Lake George

Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin… finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves…

~Thomas Jefferson, 1791

Melissa’s family has a long tradition of summer vacations on Lake George in upstate New York. I can see why as it is one of the clearest lakes I have visited and is surrounded by forested mountains, so the views are great. It is also a large lake – 32 miles long, up to 2.5 miles wide, and almost 200 feet deep. In early August, the entire family was able to get together at a beautiful old house surrounded by state-owned land for a week of relaxation and fun. A bonus for me was the abundance of wildlife (big and small) on the property and that is the primary focus of this post.

Our rental home for the week. Built in the early 1900’s, this was a caretaker’s house for a large estate, the bulk of which was sold to the state as part of Adirondack Park (click photos to enlarge)
Melissa and I spent nights in our truck down by the lake to free up some bedroom space in the house (not a bad trade at all given the view and the almost constant breeze)
View of the dock and the lake

The owner told us to expect some wildlife, especially out by the mulberry tree in front of the house. The first morning, Melissa’s dad saw some turkeys and a Red Fox out under the tree. Dang, we were down by the lake so we missed all of the excitement.

A flock of Wild Turkeys (two hens and nine young ones (poults) visited us daily

Then he showed me a phone video he had taken of a critter I have only seen once in the wild (In Grand Teton National Park) – a North American Porcupine! Porcupines range in the West from Canada down to northern Mexico, but are found only as far south as Pennsylvania in the Eastern United States. The next morning we were talking about the “wildlife tree” and I look out and there are two porcupines strolling towards it. They provided entertainment for the family for the next hour or so as they slowly climbed into the mulberry tree and, to my surprise, seemed to feed mainly on the leaves rather than the berries (they did consume a few berries as well).

Young North American Porcupine in mulberry tree

Porcupines spend most of their time in trees, foraging on leaves, fruit, and bark (especially in winter). They have several adaptations that make them excellent tree climbers – long claws, wrinkled pads on their feet that give them extra grip, and stiff bristles on the underside of their tail that acts much like a woodpecker’s tail spines to brace them as they climb. They do spend time in dens (rock crevices, hollow logs, abandoned buildings) in cold snaps or when giving birth.

A look at the formidable claws that help porcupines climb

The word porcupine is derived from Latin and means thorn pig. They are not related to pigs, but are, in fact, the second largest rodent in North America (behind American Beavers), attaining weights of up to 20 pounds. But it is their quills that make porcupines so distinctive.

We found several shed porcupine quills under the mulberry tree. The quill is attached to muscles below the skin that control its movements. The microscopic barbs are at the tip (in this photo, the left side of the quill)

Quills are modified guard hairs filled with a spongy matrix and can be up to 4 inches in length. They have microscopic barbs at the tip that are angled such that, if not removed, the quill digs deeper and deeper into an animal as it moves. They can work their way into vital organs of the victim or, over time, go entirely through and come out the other side of the animal if they avoid bones and organs. They are an effective protection against most predators, with the weasel-relative Fisher, being the primary exception in New England. There may be as many as 30,000 quills on one porcupine! it is a myth that they can throw their quills, but they do release easily when they come in contact with a predator (and are easily shed as they move about).

One porcupine came down one branch to climb another and I approached for a clearer view. It raised its quills along the back side and tail in a defensive posture that gave a clear message – don’t come any closer. The bold black and white pattern on the back and tail resembles that of a skunk, and is believed to serve as a similar warning to would-be predators

The quills are covered with a mild antibiotic greasy compound that is believed to provide some protection to the animal should it fall from a tree or otherwise manage to get punctured by its own spines.

The larger porcupine finally came down out of the tree and slowly ambled into the forest, the quills on its back side erect, letting us know we should leave it alone. The younger porcupine spent its days sprawled across a limb high in a tree about a hundred feet from the mulberry tree

We also had a lot of smaller wildlife to keep me fascinated during our stay. I had never seen evidence of the introduced Spongy Moths before, but there were egg masses, shed caterpillar skins, and pupae on many tree trunks around the property. Spongy Moth is the new common name of Lymantria dispar dispar, formerly known as the Gypsy Moth. The name was changed by The Entomological Society of America as part of their Better Common Names Project. These destructive insects were accidentally introduced to North America from Europe in 1869 in an effort to create a silk industry. Caterpillars are generalist feeders and can defoliate large swaths of forest in eruptive years.

Spongy Moth egg masses and pupae on a tree trunk

Under some of the protective eaves and open barns on the property were lots of tiny funnels in the sandy soil, a sure sign of the presence of one of my favorite insects – Antlions.

A patch of ground under a shed roof is covered by Antlion funnels. Larval Antlions dig these and lie in wait at the bottom of the pit for ants and other crawling insects to tumble down into their waiting jaws.
I scooped out an Antlion larva for this pic, showing the formidable jaws and spines on its legs and body that help the ant lion hold its position in the bottom of the pit when subduing a struggling ant. Antlions pupate in the soil and then emerge as a nocturnal flying adult that somewhat resembles a damselfly.

One day, I grabbed the camera and just wandered around the yard (which included some nice mini-meadows) and photographed some of the abundant charismatic micro-fauna. Here is a sampler.

A Pigeon Horntail adult female, Tremex columba. These are large insects in the wasp family, but they do not sting. Females insert that ovipositer into dead or decaying wood, lay eggs, and deposit fungal spores with the eggs that germinate to enhance the wood decomposition. She carries these fungal spores with her in a special abdominal pouch. After hatching, the larva then eats the decaying wood and the fungus.
There were several Crab Spiders hanging out on the wildflowers in the unmowed areas. Some species are capable of changing their color to better match the background color of the flower where they wait for incoming prey
The last thing a small pollinator may see as it approaches a Black-eyed Susan
Another ambush specialist is the aptly named Ambush Bug. Like some Crab Spiders, some species of Ambush Bug are thought to change color to match their surroundings. These guys look like a small tank had a baby with a praying mantis, since their bodies appear heavily armored with huge raptorial front legs.
Here is a yellow one on a Black-eyed Susan. When an insect lands nearby, they grab it with those front legs and inject a fluid that immobilizes the prey and starts to digest it. They then suck up the innards of the prey’s body through a beak-like proboscis.
A mating pair of Ambush Bugs on Queen-Anne’s-Lace. Males are often darker than females.
A new group of insect for me – tiny bee flies in the genus Geron (means old man, in this photo, imagine a hump-backed old man with a cane). These hunch-backed little insects were common on many flower heads, sipping nectar. Larvae of this group are parasitic on many moth larvae.

All in all, a spectacular week of scenery, fun, food, family, and the wild creatures that make Lake George so special.

Summer is Bear Time

When you are where wild bears live you learn to pay attention to the rhythm of the land and yourself. 

~Linda Jo Hunter

This summer seems to be racing by and it hit me last week that I have not made a pilgrimage to our coastal wildlife refuges for my fix of summer bears. So, Sunday I loaded up the truck and headed east, arriving at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge about mid-afternoon. Storm clouds were moving in and, sure enough, just as I stopped to get my camera gear out, it started sprinkling. As I shuffled through my gear, I looked down the road and there was my first bear of the day and it was a big one.

