Finally, it appears that the warm air of spring is beginning to drift
over the dunes, through the shrub thickets and into the pine forests.
After a period of stillness, the plants and animals are beginning to
awaken from the silence of winter. The temperature alone will trigger
ancient urgings for new life and new growth.
is slowly beginning to reveal itself as green anoles have crawled out
from leaf litter and are basking in the warmth of the sun. Buds are
popping out on bare branches, but spring is a bit reluctant as the
squirrel tree frogs have yet to rejoice in song.
which officially starts today – Thursday, March 20 -- is a time when I
like to wander around the isolated freshwater wetlands of the barrier
islands and coastal plain. These
wetlands are often overshadowed by the allure of the meandering coastal
tidal creeks that wind through the emerald marsh grasses of our
saltwater estuaries. In terms of aesthetic beauty and wildlife viewing, freshwater wetlands can be just as gorgeous and full of life.
wetlands rely on weather patterns that bring soft rains, violent
thunderstorms and howling hurricanes, which are necessary to recharge
the water levels. However, at times, significant rainfall can be
sporadic, turning many isolated wetlands into vacant lots devoid of
activity. Where there was once standing water, adaptive grasses and
weeds have crept in.
wetlands then become an empty stage in a dusty old shuttered theater.
All the performers have moved on to other venues except for a few
custodial raccoon caretakers here and there. Spring and its nourishing
rains will lure back a cast that will put on a show of drama, aerial
acrobatics, dancing and singing. Last week, as if on cue, my favorite
local wetland was flooded with copious amounts of rain along with the
promise of these gifts to come.
prevernal season can be quite a tease, as Henry David Thoreau once
noted. “The first pleasant days of spring come out like a
squirrel and go in again,” he wrote. For now, I wait for spring to
arrive with fullness in every day. Spring is at the door, but for
today, I must rely on a memory of walking into a wetland and being
fulfilled with the wonderful wetland activities that are soon to come.
I arrived at the wetland, the sun was on the downhill side of the day
as I made my way to find a seat. An audience had already gathered with
pied-billed grebes, hooded mergansers
and a kingfisher settling in for the show. A green anole, displaying
its dewlap, was trying to attract a date while a male wood duck,
looking very dapper, flew in fashionably late just before the rise of
the curtain. Overhead in a tree, a raccoon had a balcony seat.
coolness filled the silent air as the opening act flew high overhead. A
male osprey was starting to construct a nest on the top of a rickety
old dead pine tree in the middle of the wetland. All of the bark had
long since sloughed away, revealing a tall, gray, smooth trunk that
swayed in the wind. The male would disappear only to return with new
material for the nest. Sitting on the branch of a tree overlooking the
wetland, the female mate was chirping her approval.
watched as the male took off from the nest and headed straight towards
a dead branch on a nearby pine tree. As it approached the branch, the
bird never slowed down. In a graceful acrobatic maneuver, the osprey
twisted its body hard towards the right causing its open wings to be
perpendicular to the ground while its outstretched legs made contact
with the branch. Its powerful talons closed around the branch ripping
it from the tree with an audible snap.
have four toes, which allows them the option of grabbing objects with
two talons in front and two in back, providing a strong grip. The bird
proudly flew back to the nest with the branch in both talons then
hovered a few feet above the nest before dropping it. A direct hit.
