On Wednesday, my older sister Ellen came into town for her 5-day stay in Virginia Beach. As such, I didn't go out walking that day or Thursday, but did force her to go hiking with me on Friday since I'd requested the day off work to spend with her, and figured I might as well get her to do something I enjoyed. We went out to Merchants Millpond State Park in Gates County, North Carolina. I've taken her here in the past since its a good spot to usually see turtles out walking around this time of year laying their eggs. On the way out, just like the last time we went together, I had to stop on the road to help an Eastern Box Turtle get all the way across without getting smashed. Entering the park, we saw a Northern Copperhead warming up on the asphalt roadway. I pulled over and walked back to take some photographs since this is the first one I've seen since 2009, when I saw one at Northwest River Park in Chesapeake. After watching the Copperhead slither off the road and out into the forest, we went to the parking area for the Lassiter Trail. This trail is a 6 mile or so loop from the parking area, but we only ended up walking about 4 miles this time. For one of my shorter walks, we saw a lot of wildlife. The trail dives down a hillside right away, and then crosses a marshy inlet of the millpond with a boardwalk. From the boardwalk, I heard and then spotted a Prothonotary Warbler, and also saw a couple adult Canada Geese with seven young ones with them. We saw an absolute ton of Cricket Frogs hopping around on the trail and adjacent areas. Pretty much everywhere we walked, they were hopping out of the way into the forest debris. We took the Lassiter Trail clockwise, which goes up a creek valley until it hits a fire road, then south on the road to where it meets up with the trail once again. Along the creek valley, I got looks at my first Hooded Warbler and Red-eyed Vireos of the year as well. While walking down the fire road, we encountered a very good size Red-bellied Watersnake that seemed out of place, being a half mile or so from water, and in a jackpine forest.
This one stayed in place on the gravel roadway for quite a while, and we walked right around it without scaring it into moving off. I'm guessing it was just trying to warm up. I did notice that this snake flattened its head against the ground once we got close though. Also on the fire road, I found a hatchling Yellow-bellied bellied Slider that was extremely tiny, about the size of a quarter only, and helped move it off the roadway. Not surprising in this habitat, a Pine Warbler also showed up and jumped around on the ground, then flew back up into the canopy. We found a hole in the ground with cracked turtle eggs around it, which was most likely the nest that the earlier slider had hatched out of. It was in the same spot that the two of us got to see a slider laying eggs in a couple years ago. Around the bend was a location that I had photographed my very first Green Treefrog back in 2011 or 2012 (can't remember which off the top of my head). When we reached this area, a low spot, with wild Iris plants growing in it, I scanned the area and was extremely excited to find not one, but two Green Treefrogs curled up on the leaves! I pointed them out to Ellen, and then took a bunch of photographs while they napped, very well hidden from most predators.
The next section of the trail cross a small piece of water, flowing under the trail in a culvert, and then goes through a young jackpine stand in a formerly burnt out area. Here we found a Mud Turtle that was laying eggs in the soft sandy surface, and saw a number of Dragonflies as well. This was the first part of the trail that you could really feel the heat of the day, which was in the 80s. Over the next mile or so, the trail goes up into the hills on the north side of the millpond and becomes more of a rugged walk over tree roots and washed out areas. We spotted a large snake, either a Rat or Racer, but it disappeared very quickly. I also had an encounter with a large yellow bird of which at the time I wasn't sure what it could be, possibly an Oriole female, but it managed to get away without me getting too good of photos. Fortunately, at the end of the walk, I encountered another, with a male, and was able to realize that they were actually Summer Tanagers, another first on the year for me. The bright red male stayed up in a tree that I could get photographs of thankfully. We also saw some Southeastern Five-lined Skinks in the final mile, and several Ovenbirds. Right near the end, a second Red-bellied Watersnake made an appearance as well. And even when I thought we were done, on the way out of the park, a Wild Turkey was feeding on the entry road shoulder, and ran alongside the vehicle for a little while before dashing into the woods. So for only a 4 mile walk, and an 80 degree day, we saw a lot of wildlife!
Saturday morning Ruth took my sister out shopping for the day so I was relieved to be able to get out for a full hike. I went over to Back Bay NWR and left the house about 8 AM. I got to the park before 9 and had hopped out of the car to put my bug spray on. Then, the wind suddenly came up and I heard the door close behind me. I had made the mistake of already locking the vehicle, and my keys were sitting in my backpack in the back seat, so I officially locked myself out for the very first time in my life. Since my phone was also in the car, I had to go into the contact station to see about getting a phone & number for a locksmith. Very fortunately for me that the previous week, Liza Eckhardt, a volunteer at the park had introduced me to Erica Locher, a ranger at the park and she was able to get my squared away with the number and a phone, and not the hammer I'd initially requested...just had to wait about 45 minutes for the pop-a-lock representative to arrive at the park and get me going again. So 45 minutes, and 45 dollars later, I finally got started on my hike. I did the same walk that I've done the past few outings, just down the Loop Road, West Dike Trail to the False Cape State Park entry sign and back, plus the Bay Trail out and back for about 8 miles or thereabouts.