A good start to my trip, a large male bear coming out of a corn field within two minutes of my arrival at the refuge (click photos to enlarge)

You can tell this a huge bear by the obvious belly and how small its ears look in relation to the head. I am guessing it is in the 400 – 500 pound range, but am willing to hear other opinions. This seems a pretty typical size in this region for mature males, with some exceeding 700 and even 800 pounds occasionally. We do, in fact, have the largest Black Bears in the world here in coastal North Carolina due to the mild climate (they don’t hibernate long, if at all, and continue feeding through much of the winter) plus the ready availability of both natural foods and crops.

It rained for about 15 minutes, and I ducked back into the truck and watched as this behemoth sat next to the corn and soaked in the cooling rain drops (it was brutally hot on Sunday, and humid). Just before the rain eased up the bear got up, shook off, and walked back into the corn for another round of feeding. I suppose this is how you maintain that desired ursine figure.

As I drove along the refuge roads (many of which had large swaths of standing water in them from previous rains), I spotted several more bears that quickly disappeared into the brush with the approach of my vehicle. I had hoped to walk on some gated refuge “roads” (actually they are not much more than grassy paths with tire tracks) but some of my favorites have new signage that ask visitors to not enter due to sensitive wildlife habitat. I am assuming this is to protect areas from human disturbance that are being used by recently reintroduced endangered Red Wolves. Of course, that does mean more human pressure on the one main area where people go to see bears, the area I have always called Bear Road. In recent years, that gravel road has become so crowded (this is a relative term, with there often being 4 or 5 carloads of people walking on this road) that I have avoided going there. I was spoiled in my early years of visiting the refuge when I often would see only 1or 2 people the entire day (some days, no one else) on the refuge and usually had Bear Road to myself. Sunday was a pleasant surprise and I guess the rain kept some people away as I saw only a couple of other cars all afternoon. And there were no other cars parked at the entrance to Bear Road when I arrived, so I got out, grabbed my gear and headed down the road toward the corn at the far end.

I walked just a short distance down the road when a bear came out of the woods and started walking toward the corn ahead of me. The sun was out now and it was hot, no, very hot. I am still amazed that these large black fur-covered animals are active in the hot parts of the day as I was already sweating like crazy and had just been out of the truck for a few minutes. This looked like a young bear, maybe two or three years old, and it wasn’t paying any attention to me following some distance behind. It stopped and grazed on some vegetation every now and then, meandered from side to side along the road, but kept heading toward the corn. It finally sat down and groomed itself a bit and then turned and looked my way.

Young bear finally looks my way as it wandered down Bear Road

I squatted down as it started to turn so as to reduce my human form and the bear didn’t seem to notice, got up, and started walking toward the corn again.

The bear notices something in the field across the canal

The bear suddenly turned toward the canal and trotted into the thick vegetation. Four deer bounded away through the soybeans on the other side. The bear came back out after a few seconds and continued on to the corn, finally crossing the canal and disappearing into the tall corn stalks. The vegetation along the canals and roads is so tall that I couldn’t get a clear view of its crossing, so I continued on up the road now that the bruin leading the way had crossed over.

There are a few giant piles of rich black soil at the edge of these managed crop fields now. They don’t look like dredge spoil from cleaning out the canals as they are not full of debris and vegetation, so I guess they trucked it in and it will be spread over the fields once the crops are harvested this Fall. As I walked I wondered whether the bears were using these big dirt piles as playgrounds. Bears are so much like us in so many ways – curious, playful, always inspecting something new in their environment. About then, I looked up at the last dirt pile and there was a bear looking back at me!

Sow with one of her three cubs on top of a dirt pile

I immediately sat down and swung my camera around and started snapping photos. It was a strange backdrop for these beautiful animals – a big dark pile of dirt with corn towering skyward behind them.

A cub paws at mom’s face as she tolerates its antics

The piles of dirt had a lot of mounds and swales and I soon saw two other cubs frolicking in the dirt.

Two cubs wrestling

The problem was the cubs would run and disappear down in a swale and, in my seated position, the tall vegetation blocked my view of some areas of the giant dirt pile. But, I didn’t want to disturb them, so I continued to sit and watch, happy to share this special moment with these bears. I used my 500 mm telephoto plus a 1.4X teleconverter and these images are heavily cropped, and I was glad I was far enough away that she seemingly felt okay about my presence. The sow finally got up and ambled down to the ground, the cubs right behind her.

The sow checks on me as she grazed the vegetation along the canal

She started eating various plants along the top edge of the canal as she slowly walked away. I stood up to get a better view (they were down in the thick stuff and I could hardly see the cubs at all) and she paused and looked my way, then turned and started grazing again. Just checking, I guess, to make sure I stayed put (which I did). She moved to where there is a land bridge from Bear Road to the corn field and walked across to the woods, her cubs following closely behind. I had stopped before that land bridge to allow them to pass undisturbed if they came out that way. It is important to not block potential pathways of these (or any other) animals so they have freedom to move without getting stressed.

As mom strolled over to the trees, the cubs were following close behind her
The straggler

After the bear family passed, I continued on down the road toward the distant corn field and almost immediately had another bear come out of the woods, so back down on the ground I went. By the way, I soon noticed that I was squatting and laying in grass that had poison ivy scattered throughout so I will undoubtedly pay the price for that any day now.

Another bear comes out of the forest

And I was pleased to then see two more tiny cubs trailing behind her.

Two more cubs following their mom out of the woods (note another bear coming out of the woods on the left side of the road way beyond the cubs)

These guys were a little smaller than the ones playing on the dirt pile and seemed a bit more cautious. They would come out, turn, and then go back in the woods, and then come out again. Mom had gone on across to the field occasionally giving a glance back to see where her cubs were. They came out again and made it almost across the road, then paused, looking intently for their mother.

Where did she go?

They finally scurried into the field and disappeared in the tall corn although I could hear their grunts from across the canal. The mosquitoes started to get annoying and I was drenched in sweat, so I decided to head back to the car. I jumped a rabbit and almost stepped on a Bobwhite Quail on the way back, both things causing my heart to jump up in my throat. I finally saw another person walking my way and realized I had been lucky enough to have Bear Road to myself for over two hours! I saw a couple more bears on the drive out of the refuge and ended the day with 18 sightings, not a bad way to spend a day in spite of the heat.

