Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Purple Martins of Manns Harbor

 While on vacation last week my daughter and I spent an afternoon together and ventured from the beaches of Nags Head to the beaches of the Croatan Sound, located along the west end of the Roanoke Island. Roanoke Island is part of the barrier islands off the cost of North Carolina. The area is best known in American history as the site of Sir Water Raleigh’s attempt to establish an English settlement in the late fifteenth century. The fate of that colony remains unknown as it mysteriously disappeared a few years later and is known today as the “Lost Colony”. Visitors from all around come to Roanoke Island to see the “Lost Colony” play, which happens to be the longest running outdoor theater production in America. Roanoke Island is also home to the first English born child to the New World, Virginia Dare, who was part of the original lost colony.

VA Dare

Many outsiders are unaware, but Roanoke Island is home to another unique attraction – the famous purple martin roosting site under the William B. Umstead Memorial Bridge (aka “Old Manns Harbor”). This bridge extends across the Croatan Sound and leads to and from the mainland on the northern end of the island. The bridge is home to one of the largest purple martin roost along the east coast. 100,000 + purple martins converge on the bridge every night from July through early September. Manns Harbor Bridge roost is so large the bird's morning departure can sometimes be seen on Doppler radar. Some martins may travel up to 150 miles from their summer breeding colonies to reach this site. They arrive at sunset to roost under the bridge. The Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society (CCPMS) has determined that this spectacular roost has been active at this bridge for over 30 years.

The purple martin numbers can be so large during the summer (at dusk and dawn) that the CCPMS initiated the installment of speed reduction signs and lights, alerting drivers to slow down. Personally, I think this is a great idea.


We arrived at the bridge that afternoon about 45 minutes before sunset and pulled off the road onto the designated parking area at the entrance of the bridge. Not knowing which end of the bridge was better for viewing the martins, I just chose the first entrance we came to (island side).


My daughter enjoyed playing on the beach while I snapped a few photos of the gorgeous sunset.



A young lady showed up with her yellow lab and began throwing sticks in the water for her dog to retrieve. This was a big hit with my daughter.


Birding action was a bit slow but we did spot a Pied-billed Grebe...


...and a nearby great blue heron.


We did begin to spot a few martins flying over at dusk, as well as a common nighthawk (below).


We didn't see as many martins as anticipated and I was beginning to wonder if most of them had moved on further south or we were just on the wrong end of the bridge. Just before dark we decided to jump in the car and head across the bridge. A little over half-way across the bridge my daughter hollered: “look at all those birds dad”. Sure enough, the purple martins were pouring in like black birds landing in a corn field to feed. Fortunately, no one was behind me so we were able to stop on the bridge and watch them for a few minutes. The pictures below are nothing like the real experience and the quality is not that good due to the lack of daylight and the fact that they were taken from inside the car; but it will give you a idea of how many were coming in to roost. Click any photo to enlarge it.



And this wasn’t the normal amount. A recent CCPMS blog post earlier in the week (8/16) reported that the numbers were down a little for this time of year, which indicates that they may be migrating earlier this season. The timing of the migration has a lot to do with the number of insect available for them to fatten up on before leaving for their long trip to South America for the winter. The insects must be plentiful this year.

For more information on this be sure to check out the Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society (CCPMS) website and blog:


Migratory and wintering roosts are critically important to the annual life cycle and ecology of Purple Martins. To get involved with and to learn more check out the Project Martin Roost site sponsored by the Purple Martin Conservation Association:

This post has been submitted to Skywatch Friday, and I and the Bird #133. Be sure to check out these great websites!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Meet Ricky & Lucy - Osprey of the Outer Banks

 I'm back from the Outer Banks and the family vacation is officially over - back to reality. Unfortunately vacations never last, but the memories do. And this past week I brought back a few memories I'd like to share.

The Outer Banks is a 200-mile long string of narrow barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. The 2-hour drive from where we live makes it a convenient vacation destination. Whether your a beach person or not there's lots to do and see there, not to mention some great restaurants serving some of the best seafood around. Many of the restaurants border along the waters edge offering some excellent scenery while dining. One such restaurant is Basnight's Lone Cedar Cafe. One of the main attractions at Basnights, besides its great food and wonderful view of the Roanoke Sound, is the pair of osprey that nest behind their restaurant. The osprey pair is known locally as  Ricky and Lucy - named by the restaurant staff.


