Cashie Calling

My favourite places on earth are the wild waterways where the forest opens its arms and a silver curve of river folds the traveller into its embrace.

~ Rory MacLean

This is the second post on our recent canoe/camping trip in eastern North Carolina (see previous post here). We departed the Cypress Cathedral camping platform on Wednesday and headed downstream on Broad Creek to the Roanoke River. Ospreys, eagles, and the sometimes surprisingly close splashes of Longnose Gar were our travel companions until we reached the wide river and sought out the Bear Run camping platform for a lunch break (we knew no one had it registered so we didn’t mind stopping at the dock to stretch our legs).

-View of the Roanoke River from the Bear Run platform dock (click photos to enlarge)

We then headed across the river to a shortcut to the Cashie River known as the Thoroughfare. Emerging into the lower Cashie, I was surprised at how wide this black water river is at that point. With virtually no current, it is an easy paddle upstream. The Cashie is about 20 miles in length and is one of the few rivers in NC to be contained in a singe county (Bertie).

One of the best-known features of life along the Cashie is the inland ferry at Sans Souci. In operation since the 1800’s, this small ferry crosses the Cashie and connects some rural roads that save drivers an estimated 20 miles. It is operated by a cable that runs across the river. We spoke to the ferry captain and he said there had been 5 cars over that morning (which is about the norm apparently). When a car wants to cross from the other side, the driver must honk their horn and the ferry will cross to get them. It has been run by the state’s Dept. of Transportation since the 1930’s and is one of three cable ferries still in operation in the state.

-The Sans Souci Ferry

Upstream of Sans Souci, the river begins to narrow and the arms of the swamp reach out to embrace paddlers in its spring green and black waters. We reached our final camping platform, Lost Boat, and set up camp. It was another quiet evening with lots of bird sounds and a Raccoon eyeing us as it climbed a tree across the creek.

-Swamp Queen rustling up some dinner at Lost Boat (a dehydrated Asian-flavored noodle dish that she came up with on a previous outing and that continues to be a favorite)

The Cashie impressed us with the relative lack of signs of human activity and the large number of immense Bald Cypress trees on its banks.

-One of many huge cypress trees that dominate the shoreline of the beautiful Cashie River. I love the way converting to black and white highlights the distinctive shapes of these ancient trees

-After our recent trip paddling the Black River with its very old cypress trees, I wonder about the age of some of these giants along the Cashie

-Many of the trunks and branches of the cypress trees are festooned with Resurrection Ferns. This fern looks brown and shriveled in dry weather, and then “resurrects” into green foliage for a few days when it rains

-One of the many eagles we saw along our journey. This not-yet-mature Bald Eagle (it takes about 5 years to acquire the full white head and tail feathers) was uncharacteristically patient with us and allowed us to paddle past fairly close without flying.

-Another eagle with a fully white head and tail takes flight as we approach

-I was somewhat surprised that we saw more Osprey, including this impressive nest, on the Cashie portion of our trip

An immature eagle and an adult were chasing each other ahead of us at one point along the river. It turns out they were not far from an Osprey nest. An Osprey took offense and started to chase the eagles. The adult flew off but the juvenile continued to circle above the river, much to the displeasure of the Osprey. It repeatedly dive-bombed the eagle. It was fascinating to watch this interaction and the acrobatic abilities of both birds, especially the eagle, as it barrel-rolled to face the incoming threat. These photos were taken at quite a distance and heavily cropped.

-Both birds have talons out as the Osprey closes in on the eagle

-An impressive roll-over defensive move, but the eagle finally had enough and flew off

-Crossvine was in bloom all along the river

-Prothonotary Warblers were also abundant on the Cashie

-Azaleas (maybe Pinxter?) in bloom along the upper reaches of the Cashie

-The four Cashie River Treehouses in Windsor offer a unique overnight for people wanting to experience the beauty of the Cashie River

We managed to get out the day before the big storm blew through and enjoyed incredible weather on our only slightly shortened journey of 5 days on two magical rivers. We experienced quiet beauty, amazing wildlife (birds, birds, birds), majestic trees, blue skies, and wonderful camping platforms. I can’t say enough about this place. The Swamp Queen and I will be back for sure.