After spending the night truck camping at Pettigrew State Park, I headed to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge early the next morning. Right away, I saw a few bears out in the soybean fields (the fields on this refuge are mainly soybean this year it seems, making it much easier to spot feeding bears than in tall corn). I also wanted to check out the fields where I thought people have been seeing the Red Wolf family. I drove to the east side of the refuge near the landfill and spotted a few cars pulled over with people standing around, a good sign. When I got out and asked, sure enough, they had a Red Wolf far out in the soybean field. It was sitting, backlit by the rising sun, its ears flopped to either side. The people said it had been hunting, jumping on unseen prey every now and then. I believe there are four pups with the pair of adult wolves, making this a very important part of the reintroduction efforts for this critically endangered species. The wolf eventually got up, wandered down the field and disappeared in a low spot. We waited around, swapping stories of wolves and bears, but the wolf did not reappear, so I eventually wandered off in search of more bears. I spotted one a ways down one of the dirt roads and turned to get a closer look. The bear was strolling down the road away from me, casually stopping to graze on plants, never looking back as I slowly drove toward it. I took my foot off the accelerator and very slowly drifted toward the bear until it finally turned, gave me a glance, and then continued on.

The bear finally turned around to see what was following him, and then continued on down the road, grazing as it went

I held back at that point and it continued on another 50 yards or so before turning and walking into the thick pocosin vegetation. I always try to stay at a distance to where the bears are not changing their behavior. If they stop, I stop. If they look my way for very long, I sit and let them continue without following. Using a big telephoto allows me to photograph and observe them without stressing them out, which is especially important in this kind of weather.

After lunch, I went back to the fields where we had seen the wolf, and there were the same folks, plus another car, gathered a few hundred yards away from the first sighting. This appeared to be a different wolf, but it was way out (too far for a photo) in a soybean field hunting. When it stopped moving, it was really tough to see even wth binoculars. Even though it was so far away (several hundred yards), I took a few photos and when i enlarged them on the back of the camera, I could just make out the orange collar biologists have placed on the adult wolves. Black collars have been put on some resident coyotes that have been sterilized and left on the refuge to be placeholders and help prevent other coyotes from entering the range of the wolves. This helps reduce the chances of the wolves and coyotes breeding.

It was easy to spot bears out in the soybean fields and I soon spotted another sow with two tiny cubs. I parked along the main road and waited as she gradually walked toward my end of the field, teaching her cubs about the delicacies of these refuge croplands. She finally stopped and sat down and was feeding when she seemed to notice my vehicle. She looked my way and raised her head to sniff and see what was up. She apparently sensed no danger and continued feeding and eventually sauntered back the other direction. I drove off, happy to have seen 12 bears on this refuge, for a total of 30 bears in the one and a half days down east. Before leaving this refuge I also had encounters with Wild Turkey, two river Otter, and a young Barred Owl screeching constantly to be fed. It was right next to the road but in thick vegetation so I could not see it. I finally got a glimpse when one of the adults flew in with something and the youngster took flight to follow it for a meal.

A mother bear teaching her two cubs the fine art of soybean cuisine

Alligator River NWR is an easier place to view wildlife as the roads are in better shape than at Pungo (a different soil type I suppose, and they are mostly well-graveled). You have longer vistas to spot wildlife (plus the roadsides look like they are more frequently mowed). Being closer to the tourist hot spot of the Outer Banks no doubt helps justify more staff and expense for the education side of the refuge mission. The small group that gathered to watch the wolf hailed from 4 states – Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. All had been to this refuge in years past, and all had recently been over to the Pungo Unit as well (some for their first time). Obviously, word has gotten out about the wildlife here in our state. I hope we can continue to improve the visitor services on the refuges to make it easier for tourists to appreciate our pubic lands. This will also provide additional incentives for land managers and public officials to prioritize the protection of the incredible diversity of wildlife that people care about and are willing to spend their money to come see. This benefits the wildlife, the habitats, the people, and the local businesses, a definite win-win.

Moving South Along the Parkway

It was as if all the world might be composed of nothing but valley and ridge.

~Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

This is part two of our trip last month down the Blue Ridge Parkway. After the crazy weather at Mount Mitchell, we headed to our next destination, a somewhat out of the way campground, Balsam Mountain Campground, near the end of the parkway. Along the way, we experienced various timelines of spring as we changed elevation, moving back into early spring (with barely any leaf out on the trees) when we climbed higher, and then getting into a more summer-like forest cover down near Asheville. I love that about Spring in the mountains – if you miss something you can change elevation and experience a different part of the season all over again. There were impressive displays of azalea and trillium as we drove south so we pulled over at several spots to admire them.

Large-flowered Trillium along parkway (click photos to enlarge)
Pinkshell Azalea was in bloom in the higher elevations
View along the road to Balsam Mountain Campground

We settled into our next campsite at Balsam Mountain Campground and were pleased that the nearby RVs all had solar panels, so we heard only one small generator and only for a short while (there are no hookups at this campground). Having camped here before, we knew the highlight of any stay is to walk (via a half-mile nature trail through some beautiful trees) or drive over to the picnic area for sunset. And it did not disappoint!

The thing to do when at the Balsam Mountain Campground is walk to the picnic area for the amazing view of the sunset

Blue-headed Vireos were constantly calling around our campsite. Our second morning we saw one gathering nesting material off the ground and then Melissa saw it go to a nest right next to the nature trail. We walked over, she positioned herself near the tree, and I walked away. The birds came back, bringing some plant fibers (and maybe spider web?) and molded the nest. Melissa took a few shots and then we left them alone to their business.

Blue-headed Vireo adding to its nest (photo by Melissa Dowland)

After breaking camp our second morning, we decided to drive the one way gravel road from the nearby picnic area all the way down to Cherokee, a distance of about 23 miles. It passes through gorgeous forest with multiple seeps and springs and plenty of wildflowers, birds, and bugs. It’s a really pleasant drive where you can go at your own pace and stop to look and listen with relatively few other travelers along the way.

Doll’s Eyes flower with some beetle pollinators
Canada Violet was abundant along the gravel road
Umbrella-leaf in flower – note the huge leaf that gives this mountain plant its common name
I have seen these before and have not yet been able to identify them. I think they are a cocoon of some sort (most have a hole in one end where something probably emerged), and are about 1/4 inch long. They are laying on the surface of leaves or on the ground. If anyone knows what this is, drop me a note in the comments section.
A male Scorpion Fly. These were very common along this road. They feed on decaying vegetation and corpses of invertebrates (occasionally vertebrates). The curved abdomen tip of the male is not a stinger, but is used in reproduction.
This critter caught my eye (probably an inch+ in length and looking very Ichneumon wasp-like). Never seen one before – it turns out to be an Antlered Crane Fly (Tanyptera dorsalis).

We stopped several times along the road to get out and look at plants, insects, and listen for birds. There were lots of warblers singing (Blackburnian, Black-throated Greens, and Black-throated Blues especially). At one point, I was looking at some cool insects and I noticed Melissa looking off in the trees at something. She had found a Black-throated Green Warbler nest! It was some distance off the road but clearly visible in a gap in the leaves if you were standing in just the right place.

Black-throated Green Warbler sitting on her nest

We mosied on down to where the road becomes two-way and eventually intersects a paved road. We turned and headed to Cherokee, passing by a parking lot for a waterfall, so we decided, what the heck. After a short but steep walk, we were both blown away by the beautiful Mingo Falls. Looks like a popular tourist spot and I can see why.

