King of the Marsh

Wherever there are extensive marshes by the sides of sluggish streams, where the bellowings of the alligator are heard at intervals, and the pipings of myriads of frogs fill the air, there is found the Fresh-water Marsh-hen…

~John James Audubon, as described by his friend, John Bachman, 1840

This post should have been written a month ago, when I made these observations. But, one thing leads to another these days, so it is a bit late in getting on the blog. It started as I was searching for bears at my favorite haunt, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I paused to look for bears in trees at a spot I had seen them the day before, when suddenly, something ran out into the dirt road ahead of me. It was a King Rail! I fired a couple of quick frames, but blew the shots, as the rail moved quickly into the tall grasses between the road and the canal. As I was searching the vegetation, my eye caught another movement out in the open…

king rail chick

Juvenile King Rail pauses at the edge of the dirt road before disappearing into the grass (click photo to enlarge)

I was thrilled! I had only seen adult King Rails, and only three times over my many years of traipsing these haunts. I had heard their distinctive calls on many trips, but they tend to be an elusive critter and blend in very well in the dense vegetation of their marshy homes. The little one quickly disappeared, probably trailing its mom. I moved the car toward the edge of the canal, hoping to see the birds if they crossed.

king rail and reflection

Adult King Rail crossing a log on the canal

She suddenly appeared on a log sticking out into the canal, turning briefly to look back toward where the young bird had been, then walking across and onto the far bank. I looked up from the camera, and saw five tiny black forms swimming across the canal, all partially obscured by some tall grasses.

king rail chick struggling on log

Young rail clawing its way up onto a log

I quickly moved the car forward and managed to get one shot of the straggler as it struggled to climb up onto the log where its mom had been moments before. I could see the little gang of rails following the adult as she wound her way through the vegetation and back into the dense shrubs. These things can happen fast, and I guess I was lucky to have managed a few images, but I was thankful for the chance to see this family at all. I waited for a few minutes, but imagine she had ushered her brood far away from the road. So, I started to drive on, and then…

King Rail

Another rail feeding next to the canal, just a few yards down the road

There was another rail, just across the canal from me. This one was just threading its way through the vegetation along the canal, probing and feeding. King rails feed on a variety of invertebrates including aquatic insects, crayfish, and other small critters like frogs and fish.

King rail in alligator weed

I spent about 45 minutes with this cooperative bird

I ended up spending quite a bit of time following this bird as it moved back and forth along the canal bank, seemingly unconcerned about the car inching along on the opposite bank. This was when another vehicle pulled up, realized I was watching “just a bird” and drove off. I reported on what I saw when I turned back around to look at the rail in an earlier post.

king rail showing feet

Check out those feet

On two occasions, the rail stopped to stretch and preen. At one point it came out onto a mud bank where its huge feet were clearly visible, a great adaptation for walking on the top of marsh vegetation.

king rail calling

The rail graced me with a few calls while I watched

But, the highlight for me was when the rail let loose with its distinctive, harsh and loud kik-kik-kik call. As I mentioned, I have heard this call many times and tried more often than I can count to find the caller, and here was on out in the open, with just me as an observer. Life is good!

And here is a very brief clip for you to enjoy…

 

Just a Bird…

Spend time every day looking and listening without any ulterior motive whatsoever. Look not as a writer, or as a philosopher, not even as a scientist or artist—look and listen, simply, like a child, for enjoyment, because the world is interesting and beautiful. Let in nature without the vast and complicated apparatus of duty, ambition, habit, morals, profession—look and listen like a child to the robin in the tree.

~David Grayson

Much of my time outdoors is spent wandering, not for something in particular, but just wandering and being open to whatever I discover. Even in a place like Yellowstone, known to wildlife-watchers as one of the premier places in North America to observe charismatic megafauna like bison, bears elk, and wolves, there are many treasures that await those who are open to them.

Western tanager

Western tanager male (click photos to enlarge)

Before my guests arrived, I stopped at a pullout in Lamar Canyon to scan the far ridges for some of those magafauna I mentioned, but what caught my eye was brilliant flash of yellow and orange in a nearby conifer. A male Western tanager, one of the most beautiful birds in Yellowstone! Suddenly, there was another, and then another. I raced over to the van for my camera, long lens, and tripod, and that caught the attention of a passing motorist. The common refrain when someone sees a spotting scope or long lens pointing at something is “Whaddya have?” or something similar. I responded with “a  couple of Western tanagers”, and got that look, the one I often get when I am photographing a bird, insect, or something besides one of the big mammals. It is even sometimes accompanied by that phrase, “It’s just a bird”, and then they drive off. Well, I have had many memorable just a bird moments over the years, too many to recall really, and that goes for birds in Yellowstone as well. And a few Western tanagers are sure to catch my attention anytime. A couple of other park visitors even came over to try to photograph them once I pointed them out.

Below are a few more of those moments from this trip.

Hawk attacking eagle

A hawk dive bombs a bald eagle that was flying too close to its nest

sparrow nest 1

The ground nest of a vesper sparrow that we accidentally flushed while walking through the sagebrush

Fledgling American robin

A fledgling American robin near my cabin in Silver Gate

Red-naped sapsucker in hole

A red-naped sapsucker peers out of its nest cavity in an aspen tree

Flicker male at nest 1

A male Northern flicker at its nest cavity after feeding a young bird

Flicker at nest

Female Northern flicker feeding young

American avocets

American avocets feeding in Floating Island Lake

American avocet

American avocet

Osprey at nest

Osprey nest with one bird  sitting on eggs, and the mate sitting nearby

Osprey coming in for fish

Osprey making a strafing run on cutthroat trout spawning in the creek at Trout Lake

