Posted on Monday, April 4, 2011

Adventures in Nature: The Bald Head Island Conservancy Wildlife Tour

At Ibis Roost Pond, the trees were full of ibis and herons.

On my most recent adventure excursion to Bald Head Island, I joined the Bald Head Island Conservancy for a wildlife tour. When I arrived at Deep Point to catch an early ferry over, I found BHIC’s Environmental Educator Andy Gould with our four tour mates – Neil and Kathie, and Debbie and Mike – already talking about the flora and fauna of the island.

The ferry ride over gave Andy a great opportunity to introduce Bald Head Island to our four visitors from Connecticut. They’d been to the island before, but it was years ago and as Andy pointed out the prominent features and landmarks of the island – Old Baldy standing above the maritime forest, the expanse of marsh – I saw excitement at their return. After the ferry docked we took a quick tram ride to the Conservancy and started our tour in earnest. I was looking forward to a beautiful day exploring and learning, and I was not disappointed.

The thing I love about exploring the island with the Conservancy or Old Baldy Foundation or anyone, for that matter, is learning new things. It seems that no matter how much of Bald Head Island I see, how many tours I take or how many people I talk to, there is always more to be learned. And this tour was no exception.

We started by taking our cart to the high dune ridge by the Shoals Club where Andy pointed out Frying Pan Shoals. The tide was high and the waves crashed over the shoals, violent and loud even from a distance. Andy pointed out the shrubs on the dunes and they way they grow at an angle. Turns out the shrubs are actually red cedar trees, like you’ll find in the maritime forest (only taller). They grow at an angle because the airborne salt stunts them and the front takes the brunt of the beating. As the back grows they get their distinct shape. They also create a “salt shadow” on the lee side (that’s the side away from the wind) where other species of plants can grow, which is why you’ll find some vines, flowers and little trees growing behind them.

And then I learned the most interesting fact of the day (for me anyway): sea oats have incredibly long and complex root systems. Their taproot can reach upwThe foundation of Bald Head Island lies in the sand, water and plants nearby.rds of 15’ and their network of fibrous roots can double that, stretching down through the dune to the fresh water table below. They’re one of the most important plants when it comes to stabilizing or establishing a dune system.

From the dune ridge, Andy took us to Middle Island, the, well, middle island of the Smith Island Complex. On our trip I chatted up my adventure mates and learned that Neil works in construction and restores old and historic homes in Connecticut. My father-in-law was a cabinetmaker in Connecticut, so we talked woodworking. Then I learned that Mike is the rugby coach at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, my brother-in-law’s alma mater. And I played rugby in college. As it turned out, everyone in our group had played rugby at one point. But we weren’t here to talk rugby or New England, we were here to explore and learn about Bald Head Island and Andy knew right where to take us.

On Middle Island there are several great spots to stop and check out the marsh birds. We saw several of the usual early-season suspects: hawks or harriers hunting the tree line and creeks, egrets, herons and a few others.

But Andy saved the piece de resistance for the end of our trip – Ibis Roost Pond.

Ibis Roost Pond is on Middle Island and has been dedicated to the Conservancy. It is truly one of the most serene spots Bald Head Island has to offer. Access is granted to Middle Island residents and Conservancy trips only, so be sure to play by the rules if you want to go.

At Ibis Roost Pond the trees were filled, and I mean filled, with ibises. Snowy white adults and the dingy brown juveniles packed the branches overlooking the pond. The pond itself was an incredible green and sports a 12’-14’ alligator in the warmer weather. We were lucky enough to be there for two things: tons of black-crowned night herons in the trees, and the alligator floating outside his den.

My Connecticutonian adventure mates were thrilled to see one of our more common birds, the yellow-rumped warbler, commonly called the “butter butt” after the bright yellow patch above his tail.

For me, the best moment came as we were turning to leave. A cry overhead – kyew; kyew; kyew; kyew; kyew – from an osprey looking forCheck out the crazy shape of this saltstunted red cedar.something to eat. As it flew overhead the black and white pattern on its wings stood out and aimed my camera and shot. I took a couple of great pictures of the sky through the trees, of the trees themselves, and then the prize – the osprey, wings extended, pattern visible, framed by trees on either side. I liked it so much I made it my desktop background when I got home.

If you’re interested in joining the Bald Head Island Conservancy on a Wildlife Tour, contact Andy or Maureen at 910.457.0089 x 16. Or email them at andy@bhic.org or maureen@bhic.org. The cost for the tour is $50 per participant and includes ferry passage to and from the island (price adjustments can be made for folks already on the island). The tour starts at 10:00 a.m., so you’ll take a 9:00 a.m. ferry to the island and Andy, Maureen or one of the other Conservancy volunteers or interns will have you back for a 1:30 p.m. ferry back to the mainland. Groups of 4-16 can be accommodated. Take a look at a more detailed tour itinerary here or call or email Andy or Maureen for more information.