Swamping Again

The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten.

~Sigurd F. Olson

The Swamp Queen (aka Melissa) did it again…planned a canoe/camping adventure to our favorite swamp destination, the Roanoke River. So, last week, we headed east to spend a planned 6 days paddling over 50 miles on the Roanoke and Cashie (pronounced cash-EYE) Rivers and staying at a number of the wonderful platforms managed by the Roanoke River Partners (RRP) organization. We planned to include two platforms that neither of us had camped on – Conine and Lost Boat (there’s no need to worry about that name, right?). The timing of our trip was perfect as April is our favorite month to paddle this swamp – the bright green colors of spring and the arrival of migratory birds are a huge plus (as is the general lack of mosquitoes this early in the season). And it coincided with my article in the April issue of Walter Magazine highlighting the natural wonders of paddling this area. Check it out for more information on this region.

Weather conditions changed during our trip so we made some alterations in our plans and took out a day early before the heavy rains hit. Below is a rough map of our paddle from Williamston to Windsor. With the changes in platform destinations (we called from the river and changed our reservations as you need to reserve platforms in advance), we ended up paddling a little over 46 miles in four and a half days and stayed on four platforms – Conine, Barred Owl Roost, Cypress Cathedral, and Lost Boat.

-A rough map showing our route from Williamston to Windsor (just off the map at the top) with the names of the platforms where we camped and showing the Thoroughfare connector between the Roanoke River (in red) and the Cashie (in blue)

A satellite view shows a huge swath of green along the river corridors between Wiliamston and Windsor. Mush of this land is protected by the Nature Conservancy, the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge, and various hunt clubs. But some of our trip took us by through shorelines that are not protected and have been recently clear-cut, leaving only the required 30 foot buffer along the waterway. I just don’t think a 30 foot buffer is adequate to protect the integrity and beauty of these amazing habitats. Thank goodness various groups have managed to protect some large sections of the swamp forests.

-A Google Earth view of the rivers we paddled showing the vast expanse of bottomland forest

This post will cover some of the highlights of the Roanoke River portion of our trip. Next time, I’ll finish the trip up the Cashie to Windsor. I want to thank Travis, a teacher that Melissa knows through some of the museum workshops, for helping us shuttle our vehicle between our put in and take out points.

-We set off from Williamston with a fully loaded canoe

-Water levels were as low as we have seen them and when we arrived at the first camping platform, it was a big distance from the river to the newly renovated dock. The steep muddy bank made for a challenging unloading experience. After hearing of our experience, RRP plans to add a lower dock section.

-RRP is renovating many of the camping platforms. This is the refurbished Conine platform – it is really beautiful and one of the few with a screened structure. The walls on the right are the toilet enclosure (but you must bring your own private latrine for these outings – more on that later)

-The first day we were serenaded by countless warblers that had recently arrived from their wintering grounds. This Northern Parula stopped by at sunset for a buzzy song while we sat on the dock (image converted to black and white since it was in total shade)

-View across the Roanoke River from the Conine platform dock at sunset

With the low water there was relatively little current so we decided to paddle upstream on the river the next morning and then travel downstream on the waterway known as Devil’s Gut to our next campsite, Barred Owl Roost. We have paddled the lower section of the “Gut” many times over the years, but never the upper half, so this was a treat. It did not disappoint…

-Turning into the upstream portion of Devil’s Gut from the Roanoke River (note the clear-cut behind the small buffer on the right shoreline – this did not go too far down the “Gut”)

-One of our favorite camping platforms, Barred Owl Roost, is set in a gorgeous swamp.

