Finally

We usually get what we anticipate.

~Claude M. Bristol

It has been a great year for those birds from up north (a so-called bird irruption). This occurs periodically when cone crops fail across vast stretches of Canadian boreal forests. Other factors can contribute, and different species may react differently, but those that migrate far from their normal range are usually just looking for food resources. It looked like it could be a good irruption year when we saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch early last fall. Then Pine Siskins started arriving along with Purple Finches (both of the latter species were absent here in our woods last year). And then I started hearing reports of Pine Grosbeaks in New Jersey and Evening Grosbeaks moving south. Evening Grosbeaks are sort of the holy grail of irruptive species (well, the Snowy Owl seen this winter on the OBX is probably a bigger thrill, but I have not seen Evening Grosbeaks in the Piedmont since 1998!).

To stoke the anticipation, friends in northeastern NC reported Evening Grosbeaks at their feeder back in November and I saw reports in Chapel Hill and other nearby locations in December. Why aren’t they here? I whined. Then a couple of weeks ago, a friend texted me he was just down the road watching them at a neighbor’s feeders and asked if I had seen them (NO!!!). After a couple of days they were seen at a closer neighbor’s house. I waited…

Then, this weekend, Melissa saw one at the feeder out back, but it spooked before I got there (but that counts, right?). Finally, on Monday, I saw them (and the wait was, indeed, worth it).

Five males and one female Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) on our platform feeder (click photos to enlarge)

These grosbeaks are hard to miss when they finally make an appearance. First, they are rather chunky, boldly patterned birds.

Female Evening Grosbeak

Females (and immature males) are mostly gray with bold black and white wings and a wash of yellow on their necks.

Male Evening Grosbeak

Males are even harder to miss – black and yellow with a very bold white wing patch and a bright yellow forehead and eye stripe.

And that bill…

Grosbeak beak

A reminder that the name “grosbeak” comes from the French “gros bec”, which means large beak. That huge, conical beak is useful for crushing seeds (and no doubt inflicting a painful bite on bird banders). It turns out that the several types of grosbeak found in the U.S., though similar in their beak adornments, are not all related. Pine and Evening Grosbeaks are members of the finch family, Fringillidae, which also includes Pine Siskins, crossbills, and goldfinches. Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks belong to the family Cardinalidae that includes Northern Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, and tanagers.

But, as I said earlier, of all the NC grosbeaks, the Evening Grosbeak is the toughest to regularly find in our state. Historically, Evening Grosbeaks were birds of the north and west, hardly ever seen in the eastern half of the U.S. much before the late 1800’s. Then, for reasons not totally understood (but probably related to Spruce Budworm outbreaks in eastern Canada and increased planting of Boxelder, another valuable food source), the breeding range expanded eastward. The number of wintering birds in the northeast peaked between 1940s and mid-1980s but has declined dramatically since then. And in NC, the Birds of North Carolina, Their Distribution and Abundance web site states that their status in the Piedmont is “erratic winter visitor; strongly declining.”

But this year, they are back, and in good numbers. I counted a maximum of 25 between our two feeding stations yesterday (and I am guessing I missed several as they are so active). They have been coming mainly in the morning, an ironic schedule given their name. In fact, In his Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Arthur C. Bent made this observation – Ordinarily the species is not crepuscular, and in fact it might better be called “morning grosbeak,” for it is most active early in the day.

A male waits is turn for a spot at the feeder

Each morning this week, they are going through a lot of sunflower seed and making it tougher for the usual group of Purple Finches to crowd in on the platform feeders. Most of the other bird species are either hitting the tube feeders or the suet when the black and yellow throng arrives, as the grosbeaks tend to be somewhat pugnacious at feeding time. Again, looking back to Bent’s Life Histories, he commented: Although evening grosbeaks are ordinarily gregarious and sociable, feeding harmoniously when scattered openly on the ground, their behavior is quite different when crowded on the feeding trays. There they are often selfish, hostile, and belligerent, pushing their way in, sparring with open beaks, and threatening to attack or drive out a new arrival. They are bosses of the tray and are intolerant of other species, driving away even the starlings; only the blue jay seems able to cope with them. Even the females of their own species are not immune to attack by the males. But, so eager are they for their food, that the tray remains crowded full of birds as long as there is standing room.

Well, I guess not all Canadians are kind…

Things can get pretty hectic when a flock of Evening Grosbeaks descends on your feeder

How Many Birds?

Now Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas side hunt, in the form of a Christmas bird-census. We hope that all our readers who have the opportunity will aid us in making it a success by spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds and sending a report of their ‘hunt’ to Bird-Lore before they retire that night.

~Frank Chapman, originator of the Christmas Bird Count, 1900

It was a tradition in the late 1800’s for men and boys to gather into teams during the holidays and go out into the woods and fields and shoot as many birds, mammals, and other critters as they could find. Whichever team killed the most wildlife was the winner. These so-called side hunts often took a huge toll on local wildlife including many species of songbirds. In the winter of 1900, out of concern for the wanton destruction of so many birds, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History, proposed an alternative – gather together and count birds instead of shooting them. He published the results of the first count in his magazine, Bird-Lore, which later became Audubon magazine. That first census had 27 volunteers in 25 locations in the U.S. and Canada, and tallied a total of about 90 species across all the counts. That tradition became what is now the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, with over 81,000 observers in 2646 count circles (participants divide up a set 15-mile diameter circle and estimate the total number of birds in that area) participating in the Americas in 2019. They tallied more than 42 million birds representing more than 2500 different species. This is the longest running citizen science wildlife census in the world and the collected data is used by scientists and conservation organizations for bird research and protection efforts.

