Crispy Cocoon

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

~Friedrich Nietzche

Last weekend we once again camped at Jones Lake State Park as part of an exploratory trip to the Green Swamp and surroundings. As we drove in, the campground looked quite different from last year at this time – it had been burned. The park staff do periodic prescribed burns to mimic the natural occurrence of lightning-caused fire in these habitats. After setting up camp we walked over to the canoe access area to check out the lake. On our way back, I noticed a speck of bright green in the brown and black landscape resulting from a January prescribed burn.

Luna moth in burned area at Jones Lake

Luna moth, Actias luna, that has just emerged (click photos to enlarge)

A freshly emerged luna moth! Our first sighting of this beautiful moth of this season. It was hanging still, no doubt getting ready for its first flight.

Luna moth freshly emerged  side view

Side view of the luna moth

I ran to get our cameras and we spent the next 30 minutes observing and photographing this beautiful creature. The long tails are a gorgeous and diagnostic feature of this species. And, according to recent research, they serve a potentially life-saving function for these giant silk moths. When flying, the fluttering tails appear to create an acoustic signal that causes hungry bats to zero in on the moths’ tails, missing the vital body parts, and allowing many moths to escape.

luna moth head close up

Close-up of the front of a luna moth

When you only live a week or so as an adult, every miss from a predator seems to have added importance for your reproductive success. Female luna moths scatter their couple of hundred eggs on host plants such as sweetgum (the dominant in our area), persimmon, and hickories over the few nights of their active flight. There are generally at least two generations per year in our area with the Fall generation overwintering as a cocoon. The Fall caterpillars wrap themselves in leaves and silk and are usually hidden in the leaf litter until they emerge in spring. And that is what piqued our curiosity with this particular moth. How had it survived the ground fire just a couple of months ago?

luna moth cocoon in burned area

The moth’s cocoon

I started searching the area around the moth, figuring it had climbed the first vertical object it encountered after emergence. They climb in order to fully expand their wings by pumping fluid from their abdomen through the veins of their wings. Moths that don’t hang from something (like those placed in a glass container as cocoons) may develop deformed wings and cannot fly. After just a minute of looking, I found the cocoon laying on the now almost bare ground about 3 feet from the sapling the adult had climbed.

luna moth cocoon half in hand

Half of the cocoon was missing

When I picked up the cocoon, I was stunned to find that half of it was missing, presumably consumed by the fire (note the seared edge). We can only guess that the pupa inside the cocoon somehow managed to escape the fire that consumed half of its covering. It then lay there for a couple of months, lucky to escape foraging insects, mice, and other pupa predators. Truly amazing. An equally amazing thing is how an adult luna moth normally escapes its silken cocoon. You usually find a spent cocoon with a single hole in one end. The adult moth wriggles out using a secreted enzyme (called cocoonase) that helps dissolve the glue (called sericin) binding the silk in the cocoon. The moths also have shortened spurs along the base of the fore-wing that are used to help tear through the cocoon covering.

Luna moth freshly emerged front view

Top view of adult luna moth 

As we moved around it taking pictures, I accidentally touched the sapling, causing the moth to raise its wings, exposing the stunning eye spots on the hind wings. It also started to quiver slightly.

Luno moth with wings spread

Luna moth with outstretched wings

These shivering motions are generally a precursor to flight, but it quickly settled back to a resting position and we moved on.  When we checked the next morning, the moth was gone, hopefully to live long enough to ensure a new generation of these magnificent insects.

Feeling Alive

Go where you feel most alive.

~Author unknown

I have been missing my usual winter routine of several trips down east. Schedules have been busy, and this thing called work has a way of occupying a lot of your time! So, last week we decided to make a day-trip to my favorite spots in North Carolina – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I wrote about one of the highlights in a previous blog – the epic battle between heron and fish. This post covers the rest of that amazing day, starting with a rendezvous with our friend in Raleigh at 6:45 a.m. (admittedly, a rather leisurely hour for such a trip).

Swans on ice

Tundra swans on ice (click photos to enlarge)

We arrived at the Pungo Unit a little after 9. The skies were gray, the wind whipping, temperatures below freezing – a Pungo kind of day. This is the reason I often tell people to dress as if “you will be the coldest you have ever been”. To our surprise, the only birds in the fields behind the maintenance compound were a ton of American robins. Friends had reported that large flock of snow geese had been feeding there in recent days, and it was the time of day when they are usually in the fields for breakfast. We drove on, spotting a couple of uncooperative river otter in a canal. Try as we might, we only managed quick glimpses before they totally disappeared. A quick stop at the blustery observation platform confirmed that the waterfowl know not to be out in the open on such a windy day. All we could see were some thin white lines of swans on the far shore where the forested shoreline provides them with some protection from the north wind.

sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes on the refuge!

On to Marsh A, one of the managed wetland areas for waterfowl, and a favorite place of both swans and swan-watchers. Indeed, there were a few thousand tundra swans milling about, some, on the fringes of the flock, walking on ice. A quick glass of the area revealed a bonus – three sandhill cranes! They were reported earlier in the season, but we had missed them on the Christmas Bird Count. I have seen this species here sporadically over the years, usually just as a fly-over. but these three were hunkered down in the marsh, no doubt wondering why they had not opted for a warmer habitat. We then saw a giant flock of snow geese flying into the lake from the north. Had they been feeding in the fields along “Bear Road”? We drove over, hoping to see some stragglers and were greeted by a few hundred snow geese out in the corn. We encountered some other friends from Raleigh, shared a few stories, and then headed over to Mattamuskeet for the middle part of the day. We spent a lot of the time with the aforementioned heron, but also saw thousands of ducks (especially northern pintails), another disappearing otter, and a dancing night heron.

Black-crowned night heron shimmy

Night heron shimmy

Black-crowned night heron shimmy 1

Shaking it

An adult black-crowned night heron was on one of the usual pilings in the pool near the entrance to Mattamuskeet, so we stopped and walked over to admire. It was striking their usual stoic pose, when, all of a sudden, it went through a series of gyrations that would make any dance contestant proud. When it settled back down, it did a quick poop (lighten the load) and flew off.

