I just returned from the second recent guided trip to these incredible wildlife refuges. My client was particularly interested in bird photography, so that was high on the agenda. But he made a point of saying he was open to anything, since he was fully aware of the vagaries of wildlife photography – sometimes wildlife cooperates, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Due to heavy rains the previous day, I decided to visit Matamuskeet first to hopefully give the roads at Pungo a chance to dry out at least a little. We left Raleigh a little before 6 a.m. and arrived at Mattamuskeet by about 9:30.
Just inside the entrance to Wildlife Drive, we were greeted by a stunning Black-crowned Night Heron adult. I usually see more of the immature night herons here (brown colors with light speckles in their plumage), with just an occasional adult. The most reliable place to see them is in a grove of trees across the canal from the lodge, often partially obscured by branches. But this one was in a much better spot for photographs, and its scarlet red eye seemed to glow in the morning light. As I walked a few steps off the road for a clear photo, I accidentally flushed the first of several bitterns we would see.
The next open pool held the usual Great Blue Heron, along with a Great Egret. You can almost always count on one or both of these species in this spot.
As we watched the herons, small flocks of Cedar Waxwings flitted by in their usual jerky flight pattern. Later in the day, we finally tracked some down as they swarmed the all-too-numerous fruit of the invasive Privet shrubs that line sections of the refuge’s roads. Always one of my favorite songbirds to observe, waxwings are often tough to photograph without a mishmash of twigs in the background.
Another American Bittern soon revealed itself in a narrow strip of grasses along a canal and we used the car as a blind to photograph the bird for several minutes before it disappeared in a thick patch of vegetation. This year seems to be an especially good one for bitterns at Mattamuskeet.
It is so interesting what a difference a couple of days makes in what you see in a location. Last week there had been about 50 adult White Ibis along with one immature (distinguished by its brown coloration) feeding in an impoudment along Wildlife Drive. Things were different today and on our second pass through the area, we finally saw our one and only ibis of the day, an immature. It was vigorously probing the mud with its unusual bill. Looking more closely at a few images last night I could finally see that it was primarily eating worms.
We had seen several Bald Eagles at both Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet, but failed to get close enough for any nice images. At the end of Wildlife Drive we saw a flash of white through the trees, which turned out to be the head and tail of an adult Bald Eagle landing in a large pine alongside a side road. I was able to position the car so that my participant could get some good shots with his 600mm lens (yes, I did have lens envy the entire trip). The eagle was surprisingly cooperative, so I was able to back out, turn the car around, and back in along the road so I could get a few shots as well. The eagle was still perched, surveying the scene, when we decided to move on.
As the light faded, we stopped at the observation platform along the road crossing the lake. I wanted to enjoy the scene in the fading light at what must be the most photographed island of trees in the state. I always try to stop and view the sunrise from here if I am in the area, but sunset is equally compelling. As we stood watching the sky turn shades of pink and purple, I reflected on how lucky I am to share this incredible place with people interested in the beauties of nature.
Sunrise the next morning found us on the platform on the south shore of Pungo Lake. The lake was full of swans and the air was sweet with their peaceful calls. But the pocosin shrubs near the platform were full of the harsher notes of another species – Red-winged Blackbirds. Their loud chatter began to increase with the approach of sunrise and then the first birds started flying up and heading west over the trees. Then more birds joined in from further east, and soon it was a continuous stream of blackbirds that flew by us for the next 10-15 minutes. On the recent Christmas Bird Count, we had a similar experience, and estimated that 160,000 blackbirds flew by us on that morning.
My usual routine at Pungo is to watch sunrise at the platform and then cruise the refuge looking for wildlife until the Snow Geese fly off the lake and out to some nearby fields to feed. The Snow Geese were running late in their usual departure, so we decided to move on. Hopefully, we can find which fields they fly out to and spend some time observing the huge flock (they are less predictable this year for some reason). As we headed out, I could see the recent heavy rains had taken a toll on the often cantankerous roads on the refuge. The odd soil type makes road maintenance difficult, so visitors need to be cautious when the roads are muddy.
One of the newer visitor services additions on the refuge is the Duck Pen Observation Blind farther down the road on the south shore of Pungo Lake. A short hike from the parking area leads to a large wooden enclosure with a great view out on the lake (although I hope to volunteer once the waterfowl are gone to cut a few more observation ports and make some of the existing ones larger to accommodate telephoto lenses). Since the winds were out of the south, the waterfowl were in close to the south shore, making for some great views. Swans were feeding in the shallows, something I see all the time at Mattamuskeet with its abundant aquatic vegetation, but rarely here at Pungo Lake, due to the peat lake bottom and relative lack of plants and aquatic life.
Far out on the lake was a huge raft of Snow Geese packed into a solid white line on the water. They blasted off two or three times while we were in the blind, but simply circled and settled noisily back on the lake, instead of flying out to feed. Mixed in with the swans and geese were hundreds of other waterfowl, mostly Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Pintails.
The middle of the day, as is often the case, was a bit slow for wildlife viewing. There were coots and some other waterfowl on various impoundments, a few eagles, and the ubiquitous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds swirling in the corn stubble. Rather than continuing to cruise the muddy roads, we decided to walk through the woods looking for wildlife and hoping to see a bear. We spotted lots of bear sign, including one tree trunk that looked like the bear tic-tac-toe championship had been played on it, but no bears. We could hear the calls of thousands of swans on the lake and the thunderous whoosh every time the Snow Geese would blast off, but they never seemed to fly off to feed the entire day, which is a bit unusual. So, late in the afternoon, we headed to a spot where bear activity has been good and settled in to watch and wait, and wait some more.
As sunset approached I was afraid this might be the first tine this season I would be skunked in bear sightings, but, right as we started to head out, a sow and her two cubs materialized out of the woods. The adult and one cub headed out into the corn field, but the other cub seemed nervous, and stayed near the tree line. My goal was to not disturb the bears, so we remained still, hoping the cub would go on by us to feed in the corn. After pacing back and forth, sitting on its rear end, moaning and groaning a bit, and then laying down for a few minutes, the cautious cub finally did join the rest of the family. We then headed back to the car. Our two day excursion ended with a setting sun in an immense sky, punctuated by the melodious sounds of small flocks of swans flying overhead, accompanied by the hoots of the resident Great Horned Owls as they started their evening conversations. A great way to end it, indeed.