Category Archives: Natural History in the Carolinas

Juvenile White Ibis Along the Crystal Coast

The White Ibis exists in large numbers along the eastern Carolina coast. I see many, many of them and, to be honest, find photographing them to be a bit boring. While the down curved bill is kind of interesting the plain white plumage is kind of… well… ho-hum! That said, I find the young birds quite a bit more interesting. Immature White Ibis are anything but white! The browns and grays make their plumage more interesting… at to me. While paddling along Taylor’s Creek the other morning, on my way to visit the wild horses hanging out on Town Marsh Island, I came upon a juvenile White Ibis perched in a tree. I couldn’t resist stopping to take a few photos. I thought the bent, crooked limbs of the tree created an interesting frame around the bird. Below are a couple of the resulting images.

Juvenile White Ibis perched along Taylor's Creek on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina.

Immature White Ibis.

bird photos

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Shackleford Banks Wild Mustang

The other evening I came across a memory card that I’d neglected to download. It was the last card I had loaded into my camera during June’s Wild Horses of the Crystal Coast workshop. While there weren’t a lot of images on the card there were at least a couple nice ones. These were taken near the east end of the barrier island, inside the dune line. In case you’re interested I do have a couple of dates set for wild horse workshops this fall. If your interested check out my Workshop Page… after looking at the photos below of course!

A wild Spanish Mustang on Shackleford Banks.

Wild Horses of the North Carolina coast.

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Afternoon Session: Wild Horses of the Crystal Coast Workshop

For the afternoon session of last weekend’s photography workshop we visited Shackleford Banks, a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The horses on “Shack” have been traced via DNA testing to the original Iberian stock used by early Spanish and English explorers as Europe slammed into the North American continent.

This was my last wild horse workshop until fall arrives. Though arrangements can be made for folks wishing to set-up a private tour or workshop involving the horses. You can find my fall workshop schedule by clicking on the menu items at the top of this page. Below are a few shots from the afternoon session.

A wild mustang feeds inside the dune line on Shackleford Banks, North Carolina's Crystal Coast.

A wild Spanish mustang on the sound-side beach along North Carolina's Southern Outer Banks.

Wild horse of the Carolina Coast.

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Wild Horses in Late Morning Light

Like most photographers I prefer to make wildlife images in the good light of the early morning or an hour or two before sunset. However, things don’t always work out that way. I’d used my kayak to get over to the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve, across Taylor’s Creek from Beaufort, NC. As a volunteer site steward for the reserve I’m supposed to make an occasional visit and patrol some of the property looking for injured animals, trash & debris, and to report on observed wildlife. I try to work those kinds of visits in conjunction with photo outings.

On this morning I started by doing some photography from the kayak, then hiking in to the main watering hole area for some horse photography. The horses were anything but animated while I was there. Photo opportunities were, at best, so-so. After that morning session I walked across the flats to Bird shoal and circumvent the dunes area on the eastern end of the shoal. On the walk I noted several plovers and other shore birds, quite a bit of trash and a spot where someone had stashed a charcoal grill and folding chair in the dunes along the beach. As I strolled back across the tidal flats I noticed that the horses were moving out onto the area to feed. I cut an angle to put myself where they’d cross in front of me, hoping to get some shots of them crossing, possibly splashing some water and with their heads up rather than in the grass feeding. Of course by now it was getting later in the morning and the sun was much higher in the sky than what would be considered ideal. However, I’m not inclined to let a little harsh light stop me from making a few photos.

When shooting in bright light, especially with large subjects like wild horses, spot metering mode can insure you get a proper exposure of your subject. If the background or foreground exposes a little “hot” so be it. The important thing is to get the exposure correct for the subject. It’s possible to shoot in other metering modes in these situations. As long as you understand exposure and how to use the exposure correction features of your camera to insure correct focus on the subject. Using modes such as center weighted or matrix metering there will be a need to set exposure compensation to shot anything from 1/3 to a full stop more than the meter recommendation. Again, let the non-subject areas “blow-out” if necessary but get the exposure right on the subject.

Below are a few shots of the horses shot in bright sunlight. While I wouldn’t suggest they’re the best wild horse images I’ve ever taken, I think they are acceptable. Learning to shoot in a variety of lighting situations is an important lesson for photographers. You never know when that rare photographic opportunity will arise. On the day that an Ivory Bill Woodpecker shows its self to me at high-noon I want to be sure I can make a useable photo of this supposedly extinct species!

Wild horse at the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve

Wild Horse Wild Horse of the Crystal Coast

Wild stallion.

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Oak Toad: Anaxyrus Quercicus

I paid a visit to one of the area’s pine savanna areas yesterday morning. I wanted to look around and see if any of the various wild orchids that grow there had appeared yet. While I didn’t find any orchids I was lucky enough to notice a couple of Oak Toads. These are considered the smallest toad in North America mesuring .75 to 1.3 inches in length. A carnivore, they primarily eat insects. Endemic to the southeastern United States, they are found from southeastern Virgina to Florida and west to the Mississippi river. Below are a couple photos of these interesting little toads.

The Oak Toad, Anaxyrus quercicus.

A common toad found in the southeastern Unitied States.