After spending a couple of hours at Mattamuskeet, we headed back to Pungo for what we hoped would be a grand evening show. The walk down Bear Road quickly showed why I dubbed it thus years ago, before real road name signs went up – five bears came out across the field to feed. After watching them mill about and horse around (a couple of young ones were wrestling), we headed into the woods. Melissa and I both commented that there isn’t as much fresh bear sign in these woods this winter – there is some, but not the totally worn down “bear living rooms” we have seen in the past. Suddenly, our friend said, “Look, a tiny owl”!

Eastern screech owl out on branch

Eastern screech owl out on a limb

I had been checking out every snag as we walked, so I naturally looked at the dead top of the tree where she was pointing. I couldn’t see it. “Right there”, she exclaimed. I followed her outstretched hand, and, to my surprise, there is a screech owl sitting out in the open on a branch several feet away from the trunk. The little guy barely moved its head to watch us as we slowly maneuvered, trying not to scare it. The fading sunlight would move on and off the owl, highlighting its beautiful rufous plumage.

Screech owl in wood duck box close up

Gray morph Eastern screech owl from 2016

In a post from a very “owly” day a couple of years ago, I shared photos of another Eastern screech owl from the Pungo Unit. That one was a gray morph using a wood duck box as a nest site. Eastern screech owls come in two primary color morphs in our state – red (or rufous) and gray (there is a third, a brown morph, in the far south). That doesn’t mean they can change color (they remain whichever color they are their entire life), it simply means there are two primary colors seen in this species. It turns out that the red color morph is more common in southern parts of the range, while the gray is predominant in colder regions. Plumage color appears to be correlated with thermal adaptation. One ornithologist writing about the color morphs summarized findings that showed that gray birds survive colder temperatures better than red birds, which may account for their differential distribution.

Eastern Screech owl

That look that only a screech owl can give

After observing the owl (and it, half open-eyed, observing us) for several minutes, we walked on, hoping it would not fall prey to any of the numerous winged predators that hunt these woods (great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, etc.). About that time, flocks of snow geese started to fly overhead and began circling the fields along Bear Road. We  headed out into the open, hoping they would land. As we watched (and wondered about the energy budget of snow goose behavior), something else caught my eye down the road.

Black bear standing

This town isn’t big enough for the two of us

A medium-sized black bear came out into the road and started ambling our way. When I alerted the others, we undoubtedly moved a bit, and the bear stopped in its tracks. He looked our way, then stood up to check us out. A standing bear always reminds me of how much we have in common with bruins. This one also looked as if he was trying out for a role in Gunfight at the Pungo Corral. He dropped and cautiously went back into the woods.

Snow geese swirling above the field at sunset

Snow geese swirling over the corn at sunset

Our attention shifted back to the birds, which were now circling near us in dense, squawking clouds. I never tire of this visual spectacle and the incredible sounds that accompany it.

Buddy Bear

I just want to cross at my usual spot

For the next several minutes, we stood in awe of the scene before us – countless birds swirling nearby, swans flying over our heads back to the lake, and our bear friend tentatively trying to reach his canal crossover spot. The bear may be one I have seen over the past couple of years that we dubbed “buddy bear” (for his tolerance of humans). He kept coming out to the road, looking our way, then retreating back into the woods. He would then ease closer to us, come back out into the road, and repeat the sequence. All the while, thousands of birds circled out in front of us…which way to look? The bear ended up catching our attention again when he came out on the crossover path and headed down the canal bank. We all watched as he swam across, shook off, and scurried into the standing corn. What a privilege to be able to witness all this.

More snow geese arriving

Huge flock of snow geese flying into the field

We started to head back to the car and then saw wave after wave of snow geese flying in from the northeast to join the thousands already landing in the corn. This was like the scenes of a few years ago – thousands of snow geese in the fields along Bear Road at sunset, hundreds of ducks swooping in to join them, bears coming out from several directions, swans calling as they fly in from the north, deer coming out of the woods, and woodcock streaking out into the fields to feed. Then we heard the final actor in this grand play – the haunting call of a great horned owl.

Great horned owl at sunset

A great horned owl at sunset

Melissa soon spotted it in a tree not far from us. It flew to a branch out over Bear Road, silhouetted against the fading orange sky. What a great ending to an amazing day! This place is truly magical. It really is somewhere you go to feel alive, to recharge your spirit, and to rediscover a sense of awe and wonder about our world,  Thank you, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for making this possible. We all need to support these public lands, especially now, so they remain available for us and these amazing natural spectacles.

Species observed at Pocosin Lakes (Pungo Unit) and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges 1/15/18:

Birds (61 species):

Double-crested Cormorant; Canada Goose; Snow Goose; Ross’s Goose; Tundra Swan; Mallard; Black Duck; Northern Shoveler; Northern Pintail; Ring-necked Duck; Wood Duck; Gadwall; Bufflehead; Ruddy Duck; Hooded Merganser; American Coot; Pied-billed Grebe; Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; Sandhill Crane; Black-crowned Night Heron; Turkey Vulture; Red-tailed Hawk; Bald Eagle; Northern Harrier; American Kestrel; Eastern Screech Owl; Great Horned Owl; Ring-billed Gull; Mourning Dove; Belted Kingfisher; Northern Flicker; Pileated Woodpecker; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; American Woodcock; Killdeer; American Crow; Eastern Phoebe; American Robin; Eastern Bluebird; Northern Mockingbird; Carolina Wren; Winter Wren; White-throated Sparrow; Swamp Sparrow; Savannah Sparrow; Song Sparrow; Tree Swallow; Red-winged Blackbird; Common Grackle; Brown-headed Cowbird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; European Starling; Orange-crowned Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Golden-crowned Kinglet

Mammals (7 species):

River Otter; Black Bear; Gray Squirrel; White-tailed Deer; Hispid Cotton Rat; Raccoon; Nutria

Heron Dreams

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

~Henry David Thoreau

We all have dreams, some bigger than others. I dream of experiences, being in wild places, and seeing the spectacles that nature has to offer. I have often wondered if other species dream. Having had dogs much of my life, and watching them as they seem to chase something in their sleep with paws twitching and soft barks, I think they do dream. I’m not sure about other species – whether, for instance, herons dream, but we met one earlier this week that seemed to dream big…really big.

