The Birds Are Back

Many people think of winter as bereft of birds after autumn migrations, but in fact this can be a bountiful season for bird-watchers.

~Val Cunningham

It is the time of year when I yearn to be with the birds of Pungo. There is something magical about their abundance, their flight, and their sounds. And the cast of characters that accompany them is pretty great too. So, this past week, I headed east early one morning to eventually meet up with some friends of a friend to show them some of the wonders of our coastal refuges in winter.

I arrived early on Monday and spotted some activity on the far side of the crop fields at the entrance to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Snow Geese! I drove over and pulled in slowly so as to not spook the feeding flock. To my delight, I was the only human present (a true rarity these days).

I stayed in my vehicle (most wildlife seem to prefer that behavior from us humans, but few of us abide their wishes). The sounds of a feeding flock of Snow Geese are raucous and somewhat mechanical, like a feathered combine moving through a field. The flock jumped up a time or two as they always seem to do (I am amazed at how they manage their energy budget with all this jumping up, flying in circles, landing, repeat).

— Snow Geese circle a field at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR

A wall of wings as part of the flock circles the field (click photos to enlarge)

I sat alone with the birds for a good 15 minutes before another vehicle pulled up. The driver got out and set up his tripod and camera and the birds started moving away.

A diminutive Ross’ Goose at the edge of the flock

Suddenly, a large portion of the flock blasted off, filling the sky with wing beats and a “chorus” of their nasal honks, one of the loudest sounds you encounter in winter bird watching. The flock headed back to the safety of the lake, and just like that, the scene was quiet, with only a handful of American Robins flitting across the field.

This happens often it seems, I arrive before friends, and Pungo puts on a show, and I have to say, you should’ve been here… For the next two hours, I drove the refuge roads, shared by only two other cars. Perhaps because of that, I managed a couple of nice wildlife photography opportunities of often secretive birds – a Red-shouldered Hawk and the ever-elusive Belted Kingfisher.

An adult Red-shouldered Hawk perched along one the roadside canals, searching the edges for a meal

A female (note the rust-colored breast band, males lack this) Belted Kingfisher cooperated for several quick images before darting off and scolding me with her rattling call.

My crew arrived before lunch and we set off to see what we could see. Along the edge of D-canal was a lone Tundra Swan, sitting on the bank. It had not moved all morning so is undoubtedly injured or sick (it was in the same spot the next day as well). Its fate is most likely to serve as food for the likes of the two Bald Eagles I had seen nearby at first light.

A sick or injured Tundra Swan along a roadside canal

Driving toward Marsh A to view the swans, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye and backed up to see a huge ball of gray fur on a snag in the swamp. I was very light-colored and had its head and tail hidden, so I opened my car door and got out to get a better view. A very fat Raccoon raised its head, gave me that look, and disappeared into a hollow below its perch. I apologized for disturbing its sleep and we moved on.

A sleepy Raccoon awakes from its bed atop a tree snag and crawls into a hole on the side of the tree

The afternoon was spent on “Bear Road”. I was surprised to find only one car parked at the gate, an increasingly unusual occurrence these days.

Searching the fields for bears

Another beautiful sky at Pungo

We walked past two photographers standing near the corn, waiting for bears to come out. We moved down toward the “tree tunnel” and suddenly, out pops a bear. She came out of the woods, slowly walked across the grassy road and headed into the field, a ritual she has no doubt done countless times in her life. Seconds later, two cautious cubs followed. One had an unusual injury to its left flank, something I had seen posted earlier on social media. That one moved a bit awkwardly but managed to keep up with its bigger sibling. I hope the little guy recovers

A large sow bear comes out of the woods, crosses Bear Road, and heads into the adjacent corn field for dinner, giving our group a glance before disappearing into the cornstalks

Two cubs followed their mother into the corn field. The smaller one has an injured hind quarter.

It turned out to be a very beary afternoon and when it was over, we had counted 13 bears! On the way out, I saw the Snow Geese feeding in the same field as that morning, so we pulled over and watched and listened to them for a few minutes before they blasted off, circled, and flew off toward the lake for the evening.

After a great afternoon of wildlife watching, we headed to the nearby town of Belhaven for a wonderful dinner at Spoon River. Check it out if you are in the area. The next morning, we were back at Pungo for sunrise. The developing pink sky and the soft coos (plus a few loud calls) of a few thousand Tundra Swans is a great way to start your day.

— A peaceful sunrise at Pungo with swans calling

The Snow Geese flew off the lake about 7:30 a.m. so we headed out to the front fields in hopes of witnessing the show. But, they fooled me and apparently had flown elsewhere, off the refuge, for their morning meal.

Next stop was Mattamuskeet NWR, where we saw thousands of ducks (mainly Northern Pintails) in the impoundment. It was a duck hunt day on the refuge, so a portion of Wildlife Drive across the canal was closed until early afternoon, so we spent some time in the wonderful Visitor Center and drove the open portion of the road, searching for birds. A highlight was a pair of Anhinga resting on a fallen tree in the canal. It is becoming more commonplace to spot a few of these impressive birds on this refuge every winter. The Cornell website, All About Birds, shares that the name, Anhinga, comes from the Tupi Indians in Brazil, meaning “devil bird” or “evil spirit of the woods.” But, I find them to be elegant as opposed to devilish, and very adept at hunting fish with their dagger-like bills.

One of two Anhinga we spotted perched on a downed tree in a roadside canal at Mattamuskeet

Driving on Hwy 94 north of Mattamuskeet, we spotted two more bears, bringing our total for the trip to 15. Our last stop was going to be Pettigrew State Park. On the way we passed through the small town of Creswell, and, to my surprise, there was a new coffee shop in town, Big Blue 252. I made a quick stop and we went in for some delicious coffee and pastries. This will definitely change my itinerary on future trips as good coffee is important on long days in the field (and is hard to come by in these parts). I normally don’t promote businesses in my blog, but, this is an exciting find and the owner, Alfreda, is great. Check it out if you are in the area.

My new go-to place when in the vicinity of Pettigrew State Park

And I was so excited by this find, that I didn’t even see a new small restaurant that has opened up across the street until we pulled away. These new businesses will make my stays in bear and bird country all the more enjoyable.

All in all, a great couple of days in my favorite public lands in North Carolina. Great birds, lots of bears, and good friends (and coffee!!). Wishing you all a wonderful holiday and hoping you have a chance to get outside and enjoy the beauty of a winter day, wherever you may find yourself this week.

18 thoughts on “The Birds Are Back

  1. Sounds like you had a great time. Now my wife and I have a few new destinations. Your sighting of an Anhinga reminded me of two occasions when I saw them. One was at the Ding Darling sanctuary on Sanibel Island and the other on New York City’s Central Park Lake. They seem to get around.

  2. I can’t believe another year has gone by and it’s time once again for the arrival of the tundra swans and raucous snow geese. Your report was so interesting. The pintails must have been so pretty too. Do you mind sharing where you stay when you overnight in the area? Most of what I’ve seen are for hunters and not where I’d feel comfortable. You can email me rather than post publicly if you don’t mind sharing that information. Thank you Mike.

    • Thanks, Mary Kay. I have no problem sharing publicly as they have always been good to us – the Holiday Inn Express in Plymouth. It is about 30 minutes from the Pungo Unit and you can easily access Pettigrew State Park, Alligator River NWR and Mattamuskeet from this location. Have a great holiday!

  3. I really enjoy this blog. If I can’t be there myself, this is the next best thing. I love the bird photos, but I appreciate the attention to all kinds of wildlife.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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