So, as we have done for most of the past several years, this past week, we headed east the day before our count centered on Pettigrew State Park, and spent the night at the campground so we would be out early the next morning. Our portion of the count circle is the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, about a 40 minute drive from the campground, even though it is only about 8 miles as the soon-to-be-counted crow flies. The afternoon before the count was rewarding with lots of swans, Snow Geese, and more visitors than usual. We even ran into some friends that were watching five Sandhill Cranes feeding in a cornfield near the refuge entrance.

The sunset show the night before our Christmas Bird Count was spectacular with a cloud of Snow Geese swirling over the field (click photos to enlarge)

The next morning, we headed out before sunrise and arrived at Pungo as the birds were beginning to stir. We headed to a marsh impoundment to eat breakfast and search through the couple of thousand Tundra Swans for the Trumpeter Swan we had seen a few weeks before. Unfortunately, we neither saw nor heard this rare species, so it eluded us for our tally this year.

One of several raptors we observed on the count day, this Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was searching the nearby marsh for a potential meal

As visitors started arriving at the marsh, we decided to head over to the observation platform to estimate the swan numbers on the lake. We were in for a nice surprise in the canal next to the platform – an American Bittern! Somehow, we missed it as we drove in and parked, but Melissa spotted it alongside the canal when we climbed the platform.

Pungo Lake was dotted with Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) and a dense line of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) on the far side

I eased down to the truck and grabbed my camera, and for several minutes the bittern provided us with a close up view of its hunting style and funky, neck-weaving movements through the grasses. Its long toes help support it as it strides atop aquatic vegetation and the striped neck helps it blend in to the grasses it calls home. This is a species we see occasionally at this refuge but one that is particularly welcome on count day. We told a friend about it later that day, and when he went to see it, there were two bitterns!

When we climbed to the top of the observation platform, Melissa whispered, There’s a bittern right there
The bittern begins to assume the pose – Nothing but us marsh grasses here, move on…
I have told people when looking for bitterns, to look for a clump of grass that has eyes
The bittern ignored our nearby vehicle and strutted through the marsh grasses searching for prey
One of the things I find fascinating about bitterns is their neck wriggle, which is particularly noticeable when they slink through the grass

The day turned out much warmer than the previous one, and the good weather brought out all sorts of unusual wildlife (for December anyway). We saw a lot of spider silk floating through the air and a large adult orbweaver. And at one point, we were startled by a huge water snake along the edge of a canal. But, though we looked, “our” canebreak rattlesnake was not at its long-time hollow tree den site.

Can’t remember ever seeing a large Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscoma domiciliorum) on a Christmas Bird Count in the past
Walking in the woods on a very well used bear trail
Surprised to see a very large Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota) out and about (although it looks like it had just emerged from a muddy retreat and it was very sluggish)

We have a disadvantage in getting a true assessment of the number of birds in this location because so many areas are closed to access when the waterfowl are present. And on this count day, we had an even bigger problem – crowds (not something we want during this time of Covid). The weather, the holidays, and perhaps weariness of being trapped inside during the pandemic, brought out a lot of visitors. Unfortunately, many of them were not obeying the rules. We saw multiple groups of people walking into closed areas, resulting in some disturbance to the birds and actually reducing the numbers of birds we saw and counted (especially ducks). Several times during the day, we attempted some on-site education about refuge rules and Melissa finally texted the refuge law enforcement person to make them aware of the unusual number of violations. I understand the desire to get closer to the birds to see them, and I actually wish the refuge had more accessible observation areas around the lake (maybe some day), but rules is rules, and the number of people ignoring or missing the signage for closed areas was the most I have ever witnessed.

We still ended the day with a reasonable number of birds. Compared to previous years, there were fewer duck species and fewer swan numbers (one area that was packed with swans had all the birds flushed by people walking in on them as we were approaching). Obviously, when counting birds in such a large area that has so much inaccessible habitat (dense pocosin vegetation, closed areas to protect the waterfowl, and flooded forests), we are only getting a sampling of the total number and types of birds present. But, the value is in looking at these trends over time and seeing changes. One notable change has been the number of Bald Eagles observed since I started the count back in the mid-1980’s. Back then, seeing one eagle in the entire count circle was a big deal. We had 3 just in our portion this day. Our complete list for our portion of the count circle is at the end of this post. Overall, the Pettigrew Count did pretty well, with some unusual species recorded in other sections (including Short-eared Owls, a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and some Evening Grosbeaks).

We camped that night back at the park and decided to run by the Pungo Unit the next morning before heading home. The Snow Geese were right on schedule, flying out from the lake about 8 a.m. to feed in the fields, and we were one of only two cars to witness it (what a difference a day makes).

Snow Geese setting their wings for a landing
The morning after the count, the Snow Geese gave us a great show, coming and going to the fields for corn. A Bald Eagle flew over part of the field, resulting in this classic blast off (sound on)

We went back to the platform, hoping to see the bittern(s) again, but no luck. However, we did have a nice encounter with a Beaver swimming in one of the canals. It didn’t seem to mind us slowly following along in our truck, but then it suddenly went under and disappeared when four River Otters showed up. Not a bad way to end a trip to our favorite wildlife watching destination.

