of the maritime forest here.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1226 acs2The wild horses live rough, no cushy stables for them. Cold stormy winters find them in the shrub thickets and woods. The moderate months of spring and fall are spent in the marshes. In summer, heat, humidity and hordes of biting insects drive them to the beach and into the water.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1331Dead trees and shrubs are everywhere, fascinating in their naked beauty. The salt marsh is a harsh mistress.

For the ponies, too. Most of my photos were of headless horses, their faces buried in the grass. They graze constantly. I thought their rotund appearance meant the ponies ate well. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Their diet of salt marsh cord grass and salt hay is abundant but poor in nutritional value. It’s also salty, which leads the horses to drink twice the amount of water a domestic horses would drink. Those round tummies are the result of water bloat.

141018_Chincoteague NWR_0957 acsLike many children, I grew up on Marguerite Henry’s 1947 book Misty of Chincoteague, about Pony Penning Days. Little did I dream I’d someday get to see those wild ponies, grazing peacefully at sunset.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1209 aThere’s another critter with hooves at Chincoteague NWR that’s equally captivating. This is a Sika Elk.

They look like a smaller version of the native White-tailed Deer. But they are a non-native species introduced from Asia by an Eastern Shore man named Clemment Henry in the early 1900s. He released a half dozen elk onto James Island in Chesapeake Bay, and from there the population grew and spread.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1204 aWe encountered several Sika Elk on a walk through the woods. They regarded us with much curiosity, coming closer to us to get a good look when we stood quietly. See the spots on the white rump? They remain throughout adulthood, unlike the native White-tails. This elk demonstrated an unusual way of bounding away that I can only describe, poorly, as a stiff-legged bounce. Watching it hop had us in stitches.

Yes, like the wild horses of Assateague Island, these little Sika Elk are quite “endeering”!

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1360 acs

Last Call

140702_MI Sunset 2_0416aThe sun is slowly setting on summer. The Fourth of July feels like yesterday. Now it is Labor Day, and autumn awaits.

One last glance at this summer’s Michigan memories.

MI 2 Buttersville South Breakwater_0223acsSand cliffs along Lake Michigan.

MI 2 Buttersville South Breakwater_0159acsKingfisher with fish.

MI 2 Buttersville South Breakwater_9945aFlowers in Buttersville Park, south of Ludington’s harbor.

MI 2 Buttersville South Breakwater_0242acsBusy bee.

MI 3 Buttersville Beach_0246acs50 shades of green.

MI US-31 Overlook_9332acsBarn in the mist.

MI US-31 Overlook_9319aUS-31 overlook on a drizzly evening.

140702_MI Sunset 2_0414acsSunset from the backyard.

140702_MI Sunset 2_0483aLake Michigan on fire.

140701_MI Sunset 1_9913aThe lights of Epworth Heights.

140701_MI Sunset 1_9910acsClub Mich at twilight. Time to bid farewell.

Sweet dreams!

The Five O’clock Flock Rock

Critter Radio Logo v3Good evening, critters! This is KRTR 99.9 FM Critter Radio!

HNWR Thrasher_9454 acsI’m Thrasher Locke, the top jock on the avian block. Welcome to the Five O’clock Flock Rock, where we take stock every Thursday of the tunes that make our listeners swoon. Now that spring has finally sprung, our intrepid band of roving reporters is roaming the Refuge, rounding up requests from right and left.

HNWR Egret_1243 aWell, waddya know?

A request is coming through my Egret tech’s earpiece right now!

Let’s get this party started, shall we?

HNWR Gnatcatcher_0122 a And here’s the perfect party-starter, requested by a hearty Blue-gray Gnatcatcher smartly darting from branch to branch: “Jump! (For My Love)”.

HNWR WP Downy_5314 acsAll day long the Downy Woodpecker has been a-hammerin’ and a-drillin’ on the job. Now that the whistle’s blown, it’s time to blow off steam with “If I Had A Hammer”.

HNWR RWBB_9997 acs Red-winged Blackbirds have always been smart-alecky showoffs, posturing and preening in the tree tops. What would this puffed up poser admiring his reflection at the pond’s perimeter suggest but “I’m Too Sexy”?

HNWR Osprey_9522 acsDinnertime is nigh, and for an Osprey on the sly, fish are no small fry. Time to fly high in the deep blue sky to “Take A Look Around”.

HNWR Ducky_9986 acs There’s a controversial newcomer in the Tinicum Marsh. He claims to be a new subspecies of Yellow Warbler. The locals say he’s full of hot air. Scolding songbirds suppose that “Rubber Duckie” will set him straight.

HNWR Grebe_8434 a Horned Grebes are groovy dudes. This bohemian bird by the boardwalk can’t bear the bickering and believes “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” will smooth some ruffled feathers.

HNWR Butterfly_9952 acs Butterflies are similarly sensitive, the gentle peacemakers of meadows and woods.

This Spring Azure means to maintain the mellow mood with “Blue Velvet”.

HNWR Wood Duck_1281 acsBack on the lake, it’s make or break for a Wood Duck drake with romance on his mind. “I Only Have Eyes For You” is the song of choice to woo his lady love. Surely this champion charmer will sweep her off her webbed feet.

HNWR Wood Duck_1320 acs No such luck! This lady duck has too much pluck to be stuck with sappy love songs. She just wants to dance! Cue up “Shake Your Groove Thing” for this disco mama!

HNWR Swallow_9815 acsThe feathered flock has the final word as the Five O’clock Flock Rock comes to a close. As the swallows knock their socks off to “Rock Around The Clock”, we’ll shimmy off into the shadows. Never fear, our roving reporters will be here, out and about next Thursday to see who’s rockin’ at the Refuge! I’m Thrasher Locke the avian jock here on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio, keeping it funky and keeping it wild!