Appraising Parks

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  As long as parks are appreciated and beauty on some level is found within them, I assume they can withstand economic hard times.  I’m not sure I could say the same when natural resources and land become extremely scarce.

Sometimes my appreciation for a park isn’t immediate. Crater Lake, after the cold numbed me and the snow fell, grew on me. I appreciated the Badlands immediately. Redwood is slowly but surely growing on me, too. But it’s the smaller urban parks that take me the most time.

Hiller Park in McKinleyville is near my home. I walk through it nearly daily. It features a dog park full of dug-out gopher holes, baseball fields, and a sometimes rancid smelling set of water treatment ponds. Sounds like paradise, right?!

This park is neither exotic, overly scenic, nor free of invasive species, but I have to say, it’s growing on me.  I’d attribute this growing love to toting my camera and dog around so much in it. It seems to me that the more you spend time in a place, the more you like it. In fact, that probably could be said about many things; the more time, the better the appreciation.

Here is my photographic appreciation for Hiller Park:

A West Coast Lady [thanks Katie!] enjoying the January sunshine.

An American Robin gobbling a worm near a treatment pond.

A Chestnut-backed Chickadee hunting for pine seeds.

A female Northern Shoveler getting ready for a dip in a treatment pond.

Goats and geese are fenced in and trim the grass around the treatment ponds.

Enjoying the view.

There are various forms of the Canada goose tribes inside the fence. Most have broken wings, like this fellow, who might be a Aleutian goose. [Supposedly, the white band has to be 10mm wide. I never have a ruler on me!]

The ravens are skiddish.

Sunbeams and Sitkas.

‘Old Man’s Beard’ looks lacy in the canopy.

Mass Commute of Mallards

An Anna’s Hummingbird in December. I saw my first hummer at my feeder today [1.9.2012].

A cold shoulder from a Red-shouldered Hawk.

Some ninja needs to come knock the camera out of my hands when I go for sunbeams again–they’re going to eat up half my hard drive!

Mad River View. I believe that is Pampas grass to the left. An invasive pain in the neck.

Same view at night. I think that’s Venus.

A sunset on the riverbank

That large log has long washed out to sea by now.

A drying sandbar under a fiery sky

A Cormorant enjoying a dip in the river.

Back up on the trails.

Banana slugs cross over the trails often. They don’t withstand feet well. That hole you see is where the slug exchanges gases [breathes] and its feces also exit through that same hole. Rough life.

To sum up this overwhelming bombardment of pixels; the land surrounding the treatment ponds could have remained unaltered forest, or they could have been developed, but instead they serve as one of the rare accessible green spaces. While maybe the wildlife would have preferred untouched land, this little urban park offers something for everyone; little leaguers to dog park goers. And while many may not consciously appreciate the park on the same level as others, I’m sure they have at least one fond memory within its boundaries.  Perhaps enough fond memories are what it takes to keep parks large and small off closure lists!

The Newly Discovered Scent Hound: Birds?!

Apparently Toucan Sam’s sniffer wasn’t as fictional as once thought.

Common thought in the past has led most to believe that birds had an underdeveloped sense of smell. Exceptions were made for the carrion eaters, but otherwise, it was thought that not much happened inside the beak of a bird, olfactory-wise.

Recent research has been changing these views. While it is unknown if birds prefer floral or fruity scents, it has been established that behavior modification occurs when birds detect the scent of a predator.¹ Using the scent of a mustelid’s [like a mink] feces, researchers noted a difference in behavior compared to control tests of quail feces scents and water.

When testing House Finches with mammal feces of both a predator and non-predator,  the finches paused before feeding and did so more often with the predator scents. They also ate faster and fed for less time when fecal scents were present.³

Not only do birds use scent to sniff out predators, but there is mounting evidence they use scents to recognize mates.  Scientists cite less brain activity in birds when faced with a potential, but scentless, mate.²

What an amazing world!



1. Amo, L., Galván, I., Tomás, G. and Sanz, J. J. (2008), Predator odour
recognition and avoidance in a songbird
. Functional Ecology, 22: 289–293.

