A Boat Ride for the Birds

Willets in Flight

Willets in Flight

If you have read many of my posts, you will know that it is no secret that I spend a lot of time watching birds and other inhabitants of the marsh.

I have written many posts about the feathered visitors to our marsh including this one, For the Love of Feathers. Most of our visitors are anonymous birds but we do have one celebrity, Frank 29X. This is the third winter that Frank 29X has joined us for the winter and early spring. While Frank 29X was reported less than two miles from us the week of April 15, 2015, most of our big birds seemed to have moved to the big marshes of Bogue Sound since the waters have warmed.

We still have birds around, but each spring there is a time when it is easier to seek out the birds instead of waiting for them to come to us. The task of getting to the birds turned out to be very easy this spring. I was working on luring the older of our two daughters down for a visit. She loves doing things on the water so I forwarded an email to her about a birding boat ride hosted by the North Carolina the Coastal Federation. It was not long before she took the bait. She even went ahead and booked the trip for us.

That was a few weeks before the event and as most people know, getting to spring on the coast can be a roller coaster. Even once you make it to spring, you can be teased by the warmth only to end up wondering what happened because you are having a hard time standing out in the wind and rain.

The spring of 2015, has not been like that. April was a relatively dry month on the coast and as you can see our temperatures have been moderate all month. Of course when you plan an outdoor event and someone drives seven hours to take part in it, you can almost guarantee the weather will not be perfect.

All week before the event we heard dire warnings of bad weather on the Sunday when we were scheduled for our boat bird trip. Knowing that our weather is so localized that it is often a riddle that only is solved as the weather unfolds kept us hopeful.

We managed to get over to Hammocks Beach Park in plenty of time on Sunday morning. There was blue sky when I went for my early morning walk, but it was gone an hour later when we arrived at the dock. I love blue skies, but I also enjoy seeing birds so I remained hopeful. It was not long before we boarded the Lady Swan with Captain Tim at the helm and local birding expert Joann Powell scanning the skies, marsh grass and oyster rocks.

We were not even away from the dock before some birds were sighted, but they were not nearly as exciting as the oyster catchers that we saw a few minutes after pulling away from the dock. We took a little different route getting over to Cow channel and the backside of Bear Island and then headed over towards the Point at Emerald Isle. We just got past the trees on Bear Island when we headed down what I have heard called the West Channel. It is one of the few places in the area that I have not explored.

The list of birds that we saw is long. We sighted Yellowlegs, Oystercatchers, Blackbellied Plovers, Royal Terns, Lesser Terns, Great Egrets, Canada Geese, immature Ibises,Snowy Egrets, Laughing Gulls, Willets, Sanderlings, Red-Headed Mergansers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and a pair of Ospreys. There are some pictures of them at this link.

While the weather was not perfect, we still had a blast. When we were on the back side of Huggins Island, I did remember to turn on MyTracks on my phone so you can see a tiny portion of our trip at this URL.

The area behind Bear Island is an area that I visit regularly, so I have plenty of blue sky pictures of the area. I was most impressed with our guide’s knowledge and with Captain Tim’s handling of the Lady Swan. I hardly missed the blue skies and we got to see many more birds than I expected.

Actually our timing turned out nearly perfect. I wandered down to the kayak ramp at the park to ask the kayak rental agent what their hours were. Just as we were finishing our chat, I felt some drops of rain and headed to the car to keep my cameras dry. We made it to the car without any problems and headed off to lunch at Highway 55 in Swansboro where I enjoyed a shrimp Po’Boy. What a great way to finish a great morning.

I doubt it will take much arm twisting to get me to register for the next cruise in May. Also my daughter now wants to visit the beach part of Hammocks Beach State Park. It is one of my favorite places and its beaches rival any along the coast.

We managed to get in an afternoon visit to Morehead City to see the Nina and Pinta docked and a quick cruise along Front Street in Beaufort before the rains started. We got a little over an inch of rain that Sunday night, but it did not matter since we had already enjoyed another great Crystal Coast day.

Our most recent newsletter went out the first week in April and can be see at this link. We will be getting another newsletter out around the end of April.

If you are interested in visiting the area, check out our free online travel guide to Emerald Isle. If you need more information, please consider purchasing our extensive Emerald Isle book, A Week at the Beach, The Emerald Isle Travel Guide. The Kindle version which works on everything from iPads to smartphones is only $3.99. We update it each year and I alway provide instructions on how to get the update in our newsletter.

