Category Archives: Chocowinity Bay

Shelter From the Storm

Most osprey nests are built high in the forks of cypress snags, ideally one rooted in the water to avoid snakes and raccoons from raiding the nest. A moat is an adequate defense from terrestrial enemies but the water itself can become an enemy.

This nest was built less than six feet above Chocowinity Bay’s normal level. From its size, the nest had been occupied for successive years. Then the storm came, driving the water before it. 

Osprey nest before Hurricane Florence.
Osprey nest before Hurricane Florence.

After Hurricane Florence, nothing remained but the bitter end of some roots.

The nest after the storm.

The osprey that inhabited the nest had already migrated south for the winter. If they return, they’ll have to begin again…or steal another bird’s nest.

Salt Marsh

I live now on the shore of Chocowinity Bay beneath Bald Cypress and Longleaf Pine. From my garret window I can see through the trees across the bay to the far shore and Whichard Beach.

The bay is a shallow dint in the land that empties into the Pamlico River which empties into the Pamlico Sound. The Sound itself is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Chart of Chocowinity Bay, NC. Sidney Creek is the heart of the salt marsh.
Chart of Chocowinity Bay, NC. Sidney Creek is the heart of the salt marsh.

The Japanese have a word for the reason you get out of bed in the morning: ikigai. In the wonderful economy of the Japanese language, ikigai refers to the source of value in your life, the things that make your life worthwhile. It includes the mental and spiritual circumstances you feel makes your life valuable. Whatever your ikigai, it’s personal and specific and faithfully reflects your inner self.

The salt march at the head of Chocowinity Bay is my ikigai, the place where I return time and again. It’s miniscule, bounded by a perimeter of less than 3 miles containing 3/10 of a square mile of surface area, and yet it feels infinite. The Bald Cypress standing like congregants beside the water, the morning light filtered through tendrils of Spanish moss, and the meadows of saltgrass carved into islands seem to exist outside of hectic, human time. The whistle of the Norfolk Southern locomotive approaching the railroad bridge at the head of the bay feels unstuck in time.

Sunlight filtered through Spanish moss, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Sunlight filtered through Spanish moss, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC

I paddle to the salt march each morning, sometimes before first light. It’s a short distance, half a mile, but a world apart.

There is a boundary to the marsh. Beyond a vaguely defined edge there is a deepening quiet and sense of reverence. Certainly, I may be guilty of projecting my internal landscape but maybe I’m perceiving something projected by the landscape itself. It’s arrogant to think we stand apart from the ground beneath our feet. Our rationality was always a thin disguise.

Islands of salt grass, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Islands of salt grass, Chocowinity Bay, NC

The light is always changing within the marsh. There are moments of stunning beauty as the bones of a ghost forest are silhouetted by the rising sun or clouds plunge the marsh into a patchwork quilt of sunlight and shadow. Then the light changes, the moment passes, and I’m distracted by the skirling cry of an eagle or the indignant squawk of blue heron.

Bald eagle, cypress tree snag, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Bald eagle, cypress tree snag, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Great Blue Heron, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Great Blue Heron, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC

Flight

Today the osprey are gone from Chocowinity Bay, abruptly, as if compelled. Their nests are empty as are the branches of dead cypress trees standing like stones beside the water. There are no osprey circling overhead or flitting between the wetland foliage and no sound but the indignant crows. The osprey have left, the adults and the newly fledged, driven south for the winter by unrelenting instinct. I’ll miss them.

Osprey nest, Chocowinity Bay, NC.
Osprey nest, Chocowinity Bay, NC.

Chocowinity Bay is full of osprey nests, great piles of sticks and twigs, padded with Spanish moss, bark, and grass, layered with the detritus of successive generations. Fish offal mostly. Bones and scales. The young soon learn to stream their feces over the side of their nests like sailors pissing over the gunwale.

The osprey mate for life and return to the same nest, year after year. And year after year, the nest, usually high in the fork of a dead cypress tree, grows more massive. After years of patient building, the nests can be 10 to 13 feet deep and 3 to 6 feet in diameter. A man could sit comfortably in such a nest if he wasn’t too fastidious about the smell.

There are exceptions, nests built on navigational markers or pilings or the ruin of a cypress tree that looks like a shipwreck, shattered timbers encrusted with barnacles, raised only a few feet above high water. That nest is draped with Spanish moss. It’s on my route to the head of the bay. I gave it a wide berth while the parents were busy bringing fish to feed chicks insistently chirping but now the nest is empty, like the others.

Osprey nest in drowned tree stump, Chocowinity, NC.
Not all Osprey nests are inaccessibly high in trees. Chocowinity Bay, NC.

The birds aren’t territorial except for their nests and then there’s no telling what might set them off. Bald Eagles, certainly, but there’s nothing that likes an eagle. The crows relentlessly mob any eagle that strays into the wetlands. Sometimes osprey take offense at fishing birds like cormorants, and sometimes not, but they always defend their nest against another osprey that isn’t their mate. They’ve been seen locking talons with an interloper and falling from the air into the water.

Osprey evolved to prey upon fish. They eat almost nothing else. One of their three forward facing toes can turn backward, becoming opposable. Their nostrils close when diving. And they have sharp spicules on the underside of their feet to help grip slippery fish.

Osprey diving with talons extended.
Osprey diving with talons extended.

Once in contact, the spicules weld predator to prey. Even a healthy osprey can deadlift only a 1 or 2-pound fish. The fish instinctively dive for the safety of deeper water. There are stories of large fish dragging osprey to the bottom.

Osprey skim the surface and pluck unwary fish from shallow water or plunge after wary fish swimming in deeper water. On Chocowinity Bay I’ve seen them dive from a height of 50 feet, tucking their wings as they plummet, at the last moment extending their talons and striking the water with an explosion of spray. More often than not they’re unsuccessful but often enough to thrive.

Osprey following a plunging dive. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey following a plunging dive. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey rising from water with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey rising from water with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey gaining altitude with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.