Oh Deer

Everything pales in comparison to deer.

~Bill Vaughan

After the ubiquitous squirrels, deer have been the mainstay of the triggers on our three trail cameras. It was a busy fall with deer frequently visiting the vicinity of some oak trees as they searched for scarce acorns. Here are a few other clips showing some behaviors that occur when we are not out in the woods watching them.

A doe takes a long siesta in a bed of Christmas ferns in our creek bottom woods
Nothing like a good stretch after spending two hours lounging in a comfy bed of ferns
This was back in November, at the tail end of the rut. This buck came through the morning after the deer had been bedded down and he sniffed that spot to check on what was happening in his woods
A buck chasing a doe during the rut
A buck trailing a doe
During the rut, young bucks do some practice sparring. These two bucks were seen together frequently and seemed to want to test each other every time (remind you of any people in your life?)
The just can’t help it, here they go again
And again…by the way, I got another video clip of these guys doing this again this week!
But these are the guys that probably get the girls
What’s this?

The cameras reveal differences between individuals and also similarities between all creatures. Knowing more about the lives of our woodland neighbors helps me appreciate them even more.

Refuge Ramble, Part 2 – Pea Island and Alligator River

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.

~John Muir

This is the last in a series on my wanderings last week in eastern North Carolina and is about the middle of my trip when I visited the coast. After my brief visit with the pool birds at Bodie Island, I drove down to Pea island National Wildlife Refuge. At the Visitor Center, I got out to look for birds in the pool at the start of the walkway and found just a few sparrows, Several people were down on the dike and most birds were pretty far out in the ponds on both sides. Walking back toward the center, I saw a couple of ducks along the marsh edge a bit closer than the rest of the birds in sight. I sat down and waited and soon a Blue-winged Teal swam by followed by a couple of Gadwall. A Common Moorhen made brief appearances at the edge of the marsh but never long enough for a photo.

Blue-winged Teal drake at Pea Island (click photos to enlarge)

A Tricolored Heron flew in and chased off an egret back in the grasses. A few other folks came over to photograph the birds and I soon headed back to the car.

Tricolored Heron flying into the marsh

On the drive in I noticed a bunch of birds close to the highway visible in a break in the dunes. I drove up and parked and started taking some photos while balancing the telephoto lens on a bean bag on the car door. Whenever possible, I try to stay in my vehicle when photographing wildlife as most species are more tolerant of a vehicle than a human form. Soon, another car pulled up and people got out and walked over toward the birds. The mixed flock of shorebirds and waterfowl surprisingly didn’t seem to care, so I got out and moved a little closer, steadying the camera on a tripod while sitting in the sand. Below are some of the subjects I sat with for over an hour with dump trucks loaded with sand whizzing by twenty feet away on a busy Hwy 12.

Marbled Godwit using that long bill to probe for food
A small flock of Dunlin (note the slightly down-curved bill tip) foraged along the shoreline
A Tundra Swan preens with amazing flexibility in that long neck
There was a flock of 30+ American Avocet resting and feeding in the shallows
Avocets typically feed by swinging their unusual bill back and forth through the water (called scything) but that day they seemed to be picking and plunging after their prey (small aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, occasionally small fish)
Avocet doing a head dunk
The impressive bills of a group of Marbled Godwits

I overheard a group of birders (you know, those people with binoculars and scopes standing out in the cold) nearby say they spotted a Peregrine Falcon on the far side of North Pond. I scanned the area and finally saw it far away in the top of a dead tree snag. Soon, there was an eruption of shorebirds (mainly the Dunlin) and some of the smaller ducks as the swift predator streaked by overhead. The falcon circled the area high in the sky and then disappeared. I soon spotted it again perched in the same snag. The shorebirds and ducks would alert me every time the falcon took to the air by making high-pitched squeaks and a general ruckus of sounds. If you’re a potential meal, it pays to keep an eye on a bird that regularly takes birds as prey at speeds of up to 200 mph. When I finally left this spot, I stopped closer to the falcon’s perch. As I was watching, it took off and flew by me allowing me to swing the big lens and attempt a few shots on the wing…lucky for me, a couple turned out okay.

Immature Peregrine Falcon in flight

I decided to head over to Alligator River NWR for the afternoon in hopes of seeing some bear, a Red Wolf, or whatever the refuge might offer. First up was one of the most elusive birds I have tried to photograph over the years – a Belted Kingfisher. I spotted it perched in a jumble of branches in a tree along one of the canals. Shocked that it didn’t fly as I slowed down, I fired off a few pics with plenty of sticks in the way. I backed the car up a bit for a clearer view (the kiss of death usually when trying to get closer to wildlife – they really don’t seem to like a car backing up) and found a tiny opening in the twigs. It was still a pretty busy background but the bird was amazingly calm and not paying much attention to me.