The water at the park has receded back to a more normal, but still high level. So the animals are no longer trapped up in the areas nearest the road, as the marsh isn't full of water anymore. I did still hear the Longnose Gar breeding in the shallows in a few spots though, since they're right on the surface and moving their fins around. The most common birds out in the park right now are definitely the Red-winged Blackbirds, they're out in huge numbers all throughout the park. The number of shorebirds I was seeing the past couple outings here seems to have dropped though, I only saw a couple of Greater Yellowlegs, and a few spotted Sandpipers. The Egrets seem to have moved off as well, where I'd seen a hundred Snowy Egrets before, I didn't see a single one today. But fortunately, the songbirds seem to be showing up in more numbers each outing. Like the last two times, I again located the Orchard Orioles in the trees just before the trail goes into the maritime forest. There was again 2 adult males, and this time a female was also with them, so I've seen at least four different orioles in this spot now. Among the trees was also some Eastern Kingbirds, and my first two Yellow Warblers in Virginia. I've only ever seen the Yellows one time before, being last spring in Indiana. Walking through the maritime forest, I heard birds, but wasn't really able to locate any, until I was just about to exit the forest. Here I finally located my first verifiable Indigo Bunting on the season, a brilliant male that was singing from a perch in the forest through thick cover.
In the open section of the trail that comes up next, I scared a Red-breasted Merganser out from the flow control device that keeps the impoundment at a set water level. I'm thinking this is the same one that I saw a couple weeks ago further north and got really crisp photographs of. I saw a couple Spotted Sandpiper flying up and back on the narrow impoundment, got to the False Cape sign (my southern terminus for the hike), and then headed back to the maritime forest. This time, I couldn't locate the Indigo Bunting again, but did hear it out there. It was quiet through the forest, but at the north end, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher made an appearance in the same spot where I photographed some a few weeks back, these birds seem to stick to the same area I guess. After leaving the forest, the trees that have given me so many birds over the past month again yielded more. I chased down the Orchard Orioles again, and this time when they flew off, another bird flew in. I was right up close to it, but spooked it into flying off over the marsh where it perched in a tree. It had an extremely long tail and I thought at first it was a hawk of some species, but when I zoomed in, I found out that it was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. That is two weeks in a row seeing a bird I'd only seen one time before in my life! This spot on the trail happens to be about 50 feet away from where a couple weeks ago I was able to save the Chain Pickerel from choking.
It's very, very interesting to me that since then, I've seen a half dozen bird species that I hadn't yet seen this year, within a hundred feet of the bizarre occurrence. I can't help but feel like I'm being rewarded for helping an animal in need, whether that could ever be proven true or not isn't possible, but regardless, it feels this way to me. On the way back, I managed to botch a perfect shot of a Blue Grosbeak perched about 20 feet away from me in a wide open tree. My autofocus on my camera continues to get worse & I really need to get it shipped off to Canon to be looked at, but who can live without a lens for any timeframe? I did happen upon a couple small Northern Watersnakes today as well, but the light didn't play well for me today in the photographs. While heading from the Loop Road onto the Bay Trail, I saw a King Rail run across the path and by the time I got up to where it was, clearly it had disappeared into the marsh. I'm amazed at these birds, they are truly the ninjas of Back Bay. I didn't see much in the way of wildlife on the way out to the end of the trail, but on the way back, I had a Marsh Rabbit hop slowly across the trail, then relax and start feeding right in front of me, they're not exactly shy apparently. This one's ears were pretty cut up (see photos in the gallery), but it seemed like it was perfectly healthy. It finally moved off into the thorns & marsh when I walked past it on the trail just a few feet away. While walking on the boardwalks, I was in treefrog scanning mode, and to my surprise I actually found one right where Liza had showed me the Ribbonsnake last week! That was two days in a row with treefrogs, pretty awesome for me since I almost never find these camouflaged little fellows. After that, I headed back to the car and took off out of the park.
Sunday I decided to take my sister across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel just to show her something she wouldn't normal get to be around. We stopped at the first island on the way out & I told her about all the wildlife I'd seen from there during the cold winter months. It seems that the birds really do like this spot solely as a wintering location. There were a lot of Rock Pigeons, but that was really it. The Ring-billed Gulls I got used to seeing in the thousands this winter were all gone, and the ducks were essentially nonexistent except for 3 Red-breasted Mergansers on the northwest shore. A few Herring Gulls were all the way out on the rocky point, and also a couple of Ruddy Turnstones, but no Purple Sandpipers were to be found. A lone Spotted Sandpiper was walking around the rocks nearest the walking around, which are all covered in green algae now, much different looking than they had been earlier this year. Sadly, the drive across the bridge & back yielded no sea ducks either, they've all exited the area and moved northward to their breeding grounds in the Canadian tundra it appears. Another warm day, this week finished off with several days in the 80s, much too hot in my opinion, but this is only the beginning as I'm sure June will just be even hotter. It seems Spring has really transitioned into Summer this week, regardless of what any calendars say. Here's hoping next week yields some more new ones!