2. Jacques Balthazart, Mélanie Taziaux, The underestimated role of olfaction in avian reproduction?, Behavioural Brain Research, Volume 200, Issue 2, 25 June 2009, Pages 248-259

3. Timothy C. Roth II, Jonathan G. Cox, Steven L. Lima, Can foraging birds assess predation risk by scent?, Animal Behaviour, Volume 76, Issue 6, December 2008, Pages 2021-2027


Subtle Changes in the Seasons

When we moved here to north of Northern California, also known as the North Coast, we were told that there aren’t seasons here, just rain during the winter and fog during the summer. The temperature only fluctuates by about 20 or 30 degrees, so that seasonal indicator isn’t of much help, either.

While there aren’t traditional seasons right here on the coast, you can go 20 or 30 miles inland and find them, complete with snow or scorching temperatures! But, if you keep your eyes peeled and pay attention to nature, you’ll notice that the seasons are in fact here, even if the temperature is the same every day.

For example, the flowers here on the North Coast go through a seasonal succession. They progress, just like other places with more ‘typical’ weather, from the Spring beauties to the final blooms of Fall.

Animals, too, follow the  subtle seasonal rhythms.  The Roosevelt Elk are starting to bugle and compete with each other, marking the start of the rut that most elk herd ritualistically participate in during the month of September.

Birds have come and gone, and others have arrived. Varied and Swainsons thrushes have migrated elsewhere, leaving the Redwood forests nearly silent, but others, like the Band-tailed Pigeon have come crashing into the cascara and alder thickets.  Swallows, both Cliff and Barn,  as well as Marbled Murrelets, hit their peak mid-summer while raising their young, and most have now completed the task and are enjoying their time “off”.

During the Spring, it was hard to find a spider anywhere, but now, especially early in the morning, you find them everywhere.  You know you are the first one to walk a trail when you walk through webs every 4 feet!

So even though we don’t get feet of snow and hot weather, Nature is still marching on and changing to the “invisible” seasons that are controlled by the Earth’s tilt and rotation around the Sun.  The breezes carry only the smell of the Pacific Ocean and its kelp, but Autumn and its sunshine are seeping in through the fog!

National Seashore Becomes Battleground over Endangered Species

*Note, theses are my personal views. If you disagree and decide to comment, please do so in a respectful manner.

What is everyone talking about in the Outer Banks? A bird, but no, they aren’t birders and they don’t want to see them. I’ve watched this story and gathered some facts over the past couple months:

Anyone who calls themselves a conservationist, preservationist, or nature-lover will agree that saving a species, no matter the size or look, is important and should take priority over our recreational preferences. That feeling isn’t echoed by the residents of the Outer Banks, whose lineage in the area goes back into the 1930s when the North Carolina Coast. They believe the National Park Service, which runs Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the Audubon Society, which forced the Park Service to include endangered species management by creating official off-road vehicle guidelines, are destroying the local economy with beach closures meant to protect nesting birds.  See the video below for a brief explanation of their views.

YouTube – Fox News Interviews John Couch.

What’s at Stake

A few species of birds have evolved [read: been there longer than the 1930s] to nest on barrier islands that were void of predators, making it safe to raise young. Enter bridge-building humans that have created a way for predators to spread on to the barrier islands [like foxes and raccoons, species that easily adapt to human landscapes] and that have a preference not to walk down the beach, but to drive their four-wheel drive vehicles on it instead. These ground-nesting species of birds are understandably threatened or endangered now with their prime breeding habitat converted into our playground and invaded by new predators. Most notable is the Piping Plover, whose numbers are lower than 2000 breeding pairs [].  This bird benefitted in the 1940s from the passing of the Migratory Species Act but the increased recreational activity on beaches since World War II has caused the numbered to plummet once again.

In response to the diving population size, the National Park Service, through legal provocation by the Audubon Society and others, has created a temporary management plan that limits beach access when a Piping Plover nest is spotted. This plan includes closing off a radius of 1,000 yards around the nest site in order to provide the hatchlings and parents enough undisturbed habitat to feed in the intertidal zone and to prevent excessive disturbance upon parents tending and protecting the nest, which increases hatching success rates. As a benefit, other species are protected, but the target species, with the lowest population numbers, is the Piping Plover.

