A Good Way to End a Day

I like to remember that it is wild country that gives rise to wild animals; and that the marvelous specificity of wild animals reminds us to wake up, to let our senses be inflamed by every scent and sound and sight and taste and touch of the world. I like to remember that we are not here forever, and not here alone, and that the respect with which we behold the wild world matters, if anything does.

~Rick Bass

By the time I got over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes, it was mid-afternoon. I did a quick drive through, checking an area where my museum friends said they saw a bobcat the day before. Unfortunately, no bobcat for me, so I drove on, looking for bears. I parked and walked down the gated dirt road to an area where bears have been active. With overcast skies and a long walk, I took only my tripod, 300mm lens, a 1.4x teleconverter, and my Kwik Camo photography blind. This is a handy camouflaged cover with slots for your hands, lens, and flash units. It comes in a camo fanny pack and is very light, so it is no problem on a long walk. I wanted to try standing for awhile along the tree line under the blind, just to see what I could see, even if there were no photo ops.

Camo blind selfie

Kwik Camo blind selfie – in case you weren’t already worried about me:)… (click to enlarge photos)

I picked a spot near where bears were obviously crossing the dirt road from the woods to the bounty of the corn field.

bear crossing

Bear crossing

There were three such bear highways along the path – easily noticed by the trail of wet soil that could be seen from quite a distance.

track highway

Track highway…can you see tracks of at least three mammal species?

When I got to the last crossing, it looked as though every animal on the refuge had walked through the mud that day. I am always impressed by the amount of wildlife sign I see here…certainly one of the best places I have ever been to learn about wildlife tracks and signs. So, as if often the case on such outings, once I was situated, I waited. And waited. One thing about the use of the blind is that it is a little tough to see behind you, so I found myself turning my head frequently to scan for wildlife (something I do more often in bear country:)

Bears coming out of woods

Bears coming out of woods

There is usually plenty to observe while waiting in a blind. To my right, I watched a hawk hunting over the field and when I turned back to my left, this is what I saw – an adult female and a young bear coming out of the woods, headed toward the field. There was almost no wind, so I don’t think she sensed me, as she cautiously came out and went down into the canal for a drink. I swung the lens around and pointed it toward where the pair had disappeared along the canal bank when a slight motion to my left caught my eye…another young bear was walking down the tree line I was in and suddenly realized that the bush next to the treeĀ (that’s me) moved .

This one knew I was there

Young Black Bear keeping an eye on the moving bush (me)

It stared at me for a second and then ambled off toward its mother and sibling, glancing back from time to time to see if the bush moved again (I didn’t). I always try to not disturb the wildlife I am watching. But this young bear had seen me (and perhaps heard the camera shutter – boy, it seems so loud at times like this).

Mother and cub

Mother and young bear

When the other two bears came up out of the ditch, the sibling ambled off toward the dinner table (corn field), while the mother looked at her other youngster staring at me and then looked around, before finally fixing her gaze in my direction. I shot two images and then remained silent. She continued to look around, sniffed a few times, and apparently did not sense anything to worry about, so they both headed off toward the corn. I watched them for another thirty minutes as they fed far down the field from me, and then I headed out toward the car about a mile away. It is always a special feeling when I am able to observe wildlife doing what they do without them becoming alarmed at my presence.

The day had been a great one, although strangely warm for early December. I saw two species of butterflies out earlier in the day, and as I walked back, a few bats came out for an early hunt. Five other bears came out of the woods as I walked, most a great distance from me. A Great Horned Owl started hooting as the sun was reaching the horizon. A Corn Snake crossed the road. And then I heard them coming…the birds returning to the lake for the evening. I paused as the first wave of Snow Geese flew overhead. Smaller groupings of Tundra Swans were flying in long V’s underneath. I was alone in this magical place and I felt incredibly lucky. I shot a short video with my phone hoping to capture a little of that magic. But, there is no substitute for being out there and taking it all in, realizing that these special places are essential for both the wildlife and the human spirit.

Listen for the differences in the calls of the returning flocks – the high-pitched, somewhat nasal quality of the Snow Geese honks, and the lower-pitched hooting of the Tundra Swans.

NOTE: I am offering trips in this extraordinary region the first two weekends in January and possibly another in February. Contact me at roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com for details.

A Foggy Start

After the incredible experience with the Snowy Owl at Hatteras last week, I waited in line for an hour and a half for the emergency ferry to get off the island. Bright and early the next day, I headed to Lake Mattamuskeet, always an incredible place to experience the first light of a new day. But this morning was going to prove difficult for a sun-over-the-lake image as the fog was as thick as the proverbial pea soup. I drove at a cautious pace on my way down from Columbia since this is prime deer and bear habitat, and I wanted neither to become acquainted with the front of my car. I decided to bypass the usual spot for greeting the morning sun on the causeway that stretches across the lake, and looked, instead, for something close to shore that I might actually be able to see in the fog.

Foggy sunrise on Lake Mattamuskeet

Foggy sunrise on Lake Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

What I found was a surreal scene as the pale light of the rising sun tried in vain to penetrate the gray curtain laying across the lake. A few skeletons of cypress trees in the foreground provided the only depth in the scene.