The osprey nest sits on a platform that's attached to a 15 - 20 foot snag that sits over water. Ricky and Lucy have nested here for several years and have become a favorite attraction for many. The restaurant has even created flyers about them which are placed on each table for customers to read about.

In the spring of 2007 the restaurant was destroyed by fire. The osprey pair flew around confused and frightened for several days but returned a few days later and continued to nest that year while the restaurant was rebuilt just a few yards away from them.

This is one of the juveniles that has yet to leave the nest.


These ospreys will be migrating soon and will spend their winter in South America. Ricky and Lucy will return next spring to nest again in this very same spot.


Osprey readily builds its nest on manmade structures, such as this nest platform designed especially for it. Such platforms have become an important tool in reestablishing Ospreys in areas where they had once disappeared.

They dine almost exclusively on live fish. Here's one of the parents on a nearby snag eating a fresh catch.


After diner we walked out on the dock behind the restaurant to see what else was lurking this Laughing Gull (shown in it's non-breeding plumage).


Mallards swimming nearby looking for a handout.


Fish crows...


I have a hard time telling the fish crow apart from the American crow. Fish crows are a little smaller but the best way to tell them apart is by their sound.


There was even a young Swamp Rabbit eating grass nearby.



If you get a chance, stop on over at Birdfreak's website and check out more bird photos in this weeks edition of Bird Photography Weekly.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sunrise on the Outer Banks of NC - Sky Watch Friday

 Greetings from the Outer Banks of North Carolina! My family and I are having a great time at one of our favorite vacation sp0ts. Today's forecast here is calling for 70% chance of rain so I'm taking a short break inside to share a few sunrise photos I took earlier in the week overlooking the beautiful Atlantic Ocean.



Early morning is such a peaceful time at the beach.



I spotted this little sand crab scampering across the beach in the early morning light. These little critters take advantage of the quiet beach and come out looking for food and digging new holes to hide in during the day. Their camouflage makes them tough to spot. These little guys are plentiful here and at times make the sand come alive with movement.


Be sure to visit the Skywatch Friday home page for more great sky photos. Today's edition will start at 2:30pm est.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Late Summer Blooms

 Late summer can be tough on the garden, especially if it's been a hot dry summer like it has in my region. One thing you learn when going through a dry spell is which plants can take it and which ones can't. Fortunately we've had some rain recently and the grass is starting to turn green again and the flower blooms have resumed.

One thing my garden hasn't been short of this summer is butterflies.  My goal the last couple years has been to plant more flowers that attract butterflies, and it's starting to pay off as you will see in some of the photos below. In my opinion a true butterfly garden should contain both nectar plants for butterflies to feed on, and host plants for butterfly larva.

Here's is a monarch butterfly feeding on a tropical milkweed plant, also known as 'bloodflower' (Asclepias curassavica). If you look closely (click photo to enlarge) you can see a monarch caterpillar feeding on the plant foliage just below the butterfly (where the arrow is pointing). Milkweed is a great plant for pollinators and is the main host plant for monarch butterflies.

Monarch w-Caterpillar

Here's another...

Monarch on milkweed

Below is  a native milkweed called 'swamp milkweed' (Asclepias incarnata).IMG_7034

Here's a new butterfly bush (buddleia) I purchased this summer. It's a dwarf variety called 'Blue Chip'. So far I've been very pleased with it. It's a smaller compact version that continues to bloom just like the larger cultivars. I purchased this later in the summer which is not the ideal time to plant. For that reason I planted this in a pot where it sits nicely on my back deck. I plan to transplant it in the garden early this fall when things cool off a bit. IMG_6743

And just like all buddleias, the butterflies flock to it.


Black and blue salvia (Salvia guaranitica) is also new to my garden this summer. Beware, it likes to spread but if you have the room it's a neat plant and the butterflies and hummingbirds dig it to.


Russian sage is a great drought tolerant plant that continues to bloom and looks great with most plant combinations. Here a buckeye butterfly enjoys feeding from its nectar.