Residents have felt economic impacts that they pin on the confusion and hassle caused by the beach closures and many have been forced to close businesses and foreclose on homes, seeking employment elsewhere.  The heritage that they have built there has been devastated. While they are facing hard times, their employment rates aren’t the lowest in the country, nor in their state.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Both sides are very heated and communication has all but broken down between the major groups involved. Confusion has led to distorted facts, unwillingness to listen to arguments, and all-and-all out anger by some stakeholders.

The main problem lies in distrust. Locals don’t believe the numbers that the Park Service and others have gathered, ranging from facts such as buffer zone necessary to prevent the disturbance of the birds [motorized recreation has more of an impact on wildlife; increased nest desertion. See: Wildlife and Recreationists: Ch 5] to the increased visitation to the National Seashore over the past several years. In fact, they are nearly convinced there is some kind of government conspiracy to kick them off their island [the government employees want the place all to themselves and the birds with absolutely no amenities nearby? No visitors = no budget].

On the other hand, can the NPS  trust that off-road vehicle users and other visitors who feel displaced will obey the rules, drive and walk only where they are supposed to, and not run over wildlife and nests?

From 9/10/2010 Resource Management Summary:

“Bodie District:

8/27- Two sets of pedestrian tracks entered the filter fence and one individual defecated next to

the nest marker 1.8 miles N of Ramp 23.”

 Although the perhaps the love for one particular species isn’t there, the locals do love the land and feel a deep connection to the Outer Banks. 

If the numbers are crunched, during the nesting season there were no more than approximately 27 miles of 60 closed at any given time, although the locals will mention that the best fishing spots, like Cape Point, were inaccessible [Island Free Press Beach Closures Weekly Report]. Even though there are large buffer zones around the nests, the vast majority do not produce hatchlings. This is in part due to predators that were not indigenous to the previously safe islands, like foxes and raccoons, which the Park Service, under public opposition as well, is trying manage [See “A Plan to Rid Keys of Predator Species“]. In total this year, only 15 Piping Plover chicks fledged out of 33, with 12 breeding pairs, 6 of which nested at Cape Point.²

It’s All about Appearances

While it’s no doubt the local Outer Banks economy has taken a hit, so has the rest of the country.  Interestingly, tourism numbers are up at the National Seashore this past year and that trend is reflected country-wide as well. New York City experienced a rise in tourists, as did Las Vegas¹ last year. The same can be said for other North Carolina National Park Service Units along the coast as well, such as the Fort Raleigh and Cape Lookout [NPS Stats: Visitation by Month/Year]. Seemingly out of frustration, Outer Banks residents can’t blame the intangible tourism industry and instead point to one species of bird.

The National Seashore, forced into compliance with the rest of the units in the National Park Service to uphold the mission to protect for future generations the cultural and natural resources, has found itself incapable of calming the locals and the environmental groups.  Confusion has resulted from different management practices for different species. For example, a national practice for sea turtle nests is to mark off a small area around the nest since sea turtles do not forge on the beach but immediately leave and enter the water.  Since sea turtle hatch out primarily at night, the National Seashore has night closures to prevent turtles from being run over. Birds, on the other hand, linger on the beach until the hatchlings can fly and are diurnal, meaning they roam during the day when peak visitor usage occurs.  Their foraging habits require them to cover some beach in order to secure proper food intake. If repeatedly flushed from an area, the amount of food that the bird consumes greatly diminishes. Hence, the two different species requiring the same habitat for widely varying amounts of time has confused many as to why such strict guidelines are now in place.

It seems the anger over these management issues has peaked due to increased attention paid to the management proposal and temporary management plans.  Piping Mad: Fair People at the Mercy of a Government Gone Fowl is a documentary style portrayal of the hardships that the locals face. While very short on actual facts, the pain the people have is tangible. A noticeable omission in the film is the lack of explanation as to why the species is being protected, methods and research in determining how to do so, and federal laws stating it must be so [Migratory Species Act, anyone?]. Also omitted is the amount, where and duration of beach closures. Like stated above, it’s never been all of the beach.

