Birds in the Garden

Poor indeed is the garden in which birds find no homes.

~ Abram L. Urban

This garden (NC Botanical Garden) is anything but poor if the birds are any indication. Bird activity seems to have increased dramatically the past few weeks. Many seem to be thinking of the coming nesting season…bluebirds singing from atop nest boxes, a house finch gathering nest materials, and a brown-headed nuthatch checking out a cavity in a snag. And bird activity in the feeding station near the bird blind has really picked up. We moved the feeders closer to the blind this week and I went down yesterday for about 15 minutes to see what was happening. The late afternoon light is not conducive to photography from the blind itself, so I was just standing out near the feeders with the light coming in over my shoulder. It didn’t take long for things to get busy, very busy. In 15 minute I saw 16 species, with some great views of most. I’m hoping to create some interpretive information so I grabbed a few photos while standing in the midst of the avian mess hall.

cardinal and bluebird

It’s not every day you see these two species at the same feeder (click photos to enlarge)

brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

Brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

white-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

northern cardinal

Northern cardinal female

downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

pine warbler and reflection

Pine warbler

Here is a list of species seen yesterday in the bird observation area (not bad for 15 minutes):

Eastern Bluebird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; White-breasted Nuthatch; Brown-headed Nuthatch; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Pine Warbler; Downy Woodpecker; Mourning Dove; Brown-headed Cowbird; Dark-eyed Junco; White-throated Sparrow; House Finch; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Carolina Wren

New Beginnings

Native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours.

~Lady Bird Johnson

You may have noticed a slight reduction in the number of posts the last few weeks. A major reason is that I have been busy with a new chapter in my life, a new adventure. It is a long story, but I am returning to full-time employment as an educator at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) in Chapel Hill. NCBG is part of the University of North Carolina, and is a 1,000+ acre assemblage of display gardens and natural areas. It is nationally known as a conservation garden with strong programs in research, education, native plant propagation, and habitat conservation.

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The entrance to the North Carolina Botanical Garden last year (click photos to enlarge)

I have had a long history with the Garden, having purchased thousands of native plants there that were propagated by their excellent horticulture staff. Those plants ended up in school grounds across North Carolina as butterfly gardens, bird observation areas, and water gardens, as part of the hundreds of workshops I did during my career at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. When I think of native plants in our state, I think of this place. So, it is a natural fit for me to be an educator here, a place I know, with many people that I know and admire, and a mission I can relate to –  to inspire understanding, appreciation, and conservation of plants and to advance a sustainable relationship between people and nature.

The first three weeks have been busy, with a lot of time spent inside working on the computer  (in the nicest office I have ever had it turns out – great view and a window that actually opens!). But, I have had a chance to see a few things in a more natural setting right outside my office door…

Red-shouldered hawk feathers

A feather mystery on my first day

One of the staff found me on my first day and relayed a feather mystery they had discovered while pulling ivy outside one the display gardens. It was a large pile of red-shouldered hawk feathers. We discussed the possibilities and figured the most likely scenario was that a great horned owl had taken a roosting hawk as prey during the night.

Prescribed burn in coastal plain habitat

Prescribed burns in the Coastal Plain Habitat Garden

The staff has been busy the past couple of weeks doing prescribed burns both here at the main garden site and at some of the other properties managed by NCBG. It was a flashback to my state park days when I helped with many burns at various parks in the east.

Spotted salamander egg mass - moved to nearby vernal pool to avo

Spotted salamander egg mass

After a heavy rain one night, I was anxious to check the pools in the habitat gardens, which usually produce good numbers of salamander egg masses. Sure enough, there were a lot of spermatophores covering the bottom of the pools. A couple of days later we went over and saw the first egg masses of the season, always a magical moment, and one that I reported on in a blog post a couple of years ago.

Gray fox at the garden

Gray fox greeting one morning

I suppose my favorite experience thus far happened last week as I was walking into the building from my car. A gray fox, nose to the ground, came out of nowhere and crossed in front of me. A quick glance my way was all the notice I received, then it was back to trotting and sniffing. The fox disappeared, but I could hear some other people across the grounds exclaiming they had just seen it. Suddenly, it crossed my path even closer as I approached the building, and once again vanished.

Gray fox in the Children's Wonder Garden

Gray fox

I went upstairs and grabbed my camera and came back down on the side deck, hoping to see it again. Just when I was about to go back inside, it suddenly appeared on the path in front of me, sniffing the ground as if intent on finding something. I later heard people saw at least two foxes out there, so maybe this one was looking for the other one. I think we re approaching their breeding season, so this may explain this intense searching behavior.

Not a bad way to start a day. If this is any indication of what’s to come, I look forward to being at this beautiful place, and learning and sharing about the natural world in a new setting. Stay tuned…

 

Joy in Parting

What Joy Can There Be In Parting?

~A poem by Melissa Dowland; images by Mike Dunn

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The bluebird perched on the branch
right in front of me.

I could see his sharp beak,
his rusty breast,
his snow-white belly.