Belted Kingfisher posing for a portrait

I studied the tree and decided to back up further and angled the car for a better view. Again, the kingfisher remained in place! I finally got about as good a photo of a kingfisher as I have ever taken. Not sure why this particular male (males lack the rusty belly-band found on female Belted Kingfishers) was so cooperative, but I’ll take it.

Male belted Kingfisher studying the canal for a possible meal

I moved on and found another favorable subject, a Great Egret, patiently stalking small fish in another canal. I just love watching them strike the water with their stiletto beaks, rise up out of the water with a squirming prey, and toss it up in the air to gulp it down that elongate neck.

The intense concentration of a Great Egret can be seen in its eyes
Strike!

Clouds moved in during the afternoon so when I first found this little raptor, it was hard to see any details, but the relative length of the tail and somewhat stocky body made me think – Merlin! Indeed, it was one of our second largest falcons found in NC, although still rather small as raptors go. Though somewhat similar in appearance to Accipiters like Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks, Merlins are a bit stockier, have a shorter tail relative to overall body length, and have brown eyes (Accipiters have yellow eyes as juveniles and reddish eyes as adults).

A Merlin surveys the area for bird prey
Shades of red hug the horizon in a refuge sunset

I was a bit worried at the increasing clouds that night and what it meant for the next day, but, Friday dawned bright and beautiful and very windy. So windy that when I stepped out of the car at the Pea Island Visitor Center, my hat blew off and went halfway across the parking lot. I just got back in the car and drove up to the break in the roadside dunes where I had been yesterday and decided to observe from the vehicle. It turned out to be another productive morning.

Snow Goose adult in the morning sun
It’s tough to look your best when you turn your back in a strong wind (Marbled Godwit with ruffled feathers – and that incredibly long bill)
An American Wigeon male. Depending on the angle of the sun, the swoosh of color covering the eye can appear blackish, bronze, …
…or green. Males also have the distinctive white stripe across the top of their head, giving them their other common name, Baldpate.
A Green-winged Teal, showing its dark green eye stripe and its namesake wing patch
A drake Gadwall with its distinctive black rump. Enlarge the pic to appreciate the intricate details of the feathering on the sides
A flock of American Avocets was a constant at this spot both days I visited
Shorebirds in flight – Marbled Godwits, Dunlin, and an American Avocet (some very nice bill variety)
A female Northern Harrier cruised by and flushed many of the small shorebirds

When it came time to head back to Pungo, I couldn’t help but drive through Alligator River NWR one last time. I did see one bear, but the highlight was a trio of otters (three singles in different canals). With the gang of four I saw later that afternoon at Pungo, it became a 7-otter day.

A River Otter pops up from underneath a mat of aquatic vegetation

It’s always a good day when you see an otter, but what a day when you see seven! The trip was a huge success with birds, a few bears, lots of otter, and good friends. Hoping I can get back down that way again this winter before the birds head back north. We are truly fortunate to have such extraordinary wild places in our state.

This otter had just swam and crawled through a huge patch of vegetation blocking the canal and probably wasn’t thrilled that I was waiting on the other side. After watching me for a few seconds, it dove and swam by me leaving only a trail of bubbles. I left it to its otterly important tasks after that.

Bodie Island

I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence – that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light.

~Lynn Thomson

After a rainy first day at Pungo, I headed to the coast, hoping for better weather the next day. On my way to Pea Island, I stopped at Bodie Island lighthouse early the next morning under gray skies and a steady breeze.

Bodie Island lighthouse a day after heavy rains (click photos to enlarge)

Over the years, I have had good luck birding here, especially on the large marshy ponds out past the lighthouse. But this day yielded almost no birds out there, at least none close enough to see. But the heavy rains the day before had left large pools of standing water in every low spot on the grounds, including a very large pool out by the parking lot. I pulled the car alongside just off the road enough to allow others to pass, and I sat for well over an hour, observing and photographing the birds feeding and bathing in the pool.

A trio of White Ibis feeding at the edge of the grassy pool
The dark water made for good reflections

NOTE: There may be an issue with the thumbnails for the video clips showing in the post, but the links to the videos still work. I have asked customer support for assistance in this issue.

White Ibis probing the wet soil for worms
A Ring-billed Gull enjoys a vigorous bath in the shallow water
A Killdeer hunts farther from the water in the short grass

My favorite subject at the pool was a group of Greater Yellowlegs feeding in the shallow water. They did not call so the best way to identify them as Greater Yellowlegs instead of their smaller cousin, the Lesser Yellowlegs, was their stockiness and the bill length relative to their head depth. In greaters, the rather stout bill is 1.5+ times the depth of the head. In lessers, it is just a little larger than the depth of the head, plus the bill is noticeably thinner its entire length. They were masters at catching earthworms that had no doubt come to the surface of the soil due to the flooded conditions.

A Grater Yellowlegs catches a worm
That bill is a delicate but deadly instrument for handling their prey
Great Black-backed Gull dipping its beak in the water
A Boat-tailed Grackle high-stepping it through the pool

The birds seemed totally unconcerned by my presence (and by a couple of other bird watchers out of their vehicles), but did fly off in a panic when two Bald Eagles came flying through, one chasing the other. They moved through so fast I missed my chance at a photo, but, after that, the only birds that came back were a few gulls and some grackles. But, a good start to my day on the coast. More about the other critters I saw in the next post.

