Intimate knowledge can make a place beautiful.
I had a one day refuge tour with a wonderful couple on Monday. I went down Sunday evening, just to make sure I could get down there, given the wild weather we had over the weekend. Turns out, once I got out of the neighborhood, the roads were fine. I arrived at Pungo just in time for sunset.
A large flock of swans was feeding close to the road. I drove by to turn around so I could have my side of the car close to the flock. When I stopped to turn, I noticed a large number of deer out in the corn stubble. When I scanned the field, I counted twenty four deer. As the evening progressed, I saw the most deer in one spot that I have seen in a number of years, upward of fifty.
As I pulled up next to the flock, the swans scurried several feet away from the road, necks outstretched in their typical alert pose. It only took a couple of minute for the swans to return to the edge of the field where the last of the corn was most abundant. The late afternoon light was beautiful on their white feathers, giving them a golden cast.
The light quickly faded to grays and birds began to fly back toward the lake, singly, and in small groups.
The flock was in constant motion and the sounds were mesmerizing. I was the only person watching and it was magical. But, something was missing…the loud sounds of tens of thousands of snow geese. They had been here the previous week, feeding with the swans. Tonight, there were only a handful.
The next morning we were at the platform for sunrise. Pungo Lake was partially frozen and the birds were far off on the north side. Snow geese lifted off, circled, and resettled onto the lake surface. There were only a few thousand, not the 40,000+ of a week ago. Are they already departing?
The cold morning air had left the leaf litter and standing weed stalks heavy with frost, a beautiful coating of crystals on everything near the ground.
The impoundment was partially frozen and we watched swans trying to push their way through the skim of ice as we slowly drove past. A cooperative ruddy duck allowed us to get out of the car and create portraits with detailed reflections. Continuing down the road we started seeing lots of ducks – gadwall, northern shovelers, mallards, and wood ducks – flush out of the swamp along the roadside canal. Suddenly, something streaked across the road in pursuit of one of the ducks. It was a Cooper’s Hawk, tying to catch a northern shoveler hen. The pair bobbed and weaved in the air down the canal and then the duck dove into the water with a huge splash in a last ditch effort to escape. The hawk swooped up to an overhanging limb. The duck surfaced and swam around nervously. We drove slowly toward them and the hawk flew back across the road. More ducks flushed out ahead of us and the hawk swooped back, and the whole scene was repeated again, and again a duck (this time a wood duck) barely escaped. Finally, the hawk gave up and moved elsewhere to find a meal. It is always amazing to witness such an event.
Not far down the canal, we encountered another pair of northern shovelers. The stunning drake swam out into the open and the morning light made his colors pop in intensity. And that eye…that striking yellow eye.
We continued on, hoping for snow geese. They flew out of the lake but headed beyond the refuge. Instead of waiting for the missing geese to come into the fields, I opted for a leisurely stroll through the woods. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds danced over the corn, flying back and forth to the safety of the tree tops as we headed down the edge of the field. Tiny helicopters, pine seeds, rained down on us as the hungry birds picked at pine cones high over our heads. Temperatures were warming, it was sunny, a perfect day for finding a bear napping against a tree trunk or a sleeping raccoon in a tree. A pair of pileated woodpeckers sounded the alarm as we entered the forest. Flocks of American robins were feeding on the ground in openings in the trees, probably finding worms forced to the surface by the wet conditions. I am always scanning the trees looking for anything out of place – a lump on a limb, a pair of eyes peering out of a knot hole, or a patch of fur in a hollow trunk. And then, there it was, a blob of gray fur barely visible in an open hollow in a tree trunk.
We walked closer, briefly waking the raccoon. It gave us a couple of glances like the ones you get when you awaken a sleeping spouse or child. You know, the “hey, can’t you see I’m sleeping here” sort of look, half disgust, half “I’m just too tired to do anything about it”. We apologized and walked on.
Before heading back to the car, I wanted to check the hollow tree where I had found a sleeping raccoon on a previous trip. There was no raccoon in the tree trunk this time, but it was obvious that a bear had clawed at the opening since my last visit. I suppose the raccoon had to find another bedroom after that. But, it looks like it might not have moved very far. I looked up at a hole in a nearby tree and there was another ball of raccoon fur. This time, the raccoon barely moved as we walked by. At least we weren’t scratching at his door.
We spent the afternoon at Lake Mattamuskeet, getting great looks at a variety of waterfowl and waders. Large flocks of northern pintails jumped into the sky along Wildlife Drive anytime an eagle flew across the wetlands. And we managed to find a cooperative bittern snagging small fish along the edge of the marsh (if only they would come out into the open for their picture).
We ended the day back at Pungo, hoping to see a show of snow geese, but they were nowhere to be found. Even the swans had largely moved onto private lands as corn supplies have apparently been picked over in most of the refuge fields. The evening ended with a spectacular sunset (and me with no camera) as we walked along a quiet roadside, soaking it all in. Great horned owls were calling. A few American woodcock zigzagged out of the swamps into the fields to feed. Then we heard something that I have never heard here – first, one howl, then another. And they were close to us, just out of sight in a thicket of river cane in the woods. The sky was on fire with a pink and red sunset, and here we are listening to two animals welcoming the approaching darkness. I must admit, the sound sent chills through me. The howls continued for a minute or so. We walked back to the car, admiring the spectacular show in the sky and wondering what we had just heard. Listening to some audio files online when I got home that night, I guess they could have been red wolves. I like to think so. Even in a place where you have intimate knowledge of its beauties, there are always new mysteries to be solved. I can’t wait to see what we find on my next trip.