Mingo Falls in Cherokee, a truly beautiful waterfall visible after a short walk on a well-maintained trail

Thunder chased us back to the car and we headed to our next overnight destination, Sky Ridge Yurts. Melissa has taken her teacher workshops to this location the past two summers but I had never been. I had signed us up for one of the two cabins (the yurts were booked) for the last two nights of our trip. The plan was to go backpacking after our stay at Balsam Mountain but the weather was looking foreboding and my aching knee was not cooperating (Melissa swears it starts hurting as soon as she utters the word, backpack). Luckily, the cabin I had reserved was available earlier in the week and they allowed us to switch our dates, and we are so glad they did. The next day it rained, and rained, and rained some more – all day in fact. We would have been soaked and my knee would have been like, “I told you so…”.

Our oasis for the full day of heavy rain – this is the calm before the storm

We had a wonderful two night stay in the cabin and then headed out for some more camping and hiking before being chased back home a day early with another significant storm front. More on this last part of our trip in the next post.

Mountain High

Sunsets are proof that no matter what happens, every day can end beautifully.

~Kristen Butler

It’s been awhile since my last post and a lot has happened since then. Melissa and I took a couple of weeks to head to the mountains last month and then it has been busy here at home. So, the next couple of posts will catch up on our mountain adventure. We started at the place we were married, the beautiful Celo Inn. There are new innkeepers now, but the place is still as charming as ever.

One of our favorite mountain getaways, the Celo Inn (click photos to enlarge)

Our first afternoon we caught up with an old friend and former co-worker, Charlie, who now lives in Burnsville and has hiked every trail in that part of the state it seems. He gladly shared a couple of his favorite spots with us and so we headed up the Pinnacle Trail (aka, the Secret Trail) the next morning. It is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near the entrance road to Mount Mitchell State Park. The trail slowly ascends through a beautiful woodland setting to a rock outcrop with a phenomenal vista of parts of the Black Mountain Range. Charlie told us he almost never sees anyone on this trail, hence the moniker of The Secret Trail. But, we had two group of hikers join us at the summit. When asked, they said they saw it on the All Trails app (secret no more I guess).

Painted Trillium
Giant Chickweed – note how it looks like the flower has10 petals, but it is actually 5 petals that are each deeply divided

The trail had an abundance of wildflowers and bright green meadows of sedges under the gnarly trees. Painted Trilliums and Giant Chickweed were scattered all along the walk.

Bright green meadows of sedge were a highlight as we hiked the trail

Several birds kept us company along the way, including a couple of Canada Warblers that gave us a few good looks before flitting into the thickets. But the real treat was coming out of the trees into a shrub thicket and then climbing a rock outcrop to a wide-ranging view of the mountains beyond.

View from the Pinnacle

The next morning we headed to another trail near the Inn that Charlie had shared. One plant of interest he had recently seen on his hike there was large numbers of a larkspur species, so we were hopeful. This trail was in the valley and was flat and easy through the forest.

Sweet Shrub flowers are pollinated by beetles that crawl in for the fruity smell and become temporarily trapped by the unusual-shaped flowers

Sweet Shrub, Calycanthus floridus, was abundant, especially as we neared the maintained meadow.

View from the meadow along the trail

Past the meadow was a tremendous variety of wildflowers, including the larkspurs, which, unfortunately, had already gone to seed.

The unusual flower of Pipevine, Aristolochia macrophylla. This one had fallen off a plant high overhead. The pipe-shaped flowers trap flies inside for pollination. Downward pointing hairs that block the exit eventually wither and the flies can escape.
Puttyroot flowers, Aplectrum hyemale

One species I was thrilled to find was Puttyroot. We have a few of these in our woods back home, but I have never seen it in bloom (they apparently don’t bloom every year if nutrient conditions are not sufficient). Like another orchid in our woods, Cranefly Orchid, this species’ leaves (or leaf in this case as each plant has only one) are only present in the late Fall – early Spring when the tree canopy is bare. The leaves wither before the plant sends up a flower stalk. A sticky substance can be obtained from the roots and has been used to repair pottery and even glaze windows, hence that common name. Another name for this orchid is Adam and Eve. That name refers to the way two adjoining corms are joined by a slender stalk of rhizome.

A Puttyroot leaf, one per plant, occurs in winter and then dies back prior to the orchid flowering. This is a photo from our woods taken last February.

After our hike, we headed for our next overnight stay, the campground at Mount Mitchell State Park. Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet, is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. While temperatures reached an unseasonably warm 90˚ F at home during our travels, we wore our down coats on several days in these high mountains (just one of the many reasons I love it up here). We stopped at several overlooks on the parkway to take in the views and look at wildflowers. One spot had an incredible display of False Solomon’s Seal (aka Eastern Solomon’s-plume), Maianthemum racemosum. I’ve never seen such a solid stand of this plant!

A large stand of False Solomon’s Seal along the parkway

Since it was still early in the day, we bypassed the road up to Mt. Mitchell and headed to Craggy Gardens for a short hike. The grassy area at trail’s end is surrounded by rhododendron, although it was just a bit too early to see blooms. But, there were plenty of other things to observe…

Isolated tree at Craggy Gardens
I love the pattern and structure of the foliage of False Hellebore, Veratrum viride. All parts of this distinctive mountain plant are toxic.
Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa. The flowers attract a lot of pollinators and, later, the red berries are a favorite food for many bird species.

We finally headed up to Mount Mitchell and set up camp. We have camped at this site (site #1) before (there are only 9 sites, so it is easier to remember which ones you like). It is convenient to the parking lot and used to have a great view of the mountains and sunset. We were amazed at how tall the Fraser Firs had grown in the few years since our last visit. As we were finishing cooking our dinner, the Park Superintendent came up to warn campers of a severe thunderstorm warning for the area with potential for strong winds and hail. There was one dark cloud out to the west, so we started securing our site and, as a light rain started to fall, we headed down to the truck to eat our meals while the storm passed. As we sat in the cab, we noticed some small hail pellets begin to fall. Their size and intensity grew quickly and soon we were wondering if our windshield was going to survive this onslaught. Here is a quick sample of what it was like.

— Part of the intense hail storm as seen from inside our truck

The hail storm lasted perhaps 20-30 minutes, definitely the worst such storm I have experienced. It ended abruptly with hints of sunlight streaming through breaks in the clouds. We got out and looked around in amazement – the parking lot was covered in hail of all sizes and it had been washed into piles by the heavy rain that accompanied it. One other thing stood out after the storm – the intense smell of fir needles in the air. The hail had stripped off countless branch tips of the trees and the air was heavy with that tantalizing smell!

The parking lot after the storm
The ringed layers inside a hail stone show how different layers of ice are added as the hail circulates inside the thunderstorm due to strong updrafts.
After all that, a beautiful sunset over the mounds of hail along the road
Another view of the sunset

We were happy to see our tent had come through unscathed, although a little bit of rain had come in the vents which we had accidentally left open. Our truck fared pretty well but has a few tiny dents to remind us of the day (a smaller car parked next to us showed a much more dimpled surface). We tried to get a campfire started, but, as is almost always the case at Mt. Mitchell, the firewood up there seems to prefer to smoke rather than burn (I guess that comes with living in the clouds). We did have a welcome visitor at camp as we headed to bed – a beautiful Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander that emerged from a hole under our tent pad frame. More on our travels in the next post.

Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander

Millpond Meander

This is everybody’s dream swamp…

~A.B. Coleman (the man who donated Merchants Millpond to the state for a park)

Over a week ago, Melissa and I managed a two night get-away to one of our favorite state parks, Merchants Millpond. I think Mr. Coleman was right, this may be everybody’s “dream swamp”. It combines an open millpond dominated by Tupelo Gum and Bald Cypress, with a beautiful swamp and surrounding hardwood forest. It is a paddler’s paradise and a naturalist’s delight with an incredible variety of plants and animals to observe. We reserved one of the canoe-in campsites and arrived at the millpond late in the afternoon after stopping to see our friends, Floyd and Signa, long-time residents of the area, former park employees, and two of the best naturalists we know. We also met a good friend of theirs that has been paddling the millpond for a couple of decades and returns each year to take it all in.

View of the millpond from our campsite (click photos to enlarge)

We set up camp and headed out to look for wildlife as the sun slowly made its way to the horizon. We heard lots of new spring arrivals – especially Yellow-throated and Northern Parula Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Picking some of these small neo-tropical migrants out can be tricky, especially when they are mixed in with the large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting through the trees and stump island vegetation. But, one warbler was very cooperative, and we followed it around for several minutes as it sang and snagged a few insects.

Our cooperative Yellow-throated Warbler came down low enough for some good looks and pics

We also followed a few gnatcatchers as they gleaned some of the hundreds of tiny midges flying around the stump island vegetative communities common out on the millpond.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with that high-energy look they always seem to have

We headed back to camp and had a relaxing evening around a campfire listening to the swamp sounds we love – Barred Owls hooting, and the beginnings of the many frog calls that will soon flood the swamp. And we were amazed at the abundance of fireflies that kept us company until we headed into our tent.

The next morning we headed up toward Lassiter Swamp at the upper end of the millpond. Along the way, we enjoyed some of the many sights that make springtime in the swamp so special.

Red Maple seeds add a splash of color to the swamp
The showy blossoms of Horse Sugar (Symplocos tinctoria) along the shore of the millpond
Some sliders taking in the warm temperatures
One of several large Beaver lodges we passed on our way to Lassiter Swamp

Entering Lassiter Swamp is like crossing a bridge into another world. There are usually fewer paddlers (we only saw one other canoe up there all day) and the enchanted shapes of the Tupelo Gum (transformed by their interaction with Mistletoe) heighten the magic and mystery of the place. Plus, there are usually some interesting wildlife species to see or hear.

Mistletoe creates unusual growth forms in the branches of the Tupelo Gum trees in the swamp, lending a ghostly appearance to the scene
Another oddly-shaped tree greets paddlers in the swamp
Splashes of spring green stand out in the grays of the swamp
A huge Beaver lodge in the swamp yielded a surprise as we paddled to the other side…
A Nutria (an exotic mammal species introduced from South America into NC in the 1940’s for their fur) resting on the lodge. Nutria are larger than a Muskrat but smaller than a Beaver. They can be identified by their size and white whiskers on both sides of their nose. Sadly, we saw more Nutria on this trip than I have ever seen in the park.

Melissa spotted movement in the water and we heard the distinctive snort of a River Otter. Then another snort and another and we saw six otters swimming ahead, bobbing up and down as they expressed their displeasure (or curiosity). The otter split with two going downstream and the others upstream, but not before a couple swam over to check us out.

A couple of River Otter come over to investigate this strange visitor to their swamp

Along the stream channel we saw an occupied hollow tree base with three Nutria inside. The smallest one had just pulled its tail back into the hollow when I snapped this pic. A little farther along, we saw movement – our otters were lounging and playing on a moss-covered log up ahead…

Nutria hang-out

The otters hit the water and swam upstream, snorting at us as they went (I think it was definitely disapproval this time).

An otter peers over a cypress knee before gracefully sliding into the water

We saw them again a little upstream and all four (one is just off camera) raised up in the dark water to get a better look.

We came across this group of otter several times during our paddle up the swamp

Water levels were a bit low so we encountered several log jams and small Beaver dams across the creek that needed to be “scooched” over as we paddled upstream. We had our rubber boots on and had to get out once to pull the canoe over a log. Then we hit a larger barrier – a log across the channel with a pile of debris caught in the low spot. A couple of feet to one side was a small Cottonmouth attempting to blend in with the stick pile (you always need to check blockages like this for Cottonmouths before getting out up in the swamp). After failing to find a passage around it, Melissa decided to get out and try to pull us over. Let’s just say that didn’t go well (the debris pile turned out to be less sturdy than she thought). After helping pull her back up we decided to let the far reaches of the swamp remain unchallenged for this day. By the way, the Cottonmouth remained calm throughout the process and never even showed us the classic warning pose with mouth agape. I guess it figured we weren’t much of a threat.

Cottonmouth eyeing the paddlers at a channel blockage

We spent the rest of the afternoon paddling back to the millpond and enjoying the scenery and the wildlife.

Reflections on the millpond on a windless day can be stunning

There have been a few changes on the millpond since my days as a state parks district naturalist oh-so-many-years ago. There are a lot of noisy Canada Geese now nesting on the millpond; Nutria have expanded their range into the millpond area; and the first American Alligators have appeared. As we paddled the lower end of the millpond, Melissa saw a large ‘gator lying up against a swollen tree base. North Carolina is at the northern limit of the range of American Alligators, so they are not common in this part of the state. Our friends say there are probably three ‘gators on the millpond, but no babies have been reported in the years since they first appeared. We circled around it, admiring its size and taking some photos with our telephoto lenses. Looking at this guy, we certainly didn’t feel like getting too close (and you shouldn’t either). They don’t pose a danger to paddlers, but you should treat them with respect and not harass them. This individual was a large one, perhaps 9 feet in length and weighing in at about 200+ pounds.

An American Alligator
Such an amazing creature
…and so wide!

After the alligator, we paddled slowly back to camp, and I thought of what a truly great gift this was to the state of North Carolina, this dream of a swamp. There really is no other place quite like it. Thanks to all who have helped preserve it and make it available to the public for all these years and into the future.

Millpond reflections
The last light of the day highlights a Great Blue Heron in a cypress grove
Our final sunset on the millpond…but we will be back

Hunting in Huntington

It’s all about whose where on the food chain.

~Len Wein

My trip last weekend included some time at both Myrtle Beach State Park and nearby Huntington Beach State Park. While hanging with friends at the former park, I was impressed by the amount of bird activity and marine life (from the ocean pier) we saw. Cedar Waxwings were everywhere scarfing up the ripe Yaupon berries. The surprise birthday party for my friend was held at one of the picnic shelters and there happened to be some Yaupon trees along the road edge so I finally took my camera over toward the trees and stood for awhile hoping the flock would come in closer. They were pretty spooked by all the bicycles and cars going by so I managed only a few images.