Great Blue Heron on foggy morning at Mattamuskeet

Great Blue Heron on cypress trunk

Then, a Great Blue Heron flew out of the mist and landed with a squawk, and became frozen in the gray painting.

Sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet in fog

Great Blue Heron in fog

I took several shots but I’m not sure which one I like the best – a tight view of the lone cypress and heron, or a wide view that includes some other tree silhouettes.

Swan in fog

Tundra Swan in fog

The sun was starting to win the battle as I drove across the lake. A few Tundra Swans fed silently near the road, making glints in the water as they probed the lake bottom for some breakfast of aquatic vegetation.

Swans in early morning light

Swans in early morning light

A few minutes later, and the sun claimed victory as it glowed on a group of waterfowl farther down the road. This area is thick with Tundra Swans and Northern Pintails right now, with a variety of other waterfowl in smaller numbers (American Wigeon, Green and Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, American Black Ducks, etc.). I shared some of these excellent views with some of my former co-workers from the Museum, who happened to be leading a group of folks that same morning. It was, indeed, a great day for sharing this incredible place with good people.

Kingfisher hovering

Belted Kingfisher hovering

While sitting alone with the swans, I was entertained by a couple of Belted Kingfishers as they hunted. They would swoop in, hover for a what seemed like a minute or two, and then either swoop to a new spot, or, if they spotted something, plunge headfirst into the water. After several failed attempts, I saw one finally catch a small fish and fly off to eat its meal in peace.

DC Cormorant wings outstretched

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings

Along the canals on Wildlife Drive is always a good place to find water birds of various sorts. That morning had a crowd of Double-crested Cormorants perched on a fallen tree in the canal. Cormorants are relatively primitive birds, and, unlike most other waterfowl, their feathers are not water repellant. This necessitates their spread-wing poses throughout the day as they must dry their feathers after repeated dives in the water while searching for fish. The light-colored breast and neck indicate this is a first-year bird (adults have dark plumage throughout).

With some remnant patches of fog drifting along the canal, the short video below shows a “mistical” scene and allows you to hear a few of their grunts as they maneuver for position on the branches.

Herd of turtles

A herd of turtles

The foggy morning was warm enough for turtles to be out in force. For a reason known only to those with shells, one small island of grass in a canal seemed particularly appealing to a group of what appear to be Yellow-bellied Sliders. They had climbed over one another in a jumble, perhaps in hopes of being closer to the emerging sunlight.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle

Lake Mattamuskeet is one of the best places in NC to view Bald Eagles, especially in winter, when the large concentrations of waterfowl provide a reliable food source. Bald Eagles are particularly fond of American Coot, which tend to occur in higher numbers on the lake a little later in the winter. This immature (it usually takes 4 or 5 years for a Bald Eagle to acquire its fully white head and tail feathers) was very cooperative as it scanned the marshes from a high perch.

Immature Bald Eagle close up

Immature Bald Eagle close up

I always marvel at the size of their beak and the intensity seen in their eyes. Based on what I have read online (a nice photographic summary of aging Bald Eagles is atĀ http://www.featheredphotography.com/blog/2013/01/27/a-guide-to-aging-bald-eagles/), I am guessing this is a first year bird, due to the dark iris and fairly dark beak.

Great Egret with fish from behind

Great Egret with fish

As I drove out Wildlife Drive on my way over to Pocosin Lakes, I saw something I had always wanted to photograph. Great Egrets on this refuge generally eat small fish which are abundant in the shallow waters. But here was one with a beak full of fins! And it apparently did not want to risk losing its meal, as it started to walk away as soon as I slowed down for a look.

A big meal

A big meal

I am not quite sure what species of fish this is, although it resembles a Spot…if you know, please comment on the blog. Luckily, the egret paused long enough for a few quick images before getting behind some brush on the shore of the canal. Although partially hidden, I could see the fish did finally get swallowed, appearing as a large, squirming lump as it passed down the long neck of the bird. Made my PB&J seem easy.

Tomorrow, I’ll post how my day ended when I made my way to Pocosin Lakes for the rest of the afternoon.

NOTE: I am offering weekend trips on the first and second weekend of January and another trip (exact date to be determined) in February. We will visit both Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. Contact me at roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com for details if interested.

When the North Wind Blows

I went camping last weekend with some friends at Pettigrew State Park and the weather decided to change dramatically during our stay. Saturday was relatively warm and overcast and we just missed the last of the rain when we arrived at the park around noon.

water drops on poplar leaf on ground

Water drops on fallen leaf (click photos to enlarge)

Everything was slightly wet as we set up camp, and there were insects and spiders moving about. That would all change by nightfall.

Gulls at the bar

Gallery of gulls in winter attire – Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Ring-billed Gull

After setting up tents we did a quick check of the boat ramp and found some Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks out on Lake Phelps and a gallery of gulls hanging out on the railing. The rest of the afternoon was spent over at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge looking for anything that might be out and about. We spotted a few bears at a distance and then saw what at first looked like a sleeping bear near the refuge maintenance area.

