Bonanza: beaver and bald eagle in one glorious day

Every now and again the stars align.

The other morning, I had tied my long-suffering dog to a tree and crept quietly to the shoreline, stopping behind some small trees. Nothing. Then in the distance I saw a V-shaped wake: coming straight at me, so fast it created a bow wave all its own, was my beaver.

It curved gently to the left, slowed, and headed straight for the shoreline, without noticing me.

I realized it was going to get out of the water, and I switched to movie mode. To my delight, I realized I was watching it making a scent mound. Beavers scrape up leaves, grass, any vegetation either from the bottom of the pond, or on the shoreline (as here). Then they deposit castoreum scent from their castor sacs, and also secretions from their anal glands. This marks their territory, and tells other beavers if they are family, near neighbors, or unknown. Watch what this beaver does; it is very quick, and you may need to watch it twice. (There is also an elegant dive at the end.):

Beaver are vulnerable out of the water, which is why they don’t waste any time. Notice that the beaver first makes the mound, then lowers its bottom onto it. Dogs, on the other hand, first defecate, then cover it with soil.

And here is the grassy heap he/she leaves behind (both sexes do this, but males do it more!). The water is at top right, and the mound of dead grass is right by the water’s edge. I bent down and tried to smell the castoreum (after all, I’ll never get a fresher chance than this) , but no dice.

Then he (or she) returned to the water:

In the afternoon, I was back, palely loitering behind a scruffy tree, when a huge shape swooped down and across the pond. Bald eagle. It went up into a tall pine, and I think it had something it was eating, hard to tell from so far away. But then, to my delight, it flew down and landed on a perch thoughtfully provided by the morning’s chief actor, the beaver, or one of its relatives..

Beaver mounds are excellent vantage points, and this eagle settled down for a few minutes, still very far away, but in full view. It stretched and organized its wings:

then took a patrician pose, gazing out over the pond:

After a while something caught its eye. It took off:

and rocketed back low across the pond, as if locked onto a target:

I realized it was aiming for two terrified ducks, which rose in a panic (the goose in the background didn’t budge.)

The ducks had good reason to be scared. Bald eagles will stoop onto waterfowl, though their success rate is apparently low, so this rather feeble attempt may be typical! It never did dive on them, just flew away, taking its magic with it.

Flying 20,000 miles a year

[My last South Carolina post, I think.]

Talk about airmiles. The Red Knot, Calidris canutus rufa , a sandpiper, enjoys the reputation of undertaking one of the longest migrations in the natural world, a round-trip as long as 19,000 miles. They breed in the high Arctic, but they over-winter all along the coasts of the Americas, as far south as Patagonia. This map shows their range in the Americas:

They weight in at under 5oz, yet they can fly 5000 miles without touching the ground.

In South Carolina, there is a population that over-winters there, but it is also a stop-over point for birds who have come from much further south and are on their way to their Arctic honeymoon hotels. The numbers are huge:

These are on a low-lying unoccupied sandbar island, now protected from humans during migration and nesting season, called Deveaux Bank. All the photos are taken from a boat offshore, which was bobbing around, so they are a little quavery! It is serenely beautiful:

What, for the Red Knots, makes it “vaut le d├ętour”, as the Guide Michelin would say, is the presence of vast numbers of prehistoric horseshoe crabs mating and laying small green eggs.

The eggs are a rich and very digestible food source to support these birds on their long migration, but the horseshoe crabs were over-fished, both because they make good bait for fishermen, and because scientists use their blue blood (yes, really, see below for more*) to test for bacterial contamination. Probably as a result, Red Knot numbers dropped sharply in the 2000’s, and in 2014 this subspecies was listed as threatened by the US Endangered Species Act.

Once they reach breeding season, their plumage acquires a reddish color, as you can see in the image below from the All About Birds website:

but at the moment they are grayish buff. In flight, the birds have a white line running the length of their wings , like the center bird in the photo below (The larger reddish bird with a long bill is a Marbled Godwit. )

Deveaux Bank is crammed with birds, including a colony of Brown Pelicans

On our return boat journey to Wadmalaw Island, we saw a Long-billed Curlew, apparently the first seen around here in some time, with an oystercatcher curled up beneath his feet:

Long-billed curlew

A magical day off the shore of this ever-changing sandbank island.