Refuge Ramble – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Last week was another of those times I really appreciate our public lands. I spent four days on the road in eastern North Carolina doing what I love to do – watching and photographing wildlife and sharing it with others. I started out Wednesday morning at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR. It was sunny when I arrived and one of the impoundments finally had some standing water in it so there were some swans hanging out close enough to observe and photograph.

Tundra Swans milling about in Marsh A on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

The day started to take a turn as mid-day approached with light rain showers developing and a rainbow out across the fields.

Distant swans in a rainbow

The rest of the day was the kind of weather where my camera stayed in the car. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and before the day was done I was soaked along with a couple of folks hanging out with me. It wasn’t a total loss (it never is) as we did see a nice young bear and a wild canid. I am pretty sure it was a Red Wolf (that would be the 15th I have seen at Pungo over the years) but I can’t be 100% sure as it was about a hundred yards away when it dashed across a grassy road giving us about a 5 second view. In all my trips to Pungo, I have never seen a coyote but I know they do occur. This canid looked large and leggy, so I am pretty sure it was one of the few remaining Red Wolves in the wild.

The next couple of days were spent further east and I’ll share those highlights in the next post. Friday I was back at Pungo and enjoying the gang of four otters that have been a mainstay of the Pungo wildlife show this winter. One had caught a Bowfin and was munching away in a tangle of brush.

River Otter chewing on the head of a Bowfin

Two other cars had stopped and were out photographing the otter, so I moved on. Later that afternoon, I encountered the otter again and this time they climbed out on the bank and I was able to grab a portrait of one before they all disappeared into the canal.

Otter portrait

At sunset, we were out in the fields near the maintenance area where several thousand Snow Geese were already landing for their evening snack of corn. It is such a privilege to witness this gathering of birds and to share it with others.

I have been lucky to have seen this sunset show well over a hundred times in the almost 40 years I have been going to Pungo and it never gets old. And I love the reactions of people witnessing it for the first time. It is something they never forget.

The next morning was very cold, but sunny. Birds were flying, we had glimpses of the otter again, and a friend spotted a bird I don’t see very often – a King Rail. It was feeding along the bank of D-Canal and allowed us to sit and watch it for several minutes before disappearing into the tangle of vines and debris in what looked like a Muskrat or Nutria burrow entrance.

A King Rail was a highlight for me at Pungo

Mid-day found us driving over to Mattamuskeet where there were many more visitors and tons of waterfowl in the impoundment. Many of the visitors looked like duck hunters and I always wonder what’s going through their minds as they stare out at thousands of ducks. Northern Pintails are particularly abundant this time of year. The whistle calls of the males can be heard everywhere along Wildlife Drive. Anytime an eagle flies over, hundreds of ducks take flight and circle until the threat is gone.

A Great Egret stalking small fish in the shallows

The water level was high in the impoundment, so the ducks had free range over most of it and the waders tended to feed along the edges or at grassy islands. Great Egrets and White Ibis stood out in their white outfits against the dried grasses and blue water.

A pair of White Ibis crisscrossing their bills for the photo

Back at Pungo, we looked for and found the King Rail not far from its morning feeding area. It continued to skulk up under the overhanging tangle of vines and grasses along the canal edge…no wonder I rarely see them.

The King Rail was only a few yards from its morning spot when we returned from Mattamuskeet
The golden glow of late afternoon light on a pair of Tundra Swans in Marsh A

We walked down “Bear Road” seeing a couple of bears across the field and enjoying the beautiful crisp winter day. A few swans flew over, serenading us with their mournful whoo-whoo calls. I ran into several folks I know (I guess I am partly responsible for all these refuge visitors) and then headed out to the front fields, hoping for a show of several thousand Snow Geese. I stopped at the observation platform and did not see the birds out on the lake, so we rushed to the front fields where we found several hundred geese mixed in with feeding swans in the field. Where were the others?

Snow Geese swarming over the fields after a pair of Bald Eagles made the scene

We had not been there very long when I saw waves of birds flying in from the north. They had either been off refuge or around the bend in the lake, invisible from the platform. This was a huge flock of several thousand, flying in with their noisy nasal calls, swirling around the field with the late day sun reflecting on their bodies in a soft rainbow of colors. We were on the west side of the fields this time (I had been on the east side the night before) so the light was very different. The flock was landing about midway in the field, but when they would swirl around, hundreds of birds flew near us, squawking as they tried to settle down to feed. A couple of Bald Eagles flew across, chasing one another, and the geese exploded into the air (the swans stay put when eagles appear).

