Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wildlife in Back Bay NWR

I hiked five miles this morning again in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I didn't take any photos because I have posted a number of these recently. I did see a nice variety of wildlife during the hike, including a large flock of snow geese, a flock of hundreds of grackles and blackbirds, a kingfisher, a half dozen or so mallards, a snipe, a great blue heron, and five white tailed deer.

I saw the deer on the way back, first a good sized doe crossing the path about a hundred yards ahead. She moved into an area to the left of the path of very tall marsh grass. Then two more deer moved on to the path as I walked along, saw me, and bounded away. I reached the approximate area where I had seen the doe move into and stopped to look for her. I couldn't find her but suddenly saw the tips of antlers sticking above the tall grass about 100 feet away. It was a very nice 8 point buck! I watched him using my field glasses for about 10 minutes as he nervously moved his head around trying to pinpoint my location. Now and then he would prance quickly for 10 or 15 feet, then turn around and move back from whence he came. Suddenly, only about 30 feet away, the doe bounded through the grass, running past me and disappearing again into the vegetation. The buck’s head swiveled nervously. Then, near where I had seen the pair of deer, a four point buck appeared. He stared at me for a few seconds, then bounded away, leaping high in the air with his tail waving like a white flag.

The deer had just gone through a short hunting season that closed yesterday, and they were more nervous than usual. I was somewhat amazed that such a nice buck had escaped the hunters, because I am sure that he would have been a good trophy. My guess is that he has been “around the block” enough to know to lay low through these short hunts, and has lived to see another rut. It was a thrilling way to end another memorable hike.

It was also a good reminder about how you can be litterally feet from a fairly large animal and not detect them. Had the doe not run into that area across the path, I would have walked right by without spotting the buck. And even though I knew a doe was right in the vicinity, I did not detect her again until she got too nervous with me standing there and bolted.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bald Cypress at First Landing

Saturday's threatened rain held off until late afternoon, and so we got in a quick four mile hike at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. Look at these photos - it looks more like a South Carolina swamp than somewhere in Virginia with all of the Spanish moss hanging from trees, and the large bald cypress trees:

The trails we hiked on were the Bald Cypress Trail and the Osmanthus Trail. Most of the trail went through open mixed wood and pine forest, with bald cypress stands along the way. Above average dry conditions over the past couple of years has resulted in very little water in the cypress swamps. Some of them were virtually dry. The park volunteer I talked to said that wetland wildlife has been very negatively affected by the lack of water. The only wildlife seen during the four miles were a decent number of hungry mosquitos. These photos give a good idea of the dry swamps that were prevalent during the hike:

Cypress "knees"

Bald cypress stand in Virginia, a touch of the deep south far to the north

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cold Harbor Battlefield

Despite the beautiful fall weather finally arriving in Virginia, after 88 degrees a few days ago, I didn't have a lot of time today for a long hike. But it was too nice a day to not get some kind of time outdoors, so we went for a short hike on part of the Cold Harbor Civil War Battlefield. The area I walked would have been behind the Union lines facing the Confederates a few hundred yards away.

The trees are just starting to turn, and the air is crisp and cool. The path, being totally paved in this part of the park, is very easy. The area is all woods now, but in June 1864, it would have been mostly fields. In such a peaceful area today, it is hard to visualize the carnage that killed or wounded 18,000 soldiers 144 years ago. Most of the casualties happened on June 3, but the battles and trench stalemates lasted from June 1 – 12. Much evidence of the fighting and digging exist today – trenches, rifle pits, and battery pits. What is no longer there is carnage, misery, and suffering. Below are a few photos.

In this rifle pit, Union soldiers would have lived day and night for 12 days in the broiling June sun.

From this one tree, four trunks have grown. The original tree would have died and the sapling that sprouted from the remaining roots, and eventually grown into large trees.

This trench was part of a large Union gun emplacement back in 1864.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Short Hike in Back Bay Wildlife Refuge

With the winds calm today, I decided to hike in Back Bay again, taking a slightly different route to look for wildlife. Essentially, I took the hike that I did about two weeks ago when I found the cottonmouth.

On the two mile drive to the refuge parking lot, I noted that it was just before sunrise, so I stopped the car and walked to the beach at Little Island City Park. It was a beautiful early morning on the beach:

I saw and heard numerous small birds along my 2.5 mile hike, but could identify only a few of them (red wing black bird, catbird, mockingbird). I also saw a tree frog, a couple of cottontails, and at several points I saw the snouts of turtles sticking just above the water's surface like periscopes. But the larger birds and mammals that I had hoped to find were conspicuous by their absence.

Without the winds of the past three days, the bay was so calm that it appeared like a mirror:

It only takes a slight elevation gain to produce considerable biodiversity in a marsh:

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Sunday morning I got an early start again, and decided to hike along the Atlantic Ocean in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, looking for wildlife and shells along the beach. I ended up walking two miles down the beach, returning the same distance (duh!). Like the previous day, it was extremely windy. During my old sailing days in Maine, winds this strong would have had me leaving the boat at the mooring.

