Refuge Ramble – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Last week was another of those times I really appreciate our public lands. I spent four days on the road in eastern North Carolina doing what I love to do – watching and photographing wildlife and sharing it with others. I started out Wednesday morning at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR. It was sunny when I arrived and one of the impoundments finally had some standing water in it so there were some swans hanging out close enough to observe and photograph.

Tundra Swans milling about in Marsh A on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

The day started to take a turn as mid-day approached with light rain showers developing and a rainbow out across the fields.

Distant swans in a rainbow

The rest of the day was the kind of weather where my camera stayed in the car. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and before the day was done I was soaked along with a couple of folks hanging out with me. It wasn’t a total loss (it never is) as we did see a nice young bear and a wild canid. I am pretty sure it was a Red Wolf (that would be the 15th I have seen at Pungo over the years) but I can’t be 100% sure as it was about a hundred yards away when it dashed across a grassy road giving us about a 5 second view. In all my trips to Pungo, I have never seen a coyote but I know they do occur. This canid looked large and leggy, so I am pretty sure it was one of the few remaining Red Wolves in the wild.

The next couple of days were spent further east and I’ll share those highlights in the next post. Friday I was back at Pungo and enjoying the gang of four otters that have been a mainstay of the Pungo wildlife show this winter. One had caught a Bowfin and was munching away in a tangle of brush.

River Otter chewing on the head of a Bowfin

Two other cars had stopped and were out photographing the otter, so I moved on. Later that afternoon, I encountered the otter again and this time they climbed out on the bank and I was able to grab a portrait of one before they all disappeared into the canal.

Otter portrait

At sunset, we were out in the fields near the maintenance area where several thousand Snow Geese were already landing for their evening snack of corn. It is such a privilege to witness this gathering of birds and to share it with others.

I have been lucky to have seen this sunset show well over a hundred times in the almost 40 years I have been going to Pungo and it never gets old. And I love the reactions of people witnessing it for the first time. It is something they never forget.

The next morning was very cold, but sunny. Birds were flying, we had glimpses of the otter again, and a friend spotted a bird I don’t see very often – a King Rail. It was feeding along the bank of D-Canal and allowed us to sit and watch it for several minutes before disappearing into the tangle of vines and debris in what looked like a Muskrat or Nutria burrow entrance.

A King Rail was a highlight for me at Pungo

Mid-day found us driving over to Mattamuskeet where there were many more visitors and tons of waterfowl in the impoundment. Many of the visitors looked like duck hunters and I always wonder what’s going through their minds as they stare out at thousands of ducks. Northern Pintails are particularly abundant this time of year. The whistle calls of the males can be heard everywhere along Wildlife Drive. Anytime an eagle flies over, hundreds of ducks take flight and circle until the threat is gone.

A Great Egret stalking small fish in the shallows

The water level was high in the impoundment, so the ducks had free range over most of it and the waders tended to feed along the edges or at grassy islands. Great Egrets and White Ibis stood out in their white outfits against the dried grasses and blue water.

A pair of White Ibis crisscrossing their bills for the photo

Back at Pungo, we looked for and found the King Rail not far from its morning feeding area. It continued to skulk up under the overhanging tangle of vines and grasses along the canal edge…no wonder I rarely see them.

The King Rail was only a few yards from its morning spot when we returned from Mattamuskeet
The golden glow of late afternoon light on a pair of Tundra Swans in Marsh A

We walked down “Bear Road” seeing a couple of bears across the field and enjoying the beautiful crisp winter day. A few swans flew over, serenading us with their mournful whoo-whoo calls. I ran into several folks I know (I guess I am partly responsible for all these refuge visitors) and then headed out to the front fields, hoping for a show of several thousand Snow Geese. I stopped at the observation platform and did not see the birds out on the lake, so we rushed to the front fields where we found several hundred geese mixed in with feeding swans in the field. Where were the others?

Snow Geese swarming over the fields after a pair of Bald Eagles made the scene

We had not been there very long when I saw waves of birds flying in from the north. They had either been off refuge or around the bend in the lake, invisible from the platform. This was a huge flock of several thousand, flying in with their noisy nasal calls, swirling around the field with the late day sun reflecting on their bodies in a soft rainbow of colors. We were on the west side of the fields this time (I had been on the east side the night before) so the light was very different. The flock was landing about midway in the field, but when they would swirl around, hundreds of birds flew near us, squawking as they tried to settle down to feed. A couple of Bald Eagles flew across, chasing one another, and the geese exploded into the air (the swans stay put when eagles appear).

The magic of Pungo…

I believe there were more cars that night than I have seen at the sunset show (at least twenty scattered on both sides of the field), but, quite frankly, I’m amazed there aren’t a hundred cars every night. But, the birds are not always predictable and the weather can greatly affect their behavior. When conditions are right, like this past week, there is nothing like this anywhere else in North Carolina. Thank you, public lands managers.

6 thoughts on “Refuge Ramble – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet

  1. How I love Pungo and Mattamuskeet! You don’t understand the magic until you see it in person. Thanks for sharing, Mike. Nice spot with the rail!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s