The magic of Pungo…

I believe there were more cars that night than I have seen at the sunset show (at least twenty scattered on both sides of the field), but, quite frankly, I’m amazed there aren’t a hundred cars every night. But, the birds are not always predictable and the weather can greatly affect their behavior. When conditions are right, like this past week, there is nothing like this anywhere else in North Carolina. Thank you, public lands managers.

1 Bird, 2 Birds, …and some cool other stuff

Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own.

~Charles Dickens

This past Thursday was our annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. As usual, Melissa and I covered our part of the count circle, much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We had planned to camp at Pettigrew State Park the night before, but predicted rain convinced us to just get up early and head down and start close to sunrise. The day dawned cloudy with the potential for rain and conditions on the refuge were not ideal for seeing birds (the dark gray skies make seeing any color or patterns difficult). We started with two bears ambling along the edge of a cornfield as we entered the refuge (I know it is supposed to be a bird count, but we can’t help ourselves). A little farther along, we were seeing a bunch of sparrows and other songbirds in the thick vegetation along one of the canals when I spotted a bunny sitting quietly on the bank.

A rabbit sitting quietly along a roadside canal (click photos to enlarge)

The weather wasn’t the only thing making our observations difficult. The drought and some much needed road construction that impacted one of the feeder canals has left the managed waterfowl impoundments dry this year. This makes it much more difficult to observe the waterfowl up close and it looks like it has caused some of the birds to move elsewhere this winter as swan numbers seemed quite low compared to previous years.

Marsh A is almost totally dry this year (iPhone photo)

The roadside canals were also very low with many having dry spots or mounds of vegetation. Those with water had hunting herons, kingfishers, and a group of otters taking advantage of the concentration of potential prey. We stopped at one spot to look for songbirds and Melissa spotted a wake in the canal, most of which was obscured by overhanging vegetation. She then saw the wake maker – an otter, then 2, 3, and 4 otters appeared. We followed them for awhile and they eventually piled onto a ledge in a tangle of brush and brambles and started rolling around and grooming, occasionally glancing our way. Certainly not the ideal photo, but cool to watch.

The gang of four otters lounging in a tangle and of branches on the bank

Oh, yeah, back to the birds. I look forward to spending time up close to the swans every winter on Marsh A (the usually flooded impoundment with easy road access and plenty of space so people can space themselves out). But the drought and road construction this winter (which hindered the re-flooding of Marsh A) has left it high and dry with only a few puddles scattered over the vast area that typically has a couple of thousand swans in it every day from December through February. It is interesting to finally see how very shallow it is, making it ideal for puddle ducks and the swans. There are a couple of species that have taken advantage of the new giant mud flats – Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe were scattered about. It is amazing how well both species (especially the snipe) blend in to this type of habitat. We started glassing the area after finding the first few snipe and eventually counted over 50 strewn across the rumpled terrain.

Wilson’s Snipe blend in very well to the mud and dried vegetation covered landscape of the dry Marsh A

The unusually warm temperatures gave us the odd combination of winter birds and spring time reptiles and amphibians – lots of turtles out basking, spring peepers calling, along with numerous flying insects (even one Sleepy Orange butterfly).

A male (right) and female Yellow-bellied Slider chilling on a log. Note the long claws on the front feet of the male that he uses to stroke the neck of a female during courtship.

One of the day’s highlights was spotting a group of nine Sandhill Cranes far out in a field feeding alongside swans. The cranes have been regular winter visitors at Pungo for several years now, starting with a group of three for a few winters, then up to five last winter. Nine is a new high for us on the Christmas Count. I guess they’re telling their friends about the wonders of NC.

Seven of the nine Sandhill Cranes we observed

The unseasonably warm day wore on without a lot of bird activity. Luckily, we were given a Special Use Permit for access to a viewing area on Pungo Lake where we spent quite awhile scanning the water for ducks (without that permit, our grand total for ducks observed would have been two mallards since everything was in the lake due to the dry conditions). Satisfied we had seen most of the waterfowl on the lake, we headed back to look for species we thought should be on the refuge that we had not yet seen. But we were soon distracted again by our gang of otters.

The otter gang (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove up alongside the group as they were swimming in one of the canals. They were on Melissa’s side of the vehicle and she managed a rare shot where all four heads are visible at once. I drove ahead and we waited as they approached us and a large mat of vegetation in the canal.

One otter coming toward me

As is often the case, when they reached the vegetation-clogged area in the canal, they disappeared for a few seconds. Then, one by one, they popped their heads up and looked at us, occasionally snorting their disapproval. This went on for about a minute, and then they were off again swimming out ahead of us.

Two of the otter popping up from the vegetation to check me out

Up ahead was a juncture of several canals where otter frequently cross the road, so we drove beyond them and waited just beyond that spot. They kept coming toward us and then one otter came up out of the canal and ran across the dike, carrying a large prey. On our first sighting that morning, one otter had caught a large fish and carried it into the brush on the bank to eat. This one had something long and skinny. I thought it might be an amphiuma, a type of large aquatic salamander common in these habitats, but the otter moved out of sight quickly, followed by the other three, all heading into a canal on the other side.