Osprey catching trout

Osprey snags a trout just behind the tall grass along the creek

Osprey catching trout close up

It looks like the fish is caught by only one talon

Osprey catching trout 1

The osprey tried to lift off with its struggling prey

Osprey flying off with trout

Right after this photo was taken, the trout wriggled free and fell back onto the water

Bird species observed in and around Yellowstone National Park – June 10-18, 2017

60 species:

Trumpeter Swan; Canada Goose; American Wigeon; Mallard; Cinnamon Teal; Green-winged Teal; Northern Shoveler; Ring-necked Duck; Lesser Scaup; Bufflehead; Barrow’s Goldeneye; Common Merganser; Ruddy Duck; Ruffed Grouse; Western Grebe; American White Pelican; Osprey; Bald Eagle; Red-tailed Hawk; American Coot; Sandhill Crane; Killdeer; American Avocet; Wilson’s Snipe (heard); Wilson’s Phalarope; California Gull; Rock Pigeon; Great Horned Owl; Williamson’s Sapsucker; Red-naped Sapsucker; Northern Flicker; American Kestrel; Peregrine Falcon; Gray Jay; Stellar’s Jay; Black-billed Magpie; Common Raven; Tree Swallow; Violet-green Swallow; Cliff Swallow; Barn Swallow; Mountain Chickadee; House Wren; American Dipper; Mountain Bluebird; American Robin; European Starling; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Chipping Sparrow; Vesper Sparrow; White-crowned Sparrow; Dark-eyed Junco; Western Tanager; Red-winged Blackbird; Western Meadowlark; Yellow-headed Blackbird; Brewer’s Blackbird; Brown-headed Cowbird; Cassin’s Finch; Pine Siskin

Baby Buffalo

Are you there? Can you hear me? Somewhere near me?
In the morning, long ago, had to hold you so close, had to never let go.
Time on the river sliding on by. Hard to believe, wink of an eye.

Where’d you go, Baby Buffalo?

~James Taylor – song lyrics from Baby Buffalo

Bull bison laying down

Large bull bison striking a regal pose (click photos to enlarge)

I have always been fascinated by bison – their size, power, protective instincts toward their young, and seemingly total indifference to us humans. Herd size is certainly larger now than when I first started visiting the park, so much so that there are now efforts to control the population to avoid overgrazing in their prime habitats in the park. Plus, the larger the herd, the more conflicts arise with state officials and local ranchers when bison migrate out of the park in winter to graze in areas of lower snow cover. Last winter, park officials and hunters outside the park culled more than 1200 animals from the herd. It is tough for me to accept these management decisions, but that is the agreed-upon Interagency Bison Management Plan at this point. More details on this can be found on the park web site.

Baby bison running

Baby buffalo frolicking in the herd

According to the park web site, “Yellowstone bison currently reproduce and survive at relatively high rates compared to many other large, wild, mammal species. The bison population increases by 10 to 17% every year.” Simply stated, bison are killed each year because there are too many animals in too small a space in the park. It is hard to state these cold statistics in the same post that I am glorifying the beauty and playfulness of baby bison, but that has been the state of bison management in Yellowstone for many years. The good news is that the herd is doing well.

bison cow and calf

Bison calf sticking close to its mother

May and June are the primary birthing months for bison and I took every opportunity to watch them on this trip. Newborn bison weigh 40-50 pounds and are able to move with the herd within a few hours of being born.

Baby bison head shot

Baby buffalo giving me the once over as the herd moves by my parked car

They are a reddish-orange color for the first few months of their life, changing to more brown by the end of summer. When they are active, they tend to frolic and jump or play with other calves in between bouts of nursing. Then they seem to run of gas and plop on the grass and sleep.

Baby bison darker color

Laying down for a nap

Pair of baby bison interacting

A pair of calves nuzzling each other

Baby bison trying to get another to play

It can be tough to get some sleep when another calf wants to play

Baby bison head shot small horns showing 1

The horn buds are more prominent on male calves

Baby bison head in flowers

Cuteness bisonified

A couple of mornings I was out by myself early and enjoyed just sitting and watching (and listening) to these magnificent animals and their playful young. And it wouldn’t be a trip to Yellowstone without a bison jam – a herd moving across or along a roadway. Below is a brief video clip so you can get a feel for what is like sharing the road with these behemoths.

Most of this herd had already walked by us by the time I got my phone out for the video. It can be a bit disconcerting when these huge animals lumber by your car and look into your window as they walk past. But such is the Yellowstone experience – a connection to an iconic animal of the West and a chance to appreciate their power and beauty in their landscape. I can only hope bison managers can figure out some other solutions to these bison population and political issues.

 

Our Special Place

The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know… Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard…To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.

~Barry Lopez

I just returned from eight days in my favorite place, Yellowstone National Park. If you follow this blog, you know I have a love affair with this park and its wildness. I have been to the park over 40 times in the last 30 years, in every season, and still can’t get enough of the scenery, wildlife, and the big skies of Wyoming and Montana (a small part of the park is also in Idaho). Melissa is out there right now with a group of educators on a museum trip, and I know she feels the same way.

I arrived a couple of days ahead of a group of friends and their family, and we spent the first part of our trip in the wildlife-rich area of the Northern Range. My first day, I soon encountered what turned out to be a bear jam at the bridge over the Gardner River. The next morning, there was another bear jam at this same location. Now, look at the first two images and decide what type of bears I saw.

Grizzly 1

My first animal in the park- a blank bear (click photos to enlarge)

Cinnamon Black Bear

My second bear – a blank bear

So, what did you decide? The first sighting was a grizzly bear. Note the shoulder hump and dished facial profile. The second bear is a cinnamon-colored black bear. The facial profile is much straighter from the forehead to the nose, and there is a lack of a shoulder hump (although that can be tricky depending on the angle you see the bear and how it is standing). Unlike here in North Carolina, black bears in Yellowstone vary quite a bit in color. The park web site states that “about 50% of black bears are black in color, others are brown, blond, and cinnamon”. Later in the week we saw a black bear sow (black in color) that had two cubs of the year that were cinnamon.

