I requested a brief report from my friend Will Christenson on his two day bird survey with David McLean and Kathy Greider on Bull Island. It just so happened that their planned survey of the island coincided with the coldest weather of this winter – an Arctic blast that had lows in the teens and highs in the low thirties. (I described their survey as “valiant” – he used the word “idiot”). I was interested in highlights of the survey – what special birds were observed. Long tail duck, merlin, peregrine, Coopers hawks, canvasback, rig neck, redhead, meadowlark, bald eagles.
Anticipating the bird life on the island, and much more, I met up with the group signed up for this winter fundraising event for the Cape Romain loggerhead turtle program. We surpassed our previous year’s trips with a full boat – about 50. Not just any 50 people, but a group prepared to brave the morning chill on the ride out (though not the teens of the previous morning), a prospect of rain, and an estimated twelve miles to cover on the hike. We were surprised by some blue sky peeking out after an early morning shower; a day experiencing the dynamics of a barrier island and atmosphere awaited us.
What makes a highlight for one on such a day? What factors join together to produce long-held memories, enjoyed and re-experienced, perhaps throughout one’s life? Age, experience, special interests, openness, awareness, fortune/karma, to name a few. There are moments and images incapable of being captured with photos, videos, or words (see Something about the day). Our experience again proved the refuge’s ability to connect with people in elemental ways, whether first time visitors or seasoned veterans (yours truly).
My highlight reel has two parts. As commented on by one of the hikers, making the transitions from ecosystem to ecosystem is a fascinating experience, and the passage from maritime forest to salt shrub community to dune field to the beach’s intertidal zone never fails to grip my attention. While a tidal creek cutting the beach was a barrier later on in the walk, seeing the “Bulls Island waterfall”, and barefoot wading in the shallow frigid creek waters as the air warmed was a treat for me. Soon thereafter, viewed from multiple perspectives – our walk on the beach, part of the group up on the dike, and Captain Gates Roll on Caretta making the 3PM ferry run – a mist rolling off the cold waters and floating low over the island was an atmospheric gem. (Talking to Rob Fowler later to understand more completely what happened – seeking a Fowlerism – he talked about the change in conditions with water and air in that local and ephemeral condition, and what he termed a “quasi-warm front”).
Photo credit Meg Rowley
Part II of the highlight reel was seeing and hearing the experiences of the hikers. The long beach walk was a great opportunity for exploring the washed up remains of marine life (and other flotsam and jetsam, including many errant sandbags from the very ill-advised “protecting” of beach property on the Isle of Palms). After just a couple of minutes on the strand, I asked for someone to find the state shell to share with the group, and the most avid sheller already had two. I asked her to be on the lookout for a remnant loggerhead egg shell, and she dutifully produced one to share its characteristics with the entire group (this was a loggerhead program fundraising event, after all). The destination of the Boneyard, shrouded in the mist for some of the miles on our beach leg, was naturally a highlight, and our lunch stop to refuel and regroup (hikers were stretched out over a mile and a half along the strand).
PHOTO CREDIT Kjell Nilsson
A light mist added atmosphere to the skeletal maritime forest remains. As I modeled the vastly different barrier islands – Bull and Cape – with crude sand models, and discussed loggerhead turtles, I cited a book for readers wanting to know more about marine turtles – Voyage of the Turtle by Carl Safina.
PHOTO CREDIT Kjell Nilsson
A favorite quote from one of his books – “Every walk is a product of the present and a relic of the past.” What a place to ponder “The was-ness of the is.”
One hiker, recently transplanted from Ohio, stood out in the parking lot prior to boarding , dressed in shorts in contrast to the bundled others. Davis saw for the first time a dolphin and alligator up close and personal, two animals I never tire of observing. It took many miles and the warm-up to have a good gator sighting, and I recognized the sign ahead by the cluster of hikers on Alligator Alley near the water control structure, cameras and mobile phones snapping images.
PHOTO CREDIT MEG ROWLEY
Our youngest group member, a teenage girl dressed in the coloring of a roseate spoonbill (none seen), reported finds to me along the way, including her father picking a “weird pink thing” off his boot (dune devil-joint). Later on the docked Caretta, after a pod of dolphins gave a show off the stern, she announced as I approached “You really missed it!” Seeing her excitement was pleasing.
A shared highlight occurred on the northwestern dike of Jacks Creek as our group, clustered all within sight, and feeling the warmest sun of the day, experienced a flyover of two white pelicans, then a second, and more, as if sent to display their huge wingspan and distinctive coloring for our benefit. It was a magical moment, for myself and the group, and provided a salve for some sore feet and legs toward the end of our long walk. But the adventure and highlights are never over until one reaches the mainland, and we were in for a treat cruising through a vastly changed marshscape. Our journey over to the island took place on a high tide, and we returned on a negative one (over a foot below normal). The receded waters provided opportunities for viewing oysters, and for Will to expound on their natural history and that of a consumer, the American oystercatcher. The negative tide, while allowing for the enhanced wildlife viewing, also presented navigation challenges for our able captain Gates Roll. In the last “channel” before the Intracoastal Waterway, a slough where I had touched daggerboard and rudder many a time on Kingfisher, I stood with fellow travelers on the bow deck, seeing the bottom ahead of us, and yellow sea whips almost caressing the surface. Noting this observation to Gates, I could see his full attention to the course as he slipped Caretta through this narrow opening. After disembarking, weary hikers trudged back on the long concrete pier toward the parking lot: several stopped with mobile phones raised to capture the image of a brown pelican posing on a piling. Its colors were beautiful in the late afternoon light – a common bird easily taken for granted but most worthy of our interest and admiration.