Great blue heron

A stately great blue heron at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (click photos to enlarge)

We did a quick day trip on Monday down to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I just haven’t been able to get away as much as my soul needs, so a day-trip would have to do. A friend from work (who had never been) was able to travel with us so I was hoping for a good show for her sake. After a bitterly cold morning at Pungo (more on the Pungo portion of the trip in the next post), we headed over to Mattamuskeet mid-day to see what we could find. As is often the case, there was a stately great blue heron at the pool near the entrance along Wildlife Drive. But I noticed something different this time…

Great blue heron strikes

The heron strikes

There was something else on the island of grass…

The prize

The prize revealed

A huge fish! A mullet! Even though Mattamuskeet is a freshwater lake, this bird was on a canal outside the lake proper, one that connects via a long (~7 mile) system of canals out to Pamlico Sound, where striped mullet are very common. My apologies for posting so many images of this epic struggle, but I have always wanted to see a heron swallow a huge fish, and here it was, out in the open, a “dream” come true.

A beakfull

A lot to get your beak around

We watched as the bird tried to grab the still-flopping fish. It was a lot to get your beak around.

Getting a drink

The heron took frequent sips of water

The heron would work at grabbing the fish, then drop it, and almost every time dip the tip of its bill in the water. Was it taking a drink, removing slime, washing out a bad taste…who knows?

Stabbing the fish

A few sharp jabs with the beak eventually subdued the mullet

The heron used its stiletto beak in a series of quick jabs to try to subdue the mullet.

How do I get this thing off

Now…how do I get this thing off my beak?

It sometimes took a few shakes to get the fish off. After several bouts of spearing the fish, the mullet stopped moving.

Displacement behavior?

Displacement behavior?

Curiously, in between efforts to swallow the fish, the heron would every now and then grab some roots, sticks, and shoots of vegetation on the island. Is this some sort of displacement behavior? Taking out its frustrations on plants?

Almost there

A lot to lift

Not only was this fish a challenge in terms of its girth, it was a heavy lift for the heron. A typical adult great blue heron weighs about 5 pounds. Their upper bill is about 5+ inches in length. Looking at this photo, I estimate this fish to be about 14 inches in length (compare bill length to fish length). I found an online length-weight conversion estimator for fishes in Texas and used that to estimate the weight of this fish at about 1 pound – 1/5 the weight of the bird. So, that’s like me trying to gulp down a 40 pound hamburger!

eye to eye

Eye to eye

This photo “caught my eye”…the juxtaposition of the eye of the predator and the prey, now resigned to its fate. Our friend, Janna, suggested this caption…””that feeling you have when you realize who you have been trying to kiss”.

maybe if I wet it

Maybe if I get it wet…

We watched the struggle for about 20 minutes and reluctantly decided to head off to see some other areas of the refuge, wondering if the heron would ever be successful. We came back about an hour and a half later, and the heron was still at it. Another couple of photographers had stopped, but the heron was paying us no mind. It had eyes only for the mullet. While we were gone, the heron seemed to have figured out a better strategy for lifting the fish, and came oh-so-close to swallowing it a couple of times.

almost lost it

Almost lost it

But it almost lost it into the water at one point, managing a quick grab to pull it back onshore.

stand off

Pondering your dreams

The heron was starting to tire. It took longer breaks between feeding attempts. We watched another 20 minutes. The proud bird twice turned its back (maybe hoping we woudn’t see?) and caught tiny fish and gulped them down.

a quick snack

Settling for less, or just grabbing a quick snack?

It was getting late. The heron had been at this for at least two hours. We had spent almost 45 minutes watching the struggle, camera shutters firing away (I’m almost embarrassed to admit I took 892 photos of this battle), and there was no end in sight. It was time to leave and head for Pungo for what we hoped would be a great sunset show.

Really really big

Dream big

I hated to leave without knowing whether the heron realized its dream. But I guess I had achieved mine, even though I didn’t witness a successful end to the story. Perhaps the important thing, for both heron and human, is to dream in the first place.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.

~Walt Disney

 

Haw-inspiring Hike

One of the reasons there are so many terms for conditions of ice is that the mariners observing it were often trapped in it, and had nothing to do except look at it.

― Alec Wilkinson

I must give credit to our friend, Bill, for the title of this post (hope he doesn’t mind). He is a poet and a wordsmith and used this phrase in an email about a hike along the Haw River we took this past Sunday with his godsons, Turner and Charlie. We hiked along the Lower Haw State Natural Area from the Hwy 64 bridge over the Haw up to our neighborhood, a distance of a little over 2 miles. Temperatures were in the 20’s when we started, but mostly sunny, and the air was still. The river, always special, was especially beautiful, with a fringe of ice along her shores that often extended far across her rocky breadth.  From the outset, the river provided visual delights and mysteries.

Mystery trails on ice

Unusual “trail” on the river ice (click photos to enlarge)

Just a short way upriver from the bridge, we started seeing some winding “trails” on the ice, looking as if someone had pulled a tiny sled in an erratic route across semi-frozen ice.