-Bathroom with a view. This is our portable latrine – a 5-gallon bucket, a pool noodle cut for a seat (quite comfy I might add), and some toilet kit waste bags (each kit contains 1 waste bag; Poo Powder® gelling/deodorizing agent; a zip-close storage bag; toilet paper; and a hand wipe). We bring our own toilet paper and some cleaning wipes. We stash the sealed waste bags in a trash bag and dispose of it when we reach land (these kits are approved for landfill disposal)…now you know.

-There were a lot of Great Blue Herons fishing in the swamp waters and hanging out on our platform walkway

-A panoramic view from the Barred Owl Roost platform

The next morning we canoed to the juncture with the Roanoke River. Normally, we would have paddled downriver to Broad Creek and then upstream to our next site. But, with the low water and slow current, we decided to go upstream on the Roanoke for a few miles and hit the shortcut known simply as “The Cut”. We’ve paddled The Cut many times when doing a loop trip (requiring no shuttle) but always upstream (and that can be tough when the water is high). This was going to cut off a few miles of paddling and we had the plus of being in the more intimate setting of a narrow swamp waterway rather than the wide open river. That usually means more wildlife…

-Looking back upstream from our boat in the Roanoke to where it is joined by Devil’s Gut

-One of many Brown Water Snakes we saw perched up in tree limbs along the waterways

-A lunch stop along the river yields a twisted Supplejack Vine growing up into a Bald Cypress

-There was a lot of Beaver sign along The Cut and we even caught this large Beaver out cutting some saplings during the day (it quickly disappeared to the safety of the water as we passed). A few places had large scent mounds (piles of mud and debris along the shore that Beavers mark with scent to let others know this is their territory). One stretch had 17 scent mounds all in a row, the most we have ever seen in one location.

-We came across a female Wood Duck with about a dozen young. The low water made for a high bank and she was herding her ducklings downstream ahead of us. As we got near, she climbed the bank (only one duckling managed to go with her) and squawked and flopped around on the ground trying to distract us from her young. Meanwhile, the little ones were trying to get ahead of us along the shore. Melissa managed a great photo of a couple as we passed. We paddled away quickly and the ducklings turned back upstream to join their mom. (photo by Melissa Dowland)

-The duckies have more to worry about than a couple of people paddling by in a canoe. We saw this huge Snapping Turtle not far from the ducks.

The Cut joins Broad Creek a couple of miles upstream from where that aptly named creek flows into the Roanoke River. We headed upstream along Broad Creek to our next night’s destination, the idyllic Cypress Cathedral platform.

-Another favorite camping spot along the Roanoke – Cypress Cathedral, with a renovated walkway

-One of the most common birds we heard on our trip was the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. We heard them everywhere and found a pair building a hummingbird-style nest above the walkway at this platform

All along our journey, we saw and heard an amazing number and variety of birds. These bottomland forests have got to be one of the primary refuges for migrating songbirds (and NC resident birds as well) along the East Coast. But the one we always delight in seeing is the one Melissa calls “the friendliest warbler”, the Prothonotary. Along the way, and at a couple of the platforms, they shared their persistent peet, tsweet, tsweet, tsweet song and bright yellow plumage. Their name comes from this yellow color which resembles the bright yellow robes of papal clerks (prothonotaries) in the Roman Catholic church. In addition to being the “friendliest” (they readily hang out and forage near us) they also hold the distinction of being the only eastern wood-warbler that nests in tree cavities. And Cornell’s online compendium of all things birdy, Birds of the World, shares another little known fact. The Prothonotary Warbler played a partial role in the conviction of alleged spy Alger Hiss and the eventual political rise of Richard Nixon. An ex-communist, Whittaker Chambers, accused Hiss of espionage. Chambers claimed to know a lot about Hiss as they were friends, even though Hiss denied ever knowing Chambers. To verify his claims, Chambers said that Hiss was an avid bird-watcher and he had been very excited when they had seen a Prothonotary Warbler on an outing along the Potomac River. When asked about it later, Hiss admitted he had seen the warbler. Richard Nixon, then a freshman congressman, was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating the Hiss allegations, and played a prominent role in proving that the two men knew each other and that Hiss had perjured himself. The lesson here is be careful who you tell your bird sightings to…but I feel I can trust you all.

