Another Count, Another Great Day at Pungo

Conservation is a cause that has no end. There is no point at which we say, “Our work is finished…”

~Rachel Carson

Saturday was our chance to participate in the 119th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. We did it, as we have for many years, at the Pettigrew Christmas Count centered on Lake Phelps in Pettigrew State Park. I helped start this count back in 1985 with the park superintendent and one of my favorite naturalists, Paris Trail. For those that may not know, the idea of a Christmas Bird Count was created in 1900 as an alternative to the then common practice of Christmas bird shoot contests, where people would go out and shoot as many birds as possible. Conservationists worried that this trend was harming bird populations, so they came up with the idea of going out and seeing how many birds you could see in one day as a way to foster appreciation of our incredible bird neighbors. To learn more about the history of the Count and how the data is being used, check out Audubon Christmas Bird Count. For this count, we were joined by our good friend, Scott, and his cousin’s family. As always, we cover the section of the count circle that includes my favorite spot in North Carolina, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The heavy rains squashed our plans to camp at Pettigrew for a few days around the count, so we left our home at 4 a.m. Saturday for the trip down to try to beat the sunrise.

Black bear at dawn

Huge black bear ambling away from the corn field before sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

We were greeted, as often happens at Pungo, with a huge bear leaving his dinner table in the corn fields at the entrance to the refuge. He was one of the big boys, probably weighing in at over 500 pounds. We met the rest of the group at the observation platform where thousands of swans were scattered across the lake in the pre-dawn gray. Our next stop was the impoundment known as Marsh A, where the tundra swans luckily like to congregate within range of most telephoto lenses.

Tundra swan reflections

Tundra swans in early morning light

Tundra swan wing flap 1

Almost every move a tundra swan makes is made with grace, especially the wing flap

Tundra swan flyover

By mid-morning, swans were leaving the lake in droves, headed for their feeding fields

After spending some time with the swans, we headed on and soon found a beautiful bufflehead and her reflection swimming along in a roadside canal.

Bufflehead reflection

A female bufflehead swimming in one of the roadside canals

The warm temperatures made for a slow birding day so we stepped up our efforts to find a diversity of songbirds by walking and driving slowly near brushy spots along the miles of dirt roads in the Pungo Unit.

Field sparrow

This beautiful field sparrow paused for a portrait

Eastern phoebe

Clutching a treetop twig, this Eastern phoebe bobbed in the wind while checking out our group

Baby nutria

Our guests spotted this furry pile of nutria babies at a den entrance across the canal

We succeeded in a few locations and got good looks at several species. We moved on to scan some of the crop fields for shorebirds and other species that like these huge open spaces. We were also hoping to see a trumpeter swan or the sandhill cranes that had been reported in the area.

Sandhill cranes

Three sandhill cranes feeding with a group of tundra swans

At one area in a harvested soybean field, a group of 50 or so tundra swans were resting and feeding. As we scanned, we all simultaneously noticed the grayish bodies of three sandhill cranes mixed in with swans. Success!

Norther bobwhite female

Female northern bobwhite trying to sneak away to cover

As we left that area, we spotted some quail moving along the edge of the canal bank. When we stopped, they dashed under the overhanging grasses, climbed the hill under their vegetative cover, and finally popped out on the top edge of the canal and scurried to safety in the corn stubble.

Cloudless sulphr

One of two butterfly species observed on pour Christmas Bird Count

The warm temperatures (about 70 degrees) made for a pleasant day for us humans, but I think it may have curtailed some of the usual winter activity we see in the birds and other animals. On the plus side, we saw a lot of turtles out basking, had two species of butterflies (a sleepy orange and a cloudless sulphur), a green darner dragonfly, an anole, and an even bigger warm-weather surprise later in the day.

Immature tundra swan

Immature tundra swan seen from Duck Pen blind

The hike down to the Duck Pen observation blind yielded a few new songbird species, several river otter scat piles, and great views of tundra swans from the blind.

Eastern screech owl gray phase in duck box

A sleepy gray phase Eastern screech owl at the entrance to a wood duck box

At each stop we added a new species or two to our list. As we drove along one stretch, Melissa spotted an owl peering out of one of the wood duck boxes. We all got out and enjoyed a close-up look through the spotting scope. The little fellow didn’t seem to mind the paparazzi oohing and aahing every time it even slightly opened one eye. It seemed to quickly drift back asleep to enjoy its owl dreams.

Our afternoon ended with a walk down North Lake Road. There were the usual couple of photographers set up near the gate in hopes of catching a bear crossing over into the corn. We walked beyond them and down into the woods to try for some of the many songbirds we were still missing. It is also a great place to see a raccoon sleeping in a tree or a bear walking down one of the many well-worn paths, so we quietly walked through the understory of pawpaw with high hopes for something exciting…and we found more than we could have imagined.

