Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck
Photo: Inge Curtis

Ducks are back to spend the winter on the coast and inland waters around here. Teal, Shoveler, Canvasback, Scaup, Eider, Bufflehead, etc., and Ring-necked Ducks like this pair.

A compact little diver that prefers ponds to open water. It is misnamed because it doesn’t have a prominent white ring around its neck like a pheasant (the chestnut band is only visible on a bird in the hand).

Ride the King Tide

Powhatan Crook, James City County, Virginia
Powhatan Crook, James City County, Virginia

I never saw water so high in Powhatan Creek. Living in Norfolk, Virginia, I occasionally encountered flooding in my neighborhood after exceptionally high tides or a nor’easter. I’d drive through inches of water to my driveway which rose to a high and dry house, avoiding the need for flood insurance. Other homeowners weren’t so lucky, judging by whirring sump pumps in basements. The problem doesn’t disappear with the tide because tender garden plants are harmed by immersion in salty water.

Apart from the notoriety of New Orleans below sea level, Hampton Roads, the Eastern Shore, and the Middle Peninsula are most at risk from sea level rise (aggravated by sinking land on the Peninsula).

“The total area at risk in coastal Virginia is 424 square miles in 2040, 534 in 2060, and 649 in 2080. The total length of potentially affected roadway is 545 miles in 2040, 972 in 2060, and 1762 in 2080. The total number of buildings potentially affected is 30,795 in 2040, 57,740 in 2060, and 111,545 in 2080.  Those alarming projections are from a recent Commonwealth inquiry, but records back to 1950 show a rise of over a foot already.

Besides periodic threats from storms and hurricanes, there are king tides from the alignment of gravitational forces of sun, moon, and earth. They are higher than spring tides, which recur monthly (not seasonally as the name implies).

In November 2017, we volunteered for a citizen science project in which 500 people monitored the king tide using GPS. Data were recording by pressing a button in a phone app every few steps along the water’s edge. The immense database improves projections of areas at greatest risks of inundation.

A king tide peaked at 1.00 pm on November 5th this year. It offered a rare chance to kayak a swamp at the head of Powhatan Creek. A modest adventure, winding between bald cypresses and avoiding submerged obstacles, we penetrated a full quarter mile beyond the usual limit, wondering if sea level rise will make it routine in a few decades. We had to keep an eye on the tide before it receded or we risked stranding in a bog that could even swallow waders.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting
Photo: Inge Curtis

The canary yellow of goldfinches in summer may be more eye-catching, but the male Indigo Bunting is an attention grabber, far more than the female who might pass as a brown sparrow unless you noticed her white throat.

It takes its name from the blue pigment extracted from plants for dyeing clothes (think of denim jeans), although the blue feathers are unpigmented. We might call it a structural color because the hue is created when light is refracted by passing through keratinous filaments filled with air pockets.

Other species of buntings have been recorded in Virginia, although uncommon or rare. The euphonious word ‘bunting’, also used for a flag, has been around for such a long time its origin is lost.