Refuges Revisited

Spring scene along swamp boardwalk

Spring scene along swamp boardwalk at Lake Mattamuskeet (click to enlarge)

Spent a windy, dusty day in the field with friends on Wednesday exploring my two favorite refuges in NC – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes. It has been two weeks since I was last down that way and things have changed dramatically – the heat is here as are the deer flies (both of which have to count as being among my least favorite things).

But, as always, these incredible wildlife hot spots did not disappoint. The day started with sightings of large numbers of wading birds at Mattamuskeet in the impoundemnts which have become more mud and grass flats than water-filled marshes. Lots of egrets and herons were concentrated out in the flats, undoubtedly feasting on fish and tadpoles. Looking out over the vegetation we could see some very large white birds and when they took off there was no doubt as to their identity – American White Pelicans! They are becoming more common in winter at Mattamuskeet (last winter I saw over 40 in one flock) but I have never seen this many in late spring (we counted 11). Their appearance in our state has increased greatly in the last decade. I also see them every summer in Yellowstone where they breed on islands in Yellowstone Lake, but, as of yet, they are not known to breed here. They are always impressive, with black wing tips on wings that, at nine feet, are the longest wingspan of any regularly occurring North American bird.

Reflections along swamp boardwalk

Reflections along swamp boardwalk (click to enlarge)

Other highlights at Mattamuskeet included an abundance of dragonflies, a walk on the swamp boardwalk, a large number of turtles out along every bank, and three gray foxes.

Rat Snake in road

Rat Snake in road (click to enlarge)

Toward mid-afternoon, we drove over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge for bears and anything else we might see.We quickly encountered a snake crossing one of the sandy roads and got out for a closer look – it was a beautiful Rat Snake, and it quickly decided to turn and headed back for cover. When we got out in front it assumed the classic defensive posture that would keep almost any mammal at bay.

Green Rat Snake

Rat Snake in defensive posture (click to enlarge)

Rat Snakes are a highly variable species with individuals in much of the Coastal Plain being a greenish or yellowish color with four dark stripes running the length of the body. In most of the rest of the state they tend to be blackish in color. This one was a little over three feet long but looked like it had retained some of the juvenile coloration consisting of some dark blotches instead of the cleaner dark stripes.

Driving through the refuge we saw a few bear (ended up with nine bears for the afternoon) and birds of various sorts including an American Bittern in the marsh where I had photographed them calling a couple of weeks ago.

American Bittern calling

American Bittern calling late last month at Pungo (click to enlarge)

After getting out and listening at various points along the marsh, we did not hear any calls or see any other bitterns, so perhaps most have migrated on toward their breeding areas further north.

Greater Yellowlegs in impoundment at Pungo

Greater Yellowlegs in impoundment (click to enlarge)

Late in the day we decided to walk out toward the Jones Pond impoundment along the dike since it had produced so much wildlife a couple of weeks ago. This is where the deer flies decided to remind us this was their turf, but we plowed ahead and soon startled a small bear who made a quick retreat off to our right in the woods. As we walked we saw several deer, a Raccoon, two River Otter, and lots of birds feeding around the rapidly drying pools scattered across the impoundment. The refuge manages these so-called Moist Soil Units to maximize food availability to overwintering waterfowl and this is the time of year when the impoundments are drained so seed-producing vegetation can grow and supply a food source within reach of dabbling ducks next winter when the area is again flooded. These areas also provide a valuable resource for shorebirds (such as this Greater Yellowlegs) and waders as well as raccoon, otter, and hungry bears. The pools are teeming with tadpoles (and perhaps small fish) as they get concentrated by the dropping water levels, making for an easy meal for various predators.

And, as I always like to do, we ended the day spending some time with bears. First, a familiar group of three (mom and two yearling cubs with distinctive stripes on their sides – from lying in mud?), and then a single adult bear that was busy eating the emerging vegetation from the growing mud flats. Not sure what caused the bear to jerk its head back a couple of times while feeding – crayfish encounter, snake, bee??, but it was both fun and peaceful to watch.

Yet another satisfying refuge visit.

Species list for Mattamuskeet NWR May 15, 2013:


White-tailed Deer, Gray Fox


American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, American Coot, Mallard, Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy egret, Tri-colored Heron, Little Blue Heron, White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Killdeer, Solitary Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Common Tern, American Crow, Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Mourning Dove, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Brown Thrasher, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Summer Tanager, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Eastern Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Wood Peewee


Painted Turtle, Yellow-bellied Slider, Mud Turtle, Spotted Turtle, Southern Cricket Frog, Green Frog

Species list for Pocosin Lakes NWR May 15, 2013:


Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, River Otter, Eastern Cottontail Rabbit


Double-crested Cormorant, American Coot, Mallard, Black Duck, Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron, American Bittern, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Solitary Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Northern Bobwhite, American Crow, Pileated Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Orchard Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Eastern Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher


Painted Turtle, Yellow-bellied Slider, Rat Snake, Southern Cricket Frog, Bull Frog, Green Treefrog

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