Black bear in tree base - Dowland pic

A surprise waiting inside the base of a large tulip poplar (photo by Melissa Dowland)

As we walked, one of our guests let out a sharp whistle. When I looked over, I saw him pointing to what I assumed was a bear out in the woods. As I walked over to him, I could see he was pointing at a tree close by, and not at some distant object. He whispered, there’s bear in that tree. I think I said something profound like, that tree right there?, pointing to one just a few feet away. Indeed, as he had walked up to look into the hollow base of this large tree, a bear had lifted its head and looked back at him. He backed off (perhaps with a sense of urgency and surprise) and the bear laid back down. I maneuvered around to face the hollow and at first could just barely make out the dark shape inside as the bear had its head tucked, so all you saw was black fur inside a black tree hollow. But at one point, the bear raised its head just a bit and you could make out the brown color of its nose. I have looked inside this type of hollow for years and, other than having one bear bolt out of a tree well before we got too close, have found only bear sign and the occasional sleeping raccoon or opossum. This experience will certainly be on the highlight reel of my brain for years. We walked away leaving our bear to his cozy bed. But, the surprises were not over yet…

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A look inside the hollow base reveals a partial view of the rattlesnake (photo by Scott Hartley)

Not far from from the bear tree, we eased up to another tree where I had a special encounter three years ago. I was telling one of our guests about that incident as I slowly approached another tree with a hollow base, when, suddenly, a huge canebrake rattlesnake flung itself toward the tree and disappeared into the hollow. I had been scrutinizing this particular hollow as this was the same tree where I had encountered a rattlesnake on a day in January, 2016. But this time, the snake was several feet outside the hole, and, I must admit, it startled me with its quick retreat back into the safety of the tree. I had left my phone back in the car, so Scott was kind enough to get a photo where you could at least see part of the snake inside the hollow. This is pretty remarkable if this is the same snake from 3 years ago (and I think there is a good chance it is, since research has shown snakes are often quite faithful to their overwintering sites). This place never ceases to amaze me.

Great horned owl at sunset in cherry tree broken by bears

Great horned owl calling from a perch at sunset

The walk back to our cars was classic Pungo – we could hear swans calling on the lake, a few scattered flocks flying in from the north, a bald eagle flying out over the fields, and bears starting to move from the protective cover of the forest edges to their evening meal in the corn. Closer to the cars, we heard, and then saw, a great horned owl, silhouetted against the sky. A perfect ending to a great walk. One thing of interest about the owl photo – the tree top has a lot of broken branches in it. This is a wild cherry tree, and, though it looks like storm damage, it is actually where black bears have broken the branches to get to the cherry fruit. Every cherry tree along this road edge has broken branches like this where foraging bears have climbed the tree and pulled down the smaller twig tips to gorge on the ripe cherries.

As we drove out of the refuge, we pulled over and got out for one more experience that only Pungo offers, the return of thousand of swans from their feeding fields to the safety of the refuge waters. The video quality is poor because of the low light, but, trust me, the sights and sounds of Pungo will leave a lasting impression on you. Experiences like this help create an understanding of and appreciation for the importance of public lands like this for both the wildlife they support, and for our own well-being and peace of mind. I urge everyone to support these special places and the people that work so hard to protect them for our future.

One last surprise came with the seemingly endless waves of swans flying overhead. As one group passed, I heard the unmistakable honking sound of a trumpeter swan mixed in with the chorus of tundra swans (unfortunately, I was not recording at the time). I photographed a couple of trumpeters on our visit back in November, and, though we had tried hard to find them earlier in the day with no success, the final bird of the day was a special one. Below is the list of species we saw in our part of the count circle from about 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. I saw on social media that elsewhere in the count area. friends got a very special bird, a Western tanager. I can’t wait to see our totals for the entire circle.  Indeed, another count, another good day out in the field.

Species Number Observed
Snow Goose 30000
Ross’s Goose 1
Canada Goose 40
Trumpeter Swan 1 (heard)
Tundra Swan 25000
Wood Duck 28
Northern Shoveler 35
Gadwall 17
American Wigeon 7
Mallard 30
Black Duck 7
Northern Pintail 7
Green-winged Teal 20
Ring-necked Duck 30
Bufflehead 4
Hooded Merganser 1
Ruddy Duck 27
Northern Bobwhite 11
Wild Turkey 28
Mourning Dove 43
Sandhill Crane 3
Killdeer 142
American Woodcock 3
Ring-billed Gull 73
Great Blue Heron 5
Turkey Vulture 64
Northern Harrier 12
Sharp-shinned Hawk 2
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Bald Eagle 6
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 4
Eastern Screech-Owl 3
Great Horned Owl 2
Belted Kingfisher 2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 5
Red-bellied Woodpecker 7
Downy Woodpecker 11
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Pileated Woodpecker 4
Northern Flicker 3
American Kestrel 3
Merlin 1
Eastern Phoebe 9
Blue-headed Vireo 4
Blue Jay 1
American Crow 37
Tree Swallow 6
Carolina Chickadee 14
Tufted Titmouse 5
Brown Creeper 2
House Wren 2
Carolina Wren 6
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 6
Eastern Bluebird 13
American Robin 220
Gray Catbird 3
Brown Thrasher 1
Northern Mockingbird 1
European Starling 97
American Pipit 4
American Goldfinch 4
Chipping Sparrow 12
Field Sparrow 1
Fox Sparrow 4
White-throated Sparrow 84
Savannah Sparrow 20
Song Sparrow 12
Swamp Sparrow 6
Eastern Towhee 4
Red-winged Blackbird 3000
Common Grackle 37
Pine Warbler 7
Yellow-rumped Warbler 21
Northern Cardinal 6

 

9 thoughts on “Another Count, Another Great Day at Pungo

  1. Thanks for the report and photos, Mike. Always pleasantly amazed at the amount of wildlife in this area! I plan on spending a couple of day there mid-January.

    Wishing all a wonderful new year.

  2. Wow! Very nice day overall despite the relative lack of birds. Knowing how much this means to you, I’m happy that you had a great and otherwise very successful day.

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