Exploring the Natural World of South Carolina: Birds Part 3

Troglodytidae – The Carolina Wren was life bird for me on this trip. I started birding after I had moved to Ottawa where this species would be nothing more than a rare visitor.  For its diminutive size, this bird can pack a punch vocally.  It was easily the loudest bird my partner and I came across during our trip.

Polioptilidae – Another life bird was the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  I had not anticipated how many gnatcatchers we would see during the trip, both at the Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve and Lake Conestee Nature Park.  These little birds were in constant motion, and a few times we got to see one catch and consume an insect.

Turdidae and Mimidae – Apart from American Robins, the thrushes we came across were quite secretive and hard to photograph.  This Veery posed briefly, allowing me to snap a quick picture.  I’m glad it did, because I’m not sure I would have procured an ID otherwise. Veery was settled upon due to the lack of speckling seen on the breast. I was also lucky to see all three mimids native to eastern North America.  I was surprised at how common Northern Mockingbirds were in the area. We saw many individuals during our hikes, but they were also one of the most common telephone wire birds as well.

Bombycillidae – I traded Bohemian Waxwings in Ottawa for Cedar Waxwings in South Carolina.  We only came across small numbers of waxwings roosting in the wetland of the Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve.  It was nice to hear their high-pitched whistles again after a long winter.

Feel free to visit South Carolina birds part 1 and part 2, as well as my account of the dragonflies and damselflies of South Carolina, and a description of the parks I visited.

Exploring the Natural World of South Carolina: Birds Part 2

Columbidae and Picidae – This was my first time seeing Red-headed Woodpeckers, and it was a pleasure. There were at least three individuals at the Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve, all very active, pursuing each other from tree to tree. However, there was one tree that was out of bounds to the Red-headeds. A Pileated Woodpecker had claimed one snag with a suitable cavity as her territory, and would come out of her hole to defend her snag any time a visitor came by. If you couldn’t see this interaction occurring, you could certainly hear it from just about anywhere in the preserve.

Tyrannidae – The wetland at the Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve was not only great for woodpeckers, it was a hotspot for Phoebes and Kingbirds. Unfortunately we missed seeing Great Crested Flycatchers this trip. At the Lake Conestee Nature Park, one of the first birds we happened across was a difficult-to-ID flycatcher. It sat on a high branch directly above us, giving a view of only its breast and the underside of its bill.  If I hadn’t just finished a bird taxonomy and identification course at school, I probably would not have been able to ID the bird beyond its family. However, I had just learned that a buffy colouration of the underside of the bill in combination with the flycatcher’s light breast and small size was unique to Eastern Wood-Pewee. Later the Pewee posed on some lower branches, giving us a better view of its overall plumage.

Vireonidae, Paridae, Sittidae – For the relative abundance of individuals in these families, they were remarkably hard to photograph.  I was very excited to find the Brown-headed Nuthatches in a small pine stand. I’m lucky that my father has moved within their restricted range.  Next time I visit I’d like to spend more time with these guys, watching their behaviour, and maybe even seeing their use of tools while foraging.

Exploring the Natural World of South Carolina: Birds Part 1

Anatidae – This large family was under-represented during the trip.  Of the three species we saw, I only missed photographing Mallards.  I suspect we may have added a species or two if we had made it to the larger lakes at Lake Conestee Nature Park.

Ardeidae – The Wetland Trail at the Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve is the perfect place to see herons.  The Great Blue Herons were always easy to spot from the boardwalk, but the Green Heron’s tended to skulk in the vegetation. At Lake Conestee Nature Park, there are two Great Blue Heron nests with young that can been seen from one of the main lookouts off of the boardwalks.

Cathartidae and Accipitridae – Turkey Vultures were on display both during the drive down to South Carolina and up to Ontario.  I kept my eye out for Black Vultures, but I was not lucky enough to find one.  I’m not sure whether they weren’t actually around or whether my inexperience with their identification kept me from finding one. The Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks were found monitoring the wetland and fields of the Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve.

Scolopacidae – On our last of three outings to the Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve we came across our first sandpipers of the week.  Three Solitary Sandpipers were working the wetlands, catching the fish fry in the shallowest sections, which luckily for us were in great view of the boardwalks.

Read about the dragonflies and damselflies of South Carolina here natural areas I visited here.

Exploring the Natural World of South Carolina: Dragonflies and Damselflies

Identifying and photographing dragonflies and damselflies was not one of my main goals during my trip to South Carolina, primarily due to my camera lens not being well suited to taking photos of small, quick moving objects at close distances. Perhaps next time I visit I will pay more attention to my macro lens. However, when an opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t help trying my luck at getting in a photo. All of my identification came after the field, as I am very inexperienced in identifying odonates. All of my identifications came from the Princeton Field Guides: Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson (a recent and wonderful birthday present from my mother). The start of the flight season in northern South Carolina for each species was extrapolated from the information presented in this book.


Fragile Forktail – Start of flight time in SC: Early spring?

I have no real experience identifying damselflies, but after pouring through my field guide, I came to the conclusion that both of these specimens were Fragile Forktails due to the visible exclamation mark pattern on their thoraxes. Fragile Forktails are most often found in wetlands with abundant herbaceous plant cover.  These individuals were found in Lake Conestee swamp habitat with thick herbaceous plant cover near the boardwalks and an overall dense canopy cover.


Common Whitetail – Start of flight time in SC: Late March?

Favouring streams, lakes, and other open wetlands, the males of this species I typically found flying the edges of the wet areas and landing on the adjacent boardwalks. The females I usually found a few meters from the edges of the wetlands perching on low shrubby vegetation.

Eastern Pondhawk – Start of flight time in SC: Late March?