Eastern Bluebird with Dogwood berry

Then he turned
And became a dazzle of blue
as he flew between the trees
and out of sight.

What joy there can be in parting.

Another Winter Season

We are not the only species who lives and dreams on our planet. There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Snow geese flying high

Snow geese flying high (click photos to enlarge)

I ended my winter tour season last weekend, a little earlier than usual, but it finished on a spectacular note. I had two groups of wonderful people; one all day Saturday, and one Sunday. It was beautiful weather, and both mornings started out cold, just the way it is supposed to feel in winter at Pungo and Mattamuskeet. There continued to be a couple of things this season that baffle me. I am still seeing the fewest number of bears of any winter since I started visiting this wildlife-rich region. And the snow geese are still acting strange, coming and going at a very high altitude, and I never saw them feeding in any of the refuge fields all winter. If the few remaining stands of corn are knocked down before they head back north, perhaps the snow geese will make a late appearance.

Black bear clawed pawpaw

A pawpaw tree that has been climbed and clawed by bears

We did finally see six bears on Sunday, five of them the first thing as we drove in past one of the few remaining fields with standing corn. The last was seen after sunset on another field along D-Canal Road at Pungo. Still, no bears the past few weeks along the one-time sure spot, North Lakeshore Drive, aka Bear Road. There is still plenty of sign in the woods, but some of it may be from a month or two ago, before the bear hunting season on adjacent private lands. Almost every pawpaw tree in the woods along that road has been climbed, clawed, or snapped in half by the bears. They must really like pawpaws, and, who knows, maybe there is something in the bark they like as well, because many of the mid-sized trees have had their bark pulled off in strips.

Great egret coming to roost

Great egret coming to roost in the trees near the lodge at Mattamuskeet NWR

On Saturday, we saw plenty of birds at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR, in spite of the closure of the entire road along the south shore of Pungo Lake. The past few weeks have had heavy rains and some vehicles apparently got stuck in the mud, causing the closure. My advice to visitors is, if the roads look too bad to go through in your minivan or sedan, then don’t attempt it (you may be right). The refuge tries to repair the really bad spots if and when they dry out enough to allow their heavy equipment to get in to do the work. Mid-day we ran over to Mattamuskeet NWR where we found high water again limiting the number of birds in the usual spots. But, there was a good diversity of ducks that cooperated with our efforts to view them through a scope, and we were rewarded late in the day with the first wave of great egrets coming to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. That is quite a sight to see them sailing in on cupped wings, squawking as they juggle for space in the soon-to-be-crowded branches.

Pied-biled grebe in brush

Pied-billed grebe peeking out from under some low branches along a canal

Both days were full of interesting sightings ranging from bald eagles near a swan carcass, to pied-billed grebes hiding in the brush along the canals. We had a nutria with 3 young in one canal, plus a very unusual blonde-colored nutria at sunset. Finally, back at Pungo late in the day, we witnessed an incredible sunset show of tundra swans flying in and out of the lake. The strange thing was that as we drove in about 4:30 p.m., there were thousands of swans leaving the lake, which seemed late for so many to be headed out. But, they all returned (plus thousands more it seems) as the sky turned orange-red at sunset…spectacular.

Swans before surise

Pungo Lake covered in birds in the pre-dawn light

Swans at sunrise

After the sun rose above the horizon, the lake looked like a sea of white

Amazing what a difference a day makes…Saturday morning was windy, causing the birds (numerous ducks, snow geese, and tundra swans) to seek shelter on the lee side of the west shore, which left the area in front of the observation platform a void, without any waterfowl readily visible. Sunday morning was calm, and our arrival at the platform before sunrise was greeted by thousands of birds just beyond the lake shore in front of us, seemingly filling almost every square foot of the lake’s surface. As the sun climbed higher, the dark shapes became a sea of brilliant white objects that filled the air with their sounds.

River otter with fish

River otter crunching a small fish

After the sunrise show at the platform, we headed over to “Bear Road” for a walk. Along the way, I spotted a pair of river otter in the roadside canal. They tend to raise up and snort a time or two when they first spot you, and then often disappear beneath the waters with a distinct kerplunk, only to reappear near or far, depending on how much they feel like tolerating your presence. These two were busy searching for fish in the thick mats of vegetation in the canals, and by the looks (and sounds) of things, they were quite successful. One guy caught several small fish while we watched, tossing his head back and crunching them in his jaws, the hapless fish seemingly gazing at us asking for help. But each fish disappeared rather quickly, with the otter then glancing our way before disappearing into the floating green mat.