The Bottom Line

It is imperative that all parties involved find a way to protect the Piping Plover while allowing for recreational access.  If the species disappears, it’s not only a failure  for the National Park Service, in charge of protecting our wild treasures, but the locals and ultimately the American public, who have successfully saved other species from extinction in the past through preservation efforts by those like John Muir and conservation movements by leaders such as Aldo Leopold.

To let the Piping Plover go the way of the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet would be a travesty and undo what so many, for generations, worked for. A success story like the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon on the other hand would shine the proverbial spotlight of history on the Seashore and local community as champions of conservation and cooperation.


² 9/10/2010 Resource Management Summary

New Year’s Sea Fog

It’s a new year! For lots of people, it means time to take on new things, to improve upon some aspect of life. To me this time, it’s the calm before the storm! Relative calm, I suppose since I just caught up on blogging and photos.

Washing Away a Great 2010!

Yesterday being the first day of the New Year, we hit the beach in search of sea fog and found it!

Sea Fog at Breach InletSun and Sea Fog

The Clouds Break, but the Fog Thickens

The last day of the Old Year, we found some birds even against the hardest efforts of all the dogs on the beach! [There were so many! Chasing everything! I guess since it was a people holiday, it was a dog day as well!]

Did the gull swallow a melon?!

Mergansers at Pickett Bridge


A Female Bufflehead Diving

Snowy Egret Making a Splash!

A Yellow-rumped Warbler

Sorry that was quite the photo flood! I can’t resist just one more bird photo though:

Happy Second Day of the New Year!

Congaree National Park

 On our visit to Congaree National Park, we found out just how scared we both are of squirrels. Perhaps scared isn’ t the right word; maybe cautious is more accurate, but being on an 8ft high boardwalk with nowhere to run and a very curious squirrel is a situation in which one should be….cautious. [Most injuries at Grand Canyon National Park are caused by people trying to feed squirrels and their kin!]

Other than the squirrels, we had a wonderful visit to a floodplain that has been preserved for future generations. Eighty percent of this amazing park floods about ten times a year [hence why sections of the boardwalk are 8 ft above the ground]. If you ponder it, many National Parks feature erosion [Grand Canyon, Badlands, Bryce, Yosemite, Arches, etc] and only a few are dominated by deposition, but Congaree is a story of both, washing away and depositing sediments.

There are plenty of trails to walk or canoe in the park. The walking trails are both on boardwalk and on the ground and are great for spotting birds, looking at large cypress and tupelo trees, and just using your legs! Even though you are on the boardwalks, it doesn’t mean that you’re separated from the natural world. There is plenty of nature LIVING on the boards and if you look closely, you’ll spot a few neat critters, I am sure!

The neat story behind this park is that it was ‘saved’ from chainsaws. The virgin timber was in high demand but the area had, up until that point, been relatively untouched [sound like ANWAR??]. Through the conservation efforts of one man rallying the community, the trees were saved and steps were taken to preserve what is now the largest area of old-growth floodplain forest in North America.

Lots of walks, talks, and guided canoe trips are offered, even in the winter.  For mosquito season [it is a swamp, of course!], they have a screened-in patio with seating that is apparently for interpretive talks. And to take the guesswork out of how many mosquitoes are out there, they have a “mosquito meter” above the bathrooms, ranging from ‘All Clear’ to ‘War Zone’.  The visitor center is large, lovely, and has lots of neat information [ignore the exhibits mentioning it as a National Monument–it just recently became a National Park].

The moss marks the average flood line.


A canoe trail


A tiny Magnolia Jumper patrolling the boardwalk.


Reflections in the swamp's blackwater.


Why hello there!


A beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk that didn’t mind us.