Red fox at YRPAT

My second animal upon arrival in the park was a beautiful red fox

It turned out to be a very good week for fox sightings with a total of 8 (one or two may have been the same fox on different days). The reduction in coyotes after the reintroduction of wolves in 1995 has apparently led to an increase in the red fox population. Again, from the park web site – there are 3 native subspecies of red foxes in the western United States. Most foxes in the lower 48 states (especially in the eastern and plain states) are a subspecies of fox introduced into this country from Europe in the 1700s and 1800s for fox hunts and fur farms. As luck would have it, a couple of us had the sought-after “three dog day”, where we saw a fox, coyote, and wolf on the same day. Several of us saw the pups at the wolf den along Slough Creek, and I watched the Junction pack chase a herd of bison (but give up after failing to catch a calf twice). But all the wolves were too far away for decent photos.

Pronghorn buck 1

Pronghorn buck

The population of pronghorns seems to have increased in the 30 years I have been visiting the park, especially in the Lamar Valley and Little America areas. This time of year, bands of bucks tend to hang out together in small groups, often practicing their skills for future battles for females. Both sexes have horns, but bucks have longer horns, a black cheek patch, and black nose.

Pronghorn with twins

Pronghorn doe nursing her twin fawns

Pronghorn does are giving birth now and we saw a few females with fawns, most often twins. Mothers nurse their young a few times each day, then leave them laying in cover, in grass or sagebrush areas, and go off to feed, usually staying within a hundred yards or so of the young. Young pronghorn supposedly have no scent and will lay still until you almost step on them before running off. This particular doe may have lost one fawn to a predator (coyotes, wolves, and bears, among others, prey on pronghorn young) as we saw only one young with her later in the week (she was using a particular stretch of sagebrush near the road all week). Adult pronghorns use their keen eyesight and running ability (they can run up to 60 miles per hour) to escape predators.

Uinta squealing

Uinta ground squirrel scolding me from the right…

Uinta squealing 1

from head-on….

Uinta squealing 2

and from the left.

One of the most abundant mammals in the park is the Uinta ground squirrel. These little rodents inhabit open habitats throughout the park and are particularly common in the Mammoth area and out in the sagebrush flats of Lamar. They live in burrows and you see the holes they make scattered throughout the sagebrush flats. Larger holes indicate where something, often a badger, has dug out a ground squirrel for a meal. I think everything preys on these little guys (raptors, snakes, coyotes, badgers, foxes, bears, wolves, and anything else with a taste for meat). That may be why they often perch atop a prominent rock or bush and scan for danger. When they see something, they let out a high-pitched squeak or trill. The fellow above certainly did not approve of me parking so close to his boulder, and he let me, and the rest of the world, know it.

Coyote

Coyote that was being followed by…

Badger

a badger.

A case in point was a coyote I spotted one afternoon near the road in Lamar Valley. When I slowed for a look, one of the teenagers in our group spotted a badger trailing close behind. These two predators will sometimes work in tandem, one taking advantage of anything scared up or missed by the other. We watched the badger for several minutes as it furiously dug a hole in the bank and disappeared. They often dig a new sleeping den every night, and can make short work of that, or digging out a ground squirrel, using their powerful shoulders and claws.

Yellow-bellied marmot watching fox

Yellow-bellied marmot assumes the pose as it watches a red fox nearby

Another, larger, rodent in the park is the yellow-bellied marmot. It looks and acts somewhat like our groundhog, but prefers rockier terrain. This one had spotted a hunting red fox and alerted the area with a sharp whistle, and this somewhat laid back pose.

Red fox at Junction Butter

This red fox just finished caching some food

This fox had caused the marmot to be on alert, but did manage to catch a small rodent (probably a ground squirrel or vole) while we watched. It gulped down its catch and then trotted off. We saw it again a few minutes later with something else in its mouth, which it proceeded to cache by burying it in the dirt. After digging a hole with its front legs and stashing the prize, it used its long nose to scoop and shovel dirt into the hole. The fox even used its nose to pound down the disturbed soil to help hide its future meal. Unfortunately, we also saw foxes that were being fed in one of the towns just outside the park. As is usually the case, this often leads to tragedy as the animals become habituated to humans.

Canyon

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on a rainy day

I admit, I have a preference for the northern part of the park and its wide open vistas, waterways, and abundant wildlife. Once you head into one of the more developed sections around the famed thermal features, life can get a bit more (actually, a lot more) hectic. But, as a ranger once told our group, no matter what you thought you came to see in Yellowstone – the wildlife, the scenery, the incredible skies – you actually came to see the geology. That’s because the incredible geologic past (and present) of this landscape is what has created all of these features and allowed them to be preserved for us to enjoy as the worlds’ first national park. As we headed south, we did, indeed, pick up more crowds, although our stop at Canyon was rather tranquil due to a light rain keeping most people away. In fact, this was probably the second wettest trip in all my years of going to the park. We even had two days with snow! I would definitely trade this NC heat for some of that cool June weather.

Old Faithful crowds

The bleachers at Old Faithful are full, waiting for “the show”

Our day in the geyser basins proved more typical of summer – large crowds, limited parking, and some not-so-great visitor behavior including walking off boardwalks in thermal areas and getting way too close to large animals for selfies.