River otter

One last glace at us before disappearing under the surface

After the otter, we walked down Bear Road, but didn’t see much other than lots of bear sign, and a couple of groups of red-winged blackbirds. Once back at the car, we were starting to grab a bite to eat when a car pulled up with folks I knew from Christmas Bird Counts at Goose Creek State Park years ago. They said they had just seen a wood stork feeding in a canal around the corner. I must admit, a thought raced through my mind…I responded, a wood stork?, as if questioning their ID of this somewhat unmistakable bird…but a bird I have never seen anywhere near this part of the state in over 30 years of birding.  Wait, I told myself, these are people that used to come to the Christmas Bird Count, and they should know a wood stork if they see one. Yes, they said, a wood stork, and they had stayed with it so long that they got tired of taking pictures. They drove off, and I interrupted our lunch break and said, Sorry, but we have to check this out.

wood stork profile

Juvenile wood stork, a first for me at Pungo

We quickly loaded up and drove around the corner and could see a car stopped down the road. As we approached, I saw it, and indeed, it was a wood stork! It was a juvenile, distinguished by its straw-colored beak (instead of black of an adult) and it fuzzy feathers on the head and upper neck. It totally ignored us as it went about its business of feeding along the canal edge.

wood stork bill close up

Tactile feeding strategy involved shuffling of feet near the open bill

I have watched storks feeding in a group in Florida and South Carolina, but this one was doing something I had not seen – slowly walking, shuffling one foot, then the other, beak agape. The strategy is to startle a prey item by kicking the substrate with your feet, and if a fish, crayfish, or whatever hits the beak, it snaps shut.

wood stork wing outstretched while feeding

The bird would occasionally spread one wing out, and then turn, bill still in the water

The really odd thing it did was once a minute or so, it would extend one wing (almost always the right wing) and pivot, without pulling its beak out of the water. Some waders will spread a wing to supposedly startle prey, so maybe that is what was happening, or maybe it was to help balance the bird as it did a tight spin.

Here is a quick video clip showing this behavior, although the extended wing here is not as prominent as in most of the spins we witnessed. And my friends were right, we stayed with this bird until we got tired of taking photos…what a treat.

Another trip over to Mattamuskeet with similar results to the day before, although there was one highlight that made me think this trip might go into the record books for unusual sightings. As we drove in the back entrance of the refuge, a mink ran across the road in front of us. Wow, a mink, one of the most elusive mammals in our state, out in the middle of the day.

We headed back to Pungo later than usual and, once again, thousands of swans were flying out of the lake around 5 p.m., much later than in past winters. But this time, some were landing in a cut-over corn field right next to the refuge road. We stopped, got out, and stood in awe of the sights and sounds.

This short video gives you some idea of the spectacle, but imagine this going on all around you, the sky full of birds. As it grew darker, thousands of ducks came out of the swamps and circled a field of standing corn next to the swan field in what one young guest the evening before had called a “ducknado”. Birds everywhere in the sky…amazing.

sunset

A spectacular sunset

To top it all off, the sunset was painting the sky with broad brush strokes of orange, gray, and pink, with long lines of the black silhouettes of wings, most still heading west, away from the lake.

sunset and tree silhouette

A beautiful end to another winter season

As the fire in the sky smoldered, preparing for darkness, we looked out on the horizon with our binoculars and could see the lines of swans returning. Who knows why they flew out so late, only to turn back a short while later, filling the sky with their wing beats and whoops. Whatever the reason, it made for an amazing finish to another winter season at my favorite place, and I was so glad to be able to share the experience with others. Until next year…

Here is a species list total for our weekend outings:

Birds (56 species):

Double-crested Cormorant, Canada Goose, Snow Goose, Tundra Swan, Mallard, Black Duck, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Wood Stork, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Merlin, Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, American Woodcock, Wilson’s Snipe, Wild Turkey, American Crow, Eastern Phoebe, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Wren, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Common Grackle, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-rumped Warbler

Mammals:

Black Bear, Gray Squirrel, White-tailed Deer, Nutria, Mink, River Otter, Gray Fox

Reptiles:

Yellow-bellied Slider

Being in the Moment

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

Sometimes you just need to spend time in a wild place, in your special place. This weekend was such a time. Luckily, I had a magical trip to two of my favorite public lands this weekend – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. My friend, Art, and several of his friends, were supposed to go with me the weekend of the snow/ice storm, but we had to reschedule because of road conditions. Once again, the weather did not look promising (rain this time), but we managed to dodge most of the storms, and enjoyed the subtle light and saturated colors of the overcast skies. Oddly, even though I had my gear with me, I only took about 20 images for the entire weekend, all with my phone. This weekend was for reflecting, for taking it in, for renewal. I wanted to experience the place, to feel land-rich.

duck feathers

Duck feathers along the bear trail (click photos to enlarge)

The swans are still putting on quite a show at Pungo and their sounds define this place. Gray skies and the occasional mist made the surroundings more intimate. The snow geese continue to be unpredictable and the low cloud ceiling made it even harder to see them. Several flocks went over us during our first day and we could hear them, but not see them, which I found both frustrating and somehow peaceful. We spent a lot of time with the swans, and all found a way to be in the moment as they returned to the lake by the thousands at sunset.

bear claw marks

Bear claw marks on a tree

A walk in the woods revealed plenty of bear sign, but no bears (we finally saw one moving into a corn field after sunset). I am concerned about the lack of bear sightings this winter, but hope they are just spooked from the hunting season and so many people on the refuge, and things will return to normal later this spring.

