Nature has not only given us life, but can also give us reasons for living positively: Curiosity, wonderment, imagination, and knowledge are just a few of the ways Nature can beckon us.
Between the phenomenal evening shows of snow geese last week, I had a quiet sunrise at Pungo, mostly to myself. It was a cold morning and overnight a skim of ice had formed in the waters of the managed impoundment, and in the nearby swamps. I headed for a place I knew I could see swans in the early morning light. As I neared the water, I saw first one, then two, and finally, four bald eagle silhouettes patrolling the flooded area, no doubt looking for a carcass or a weak swan.
The huge birds seemed to prefer a couple of snags along the canals as their morning perch, so I positioned my car where I had a good look at them as the sun began to creep above the horizon. Many of the trees along the canals have been pushed over by heavy equipment in recent years, perhaps due to the potential for trees along ditch banks to weaken the canal edges if they fall. But, the raptorss certainly like to use them for perches to survey their surroundings.
As daylight increased, so did the activity in the air, with swans, ducks, and snow geese beginning their morning departures. The snow geese came off in smaller groups than usual, but still flying in their characteristic wavy lines.
The eagles continued to make short flights out over the impoundment, but I didn’t see any attacks or dropping down to a possible carcass. As the sun rose above the treeline, all the eagles flew off in search of better hunting. Later that morning, I did see four bald eagles on a fresh swan carcass in a field just beyond the refuge boundary. It is that time of year when birds weaken and die or are wounded by hunters on nearby private lands. The abundance of carcasses provides a bounty for eagles, vultures, and a host of other scavengers.
The swans in the nearby marshy area were waking up to changes in their world – parts of it had frozen overnight. I always enjoy seeing these huge birds standing on the ice. There was one small group surrounding a small open pool. The swans kept splashing and dunking their bodies in the cold water, and then would get out, preen, and flap their wings to greet the new day. I watched them for several minutes and then headed off to explore other parts of the refuge as the daylight intensified.
I had not gone far when I spied a double-crested cormorant perched on a post out in the water. These are not common birds at Pungo, as there are not many fish here except in the canals and perhaps the impoundment. Pungo Lake, unlike nearby Lake Phelps and Mattamuskeet, is peat-based, and, therefore, too acidic and turbid to support much aquatic vegetation of fish life.
I particularly admire the eyes of these primitive birds – a striking green under the right conditions of sunlight. This one never turned just right to have the eye color pop, but you can see hints of it here.
Driving along D-Canal Road, I saw four northern harriers buzzing a stand of flooded corn just across the canal on private land. This standing corn is a duck hunting area and is very effective in attracting ducks and other wildlife. The harriers were cruising back and forth repeatedly, so I pulled over and attempted a few passing shots with my 500 mm lens. Northern harriers are efficient fliers, using a slight dihedral wing pattern (much like a turkey vulture’s wing profile while soaring) that helps keep them aloft with little flapping of their long wings. They fly low, moving back and forth over fields, looking for small birds and mammals.
Three of the four were either adult female or immature harriers. Immatures and adult females are brown, with varying degrees of brown streaks on their breast. I think this might be an adult female since the breast is primarily white with heavy streaking.
Adult males are ghostly in appearance – a light belly, gray upper parts with black wing tips, and the characteristic white rump patch found in all ages and sexes of harriers.
I watched the hawks for about 20 minutes, constantly working the patch of corn, trying to stir up some prey. A female harrier did hover once, then dropped down into the corn, but I did not see whether it caught anything or not. My favorite moment came when a small bird popped up right after a harrier passed overhead, looked at the hawk, and flew off in the opposite direction. Such are the priceless moments of nature you can witness at a place like Pungo…reason enough to visit time and again.