P.S. I am very grateful to Dana Beach, who took me to Deveaux, and who was instrumental through the Coastal Conservation League in getting it protected in 2015. Here is some more information:

Deveaux Bank

*For more about the scientific use of horseshoe crab blood, read this:

A classical woodpecker

The Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, also known as a logcock, has a splendid Latin name, about which more later. To start, let’s find one.

In the woods, the first thing you notice is a pile of wood chips,

and when you look up, you see a strange rectangular hole, which looks as though it was made by a human with a fretsaw.

Then you might hear hammering, and there he is.

They are the largest woodpecker in North America, 16-19inches in length. You can tell this one is a male by his full red cap that extends all the way to his beak, and by his red ‘moustache’ (which is actually alongside his bill not above it), and he has a fine powerful bill:

He uses that bill to bash away noisily, which is usually how you find them. .

This one is excavating for food, and he has now found something and is probing deep in his hole, with his crest raised and his eyes half closed in ecstasy:

Look closely at the shape of that red crest and cap. Now stay with me here: look carefully at the seal of the US Senate, below, and the red shape in the top center.

Does it remind you of anything? Despite appearances, the US Senate did not put a woodpecker on their seal. Instead, for quite different reasons, both refer to the felt cap worn by freed slaves in late Republican Rome, or pileus in Latin. Here Odysseus is wearing a white one:

But by the Renaissance it is usually red, and signified eastern origins, here on the Kings from the East,

Then it was adopted by the French revolutionaries, who referred to it as the Bonnet Rouge, or the Phrygian cap.

The Senate chose it as a symbol of liberty, and the ornithologists chose it simply for the physical resemblance between the pileus and the woodpecker’s cap, and named this bird Dryocopus pileatus.

PS John J Audobon’s 1838 text on this bird is well worth reading:

In the pink: Roseate spoonbills

Roseate spoonbills, Platalea ajaja, are an ill-assorted mixture of delicate beauty and clumsy absurdity. Their elegant feathers shade from white through shell-pink to coral, but their comically oversized bills are spatula-shaped with rounded ends. They are a New World species, and I have seen them once before, in the Pantanal in Brazil. In the USA, they are limited to coastal areas in Florida and Texas

To my delight, there is one tiny (non-breeding) colony of them here in South Carolina, at the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area, and the conservationist Dana Beach explained how to find it, so off we went. We drove around in a circle for a while, failing to see anything, and just as we were on the verge of deciding to abort, there they were.

They are waders, nearly three feet tall, and mainly feed on crustaceans and fish.

The crustaceans are responsible for the pink coloration of their feathers (just as they are for flamingoes), which get pinker with age.

Lesser Yellowlegs and Roseate Spoonbill

They feed by scything their bills from side to side as they slowly move forward:

The bills are translucent:

We admired them for a while, then decided to picnic a little further down the pond. They moved too, and as we continued to watch we realized that they were behaving rather oddly. They were clustered together, poking at something in the water.

It was an alligator, and they poked and pecked at it for more than five minutes, and the alligator was astonishingly not goaded into retaliation.

Occasionally it did spook them a little:

But not enough to scare them off:

We have since asked around, and failed to find any reports of this behavior, except for one story in the Daily Mail!–alligator-fortunately-unwanted-attention-didnt-make-deadly-reptile-snap.html

Alligators are in fact useful to spoonbills, because they eat predators like raccoons who might otherwise threaten the spoonbills’ land-based nests, so I don’t know why the spoonbills harassed it (nor why it didn’t fight back). One possibility is that its skin was encrusted with tiny edible creatures that spoonbills enjoy, and that the alligator is happy to be rid of, just as tiny fish groom bigger fish.

After all that activity, the show ended with a grooming session:

PS All of these are juveniles, since they have a completely feathered head. After about 15 months it becomes pale yellowish green and nearly bald.