cattail marsh after snow/ice

Cattail marsh along the boardwalk at Mattamuskeet NWR

This was a very visual group of people, with eyes trained by careers in design and time spent surveying scenes of the world. I enjoy being with folks like that, it encourages a slow pace, the pace of discovery and wonder. Lichens on tree trunks, the disheveled appearance of a cattail marsh after ice and snow, and the track patterns of a deer highway through the woods are all cause for quiet celebration and contemplation.

rain drops and reflections

Rain drops on tree reflections along the boardwalk

Water levels are still quite high at Mattamuskeet, so bird numbers seem low, at least in the areas accessible to the public. The variety of ducks did provide some excellent views, along with  couple of sleeping raccoons in a small tree, and a few white-tailed deer in the marsh. A gentle rain started falling as we walked the boardwalk, adding another pattern to the already elegant design of tree trunk reflections in the dark waters.

tree silhouette north shore mattamuskeet

Reflections along the north shore

Gray skies and thick, low clouds helped us decide to bring our trip to a close. One last stop imprinted the message of the wildness in our minds – the stillness, the reflections, the stark beauty of the places we had witnessed. The abundance and proximity of life found here is to be cherished. I am thankful for these places and the opportunity to experience and share them. I have probably used this quote before, but it seems appropriate after a good weekend with good people in two of my favorite places…

Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.

~Stewart Udall

Red-belly

Red-belly

~A poem by Melissa Dowland, images by Mike Dunn

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Down in my woods grows a graceful old oak
With a stout trunk and a crown of branches,
Splitting like feathers, reaching for the sky.
It has stood, thus, for centuries.

maple snag

Nearby, a smaller maple.
Its crown lost in an ice storm,
A few broken branches strain upward
with peeling bark remaining, like something partially remembered.

Red-bellied woodpecker male on branch

Guess—
              Which tree does the red-belly love?
              Which tree do I?

Merlin Magic

…we will not care about what we do not recognize.

~Tim Beatley

I have spent a lifetime trying to learn about the world around me. Not about the financial sector, or cars, or electricity (all of these, I now realize, might actually have come in handy), but about the natural world, the plants and animals that live around me. It is just who I am, what interests me. In his essay on the importance of fostering a connection to the natural world, Tim Beatley starts by saying – What we choose to name and the names we choose to remember, for the places, people and things around us, says a great deal about what is important to us. I have spent a lot of years trying to help people learn the names of things in nature and have come to realize that it takes time. On many of my field trips, I remember being frustrated when people could not remember the name of some interesting creature we had just observed. I finally realized that it often requires that the person is prepared to receive that information and that they want to learn it. In his 2013 article, Dr. Beatley offers numerous suggestions on how we can help foster a connection to nature through helping people become better acquainted with their natural surroundings. He also recognizes that new technologies and applications may of course help us here as well. I-birds and I-trees that make it easier and quicker to identify birds and trees. Well, it is happening…

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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology launched its popular Merlin App in 2014. It is billed as an online field guide assistant for beginning and intermediate birders. The app asks you a series of questions about the bird you just saw (such as the color, size, and behavior), much like an experienced birder would if they were trying to help you identify it. To be honest, I never downloaded that app, figuring I had enough experience to use field guides and figure most birds out on my own. But, late last year, a new feature was added – the Photo ID portion of the app. I heard about it from a couple of people I know, saw a review online by a fantastic wildlife photographer I follow, and then had a friend post about it on her blog. I decided to check it out and downloaded the free app to my iPhone (also available for Android devices; being developed for laptops and other non-mobile devices)..

Details on how it has been developed are mentioned in a press release about the launch of the Photo ID portion of the app last month. The app claims to have about a 90% accuracy rate in identifying over 600 species of North American birds. I decided to give it a test drive and see for myself.

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The app has a simple and elegant design. You simply click the Photo ID tab and either take a photo or choose a photo from your files.

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I used an image of a sharp-shinned hawk I had taken a couple of years ago at Roads End. Even good birders struggle with identifying this species from its larger cousin, the Cooper’s hawk. You zoom the image in until it roughly fills the box…

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The app pulls information off your photo as to date and location. I had to fill in the location information since this was a photo I uploaded from a file on my computer, not one directly from my camera. Once I had added Pittsboro as the location, the app can compare my image to its database of images (I think it has at least 1000 images of each species covered) and then gives you an identification.

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Boom! It got it right. It even gives alternative possibilities if you scroll down in the app. This can be very important for some species where confusion is likely (like this one), or if the photo you use is not that great.

I soon realized I didn’t need to transfer images from my laptop to my phone for identification, I could simply click the Take Photo tab and take a picture of my laptop screen with my phone and use that image. So, here is another. For these next few images, try to identify the species before you see the Merlin App identification. As this progresses, I intentionally use pictures of lesser quality, those that I normally would delete from my files, to see how the app performs.