Checklist of species for our portion of the Pettigrew Christmas Bird Count:

Snow Goose – 20,000; Ross’ Goose – 2; Canada Goose – 45; Tundra Swan – 10,000; Wood Duck – 3; Northern Shoveler – 40; Gadwall – 2; American Black Duck – 35; Green-winged Teal – 124; Ring-necked Duck – 6; Bufflehead – 6; Ruddy Duck – 13; Great Blue Heron – 6; Sandhill Crane – 4 (not sure where the fifth guy from the day before and after was); American Bittern – 2; Pied-billed Grebe – 1: American Coot – 6: Northern Bobwhite – 4; Wild Turkey – 8; Killdeer – 52; Ring-billed Gull – 3; Mourning Dove – 70; Turkey Vulture – 21; Northern Harrier – 4; Cooper’s Hawk – 1; Bald Eagle – 3; Red-shouldered Hawk – 2; Red-tailed Hawk – 1; American Kestrel – 1; Belted Kingfisher – 1; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker – 11; Downy Woodpecker – 4; Hairy Woodpecker – 3; Pileated Woodpecker – 3; Northern Flicker – 7; Eastern Phoebe – 12; Blue-headed Vireo – 3; Blue Jay – 1; American Crow – 24; Carolina Chickadee – 18; Tufted Titmouse – 5; Tree Swallow – 15; Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 4; Red-breasted Nuthatch – 1; Brown-headed Nuthatch – 3; House Wren – 1; Carolina Wren – 10; Gray Catbird – 8; Northern Mockingbird – 9; Brown Thrasher – 1; Eastern Bluebird – 6; American Robin – 48; Purple Finch – 5; American Goldfinch – 13; Song Sparrow – 39; White-throated Sparrow – 86; Savannah Sparrow – 87; Field Sparrow – 1; Swamp Sparrow – 8; Eastern Towhee – 1; Eastern Meadowlark – 10; Red-winged Blackbird – 1000; Rusty Blackbird – 8; Common Grackle – 10; Palm Warbler – 4; Yellow-rumped Warbler – 67; Pine Warbler – 2; Northern Cardinal – 20

Otterly Fantastic (and more)

The heron and the otter are my friends

And we are all connected to each other

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends!

~Carl Binder

A few days after our virtual program outing, I decided to make a day trip to the refuges for some quiet time watching wildlife. I headed out last Friday about 6 a.m. and pulled into the Pungo Unit on what started as an overcast, drizzly morning. A refuge worker was just beginning to grade D-Canal road and there was a long row of debris in what would be the right lane of the dirt road. I veered over to the left, which turned out to be fortunate, as it gave me a better view down into the canal. As I passed what I call “New Bear Road”, I spotted movement in the canal. It was three River Otters, my second group of these amazing animals that week. They did their typical otter thing of undulating motions in the water while glancing up at me as I was trying to ease the truck into position for a photo. One otter suddenly emerged on the far bank with a decent-sized fish in its mouth. It moved quickly to subdue it while tossing its head back and forth and chomping down on the fish (it looked like a young Bowfin). The low light, their quick movements, and my excitement at seeing the otters, made for less than ideal images, so many of the shots are blurred. But, I enjoyed watching the one otter claim its catch and turn away when others came too close.

River Otter chowing down on a Bowfin caught in a canal on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Here’s a brief clip showing the otter enjoying its breakfast (and not wanting to share with another otter)…

The otters eventually swam to my side of the canal, making them difficult to see from he truck, so I slipped out to look where I last saw their ripples. They were gone! There is a large culvert under the road right there so I guessed they had swam under the road and disappeared into the much smaller canal leading away from the road. I looked, but didn’t see them…were they still under the road? I went back and forth a couple of times looking and finally saw them about a hundred feet away looking back at me. Nice move on their part!

I continued driving down towards “Bear Road”, but saw several cars already there, so I decided to forego scratching my bear itch for the time being. I headed over to spend some time with the swans at Marsh A and saw a car stopped in the middle of the road with a photographer out looking into the flooded swamp along the canal. I didn’t want to disturb whatever she was seeing, so I stopped and looked down the road with my binoculars. Otter again! And again, three of them. I seriously doubt it was the same three otter because I was now a couple of miles from where they were last seen. The photographer finally walked back to her car and I drove on, seeing the wake of the otters as they swam down the canal and in and out of the trees. They kept diving and swimming great distances, their pathway marked by a trail of air bubbles at the surface.

An otter cruising the canal

Then one would suddenly pop up, scan around, snort, and then take off underwater once again. I took a few photos and then drove on, leaving them to their otter doings

Two otters keeping a wary eye on me as they swim the forested edge of the canal

The gray skies and almost no wind made for some nice views of swans at Marsh A. I have found that if I park near the edges of the flock I have more time to view the swans by myself (most photographers go to where the flock is most dense), which causes them to relax more and just do what they do. I also stay in the vehicle, which causes less concern for any nearby birds. A group of three swans were close to the road and after I stopped, they settled back down and started napping again, with an occasional stretch for good measure.

Tundra Swan resting in soft light
Elegance
Not so elegant

As usual, I could have stayed all day with the swans, but the sun started to pop out making the light much less appealing for images, and I wanted to head to Mattamuskeet to see what I might find over there. I’m always amazed at how different the wildlife can be in a place at different times. At Mattamuskeet, the waterfowl were further out in the marsh now compared to our virtual program day, and things were much quieter – no eagles scaring up the ducks, no kingfisher in its usual spot, but there was a nice Great Blue Heron standing quietly on a log.