Blanket flower (gaillardia) is another drought tolerant plant that continues blooming throughout the summer. Keep it deadheaded for more blooms.




This is a mixture of 'New Gold' lantana mixed with 'Citus' lantana.


Here's a stand of melampodium. Truly a "plant it and forget it" plant. It begins to bloom the moment it comes up and last until frost.


'Miss Huff' lantana with a volunteer sunflower in the background.


Not sure of the name to this lantana. It's a low growing ground cover variety. Can you tell I like lantana?


Verbena is another one of those easy to grow, bang for your buck plant.


Thanks for stopping by and taking this tour with me. Remember, just because we're in the dog days of summer doesn't mean that the garden has to look like it. There're lots of plants that can stand up to the heat and drought that this time of season is known for.

For more ideas and other August blooms be sure to check out Mays Dreams Gardens for this months Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Thanks for hosting Carol!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Growing & Harvesting Potatoes

 Potatoes are one of my favorite vegetables to harvest. I’m not sure why because they do require some labor to dig and in most areas need to be harvested in the hottest part of the summer. The fact that you can’t see them (until dug) provide that “surprise” factor that only gardeners can appreciate. Questions like how many, how big, and will it be a big harvest are all queries that get answered once you go diggin’ for them.


Our family has grown potatoes since I was a young kid helping my dad in the garden. I was always looking for that one big potato that was larger than the rest of ‘em. Today I still look for that big one, but big is not always better. The smaller “new potatoes” are the prized ones when it comes to flavor and you can start “stealing” a few from the garden about the time the plants finish blooming.

This year I grew a cultivar called Yukon Gold. These potatoes have a gold colored center with a buttery-tasting waxy flesh. They taste great boiled or baked. They mature in about 90 – 100 days.

Contrary to some beliefs, potatoes are easy to grow and don’t require a large space. You can even grow them in containers or trash cans. Here's a short video I found on the subject.


Potatoes can tolerate a variety of soils, but prefer soil that’s loose and well drained since their roots grow deep. I like to mix in some peat moss to the planting area because not only does it help fluff up the soil a little, it adds some acidity to the soil that potato plants prefer. In addition, I add a little fertilizer that’s high in phosphorus (the 2nd number on the bag of fertilizer) prior to planting. Phosphorous is good for root crops like potatoes.

Potatoes grow best when planted in early spring. I plant mine about 3 weeks before my areas last frost date. A couple days prior to planting, cut the seed potatoes into pieces so that each piece has at least two eyes. Let the cut pieces sit for about two or three days so the raw edges can dry out. This reduces the risk of rotting in the ground prior to sprouting; or you can do as I do and plant the whole seed potato. From my experience the plants seem to come up a little quicker with more vigor and less chance of rotting when planting the whole seed potato.

There are a variety of ways to plant potatoes. I plant them in a shallow trench row 3-4 inches deep and about 10 – 12 inches apart, and cover them with about 2 inches of soil. I continue to rake soil around the base of the plant as they grow. Eventually this will form a mound or hill around the plant. Another option is to form a mound first and plant the potato 3-4” deep in the mound. I’ve done it both ways with no difference in the results.


  Early harvest can begin soon after the potato plant blooms – just reach down a few inches from the base of the plant and scratch into the soil until you feel a potato. Grab what you need and fix the disturbed soil to protect the remaining potatoes and off you go. The rest of the potatoes can be harvested soon after the plants begin to fade and die in the summer.

Potatoes store for months if kept in a cool dark place away from the sun. I store mine in a old bushel basket in the corner of the garage. Check periodically for any rotten ones and throw them out as necessary.

Canning potatoes is another method of storing them. Here are instructions on how to do that –

You can buy seed potatoes at your local garden center in late winter / early spring or if interested in getting a different variety than what’s offered locally, check out:

Potatoes are easy to grow, they store well, they're fun to harvest and taste great! What more could you ask for?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Yellow on Yellow - Wordless Wednesday

Tiger Swallowtail on Sunflower




The Tiger Swallowtail is the Virginia state insect.


Get Wordless over at Wordless Wednesday.