When the Geese are Gone

Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing.

~Barry Lopez

What a difference a week makes. Less than seven days had passed between my last two groups, but things have dramatically changed at Pocosin Lakes NWR. The snow geese had arrived later than normal this year, and now have left earlier than usual. Where there had been 40,000+, we saw one. And, it seems, the tundra swans may be departing the refuge a little early as well. There still seem to be a few thousand, but their numbers are way down from what we saw back in late December, and almost none are feeding on refuge lands. The warm weather, and what appears to be less corn and winter wheat on the refuge, may be to blame. Or maybe, as Barry Lopez so eloquently puts it, the land is simply breathing and exhaling the geese northward. But, there are still things to discover and enjoy, if you look closely.

Immature bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle overhead at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived early the day of my tour, in hopes of finding some interesting things to share later with my group. With the snow geese gone, the eagles are not as numerous as in recent trips. But, a young bald eagle (looks like a first year bird based on the plumage) still gave me a nice fly over shortly after my arrival.

black bear in woods

Large black bear sow

I took a short walk into the forest and was rewarded with a couple of black bears, including one large sow. I took a few photos but quickly left, after requesting that she and her two youngsters hang around for another few hours.

great horned owl nest

Finally, I find the great horned owl nest

I have been hearing the great horned owls calling in a patch of woods on previous trips so I was went looking for any sign of a nest. I have found two other nests on the refuge over the years. One was in a pine in what was probably an old red-tailed hawk nest; the other atop a snag with a platform of poison ivy vines spreading out from the top. I finally spotted a large stick nest in the fork of a lone pine tree. I didn’t see anything at first, but then noticed a feather on the side of the nest blowing in the wind. When I put the spotting scope on it, it looked like an owl feather. I moved around for a different view and saw what looked like ears sticking up above the nest.

great horned owl nest close up

Great horned owl sitting on eggs or young (heavily cropped photo)

The scope revealed it to be the ear tufts of a great horned owl, most likely sitting on her eggs, as this species is probably the earliest breeder in our state. I stayed well away from the nest so as to not disturb her. I can check on the nest on future trips with the spotting scope without getting close. This is a good time to remind readers that almost all of the photos of wildlife in this blog are taken with a large telephoto lens, and are cropped in processing, so the animals are not as close as they sometimes appear.

bear cub in woods 1

Young black bear rushes across trail to cover

When my group arrived, we headed back to check on the bears and the owl nest. It seemed as though the bear had heeded my wishes and was walking toward us as we headed down the path. We stopped and she wandered off, followed by two young, both sporting a distinctive grayish coat. Then, another bear crossed the path, followed by three more bears! Quite a start to our trip.

bears in woods

Black bear sow and young

At least some of these same bears hung around that general area for the next day as well. We saw another group on our hike the next morning. I always try to give the bears plenty of room. We are quiet and try to stand still when we see one, and I like to let the bears take whatever path they want. I have seen people try to cut them off in order to get a closer look or a better picture, but it is best to respect their wildness, and let them be. Enjoy the experience, but keep the bears unstressed and wild.

find the rattlesnake

Excellent camouflage makes these snakes difficult to see on the forest floor

The other thing I wanted to check on was the tree where I had seen the rattlesnake two weeks earlier. I carefully checked the area around the tree as I approached, knelt down and shined a light inside the base – no snake. Not too surprising as it had been a cold night and there was even ice in tire ruts on the road when we walked in. So, with all the bears in the area, I started to walk down the path, looking ahead for any signs of bears through the trees. The next thing I know, I had what can only be described as a too-close-of-an-encounter with that snake, who was luckily quite docile in the chilly air.

Canebrake rattlesnake strecthed out

Rattlesnake stretched out in morning sun

We took a bunch of photos and then left the snake alone. We checked on it the next day, after seeing even more bears, and found it a little more active in the warming weather. It was slowly crawling in roughly the same area where we had seen it the day before.

canebrake rattlesnake

A close look (and a telephoto lens) shows the beauty of this snake

This is a beautiful specimen, and apparently a tough one, as it doesn’t seem to mind being out in some pretty cool weather. Today, it chose to lie in a sunny spot, soaking in the morning warmth.

canebrake rattlesnake head

The rattler was more active than the past couple of sightings, and even flicked its tongue a few times

canebrake rattlesnake tail

Close up of rattle

We took some more pictures and then left it alone. I can’t help but wonder how it will fare if a bear encounters it in this cool weather. I also can’t believe I may now need to look at the ground more carefully as I walk these winter woods, instead of constantly scanning the skies for waterfowl and other birds as I have done for over thirty five years. Strange times indeed.

shed antler

We found two shed deer antlers

My first morning at Pungo I saw a buck white-tailed deer, with only one antler, running through a field. It is that time of year when male deer are dropping their antlers in preparation for starting the new growth later this spring. As it turned out, we found two different shed antlers as we walked. You are most likely to find them shortly after they are dropped and before squirrels, mice, and other animals start chewing them up to get the calcium.