Here are a few of the many Prothonotary portraits captured on our journey:

-Male Prothonotary letting the swamp know he is there and ready for spring

-Prothonotary investigating a tree cavity for a possible nest site

-Peeking out of the tree hole

The next post will cover the final two days of our trip from Cypress Cathedral through the Thoroughfare and up the Cashie River.

Jones Lake and Paddling the Black River

The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten.

~Sigurd F. Olson

Two weeks ago, we had a chance to paddle the Black River with our friend, Jerry, and a great group of other folks he had gathered for a planning trip for one of his upcoming museum public programs. We jumped at the chance, having been in the past and knowing what a great swamp experience the Black River has to offer. We decided to spend the night before at Jones Lake State Park to get us closer to our launch site early the next morning.

I was a bit surprised, and frankly, disappointed, when we pulled into the campground at Jones Lake. They have cleared out the campground and areas surrounding each site of all underbrush and made large drive-ins to each site that will accommodate RVs. I don’t mind the new driveways, but the clearing of all the low vegetation just makes it a wide-open campground with no privacy screening, especially on the outer loop. Luckily, there were few campers and we isolated ourselves in the far corner. Maybe this is helpful for managing the periodic prescribed burns at the park, but I miss a little privacy at our site. But, to be fair, one great addition to the campground is a new bathhouse – much needed and appreciated.

After setting up camp, we hiked the 4-mile Bay Trail that circles Jones Lake. It is an interesting hike in that it passes through some beautiful Longleaf Pine forest and then puts you into a boggy habitat dominated by Atlantic White Cedar and Loblolly Bay.

– Longleaf Pine (just past the grass stage) along the Bay Trail at Jones Lake State Park (click photos to enlarge)

-Wild Turkey track along the sandy ridge portion of the Bay Trail. We also saw fox tracks and Fox Squirrel tracks, but none of the track-makers.

-The grooved trunk of Loblolly Bay (left) and the more finely patterned trunk of a nice Atlantic White Cedar (right) along the Bay Trail

-The tannin-colored waters of Jone Lake

The boggy portion of the Bay Trail is beautiful, with many large Atlantic White Cedars, though it looks like the forest has sustained a great deal of wind damage in recent years as evidenced by the mish-mash of downed trees all along the trail. Our wildlife highlights were seeing our first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the year and watching some Cedar Waxwings feed on berries.

-A nice flock of Cedar Waxwings greeted us along the shoreline

– Cedar Waxwing stretching for a Smilax berry (photo by Melissa Dowland)

The next morning we were off to Henry’s Landing on the Black River. After transporting some vehicles to our take-out point downriver, our group launched a flotilla of boats (mainly kayaks) onto the dark waters and headed downstream in what looked like a promising day of sunshine (as was predicted).

-Heading downriver from Henry’s Landing

Before long, the sun disappeared and gray skies and chilly temperatures dominated the day. But, no matter, we had good company and plenty of interesting sights along the way.

-A tree trunk hammered by Pileated Woodpeckers

My photos on the river were all taken with an iPhone and I converted the cypress trees and scenes to black and white as I think it pays tribute to the stately nature of this forest.

-Gnarly trunk of a Bald Cypress along the Black River

The first couple of miles are on the main channel of the river, but you eventually get to a point where you head into the swamp known as Three Sisters. This is the home of the true stars of the Black River, the ancient Bald Cypress trees.

-Another ancient cypress in the swamp

Studies have shown there are many trees in this swamp over one thousand years old. And a few years ago, Dr. David Stahle, a scientist studying tree rings and climate change, again visited the swamp looking for trees older than those he had cored back in the 1980’s. Back then, the oldest was believed to have lived over 1600 years. On his last trip, he was guided into the Three Sisters area, and saw trees he believed were much older. A core from one was analyzed back in his lab and dated that tree at 2,624 years old! That makes that cypress the fifth oldest known tree in the world.