Beaver trail through ice

An open channel helped solve the mystery

Just beyond those first mysterious ice trails, we saw a partially open channel that had a similar irregular path. This one led over to an island in the river where we could see evidence of beaver chewed sticks piled along the bank. Mystery solved! The initial trails were frozen over beaver channels.

beaver chew marks

Beaver teeth marks on a sycamore log

beaver chew

There is abundant beaver sign all along the trail

From that point on, we encountered many active beaver chewed trees, some quite large. Years ago, when I was doing programs for state parks, I remember reading some facts about beavers – the largest one ever trapped weighed about 105 pounds (although my current reference on mammals says the largest on record was 86 pounds – still a huge rodent).  Average weight for an adult beaver is around 50-60 pounds. I once saw a photo of the purported record tree felled by a beaver – a tulip polar a little over 5 feet in diameter! None of the trees along the trail approached that, although the busy beavers have been gnawing on some pretty large specimens. Beavers are somewhat generalist vegetative feeders in warm months, but this time of year they feed almost exclusively on the inner bark of tree trunks and branches. Other wildlife we saw included a variety of birds – great blue herons looking for open water along the river, and a variety of songbirds trying to find something to eat along the trail. American holly berries seemed a favorite and we saw several hermit thrushes and American robins feeding in some of the large trees. Mixed feeding flocks of other species including Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, woodpeckers (red-bellied, downy, and pileated and a yellow-bellied sapsucker), some feisty yellow-rumped warblers, and a few ruby-crowned kinglets. A beautiful red-shouldered hawk, a blue jay, and some of its cousin American crows, rounded out our bird sightings.

river rock surrounded by ice

An exposed rock in a sea of ice

As I have said before, ice fascinates me. Life as we know it depends on the unusual characteristics of water and one of these is that, unlike most other chemical compounds, when it gets cold enough to turn into a solid, the solid floats (the solids sink in most cases).

 

crystals in ice

Needles of ice in a patch along the shoreline

I remember a discussion I had about ice with a museum co-worker back in 2006.  I was lucky enough to get chosen as part of an international science and education team to spend a month in the Arctic aboard a Russian ice-breaker (no collusion, I swear). She asked me if I thought I would get bored spending a whole month out on the ice, with nothing but an expanse of white to view. I had said no, and was justified when I realized the incredible variety of forms that ice can take – all beautiful. The ice along the Haw was no different, and showed us its many faces as we gazed upon it from the bank – all magical.

beech leaf on ice

Beech leaf frozen in the surface of thick ice

ice shelf

A small ice shelf next to a riffle area

ice shelf 1

Ice lace edging along the rocky shore next to flowing water

ice waves

Intricate patterns of ice on the surface of an eddy in the river

Frozen haw

The mix of ice and open water along the river

The weather is warming, and ice is melting, but memories of a cold hike along the Haw, with good companions, will stay with us for quite some time. I spoke to our group of my appreciation for those that fought to set this corridor aside, and to the dedicated folks, like those of the Haw River Assembly, that continue to work toward its preservation. Haw-inspiring indeed.

 

Counting Our Blessings

There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.

~Walt Streightiff

We had a wonderful holiday break this past week, spending time with and enjoying both families. The past few days we discussed some of the varied rituals of the holidays – specific foods for the season, making cookies with family, watching certain shows, listening to Christmas music, and Christmas Eve Mass. I guess I have a few rituals myself, although they are quite different from most.

Tundra swans in field

The weather for much of our Christmas Bird Count was cold, gray, and wet (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday was one of my favorites – the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pungo. The count has been going on since I started it with my friend, Paris Trail, back in the mid 1980’s, and I have only missed a few in all those years. The count center is based at Pettigrew State Park and the standard 15-mile diameter circle encompasses all of the park (including 16,000+ acre Lake Phelps), acres of the surrounding farmland, and much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  The weather turned out to be less than ideal with cloudy skies, various forms of precipitation, and temperatures hovering around 37 degrees most of the day. We drove the refuge roads for much of the morning as we were starting to question the sanity of our 4:30 a.m. departure from a warm bed back home. Though we ended up with fewer species than usual, we did share a few special moments with some of the usual suspects.

Tundra swans in field 1

A flock of tundra swans in a field along Pat’s Road at Pungo

Tundra swans in field crop

Apparently, there was a lot to discuss at the swan holiday gathering

On one of our circuits, we noticed several thousand tundra swans had gathered in the front fields to feed on waste corn and a nearby field of winter wheat sprouts. We pulled up, lowered the windows with rain sprinkling in, and took in the scene. Watching and listening to the swans somehow made it all worthwhile and reminded me of how much I love this place.

Snow geese landing on gray day

A large flock of snow geese landing to feed

Soon, scattered flocks of snow geese began to gather and circle the feeding swans. As the flocks coalesced into a huge swirl of black and white, we discussed the seeming inefficiency of snow goose behavior – circling a field for many minutes, using up precious energy, before finally settling down to feed. All the while, I was glassing the passing flock for the smaller cousins of snow geese, the Ross’s geese.

Injured snow goose

Snow goose profile showing longer beak with black “lip” line

It is fairly easy to spot a Ross’s goose on the edge of a flock of snow geese in a field – Ross’s geese are about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of all the other white birds and have a stubby bill that lacks the black “lips” of a snow goose. But I like to try to spot them in flight, which can be a bit more challenging. If the the two species are adjacent to one another, you can see the differences (even though Melissa thinks I am making all this up).

Comparison of Ross' and Snow Goose in flight

Can you spot the Ross’s geese in this photo?

Check out the photo above. There are two Ross’s geese mixed with 4.5 snow geese – remember, look for the smaller size and a short, stubby bill on the Ross’ geese. We ended the day with 7 Ross’s geese and about 30,000 snow geese (I’m sure there are a many more Ross’s geese on the refuge, but it can be tough to pick them out of the large flocks).

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warblers were our constant companions in forested areas of the refuge

A few other species were quite abundant this year – American robins by the hundreds, mallards, killdeer, and yellow-rumped warblers. These winter warblers are tiny balls of energy and they boldly surrounded us every time we pished along the forest edges.

Pipits

Searching for American pipits in corn stubble can test your vision (how many do you see?)

I enjoy the challenge of finding certain species on these bird counts – a Ross’s goose hidden in a flock of thousands of snow geese, an elusive fox sparrow (no luck this year), an owl (we did flush a single great horned owl while walking in the woods), and the dirt-colored American pipits hidden in plain sight out in the plowed or cut fields (we found a nice flock in one field).