Otter moving across the canal dike with fresh prey (photo by Melissa Dowland)

I had stepped out of the truck to move to the front to hopefully get a photo, but Melissa had the better angle (again!) and managed several photos as the otter carried its prey across the open ground. Indeed, looking at it on her camera, we could see it was a large salamander! There are a couple of species of large aquatic salamanders that live in these coastal plain ditches and swamps – the Greater Siren and the Two-toed Amphiuma. Both species can grow to over 3 feet in length and both resemble large eels when seen at a distance. Sirens have external gills (we can’t readily distinguish any in the few photos we have) and have only a front pair of legs. The back of the salamander was dragging on the ground so I can’t tell if there are hind legs or not. Looking at images online, it seems that the front legs of a Greater Siren are more substantial than those of an amphiuma, so I am now leaning toward this otter snack being a Greater Siren, but I will happily listen to any opinions from salamanderologists out there.

A close crop reveals the prey is a large aquatic salamander, probably a Greater Siren! (photo by Melissa Dowland)

The otter incident revived our spirits and we moved into high gear, looking for species likely to occur here but that we were still missing. Wild Turkeys are often seen in a field at the edge of the refuge, so we headed in that direction, stopping at a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds to scan for cowbirds and grackles. The turkeys were out in their field, so that added another species.

A gathering of Red-winged Blackbirds

Back near the lake, groups of Snow Geese flew off for their late day feeding in nearby crop fields. We scanned the long lines of birds overhead, looking for a smaller bird mixed in with the flock, a Ross’s Goose. They look like a diminutive Snow Goose, being just over half the size of their bigger cousin. I can find them when they are in a field feeding if the smaller bird is on the outside edge of the flock. Or, I have learned to spot them by scanning a line of flying geese and seeing the obviously smaller one. Thursday, we only managed one Ross’s Goose despite scanning a few hundred flying birds.

Snow Geese flying out of Pungo Lake for their late day feeding (iPhone photo)

We ended the day walking down my long-time favorite spot – “Bear Road”. As rain showers were looming, the now usual crowd at Bear Road had headed home so we had it all to ourselves. Solitude here is now a rare privilege that makes me appreciate even more all the times I experienced this in years past. We picked up an Eastern Screech Owl and another Great Horned Owl, along with bunches of White-throated Sparrows and a few other songbirds (oh, and a mama bear with two cubs). Though not one of our more productive bird species days, a day in the field, especially at Pungo, is always a good day.

Species observed on our part of the count:

10000 Snow Goose
1 Ross’s Goose
280 Canada Goose
3140 Tundra Swan
1 Wood Duck
48 Northern Shoveler
300 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
75 Mallard
12 American Black Duck
26 Northern Pintail
428 Ring-necked Duck
2 Ruddy Duck
5 Wild Turkey
33 Mourning Dove
9 Sandhill Crane
89 Killdeer
55 Wilson’s Snipe
230 Ring-billed Gull
7 Great Blue Heron
3 Black Vulture
36 Turkey Vulture
2 Northern Harrier
3 Bald Eagle
2 Red-shouldered Hawk
4 Red-tailed Hawk
1 Eastern Screech-Owl
4 Great Horned Owl
1 Belted Kingfisher
2 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
4 Red-bellied Woodpecker
1 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
2 Pileated Woodpecker
4 Northern Flicker
4 American Kestrel
8 Eastern Phoebe
4 Blue Jay
25 American Crow
8 Carolina Chickadee
2 Tufted Titmouse
2 Tree Swallow
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
1 Brown-headed Nuthatch
1 Winter Wren
10 Carolina Wren
3 Gray Catbird
2 Brown Thrasher
3 Northern Mockingbird
2 Eastern Bluebird
2 Hermit Thrush
548 American Robin
2 American Goldfinch
103 White-throated Sparrow
1 Savannah Sparrow
49 Song Sparrow
18 Swamp Sparrow
1 Eastern Towhee
7 Eastern Meadowlark
430 Red-winged Blackbird
1 Common Grackle
50 Yellow-rumped Warbler
35 Northern Cardinal

Wishing You a Wonderful Holiday

He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter….

~John Burroughs

May you find happiness and peace this holiday season. A few images from winters past…

Winter day along the South Fork of the Holston River, dsamascus, VA
Reflections in our creek on a cold winter day
Hungry bluebird gulping a dogwood berry
My one and only ever Snowy Owl on the OBX in December 2013
Bear track at Pungo
Icicle on Blue Ridge Parkway
Winter sunrise on Lake Phelps
Tundra Swans at Pungo

Nutcracker

Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You plant it in the ground and it explodes into an oak.