A Great Blue Heron looking serene at Mattamuskeet

A large flock of American Coot were crowded in the canal along Wildlife Drive, feeding on submerged aquatic vegetation. I sat with them a few minutes, listening and watching their antics. Here is a brief clip…

On my way back out, I spotted an Anhinga on a log in the canal. I drove by and parked, and, next thing I know, it comes swimming by me, with only half its neck and head above water. Snake bird is an apt moniker as that skinny neck bobs back and forth just above the water as they swim.

Anhinga swimming with just its neck above water. Like Pied-billed Grebes, Anhingas can submerge without diving, much like a submarine, by regulating their buoyancy. As I watched, the long neck and dagger-like bill seemed to just slide under the water as it swam.

After another trip around Wildlife Drive, I came back to that downed log, hoping for another chance at one of two Anhingas I had seen. I got lucky and had what I think was an adult female on the log along with a few Double-crested Cormorants. It was busy sunning as I pulled up. Like the cormorants, Anhingas frequently display this wing-spreading behavior. Cormorants have a dense insulating layer of waterproof feathers against their skin, so wing-spreading is believed to be primarily for drying out their wing feathers. Anhingas, on the other hand, lack that insulating layer and have a different micro-structure to their feathers which allows water to penetrate through and decrease their buoyancy. This allows them to swim and hunt with most of their body submerged. And, in Anhingas, the wing-spreading is believed to be more for thermoregulation.

Anhinga with wings spread and a Double-crested Cormorant in the background

The sunning log was partially hidden from view by some tall vegetation between the edge of the canal and where I was parked. By slowly opening the truck door and standing on the running board with the camera resting on top of the open door, I was able to get some nice shots of this beautifully patterned bird as it preened.

The large fan-shaped tail resembles that of a Wild Turkey, giving rise to another common name for this unusual bird – Water Turkey
Close up of Anhinga preening

As is common with me, I took way to many photos of the Anhinga, so the sun was starting its downward trajectory when I headed back to Pungo for the last couple of hours of my trip. Though I really wanted to see bears, there were once again just too many cars and people at Bear Road, so I opted for some more quality time with the swans. The lighting was very different in the afternoon but I always enjoy the sights and sounds of these wonderful waterfowl.

The elegant wing flap

The scene created some beautiful swan watching…

All of the corn in the fields near the refuge entrance had been knocked down for the birds since our trip earlier in the week, so I headed up there for sunset, hoping some Tundra Swans or Snow Geese would fly in for a late feeding (and hoping to see a bear). It wasn’t long until I heard them and then saw the sky filling with the silhouettes of a few thousand Snow Geese headed my way. As is common early in the season, they seemed very wary, and flew circles around the corn field a few times before starting to drop in to feed.

Snow Geese headed for the corn field for a late snack

After feeding for about 20 minutes, something startled them and they took to the sky, flying around a few times before heading back to the lake for the night. Here is a brief clip of one of the sights and sounds that make this place so special.

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

They’re Back and All is Right with the World

Birds have always had the ability to bring me out of a dark space and provide relief in bad times.

~Jason Ward

You may have noticed I have fallen way behind in my musings on the natural world this past month. I still haven’t even finished posting about our last road trip back in October! I guess there have been a lot of distractions lately (for all of us) – some good, some stressful. We are lucky to live in a place where we can connect on a daily basis with the beauty of nature so that has helped. But here lately, it has been too easy to get involved in some chore outdoors or a minor repair on the house, so it was good to have an excuse earlier this week to help travel back to my favorite wild place in North Carolina…Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Melissa needed to test the feasibility of doing a remote broadcast for a museum program being planned for early December on some of the wonders of winter wildlife found on our coastal wildlife refuges. Limited cell phone service throughout the region would be the challenge and it requires a lot of gear and coordination with her co-workers, so she asked me to help. The plan was to hit both the Pungo Unit and Lake Mattamuskeet and try to broadcast live images and sound back to folks in Raleigh via Zoom. We would camp overnight in our trusty truck at Pettigrew State Park, to enable us to get both a sunset and sunrise to maximize our chances for seeing wildlife.

Canid tracks (most likely a Red Wolf based on their size) at the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

We arrived at Pungo mid-morning and drove toward the observation platform to check on the swans and the cell signal (not my usual combo on these trips). Melissa soon spotted some tracks in the sandy road and they turned out to be those of a large canid, most likely a Red Wolf, one of only one or two believed to still roam the refuge. Unfortunately, there was no service at the platform, but we could see swans far across the lake.

Tundra Swans have returned to Eastern North Carolina for another winter

The next stop was Marsh A, a managed impoundment that has been a hot spot for swans for many years and so it is again this winter. The signal here was weak and it kept dropping during the test, which is unfortunate because the birds were putting on a great show of both sights and sounds.

Black Bear sow and cubs far across the field

Our next stop was “Bear Road” which had a couple of other groups with cameras and long lenses out looking for bruins. They reported seeing a few that morning, and we soon spotted one, and then several, all far across the field. We did have a weak signal here and could send images, but the lack of swans and the great distances and unpredictability of seeing bears may make this location less than ideal for the broadcast. Of course, while we were focused on the bears off in the distance, I forgot one of the main lessons you learn about the bears at Pungo….always look behind you. Sure enough, a bear had come out of the woods behind us (quite close according to other people on the road) and walked away from us toward a path that leads over to the adjacent cornfield. When I turned and saw it, I managed a few seconds of video before it disappeared into the canal and up into the tall cornstalks of its dining room.