Mud pot bubble

Bubbling mud at Fountain Paint Pots

Mud pot bubble 1

Aliens in the mud

Fountain Paint Pots continues to impress me, partly due to my fascination with the mud pots and my obsession to photograph interesting shapes as the mud bubbles pop. I was unable to walk my favorite thermal feature, Grand Prismatic, because there was no parking, so I had to drop off my folks and let them walk while I waited down the road to return and pick them up. Still, even from several hundred yards away, the prismatic pool lives up to its name with rainbow colors rising in the dense steam above this, the largest hot spring in the park.

This is the first of a couple of posts about this trip that I will try to get to this week. Looking through the images helps me to relive those moments, to find peace in knowing that these wild creatures and wild places still exist. And, in spite of the crowds, Yellowstone is a place where we can all find something we need now more than ever – a chance to experience the best that our planet offers to those willing to just take the time to walk, watch, and listen. Below are a few of the other wild creatures we encountered last week. I’ll post something about the birds and the ubiquitous bison soon.

Chipmunk with dandelion seed head close up

A chipmunk grazes on wildflower seeds

Red squirrel and cone

Red squirrel with a mouthful outside my cabin in Silver Gate

Columbia spotted frog

A Columbia spotted frog, one of only 5 species of amphibians in the park (in 2014, a breeding population of Plains spadefoot toad was found in the park, raising the number to 5)

Bull elk laying down

Bull elk in velvet taking a siesta

Bull moose

One of many moose we saw in the northeast section of the park and vicinity

A Festival for Bears

May this intelligent animal always have a place. We need to better understand bears.

~Mike McIntosh

Last weekend was the third annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC. I have missed the previous ones due to trips to Yellowstone, but I finally managed to visit this year. I was curious how the festival was organized and what messages might be going out to the public about one of my favorite mammal species. My old workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, had been asked to provide guided tours of nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Luckily, I was able to join as a volunteer guide for the tours on Saturday – three 3-hours tours starting at 5:30 a.m., 1:45 p.m., and 6 p.m. A full day! Between tours on Saturday we visited some of the festivities that ranged from the usual festival goofiness to interesting information about local wildlife.

Bear festival entrance

Entrance to the NC Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)

Bearicade

Lots of plays on words at the festival

Bronco bear

Festival mascot taking a turn on the bronco bear. As the guy in charge of this ride said, you will not see this anywhere else.

Kiddie bear ride

The coolest kiddie ride I have ever seen – the bear train

The tours themselves turned out to be a great learning experience for all involved. During the three tours on Saturday we had 34 bear sightings, only a few of which were the same bear on different tours. I didn’t take many photos during the tours, but highlights included 3 cubs of the year in a tree, and, on a later tour, an adult lounging in a tree.

Black bear in tree

Black bear lounging in willow tree

Sunday morning, I decided to head over to the refuge by myself and then head home early. I spent a few hours cruising the roads looking for bears and whatever else the refuge might offer, and I was not disappointed. I ended the day with 14 bear sightings for a personal total of 48 for the two days I was down there. The 7 tours by the museum over the three festival days yielded an impressive 71 bear sightings, including several very close to the bus.

Below are some of the highlights of my time on the refuge:

Large black bear at sunrise

Sunrise bear

Large black bear at sunrise in soybeans

Sunrise bear in soybeans

Large black bear at sunrise on new bear rd

Sunrise bear checking me out before heading into woods

large bear on canal bank

Surprise bear

I was photographing a king rail (more on that in a later post) along a canal bank. A truck pulled up and stopped next to me to see what I was seeing. When they realized it was “just a bird”, they drove off. I glanced at their truck as they drove away. When I turned back to the rail, this huge bear had popped over the canal bank less than 30 feet away and was looking at me. The people in the truck never saw it.

large bear on canal bank 1

I have seen this big fellow before

I quickly switched lenses and managed a few photos of the “surprise bear” before it lumbered off.

tundra swans in summer

Tundra swans still hanging out at Pungo

This is the largest number of “lost swans” I have ever seen on the refuge after the migration season. Would love to know their story of why they are still here.

northern bobwhite in tree

Northern bobwhite quail

bear along road

Roadside bear

My last bear of the day was a small guy feeding along the roadside. It had a slight limp caused by a crooked left hind leg. I sat in the car and watched this bear for about 30 minutes as it grazed on vegetation and pulled at a few downed logs looking for a snack. It didn’t seem too hampered by its limp. I saw a couple of other bears on this trip with leg injuries – my sunrise bear had what looked like a swollen knee (see photo early in post); I saw another large male that had probably been in a fight with another male for breeding rights and had a severe limp and gash on a hind leg. But most of the bears we saw looked quite healthy. It is always a treat to be able to watch wildlife doing what they do – living their lives, feeding, resting in the shade high up in a tree, cooling off in a canal to beat the heat, or caring for their young. I think this is the real value of the festival, giving people a chance to see wild bears as beautiful creatures that have lives and struggles in some ways not all that different from ours. I hope it helps us all learn to share our habitats with these magnificent animals. And, once again, the Pungo Unit has proven itself to be one of the best places I know to share the magic of wildlife with others. I look forward to my next visit.

Where Insects Fear to Tread

There is no exquisite beauty …without some strangeness.

~Edgar Allan Poe

Part two of our quest for carnivorous plants took us first to the Green Swamp, a well-known NC Nature Conservancy preserve site in Brunswick and Columbus counties. It was getting late in the day, so we went straight to the main access point, a small parking area next to a borrow pit along Hwy 211. We hiked in along the trail, through a short stretch of dense pocosin vegetation, and out into the open longleaf pine savanna.

Longleaf pine savanna, Green Swamp

Longleaf pine savanna in the Green Swamp (click photos to enlarge)

What you find here often greatly depends on the fire regimen – the year after a burn can produce spectacular wildflowers and make it much easier to see any in bloom. From the looks of it, I am guessing it may have been over a year since this particular tract was burned, but we could see some scattered spots of color poking above the clumps of wiregrass, especially along the pocosin edge.