Cedar Waxwing eating a Yaupon berry (click photos to enlarge)

While sitting at the picnic shelter, Scott saw an immature Red-tailed Hawk fly in and land on a pine limb over the road. It had captured what looked like a young squirrel. We all got up and looked at it and it just sat there looking around. I finally eased over underneath to get a photo. It finally took off and flew into the woods a few hundred feet away and began to eat its meal.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (see the bands on its tail?, that means it is an immature) that captured a young Gray Squirrel

Back at Huntington Beach, the falling tide on the salt marsh side of the causeway revealed a smorgasbord of dining opportunities for the local birds. Great and Snowy Egrets stalked the shallows for small fish.

A Great Egret strikes at a small fish

The Tri-colored Heron and Greater Yellowlegs were mainly going after smaller prey, the abundant transparent Grass Shrimp.

A Greater Yellowlegs catches a small Grass Shrimp at low tide

My favorite hunters were the pair of Ospreys patrolling both sides of the causeway. I was hoping to get a series of shots of one diving and catching a fish, their primary prey (an Osprey’s diet is 99% fish). An Osprey typically soars over a water body at a height of 30 – 100 feet, scanning the water surface for fish. When it spots one, it will usually momentarily hover, and then fold its wings and drop toward the water. I watched as one bird did this time and again and then pulled up before actually hitting the water.

An Osprey begins its dive after hovering for a few seconds
Wings angled and feet dangling are part of the speedy dive. I found it difficult to keep up with the diving birds with my camera

Finally, one bird hovered close to the causeway and quickly started its dive. I tried following it but missed a few images or had some blurry ones as it dove toward the surface near the causeway.

This one turned and headed straight down toward the water near me

It hit the water several feet out in front of me and was so close that I couldn’t get the whole bird in the photos! Their long wings give the extra lift to pull their prey out of the water. Their nostrils also shut tight as they hit the water.

The Osprey briefly disappeared under the water with a huge splash and then rebounded to the surface with wings spread

Studies show success rates for Osprey dives of between 24% and 82% (meaning they don’t catch a fish every time). They have specialized toe pads, strongly hooked talons, and a reversible outer toe, all of which give them a better grip on the fish.

The Osprey flaps and rises up out of the water, a fish in its right foot
It takes a couple of flaps to clear the surface

Osprey are the only raptor that has oily feathers, which allows them to shake off the water as they emerge from the surface, making it easier to lift off with their prey.

The bird clears the surface with powerful wing beats, pulling a Mullet up from the water
Look at those talons!
It looks like a tenuous grip on the struggling fish, but it managed to fly off with its meal

It all happened so fast, I lost track of the Osprey as it flew away, did the characteristic body shake that follows most dives (to shake off the water) and headed to a perch to eat its meal. Ospreys usually orient the fish head first to reduce drag as they fly. On this day, no Bald Eagle appeared to try to steal a meal and I finally saw the Osprey fly far across the marsh to a large dead tree.

All in all, a great couple of hours of hunting at Huntington Beach. Watching all that feeding had made me hungry, so I decided to grab a bite myself and head home.

Huntington Portraits

Portraits are about revealing aspects of an individual.

~Kehinde Wiley

Last weekend I drove down to Myrtle Beach, SC, for a surprise birthday party for my friend Scott. Of course, I had to visit one of my favorite birding and photography spots while I was there, the nearby Huntington Beach State Park. The causeway leading to the beach passes across an oasis for birds with a freshwater lake on one side and a tidal salt marsh on the other. With lots of time with old friends from my state park days, I didn’t make it over to Huntington at prime time of dawn or sunset, but still managed to grab a few mid-day photos of some of the residents. One of the great aspects of this place for photography is that the critters are very accustomed to people walking on the causeway and nearby trails and can be quite tolerant while you capture their portrait.

Great Blue Heron stalking prey among the oysters at low tide (click photos to enlarge)
A Tri-colored Heron moves about swiftly stabbing at small fish and shrimp
Snowy Egret staring into the water right before lunging at a small fish
A Great Egret sporting its breeding colors around the eyes grabs a killifish
I sat with this Double-crested Cormorant for several minutes while it dried its wings and preened. You need to be close to appreciate their eye color.
It is breeding season for the striking Anhingas and this male was looking dapper as it perched near a group of nesting pairs
While sitting with the cormorant, a passer-by asked me “Have you seen any?”. I asked, “Any what?” This is what she and many other visitors are hoping to see along the causeway.


Island Solitude

The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place.

~Rachel Carson

Last week was another first for me – a canoe camping trip to Masonboro Island. Masonboro Island is one 10 sites that make up the NC Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve. This 8.4 mile long island reserve was protected in 1991 and is the largest undeveloped barrier island along our southern coast. It lies between Wrightsville Beach to the north and Carolina Beach to the south. We put in at Trails End Park along the Intracoastal Waterway. We had tried calling the Reserve office on the way down just to ask a few questions about access, but staff were not available. We planned to launch on an incoming tide (a necessity for easy access to some parts of the island) late in the afternoon. As we were loading the canoe, a vehicle and trailer with state tags pulled in and it turned out to be the staff person we had tried to call earlier (some days you get lucky). They had been out cleaning up some trash on one of the dredge spoil islands that comprise the reserve. She gave us a 10-minute overview of where to go and what to expect and we were off. There was a stiff northwest breeze, so the usual 20+ minute paddle took us about 45 minutes. We started looking for a camping spot that would provide a little protection from the wind and settled on an old over-wash area behind a small patch of maritime shrub thicket.

Our campsite the first night gave us some protection from the steady winds (click photos to enlarge)
A beautiful sunset our first night

The wind continued to blow on our second day, finally dropping down late in the afternoon. I was a bit surprised by the lack of bird activity with just a few pelican fly-bys and only a handful of shorebirds in sight during the day. The most abundant was the ubiquitous Sanderling, the energizer bunny, wind-up toy of birds that can be found on any sandy beach. I always enjoy watching them chase back and forth in front of the wave action, gleaning whatever tiny food morsels they can find along the beach. I spent a lot of time just watching their antics and trying to get photos of their high enery movements. They were more cooperative than the other species of shorebirds we saw in terms of tolerating our presence, especially if you just got out ahead of them as they moved down the beach and sat still. They would forage until they got just even with me and quickly run a few feet just beyond me to resume feeding.

Sanderling probing the sand for food

Sanderlings can be found any month of the year on our beaches, but the largest numbers occur during migration in spring and fall. They breed in the high Arctic tundra. Their migration routes and distances vary considerably with the average migration distance from wintering to breeding grounds being over 5000 miles. No wonder they are so busy running up and down the beach feeding!