-Astounding knees and trees as we paddle through the swamp

Paddling amongst these ancients is humbling…what have they seen? What storms have they survived? Jerry reminded us they they probably experienced huge flocks of Carolina Parakeets feeding on their cones before those beautiful birds went extinct. Perhaps Passenger Pigeons one darkened the skies over the trees when millions of them roamed the East before disappearing forever. And what of the stories of other humans that may have paddled these tea-colored waters in the past couple of thousand years?

— A short clip of the scenery as we paddle through the Three Sisters area, home of the ancient Bald Cypress trees along the Black River

-Convoluted cypress knee

I have paddled and walked in many swamps in my time, but the cypress swamp along the Black River is different and magical. And the abundance, size, and diversity of shapes of the cypress knees are unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.

-Jerry called scenes like this a “knee-scape’…an appropriate name I think

The knowledge that you are paddling through one of the oldest forests on Earth makes it even more special, and really makes me want to go back very soon (and hope I can find my way through the maze of knees and trees).

Mustelid Moments

We need the tonic of wildness, — to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.

~Henry David Thoreau

I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days earlier this month with some friends visiting some of our wonderful wildlife refuges. We had originally planned to go to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, but due to heavy rains, the roads became impassable and the decision was made to temporarily close the area. So, we decided to visit two other refuge units – Mattamuskeet and Alligator River.

We spent the first afternoon at Mattamuskeet, scoping the impoundment on Wildlife Drive where hundreds of ducks, geese and swans were resting and feeding. Lunch by the lodge gave us time to appreciate the elegance of a Great Egret perched in a tree across the canal.

Great Egret assumes an elegant pose (as always) (click photos to enlarge)

One of my favorite things to do at Mattamuskeet is spend some time on the New Holland Trail boardwalk. It passes through a cypress swamp with beautiful lichen-covered trunks, abundant cypress knees, and mind-bending reflections.

A thin layer of ice added to the swamp scene along the boardwalk

A Red-bellied Woodpecker adds her reflection to the swamp’s black water mirror

Which way is up? I can’t help but take some reflection photos every time I visit this trail

As we walked back to the car we spotted what looked like a raptor pellet on the ground. It was smaller than most Great Horned Owl pellets I have seen. and contained some feathers, but of what type of bird? A duck perhaps?

A raptor pellet with some mystery items…any guesses?

I always try to find American Bitterns at Mattamuskeet, and though there were none in sight on this afternoon, the weather and sky provided a beautiful backdrop for a great afternoon of wildlife observation

.Moonrise along Wildlife Drive

Early the next morning we were off to Alligator River NWR, hoping to see a variety of wildlife, though a special request had been put in for otters. It didn’t take long to fulfill that wish…

A River Otter runs across the road ahead of us, lugging its breakfast

Though there were not as many waterfowl as we had seen at Mattamuskeet, we did get some great looks at several species.

Mallard drake showing off that stunning green head

A pair of Tundra Swans cruising one of the flooded fields along the road

We soon spotted a pair of otter swimming toward us in a roadside canal. We got out and sat alongside the canal and watched as these two swam and dove together, one catching a fish, and then one swimming close by giving us the eye. We spent several minutes enjoying the antics of this pair before they finally tired of us and swam out of sight.

A River Otter swims by giving us the eye (and a great reflection)

We drove slowly along the fields, hoping to see a Red Wolf or Black Bear, but we were rewarded instead with numerous raptors, Great Blue Herons, and a truly unexpected treat – a Mink! We were out of the car looking at something out in the field when a car passed by and slowed to a stop just beyond us. I looked up and saw something run from the field and cross the road just in front of that car. It resembled a small otter but had a bushier tail, and it was carrying something. My brain said Mink as it disappeared into the canal, but I wasn’t sure. We drove down and looked, seeing nothing at first. Then there was a ripple and out swam a Mink, carrying what looked like a small rodent.