Gras pink orchid

Grass pink orchid, Calopogon sp.

In addition to insect-eating plants, these pine savannas are well-known for their gorgeous orchids. Calopogon comes from the Greek words meaning beautiful beard, and refers to the bushy, yellow protuberances on the lip of this delicate orchid. These are designed to attract pollinators, thinking there might be a pollen or nectar reward, but it is a deception. The lip of the flower is hinged at the base, and when an insect lands, the lip drops and traps the insect among the flower parts, forcing it to wriggle its way out, and, in the process, hopefully pollinating the flower.

Butterwort

Yellow butterwort, Pinguicula lutea

Scattered along the edges of the savanna are small, bright yellow flowers of a carnivorous species, the yellow butterwort.

Butterwort leaves

Basal rosette of a butterwort

The business end of a butterwort lies at the base, where a tight cluster of sticky leaves serves to trap small insects by means of tiny stalked glands covered in mucilage. Other glands release digestive enzymes to help dissolve the soft tissues of the prey, with the nutrient-rich juices being absorbed by the leaf to supplement its nitrogen supply in this nutrient-poor environment.

Sundew

Pink sundew, Drosera capillaris

A similar, but more active strategy, is employed by another insect-eater, the sundews. Tiny rosettes of red leaves covered in what look like dew-covered hairs dot the moist soil in the savanna, especially any place that is muddy along a trail or ditch.

Sundew with prey

Close-up of a sundew leaf with a trapped insect

When a potential prey touch the stalked glands, it gets stuck in the “goo”. Adjacent tentacles move toward the prey, further entrapping it. Digestive enzymes are released and the rest is history.

We finally had to head back to camp, but a good day of carnivorous plant exploration with sundews, two species of pitcher plants, butterworts, two species of bladderworts, and some Venus flytraps. The next day would prove to be even better.

Longleaf pine savanna Holly Shelter

Longleaf pine savanna in Holly Shelter

I had heard about Holly Shelter Game Lands for many years, but never managed to visit until now. It consists of over 63,000 acres of mixed forest, pocosin, and other wetlands in Pender County. Since it is turkey season, we were advised to visit on Sunday when there is no hunting. We drove along miles of dirt roads to several spots recommended by a friend for their plant diversity.

Carolina laurel

Carolina wicky, Kalmia carolina

Horse sugar

Horsesugar, Symplocos tinctoria

A few small shrubs adding splashes of color in the longleaf forests, including a Coastal Plain relative of mountain laurel, Carolina wicky (also known as Southern sheepkill). Small starbursts adorn another savanna shrub, horsesugar (aka sweetleaf).

Holly Shelter oitcher plants

Small pond at Holly Shelter surrounded by yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava

Our first stop was amazing – hundreds of yellow pitcher plant flowers came into view as we approached a small pond. There was also the bright green of the emerging new leaves, so it was a perfect time to view this species.

Pitcher plant leaf before opening

An unopened pitcher leaf

It is easy to forget that in all of these carnivorous plants, it is the highly adapted leaves that are the trapping mechanism. In the case of the yellow pitcher plant, the leaf blade usually elongates a foot or more before the top splits open to form the deadly pitfall trap.

Pitcher plant opening

A leaf just beginning to split to form the pitcher

This pitcher has a hood (or lid) and usually has red veins that serve as nectar guides for potential prey, luring them deeper into the trap.

Fly going into pitvher plant

An open pitcher with an unwise fly

The trap is a simple one – lure your victim with nectar, a sweet reward concentrated along the rolled lip and down into the upper edges of the trap. Once inside, the walls of the pitcher change texture and become very slick, causing the insect to fall into the tube. Below the slippery zone, the walls have rows of down-ward pointing hairs that inhibit an upward escape. As the insect gets farther down into the trap, the tube narrows, making it more difficult for flying insects to use their wings to escape. Digestive enzymes at the base of the trap all but ensure the fate of the hapless insect.

Pitcher plant prey (2 pitchers)

Contents of two pitcher plants back at the NC Botanical Garden

A popular activity at work is for students to dissect old pitchers (last year’s leaves) and examine what the plant had for dinner. The enzymes only dissolve the soft tissues to release the needed nutrients, so the hard parts of prey remain – an assortment of wings, legs, and exoskeleton pieces. Coworkers gathered the insect parts from two pitcher plants in the Garden’s collection for the photo above: several moths (left side of photo); a cluster of flies (upper right); a wasp (top); some small beetles (lower right); and an assortment of unidentifiable wings, legs, and parts. A large amount of fine dust-like material from the trap is not shown in this picture. I need to collect a few dried pitchers from native habitats and see what the locals have been eating for comparison, but I have a feeling the menu could be similar based on that fly photo above. It was about to make a culinary misstep.

Purple pitcher plant

Purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea

Purple pitcher plants lack a lid and their pitchers usually contain rainwater. Prey fall into the pitcher and drown. Ironically, there is a species of mosquito, Wyeomyia smithii, whose larvae live in these pitcher plants and feed on the microscopic community that exists in the water.

Hybrid pitcher plant

Possible hybrid pitcher plant

We did see a few pitcher plant clumps that looked like hybrids between the purple pitcher plants and the yellow. The pitchers look like the S. purpurea, but are much more elongate, like an S. flava. The flowers also seem to be a combination of the colors of the two species – both maroon and yellow tints.

Sundew intermedia

Spoonleaf sundew, Drosera intermedia

Along the path were large numbers of the pink sundews we had seen in the Green Swamp, but the edge of the pond had another species. The spoonleaf sundew is more upright in growth form and seems to do well extending out into the water’s edge.

Sundew close up

A tiny insect trapped in the sticky goo of the sundew

I leaned down for a closer look and could see more victims that had fallen for the glistening droplets that adorn these deadly tentacles.