A bear heads for the corn across the canal (this is a screen capture from a video clip); note the photographer down the road looking back at the bear and us

We headed back to Marsh A hoping for a better signal since that spot provided the best bet for a sure wildlife moment for the broadcast. We drove along, checking our phone signal strength at various spots, but it was still weak and somewhat variable. Toward one end, I suddenly heard the distinctive bugling call of a Trumpeter Swan (it reminds me of a clown car horn from the cartoons) mixed in with the cacophony of Tundra Swan oo-oo-oo’s and hoots. For the past several winters, we have seen a few of these magnificent birds, the largest of our native waterfowl, at either Mattamuskeet or Pungo. I started scanning the seemingly endless sea of white necks and heads looking for the less discernible bill traits of a Trumpeter Swan (larger and straighter than that of a Tundra Swan and their eye is usually not distinctly separate from the bill as those of a Tundra Swan). I finally found one swimming and honking in the mix. I kept trying to make others nearby into trumpeters, but can’t say for sure, even after looking at my images. Trumpeters are larger than Tundra Swans (as much as a foot more wing span and up to 10 pounds heavier on average), but that is tough to tell in the field. Plus, to make matters more difficult, Tundra Swans can vary quite a bit in bill size, eye position, and whether they do or don’t have the usually diagnostic yellow patch on the bill near the eye. For more details on distinguishing between the two species, see this link.

A Trumpeter Swan (the bird on the right facing left)

Mid-day on our second day, we drove over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge to scout for birds (and cell service). The problem with Mattamuskeet (as far as video or photography is concerned) is the lighting is very bad (harsh back-lighting) on the impoundment along Wildlife Drive for most of the day. There certainly are a variety of birds that are easily seen, but finding a good spot for the broadcast was a challenge, although in general, there is a better signal for sending images over most of the accessible parts of the refuge. We found a nice variety of birds and other wildlife and are now thinking that this may be the best spot for the program. The next few images show some of the highlights of the couple of hours spent at Mattamuskeet. One nice surprise we found that I didn’t have a chance to photograph was an American Bittern that flushed from the side of the boardwalk in the cypress swamp.

A juvenile Anhinga bobbed its head as we drove across the canal bridge
A huge Golden Orb Weaver along the boardwalk
A vertical pano of the cypress swamp along the boardwalk lends a strange curvature to the trees
Bald Cypress needles carpet the water surface

Our last stop was a return to Pungo, hoping to get some more bear footage. When we arrived at the spot, there were already 4 cars parked at the gate, so we decided to skip the bears and spend the rest of the day at Marsh A enjoying the sights and sounds of the elegant swans. Late in the day on both of our afternoons, the swans starting taking off in large numbers from Marsh A, presumably heading out to nearby fields for their last feeding of the day. With so many birds head bobbing (they usually do this as a prelude to take-off) and slapping their feet across the water to get airborne, I can’t resist the urge to capture some lift-off moments. The answer to Melissa’s question of How many pictures of swans taking off do you need? is…there’s never enough.

Looking forward to returning in a couple of weeks for the program (and hoping technology and weather will cooperate). Information and registration for the upcoming NC Museum of Natural Sciences virtual program on winter waterfowl in this region (which targets a family audience, including young children) is on their web site here.

The energetic take-off of a swan trailing behind one that left splashes in its wake
A pair of swans seem coordinated in their take-off
After a long run and much flapping, a successful lift-off in the golden light of sunset

October Surprises

The surprise is that you continue to be surprised.

~Jill A. Davis

I interrupt the truck camping travelogue posts to bring you some current yard sightings. We have been gone quite a bit the past couple of months so the “yard” has taken on more of a jungle look. On Friday, I started some long overlooked chores like washing all the windows and trimming back some of the plants in front of said windows so I can get to them. Our dining room window has a Beautyberry growing in front of it (I know, not ideal placement, but I like to watch the birds feeding on the berries), so I started trimming it to allow access for the long-handled window squeegee. After a few cuts, I saw something on one of the remaining stems – a Green Treefrog! It was clinging to the branch with that typical Buddha-like expression that this species pulls off so well. Though it is likely the same individual I saw in this part of the yard back in August, I can’t be sure as I photographed them from different sides so I can’t compare the location of the few gold flecks of color (I’m not even sure if these gold spots are a constant over time on an individual treefrog).

Green Treefrog clinging to a Beautyberry branch (click photos to enlarge)

It surprised me that this little guy was still clinging to the plant I had been cutting on and jerking around, but perhaps the cool temperatures has made it more accepting of my intrusions.

That peaceful treefrog pose

As I moved around the plant to photograph the frog, I found another surprise – a late season sphinx moth caterpillar. Over the past few years, we have found several Rustic Sphinx Moth larvae feeding on Beautyberry, so we routinely scan these shrubs for signs of caterpillars.

A Rustic Sphinx Moth larva on Beautyberry

I had noticed some of the Beautyberry leaves had been eaten when we first got back home from our road trip, but assumed the caterpillar had already moved off to pupate, since most larvae are scarce by mid-October. Like the treefrog, this caterpillar did not move while I was shaking its habitat. In fact, I kept a check on it from Friday (when I first saw it) until late Saturday afternoon. It didn’t move for that entire time and then late Saturday, it was gone. Not sure if a bird found it or if it had had enough of my yard work and just crawled off to find a suitable place to pupate.

Wondering what the purpose of all those bumps might be

One last Beautyberry surprise was under a leaf near the Rustic Sphinx – a small “inchworm” of some sort. Needless to say, I carefully looked over the branches I had trimmed to make sure I wasn’t displacing any other inhabitants (I didn’t see any). This is one of the reasons I usually leave the yard a bit untidy (okay, I guess that is a bit of an understatement) until March or so – you never know what is using those standing dead flower stems and branches as habitat.