This first one is a photo of a pretty nondescript species (taken with my phone of a fairly good shot on file on my laptop, note some of the squiggly computer screen lines in the photo).

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And here is what the app said it was…

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Indeed, it is a female of a warbler, the common yellowthroat. The app gives you multiple images of each species so I swiped through and found an image of a female (turns out my image is better than the one they have on file). In all fairness, I knew what that bird was. If I hadn’t, it might have been tough for me to figure out based on the images the app provided. But, the beauty of this is it gives you a place to start in terms of looking up your bird in a field guide (book or online).

Here’s another, a bird I photographed with my iPhone as it was getting dark in the Boundary Waters last October. This bird landed next to us on a boulder and walked around, allowing me to get a good look, and this crummy photo. I did not know what species this was, as I had never seen this one before. Once we got back home, I identified it using my field guides, but the app got it on the first try.

BWCA shorebird

Grainy iPhone photo of an unknown shorebird in Minnesota in October

An American golden plover, a new species for me. Once again, I had to swipe through the images to find the shot of the bird I saw in its non-breeding plumage.

Here are three more just for fun…

raven

Black bird in NC mountains

Merlin gave me the wrong answer the first time, calling this a fish crow. I zoomed in even more, tight on the bill, which is diagnostic of this species, and it got it right (did you?).

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Notice that fish crow is the second option this time (other options are listed below the primary choice in the app). I found that zooming in and out did make a difference on some species. The first time I tried the next photo, I was in very tight on the whole bird and it gave me red-headed woodpecker as the answer.

black throated blue

Mystery bird in NC mountains in May

Zoom in on the photo and see if you can identify it. I edited my photo on my next try by backing off a little and, this time, Merlin was right.

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It is a male black-throated blue throwing its head back in song.

I tried a range of images of a variety of species differing in photo quality. They were all images where I knew the identification of the bird from other, better images, taken at that same time. Merlin did not get a black-capped petrel or the glaucous gull from the pelagic birding trip I took last winter. Turns out that species of petrel is not one in the database as yet, and the gull was misidentified as an Iceland gull. And, it surprisingly gave me a related species (correct species as second choice) on the following really terrible image I used from the Christmas bird count this year.

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Mystery bird from Christmas bird count at Pungo

Guesses?

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Yes, a blue-gray gnatcatcher, a species not often seen in winter in these parts (but also not an extreme rarity). Interesting that it gave me a species from the southwestern United States even though I put in the location information for our count. But, to get any gnatcatcher from that photo is pretty impressive if you ask me. The photo does not show the flitting behavior, nor the relatively small size I witnessed while watching the bird in person.

Overall, I think this app is a great tool for anyone that wants to identify the birds they photograph. I get asked a lot of questions about bird identification (which I enjoy tying to answer, by the way), but I will also be recommending this app for all those folks from now on. Give it a try, download Merlin and have some fun. While you are at it, I recommend making a donation to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to help them continue to produce valuable information for all us folks trying to learn about, and conserve, the birds around us ( I just did).

Memories Of The Snow that Wasn’t, But Still Is

Snow has made everything earthly clear and quiet.
My mind is simple and patient.

– Tuomas Anhava, Finnish writer

The predicted big storm fizzled once again. We certainly live in a region in which weather forecasters are challenged to get it right when it comes to predicting snowfall. Of the predicted 5 to 6 inches, with some maximum predictions calling for up to a foot of snow, we actually had about 2 inches of white stuff fall here in the woods – about 1 inch of sleet, and 1 inch of snow.

snow scene

Snow scene in the woods on the far side of the property (click photos to enlarge)

But, no matter how much or how little, snow is always magical (and sometimes maddening). This storm combined with some very cold temperatures (it got down to 7 degrees here one night) so things have not melted at all until yesterday’s high of 38. The biggest problem we have here are the hilly roads that invariably turn to ice-covered ski slopes (great for sledding, not so much for trying to go anywhere in a car).

busy squirrel intersection

Busy intersection on the squirrel highway

For us, it is always fun to see what is out and about, moving in our woods that we might miss were it not for the repository of tracks left behind. It was shocking to see how many gray squirrels inhabit these woods based on all the tracks…more work for the resident red-tailed hawks for sure.

deer tracks

Deer tracks

The wanderings of the local deer herd are along their usual well-worn trails, especially just outside our deer fence, down in the ravine, and up on the south-facing slope.

deer digging for acorms

Deer have been digging for acorns

This being a good mast year, they have made the rounds and dug beneath some of the large white oaks throughout the property, with most of it happening on the south-facing slope on the far hill, where the ice accumulation may be less.