A large Mink swimming along the canal edge

We watched and followed along as the Mink swam a few feet, darted back into the vegetation along the canal edge, and then would reappear. It repeated this for a couple of minutes until finally vanishing into some thick brush. Before it disappeared it paused nicely and stared at us while holding its future meal. I had brought two cameras and two telephoto lenses on the trip. I let Daniel use the 500 mm telephoto lens while I was using Melissa’s 100-400 zoom. We both managed a couple of quick shots when the Mink looked straight at us. I must admit, Daniel did a great job hand-holding that big lens and getting a fine shot (once again, me jealous??).

The Mink pauses for a few seconds and I get this shot as it stares right at us

Daniel gets a superb photo of the Mink and its prey. We are guessing it is a Hispid Cotton Rat but welcome any other thoughts (photo by Daniel Tregeagle)

Over the years, I’ve seen fewer than a dozen Mink in the wild, and this was by far the best sighting of one, and it had a prey item!

At one stop we played cat and mouse with an elusive Belted Kingfisher. These birds are notoriously difficult to photograph as they tend to fly well before you are in decent camera range. This male (lacking the rust-colored breast band of females of the species) kept flying back and forth from in front of the car to behind as we traveled one section of road, finally allowing each of us to get a few images.

Belted Kingfisher male

A Pileated Woodpecker playing hide and seek on a tree trunk

We ended the day with eight River Otter, a very good day of sightings for this fun-loving species. Our last otter was a sleepy one. It slid off the bank where it had been napping and then lazily lounged in the water, eyes half-closed. We watched it for several minutes as it slowly moved along the bank and then let it be.

River Otter sliding off the bank into the water with barely a ripple

The otter seemed very sleepy as it drifted in the water, eyes closed

We missed seeing a bear or wolf but were lucky to enjoy plenty of otter and an amazing view of a Mink after a successful hunt. This is why you visit these public lands and do so as often as you can…you just never know what amazing sights you may see.

Sharing with Friends

To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand in the cold.

~Aristotle

This is the second post from our January trip to Yellowstone. After spending a few days scouting the northern range of the park and hanging out with some Montana friends, a group of eight NC friends flew out to Bozeman for the start of a winter adventure. We picked everyone up in our two 4wd rentals and were off to the park and our wonderful lodging at Elk River Art in Gardiner.

The dining room and living space at Elk River Art lodge. The place is spectacular and overlooks the Yellowstone River (click photos to enlarge)

After settling in, we drove the Old Yellowstone Trail to see the hundreds of ungulates gathered in the lower elevation sagebrush and grassland flats along the river.

A Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ram that has seen some battles over the years. This guy had the most banged up set of horns I have seen on a ram in the park, the result of many head butts with rivals during the rut.

The next morning we headed into the park early, with temperatures below 10°F (I believe the coldest we experienced with our friends was -13°F and the highest up near 20°F). Though snow was predicted, we were thrilled to have some sunshine on our first full day in the park.

Barronette Peak in all its winter glory

Bighorn ram on the cliff above the road at the Confluence (where Soda Butte Creek flows into the Lamar River)

Our first snowshoe hike was at the place Melissa and I had encountered the two bull Moose a few days before. No Moose this time, but the scenery (and tracks of so many animals) was amazing

Everyone doing great on snowshoes (those in the know say if you can walk, you can snowshoe)

The day proved to be a wildlife bonanza with lots of Elk, snowy Bison, and a threesome of River Otter fishing below the Lamar River bridge in Little America, where a crowd had gathered to enjoy the antics.

Two of the three otters popped up on the ice for a photo

The otters were very adept at catching small fish and making quick snacks of them

A gorgeous Coyote paused to check us out as it traveled toward the road in Little America

The next day brought snowy conditions and more wildlife sightings, including what for many was the highlight of the trip. We were hoping for wolves and went up to the Nature Trail parking lot where Melissa and I had seen some of the Rescue Creek pack a few day earlier, but no luck. We then saw some cars stopped near Blacktail Creek, and rumors were that wolves had been heard. We drove down to the pullout at Wraith Falls on a hunch that Melissa had and as we pulled in, the one person there motioned for us to be quiet and listen…howling! And it was close!