A generalist to vegetated wetlands, the Eastern Pondhawk was the most common dragonfly I came across at the Lake Conestee Nature Park. I believe that the juvenile male I photographed is somewhere between one and three weeks old due to its incomplete colour change to the frosted blue of an adult male.

Blue Corporal – Start of flight time in SC: Late March?

This was the only species I photographed that cannot also be found in my home province of Ontario.  This species is known for perching on logs or bare ground, the ones at Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve having a penchant for landing on the boardwalks.

Return to the first post in this South Carolinian series on to learn more about the natural areas visited.

Exploring the Natural World of South Carolina

From April 23rd to 29th I was fortunate to visit my father who is now living in the Greenville and Spartanburg region of South Carolina. It was great to be back in the state.  When I was a young child, my paternal grandparents lived in Aiken, South Carolina, and I have very fond memories of visiting them each March break.  A lot of features were immediately familiar to me; the pine forests, the red clay soils, and the intense spring sunshine.

During the day while my father was at work, my partner and I spent our time exploring natural areas in the locality. My favourite spot was easily the Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve located in Spartanburg, SC.  This is a small urban nature preserve chock-full of trails and boardwalks.  The central wetland in the preserve was a super bird hotspot. It was a pleasure to just sit on the boardwalk and see what would fly by. Many of the trees in the preserve were labelled, which was a great learning tool for this northerner.

The second excellent natural area that we visited was the Lake Conestee Nature Park, just minutes from downtown Greenville, SC. This park had it all; lakes, wetland, hardwood and evergreen forests, and an extensive trail system. The park is listed by the Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area, so it was a shoe-in for a visit.

Over the next week or so I will be posting reports on all of the amazing wildlife I came across during my trip, so stay tuned for some birds, butterflies, and other interesting creatures!

Birding Mud Lake

Here is a quick photo update of yesterday’s trip to Mud Lake.  No warblers yet, but there were lots of other new migrants to be found. All in all, it was another great day of birding!

Close Encounter with a Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker female foraging on a dead stand

Pileated Woodpecker female foraging on a dead stand

When I’m feeling unmotivated to go for a hike, I usually try to suppress those feelings and go anyway. I never regret the time I spend outdoors, and again that was the case this past weekend. I was sitting restlessly at my desk under a pile of papers and bemoaning the snowy, windy weather. The conditions were not great for birding, but I decided to head outdoors regardless. After a long, awkward bus journey, I arrived at my favourite green space within Ottawa, the Brittania Conservation Area, otherwise known as Mud Lake. I’m glad I took the time out of my day, because I had my closest encounter to date with a Pileated woodpecker.

The Pileated Woodpecker is a crow-sized member of the family Picidae.  It is the largest woodpecker in North America, except for perhaps the Ivory-billed Woodpecker that was thought to be extinct before some recent sightings called that assumption into question. This particular bird was so intent on excavating food from a dead stand, it let me closely observe for about 10 minutes. In that time, I was able to survey the bird’s features and behaviour. I could immediately tell that this bird was female, due to her red crest not extending all the way down her forehead to the base of her bill and lack of red malar (moustache) stripe, as seen on a male. During her foraging, her reinforced retrices (tail feathers) were on display.  Woodpeckers use these feathers to prop themselves up as they hammer.  I also caught a glimpse of her zygodactyl toe arrangement (two forward, two back), another feature that helps woodpeckers cling to trees. The hole she was excavating had the typical rectangular shape that is attributed to Pileated Woodpeckers. I’m not sure why the rectangular shape is used.  Perhaps it is the most energy efficient shape to carve due to the grain of the wood. In all likelihood she was creating this hole to forage for hibernating Carpenter Ants, an abundant winter food source.  The Pileated Woodpecker is an enchanting bird, and this encounter will keep me heading out to the woods in all sorts of winter weather.

2014 in Review

Daring Lake

Enjoying a hike to the “forests” of Daring Lake.


2014 has been a fantastic year for all things outdoors.  I’m very grateful for all of the learning opportunities that have come my way. Here is to a great 2015!


Here are the links to some of the organizations I’ve worked with this year.












Normally I would not bother making a full blog post to showcase some rather non-remarkable photos, but there is always room for an exception.  Much to my embarrassment, I’ve had to admit many a time to various people that I had never seen a wild moose in person.  Growing up my family did all of our camping between Long Point and Turkey Point on the shores of Lake Erie, so my chances of seeing a moose were pretty much squat. I came closest to seeing a moose last September at the Alfred Bog in Eastern Ontario.  After a day of research I came across a large pile of very fresh scat, but alas, no moose.

Well, I can now happily say that my mooseless state has been erased.  About two weeks ago I was out at one of my study sites with two other students, when we saw a large dark animal climb down the side of an esker.  Instinctively we all thought caribou, but that didn’t really make sense because at this time of year the caribou are all much further north.  The dark colouring and large size of the animal tipped us off that it might be a moose.  We jumped up to grab our binoculars and cameras and promptly lost sight of the animal.  After a quick (15 minute) scramble over the hummocks and up the esker, we relocated our specimen in a riparian area and confirmed its identification as a moose, a young bull moose to be exact.

A young bull moose.

A young bull moose.

A few days after my first moose sighting, I was hiking with another student to a study pond and like usual we were on the lookout for any large animals.  As we approached, the other student pointed out two large brown objects lingering near the opposite shore.  Out came the binoculars, but we were still a bit far to get a good identification.  We got on the radio and let the others in the field know that we were potentially looking at two bears hanging out near our study site.  However we ate our words almost immediately when one of the large brown animals stepped out of the water and onto shore.  The long slender legs and great height of the animal tipped us off that it was not two bears.  We were actually looking at a cow moose and a calf.  So I have officially seen a male, female, and baby moose.  I couldn’t be more pleased!