Rabbit tracks 1

Rabbit tracks

Our yard bunny is still around, though I haven’t seen it in quite some time. Hoping it will be selective once the spring wildflowers start to emerge, but that seems a far off possibility right now.

raccoon tracks

Raccoon tracks

A lone raccoon has been at the huge hollow tulip poplar near the house, and it, or perhaps another, crossed the hillside over to a neighbors woods. I am surprised we have not seen it beneath the bird feeders, looking through the discarded seeds for a snack.

fox tracks

The typical pattern of fox tracks

We found a set of canid tracks inside the fence (they had crawled under the low bar of the side yard gate). Once inside, there were places where the pattern in the snow resembled that made by a cat, but these tracks had claw marks. Not sure whether it is a red or gray fox (both live in these woods), but I am betting red, since their numbers seem to be increasing.

gnarled foot crow track

Unusual bird track

Among the many bird tracks, there was one set that stands out. It has a normal three toes forward, one toe back print, and then one with just a depression with one toe back.

club-foot crow

Crow with deformed right foot, with the front toes curling backward

We recognized it as the track trail of an American crow with a disabled right foot that we have seen the past two years. It is generally with another crow (presumably its mate), and seems to manage just fine.

pine warbler

Pine warbler

The activity at the feeders has been frenetic, with American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos, purple finches, and pine warblers mobbing the seed and suet, along with the usual appearances by downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and a ruby-crowned kinglet.

fox sparrow

Fox sparrow doing what they do in thick cover

The hermit thrush has stopped by to grab some suet, and we had a rare visit by a fox sparrow, though it was reluctant to get out in full view, preferring to scratch through the snow and ice in the thicket of wildflower beds out front.

Christmas fern frond

Christmas ferns

Walking in the winter woods is such a treat – the serenity and quiet, the small details of texture frozen in time, and the signs of life unseen.

ice in creek

Ice patterns in the creek

The intermittent stream below the house seems more intermittent than ever, but an ice artist left some unfinished work in one of the few shallow pools.

ice face

Ice art

The woods may be quiet after a snow event, but they are watching, and waiting for the sun to finish its work, until the next time. For us, we anxiously await both the ability to be able to get out of the neighborhood, and the next chance to experience this…

Refuge Renewal

In such surroundings – occasional as our visits may be – we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.

~Laurence Rockefeller

It is the season of renewal for me, the season of experiencing some of the wild spectacles of this place I call home. I had a trip this past week to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges and, though we ended up leaving a bit early due to the predicted winter storm, it was still a refreshing reminder of why these places are so important – important to the amazing wildlife that can be found there, and important to those of us lucky enough to spend time in them.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron walking in shallows along causeway (click photos to enlarge)

I stopped by the Pungo Unit on my way down Wednesday. Very quiet and the roads were pretty muddy. We started our tour at sunrise the next morning at Lake Mattamuskeet. There are relatively few birds out along the causeway this year, due to the wet year and resulting high lake levels, and the decline in the submerged aquatic vegetation (see recent Wildlife in North Carolina magazine article). You can still usually find a couple of birds near the south end of the causeway, especially some waders like the great blue heron above. I love the textures of their feathers, which seem even more prominent in cold weather.

black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron adult

I always look for a heron or black-crowned night heron on the pilings in the marsh pool just inside the gate to the refuge, but they were empty. But, at the next pool, an adult night heron was out in plain view, and was hunting. I have never seen a night heron at this particular pool in all the years I have been going to the refuge (and haven’t seen much else here the past couple of years since the Phragmites grass has taken over the edge of the pool).

black-crowned night heron strikig at prey

Night heron strikes and catches a small fish (note nictitating membrane to protect eye)

black-crowned night heron scratching

Nothing like a good scratch after a meal

black-crowned night heron close up

The red eye of an adult black-crowned night heron is spectacular

Their red eye is stunning in sunlight. Young black-crowned night herons have yellow eyes, that gradually change to orange, and then red as they mature. Though many species of birds show a change in eye color from young to adult, no one seems sure what the evolutionary significance of this may be.

Bald eagle immature

Immature bald eagle

Among the many birds we saw, there were the usual bald eagles perched along the edges of the lake and marshes scanning the areas for weakened waterfowl that make an easy meal. At one point, we had two immature eagles and a red-tailed hawk all soar out over us.

eagles tangling in mid-air

The eagles engaged in aerial combat

eagles tangling in mid-air 1

One eagle rolled over, extending its talons

Suddenly, the two eagles started to chase one another and were soon performing some serious acrobatics. This may be a territorial battle, or simply their form of play, I’m not sure. Almost as quickly as it had started, it was over. We saw some more of this over at Pungo the next day involving three eagles, two adults chasing one juvenile through the woods.

Anhinga sunning

An anhinga sunning itself

I had seen an anhinga in the Mattamuskeet canals on a visit in December, so I was looking for it again. We found it sunning itself in a tree across the canal from the lodge. Interestingly, this spot used to be the best place on the refuge to see black-crowned night herons (especially juveniles), but the past two winters they have been scarce.

Anhinga swimming

Anhinga, often called the snakebird, for its swimming style

As we admired the anhinga through my scope, another one came swimming down the canal. I think this is the first time I have ever seen two at once on the refuge.

white ibis

White ibis landing in marsh

We continued looking for wildlife throughout much of the day, with many of the usual suspects being observed. We found almost 100 white ibis feeding in a field at Lake Landing, and felt lucky to see a group of American white pelicans soaring over us. We also had a couple of good warbler sightings – a cooperative common yellowthroat male and an orange-crowned warbler. Overall waterfowl numbers seemed low, but there is still enough diversity to get some good looks and decent photos.