The six wolves of the Lupine Pack on a ridge across from Wraith Falls

We stayed with these wolves for a couple of hours, watching them interact and howl, probably the best howling I have ever heard. The pullout is small so we were with a relatively small group of wolf-watchers. Rick McIntyre (the “wolf guy”) stopped in and Melissa went over and got the scoop on who was who in the pack. It was wolf watching at its finest.

Heavily cropped image of four of the Lupine Pack running across the hillside

I put my phone on a spotting scope and was able to get a few images and some video of the wolves howling…

— Two of the wolves join in on a chorus of howls from the entire Lupine Pack. Turn volume up to hear them (the wind was shaking the scope a bit and you can also hear wind gusts and the crunching of snow as someone walks nearby)

After some quality time with the wolves, we headed toward Silver Gate at the northeast entrance for a talk with our friends Dan and Cindy Hartman. Dan shared some of his amazing stories and films of local wildlife, focusing on the incredible diversity found in the nearby Beartooth Mountains. On our way, Melissa spotted a Red Fox near a group of bison, so we parked and got out hoping for a better look. It went in and out of view along a ravine edge and briefly appeared in the open for a photo.

Red Fox on the Blacktail Plateau

After spending some time in Silver Gate, we headed back toward Gardiner with a steady snow falling.

Barronette Peak has a different look during a snow event

These conditions make you realize what a bottleneck the winter is for all the wildlife in the park – they must all find ways to persevere through these difficult months.

This Coyote has a leg injury and has been nicknamed Limpy on social media from photographers in the park. It is probably becoming acclimated to humans and may, unfortunately, be begging for food from passing vehicles as it patrols the road.

We were pleased that our friends seemed to enjoy watching bison as much as we do, so we spent time every chance we had to just sit and watch these amazing animals as they plowed their heads through the snow seeking the buried grasses.

A Bison near Soda Butte wading through snow up to its belly

Bison use muscles from that huge hump to their necks to swing their massive heads back and forth through snow to get food underneath

A lot of effort for a meager mouthful of dried grass

We did another snowshoe hike at Junction Butte where the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers meet. Our trail had fresh Coyote and Bighorn Sheep tracks leading the way. Toward the end of the trail it looked as though the sheep had bounded away through the snow, perhaps as we approached.

The Yellowstone River at Junction Butte

On our last day of driving the northern range (the only road kept open for regular vehicles in winter in the park), we saw a crowd of tripods and big lenses pointed to a ridge line near the road. I had to pause because of stopped cars and managed a couple of photos of what was causing the traffic jam – two magnificent bull Elk had bedded down not far from the road were silhouetted against the gray sky.

One of two nice bulls bedded down just above the road

The next day was our trip to the interior on a snowcoach, always a highlight of any winter trip.

Standing in Hayden Valley with our transportation to the interior, a Xanterra-operated snowcoach

A common sight in winter – Bison using the road for easy travel, requiring your car or a snowcoach to pause and let them pass

The task of the winterkeepers in the interior is to cut huge blocks of snow and push them off the roofs of buildings to prevent collapse under the weight of the several feet of snow that falls each winter. At Canyon, we saw a work in progress – note the clean edge of the cut snow on the roof and the huge pile of snow blocks tn front of the building.

The so-called “Murphy tree” (I assume named for renowned Yellowstone photographer, Tom Murphy) stands against a sea of white in Hayden Valley

We all were awestruck by the delicate beauty of snowflakes falling on our jackets and gloves

Tons of delicate crystals add up to impressive snow depths (and she is tall!)

Along the rivers we saw several species of birds including Bald Eagles, American Dippers, Buffleheads, Mallards, Ring-Necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Canada Geese, and the elegant Trumpeter Swans.