The quintessential Sanderling pose – on the move

At low tide we went back to the sound side of the island and saw why everyone says you need to paddle over on an incoming tide. The large bay we paddled in on was now a giant mud flat. Eastern Mud Snails (Ilyanassa obsoleta) covered the mud. It is hard to imagine how many snails are out there when you look out and see black dots covering the entire mud flat. They feed primarily on microorganisms (e.g., bacteria, blue-green algae and diatoms) that grow in and on the surface of the sediment but will also scavenge any dead fish or other animal carcasses. They are native to the Atlantic Coast of North America but have been accidentally introduced to the West Coast where it is considered an invasive species that is out-competing some of their native snail fauna.

Eastern Mud Snails exposed at low tide

The other notable thing you see at low tide are the oyster reefs along the marsh edges. Eastern Oysters are able to survive being exposed by tightly shutting their shells and maintaining water inside during the low tide cycle. These are incredibly important salt marsh organisms due to their water filtering capabilities (one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day while feeding), shore stabilization properties, and the habitat provided by the structure of oyster reefs. And they are a favorite food of many creatures from crabs to shorebirds to us humans. I also learned a valuable lesson about their habitat. We walked out in our rubber boots to examine some oysters. I stood in one spot for a few minutes and when I started to turn to walk away, one boot remained solidly stuck in the mud while the rest of me did a sideways plop into the thick goo (luckily, no photos exist of this embarrassing moment in the life of a naturalist).

Eastern Oysters (Crassostrea virginica) at low tide

Later in the day, the wind finally started to subside and we decided (well, really, Melissa decided) to move our campsite closer to the ocean in a small break in the dunes. The high tide mark was about 15 feet from our tent, so I kept an eye on the incoming ocean water. But, all was good and it turned out to be one of the most beautiful campsites ever.

We spent the afternoon walking up and down the deserted beach (we were the only humans on the island for our entire stay) looking for shells, birds, and scanning the ocean for marine life (we did finally see a pod of dolphins).

A small flock of shorebirds (Short-billed Dowitchers and Willets) resting on the beach
A pair of American Oystercatchers, one with legs bands

The most interesting birds we observed were several pairs of American Oystercatchers scattered along the beach. We heard many have just recently arrived back here for breeding (they typically nest on sand and shell beaches, at marsh edges, and other areas with little or no vegetation). Oystercatchers are boldly patterned and large for a shorebird and they have a conspicuous long red bill. They use this bill to probe for mussels and other invertebrates in sand and mud and to feed in a remarkable way on oysters and other shelled creatures. As the tide drops, oystercatchers move out onto the oyster reefs and search for oysters with partially open shells. They then use that knife-like bill to stab the abductor muscles that hold the two halves of the shell together so the oyster cannot close. The bird then pulls out and eats the soft parts of the oyster. They also use their beak to hammer open softer shelled bivalves.

American Oystercatcher with leg bands CUT

While watching these fascinating birds, I noticed some leg bands on one bird in three of the pairs I observed. Back home, I searched the internet and found the banding program is run by the American Oystercatcher Working Group. From their web site – Since 1999, over 6,000 American Oystercatchers have been banded in the U.S. and Mexico. Banding individual birds helps researchers learn about demographics, movement, habitat requirements. American Oystercatchers are a species of concern due to declining numbers in recent decades. I filled out the report forms and should soon be notified of the data on these particular birds. I’ll be sure to share when I get additional feedback.

Another spectacular sunset

The wind died and we enjoyed another beautiful sunset, dinner, and the a campfire on the beach (something Melissa has always wanted). She found some abandoned firewood near our first campsite (you must bring your own firewood if you want a campfire on Masonboro). We built a fire below the high tide mark so the next tide would remove all traces and we enjoyed a long and relaxing campfire with the sounds of the ocean and a beautiful night sky as our only companions on our last night on this magical island.

The glow on the horizon just before sunrise
Coyote tracks

The staff person we spoke with at the launch site mentioned that coyotes are on Masonboro and we should protect our food (just as we would from any other critter when camping). We stored our supplies in our “bear canister” and, though I kept a lookout at sunrise and sunset, I never saw any mammals on the island. But on our last morning, we walked down the beach and found a line of coyote tracks that went by our campsite. Some time during the night, the coyote had come down off a steep dune face and trotted in the typical straight line gait until it got to within about 50 feet of the dune break where our tent was set up. It then veered off toward the ocean and returned back to above the high tide mark once it was about 50 feet past us. This is why I like our trail cameras back home so much – you never know what is going on outside after you go to sleep.

The steep dune face of the winter beach

Being by ourselves on a deserted island is a good way to purge some of the world’s troubles from your brain for at least a short while. Masoboro looks like it could be a bit crowded at times in warm weather, but we lucked out and experienced the island solitude for a couple of days and it was good!

One thing we did to pass the time was walk along the beach, looking at the small wonders that wash up from the depths. We collected a couple of shells but I really enjoy looking at the patterns created by the forces of wind and water. Below are a few shots of natural patterns we found as we enjoyed the island and nearby beaches.

Live Oak tree canopy on the beach at Fort Fisher
Algae swirls on the coquina rock outcrop at Fort Fisher at low tide
Wind ripples on dry sand on Masonboro Island
Patterns in the sand from water caught in low spots on the upper beach
Sand patterns from water in pools on the beach

Day-tripping

I just take it one day at a time, and it always leads you to the right place.

~ Kyle Massey

My two recent trips to Pungo were two day trips, leaving home before dawn and leaving the refuge after sunset. While not the ideal way to do this, even a day trip ca yield some great wildlife moments. I shared some images and stories about the dominant winter birds (Tundra Swans and Snow Geese) in my last post. This one covers some of the other interesting wildlife I (we, on the second trip) encountered.

The first thing I saw was an adult Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree in someone’s yard on the way in to the refuge. The hawk seemed to be surveying the hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding in the corn field across the road. (click photos to enlarge)
A flooded portion of a cornfield across the canal on private land had this Greater Yellowlegs patrolling the shallows.
Just beyond the shorebird was an immature Bald Eagle out in the field. There may have been a small carcass of some sort as there were also a couple of crows just out of camera view.
Another car pulled up and the eagle took to the skies.
Farther down the road was an immature Red-shouldered Hawk surveying the roadside canal. They feed on amphibians, small reptiles, birds, and small mammals, as well as invertebrates like earthworms. Why is it the hawks that don’t fly away as I approach are always surrounded by a thousand sticks in the background (or right in front of their head)?
I watched this hawk for about 10 minutes before yet another car pulled in and it flew to a perch a little farther back from the road
A few deer were out grazing along some grassy roadways
February is the month when large flocks of blackbirds (mostly Red-winged Blackbirds) flood the fields with their undulating swarms and noisy antics. This field was near one with a few hundred Tundra Swans feeding on the waste corn (the swans can be seen in the background as a white line)
Zoom in to see the red epaulets of the male birds. Females are all brown (streaked). There are also several Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in with this flock (can you find any?)
Turtles were out basking in the sun in many of the canals. One log in a swamp forest along the road had this beautiful Spotted Turtle.
I stepped out of the car to receive a phone call (much to my surprise since most of the refuge has no cell phone service) and was surprised by a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds foraging in the swamp next to the road.