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Icy Marsh Edges

Cormorant Swimming By Ice

Cormorant Swimming By Ice

We look at life and places through many filters that we have gained through years of living. Sometimes what you see today brings back memories of what you experienced years ago and far away. Being able to separate the context of today from yesterday’s memories is perhaps a mark of sanity.

Walking along the edge of the marshes not far upriver from Bogue Sound is a treat that I enjoy summer and winter. An early morning walk in late January can even bring back flashes of spring in Canada many years ago. I first saw a cormorant when I lived along the shores of the Bay of Fundy.  As I see the melting ice in the early morning sun, I am reminded of late April on our farm in Tay Creek, New Brunswick.

Little brook as we called the stream down the hill from our barns was relentless in working its way through the built-up ice of winter. Usually it was April before we would see melting ice and glimpses of running water.  Only then could I put away the axe that I sometimes used to chop watering holes for the cattle.

Canadian spring can be harsh. Our son was born in mid-March and the temperature that night dropped to minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit. The largest snow we ever got on our farm just north of Fredericton, New Brunswick, came one day early in April 1973. It was thirty-three inches of heavy wet spring snow. Most years the grass was not long enough to turn the cattle out on the pasture until the first or second week in May.

Our coastal winter is pretty nice to us.  Spring here in the marshes along the big rivers of eastern North Carolina  is not nearly as harsh as it is in the hardwood hills of Canada’s New Brunswick. Actually our marsh and Raymond’s Gut, the inlet which drains it towards the White Oak River, is something of a wildlife refuge especially in winter. We need no weathermen or weather ladies to tell us when the weather is getting ready to turn nasty, the big birds will start showing up. There is nothing worse than a five egret storm with a great blue heron kicker.

We have a small salt marsh pond tucked in behind the marsh grasses just off the gut. It is sheltered almost on three sides by pine trees. In the worst storms the little pond provides an effective haven for great white egrets and great blue herons. They know it and they will often spend the night before a storm roosting in what I like to call the heron haven. I have written about the spot in an article , Where The Egrets and Herons Go To Hide.

It does not take much of a mental twist to say our marsh is also where those of us who shoveled too much snow and faced too many brutally cold days have come to permanently escape real winter.

Even now at the end of January we have lettuce growing outside and a few dandelions are already blooming. This evening I saw some daffodils pushing  their way through the ground.  We even have an amaryllis that lives outside and seems to thrive here by the marsh. It is already sending out a new shoot even before the ground hog gets to rule on winter.  Of course nothing the coastal winter has ever thrown at them has ever bothered our pansies.

While the rest of the world is focused on the super bowl, here in the marsh we are eager watching the signs that dictate the end of winter.  As spring and the warm mid-February sun gets closer and closer, it will not be long before ice on the edges of the marsh will be gone for another ten months.  Before we know it, there will be ripe local strawberries.

Here on the Southern Outer Banks we will continue to be on alert for our big marsh birds, but do not panic if we almost ignore the super bowl.  With a sunset like this one that closed out January 2015, who needs football games.  Spring and warm waters cannot be far away.

If you want to find out more about this special area, we send out an almost monthly newsletter. Our most recent newsletter was sent out just after New Year’s Day. This is the link to it.  Our Thanksgiving newsletter is available here on the web.

We hope to get our next newsletter out around Valentine’s Day.

If you are interested in visiting the area, check out our free online travel guide to Emerald Isle.

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Wintering At the Coast

Sunset in Bogue Sound Seen From Emerald Isle Bridge

Sunset in Bogue Sound Seen From The Emerald Isle Bridge

When we moved to the North Carolina coast, we were not under the illusion that we would completely escape winter.  We were looking for some of the benefits of four seasons including the beautiful sunsets that are one of the treats that come with a little cold weather.

Perhaps all the childhood memories of snow in North Carolina’s Piedmont prepared me for the taste of snow we sometimes get at the beach. Then again it could have been the years living in Nova Scotia where it was normal to see snow and beaches in the same scene.

I have forgotten which was the first winter that we saw some snow at the beach, but I do know we got a real coastal winter back in 2011.

In spite of that tough winter in January of 2011, it did get better and I hung onto my belief that the Crystal Coast of North Carolina is a nice place to winter.

We are in the depths of winter currently. We have endured a day when it hardly got above freezing and seen a night when it actually got down to 15F which is the coldest temperature that we have measured in our over eight years here.

Fortunately we have not gotten any frozen precipitation to go with the cold temperatures yet this year. However, the possibility of snow will remain with us for a while. We have seen snow at times in December, January and even once for a few hours in early March.

