By thus coordinating the management of the refuge with the natural cycles of plant and animal life, the Fish and Wildlife Service has developed Mattamuskeet to the point where it now supports much larger flocks of waterfowl than came to this refuge in former years.
~Rachel Carson, on a discussion of managing the lake for a natural cycle of draw-down in spring and summer, and higher water in fall and winter; in Mattamuskeet: A National Wildlife Refuge, 1947
I had a meeting last week in Greenville, so I decided to head down a day early and meander around Mattamuskeet. I was hoping for another look at the least bittern I photographed last week, but was up for anything that this treasure trove of wildlife might offer. The weather cooperated (for a change this winter), as did much of the wildlife (unfortunately, not the least bittern).
Now that hunting season is over, the ducks and other birds seem a little more relaxed, and approaching them is easier than a few weeks ago. There were several cooperative ducks along Wildlife Drive, including a couple of of pair of northern shovelers in good afternoon light.
Shovelers are aptly named in that they have a spade-like bill, unlike any other duck. A unique feature of this spoon-shaped beak is how the edges are lined with fine, comb-like projections (called lamellae). The shovelers use them to strain out tiny food particles as they ingest water and muddy debris. The female shoveler above kindly opened wide for a nice close up of the “teeth of her comb”.
Another strange feeding behavior of shovelers is their spinning in tight circles (sometimes called called pin-wheeling or spin-feeding). This apparently helps pull fine particulate material off the bottom, concentrating it, and making it more available for ingestion.
The quick video clip above shows the scene that was being repeated by many northern shovelers as they dizzily dined.
Other common species included Canada geese, northern pintails, blue-winged teal, and tundra swans. I did manage to spot a couple of American bitterns, but they sulked back into the grasses before I could get a photo.
White-tailed deer were also abundant throughout the afternoon. Most were along the grassy canal banks on Wildlife Drive, but there was a small group wading out into the marsh to eat aquatic plants.
Toward sunset, I drove over to check the trees near the lodge for vultures and egrets coming in for their evening roost. The usual vulture snag had about ten turkey vultures perched in the last light of the day. Several were in the ominous-looking spread-wing posture. Turns out this has a name – the horaltic pose. It probably serves multiple functions – to dry the wings, increase surface area exposed to the sun for warming the body, and exposing to sunlight the microbes that might have been picked up while feeding on carcasses, which may help kill potentially harmful bacteria.
Much of the day I saw great egrets feeding and resting out in the marsh grass. But, starting about 5 pm, they begin heading to roost sites. Large numbers sometimes roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge, and it looked like that was going to happen again.
They started arriving singly, then a few more at a time, jostling for position among the swaying branches, squawking at one another, and occasionally jabbing with their sharp bills to try to secure a spot. Once settled, many began the ballet of preening their beautiful white plumage.
It is unusual to be at the refuge with so few people around, so I stood there alone, watching, and listening as the birds ended their day. Before I left, more than a hundred white ibis had joined forty or fifty great egrets for what seemed like a less than peaceful evening. The video clip above shows some of the hazards of a sleepover with your feathered friends – note what happens to the egret as it is preening its feathers…something falls from above that requires a couple of good shakes, and then more preening.
The next morning, I only had a couple of hours before I had to leave the refuge for my meeting, so I tried to cover a lot of area, looking for the least bittern. The sunrise was spectacular, as they often are at the lake, and I managed a different view point than usual.
There were a lot of birds out in the shrubs along the edge of the road, including a ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-rumped warblers, a blue-gray gnatcatcher, and a photogenic orange-crowned warbler.
The usual ducks and swans rested near the road, and groups of American coot were waddling around all along Wildlife Drive. I was really hoping to see the bobcat(s) that are frequenting the far grassy edge of the canal, often hunting the coot, but, no such luck.
Coot are favorite food items of a variety of predators, undoubtedly due to their abundance, and relative ease of capture. One little guy was standing along the edge of the road and allowed me to pull up and get a few cute coot photos.
Coot are odd little ducks (well, actually they are not ducks at all, but are related to rails) with scarlet red eyes and a white bill with a dark frontal shield (a bump that goes up on the forehead from the upper bill). But their most noticeable strange feature is seen when they are on land – they have large feet with lobed toes (not webbed feet like ducks). This adaptation helps in both swimming, and walking on mud and mats of floating vegetation.
One of the sad notes from this trip was seeing a few more dead swans. There have been a fair number this winter (perhaps as many as several dozen), more than I have seen in recent years. Lead poisoning from ingestion of lead shot is believed to be the cause for many, and I think several have been sent off for analysis. This helps point out yet another way that we tend to impact wildlife populations, intentionally or not. There was also another interesting development this past week that may impact the future of the refuge’s waterfowl populations. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed to allow joint management of the refuge by both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. While I generally support both agencies and their missions, it is unclear to many why this MOU is needed, why the federal government may be relinquishing some of its control over a refuge they have managed since its establishment in 1934. There has been a lot of talk in some parts of the community the past few years about a desire to manage the lake at higher levels in the summer for fishing, but there is also concern this may have a detrimental impact on waterfowl use of the lake. I have observed a drastic reduction on the number of birds that are easily seen in the lake along the causeway the past couple of winters, perhaps due to the higher than normal water levels that may limit food plant production and access to food for dabbling ducks and swans. This is a world-class waterfowl refuge that is used by thousands of visitors every year for hunting, fishing, crabbing and bird observation. I hope any new or revised management plans will continue to maintain it as such.