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From Fire Springs Life

I made a visit to a pine savanna in the Croatan National Forest. A couple weeks prior to my visit there had been a control burn in the area. It was interesting to see the lush green of new growth springing up from the charred, burnt ground. There’s a special shade to the green of new grasses and ferns… bright… vivid. The grasses, herbs, trees and carnivorous plants of the savanna are dependent upon fire. Without fire shurbs would take over the forest floor. Trees not usually found on the savanna would invade, closing the canopy and robbing the forest floor of life giving sunlight. Even the seeds of the Long Leaf Pine are dependent upon fire to help them start new life. Like the fabled Phoenix these plants rise up from the ashes of the burnt forest floor. The following are a few of my photos from the morning.

Like Africa, North America was once home to vast savanna areas.

A young fren lies atop a charred log on the pine savanna.

A fresh fern and a burnt log.

The Venus Flytrap is an exotic plant native to the pine savanna of eastern North Carolina. Flytraps only occur naturally with a 100 mile radius of Wilmington, North Carolina

A Venus Flytrap rises up from the ashes much like the fabled Phoenix.

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Wild Horses on the High Dunes

I made a trip over to Carrot Island this morning. Currently the horses are spread out into small groups scattered about the reserve. This presents a nice opportuninty to get some images of the horses in some environments where I haven’t photographed them before. I’d seen some horses on the high dunes a few times when kayaking on shorebird expeditions. I also knew that the grass found on these dunes might be nutritionally preferable for the animals this time of year. Here are a couple shots from the outing.

A clash of two eras... wild horses, decendants of livestock left behind by early explorers contrasted against a modern ship in the background.

A close and personal portrait of a wild mustang along North Carolina's coast.

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Rachel Carson Reserve Horses

While visiting the reserve the morning before Christmas I made a few photographs of a stallion and his one mare. At the moment the herd is broken up into individual bands called harems. The harems consist of a stallion and a mare or two or three. There also may be a bachlor band around which would be made up of stallions that haven’t “collected” any mares. With the herd split into smaller groups it can make locating horses to photograph a little more challenging. Here’s a few shots from the morning.

A wild horse on Christmas Eve morning.

A wild stallion and his mare.

Wild horses of the Crystal Coast.

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Killdeer: A Shorebird That’s Not Always a Shorebird

To be honest I’m more used to seeing Killdeer in fields and meadows miles away from the beach than strolling along the shore with sand between their toes. They were a fairly common sight when I lived in Indiana, about as far removed from the seashore as one can get. Yet they are considered a shorebird. These small birds are plovers. They are well known for their broken wing act which they use to distract predators from their nests. In the summer they can be found as far north as Quebec, British Columbia, the Yukon and southern Alaska. Killdeer are year round residents across the southern half of the United States.

While paddling along the southeast shore of Carrot Island my eyes caught sight of some movement along a beach area. As I moved closer I could tell there were a couple of plovers working along the shore line but I was able to tell what kind of plover they were until I got within camera range. I was almost suprised to realized they were Killdeer. As I mentioned above, I’m more used to seeing them away from the water than along it. It was a nice change of pace to get some photos of these handsome little birds hunting along the waters edge. Below are a few photos from the encounter.

A Killdeer looks for a meal along a shell littered beach.

Although considered a shorebird Killdeer are often found far away from the water.

Killdeer are a type of plover.

A Killdeer photographed along North Carolina's Southern Outer Banks.

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Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve: An Overview

I thought it might be nice to do a little wrtie-up about one of my favorite places for kayaking and photography, the Rachel Caroson Estuarine Reserve. Lets start with a little information about the horses.

There are currently 32 horses living within the boundries of the reserve, 17 females and 15 males. Horses were fist introduced in the 1940’s to the islands that would become the reserve, Originally placed on the island by a local physician the herd was made up of “Core Banks” horses and supplemented with domestic animals purchased at auctions in North Carolina and Virginia. The domestic horses were mostly quarter horses. So while the Rachel Carson herd has some connection to the horses of Shackleford Banks and Corova, they lack the pure linage to colonial time that those animals have. Depending on ones point of view the horses may be considered as ferral horses or wild horses. Many biologists argue that the animals, even those on Shackleford Banks, were introduced to North America as domestice stock and should then be called ferral. Others, while in the minority, suggest that calling them wild is acceptable as the horse originated on the American continent only to disappear here in prehistoric times. From my point of view they live wild and free… and as such are wild horses.

In addition to the horses there are other mammals living in the reserve. These include both red and grey fox, river otter, raccoon, cottontail & marsh rabbit. Several reptiles can be found in the reserve as well. the diamondback terrapin is found in the marshes and the Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle can also be found around the reserve. More than 200 birds species have been observed in the reserve, including year round residents and migratory birds.

The reserve is named for naturalist Rachel Carson who conducted research on the islands making up the reserve during the 1940s. The reserve was created in 1985 and included Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Horse Island and Bird Shoal. In 1989 the Middle Marshes were added. Rachel Carson is one of 10 North Carolina Coatal Reserve & Natural Estuarine Research Reserves. While its primary purpose is for research recreational activities are allowed as long as they don’t interfere with educational or research uses or disturb the environment.

Rules & Tips for Visting the Reserve

  • Trails and boardwalk are open year round.
  • Do not remove or disturb plants of wildlife and do not feed the wildlife or horses.
  • Stay on desginated trails and leave nothing behind except footprints.
  • Camping, fires and littering are prohibited.
  • Leash and clean-up after your pets. Unrestrained dogs are at risk of death or injury from the horses.
  • Keep a safe distance from the horses, at least 50 feet.
  • There are no facilities on the reserve. Plan ahead and be prepared for changing conditions.
  • The reserve is under the jurisdiction of the town of Beaufort. There are city ordinances protecting the horses and you can be ticketed and fined for harassing them.
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