On my first trip, I saw 4 River Otter, a family grouping (I think) that I have seen on other trips to Pungo this winter. The next week we had a 9 otter day, with three groupings of 2, 3, and 4 otters seen at different times and locations. I didn’t try to get close to any but did get to spend quite a while watching a group of 4 where one had a very large fish that it didn’t want to share.

This otter was swimming with two others and decided to climb out on the back across the canal from where i was standing

–A group of River Otters on a canal bank, and one of them apparently doesn’t want to share any of its huge fish meal

A pair of otters came up out of the canal and started running down the road toward me. They eventually thought better of it and returned to the canal.

We stopped the car to look at an American Bittern, one of two we saw in Marsh A, when I heard squalls across the canal. It turned out to be the otters arguing over the large fish one had captured. For the next hour, we had this beautiful bird on one side of the road and the four otter on the other. Melissa stayed with the otter while I went back and forth trying to observe and photograph both wildlife events. There were a few other cars nearby but they were mainly concentrating on the thousands of swans in the shallow water of Marsh A just down the road.

An American Bittern slowly moves through the grasses looking for prey. I watched it catch three items but could never clearly see what it caught because it was behind a clump of grass each time.
When the bittern was among the grasses, it was very difficult to spot due to its streaked camouflage. Here it creeps across an opening and you can see that intense look they always seem to show.
Another bird that is a master of disguise is the Wilson’s Snipe. Their streaked plumage blends in perfectly with their primary habitat – edges of wet marshy areas or muddy fields of patchy grass. You can drive by and never see one, and then stop, look around, still nothing. But if you make a noise or get out of your car, they can explode into the air right in front of you and then zigzag to a landing spot only to vanish once more. This one has its back toward me.
I took dozens of photos of a group of snipe right next to the road and managed only two shots where they are out in the open enough to see the entire bird.
One of the snipe finally walked across a small area of open water and gave me a chance for a reflection photo

On one trip, I introduced myself to a woman I follow on social media that I recognized walking along the road. She is an excellent photographer and visits Pungo way more than I do. She was trying to get a photo of a screech owl she had found in a hollow next to the road. She was gracious enough to show me the tree, though the bird wasn’t visible at the time (she said it would slide down into the hole when a car drove by and it had been a very busy day on the refuge). I thanked her and checked on the tree later that day, but still no owl. On my second trip, I spotted the owl the first time I drove by, but the light was terrible. I decided to wait until late that afternoon when the low angle sunlight would flood into this group of trees.

Eastern Screech Owl (red color morph) resting in a hollow tree opening. There are a lot of branches in front of this tree, so it is difficult to find a spot for a clear view.

We were trying to not disturb the owl and be discreet in our attempts to get a photo so as to not attract a crowd that might disrupt the little guy’s napping. The owl didn’t seem to mind our vehicle slowly driving by and stopping for a few seconds, so we did a couple of back-and-forths, hoping to get a clear look. After admiring this beauty on several drive-bys, we decided to move on and let it rest comfortably. I wonder how many times I have driven by this bird (and others) without seeing it? I guess that is one reason to keep going back…there is always something new to observe, even if only on a day trip. Here’s looking forward to many more in the future.

Our final look at the resting owl as it was facing into the setting sun. The golden light actually makes it even more difficult to see this color owl since the surrounding trees all take on a reddish-golden hue in the low angle light. I have seen both red (generally called rufous) and gray color morphs on the refuge. No one is quite certain what advantage, if any, a bird derives from being one color or the other.

Those White Winter Birds

Twenty thousand birds moved away from me as one, like a ground-hugging white cloud…

~Michael Pollan

I managed a couple of trips to my favorite NC winter place recently and was rewarded with some wonderful scenes of wide colorful skies, masses of birds, quiet moments of watching wildlife, and some surprises. I’ll cover much of the events in this and the next post. Today, I’ll focus on the birds, specifically those elegant white birds of winter – Great Egrets, Tundra Swans, and Snow Geese (well, egrets can be seen any time of year actually). In addition to the Pungo Unit, I spent some time at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, where I enjoyed watching some Great Egrets hunting in the flooded impoundment. Their typical hunting strategy involves walking slowly in shallow water, and moving their head and neck to get a closer look at potential prey. They then either strike quickly or lean in close to the water and, with incredible speed, slice through the surface to snag a meal. Their preferred food is small fish, although I have seen them take invertebrates, fairly large fish, and a friend recently reported one catching an amphiuma (a large aquatic salamander). Below is a record of one that walked by me several times spearing tiny fish.

A Great Egret does the leeeaaan for a successful strike (click photos to enlarge)
A Great Egret spears a small fish, and then did it again, and again, and…

Over at Pungo, the water levels have finally come back up to normal in the impoundments and the swans are appreciating it. There were a few thousand in Marsh A and many more in the flooded corn field along D-Canal Road. Even though I have taken hundreds (no, probably a few thousand) photos of swans over the years, I enjoy watching and listening to them so much, I always manage to spend an hour or two sitting in the car at Marsh A and taking it all in.

One of the most elegant moves a swan makes is the wing flap They do this frequently as part of preening and also after interacting with other swans in the so-called triumph ceremony
I never tire of watching (and listening) to swans taking flight…the huge wings flapping and the slap, slap, slap of their large webbed feet hitting the water surface as they run to gain lift
A few swans engaged in acrobatic bathing – rolling over in the water, flapping, splashing, dunking their heads and necks, and then shaking it all off before repeating the process

–A quick video clip of a swan taking an energetic bath

A lone Snow Goose swims among thousands of swans in Marsh A

I always hope to be where the Snow Geese are at sunset. They typically fly off the lake and head out to a field to feed a half hour or more before the sun goes down. If you are near, the sights and sounds of thousands of birds flying overhead are something you never forget.

Snow Geese landing in one the fields at Pungo already occupied by a few hundred Tundra Swans

–The sunset show of thousands of Snow Geese circling a field at Pungo (taken the same day as the photo above, but from the other side of the field)

A bonus on our last trip was the rising moon. We kept waiting for the Snow Geese to fly off the lake and head to the fields, but they were still on the lake at 5:30 p.m. (much later than on the trip where I filmed their flock behavior). We waited at a field with hundreds of swans feeding as that is usually a good bet where the geese will go when they finally lift off for their evening feed.

Tundra Swans across a rising moon

Melissa finally spotted the geese flying off the lake at about 5:45 p.m., but they didn’t head our way. Instead they flew north, so we hustled over to “Bear Road” and, sure enough, there was the flock of thousands of Snow Geese circling the corn field (the corn had been knocked down in the last few days so was prime for the birds). They kept circling for about 15 minutes, an unusually long time this late in the day. I managed a few images of geese flying across the moon while we watched. At last, birds started to drop into the field, but they only only stayed a short time before taking off and flying back to the lake. They may be getting antsy to head north. I probably won’t see them again this winter but I have promised myself to spend more time down there next year!

Snow Geese flying across the moon – they will probably be gone within days (if not already as you read this)