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You Can Run but You Can’t Hide If You Leave Tracks Like That

May 16, 2014

Thursday May 15

sand dune

Looking up at the main dune on Jockey’s Ridge- sand, sand, and more sand, as far as you can see…

Thursday morning we went east until we ran out of land. We ended up at Jockey’s Ridge, the largest active sand dune on the east coast (It is currently estimated to be 85 feet tall, but over the years it has ranged as high as 140 feet — tall enough that it was used as a navigation landmark for early explorers). After a short talk with ranger Jenny Cox we headed out to see what animals had walked the sand overnight. The soft sand recorded the tracks of even small birds and toads (lots and lots of toads).

Hiking with Ranger Jenny from Jockey's Ridge State Park. The tracks we saw included: box turtle, snake, Southern or Fowler's Toads, fox, birds, lizards, and more!

Hiking with Ranger Jenny from Jockey’s Ridge State Park. The tracks we saw included: box turtles, snakes, Southern or Fowler’s Toads, foxes, birds, lizards, and more!

Walking up the dune was extremely difficult because the soft sand slid backwards under our feet. When we reached the top we could see a large part of the island because the dune is so much higher than all the land around it. The dune’s peak resembled the Sahara desert — rolling hills of sand and nothing else. In the few areas where a bit of vegetation poked through the sand (the top of a buried tree perhaps), small animal tracks marked it out as an oasis of life.

From the top of the dune we could see a cross section of a barrier island — the beach on the ocean side of the island, then the dunes (foredunes and back dunes), the maritime forest (a forest adapted for high winds and lots of salt spray), and the estuarine marshes on the sound side of the island. As we walked back (or, in the case of Shaliek and James, jumped down the dune and rolled through the sand back) we noticed a number of toads jumping around at the edge of the forest. We were excited to see so many toads until we noticed a hognose snake (presumably the cause of the toads’ activity), an event that was exciting to some of us and frightening to others. (Hognose snakes are not venomous but love to eat toads and even posses special teeth for puncturing the inflated body of a toad). While hognose snakes are famous for their habit of playing dead when threatened,  this one did not even after Megan caught it to let several of us touch it (including Mera who did so in a small victory over her fear of snakes! Congratulations Mera!).

Hiking up the dune face was hard work!

Hiking up the dune face was hard work!

"S-H-A-W" bears spelling out their school in appreciation for this amazing adventure!

“S-H-A-W” bears spelling out their school in appreciation for this amazing adventure!

Eastern hognose snakes are non-venomous and specialize in eating toads!

Eastern hognose snakes are non-venomous and specialize in eating toads!

After lunch we visited Nag’s Head Woods, a maritime forest. We saw wax myrtle, live oak, and bay trees, all of which have waxy coatings on their leaves as protection from wind and salt. The ponds in the woods were covered with green duckweed, which camouflaged the many bullfrogs. Michaela took the opportunity to hone her observation skills by finding as many frogs as possible (under the guidance of Tamara who shared her wildlife observation tips). We also saw two broad head skinks, a type of lizard with small scales that give them a smooth, glossy appearance.

After the woods we went to the beach. The students were given half an hour to collect or observe as many different species as possible — birds, plants, macroinvertebrates, shells, and so on, a practice known as a BioBlitz. We found gulls, sandpipers, mole crabs, moon snails, mermaid’s purses (the egg cases of skates), and lots of different kinds of shells. The species that generated the most excitement were the ghost crabs, two of them, which Mera and James dug out of three-foot burrows by hand.

Life at the end of the tunnel-- Mera learned how to hold a crab for the first time! These ghost crabs are responsible for the countless half-dollar-sized holes we found on the beach.

Life at the end of the tunnel– Mera learned how to hold a crab for the first time! These ghost crabs are responsible for the countless half-dollar-sized holes we found on the beach.

The most numerous species we collected were the mole crabs, which do not look very crab-like at all but are instead more like rounded shrimp or beetles (Megan suggests tiny footballs with legs). These small crabs dig backwards in the sand and use their feathery antennae to collect food particles from the water. Not only did we find moon snails but also the evidence of their feeding — round holes bored into mollusk shells. The plants at the edge of the beach shared some of the same adaptations against water loss as we had seen in the maritime forest — very thick, waxy leaves.

The beach sand was also much coarser than the sand at the dune at Jockey’s Ridge. This was Mariam’s first time at the beach and she was very excited and collected a large number of shells.

Since this will be our last post, here are some of our highlights:

  • Ninety three species of animals observed during the trip, including barred owls, black bears, bald eagles, cottontail rabbits, laughing gulls, and longnose gar.

    Who is this creature we found? Michaela and Tamira use the field guide to find out!

    Who is this creature we found? Michaela and Tamira use the field guide to find out!

  • Canoeing! We did a lot of it and learned a lot, both those of us new to canoeing and those of us with some experience. I, Tamira-marie, thought that canoeing was a very humbling experience because the time spent on the water gave me time to reflect on perseverance and how I had demonstrated that when canoeing on the still waters of The Devil’s Gut. Also when learning about the Algonquian people, I appreciate the canoeing experience even more because of their level of difficulty in their techniques when traveling across water (standing up in a long canoe and using poles to push themselves along).
  • Mariam comments that we did a lot of things at the camp grounds that she had thought of as indoor activities – we cooked, we showered, we kept food cold without a refrigerator, and we slept.
  • Several students commented that hearing the rangers describe their jobs and how they ended up doing those jobs made them think more about the possibility of having a job that was really enjoyable (and maybe even one that takes place outside!).

    Making our first campfire — log cabin style!

    Making our first campfire — log cabin style!

  • James says that he did a lot of challenging things he didn’t want to do but now he’s glad he did them.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Nancy permalink
    May 18, 2014 10:30 pm

    Thanks for sharing! Sounds like a great adventure! I often feel like James when I think about going camping — it seems like it’s going to be hard work, and it is, but I’m always glad once I’m outside and doing it!

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