An unidentified Geometrid moth larva on Beautyberry

I found another late caterpillar yesterday afternoon as I was mowing, a tussock moth larva. Wasn’t sure at first which species as it lacked the usual hair pencils (tufts of setae) on the front end. But, after looking at BugGuide, it must be a Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar. One of the experts on that site speculated that these larvae may lose the hair pencils as they near pupation.

Banded Tussock Moth larva (it is missing the anterior hair pencils)

It will be interesting to see how these and other yard invertebrates (like the few remaining orb weaver spiders) will survive the next few predicted cold nights. But no matter, it is getting to be that time of year where change is inevitable, but a few surprises may linger. And these are the only types of October surprises I am in the mood for right now.

Caterpillars and Such

When summer gathers up her robes of glory, and, like a dream, glides away.

~Sarah Helen Whitman

Though the temperatures sure don’t seem like it, I’m seeing signs that Summer is coming to a close and Fall is just around the corner. The butterflies that so many thought had forsaken us this year are now everywhere and the hummingbirds are squabbling over the feeders and flowers in preparation for their departure in a few weeks. The house seems suddenly shrouded in orb webs and a yard tour quickly turns up a host of caterpillars. And though I feel sapped of all energy every time I try to do anything outside, nature (especially in the invertebrate world) seems to be in high gear as we get ready to turn the calendar page again. Here are a few of our tiny neighbors enjoying the jungle of native plants in our slightly sunny hole in the canopy.

Black Swallowtail larva on Golden Alexander (click photos to enlarge)
Variable Oak Leaf Caterpillar
Rose Hooktip Moth larva, the only Eastern caterpillar with a long unpaired “tail”. This one is on one of several Viburnums on our property
Melissa found this Purple-crested Slug larva on the underside of a Redbud leaf
Double-toothed Prominent on elm. The jagged dorsal surface mimics the serrated edge of an elm leaf
Grasshoppers and katydids are larger and more noticeable now. I think this one is a Short-winged Green Grasshopper, Dichromorpha viridis
This is probably a male Short-winged Green Grasshopper (males are generally two-toned, green and brown)
The splayed leg Clipped-wing Grasshopper, Metaleptea brevicornis
One of several skipper species frequenting the yard now, a Clouded Skipper, Lerema accius
Always one of my favorite yard finds, a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar with its glorious fake eyes
After mowing yesterday, I walked the edges and noticed some rolled leaves on this legume (I think it may be a Naked-flowered Tick-trefoil, Hylodemum nudiforum)
I held up one of the rolled leaves and this little guy came out – a new species of caterpillar for me, a Long-tailed Skipper!

The highlight was definitely the last thing I found on my sweaty yard tour – several rolled leaves made by early stage caterpillars of a Long-tailed Skipper. I wrote about seeing one laying eggs in the yard last week and here are the fruits of her efforts. The abundance and variety of our mini-beast neighbors continues to fascinate and amaze us.

Return to Pungo

There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.

~Bill Waterson

This past Thursday evening, Melissa participated in a Science Cafe hosted by her workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. She joined a couple of other staff that had been authors of chapters in a book released this spring entitled, 30 Great North Carolina Science Adventures, edited by April C. Smith. Melissa had written a chapter on one of her favorite places, the Lower Roanoke River. I enjoyed watching the Cafe and learning more about the book from April. I had also written a chapter for the book on two of my favorite outdoor areas in our incredibly diverse state – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges (no surprise there to any of you that read this blog regularly). For a great overview of some fabulous natural areas to visit across North Carolina, I highly recommend this book (and we don’t receive anything for plugging it as it was all done on a volunteer basis).

As it turns out, I decided a couple of days before the Science Cafe that it was high time I visited my favorite place in North Carolina again. So, I headed east to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). My last trip was in late January so I was way overdue for a day in the wilds of eastern North Carolina. Summer is a great time to see bears, so I was hoping to spend some time observing them as they feed in the crop fields and as new mamas teach their rambunctious cubs the ways of the world. Melissa had to work, so it was just me, with no agenda other than to hang out and enjoy the beauty of this special place.

I didn’t get as early a start as I had hoped, so it was almost 10 a.m. when i drove into the refuge. But, it was only 5 minutes down a dirt road that I had my first bear encounter. I didn’t get a photo (unfortunate, because it was a beautiful bruin) because it was a bear that stood up across the canal as I drove by, then retreated back into the corn when I stopped.

Soon, I was seeing clouds (or maybe cloudlets) of butterflies – primarily two species, Sleepy Oranges and Zebra Swallowtails. As I have mentioned before, this refuge, and nearby Pettigrew State Park, are two of the best places in North Carolina to see one of my favorite butterflies, the Zebra Swallowtail. They are abundant here because of the large stands of their host plant, Pawpaw, in the understory.

Zebra Swallowtail on scat (click photos to enlarge)
Zebra Swallowtails on scat gathering minerals. They were also puddling in muddy spots along many of the dirt roads.

My next bear was one I spotted down the road ambling toward me when I turned a corner. It was a few hundred yards away, so I pulled over under an overhanging limb as far off the road as I could (which wasn’t that far) and got out and sat in front of the car. This was a large bear, most likely a male, and he sniffed the ground and nearby vegetation as he slowly made his way toward me.