In spite of the threat of a little winter weather, winter is far from unrelenting here on the coast. Our first ten days in January, 2015, have given us four days with highs between 50F and 59F. We have enjoyed another three days with high temperatures between 60F and 68F. There were even a couple of days when our low temperatures did not get below 60F. That leaves us with one day when we only got to 30F and another two days when the temperature reached 43F and 44F.

Usually if we can get to the middle of February, the sun starts making a huge difference. Most folks living here consider February warmth to be a birthright. We have managed to protect a couple of lettuce patches which we hope to enjoy in late January and early February.  Our tomato plants make it into garden most years sometimes as early as the middle of March.

The winter weather also brings lots of visitors to the marsh. Just today in my walks, I have seen our inlet’s kingfisher, a great blue heron, a great egret, a pelican, some blue birds, and the usual assortment of chickadees and other small birds. Earlier in the week I saw a river otter and another day we had a falcon perch outside our window. The otters can be very entertaining as they work the inlet for their seafood meals.

I will bundle up a little for a few more weeks and hope this year will be no worse weatherwise than 2014.  Even so I know that I will likely be back in my coastal uniform of shorts and t-shirt in a couple months if we are lucky.  Certainly in less than three months I will be wandering the beaches and testing the water for wading.  Even now I am keeping a sharp watch for a warm couple of days when I can head over for a January beach hike. Much like my January boat rides, the beach hike in the heart of winter is a tradition that I would like to keep going.

If you want to find out more about this special area, we send out an almost monthly newsletter. Our most recent newsletter was sent out just after New Year’s Day. This is the link to it.  Our Thanksgiving newsletter is available here on the web.

We hope to get our next newsletter out around Valentine’s Day.

If you are interested in visiting the area, check out our free online travel guide to Emerald Isle.

Sign-Up for monthly Crystal Coast Life Email Newsletter

Nature’s Peace Will Flow Into You

Fall in the Raymond's Gut Marsh

Fall in the Raymond’s Gut Marsh

John Muir once said the following.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

I wish that I could have invited John Muir to join me in a walk along the salt marshes of North Carolina. I have seen my share of mountains from those in Alaska to the Canadian Rockies, the Tetons, the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and the Alps of Austria and Switzerland.

No mountain has ever brought me the peace that I feel walking or paddling the edges of the salt marshes. The sounds and beaches of North Carolina that surround the marshes are part of that world that I love so much. It is a world that has helped me renew my soul and achieve a balance in life that had escaped me for so many years.

I do not disagree that the redwoods and the tall mountains of the world are wonderful cathedrals to nature. However, I think marshes are even more important to our lives and what they give back to those who treasure them is priceless.  The marshes have certainly given me a new outlook on life.

The wonderful thing about the salt marshes and the waters that touch them is that they are alive with creatures that touch our existence in so many ways.

It is easy to fall in love with the beautiful feathered friends that I find on my trips through the marshes. However, it goes far beyond that. The other day I saw a fox chasing something along a marsh pond. I have watched river otters play on the shores of the marsh. I have been lucky enough to have an osprey dive straight into the water just yards from my kayak. I have caught fish in the marsh. I have seen an osprey  eat mullet in the trees along the marsh edges and watched great blue herons and great egrets stalk their prey in the shallows. I have stood in awe as fish and crabs fight over scraps we feed them.

The marsh is a world in itself. Birds and fishes live and die in the marsh. Nothing is wasted in the marsh. Whatever falls there is always recycled. An area of marsh which has been either undisturbed or repaired is a powerful source of life, food, and even healing for the soul.

Walking through the marsh, I see swirls of bait fish, ducks and other birds feeding in the marsh, hawks and osprey hunting for food, and sometimes from the edge of the marsh, I can even see bottle nosed dolphins feeding on fish that were born in the marsh.

The marsh can be covered with ice, stirred up by a strong wind, or nearly sucked dry by a strong storm, but given time it will recover. I have seen it flooded with over twenty inches of rain. Hurricanes have whipped it with winds, but the marsh is always there unless man attacks it and tries to drain it.

While I will always enjoying seeing mountains, I will always feel at home in the marsh. The salt marsh is a much more hospitable place even when winter finds us. You can live on top of a mountain, but you have to work very hard during three months to survive the next nine months. In the marsh there are only a couple of months a year when life is difficult. Much of the year our salt marshes are producing food that we can take advantage of relatively easily. Some years we have harvested vegetables from the salt marsh almost twelve months out of the year.