~George Bernard Shaw

The trail cameras have been busy these past few months with lots of images of squirrels (too many), raccoons, opossums, two coyotes (finally, I was beginning to wonder what happened), a few raptors, loads of deer, some neighbor kids, and, unfortunately, too many outdoor cats. I tend to leave the cameras in one location for some time to try to get a feel for the wildlife activity in that particular area. I moved one camera slightly back in October to get a better angle on what seemed to be a lot of foraging around a large Northern Red Oak down-slope from the house. This has been an off year for acorns in our woods with almost no White Oak acorns produced. White Oak acorns mature in summer and drop in the fall (one year). The red oak group of acorns take 2 years to drop, but some are produced every spring, so, even in a bad acorn production year, there are some red oak acorns still on the tree. So, in our woods this year, the critters that rely on acorns for a portion of their autumn diet have been concentrating on the red oaks.

The deer have been particularly busy at the large red oaks as there isn’t a lot of understory that they haven’t already over-browsed. The one camera placed near the large Northern Red Oak has had a lot of clips taken of the animals scavenging the acorns that have dropped. Interestingly, very few squirrels have been seen eating the acorns on the ground, probably because they tend to do a lot of their foraging in the tree tops. Here is a selection of the goings on at the old oak tree this season…

A group of deer foraging under the large Northern Red Oak on our property

Sometimes they don’t play nice while searching for acorns.

A doe strikes at another deer to drive her away from what might be a good spot for acorns

Sometimes there are other woodland critters getting in on the bounty under the oak tree…

A Southern Flying Squirrel scurries around the oak trunk
A deer wanders over to check out what the raccoon may have found (raccoons were common at night in the area around the tree)
A rabbit was a frequent visitor under the tree

What I enjoyed the most was watching deer crack the acorns – the way their jaws move, the sounds (sound up for these video clips).

A doe chews loudly on an acorn
Crunchy breakfast

The action under this tree was pretty constant, day and night, for a few weeks, lasting through about the third week of November when most of the acorn drop ceased. Now, an occasional visit by a deer is captured on that camera, but they typically are seen sniffing the leaves a bit before moving on. Winter has set in and times will be tougher for some of our woodland neighbors until the spring green starts to appear.

From Above

If you want to look at the same place and see different things, look at the same place from different perspectives!

~Mehmet Murat ildan

While we were away over Thanksgiving, our good friends had family (their son and his fiancé) in town and he brought his drone. They flew it over their house and posted the video on social media. I apparently oohed and aahed over it in my reply, so they were kind enough to come over to our house in the woods and fly over our abode. Here is the wonderful video they shared (thank you, Kennedy!).

A short drone video showing our house surrounded by woods

It is certainly interesting to view your sanctuary from this perspective. As you can see, we definitely live “in the woods”. The video doesn’t show the one house we can see from ours, a large brick house not far off the northwest corer of the video but you can see the expanse of large trees that surround our home. Below is a still from another video showing some of the landscape features we have added:

  1. The two “circles” (one in front of the house, below it in this pic; and one off the lower right corner of the house) are amphibian pools. We have recently refurbished both of them (only one was completed when the image was taken) since the liners finally sprung leaks after 23+ years.
Still photo of the house and surroundings from another angle

2. There is minimal “yard” and much of the green you see to the right of the house is actually moss.

3. There are wildflower beds in what appear as brown ground cover inside the tree line, plus a small vegetable garden adjacent to the right of the house (you can see the curved line of the rabbit fence around the garden).

4. About an acre+ is surrounded by a deer fence. The other 13 acres, along with many acres of adjoining wooded lots, is for the deer and other large wildlife. Most of our property lies behind the house (beyond the top of this picture). On thing that is hard to see in the images is the steep terrain behind the house as it drops off over a hundred feet down to a wet weather stream before ascending to a comparable height on a very-looking different south-facing slope.

If you look fast, you may see the old stock tank we refurbished as an outdoor tub located just off the upper right corner of the house (the screen porch).

When the house was built 24 years ago, there was much more of an opening in the trees and more sunlight for the native plant gardens. I guess it may be time to limb up a few of the trees. The area around our house (and most of our property) is a mature hardwood forest. The dominant tree species are Tulip Poplar, White Oak, Northern Red Oak, a couple of species of hickory, some maples, and a variety of understory trees. Loblolly Pines appear here and there, especially in the few flatter sections along the ridge that were farmed up until about 75 years ago.

This is a great way to get a feel for the habitat you see in many of the blog posts about the plants and animals that are our wild neighbors. Of course, now I want to do this in every season.

Stealth Fighter

The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak and stared with his foot on the prey.

~Lord Alfred Tennyson

One day last week as I was walking through the bedroom, I glanced out the back window and saw something on a tree trunk just beyond the deer fence. This tree has fallen to the point that the trunk is almost parallel to the ground. The critter was in the shade and was upright so there was not a lot of detail and I assumed it was a squirrel and started to look away. It then made a sudden move and I saw what looked like a wing go up on one side. I grabbed the binoculars (we have a pair at a window in every room, don’t you?) and looked – it was a Cooper’s Hawk! I went into the other room to get my camera and when I returned, the feathered blob on the trunk was gone, or so I thought. I then saw it on the ground below the tree, and it was pulling at something. When I got it in the binoculars again, I could see it had a large prey item and was tearing pieces and eating. But the bird had its back to me and its body blocked much of the view of what it had caught. I finally saw some fur and then a head as the hawk yanked on its prey – it was a Gray Squirrel.