Four bald eagles

It was a good day for bald eagles (here are 4 of the 10 seen at this one point on the lake)

And there are always surprises. This year, the bald eagles put on quite a show. We started the morning with four in the fields as we entered the refuge. Later, in our one spot to view Pungo Lake, we had ten eagles in view, often taking turns knocking one another off of perches along the lake shore.

Red wolf track in mud

Fresh red wolf tracks

Our biggest surprise came with a quick sighting of a red wolf as it dashed across a dirt road and into a corn field, quickly disappearing into the dense stand. It turned out to be a very good day for mammals – white-tailed deer, river otter, nutria, a gray squirrel, and six bears rounded out our observations (along with plenty of huge bear scat as well as scat from bobcat and fox).

Resting swans

The sun finally made an appearance lat in the afternoon, warming these resting swans

Late in the day, the cold rains stopped, the dense clouds moved out, and the sun broke through, but the steady wind reminded us that this can be a very cold place. Walking on “Bear Road” at the end of the day reminded me of so many trips from my past – a sense of wildness and wide open spaces in this place that continues to provide natural wonders with each visit. The bad weather had driven most other visitors away, so we had the place to ourselves – again, a reminder of the the early years when, if I saw one other car on the refuge, it was a busy day.

Flying swans

Tundra swan flyover with sunset approaching

The golden glow of an approaching sunset illuminated the woods and caught the feathers of swans returning to the safety of the lake for another night. The only sounds were those of nature – swans calling, the deep drumming of a distant pileated woodpecker, the faint low hoot of a great horned owl.

sunset at Pungo

A fiery end to a chilly day

As we walked back toward our car, the western sky exploded in fire like it so often does here in winter. There are so many reasons I love this place. A big one is that it allows me the time and space to look around and appreciate the many wonders this world has to offer, if only we give it the chance. Help support our public lands – they are medicine for our souls.

half moom

There are many wonders in our world, just waiting for us to pause and enjoy

2017 Christmas Bird Count results (Pungo Unit only)

30,000 Snow Goose
7 Ross’s Goose
198 Canada Goose
22724 Tundra Swan
2 Wood Duck
20 Northern Shoveler
222 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
229 Mallard
40 American Black Duck
10 Northern Pintail
3 Green-winged Teal
23 Ring-necked Duck
1 Bufflehead
12 Hooded Merganser
5 Great Blue Heron
9 Turkey Vulture
8 Northern Harrier
15 Bald Eagle
2 Red-tailed Hawk
1 American Coot
170 Killdeer
3 American Woodcock
26 Wilson’s Snipe
26 Ring-billed Gull
180 Mourning Dove
1 Great Horned Owl
2 Red-bellied Woodpecker
8 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
5 Northern Flicker
3 Pileated Woodpecker
2 American Kestrel
6 Eastern Phoebe
1 Blue Jay
10 American Crow
5 Fish Crow
0 crow sp.
5 Carolina Chickadee
4 Tufted Titmouse
2 White-breasted Nuthatch
8 Carolina Wren
5 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
5 Eastern Bluebird
800 American Robin
1 Brown Thrasher
7 Northern Mockingbird
60 American Pipit
3 Palm Warbler
489 Yellow-rumped Warbler
357 White-throated Sparrow
28 Savannah Sparrow
18 Song Sparrow
9 Swamp Sparrow
6 Eastern Towhee
15 Northern Cardinal
900 Red-winged Blackbird

Returning

When the uniqueness of a place sings to us like a melody, then we will know, at last, what it means to be at home.

~ Paul Gruchow

It has been almost a year since I went back to work. Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky to have landed in such a wonderful place as the NC Botanical Garden – a beautiful setting, a staff of knowledgeable, fun, and kind people, and a mission that I believe in (plus, the nicest office I have had in all my years). But, I have to tell you, in case you are not aware already, work sure gets in the way of some of the things you want to do. And with the chill of winter in the air lately, my mind turns to a special place for me in my home state, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). It hit me recently that I have not been down there in months and that is such a departure from my last few years. So, when I was offered a chance to tag along with a museum group last weekend, I jumped at the chance. The only down side was the weather…it was pretty miserable, especially Friday night and Saturday. Cold, windy, and wet. Because of that, I now realize I did not take a single photo all day Saturday, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say the highlights were seeing my first swans of the season on Lake Phelps, and four river otter and a bobcat at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (especially the bobcat!).

Tundra swans at sunrise

One of my favorite scenes, tundra swans at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

The next day proved to be much nicer, but bitterly cold. We spent the day at Pungo arriving before sunrise, seeing a couple of bears right away, and watching the sun rise over the trees at Marsh A, watching and taking in the sounds at the place that calls me back year after year. This is how certain places are – they are part of who you are, a brief sighting, a certain sound that can fill your mind’s eye with years of images and feelings in amazing detail.

We spent the day cruising the roads, looking for wildlife, keeping track of our sightings.

Estern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

We spotted many of the usual suspects, from Eastern phoebes to killdeer, and saw the first flocks of snow geese of the season lift off from Pungo Lake in the early morning light.

Bald eagle perched

A bald eagle viewed through the van windshield

Bald eagle flying away

Taking flight

Several eagles were spotted, including one that allowed us to drive up quite close before taking flight. My first winter walk of the season on “Bear Road” was brisk but beautiful.

Large black bear

Huge black bear resting next to the corn

We only saw one bear on that walk, but he was a huge one, easily 500+ pounds. When I first spotted him, he was lying up against rows of standing corn, soaking in the morning sun. He finally sat up, walked a few steps to get a drink out of a nearby ditch, then laid back down. I hope he stays on the refuge and makes it through the upcoming bear hunting season  (the refuge boundary is just beyond those trees in the background of the photo above). We didn’t see as much bear sign as usual, but there was still evidence of several bears (different sized tracks) using the corn fields.