Roadkill bear

Dead young bear

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a dead young bear and it had not been dead long.

Rear foot of dead bear

Hind foot of dead bear

While sad, it did offer a rare opportunity to closely observe a bear. It probably weighed about 75 pounds, meaning it was probably born a year ago. One foot was turned so we could examine the soft texture of the pad. We were puzzled by what might have happened, but after talking with refuge staff on my return, they thought it was probably hit by a car. Regrettably, we had seen another, much larger, roadkill bear on our way down alongside Hwy 64…a cautionary note for drivers in bear country, especially after dark, when a large black animal is very difficult to see.

As sunset approached we headed out and were greeted by a flyover of thousands of Tundra Swans and the first Snow Geese of the season. The arrival of the strong cold front may have been the push needed by the birds to complete their migration to their wintering grounds here in North Carolina. In one of the long V-shaped formations of swans, there was one lone Snow Goose flying in line along with his much larger cousins from the far north – the first time any of us had ever seen a mixture of these two birds in formation.

During the night, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped precipitously. By daybreak it was bone-chilling cold with a stiff persistent wind out of the northwest – the perfect Pungo wildlife day.

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier hunting in a stiff wind

One advantage of a steady breeze is that it slows down the flight speed of many birds (at least those heading into the wind) and gives you a chance to watch and photograph them. Such was the case with a ghostly male Northern Harrier battling the stiff wind as he hunted the roadside ditches. If only another car had not come along, we might have stayed with this soaring hunter and grabbed some memorable images.

Bear tooth marks on sweet gum

Bear tooth marks on Sweetgum

Hiking down one of the dirt roads on the refuge we began seeing lots of bear sign. Many of the trees in the area have claw marks from bears climbing them. But many of the larger Sweetgum trees have another distinctive mark – sections of bark ripped off near the base of the trunk with teeth marks left behind as the bears scrape away the sugar-rich cambium layer.

Fungus on bear scat

Fungus on bear scat

There was also an abundance of another bear sign – piles of scat. And much of the scat was odd-looking because of a hairy fungus growing on top. Although I have seen this before, I don’t remember seeing so many scat piles covered in the Chia Pet-type growth. A quick search on the web revealed the fungus is probably one in the genus Phycomyces. This fungus is related to bread mold and is one of the first to grow on substrates that are high in sugar. The hairs are the sporangiophores and each is tipped with a tiny sphere full of spores.

Bear on Bear Rd

Female Black Bear on “bear road”

It wasn’t long until we encountered something with hair of a different color – a Black Bear. It was a medium-sized adult bear who came out of the woods between myself and my friends a hundred yards or so down the road. She came out cautiously, frequently glancing back in the woods. We all thought she was probably not alone, and, sure enough, a young bear soon followed. I thought they were going to cross over into the nearby corn field, but she slowly meandered my way.

Bear standing on bear rd 1

Female bear stands up to sniff and look around

The stiff wind may hamper a bear’s ability to use its keenest environmental sensor, its nose. The young bear disappeared back into the woods and the adult soon stood up to look around and probably try to ascertain if the coast was clear. She probably could sense us, but maybe could not get a direction on the scent. She soon dropped down and ambled off to join her young one.

Log with stripped bark

This log had a bear on it stripping the bark

Cold, windy weather often offers good wildlife watching opportunities on the refuge as animals tend to get hungrier and more active during the day. After walking a few miles on various dirt roads, we encountered two bears off in the woods atop a leaning tree that had broken near the base. We sat and watched for about 20 minutes while the female gingerly pulled off chunks of bark and appeared to lick or bite at something underneath. After they ambled off into the thick undergrowth, we went over to check out the tree.

Grubs being eaten by bear

Beetle grubs under the bark

We quickly found what the large bear was so gently picking off the log – a variety of beetle grubs hidden under the bark. Grubs must be a bruin delicacy as evidenced by the amount of log rolling and stripping of bark that can be found on almost any downed tree in these woods.

Bear sitting in corn field

Large Black Bear feeding in corn field

After several more bear sightings we finished our beary good day with a large bear coming out of the woods and feeding in the corn field as we sat and watched nearby. It walked in and sat down, grabbing an ear of corn and feeding on it while sitting and looking around.

Bear carrying ear of corn

Bear carrying ear of corn

Occasionally, the bear would pick up an ear off the ground and carry it a ways before sitting and eating. We finally got up to leave and were greeted by another bear with two young, and then three more on the way back to the car. An amazing day in an amazing place. The final amazement came in the form of a beautiful sky with literally thousands of swans calling and filing by overhead as they made their way back to their critical resting spot on the lake. This short video gives you a sense of what it is like in this magical place.

I will be leading several trips this winter to this area both on weekends and during week days to observe wildlife and learn abut the importance of this and other refuges as critical wildlife habitat. If interested in attending one of these trips, please contact me at my roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com email address or via my Facebook page. While there are no guarantees on seeing so much wildlife, it is a place that never disappoints me.