Photo blind

New photo blind at Mattamuskeet

It wasn’t until late in the day we discovered the new photo blind on the refuge. It is located along Hwy 94, between the entrance and exit points of Wildlife Drive. Kudos to those responsible – it is a great design with good viewing ports covered by camouflage netting. When we drove up, there were several species of waterfowl just off the front of the blind. They swam off as we walked in, but I think if you spend some time in this spot, you could get some good results once the birds return (you can’t really sneak in without nearby birds seeing you; bring a seat or bucket if you plan to spend time in it). I look forward to returning on a future trip. I hope other public land managers will consider putting up similar structures. This one was funded, at least in part, by a grant from the North American Nature Photography Association.

Swan taking off in Marsh A

Tundra swan taking off

That afternoon, we headed over to the Pungo Unit to hopefully enjoy the evening show of swans and snow geese returning to Pungo Lake. As I mentioned in my last post, the swans have been amazing this winter, and they did not disappoint.

Snow geese overhead

Snow geese flying high overhead

In our almost two days on the Pungo Unit, we did see the elusive snow geese flying far off the refuge to feed, returning a relatively short time later. A few thousand (of the estimated 15-20,000 birds) flew over us as walked down North lake Drive on our second day out, coming in at a very high altitude as they approached the lake. They continue to be unpredictable in their movements, although I think they will be closer to the refuge roads once some of remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down (I expect that to happen very soon).

bear jumping ditch

A young bear jumps over a drainage ditch

This has been a strange winter for the black bears at Pungo. We saw what seemed the usual number on our trip in mid-December (8, as I recall). But since then, sightings have been few and far between, including being skunked in bear sightings on our Christmas Bird Count the last week of December (maybe the only time that has happened in over 30 years of doing that count). On this trip, I saw three (a sow and two yearlings) my first afternoon, and then we saw only three others in two days – one in the front fields coming out of the corn at sunrise, one feeding in corn and one cruising across the corn fields along North Lake Road.

bear play area

What looks like a bear play area in the woods

Pawpaw with stripped bark

Bark stripped from a pawpaw tree by a bear

There seems to be plenty of fresh bear sign in the woods and along the edges of the fields (although not as much scat in the roads as usual), so I am not quite sure what is going on. I think there may be increased hunting pressure on local bears at the edge of the refuge and this may be altering their behavior and making them more secretive, as well as reducing their numbers with greater numbers of bears that venture off the refuge being taken.

sunset and swans

Sunset with swans returning to the refuge

It is still a magical place, especially at sunrise and sunset. The swans fill the evening sky with magical sounds and the graceful lines of returning birds. I’ll leave you with a video clip from our sunrise at Pungo and the swans that make this refuge such a place of renewal for myself and so many others that spend any time in it.

Standing with Swans

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.

~John Muir

Swans on Marsh A

Tundra swans at sunset on Marsh A on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

I’ll just say it…I love being around the swans at Pungo. There is something magical about these birds and every winter I find myself drawn to them and wanting to spend time in their elegant presence. While the snow geese tend to provide more of a spectacle with their huge noisy flocks swirling overhead, the swans of Pungo are a constant in winter, providing the musical score for a play I have seen hundreds of times and yet continue to find fascinating.

Swans at sunset 1

A flock of swans returning to Pungo Lake at sunset

There are an estimated 100,000 tundra swans in the Eastern population. Most breed in northern Alaska and then migrate 3000 or so miles to spend the winter along the East Coast, with about 70% spending much of their time in North Carolina. And one of the best places to observe them is the area around the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Swan landing at sunset

A swan with landing gear down

The birds start arriving in November and will stay through much of February, roosting at night on large bodies of water like Pungo Lake and Lake Phelps, and flying out to surrounding agricultural fields during the day to feed on waste corn and winter wheat. Adult swans weigh 15-20 lbs and have a wingspan of over 5 ft, so they are easy to spot as they go about their daily routine. For the past several years they have found the managed impoundment along West Lake Road at the Pungo Unit to be to their liking and it has provided a great spot for swan watching. So that is how I spent almost a full day last week, standing next to a dead snag  and observing swans (it helps to try to blend in with your vehicle or something like a tree to reduce your human form and put the birds a bit more at ease – they tend to swim away or take flight if you are out of your car walking around near them). Below are just a few of the hundreds of photos I took of a day in the life of these majestic waterfowl.

Juvenile swans

Juvenile swans have gray heads and necks and varying amounts of pink on their bills

It looks like it was a good year on the breeding grounds as there seem to be more juvenile swans this year. Juveniles follow their parents to the wintering grounds and can be distinguished from the adults by the gray plumage on their head and neck, and patches of pink on their bills.