Bald eagle flyby

Bald eagle fly-by

Though it was a weather-challenged trip, it was great to be back. Returning to this part of the state, especially in winter when the waterfowl have returned, always makes things seem better in the world, that the morning light will still brighten the dark sky, and the spirit of wildness still lives in a place close to home.

_-3

Even when surrounded by charismatic wildlife, don’t forget to take the time to enjoy the simple beauties that surround us

Species observed at Pettigrew State Park, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on December 8-10, 2017:

Birds: American coot, Common loon, Double-crested cormorant, Pied-billed grebe, Canada goose, Snow goose, Tundra swan, Canvasback, Ring-necked duck, Mallard, Black Duck, American widgeon, Wood duck, Green-winged teal, Northern shoveler, Gadwall, Bufflehead, Northern pintail, Hooded merganser, Forster’s tern, Ring-billed gull, American bittern, Cattle egret, Great egret, Great blue heron, White ibis, Black-crowned night heron, Killdeer, Greater yellowlegs, Bald eagle, American kestrel, Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed hawk, Barred owl, Turkey vulture, American crow, Fish crow, Wild turkey, Belted kingfisher, Mourning dove, Northern flicker, Yellow-belliied sapsucker, Pileated woodpecker, Downy woodpecker, Red-bellied woodpecker, White-breasted nuthatch, Brown-headed nuthatch, Northern cardinal, Northern mockingbird, Carolina chickadee, Tufted titmouse, American robin, Eastern bluebird, Hermit thrush, Eastern phoebe, Carolina wren, Winter wren, Marsh wren, White-throated sparrow, Swamp sparrow, Eastern meadowlark, Red-winged blackbird, Yellow-rumped warbler

Reptiles: Ribbon snake (dead); Worm snake, Skink sp., River cooter, Painted turtle

Mammals: White-tailed deer, Black bear (4), River otter (4), Gray squirrel, Eastern cottontail rabbit, Virginia opossum, Raccoon, Nutria, Bobcat

Muir’s Mountains

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

~John Muir

It is appropriate to start this post on Muir’s beloved mountains, with one of his most famous quotes. We use it often when referring to what happens when you enter that other famous Y park, Yellowstone…”while cares will drop off like autumn leaves”. A long-time friend who is a ranger in Yellowstone teased us about perhaps changing our favorite Y park to this one, Yosemite. But I assured her that while it is spectacular, it can never replace the special place that Yellowstone has in our hearts.

Bridal Veil Falls

A rainbow atop Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite Valley (click photos to enlarge)

We headed to Yosemite after the relative quiet of Kings Canyon/Sequoia, expecting large crowds and uncertain of our destination, but hoping to get lucky with a campsite outside the park and then a back-country permit the next day. Unfortunately, we could see smoke from a nearby new forest fire as we approached, so we once again feared obscured views of the famous valley.

sunset Yosemite Valley

El Capitan

But as we drove in, the sheer granite walls surrounding Yosemite Valley towered above us in sharp detail, with the smoke merely adding color to the background. I can’t imagine what this valley must have been like in Muir’s time, without all the roads, construction, and people. Even now, Muir’s mountains are breathtaking and you feel you should just stand there in silence and stare at the various peaks.

sunset Yosemite Valley 2

Sentinel Rock at sunset

But we needed to find a place to lay our heads. The Forest Service campgrounds on the way in had all been small and full (although an interesting guy had offered to allow us to share his site at one of them as we drove in). As we drove through the valley, to our surprise, we spotted a vacancy sign at one of the valley lodging facilities with the odd name of Housekeeping Camp.

Housekeeping Camp 1

The tent cabins at Housekeeping Camp seem quiet early in the day

We stopped and snagged one of three remaining units for two nights and thought ourselves lucky to get a place while having no reservations. When we drove into our site, you suddenly start to wonder what your stay might be like…crowds of people, often with large groups gathered around a campfire, music booming from various electronic devices, kids riding bicycles through the camp, dogs, cars jammed into every nook and cranny, and facilities that look a bit…rustic (that may be too nice a word).

Housekeeping Camp

Our little “home” (thankfully, for only one night)

The units are two back to back rooms with three thin walls. The fourth “wall” is a  large shower curtain-looking partition, which also serves as an entrance. Each room has a bunk bed, a double bed, one small shelf and one light bulb. There is a picnic table inside a small privacy fence area that separates you from the next block of two camp units about 5 feet away. Togetherness is the phrase that comes to mind (if you are of a positive mindset). I was feeling some other thoughts, although people around us seemed to be enjoying themselves and ignoring the cramped feeling I was getting. The room cost $98, plus, for a few dollars more, you rent sheets and pillows if you don’t have them. The restroom was nearby along with a shared shower house. Signs warning of the potential for Hanta virus and plague (from fleas of the many rodents in the region) added to the surreal nature of this camp experience.  I compared this to my many times staying at the aptly named Rough Rider cabins in Yellowstone, and suddenly they seemed like luxury accommodations. I guess many people enjoy this closeness and the imagined step-up from tent camping, but I felt sorry for these visitors, for Muir’s legacy, and for the stunning landscape of the valley, that this is the way so many people experience this sacred spot. We debated the pros and cons of this type of lodging – the number of units, their price (seemed high for what you get), the crowded conditions, etc.  These are difficult choices – allowing affordable access for the masses to this incredible valley versus providing a lodging experience that might be more in tune with the sense of reverence that such a landscape evokes, a choice that would likely be more exclusive. Is that an “elitist approach”? I don’t know. People certainly seemed to be having a good time, but, is it in tune with the spirit of the place, its history, its majesty? I guess I came away disappointed that the National Park Service has not done a better job of providing clean, comfortable, and site-appropriate facilities in one the gems of the park system.

sunrise Yosemite Valley with Black-eyed Susan's

Sunrise in Yosemite Valley

The next morning we headed out before sunrise to watch the valley come alive in the morning sun. The usual colors of the morning sky had an assist from waves of smoke from the wildfire just outside the park boundary.

