Wild Ideas: Critter encounters on the Outer Banks, part 1   

This year I spent the autumnal equinox on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, looking for wildlife specific to this coastal ecosystem, especially tiny critters.

By Pam Owen

Although decades ago a friend of mine and I had started renting a large beach-front house in Corolla that we shared with friends over Labor Day week, I’d rarely been able to make it down in recent years. Over that time, her family had taken over the arrangements, this year renting a huge house on Pine Island a bit later in the month. With the help of friends in the group, I made it down for what we thought might be the swan song for this annual ritual.

For the first three days, we mostly stayed inside, watching the ocean roil and tear at the beach as Hurricane Jose passed by. Going outside meant being scoured by moisture-laden, persistent winds of 30 miles per hour or more, with higher gusts. Finally, on Wednesday (Sept. 20), the wind and ocean calmed, and we enjoyed sunny skies, gentle breezes and daytime temperatures in the 80s for the rest of the week.

I spent most dawns on the beach watching ghost crabs, which had fascinated me since my first visit to an Atlantic beach as a child. At night, these small land crabs venture into the surf, hunting small prey and scavenging for other bits of food brought in by the waves. Their coloring helps them blend into the sandy environment, appearing ghostlike as they scurry around the beach. As the sun comes up, they dig burrows away from the surf, taking shelter in them from sun and predators during the day.

As with observing other skittish wildlife, I’ve learned that sitting still and softening my gaze to bring my peripheral vision more fully into play enables me to easily detect the crabs’ movement in the dim light. By my being still, the crabs also begin to take me for granted as part of the scenery. Occasionally one would stop its excavating and stare at me — or perhaps past me — from the edge of its burrow. Was it assessing me as a potential predator, pondering the meaning of its life in the face of the immensity of the ocean, or just taking a break from its daily excavating?

Among the shorebirds working the beach were several species of gull, including herring, laughing and ring-billed. And ubiquitous little sanderlings, emblematic of the Outer Banks, constantly followed the waves in and out, foraging for prey carried in by the water. Flying over the water, skimmers and pelicans also searched for food. We saw no dolphins or whales this year, perhaps because of Hurricane Jose.

Sometimes I watched the dunes from a deck. Graceful sea oats waved from their tops, and the sheltered side was thick with waxy shrubs and other plants, offering good habitat for insects, lizards, catbirds and other smallish animals. Large dragonflies and yellow cloudless sulphur butterflies often flew over the vegetation, never alighting. On the other side of the house, attached to the carport, a large black and yellow garden spider had constructed a web that, while shabby, snared enough insects to keep her fed.

Taking advantage of the wonderful weather, a few housemates joined me Wednesday morning for one of my favorite short walks on the Currituck Sound side of Corolla, near the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. The boarded walkway there took us through thick wetland forest and through marsh that has mostly been taken over by tall, nonnative grasses and reeds. At the end, a pier offered a great view of the sound. The tide had receded, leaving exposed mudflats marked by the tracks of birds, mammals and snakes. Out in the sound, a little blue heron hunted in the shallows, while a flock of elegant royal terns noisily staged excursions from a bar of mud that stuck out of the water.

After the walk, my friends headed for the lighthouse while I strolled over to the Whalehead Club to look for more wildlife. Originally built for well-off waterfowl hunters in the 1930s, the house had been restored to its former art deco splendor and turned into a museum. The well-groomed grounds adjoin a county park and offered beautiful old live oaks, a small pond, and a spit that reaches out into the sound.

As I walked around the pond, I saw numerous eastern painted turtles poking their heads above the surface and dozens of small frogs jumped into the water. In the shallows, a littlel blue heron hunted for such prey.

But what really caught my eye were the numerous dragonflies flying around the shrubs, grasses and reeds along the pond’s edge. Occasionally they alighted but, typical of these insects, quickly flew off when I approached. As with the crabs, I sat on the ground and waited for them to come to me. I was soon rewarded with closeup views of the most common dragonfly at the pond, the eastern pondhawk, a medium-sized species found around water throughout much of the eastern United States. While the males are a lovely powdery blue, the females’ neon-green coloring is more eye-catching. A few damselflies, cousins of the dragonflies, alighted briefly near me.

In examining the vegetation, I also found a lovely black jumping spider with white markings, Eris flava. But the biggest thrill for me that day was to discover a one-inch, bright-green frog — a squirrel treefrog — asleep on the thin brown trunk of a tiny, dead holly right in front of me. I might have missed it had it chosen to take its daily slumber on any of the surrounding green plants instead.

Critter Encounters on the Outer Banks (part 1)

Later that day, I indulged one of my favorite Outer Banks rituals — eating a crabcake at the Blue Point restaurant. This year, some of my housemates and I ate on the new outdoor deck, which offered great views of the sound. Taking a break to walk along water’s edge, I discovered a young northern watersnake making its way through the water, quickly disappearing into the thick vegetation of the marsh there.

The day ended with a beautiful sunset, drinks on the beach and, for me, more wildlife observations — a day in paradise for this critter lover.

(See the slideshow for this column online at rappnews.com/wildideas, and read about more critter encounters on the Outer Banks in my next column.)

© 2017 Pam Owen

Learn about pollinators through volunteering

Old Rag Master Naturalists invite volunteers to learn about planting for pollinators by helping to install a newly designed pollinator garden in Yowell Meadow Park in Culpeper, off U.S. 522, starting at 9 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 12 (rain date: Oct. 19). Partnering with ORMN on this project are the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Town of Culpeper. For more information, contact Salem Bush at 540-829-8260 or SBush@culpeperva.gov. ORMN will be holding its next training for new members next March, and this also offers an opportunity for those interested to find out more about the chapter and about volunteering as a master naturalist.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

2 Comments

  1. Correction: In this column, I had mistakenly put in the wrong species name for the herons I saw. I refer to them as “small blue heron,” but the correct name is actually “little blue heron.” I’ve corrected this in the column; in the slideshow I had originally used the correct name.

  2. Just got an update on the pollinator garden planting. It’s been postponed until next Thursday (Oct. 19, same time) because of the rain. Glad to have the rain, but it’s made the ground too soggy to plant tomorrow. The project partners are still welcoming volunteers to pitch in and, in the process, learn about planting for pollinators. Use the contact information in the sidebar if you have questions.

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