Sense of place…it is a combination of characteristics that makes a place special and unique.
~the Art of Geography
I am lucky. I have several wild places that give me that feeling of a sense of place, of completeness, of peace. I think almost any location can become such a place given time to experience its moods and inhabitants. As readers of this blog know, one of the places I turn to for this feeling, time and again, is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (PLNWR) in Eastern North Carolina. I am particularly fond of the Pungo Unit of the refuge, as I have been enjoying this area since that unit was the only part of the refuge, then known as Pungo National Wildlife Refuge. In the early 1990’s, an almost additional 100,000 acres were added and the combined lands renamed Pocosin Lakes NWR. The winter waterfowl still concentrate in the original refuge area surrounding Pungo Lake, and that is where I find myself 20 or more times each year, especially in winter.
The sky in Eastren North Carolina is special, it reminds me of the big sky of another place I love, Yellowstone. In fact, I have often referred to Pocosin Lakes as the Yellowstone of the East. But, the reason has more to do with the feeling of being connected to a place than specific physical similarities of the landscape. Perhaps it is the abundance of wildlife, the silence when I am there alone, the joy in sharing it with others, or the feeling of spaciousness created by the incredible sunrises and sunsets. Maybe it has something to do with the type of wildlife and the spectacle they create. Thousands of birds flying around you or the glimpse of a family of Black Bears help me realize things about scale and about my place in the world.
Walking in the footsteps of animals larger than us puts some things in perspective.
Seeing well worn wildlife trails helps me appreciate the lives of other creatures and somehow makes their lives seem more like ours. They have routines like us, they care for their young like we do, they are seeking many of the things we seek – food, comfort, safety, and, who knows, maybe even some sense of happiness. It is hard to watch bear cubs playing or otters doing anything, and not think they are having some fun.
On my last trip, watching a bear across the field, I saw her pause and lay down for a few minutes before heading to a corner of the field where I have seen many bears over the years. She kept glancing back towards the woods, and was soon joined by one, then another, of her one year old cubs. As I continued walking down the road, they noticed me, and would stop and look, perhaps gauging the level of threat I might pose.
They continued to walk, as did I, and we converged near a juncture of field and woods, a place I have had many encounters with bears in years past, a small patch of the planet where the bears and I can coexist. My group had departed earlier that day so it was just me and a family of bears sharing a moment. The mother bear soon led her young into the safety of the woods, a prudent decision when faced with the unknown creature watching them. And that is as it should be, both if us tolerating the presence of another species, both wary and respectful.
An hour or so later, as I walked the mile back toward my car, a family of bears came out into the road, and eventually crossed over into the adjacent corn field for a meal. It was probably the same family as before. Once again, they were tolerant, and I was respectful of their space, a situation that I realize is a necessity for us to be together in this place.
When I have time to observe the wildlife at Pungo, I marvel at the struggles that some species endure. I see a family of Tundra Swans – two white adults and their two gray-headed young, and wonder what it must be like to fly over 3000 miles from their nesting grounds above the Arctic Circle to their winter resting and feeding grounds here in North Carolina.
And while they are elegant birds with a peaceful air about them, you can see squabbles and hear quarrels aplenty if you pay attention. What does it all mean?
One of the best things about being with the swans is the sounds they add to the landscape – their soft ou call, the whirring of the wind through their wing feathers when they fly low overhead, and the slapping of the feet against the water as they take to the air. I wonder about the meanings of their calls and I strain to hear differences between individual birds. They are all magical sounds I never tire of hearing.
Occasionally you see something different among the giant flocks of swans. I found a Mute Swan last week hanging out with the Tundra Swans on one of the refuge impoundmemts. There was one there last year as well. Is it the same bird? Did it migrate the entire distance with the flock, or did it join them at some point along the way? Hybridization, although quite rare, apparently can occur, but this bird seems to stay slightly apart from its smaller cousins. What types of interactions does it have with the rest of the flock? I will also be looking and listening for some Trumpeter Swans again this winter. I have seen this somewhat rare species many times in Yellowstone over the years and am now starting to find a few mixed in each winter with the thousands of Tundra Swans on the refuge. My friend, Keith, at Mattamuskeet, photographed one at his refuge this past week. I’ll keep looking.
After my group departed I spent a few hours on the refuge and a little more time behind the camera. I find the camera often causes me to stop and watch things more closely, hoping to capture some behavior. I notice little details I might otherwise miss…how long a Bufflehead stays underwater as it feeds, how the water droplets bead up on its back when it resurfaces, and how slight changes in position cause the purple and green hues on its head to appear and disappear.
Near sunset, I watched a Bald Eagle, perched on a snag, surveying some flooded woodlands for an easy meal. When nothing seemed to satisfy it, it lifted off with a few strong wing beats and cruised toward the lake, where perhaps the hunting would be more productive.
As the day came to a close, I was surrounded by the sights and sounds of this place I love. There really is something special about certain places in our lives, places we can recall in detail even when we are far away. This sense of place is a true gift. I hope you all find such a gift in your lives this holiday season.