Now, I must admit I have a love-hate (maybe mostly the latter) thing with the squirrels on our property as they love to dig up plants out of flower pots, raid the garden veggies at times (mainly tomatoes and peas), chew on our deck wood, chew on our Christmas light wires (I had to repair them 4 times last year), etc. So, I was somewhat pleased that this Cooper’s had made a successful kill. Last winter, we had a Cooper’s Hawk spend much of the season around our property, occasionally grabbing some birds near our feeders. Over a span of a few months, I documented two Mourning Doves, one Downy Woodpecker, and one male Northern Cardinal that fell victim to the stealth fighter hawk in our yard or just downhill in our woods.

Cooper’s Hawks and their smaller cousin, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, are primarily bird predators. Their rounded wings and long tail enable them to maneuver swiftly through the trees in pursuit of songbirds. They often use obstructions as cover to surprise their prey, zooming in low just above vegetation until close enough to strike. I even saw the one last year use our house as cover when it flew up and over our roof (coming straight down from the roof) to surprise birds at the feeder off our back deck. They will take other prey, including small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and larger birds. I once saw one take down a Wood Duck that flew up from a roadside canal at Pocosin Lakes NWR.

I was anxious to get some photos of this bird and it seemed preoccupied with its meal, so I started shooting with my large telephoto. Hand-holding that lens and taking pictures through the bathroom window ( better angle than the bedroom), wasn’t giving me much in the way of sharp images.

A quick clip of the Cooper’s Hawk feeding on a squirrel

So, I decided to get the tripod from the basement and see if that would help (the bird was in deep shade and shooting through the window probably didn’t help). The hawk continued to feed as I set it up. I opted to do some video as that is sometimes more forgiving of low light than still shots (above is one of those clips). Perhaps I could open the window to get a better shot. I slowly cranked it open, only moving the window when the hawk bent over to pull meat off the squirrel. Once it was fully open, I turned back to position myself at the camera and when I looked through the viewfinder, the hawk was gone.

I waited, scanned the trees, thinking it might have seen me move inside the window and would come back to finish its meal. Nothing…so, after a few minutes I went down to the tree to take a look.

Bits of fur and blood on the leaning tree
All that remained was a small piece of squirrel fur

To my surprise, the hawk had flown off with the squirrel! That is a fairly large package for a Cooper’s Hawk to carry, but all that was left was a few spots of blood and a piece of squirrel hide about 4 inches across. I was bummed I had missed seeing the hawk flying off, but thrilled to witness such an adept predator in action. No doubt, it or another one will provide some other opportunities to appreciate their skills in the coming months.

Buffalo National River

On the river, time does not exist – only the sound of the rushing water, the cries of the wood thrush and crow and the sight of light dancing on the water.

~Ginny Masullo

Our second paddle adventure back in October was on a section of the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. The Buffalo River was our nation’s first national river, designated as such in 1972. It flows over 135 miles and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. Unlike the spring-fed Current River in Missouri, the Buffalo is largely rainfall dependent. This means paddlers must be very aware of possible changes in river levels due to storms, even those far upriver. When we stopped at Wild Bill’s Outfitters to arrange our shuttle, the staff mentioned the possibility of severe storms during our stay, with a chance for hail, possible tornadoes, etc. He added that these predicted storms often “amount to diddly-squat” as they tend to break up when they hit the mountains. But, he echoed the park literature advice and said we should “camp high” on the gravel bars since the river can jump over one foot in an hour under the right conditions. Melissa asked, how high is high? He said at least 4 feet, and make sure you have an escape route to higher ground, just in case. Well, four feet above the river level is not a common change in elevation on many of the gravel bars we encountered and on some that did have that, they dropped down as you approached the higher ground, so you could end up being on an island if the river rises, which is something that is not advised.

We decided to go ahead since the forecast called for good weather the rest of our 4-day window. We launched at Dillard’s Ferry and planned to take out 39 miles later at a private resort on the White River across from where the Buffalo joined it. We were particularly excited about paddling the Lower Buffalo River Wilderness Area, a 25-mile stretch that relatively few people paddle because, once you are in it, there is no place to take out until you get to the White River.

We paddled about 39 miles between Dillard’s Ferry and the juncture of the Buffalo and White Rivers, including the remote Lower Buffalo Wilderness (click photos to enlarge)

Right away, the Buffalo impresses you as being on a grander scale than the Current River – the bluffs are longer and much higher, soaring to about 500 feet above the crystal clear river in some areas. The cliffs are sandstone, limestone, and dolomite and add a dramatic backdrop to the beauty of the river. Fall color was just starting to paint the bluffs with red and yellow and many of the deeper hole in the river were that same aquamarine we had seen on our previous paddle.