A large bear walking down West Lake Road

When he was about 100 yards out, he suddenly realized that something was in his path (my car) and he stood up to get a better look. Impressive! The heat waves made for a slightly soft image with my telephoto lens, but I always love to see these magnificent animals stand to check things out. He did this two more times as he walked and then decided that, yeah, that is something up there, and headed into the vegetation. When viewing the images at home, I saw something I had not noticed in the field. Another bear crossed the road far behind the one I was watching, and I was so intent on photographing this big guy, that I missed it.

The big bear shows just how big it is when it stands to check me out

Each winter, I spend hours at a particular marsh impoundment on the southwest corner of Pungo Lake observing the thousands of Tundra Swans and other waterfowl that rest and feed in its shallow waters. This time of year, that area is packed with water lilies, frogs, and wading birds like egrets and herons.

Great Egret stalking its prey
There were several Immature Little Blue Herons in the wetland. They are noticeably smaller then the Great Egrets and have a dark tip to their bill. They will attain their grayish-blue adult plumage next year

The marsh and roadside canals are also home to thousands of dragonflies. I noted 6 species while driving along – Halloween Pennant, Needham’s Skimmer, Blue Dasher, Great Blue Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, and Slaty Skimmer.

The colorful Halloween Pennant typically perches atop a tall grass or stick
A female (or immature male) Needham’s Skimmer
One of the most abundant dragonflies at Pungo, a Blue Dasher

Around 3 p.m., I headed to North Lake Road. A fawn grazed along the roadside until I got too close, then vanished in the tall grasses. I parked and started strolling down the path that I have walked hundreds of times in the past 35 years. I was lucky, there were no other cars at the gate, so I had the walk to myself (an increasingly rare event). One of the things I like most about Pungo is the quiet, the almost total lack of human sounds (most days).

Large fawn grazing roadside grasses

The soybeans and corn are at their peak now, so a bear can easily disappear in the crops or the tall roadside vegetation. It was hard to keep an eye out for the large critters when there were so many small ones all around me on the path. Butterflies, lizards, songbirds, and even a Bald Eagle accompanied me as I walked.

Sleepy Orange butterfly
Common Checkered Skipper

After taking a few butterfly pictures using a telephoto, I looked up the road and saw a bear headed my way. I sat down as the bear stopped to scratch and look around. It was visibly panting from the heat and definitely had an itch as it would walk a few steps, then stop and scratch. It walked from side to side in the road, sniffing, scratching, and occasionally nibbling at vegetation. Finally, it wandered off the path and into the woods. I waited, hoping it would return, but, after a few minutes, I continued my stroll.

The itchy bear

I stopped to look at some tracks in a mud puddle, and when I stood back up, I saw a bear coming out of the woods behind me. I got down on my knees and the bear caught my movement and stood up. I thought it might be the itchy bear, but it stared for a few seconds, then slowly lowered itself and went back into the trees. Again, I waited…

A bear stands to investigate that thing that just moved (me)

The wind was in my favor so I was hopeful. About a minute passed, and I saw the dark head of a bear coming back out. But now, she had two little ones trailing her.

The mother bear brought her two little ones out

She sniffed, looked in my direction, and headed down the road away from me, the cubs tightly on her heels. Twice, she stood and looked back, presumably making sure that blob in the road was not a threat to her little ones. She finally led her cubs into the canal and across to the corn field and disappeared for her evening meal. Again, after looking at the sequence of images, I saw a bear I had missed seeing (the dark blob in the photo below) cross the road way beyond the mother and cubs.

Mother bear checking the scene. Notice the dark blob way down the road behind her

After that encounter, I continued down the road until I was a little over a mile from my car. I sat for about 30 minutes and watched and listened. No bears, but a satisfying peacefulness that comes from being in a wild place by yourself. On my way back, frogs started calling, and the phenomenal big sky of the flat lands of eastern North Carolina put on a colorful show as developing thunderheads were tinted pink and orange by the setting sun.

A bear pokes its head up out of the soybeans as I walked by

A couple of hundred yards from the car, I noticed something dark in the soybeans. It was the top of a bear’s head. The bear swung its head around, nose pointed up, mouth open, sniffing the air. I stood still, hoping it would stand. But, it just sat there, panting and sniffing, occasionally turning more towards me, but seemingly unaware of my presence. The air was still and I was at least partially hidden behind some tall goldenrod. After several minutes, I was surprised when another bear stood up behind the one I was watching.

Suddenly, another bear stands up

After a few looks around, it dropped and disappeared in the soybeans. Finally, the first bear stood up, glanced back and forth, and sat back down. That one moment in good light was a great way to end the day. I shouldered the tripod and camera and headed back to the car for the long drive home.

This beautiful bear finally stood up to give my last photo of the day

The standing bears and seeing the cubs were definitely highlights of the day. I ended up seeing 6 cubs for the day, 21 bears in total (I’m not counting those two I did not see until I reviewed images at home). Along with the birds, butterflies, and serenity, it was a pretty good return to Pungo. It felt good to be back.

Long-tailed Skipper

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Went wandering in the yard this weekend and I caught a glimpse of an infrequent visitor to these parts – a Long-tailed Skipper, Urbanus proteus. Long-tailed Skippers are more common on our Coastal Plain and sometimes undergo northward and westward migrations (one-way, I presume) in late summer and fall. This is when we typically see them here in the Piedmont. I have seen them in our county once or twice every few years over the last decade or so.

Long-tailed Skipper in the yard this weekend (click photos to enlarge)

This one was a very fresh-looking individual with tails intact and a bright blue-green color on the dorsal surface of its wings.