Immature swan feeding

Immature swan feeding on aquatic vegetation

Juvenile swans tend to stick pretty close to their parents on the wintering grounds, but you occasionally see one off by itself, like this one that was picking at some aquatic vegetation. There is so much commotion on the water that I wonder how they all manage to find and stay with each other.

Swans trumpeting

Swans calling

While the swans give the initial impression of being regal and serene compared to the huge flocks of boisterous snow geese, at times they can actually be quite aggressive towards one another. These agnostic interactions often start with adult swans giving a distinctive trumpeting three-syllable call – oo-ou-oo.  This is usually accompanied by a forward-leaning outstretched neck.

Swans trumpeting 1

A pair moving in to challenge another pair of swans

It can then escalate to a wing-quivering display.

Swan trumpeting 2

A classic wing-quiver display

These threatening displays probably help avoid actual physical interactions that could lead to injuries. It seems more often than not, that one of the interacting groups often backs down in the face of these threats.

Swans fighting

Fights and bites do occur

But fights do occur…and when they do, it can be quite impressive as the huge birds flail with their wings and bite each other until one group has been vanquished.

Swans fighting 4

Swans fighting

Swans fighting 3

Fights involve a lot of wing beating and splashing

Swans fighting 6

Combatants can even become airborne

Swans biting

Sometimes all it takes is a quick bite to defeat an opponent

Most fights are over quickly with no apparent harm done. It’s hard to tell what all the fuss is about…most likely territory or personal space. I often saw a preening swan get chased off of a small clump of underwater vegetation that seemed to provide a platform on which to stand. I guess a place to stand in water world is something of a premium. Studies have shown what you might expect from these aggressive encounters – larger groups tend to dominate in fights; larger swans (most often males) tend to dominate smaller ones; and juveniles almost never win (I rarely saw them even get involved in fights except some nips with other juveniles).

Swans flapping in unison

A wing flap often follows an aggressive encounter

Following an aggressive encounter, group members often engage in another bout of wing-quivering and calling, which is sometimes called the triumph ceremony. This is similar to the display given when family members reunite. After a successful bout, there is often a wing flap by one or more of the group members (usually the victors, but occasionally even by the defeated swans). The wing flap is certainly one of the more striking behaviors these magnificent birds can perform, as they tend to rise up and flap 3 or 4 times, exposing amazing “sculptural details” in their wings.

Swan bathing

Swans bathe by dunking their head and body under the surface

Swan bathing 1

They often preen and do a wing flap after bathing

Swans often also do a wing flap after a nice long bout of preening and bathing.

Swan readying a wing flap 1

The start of a wing flap

It begins with a slight raising of their breast, and then a full extension of the body and neck.

Swan readying a wing flap 1 continued

The wing extension is dramatic

Swan readying a wing flap 1 continued 1

Every feather on the wings looks extended during a wing flap

Swan wing flap

I like to capture the shadow of the wings on the swan’s body

Swan wing flap 1

My favorite photo is one where the swan is facing the camera during a wing flap

Needless to say, I tend to snap way too many images of swans flapping their wings. Most of my pics have another swan partially obscuring the flapping bird, or the wing-flapper is facing the wrong way. But, I apparently can never get enough of these images as I keep trying every year to get that “perfect” wing flap.

Swan taking off 2

Swan running across the water to get airborne

Another swan sound I love hearing is the slap, slap, slap of their huge feet hitting the water surface as they run and flap to take off. It is tough to get a decent photo of one as they are invariably in a crowd of other birds, but they do usually give you a “heads-up” so you can prepare yourself for the shot. Swans typically will swim a short distance with the direction of the wind, and then turn into the wind before taking off (for greater lift). They also do a series of head-bobs (or quick head-pumps) that intensify and get more frequent right before they raise their wings and start running across the water. Many of the swans I was watching in Marsh A took off less than an hour before sunset, presumably to feed in the fields for a little while before returning to the safety of open water for the night.

Swans preening

Swans preening

Swans, like most birds, preen extensively to help keep their feathers in good shape. If they weren’t squabbling with their neighbors, they were preening or resting during much of the time I spent with the flock.

Swan preening

With so many feathers, it takes a lot of time to keep them looking good

It seems that tundra swans have a lot of feathers to keep up, more than most birds, in fact. The number I keep seeing in various sources is about 25,000 feathers on a swan, compared to 14,000 for a Northern pintail, 7,000 for a bald eagle, and around 3,000 for an American robin. No wonder that preening seems to be the primary thing the swans are doing during the middle of the day.

Swan preening curved neck

The elegance of a tundra swan

A swan’s long neck, white feathers, and jet black facial markings give it an air of elegance. To watch and listen to tundra swans for a day is a privilege and is a certain way to help you feel connected to the natural world, and realize that there are things in this world more beautiful, wonderful, and important than anything you see on a screen or read in the news. I am always thankful for the opportunity to renew my optimism and recharge my batteries by spending time with these majestic creatures.

swan closeup

Keeping an eye on me