Great blue heron with catfish

Great blue heron with a nice catfish for breakfast

While watching the swans one morning, someone in the group spotted a great blue heron with something in its beak. It turned out to be a large catfish. We watched as the heron repeatedly tried to swallow the large meal. We think it finally gulped down its meal before flying off to hunt again.

tundra swans in morning light

Tundra swan fly over

Tundra swans flew back and forth overhead as the day progressed so we had plenty of good looks and photo opportunities.

nutria feeding in canal

Nutria feeding on duckweed

Trio of young nutria

A trio of young nutria

We split our time between the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR and Mattamuskeet. As the weather warmed over the weekend, we saw a lot of nutria out feeding.

great blue heron silhouette

Great blue heron at sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet

Northern Pintails in marsh

Northern pintails in marsh

great blue heron in tree

Great blue heron resting in a pine

white ibis feeding 1

White ibis feeding in impoundment along Wildlife Drive

Driving along Wildlife Drive, we saw hundreds of ducks and swans, along with a variety of other birds.

vulture comparison

Silhouette of turkey vulture (lower left) compared to black vulture (upper right)

Late Saturday afternoon we enjoyed seeing vultures come into roost in trees near the lodge. At one point I grabbed a photo of a turkey vulture alongside its smaller cousin, a black vulture. The latter looks as though someone had trimmed its tail feathers (relative to a turkey vulture). Black vultures are also smaller and tend to flap their wings more than a turkey vulture.

Great egret landing in top of pine

Great egret landing in tree top

The late hour also brought in several great egrets, white ibis, and some cattle egrets to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. This spot has traditionally been a roost for black-crowned night herons, but I have seen none of them in these trees this winter.

alligator

Alligator in canal at Gull Rock Game Lands

alligator head

Close up of smiling gator

One of the biggest eye-openers of the trip came on our last afternoon as we explored some new territory down toward Gull Rock Game Lands. In a canal bordering a wetland containing ibis, a grebe, and a double-crested cormorant, we discovered another surprising January reptile – an American alligator. It was about a 6-footer, basking in the sun, and seemingly unconcerned about the three cameras being pointed at it.

And so this month of wildlife wonders has come to a close. A strange month indeed, but an exciting one. One other critter worth mentioning that we saw on the last day of January – an orange and black butterfly near the lodge at Mattamuskeet. It was flying away from me when I spotted it out about 75 feet, but through the binoculars it looked like a monarch, not a viceroy. Either one is a big surprise for a winter day in North Carolina. It seems the land is breathing a bit oddly this season. I wonder what the coming spring will hold?

14 thoughts on “When the Geese are Gone

  1. Yes, this and the several preceding posts have been just marvelous! I thought I would get down that way this winter but didn’t make it and now it seems a bit late. Questions: 1) do you know a good place to stay overnight in the area? 2) if I wanted to join a group trip in the future, how would I do that?

    • Thanks,Laura…I’ll send you an email re lodging options (there aren’t that many:). Many of my trips to the refuges are word of mouth. Someone gets a couple of people together and contacts me to schedule a trip. I will be advertising a few trips to this and other areas through notices on my blog and through my email list. You can follow the blog (get an email notification each time I post a new one) by clicking the FOLLOW button on the right column of my blog page. To receive email notifications of trip announcements, go the the JOIN MY EMAIL LIST tab on the top of my blog page and fill in the appropriate contact information.

      • Thanks Mike. I have been following your blog via email for a while now and really enjoying it! In fact. Just now read the first of your pelagic birding posts—Wow! This really drives home the need to protect our Waters from offshore drilling. Laura

        Laura M. Cotterman lmcotterman@embarqmail.com 919-824-4216 (cell) | 919-732-9578 (home & office)

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