Purple butterwort  flower and base

Blue butterwort, Pinguicula caerulea

The Holly Shelter sites held two more species of butterwort – the blue and the correctly named small butterwort. The latter (which I failed to get a good photo of it turns out) has a pale, almost white flower, with a short flower stalk and a tiny rosette of leaves.

Purple butterwort group

Blue butterworts were very common

The larger, blue butterworts, were quite common and often occurred in patches of twenty or more individuals, scattered about the various sunny locations we visited.

Venus flytrap cluster

Venus flytraps, Dionaea muscipula, and a small purple pitcher plant

The Venus flytraps were amazing, as always, and abundant. Melissa mentioned all of these carnivorous plants in a recent post about one of her museum trips, so I won’t go into all the details of this, “one of the most wonderful plants in the world”, but I will share a few interesting tidbits.

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Close-up of a flytrap leaf, showing the trigger hairs

The trap is a modified leaf and has 2 to 3 trigger hairs on each lobe of the trap. Two triggers must be touched in succession within about 20 seconds for the trap to “spring” (or one trigger twice). Closing in less than a second, the Venus flytrap is one of a group of very few plants capable of rapid movement (other local rapid movement plants include Eastern sensitive briar, Mimosa macrophylla, and bladderworts, Utricularia sp.). The fleshy “teeth” along the edge of the trap mesh together to form a closed cage around any prey (usually crawling insects and spiders). The whole trap squeezes together more tightly when the prey struggles. Enzymes are then secreted by minute glands on the inner surface of the lobes and the victim is digested over the next few days. Afterward, the trap reopens, awaiting its next target (each trap can only spring a few times before that leaf dies).

Venus flytrap

Emerging flytrap leaves

The name, Venus flytrap, refers to Venus, the Roman goddess of love. The genus, Dionaea, refers to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and the daughter of Dione. The species name, muscipula, is Latin for mousetrap. It really is remarkable that the only place this amazing plant is naturally found is in about a 70-mile radius of Wilmington, NC.  This trip proved to be one of strange beauties and incredible adaptations, and is definitely one we will do again.

Bay Watch

Find one, and you’ll find yourself closer to the heart of what a Carolina Bay can be: an island of wildness in a world largely tamed, a few acres of the primeval past passed over by progress.

~T. Edward Nickens

The North Carolina Botanical Garden has an exquisite collection of carnivorous plants, and they are always a favorite stop on my programs. This encouraged me to revisit these mysterious beauties in their natural habitats in southeastern North Carolina. We got a few tips from our friend, Jerry, on some of the best locations, and headed out last weekend in search of insect-eating plants. This is part one of that exploration – the part we explored by kayak.

Jone Lake

Afternoon paddle on Jones Lake (click photos to enlarge)

Our home for the weekend was the campground at Jones Lake State Park, a beautiful park centered on one of the many Carolina Bays that dot the landscape in this part of the state.

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Google Earth view of the area showing a small portion of the estimated 900 elliptical Carolina Bays found in Bladen County.

These unique land forms attracted attention after the onset of aerial photography in the 1930’s, when thousands of ovals of varying size (there are an estimated 500,000), aligned in a northwest-southeast direction, could be seen dotting the Atlantic Coastal Plain from New Jersey to Georgia. The greatest concentration was in the Carolina’s. That fact, combined with their usual dominant vegetation of various bay trees, gave them their name. Few open water Carolina Bays remain, but even those that have been drained and developed, or have naturally filled with vegetation, are still visible as elliptical shapes in satellite images like the one above.

Many hypotheses have been proposed on the origin of Carolina Bays (including that they were formed by impacts of a meteor shower), but no single explanation is universally accepted. Many scientists now subscribe to the so-called oriented lake theory. It suggests that as the ocean retreated thousands of years ago, shallow pools of water remained throughout the Coastal Plain. Prevailing winds and resulting waves from the north elongated the ponds into their present elliptical shape. Whatever their origin, there is a large concentration of these bays in the Bladen Lakes area, and, fortunately, many are now preserved as state-managed lands.

Jones Lake sunset 1 Lake sunset

Stunning sunset from our kayaks on Jones Lake

Jones Lake sunset 1

Cypress tree with Spanish moss at sunset

Our first evening, we paddled our kayaks around the lake and enjoyed a spectacular sunset all to ourselves among the scattered cypress trees along the eastern shoreline.

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

The next morning we headed over to nearby Horseshoe Lake (aka Suggs Mill Pond). It is an aptly named shallow lake that is part of Suggs Mill Pond Game Lands, managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Suggs Mill Pond is an old millpond formed by damming a large peat-filled bay.

Horseshoe Lake wide angle

A sea of yellow pitcher plant flowers in the wetlands at Horseshoe Lake

It is spectacular this time of year as it contains thousands of yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava. Their unusual flowers can be seen stretching across the wetlands along the lake edge.

Pitcher plants along shoreline

Yellow pitcher plants in bloom along the shoreline

The new growth leaves that will form the pitchers are also visible, with many already opening into the deadly traps that will consume an array of insect prey over the next growing season.

Dragonfly shed on pitcvher plant flower

Shed skin of a dragonfly where it transformed  from an aquatic nymph into the winged adult

Sometimes the plants can serve as a place of “birth” instead of death. There were large numbers of dragonflies and damselflies on the wing and ample evidence of their amazing transformation from underwater predator to aerial acrobat scattered about on any upright surface sticking above the water – even on the flower of a pitcher plant.