sunrise Yosemite Valley

Smoke moving into the valley at sunrise

This is the huge advantage of lodging in the valley – the ability to be there at sunrise and sunset and still be able to access your lodging without a long drive. The sky turned orange red as the sun peeked over the famous peaks. We were alone in the meadow, another advantage of viewing the world at sunrise.

smoke toward half-dome

Smoke blocks the distant view of Yosemite Valley from Olmsted Point

For reasons mentioned above, and the added smoke we saw at sunrise, we decided to forfeit our second night at Housekeeping Camp (with only the loss of a $10 handling fee). We packed up and headed to the back-country office to get a permit for hiking the high country. Being third in line when they opened helped us secure a permit for an area near the famed Tuolumne Meadows. As we drove high into the Sierras, we realized the smoke was following us, which would make hiking less than ideal at these elevations (9000 ft+). We made the difficult decision to forego our back-country permit (we turned it in at another back-country permit office so someone else could use it) and to try to find a campsite in one of the campgrounds just outside the park boundary. Again, we got lucky and ended up with a lakeside campsite in a Forest Service campground less than a mile outside the park.

campsite outside park

Our campsite on Tioga Lake in Inyo National Forest

It was on a beautiful lake with 13 primitive campsites and very convenient to the park’s high country. Once we set up the tents, we drove back into the park with our stove and freeze-dried food for a dinner with a view.

Lembert Dome

The view from Lembert Dome

As luck would have it, the veil of smoke seemed to stop before reaching all of the high peaks, so we had an amazing view after our hike up Lembert Dome, a popular destination, but one devoid of fellow hikers this time of day.

Lembert Dome at sunset

Sunset from Lembert Dome

We ended up having one family from Belgium pass us on the mountain, but, aside from hundreds of migrating yellow-rumped warblers, we ate our dinner with nothing but the spectacular scenery and each other as company. To me , this is the best way to experience this majestic park.

Olmsted Point

The view toward Yosemite Valley from Olmsted Point, minus the smoke

The next day, our last in this whirlwind tour of three parks, we wanted to hike up to one of the classic mountain lakes. We started by driving out to Olmsted Point where we heated up water for coffee, tea, and oatmeal. The view was what we had hoped for the previous morning – looking out toward Half Dome. The skies had cleared up in the high country, but we heard all day from people coming from the valley that it was still shrouded with thick smoke.

Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily

Leichtlin’s mariposa lily along a trail

The area around Tuolumne Meadows is not as crowded as Yosemite Valley, but is still a place where it can be tough to find a parking spot at a trail head. We opted for the trail to Cathedral Lakes. One guidebook said “if you only do one hike in the high country, do this one”.

alpine lily

Alpine lily

The trail starts at about 8500 ft and winds upward to the lower lake at an elevation of 9200 ft. It is about a 7 mile round trip hike. We saw plenty of other hikers along the route and on the eastern shore of the lake which is a wide, flat, granite outcrop.

Cathedral Peak with reflection in granite

A reflected view of Cathedral Peak, elevation 10,912 ft

There are many places to capture a beautiful reflection of nearby Cathedral Peak in a pool on the rock or in the adjoining marsh. We decided to hike around to the other side of the lake for lunch since we did not see anyone on the far shore.

bathtub with a view

Pool with a view

Melissa never misses a chance to take a dip in mountain water, no matter how cold, so, once again I was convinced to cool off in a gorgeous pool at the far end of the lake. This particular pool probably had the best view of any spot we have ever dipped our toes in. Not far beyond our swimming hole (well, really just a splashing hole due to temperatures and water depth) the lake water left its calm existence and plunged down a waterfall, exposing a view off to the mountains and valleys beyond. Megan managed snap the shutter at just the right moment to capture that quintessential expression we often have when first squatting down in a mountain stream.

Cathedral Peak 1

View of Cathedral Peak on the Lower Lake

After a relaxing lunch, we headed back down the trail and off to our campsite to pack up. It had been an amazing trip, full of quiet beauty, crowded tourist spots, cold water, smoky skies, and majestic scenery. These mountains are truly spectacular. Muir wrote “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” I can only imagine what it was like to have tromped over these granite domes before the crowds descended on the now iconic places of Yosemite. Melissa and I are thrilled to have finally made it, and we hope to return and hike the backcountry without the threat of clouds of smoke obscuring the peaks. The “other Y park” is definitely special.

Hiking Among Giants

Walk in the Sequoia woods at any time of the year and you will say they are the most beautiful and majestic on earth.

~John Muir

I am far behind in posting about recent events, sightings and travels. But I guess that is a good problem to have – doing and seeing so much that I don’t have time to write about it! So, here is the first of several  posts on our travels this past month. We finally made it to see the giant sequoias and the incredible high country of the Sierras. Melissa was awarded a trip for an interpretive training session in California, and I flew out to join her and Megan for a rather unplanned camping trip afterward. Our first planned trip had been postponed a few years ago when wildfires blanketed the area with smoke, so we made some last minute changes and hiked the Lost Coast Trail instead. Now we had the time, but little in the way of concrete plans (no reservations for campsites, since they fill up months in advance and this trip had been planned on much shorter notice). I flew into Reno, Nevada, and we drove several hours into the Central Valley of California, home to what looks like our country’s largest source of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, with mile after mile of irrigated farmland. After an overnight near Fresno, we were up early and headed into Kings Canyon National Park. We lucked out and got a back-country permit for a 10-mile hike in Redwood Canyon, home to some large groves of giant sequoias. Since we only planned to hike a couple of miles before pitching camp our first evening, we decided to first take in a few of the iconic sites accessible by road.

deep canyon over 8000 ft deep

Junction View looking into Kings Canyon (click photos to enlarge)

Kings Canyon is considered one of, if not the, deepest canyons in North America. Just outside the park boundary, the canyon is almost 8200 feet deep from the Kings River to the top of an adjacent mountain peak. It is incredibly rugged and dry. The latter was the big surprise to me. No wonder forest fires are such a part of this landscape.