Long-tailed Skipper on Ironweed

It was nectaring on the many Ironweed plants out front so I grabbed the camera and went out to follow it around the yard. It was mainly staying on one or two plants, but then suddenly wandered off, flitting around and alighting briefly on a variety of leaves. I recognized this as the flight of a female looking for suitable host plants on which to deposit her eggs. She will fly a lilting flight, touching down briefly to “taste” the plant with her feet (the location of some sensory cells that can detect plant chemicals). If it is not the right plant, she moves on. I wasn’t sure what the host plant was for this species so I continued to follow her as she searched. Finally, she stopped on a legume of some sort (Desmodium sp. perhaps?), tucked her abdomen for a few seconds, and flew off.

Female lays an egg on underside of leaf

I moved over, flipped the leaf, and there it was, an egg! I am admittedly surprised to find an egg of this species this far inland, but maybe it is not as uncommon as I assume. The eggs are yellow and have some slight raised ribs coming upward from the base.

Long-tailed Skipper egg

The freshness of this particular butterfly made me wonder if she had hatched from an egg here in the yard. I started looking at all the legumes I could find. I did find a couple of hatched eggs, but I am not 100% sure which species they are from, although they do resemble the general shape of those of the Long-tailed Skipper.

Hatched butterfly egg

Seeing a couple of hatched eggs gave me hope that I might find a caterpillar for this species, one I have never seen. Spotting a leaf nest got me excited (I had googled the larval form of this species and saw that they form leaf nests by stitching a couple of leaves of their host pant together). I gently pulled it apart to reveal…a larva of a relative, the Silver-spotted Skipper.

Leaf nest of caterpillar
A Silver-spotted Skipper caterpillar inside

Even though I was disappointed at not finding a new species of caterpillar, I must admit I always enjoy seeing the chunky little Silver-spotted Skipper larvae with those bright yellow fake eyes.

Long-tailed Skipper sunning with open wings

Though she stopped at a few other legume leaves, I could not find any other eggs. But, there is a good chance she laid some more so I will keep an eye out over the next few weeks to see if I can discover one of her fascinating larvae. Just before she disappeared, she stopped momentarily on a leaf in the sun, spread her wings, and soaked up a little warmth, giving me one last glimpse of this beautiful butterfly.

Walking Small, Part 2

Look slowly and hard at something subtle and small.

~Philip Pearlstein

Some more finds while wandering in the heat in our yard jungle. The first one was a challenge. I noticed missing leaves at the tip of a Virginia Creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Only the curved stems of the leaves remained. I looked closely, and gently pulled the vine up from the sapling it was climbing for a closer look. At first, nothing. Then, something I touched moved. I stared at it and realized it was not a leaf petiole…it was a caterpillar.

geometer moth larva

Tentative identification is the caterpillar of the Lesser Grapevine Looper moth, Eulithis diversilineata (click photo to enlarge)

geometer moth larva close up

A close up helps to find the well-camouflaged caterpillar

These petiole-mimic larvae often rest underneath a leaf (of wild grape or Virginia Creeper) in a curved position where they really do like like a leaf petiole!

Lacewing larva

Lacewing larva with fuzz from flatid planthopper nymphs (probable prey items) stuck to its back

I always stop to look at the fuzzy little blobs that crawl along the trees in the yard. They are usually the larvae of lacewings, armed with sickle-shaped jaws that pierce aphids and planthopper nymphs. These tiny predators then place the discarded remains on spines on the back to complete their wolf-in-sheeps-clothing disguise.

Large Milkweed Bug

A Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, probing a milkweed seed pod

The milkweed patch continues to provide some nice finds. I spotted a Large Milkweed Bug in the typical dress of orange and black for a critter that is distasteful to potential predators due its toxic diet of milkweed. These are primarily seed feeders, piercing through a seed pod into developing milkweed seeds with their sharp proboscis. They then inject digestive enzymes which dissolve the nutrients within the seed, allowing the bug to suck it up through that long beak. One interesting tidbit about these bugs is that they undergo migrations every year with overwintering southern populations migrating northward in spring to colonize milkweed patches as far north as Canada. As day length shortens with accompanying cooler temperatures, they migrate back to warmer climes.

As always, any slow stroll around the yard leads to a variety of tiny discoveries that are part of the complex matrix that helps a system function. Here are a few more of the pieces that make the machine that is our yard’s machinery work. Be sure to get outside and check your yard’s or neighborhood’s engine and see what makes it click. If you have a variety of native plants, you’ll be amazed at all the parts.

Banded Longhorn Beetle, Typocerus velutinus

Banded Longhorn Beetle, Typocerus velutinus

Handsome trig nymph

Nymph of a Handsome Trig, Phyllopalpus pulchellus (missing one leg)

Preying mantis nymph

Nymph of a Praying Mantis

Scudder's bush katydid nymph on black-eyed Susan

Another colorful nymph of a Scudder’s Bush Katydid, Scudderia sp.

Leaf-footed bug nymph with parasitoid egg on  it

A more ominous-looking nymph of a Leaf-footed Bug, Acanthocephala sp. (notice the lwhite blob, a ikely parasitoid egg, on its thorax)

Wheelbug nymoh

A definitely ominous-looking nymph of an Assassin Bug (aka Wheel Bug), Arilus cristatus

Colonus (puerperus)? jumping spider

Dorsal view of a tiny jumper – most likely Colonus puerperus

Colonus (puerperus)? jumping spider side view

Nice eyes

hummingbird at bee balm

I cheated a little on this one – a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) feeding on Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), shot through the glass in our sun room window