1 Bird, 2 Birds, …and some cool other stuff

Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own.

~Charles Dickens

This past Thursday was our annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. As usual, Melissa and I covered our part of the count circle, much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We had planned to camp at Pettigrew State Park the night before, but predicted rain convinced us to just get up early and head down and start close to sunrise. The day dawned cloudy with the potential for rain and conditions on the refuge were not ideal for seeing birds (the dark gray skies make seeing any color or patterns difficult). We started with two bears ambling along the edge of a cornfield as we entered the refuge (I know it is supposed to be a bird count, but we can’t help ourselves). A little farther along, we were seeing a bunch of sparrows and other songbirds in the thick vegetation along one of the canals when I spotted a bunny sitting quietly on the bank.

A rabbit sitting quietly along a roadside canal (click photos to enlarge)

The weather wasn’t the only thing making our observations difficult. The drought and some much needed road construction that impacted one of the feeder canals has left the managed waterfowl impoundments dry this year. This makes it much more difficult to observe the waterfowl up close and it looks like it has caused some of the birds to move elsewhere this winter as swan numbers seemed quite low compared to previous years.

Marsh A is almost totally dry this year (iPhone photo)

The roadside canals were also very low with many having dry spots or mounds of vegetation. Those with water had hunting herons, kingfishers, and a group of otters taking advantage of the concentration of potential prey. We stopped at one spot to look for songbirds and Melissa spotted a wake in the canal, most of which was obscured by overhanging vegetation. She then saw the wake maker – an otter, then 2, 3, and 4 otters appeared. We followed them for awhile and they eventually piled onto a ledge in a tangle of brush and brambles and started rolling around and grooming, occasionally glancing our way. Certainly not the ideal photo, but cool to watch.

The gang of four otters lounging in a tangle and of branches on the bank

Oh, yeah, back to the birds. I look forward to spending time up close to the swans every winter on Marsh A (the usually flooded impoundment with easy road access and plenty of space so people can space themselves out). But the drought and road construction this winter (which hindered the re-flooding of Marsh A) has left it high and dry with only a few puddles scattered over the vast area that typically has a couple of thousand swans in it every day from December through February. It is interesting to finally see how very shallow it is, making it ideal for puddle ducks and the swans. There are a couple of species that have taken advantage of the new giant mud flats – Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe were scattered about. It is amazing how well both species (especially the snipe) blend in to this type of habitat. We started glassing the area after finding the first few snipe and eventually counted over 50 strewn across the rumpled terrain.

Wilson’s Snipe blend in very well to the mud and dried vegetation covered landscape of the dry Marsh A

The unusually warm temperatures gave us the odd combination of winter birds and spring time reptiles and amphibians – lots of turtles out basking, spring peepers calling, along with numerous flying insects (even one Sleepy Orange butterfly).

A male (right) and female Yellow-bellied Slider chilling on a log. Note the long claws on the front feet of the male that he uses to stroke the neck of a female during courtship.

One of the day’s highlights was spotting a group of nine Sandhill Cranes far out in a field feeding alongside swans. The cranes have been regular winter visitors at Pungo for several years now, starting with a group of three for a few winters, then up to five last winter. Nine is a new high for us on the Christmas Count. I guess they’re telling their friends about the wonders of NC.

Seven of the nine Sandhill Cranes we observed

The unseasonably warm day wore on without a lot of bird activity. Luckily, we were given a Special Use Permit for access to a viewing area on Pungo Lake where we spent quite awhile scanning the water for ducks (without that permit, our grand total for ducks observed would have been two mallards since everything was in the lake due to the dry conditions). Satisfied we had seen most of the waterfowl on the lake, we headed back to look for species we thought should be on the refuge that we had not yet seen. But we were soon distracted again by our gang of otters.

The otter gang (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove up alongside the group as they were swimming in one of the canals. They were on Melissa’s side of the vehicle and she managed a rare shot where all four heads are visible at once. I drove ahead and we waited as they approached us and a large mat of vegetation in the canal.

One otter coming toward me

As is often the case, when they reached the vegetation-clogged area in the canal, they disappeared for a few seconds. Then, one by one, they popped their heads up and looked at us, occasionally snorting their disapproval. This went on for about a minute, and then they were off again swimming out ahead of us.

Two of the otter popping up from the vegetation to check me out

Up ahead was a juncture of several canals where otter frequently cross the road, so we drove beyond them and waited just beyond that spot. They kept coming toward us and then one otter came up out of the canal and ran across the dike, carrying a large prey. On our first sighting that morning, one otter had caught a large fish and carried it into the brush on the bank to eat. This one had something long and skinny. I thought it might be an amphiuma, a type of large aquatic salamander common in these habitats, but the otter moved out of sight quickly, followed by the other three, all heading into a canal on the other side.