Lily pads on Horseshoe Lake

White waterlily pads dotted the lake surface in many areas

One of the dominant plants in the lake was the beautiful white waterlily, Nymphaea odorata. The cleft leaves dot the surface with an array of colors, from green to red, and provide a place for all manner of creatures to sit upon the water.

cricket frog

Southern cricket frog, Acris gryllus

The repeated gick-gick-gick calls of Southern cricket frogs could be heard everywhere we paddled, along with the occasional katunk-katunk-katunk of carpenter frogs.

Lilypad forktail male

Male lilypad forktail damselfly

Delicate damselflies glided along our path, pausing briefly in their pursuits of prey, or each other, to rest upon a lilypad. The lilypad forktail is aptly named, as it almost always rests on lilypads, and characteristically touches the tip of its abdomen to the leaf surface.

Lilypad forktail imm female

Immature female lilypad forktail

Adult males are brilliant blue with dark thoracic stripes. Adult females are lighter blue and immature females are a bright orange.

white water ilies

The flowers of white waterlily

The elegant flowers of the white waterlilies always tempt me to lean just a bit too far over the side of my canoe or kayak in order to capture their pleasing low-angle reflection.

Common grackle

Common grackle

We spotted several species of birds on the lake, including a green heron, red-shouldered hawk, northern parula warblers, Eastern kingbirds, wood ducks, mallards, and several common grackles busy setting up nest sites. This striking fellow allowed me to drift close enough to his perch to catch his iridescent colors…

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

…and to see his “third eyelid”, the nictitating membrane.

bladderwort

Bladderwort flowers

In addition to the thousands of pitcher plants, another carnivorous plant species was incredibly abundant at this location – bladderwort, Utricularia sp.

Bladderwort mass

Bladderworts, showing vegetative portions beneath the water surface

These mostly aquatic plants (there is a terrestrial species that occurs in moist sandy soils) have delicate flowers perched on slender stalks above the water, but the bulk of their biomass is beneath the surface. Scattered among the feathery vegetative portions, they have minute bladder-shaped organs with trap doors that can suck in tiny invertebrates that come in contact with the trigger hairs. Some areas of the lake had so much of this plant that it was like paddling through pudding at times as the vegetation clung to your paddle with every stroke. But, Horseshoe Lake is, nevertheless, a truly magical place, especially by kayak or canoe. Part 2 of our quest for the carnivores of the plant kingdom in the next post.

Being in the Moment

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams

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

duck feathers

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

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

bear claw marks

Bear claw marks on a tree

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

cattail marsh after snow/ice

Cattail marsh along the boardwalk at Mattamuskeet NWR

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

rain drops and reflections

Rain drops on tree reflections along the boardwalk

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

tree silhouette north shore mattamuskeet

Reflections along the north shore

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

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

~Stewart Udall

Christmas Bird Count

It’s never been easier to be a citizen scientist and it’s never been more important to be one.

~David Yarnold, President and CEO, National Audubon Society

Earlier this week, we participated in one of my favorite holiday traditions, the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. I helped start this particular count over 30 years ago when I was East District Naturalist for the NC State Parks System. My good friend, and naturalist extraordinaire, Paris Trail, was the count coordinator. The Pettigrew Count is centered on Lake Phelps and the standard 15-mile diameter count circle includes surrounding farmlands and forests as well as a portion of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It is that latter portion that I have counted in for all these many years. This year, it was officially just Melissa and I, although we did run into some of her museum co-workers and another excellent young birder that helped us with a couple of species we missed seeing (most notably the merlin and American bittern).

 

Swans on Marsh A 1

Tundra swans are very abundant again this year on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Swans on Marsh A 2

Swans on the marsh impoundment on the Pungo Unit

The day began with clouds and warm temperatures, but the skies soon cleared, and we had another of those crazy “Christmas” counts with temperatures soaring to the low 70’s. Tundra swans were the bird of the day and we estimated about 14,000 on the lake, although I am guessing this may be an underestimate based on the tremendous flyovers at sunset.

Swans flying

Tundra swan flyover

Swans were literally everywhere  – in the fields, on the lake, in the impoundments, and in the sky. And I must admit, I could watch and listen to them all day. In fact, I did on the day after the count (more on that in a future post).

box turtle on bird count

Eastern box turtle out for  stroll on the Christmas Bird Count

The warm temperatures made for some unusual companions for a Christmas Bird Count. There were plenty of aquatic turtles sunning themselves in the canals (which is not really all that unusual on sunny days in winter) plus an Eastern box turtle we helped off the road. There were also several buckeye butterflies, a Carolina anole, and Melissa spotted a very active bee hive high up in a tree.

Bee hive in tree

Bee hive in a knothole

If you look closely, you can see where bears have clawed around the hole trying to get at the tasty treat inside. Not sure what these bees were foraging on, although I did see a few henbit weeds in bloom along the edge of the road.

Snow geese leaving Pungo Lake

Snow geese flying out of Pungo Lake

The snow geese continue their pattern of erratic and unpredictable behavior of the past few years, with a much reduced flock splitting up and flying off the refuge in different directions to feed. Perhaps when the remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down, they will provide a brief display of massive flocks coming into feed as in past years.

Black and white warbler

A black-and-white warbler was one of our highlights for the day

We managed to spot quite a few species (76 in our portion of the count circle – see our complete list below) with a few that are not regularly seen, including a black-and-white warbler, an orange-crowned warbler, a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers, and a peregrine falcon chasing a duck.

sandhill cranes at Pungo

A trio of sandhill cranes closed out our day

My favorite species of the day came just as the sun was setting. I looked up and saw what I first thought were three great blue herons flying in tight formation. That unusual pattern caused me to take a second look and I could see the outstretched necks that indicated something other than herons – three sandhill cranes! This is the second Christmas count over the years where we have spotted these magnificent birds. A great way to close out another wonderful day spent in our favorite place.

