Virtual Mattamuskeet

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

~Robin Cook

Last week, I helped Melissa with a virtual program on waterfowl at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. Titled Duck, Duck, Goose, the program was a team effort of museum staff designed for families with the goal of introducing people to the wonders of some of the waterfowl that spend winters in coastal North Carolina. We had scoped out our options the week before and found, not surprisingly, that access to cell phone service for the live feed was our biggest obstacle. We got decent service at the refuge’s photography blind on Hwy 94 and had seen quite a few birds there the week before, so we hoped for repeat for the program.

We camped at Pettigrew State Park the evening before the program so we could get an early start the next day. The weather was less than ideal with a chilly, light rain most of the day and into the evening. Overnight, the skies cleared and we had a good omen that the day could be full of birds when we heard a pair of Great Horned Owls at our campsite just before sunrise. They sounded really close, and the pair were calling a duet that I had only heard once before on a nest cam video of courting owls. I crept out of the back of the truck and saw an owl silhouette in a large tree in our campsite. There was a broken snag on one large branch and an owl flew out of it as I walked out from under the tarp. But the other owl, the smaller male, stayed on a limb and watched for several minutes until finally flying off to join its mate. A great start to our day.

When we drove into Mattamuskeet and stopped at the blind, there were no birds to be seen anywhere near it (nature often doesn’t seem to care what we had planned). So, we headed down Wildlife Drive, hoping for decent cell service and close birds. I pulled in to check out some open water near the entrance and saw an American Kestrel sitting near us on a fence surrounding a pumping station. As I pulled my camera up, it flew to the other side and glared back at me in a way only a fierce, little falcon can. I managed two quick pics and off it went.

American Kestrel gives me the stink eye for disturbing its morning quiet time (click photos to enlarge)

Melissa decided to stop part way down the entrance road and set up for the program since there were plenty of birds in the impoundment and the best cell service we had found thus far. It was still an hour or so until the live feed so I set up the tripod and camera and she started getting out all the gear to make the connection – two cell phones and her laptop and a bunch of cables. As we were setting up, I looked down the canal and saw something create a ripple. Otter! Four otter were cavorting in the canal and swimming our way. We were looking directly into the early morning sun, so I didn’t manage any decent photographs until they swam past us and climbed up on the bank. But then they looked like a pile of puppies, rolling on each other and the ground, a big furry ball of motion (so I managed to get several out of focus images of brown fur balls).

Four River Otter playing on the canal bank

Two otter managed to scent mark the area before they all ran up the hill and paused at the edge of the road and then bounded across, disappearing into the far side canal.

They loped up to the road and paused, just long enough for a family portrait

Melissa managed a quick phone video of the otter as they crossed…

Otter loping across the entrance road (video by Melissa Dowland)

Melissa was able to upload the video to her coworkers back in Raleigh and they used it as part of the virtual program to highlight some of the other wildlife that call this refuge home. The hour-long program went off without a hitch and we were able to live-stream images of large flocks of ducks, Canada Geese, and scattered Tundra Swans for the audience to enjoy. At the end of the Q&A period, i got a distant Bald Eagle in the camera view and then huge flocks of ducks (mainly Northern Pintails) flushing off the water and flying around the marsh before settling back down. A great visual for those that stayed online after the official program ending.

When we wrapped up, we decided to make one last trip around the refuge looking for wildlife. A Bald Eagle perched across the canal was the highlight and we managed to find a small open spot through the vegetation for a few photos.

An adult Bald eagle perched in a dead tree across the canal
The eagle gently scratches an itch using its long talons

On our way home, we stopped at the Pungo Unit to see what we might see. There were several cars on “Bear Road”, so we opted out of the “crowd” and headed over to Marsh A for some late afternoon swan watching. Once again, I could spend hours here watching these magnificent birds, but, as the sun set, many of them flew out to the fields for the evening meal, and we headed back home. While we wish everyone could have seen the refuge in person, we felt lucky to have been able to be a small part of this program bringing the wonders of winter wildlife to learners across the state.

A Tundra Swan family (the young cygnets are the ones with the gray head and neck)
Watching the swans fly out before sunset is one of life’s simple pleasures

12 thoughts on “Virtual Mattamuskeet

  1. I watched the museum program. It was great. Thank you for the opportunity to see the ducks. Although I am a NC resident in Greensboro I’ve never been to that area. I enjoy your blog too.

  2. I always enjoy your excursions to Mattamuskeet and Pungo! There is so much to see, and it seems there is always at least one unexpected treat that presents itself such as the otters you encountered!

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