Otter moving across the canal dike with fresh prey (photo by Melissa Dowland)

I had stepped out of the truck to move to the front to hopefully get a photo, but Melissa had the better angle (again!) and managed several photos as the otter carried its prey across the open ground. Indeed, looking at it on her camera, we could see it was a large salamander! There are a couple of species of large aquatic salamanders that live in these coastal plain ditches and swamps – the Greater Siren and the Two-toed Amphiuma. Both species can grow to over 3 feet in length and both resemble large eels when seen at a distance. Sirens have external gills (we can’t readily distinguish any in the few photos we have) and have only a front pair of legs. The back of the salamander was dragging on the ground so I can’t tell if there are hind legs or not. Looking at images online, it seems that the front legs of a Greater Siren are more substantial than those of an amphiuma, so I am now leaning toward this otter snack being a Greater Siren, but I will happily listen to any opinions from salamanderologists out there.

A close crop reveals the prey is a large aquatic salamander, probably a Greater Siren! (photo by Melissa Dowland)

The otter incident revived our spirits and we moved into high gear, looking for species likely to occur here but that we were still missing. Wild Turkeys are often seen in a field at the edge of the refuge, so we headed in that direction, stopping at a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds to scan for cowbirds and grackles. The turkeys were out in their field, so that added another species.

A gathering of Red-winged Blackbirds

Back near the lake, groups of Snow Geese flew off for their late day feeding in nearby crop fields. We scanned the long lines of birds overhead, looking for a smaller bird mixed in with the flock, a Ross’s Goose. They look like a diminutive Snow Goose, being just over half the size of their bigger cousin. I can find them when they are in a field feeding if the smaller bird is on the outside edge of the flock. Or, I have learned to spot them by scanning a line of flying geese and seeing the obviously smaller one. Thursday, we only managed one Ross’s Goose despite scanning a few hundred flying birds.

Snow Geese flying out of Pungo Lake for their late day feeding (iPhone photo)

We ended the day walking down my long-time favorite spot – “Bear Road”. As rain showers were looming, the now usual crowd at Bear Road had headed home so we had it all to ourselves. Solitude here is now a rare privilege that makes me appreciate even more all the times I experienced this in years past. We picked up an Eastern Screech Owl and another Great Horned Owl, along with bunches of White-throated Sparrows and a few other songbirds (oh, and a mama bear with two cubs). Though not one of our more productive bird species days, a day in the field, especially at Pungo, is always a good day.

Species observed on our part of the count:

10000 Snow Goose
1 Ross’s Goose
280 Canada Goose
3140 Tundra Swan
1 Wood Duck
48 Northern Shoveler
300 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
75 Mallard
12 American Black Duck
26 Northern Pintail
428 Ring-necked Duck
2 Ruddy Duck
5 Wild Turkey
33 Mourning Dove
9 Sandhill Crane
89 Killdeer
55 Wilson’s Snipe
230 Ring-billed Gull
7 Great Blue Heron
3 Black Vulture
36 Turkey Vulture
2 Northern Harrier
3 Bald Eagle
2 Red-shouldered Hawk
4 Red-tailed Hawk
1 Eastern Screech-Owl
4 Great Horned Owl
1 Belted Kingfisher
2 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
4 Red-bellied Woodpecker
1 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
2 Pileated Woodpecker
4 Northern Flicker
4 American Kestrel
8 Eastern Phoebe
4 Blue Jay
25 American Crow
8 Carolina Chickadee
2 Tufted Titmouse
2 Tree Swallow
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
1 Brown-headed Nuthatch
1 Winter Wren
10 Carolina Wren
3 Gray Catbird
2 Brown Thrasher
3 Northern Mockingbird
2 Eastern Bluebird
2 Hermit Thrush
548 American Robin
2 American Goldfinch
103 White-throated Sparrow
1 Savannah Sparrow
49 Song Sparrow
18 Swamp Sparrow
1 Eastern Towhee
7 Eastern Meadowlark
430 Red-winged Blackbird
1 Common Grackle
50 Yellow-rumped Warbler
35 Northern Cardinal

10 thoughts on “1 Bird, 2 Birds, …and some cool other stuff

  1. As always, thank you so much for sharing your beautiful photography and comments! Love Pocosin WR, wish we could get there more often, so your updates are very much appreciated!

    On Sun, Jan 2, 2022 at 9:36 AM Roads End Naturalist wrote:

    > roadsendnaturalist posted: ” Nature gives to every time and season some > beauties of its own. ~Charles Dickens This past Thursday was our annual > Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. As usual, Melissa and > I covered our part of the count circle, much of the Pungo” >

  2. Love the otter pictures and glad your ID of a salamander as when I first looked at the picture I would have guessed eel.
    I think the bird count is impressive (coming from a non-birder). Happy New Year!

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