Just then, as if in applause, a squirrel tree frog began to call. The
osprey was obviously displeased that the branch still had pine cones
attached as it pinched them off with its sharp beak and dropped them
over the side of the nest watching them splash into the water below.
the osprey took a rest beside its mate, a ruckus was stirring below in
the wetland. A pair of Canada geese, shepherding their goslings, were
fussing as if a pack of wolves had descended upon them. There was a lot
of honking and hissing that created quite a stir. All of that drama was
unnecessary as the only thing that could have possibly been perceived
as a threat was a pair of peaceful mallards that swam too close to the
chicks. The geese herded the babies into the vegetation along the shore
and guarded them like club bouncers with large muscular wings, which
were folded across their chest.
started hiking to other areas of the wetland to get a better view of
the activities and came across a reptile with beautiful eyes that
looked like a relic of the past. A huge female snapping turtle was either
looking for a nesting site or returning from laying her eggs, a
favorite of the raccoons. She stomped along with her legs fully
extended causing her shell to jack up so high off the ground that she
looked like a walking coffee table. I watched from a respectful
distance as these reptiles have sneaky long necks that can reach around
and pull out a pound of flesh. Even part of their scientific name,
serpentine, documents their snake-like head and neck. Their bite is
lightning fast and folklore has it that once they bite down they will
not let go until it thunders.
years ago, this reputation for fearsomeness resulted in scars on my
right hand, not because one bit me, but because I was afraid that one
would. One hot July afternoon as a young teenager, my brothers and some
friends decided to relax after a long day working in the farm fields.
We took a couple of watermelons down to a small creek and threw them
into the cool water to chill down while we went for a swim. Next, we
started jumping off a bridge that spanned the creek into the refreshing
tea-colored water. On a hot day like this, a snapper would want to cool
off as well.
a few leaps from the bridge we were all dog paddling under the shadow
of the bridge when the cries of “snapper!” filled the air. I casually
swam towards our homemade ladder attached to one of the bridge pilings
to remove myself from danger. However, the ladder was already quickly
full with clinging adolescent boys with all their body parts out of the
water leaving me alone in the snapper infested creek.
a panic, the thought of a snapper attached to my bare foot without a
thundercloud in sight sent me shimming up one of the black tar and
creosote coated bridge pilings. As my right hand grabbed the top of the
piling, which was wrapped with the exposed edges of sharp tin, two of
my fingers were easily sliced open. As the watermelons floated away, we
headed off to get my hand sewed up and I never went swimming in that
snapper disappeared into a patch of bright green ferns and a familiar
bird sound called out from the live oaks lining the marsh. After
spending a long migratory journey from Florida, a beautiful male
painted bunting was singing a sweet song from a high perch in hopes of
attracting a female.
maritime shrub thickets along the N.C. coast are important nesting
sites and represent the northern limit of its breeding range. This
small bunting is so stunning that is referred to as “non-pareil,” or
without equal. A large group of these birds together is referred to as
a mural. However, its colorful palette of plumage caused these birds to
be captured and sold by the thousands as pets for hundreds of years.
Although illegal in the United States, they are still captured and sold
in other countries adding to the decline in wild populations.
low sun was now casting a shimmering orange spotlight on the surface of
the water, creating a mood for the final act. At the edge of the
wetland, a lone little blue heron slowly glided along in long steps,
dragging its feet through the shallow water. With a bowed head, its
long neck elegantly shaped like an “S,” it silently searched for prey.
Resembling a ballerina, it would often run and twirl in different
directions all over the confines of the wetland chasing frogs, fish and
bird is unique among herons. While the plumage of an adult is a dusty
blue, almost purple color, the immature little blue heron is all white.
The all-white color of the juvenile provides acceptance among snowy
egrets as they feed together. Studies have indicated that their feeding
success is far greater when feeding among the snowy egrets.
was getting dark and a pair of blue-winged teal, tardy for their
migration, swam across the wetland heading for an exit in the security
of some tall aquatic vegetation.
I made my way out of the wetland shrubs, I was just as satisfied as if
I had taken in a Broadway show. Wetlands are not only valuable
recreationally, their importance as wildlife habitat for food,
protection, water, breeding can’t be overstated. Unfortunately, our
wetlands are declining along with their ability to trap water which
helps control flooding and recharge the ground water. Wetlands are also
referred to as the kidneys of the earth for their ability to trap
pollutants, bacteria, sediments and nutrients; all of which improve
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)
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