Long bluff along the Buffalo River
We frequently scanned the high bluffs for wildlife and usually saw vultures, a few hawks, and an occasional Bald Eagle soaring above

On our first evening, we watched a beaver across the river, busily preening while sitting on a submerged rock ledge underneath an overhang of a bluff. Thirty seven vultures soared over and gradually settled in to roost. The white head and tail of an adult Bald Eagle glowed gold in the setting sun as it circled on a thermal and transformed into a mere speck in the sky above.

It is a dramatic juxtaposition when a bluff emerges directly out of the river
One of our favorite campsites
A beautiful sunset over our gravel bar campsite

The next day we encountered some shallow riffles, requiring us to get out and pull the canoe for short distances. The wind was our constant companion and even had us paddling into white caps on some of the long straight stretches of the river (I don’t think I have ever paddled into white caps while going downstream on a river). Wildlife sightings included a couple of otter, two eagles, and some wood ducks.

Another beautiful scene along the river

At one stop we found evidence of lots of other wildlife. See if you can guess who the track makers were (answers at bottom of post).

Track maker #1
Track maker #2
Track maker #3
Track maker #4
eTrack maker #5

On the upper stretches of the Buffalo you may even encounter some elk, which were reintroduced to the region over 30 years ago. We did see deer a couple of times, but no elk.

An aptly named Bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) greeted us on one gravel bar

On our second night, we searched for a campsite that was a few feet above the river level as this was the night for the predicted storms. We found a location about 4 feet in elevation, but it required dragging the canoe quite a distance (unloaded, of course). But we felt secure and had our backs to some higher ground, just in case. No storm materialized in our area that night, but at one point I looked out and could see near constant lightning far off to the west.

Our high and dry campsite
Fall color along the river
Another dramatic cliff face coming straight out of the water

Our last campsite of the trip was on a beautiful, wide gravel bar across from another bluff. We had seen two more eagles that day, and another flew by as we were setting up camp. While exploring for firewood sticks, I found one eagle feather. This section of river had more eagles and more kingfishers than further upstream, no doubt due to the increase in smaller fish we were seeing.

Feather from a Bald Eagle (we left it on the beach after taking this photo)
Another spectacular sunset was a great way to end our canoe camping adventure

After a gorgeous sunset we settled in for a nice campfire and some star gazing. It wasn’t long before we experienced something new to us both – exploding rocks in the campfire. There was a particularly large burst of flame and sparks when I added some sticks to the fire early in the evening which caught us both by surprise. We thought it was something in the sticks I had added until we started hearing little whizzing sounds, similar to the sounds a flying bullet makes in cartoons. Suddenly, Melissa got hit in the forehead by a small pebble and we realized the rocks were exploding in the fire. This, our last night, was the first time on our entire trip we had experienced anything like this. It turns out, exploding campfire rocks is a thing caused by moisture trapped in certain rock types. When the rock gets heated high enough, the water vaporizes and can cause the rock to splinter, shooting rock fragments up to several feet. We scooted back away from the fire, and I stirred it, spreading out the ashes to reduce the heat. This soon stopped the rock fireworks. Melissa surmised that the cliff face near us was sandstone rather than the dominant limestone and dolomite bluffs we had encountered on most of our trip and this created this unusual phenomenon.

An exciting final night campfire complete with exploding rocks
Here is a pebble that shot about 6 feet from the fire and embedded itself into a plastic bag with an audible thud
Our final misty morning on the Buffalo River
One of the well-known landmarks on the lower Buffalo – Elephant Head Rock
The end of our journey as the White River comes into view

On our final morning, we enjoyed another otter encounter and marveled at how one can disappear even when you are close enough to see its bubbles pass under your canoe. The river widened as we approached the confluence with the larger White River and it became harder to dodge the increasingly common huge boulders just below the surface. We had to pick our way through some boulder fields before hitting the fast flowing current of the White River. That river is controlled by a dam upstream and we were advised it can be difficult to paddle upstream when they release water. When we hit the confluence, it suddenly became almost impossible to paddle the short distance upstream we needed to in order to go around the island to our take out location just across the river. We ended up getting to the shore of the island and walking the canoe around the tip so we could then paddle with the current to the canoe landing. And, it turns out, this was normal flow (there was no release of water from the dam that day). I can’t imagine trying to paddle that stretch when water is being released.

Our adventure had ended and now we had a couple of days travel back home. What a trip – two beautiful crystal clear rivers, amazing scenery, beautiful weather, star-filled nights, and loads of wildlife. Now we are hooked on long distance canoe camping (we paddled about 100 miles on the two rivers). Up until this trip, most of our canoe camping has been on the Roanoke River and Merchants Millpond back home. We’ll be searching for other rivers for this type of experience, so if you have suggestions, let us know.

Answers to the track photos:

#1 River Otter

#2 Bobcat (roundish and no claw marks)

#3 Coyote (oblong with claw marks)

#4 Raccoon

#5 Aquatic snail trails