For a few more shots of the Park, you can visit my Picasa site:

For official information about the park, go to

A Gator-filled Santee Coastal WMA

This place is fabulous, but a little confusing.  Here’s why:

If you google Santee Coastal Wildlife Management Area, you will also find the Santee Coastal Reserve. Probably the same thing since both are listed as having 24,000 acres.  With the Santee Coastal is the Washo Reserve.  Good luck with boundaries and who manages what.  The State of South Carolina perhaps runs both, but the Nature Conservancy acquired the Washo.

My advice if you’d like to hunt in this area, contact someone there first and get it all sorted out.  We found a clipboard on an information kiosk that has the number of feral pigs tallied out.  One fellow got 12 in one day! And, as we were dodging gators, we heard a pig squeal! So if pig hunting is your thing, there are probably tons out there for you.

•» Where is the Santee Coastal Reserve «•

Just north of McClellanville, SC and just south of both forks of the Santee River on Highway 17.

Google Map:

Trail Map from Kiosk:

Click to enlarge

It is purported that trail maps are sporadically available at the information kiosks. The trail system isn’t complex, but it’s always good to know where you are going. Perhaps snap a shot of the map and refer to it on your camera when necessary.  The plastic over the map makes it a bit difficult to do so, by the way.

•» What to Do in the Santee «•


Already mentioned was gator dodging and pig hunting. There are a good number of hiking trails and depending on the gator activity, they could take you quite a while. Try the links below, they will take you to SC

Woodland Trail

Bike/Hike Trail

Marshland Trail

We walked the Marshland and part of the Bike/Hike Trail.  Off the Marshland is a boardwalk that keeps you above any alligator traffic, but once you pass through the forest section after the boardwalk, be prepared to be dodging gators on both sides while walking through the impoundment areas.

We went on a very active day, one of the first days that were warm enough for copious amounts of gator activity.  While on the boardwalk, we heard an alligator thrashing and making a horrid choking or gargling sound…or maybe that’s what it was eating…we could only see the ripples and occasionally a tail through the cypress and tupelo.


“This site has been identified as being significant for world bird conservation and officially designated a globally important bird area”  —Sign posted before boardwalk. American Bird Conservancy

This area is reowned for its birdwatching.  Check this list from the Carolina Bird Club’s Wikipedia entry to see what could be there. As you drive through the pines, look for the trees with the white rings around the trunks, then look up in for a small hole with sap running down the bark. These holes are possible nesting cavities for the red-cockaded woodpecker. This area has one the higher concentrations of red-cockaded, check the USGS Map!

As you walk around the Reserve, keep your ears open! The forests and cypress swamps are dense and even though you might not see it, you’ll probably hear it! We heard a “Who-cooks, who-cooks-for-you-all!” while walking near the boardwalk. Is that what they’re really saying? I think it’s “Give me back my ball!” Just put an owl accent to that, and it sounds exactly like the barred owl’s call.

I believe, but am not certain, that the Santee Coastal is open one hour after dawn and the Washo Reserve is open from 1-5, according to their site. Not sure if they are still enforcing those hours or not.  But early morning hours would probably be best to view and photograph birds, especially since the sun will be at your back for the boardwalk and good portions of the trail.

Check the photo gallery page of the Carolina Bird Club to peek at some great shots taken locally!

Wildlife Watching:

There seems to be a large potential for wildlife viewing during prime hours.  Besides alligators and the destructive wild pigs, there are also alligators, anoles, turtles, gopher tortoises, deer, and amphibians. It is recommended not to bring your dog and also to not throw anything in the water. According to one of their info boards, “a splash means food.”

Most of the gators on our visit did the splashing, right before we spotted them. It seems to serve as a defense mechanism, much like mourning doves use where they wait until you are reasonably close and then launch up. In this case, the alligators wait until you are within 20 feet or so, then violently thrash through the water using their powerful tails.

*Did You Know*: The part of the head that is visible above water, the snout and eyes, is about a sixth of the alligator’s total length! Half of the body is made up of tail, a very powerful mass of muscle!

This fellow to the left took a keen interest to us.  He was laying on an adjacent bank and as we approached, he quietly slipped into the water, swam towards us, and then slowly turned to climb on the little knoll there.  I think he was hoping for something else.

Thanks for visiting!