Zumwalt meadow Kings Canyon NP

Zumwalt meadow

The wettest habitats are, of course, along the waterways. We stopped at one of the classic Sierra landscapes, Zumwalt meadow, and arrived just in time for a ranger-led walk. The ranger was a young seasonal who had an amiable style and almost immediately shared a new learning.

Ranger next to incense cedar

A huge incense cedar was one of the first stops on the guided walk

What I at first assumed was a young, yet still substantial, giant sequoia, turned out to be an incense cedar, a common species in these habitats. There are several notable features that distinguish the two species, so it was a good lesson for our hikes to come.

Lorquin's admiral wings open

Lorquin’s admiral butterfly

At the meadow proper, we saw several butterflies – a few monarchs flitting about some milkweed out in the meadow, add a striking Lorquin’s admiral along the trail. We continued around the loop after the ranger finished his talk, but not before he gave us a good tip on a feature to look for on our drive out of the canyon.

chevron folds Kings Canyon

The famous geologic fold in Kings Canyon

A geologic highlight no less (those that know me know how unusual this is for me). The ranger (who had a degree in geology) told us about a distinctive fold on the highway which I now know is famous as the Kings Canyon Fold. He said it was the textbook example of how rocks can be deformed at high temperatures and pressures. Sure enough, it is not only on textbooks, but is also an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. The canyon does provide incredible views of a landscape shaped by glaciers, rivers, and huge geologic forces that have occurred over the millennia. But what I most wanted to see were the living things that have survived the millennia – the giant sequoias.

General Grant Tree

General Grant tree

A must stop for anyone in Kings Canyon is the General Grant tree, the second largest tree  (by volume) on Earth. Coastal redwoods are the tallest living organisms, but giant sequoias are the most massive. Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) grow naturally only on the west slope of California’s Sierra Nevada range. Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) grow naturally only in a narrow strip along the Pacific Coast.

A few facts about the General Grant tree

  • It is the widest sequoia known, being 40 ft across at its base ( with a circumference of 107 ft, it would take 20 people holding hands to completely encircle its massive trunk)
  • 268 ft tall
  • Estimated age – 1700 years (a full 1500 years younger than the oldest known sequoia)
  • First branch is 129 ft above the ground
Ranger hat with sequoia cone

Giant sequoia cones as symbols on National Park Service hat

The cones of these massive giants are a little larger than a chicken egg, and the seeds are like oak flakes. The ranger pointed out that the giant sequoia cone is one of the symbols on every National Park Service ranger’s uniform – on the band of their iconic wide brim hats.

Huge sequoia

A forest of giants

Late that afternoon, we finally made it to the trail head into Redwood Canyon (Giant sequoias are sometimes called Sierra redwoods). We started our climb and immediately passed through groves of huge trees that included giant sequoias, sugar pines (with the largest pine cones in the world), and Douglas firs.

Sugar Pine cone

Sugar pine cone

Grasses on ex[posed slope in Redwood Canyon

Grasses along a dry ridge in Redwood Canyon

Dead shrub twig pattern

Patterns of twigs

Late in the day we reached a rocky ridge line overlooking a small canyon. A few open areas provided great views and some interesting patterns in the growth form of plants.

campsite in Redwood Canyon

Our first campsite in Redwood Canyon

We finally settled on a spot near the edge of the ridge with a panorama on one side and a grove of giant sequoias on the other. The forest was incredibly quiet, a fitting silence in such a place of reverence.

Giant sequoias at sunset silhouette

Sunset among the giants

View from campsite B&W

The view at sunrise from our camp

Megan initially planned to sleep in the hollow base of one of the giants, but ended up setting up her tent in the middle of the night when the scurrying sounds of small mammals, and the more worrisome sound of some larger species, interrupted her sleep (we found what we assumed were three bear day beds on the slope above our campsite).

Sasquatch shadow

Origin of Sasquatch?

On a morning walk I discovered a surreal figure on one of the sequoia trunks – a burn scar that had an eerie resemblance to a human form, especially when viewed at a distance.

Sugar Bowl trees 1

We spent a lot of time looking up at the canopy in awe

Tunnel tree from far end

A tunnel tree

Tunnel tree with hiker

Walking through the downed giant with our backpacks and room to spare

Giant sequoia with Megan for scale

Megan standing at one of the giants in Redwood Canyon

Our second day was a longer hike ( about 7 miles) through incredibly beautiful terrain that included dry ridges, clear mountain streams, and more giant sequoias. Along the way we spotted a variety of birds, some deer, and an array of wildflowers.

Columbine flower 1

Crimson columbine against a backdrop of a small waterfall along the trail

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush was a common splash of red on our hike

Whisker brush

The beautiful flowers of whisker brush in a sunny spot

Sequoia stump

Our camp the second night was in the vicinity of an old logging camp dotted with massive stumps

We camped the second night along a stream surrounded by the weathered stumps of sequoias cut long ago in the age of loggers in these mountains. I can’t imagine cutting down one of these giants – both the physical effort and time required (it often took a couple of days just to cut through the trunk), and the process of getting the wood out of this steep terrain. We hiked out the next morning and headed to the adjoining Sequoia National Park (our second oldest national park) with the goal of seeing the General Sherman tree.

General Sherman tree outline

Melissa stands in the “footprint” display of the General Sherman tree

The largest tree (by volume) on Earth, the General Sherman tree is in a forest of behemoths, appropriately known as the Giant Forest. Described by John Muir when he entered this grove in 1873 – A magnificent growth of giants…one naturally walked softly and awe-stricken among them. I wandered on, meeting nobler trees where all are noble…this part of the Sequoia belt seemed to me to be the finest, and I then named it “the Giant Forest”.

General Sherman tree

The General Sherman tree from a distance

We all are thankful for the efforts of Muir and the many others who saw the majesty in these trees and fought for their preservation. There is something magical and humbling about walking among them, and it is a feeling you cannot find anywhere else. As Muir noted after walking the ridges of this area …it seemed impossible that any other forest picture in the world could rival it. I will have to agree with him, there is no place like the sequoia woods.

 

 

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