So if I had to pick a place to live, it would be here on the salt marsh. My odds of survival are much better and the peace that I have found is better than I have found on any high mountain.

If you want to find out more about this special area, we send out an almost monthly newsletter. Our most recent newsletter was sent out on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It is available here on the web. You can read our October newsletter online at this link.

We hope to get our next newsletter around New Year’s Day.

If you are interested in visiting the area, check out our free online travel guide to Emerald Isle.

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On The Beach After Thanksgiving

Emerald Isle Beach near the Point

Emerald Isle Beach near the Point

While there are people who would never consider going to the beach for Thanksgiving, our North Carolina beaches get many visitors.

Somehow things seem to slow down here at the coast as the holidays approach. We locals slide into our late fall routines and our visitors seem to enjoy the unhurried way holidays play out here on the coast.  It is all part of the quiet small town life that is the essence of Carteret County.

You do not have to be a visitor to enjoy the beach around Thanksgiving. Even in a year like 2014, when the first cold weather arrived a little earlier than normal, the beach is not off limits.  You can usually find people on the beach in November and December.  Sometimes even January provides us some great beach days.

I have been biding my time for a beach visit. With some unexpected cold weather, the thought of a hike at the normally breezy Point at Emerald Isle just did not seem like a good idea.

Our seasonal reversal when the beach area becomes consistently warmer than the mainland has yet to arrive.  That being the case, figuring out what to wear on a late November beach hike was the biggest challenge besides actually finding a nice day for a hike in this strangely cool November.

Since our unusually cold weather around the third week of November, our weather has been working its way back towards more normal temperatures. Sunday, November 30, appears to mark the beginning of some mostly normal weather with high temperatures in the mid sixties and low temperatures in the mid forties.

I took advantage of November 30, the warm Sunday afternoon that ended the month, and headed over to Emerald Isle for my beach hike. It was sixty-one Fahrenheit when I left our home near the White Oak River. I watched my car thermometer and it bounced to 62F going over Bogue Sound but fell back to 61F by the time I parked at the Station St. parking lot.  The whole trip only took about ten minutes since there is little if any traffic this time of year.

My normal hike at the beach is about two miles. It often depends on what looks interesting and what else I have planned. I stuck to my two mile hike this Sunday because I hoped to get back home for a quick boat ride on the White Oak River.

As always I found changes at the Point since my last hike. I think the most dramatic difference is the disappearance of this water feature that cut across the end of the Point earlier this fall.  The area now is just sand.

A close second is the elevation of the sand by the beach vehicle access ramp at the end of Inlet Drive by Bogue Court. The height of the sand just keeps growing in this area. Considering that seven years ago there was no sand there, it is even more impressive.  If you are down on the lower portions of the beach, new dunes growing make it impossible to see what remains of Coast Guard Channel.

The beach was very peaceful with only a handful of trucks and just a few visitors walking. There were two guys kite surfing over by the Point, but I did not see a single boat in the Inlet.  There was a friendly brown pelican, some sanderlings, and a couple of rudy turnstones.

I solved my clothing dilemma by wearing a swim suit, long-sleeved t-shirt and a light nylon windbreaker. I might have gotten by with just the t-shirt but as soon as the sun starts dropping things cool off quickly at the Point.  There were places the windbreaker felt good.  I did see some tracks of someone who had walked the beach barefooted earlier in the day.

My walk lasted less than an hour so I was off the beach before four PM and headed home to take advantage of the last light.  As the sun started dipping below the pine trees, I headed out our inlet, Raymond’s Gut.  I planned a short run to test our boat since we just put it back at our dock after some repairs.

Everything worked fine, but the water temperature in the river was down under 53F which I think is considerably colder than last year at the same time. Water that cold usually means there are no fish lurking on my favorite oyster rocks.  There were no clouds in the sky so waiting around for a sunset did not make a lot of sense. I headed home knowing my wife had some tasty Senate Navy Bean Soup with Kale waiting for me.

It was a great day which started with a 1.5 mile hike around the marsh early in the morning. Next came the first Sunday in Advent at our church. We enjoyed some tasty  leftover turkey for lunch and I followed that with my nearly 2 mile hike at the beach which did not include walking on water in spite of the Google map.  The day finished with a short but fun trip out on the river with the return ride being just in time for a nice sunset filtered by some pine trees.  The first week of December looks as good or better than Sunday, November 30.  Certainly December 1, has turned out very nice.

If the water warms a little and it should, I can think about taking the kayak out one last time before winter.  It would not be that unusual.

