Swan Song

The Earth has music for those who listen

~George Santayana

Over the years, I have been privileged to lead thousands of people to some incredible natural areas in our state and beyond. We often take time to reflect on our experiences and I have seen and heard some wonderful stories about how a place or an event has affected someone. I have had people come to tears over special moments like hearing wolves howl in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone or seeing their first black bear in the wild at Pungo. And I know that many of the educators I worked with over my career have gone to do wonderful things with their students as a result of something they experienced on a trip to an outstanding natural area.

Tundra Swans taking off from field

Tundra swans at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

But one of my most memorable of these moments came many years ago, and it involved my favorite part of North Carolina – the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). I had a chance to reminisce about it over dinner with my friend, Rick, after an outing this past winter. I first met Rick when I introduced him to the magic of Pungo over 15 years ago.

Bear with snow geese 1

Black bear with snow geese

I was with some friends at Mattamuskeet NWR when a car pulled up and a teacher that had been on several museum workshops jumped out and said hello. She and her friends (including Rick) were down in the area looking for birds and wondered if we had seen anything interesting. We quickly pointed out the black-crowned night herons roosting in trees near the lodge. They were excited at the find, so I mentioned we were headed over to Pungo to hopefully see some snow geese, swans, and whatever else we might encounter. They were not familiar with the place, but they agreed to follow us over.

Snow Geese returning to lake

Snow geese at sunset

When we pulled up to the gate at “Bear Road” we could see and hear thousands of swans and snow geese flying to and from the lake, landing in the fields to feed on the corn. It was only then I realized the driver of the other vehicle, Rick, got out into a wheelchair. The usually muddy road was frozen, so he was able to go down the road with some help from his friend, Ken. Everyone was in awe of the spectacle. It was about as good as Pungo gets. A couple of bald eagles flew out across the field sending the flock of snow geese into the air in a raucous swirl of wings. A few minutes later, two black bears wandered out from the nearby trees. We watched as the setting sun lit the sky in fiery colors and thousands of birds lifted off to return to the safety of the lake for the night. We all knew we had witnessed something special, something magical.

Tundra Swans at sundown

Tundra swans flying back to Pungo Lake

I received an email from Rick a few days later, thanking me for the opportunity to witness the extraordinary spectacle that is Pungo. It would be the first of many emails I received from him over the coming years. Each winter, Rick would touch base about the birds at the refuges, asking for tips on the best places to go to see the huge flocks, and letting me know he was planning another trip down that way. Then came a very special email in 2006. He was sending me tickets to a premier of an orchestra piece that his friend, Ken, had written. It was music inspired by that first trip to Pungo and the spectacle of the birds. The piece was entitled, The Swans of Pungo Lake. I was blown away. I had no idea that Rick’s friend, Ken Frazelle, is a composer. Ken was commissioned (along with a few other North Carolina composers) to create musical “post cards” about the state as part of the 75th anniversary season of the North Carolina Symphony. Ken chose the wilds of Pungo and the thousands of birds that winter there as his post card. Needless to say, it was a privilege to attend the premier. Take a moment and listen…hear the wing beats, the energy of so many birds as they communicate and take flight.

Snow Geese flying over field

The spectacle that is Pungo

I am happy that Rick and I have stayed in touch in the years since. It was a real pleasure to spend an afternoon with he and another of his friends a couple of months ago, experiencing yet another of the magical moments that Pungo can offer. At dinner that night, we remembered that first trip, and talked about the power of the place, the majesty of the spectacle of the swans and snow geese, the sounds, and the peace that being in such a place brings to those lucky enough to spend time there. It reminded me once again why wild places are valuable, why our public lands should be cherished and protected. They are places where we can truly grasp the grandeur of our planet, and perhaps come to understand our place in it, and see why what we do, what we conserve, is so important for us all. And it reminded me that sharing a special place, or an experience in nature, can sometimes reap benefits far beyond what you can imagine.


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