Walking the third of a mile to the beach from the parking lot, I caught a quick glimpse of a raccoon as he scuttled across the footpath and into the underbrush. Maybe I will see more wildlife today, although it will be tough to top yesterday’s river otter.

I got to the beach shortly after sunrise:

During my walk, I saw numerous gulls and sanderlings, as well as a few pelicans. The wind and waves created a loud sound, but it was still so peaceful to be on the beach in early morning. I saw not a soul until I was nearly back at the parking lot. Below is a sampling of some of the things that I saw while beachcombing

Gull flying over the surf:

"Mermaid Purses" - the egg cases of skates that have washed ashore:

Sea shells by the sea shore:


Sanderlings making their living along the surf line:

Dunes and dune grass silhouetted against an interesting sky:

Geese flying south for the winter

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hiking to False Cape State Park

On this very windy day, I did a 9.5 mile hike through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge into False Cape State Park. I was footsore at the end, with the start of a blister, but it felt good to take a long walk. The path leaves the Back Bay parking lot and proceeds for 3.5 miles along a gravel road along dikes, and is very flat. A hundred meters or so to the east are tall dunes with the ocean beyond, and to the west is marshland and Back Bay. On either side are often areas of water – some broad ditches that are about 20 feet wide and some larger wet areas.

I walked more quickly than one would in the mountains but still took the time to stop and explore along the way.

Mother Nature's bouquet:

Wildlife was making itself scarce when about 3 miles in, I caught the sight of a river otter swimming in a shallow marshy area. He would dive and then resurface periodically, and I got to catch quick views of him about a half dozen times before he disappeared. It was an exciting sight, and only the third otter that I have seen in my life.

At the State Park, I walked past broad marshes down to the contact station, then turned right towards Back Bay to walk through a open coastal forest – very park like.

I got a nice view of Back Bay before heading along the road to eventually loop back to the park entrance. During this portion of my hike, I again walked by some large marshes, spotting two pretty egrets in one of them. As I looked at this little island, marveling how just a couple of extra feet of elevation can create a totally different environment, a kingfisher flew from the trees.

I returned back along the dike pathway, walking more into the wind. My beloved Tilly hat was strapped to my head, otherwise it would have blown off every few seconds. I once wore this hat while parasailing 800 feet over the water, so I know it will stay on if I wear the straps. About a mile from the parking lot, I spotted a snake swimming across the impoundment toward me, so I walked close to the edge to get a look. It appeared to be a fairly small water snake. I watched him at the edge of the water for a few seconds before he swam away.

Other than a man on a bike who passed me on my hike in, two other people biking on my way out, and a few people of foot nearly back at the parking lot, it was as if I had this whole refuge to myself. Oh, I nearly forgot, I also saw several campers who had backpacked into False Cape. They were doing the things campers do in the morning – making coffee, strolling to the outhouse, and looking around.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Beach by Moonlight

Do you like moonlit walks on the beach? Well, I do, and Friday night, back at Sandbridge Beach for the weekend, I went for a mile and a half walk along the beach. The night was very breezy and a little hazy, but the half moon shining through the haze was bright enough to see fairly well as it cast a dim shadow.

One’s senses are sharpened in the dark, especially one's hearing. The waves loudly crashing on shore sounded wonderful, dominating the sounds along the beach. A large ghost crab ran across in front of me, and ended up running into the surf. Other than a couple of guys fishing in the dark, I saw no one. The salt air smelled great, and the strong breeze carried the salt off the sea. As Jimmy Buffet says, “The salt air, it ain’t thin, it will stick right to your skin.” This was especially true on the way back, walking back into the northeasterly breeze.

On the way back, I passed the fishermen again, and two more ghost crabs scuttled along the beach across my path. The shore and the ocean is a magical place at night.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


Due to a lot of stuff going on recently, doing any hiking has been out of the question. But during a family reunion this week at Virginia Beach, I did get in a couple of short hikes of a couple of miles or so with my brothers and two of my nieces. The hikes were at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

On the second hike, we saw a cottonmouth (water moccasin) in a wet area a few feet from the trail. While not agressive at all, he clearly told us to stay away by displaying his trademark white "cotton" mouth.

It was an exciting sight. I have only seen this species of viper once (and that was from a distance while on a boat, so I can't be 100 percent sure). But there was no doubting this sighting of such a magnificant animal.

As you can see, I do not consider snakes to be loathsome creatures, not even poisonous ones like this one. I respect them of course, and will do all I can to avoid being bitten, but they are part of the natural world and in my view, should be left alone to lead their lives. All too often, people encountering snakes will kill them on sight. A couple of years ago, I found a totally harmless black rat snake that had been killed on a trail in this same refuge, and it was a sad sight.

On the way out, we saw a pretty red fox, the first of this species I have seen in this refuge:

We saw some wading birds and waterfowl on the hikes, as well as two beautiful deer fairly close to us on the first hike. We also found two unidentified tree frogs, which are not uncommon but are very difficult to spot. But the most interesting find was the moccasin.

The area where we saw the snake has a number of cypress trees (I am guessing bald cypress). They have a really interesting cone that is quite different from other conifers that I have seen. They almost look like some type of gall, but are clearly cones.