If you are ready to visit, you will find some great information in our free online guide to Emerald Isle.  It is a great time of year to visit and enjoy the peace that comes to our Crystal Coast waters.  If you think you might be interested in living here, try visiting The Crystal Coast, Saltwater on my feet.   There are 129 posts there.

We also send out an almost monthly newsletter. Our most recent newsletter was sent out on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  It is available here on the web.  You can read our October newsletter online at this link.

We will be sending out our next newsletter the week just before Christmas.

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Not Our Usual November Day In The Marsh

Bright November Morning On Raymond's Gut

Bright November Morning On Raymond’s Gut

There are lots of things perfectly normal and even very nice about the picture that adorns this post. The clear skies, the blue waters, and the golden fall colors of the marsh are all treats we count on here along the southern coast of North Carolina

However, what you cannot tell from the picture is the air temperature which had dropped to 23F on the morning of November 19, 2014, when my camera captured the image. That cold walk on the boardwalk was a frigid reminder of the power of nature. Even those of us living by the water know that while it is unusual, arctic air can travel all the way to our coastal paradise along the North Carolina coast even in the fall months.

With a November average high temperature of around 65F and an average low temperature of 45F, our November 18-19 weather this year has come as something of a shock. Our high temperature on November 18, 2014, was 44F and our low the next morning was 24F. The high on November 19, was 42F.

While these temperatures might seem like a heat wave to some friends to the north, they are very cold to us and not even typical of our winter temperatures. Our average high in January is 50F and the average low is 33F.  Our first fall here back in 2006 I managed to get back in shorts at the end of November.

Obviously this surprise cold wave brought an end to what was a very glorious fall. While we had some hints that our fall was ending, no one expected it to be such a cold end. Our November transformation is usually a little more subtle.

Usually we have plenty of November beach days and lots of time to look for fish in my watery backyard. This year it has been a little harder to enjoy the water as much and while it would be easy to blame the weather, I have to shoulder some of the blame myself since I have been busier at work. However, it is harder to get on the water when we are missing those long stretches of don’t pinch me weather. However, we are accustomed to periods of challenging weather with lots of great weather mixed in to keep us happy.

The cold brought an abrupt end to my quest to get another ripe December tomato. We have had a couple of years when that was not much of challenge. Then there was 2008 when we had a frost on October 30. This year we were on track this year for a beautiful December tomato crop but with it getting so cold, we gave up and now have a couple of buckets of  green tomatoes ripening in our home.

We did have a great early November harvest of beans and broccoli. In fact we are still eating broccoli that we grew and some that came from a neighbor. To lessen the impact of the unusual cold, I built a frame to cover my lettuce and chard and keep it warm with a light bulb. We should have three or four heads of Romaine lettuce in the next couple of weeks. We have more lots more tiny lettuce seedlings growing in a raised bed. If we are lucky we will get some nice weather in December and we might harvest lettuce in January.

Gardening in December is something of a tradition for us. This is a link to a January 13, 2013, picture of lettuce growing in our garden so our efforts to harvest January lettuce are not signs of insanity.  Hopefully we will be even more successful this year than we were in 2013.  The polar vortex got us last year, but I am ready my light bulb this year. We also have kale and Swiss Chard growing and expect to enjoy them into the new year. They are doing very well.  Last year we also harvested a few rutabagas in January. Our crop this year looks even better.

So while the weather is a little unusual in the marsh this year. We will make the best of it and hope that we still get some special treats from our efforts. The fishing might even get exciting again. It can end up being pretty nice out on the water in November.  There are days when even the trip home from the big water is very nice.  Sometimes you can bring home a cooler full of bluefish or even better a cooler with trout and drum.

If nothing else, the cold weather has been a great time for baking bread, making soup, and enjoying our winter visitors to the marsh.

This picture is of my homemade sourdough bread with some of our home grown lettuce. It made for a delicious tuna fish sandwich especially when accompanied by some of my wife’s homemade chicken noodle soup. It is hard to complain about the weather when you are enjoying delicious food inspired by the cold weather.

You can read more about life here at this archive of recent articles. If you are ready to visit, you will find some great information in our free online guide to Emerald Isle.  It is a great time of year to visit and enjoy the peace that comes to our Crystal Coast waters.

We also send out an almost monthly newsletter. Our most recent newsletter was sent out on October 8.  You can read it online at this link.  We will be sending out our next newsletter next week just before Thanksgiving.

Sign-Up for monthly Crystal Coast Life Email Newsletter