Swans at sunset

Pair of tundra swans against an orange sky at sunset

December 27, 2016 dataPungo Unit portion of annual Pettigrew State Park Christmas Bird Count (76 species for our team; 109 species for the total count circle with one team report still out):

Snow Goose – 12,000
Ross’s Goose – 5
Canada Goose – 54
Tundra Swan – 14,107
Wood Duck – 8
Gadwall – 22
American Wigeon – 3
American Black Duck – 45
Mallard – 98
Northern Shoveler – 52
Northern Pintail – 3
Ring-necked Duck –1
Lesser Scaup – 1
Hooded Merganser – 20
Bufflehead – 4
Pied-billed Grebe – 4
American Bittern – 1
Great Blue Heron – 3
Sandhill Crane – 3
Turkey Vulture – 47
Black vulture – 2
Bald Eagle – 7
Northern Harrier – 11
Cooper’s Hawk – 1
Sharp-shinned hawk – 2
Red-shouldered Hawk – 1
Red-tailed Hawk – 4
American Kestrel – 4
Merlin – 1
Peregrine Falcon – 1
American Coot – 45
Killdeer – 48
American Woodcock – 3
Wilson’s Snipe – 3
Ring-billed Gull – 73
Mourning Dove – 21
Red-bellied Woodpecker – 8
Downy Woodpecker – 2
Hairy Woodpecker – 1
Northern Flicker – 12
Pileated Woodpecker – 6
Eastern Phoebe – 7
Blue Jay – 5
American Crow – 9
Fish Crow – 18
Tree swallow – 2
Carolina Chickadee – 10
Tufted Titmouse – 2
Brown-headed Nuthatch – 1
Carolina Wren – 15
House Wren – 2
Marsh Wren – 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – 2
Golden-crowned Kinglet – 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 7
Eastern Bluebird – 13
American Robin – 768
Gray Catbird – 2
Brown Thrasher – 1
Northern Mockingbird – 5
European Starling – 22
Black-and-white Warbler – 1
Orange-crowned Warbler – 1
Common Yellowthroat – 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler – 300
Eastern Towhee – 5
Savannah Sparrow – 9
Chipping Sparrow – 15
Song Sparrow – 35
Swamp Sparrow – 6
White-throated Sparrow – 30
Northern Cardinal – 25
Red-winged Blackbird – 855
Eastern Meadowlark – 13
Common Grackle – 5
American Goldfinch – 14

 

 

Swamp Sounds

Natural, ambient sounds give us a picture over time and define place…every landscape has a rhythm to it.

~Dr. Bryan C. Pijanowski

There is, indeed, a rhythm to paddling in a swamp, and the sounds help define it. Putting our canoes in at Gardner Creek a couple of weeks ago, we could hear the sounds of traffic on Hwy 64, the tones of people talking, the harshness of barking dogs and a lawn mower – all human sounds, or perhaps I should call them noises. But as we paddled, those noises started to fade and we soon had a rhythm of the place in our ears – water dripping from our paddles, the twitters of a mixed-species feeding flock moving through the trees, or the kerplunk of a turtle dropping off a log. We even heard the truncated calls of a few Southern leopard frogs, since the air was a bit warmer than the calendar date indicated. But, the true sounds of the swamp on this trip came in feathered form, one during the day, and one day and night (although certainly more forcefully after darkness enveloped our campsites on the platforms). Listen to the two audio segments below (recorded on my phone) and see if you recognize the makers of this music of the swamp (answers are below, play at full volume and don’t cheat)…

The first sound is one heard on several occasions as we paddled the waterways in this region, usually heard several times before we would catch a glimpse of the source, if at all.

This call-maker is one I will always associate with this place, and almost any swamp I have visited. These hunters call day or night, and have an amazing repertoire of vocalizations. This is a variation of their best known call.

Now, here are the sound-makers…

Red-shouldered Hawk in rain

Red-shouldered hawk (click photos to enlarge)

A characteristic daytime call of the swamp is the harsh, Kee-aah, Kee-aah, made by the red-shouldered hawk, Buteo lineatus. The call is accented on the first syllable with a drawn-out second syllable having a downward inflection. It is considered a territorial call in the breeding season, and is also an alarm call. We generally heard it when one of these common swamp hawks took flight as we paddled nearby.

Red-shouldered hawk side view

You can see the rusty red patches on the shoulder of this adult bird

Red-shouldered hawks are smaller than red-tailed hawks and tend to favor forested tracts, especially along streams and rivers. They are sit-and-wait hunters, whose diet includes many reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and invertebrates such as earthworms.

Barred owl on grape vine

Barred owl surveying for prey from a large wild grape vine perch

The barred owl, Strix varia, is the monarch of the swamp. Their best known call is often described as sounding like “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”. The call presented here is a variation and is described as an Ascending Hoot. The audio has the back and forth calls of two owls on our first night in the swamp (at the aptly named Barred Owl Roost camping platform). One is right above our campsite, the other maybe 100 feet away in the darkness of the swamp.

Barred owl on grape vine 1

Barred owls hunt, and call, day and night

This back and forth calling likely is between a mated pair. We also heard some of their other calls that night, including the Single Hoot (a throaty descending hoot), and the cacophony of sounds that is often described as a Raucous Hoot and Caterwauling. The latter calls can vary from a high-pitched scream to monkey-like sounds, and can carry on for a minute or two. Unfortunately, the owls engaging in the raucous calls that night were too far away to be picked up by the mic on my iPhone.

The soundscape of a wild place is something we often overlook, but it is one of the things that can really make an outdoor experience memorable. I am grateful for these swamps and the opportunities for the unique camping provided by the Roanoke River Partners. And I am thankful for the sounds that seem to stay with you after any time spent in these special habitats. Be sure to listen for the iconic sounds of your favorite places on your next outings.