A pair of Hooded Mergansers photographed through the snowcoach window

Trumpeter Swan along the Firehole River

The groomer is what keeps the interior roads passable for snowcoaches, snowmobiles, and even Bison. Behind and to the right of it is the Visitor Center at Old Faithful and to the left is the historic Old Faithful Inn (which is closed in the winter)

Our time in the interior was filled with cold temperatures, fresh snow, wildlife, and the incredible thermal features for which our first national park was established back in 1872. I enjoy the thermal basins more in winter because the crowds are non-existent, and you can hear the features hissing, splashing, and plopping amidst the increased steam.

— Dragon’s Mouth is a bizarre hot spring in the Mud Volcano area of the park. The feature is in a cave on a hillside. Bubbles of gas and steam from deep in the ground explode against the cave’s roof causing a booming and gurgling noise along with pulses of hot water and steam on the surface. Other names for the feature over the years have included Gothic Grotto and The Belcher. The Crow believed the steam and sound to be the snorts of an angry Bison.

— My favorite thermal feature is the mudpot known as Fountain Paint Pots in the Lower Geyser Basin. Mudpots are similar to hot springs but have less water. Hydrogen sulfide gas from below interacts with surface water and microorganisms to weather the surrounding rock to mud. Gas and water vapor from below push up through the mud causing the bubbles and plops on the surface.

— Along the trail at Fountain Paint Pots, we came upon Fountain Geyser erupting. It shoots up to 50 ft in the air and continues for more than 20 minutes.

A ranger once told our group that no matter what you came to see in Yellowstone, you really came to see geology (since it determines everything else we see on the landscape). I think people may come to Yellowstone for many reasons. The fantastical thermal features, the amazing abundance and diversity of wildlife, and the simplicity, beauty, and quiet of a snowy scene are some of the many wonders we all shared and came to appreciate in this magical place called Yellowstone. I can’t wait to return…

— A snowy scene from the interior of our favorite park, Yellowstone

A Winter’s Journey

Winter is not a season, it’s a celebration.

~Anamika Mishra

Melissa had another wonderful educator workshop to Yellowstone last month with plenty of extraordinary sightings including a Pygmy Owl, Ermine, and a Bobcat feeding on a Mule Deer carcass (jealous, me??). We planned for her to take some time off afterward and have some friends join us for a week in our favorite winter wonderland. I went out a few days before that group arrived so we could scout things out and hang out with some our friends that live near the park. I’ll post some of our highlights here and add another post on our friend’s group trip next time.

Snow amounts were a little more than in some of my previous trips. The slopes surrounding Lamar Valley were stunning under a brilliant blue sky (click photos to enlarge)

Pronghorn, and many other ungulates, migrate to lower elevations near Gardiner (the north entrance to the park) in winter. This year has seen huge numbers of Bison, Elk, Mule Deer, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, and Pronghorn congregate in the sagebrush flats along the Yellowstone River. The drive along the Old Yellowstone Trail between Corwin Springs and Gardiner yielded great views of large numbers of animals.

One of many Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep rams hanging out on the Old Yellowstone Trail. Though the peak of their rut is in December, this guy was pursuing a ewe in this classic pose.

A nice bull Elk has pawed through the snow to feed on grass. Melissa noticed that Elk feeding pits typically had sharper edges and little mini-cliffs to them compared to the more jumbled bulldozed appearance where Bison use their massive heads to plow through the snow.

This same Elk hung around Phantom Lake throughout the duration of our trip, seen here browsing on willow twigs just below the road. He caused several traffic jams during our stay.

A small herd of Rocky Mountain Goats on the slopes of Barronette Peak in the northeastern part of the park. This peak is the best place to find this non-native species, but snow cover can make it challenging. Photo taken with an iPhone mounted to a spotting scope.

A light snow (ice crystals really) was creating a diamond-like dusting in the sky behind us while watching the goats

— Melissa’s educator workshop did not see wolves during their trip, so we felt a little guilty finding members of the Rescue Creek pack during our first couple of days. We heard howls and then a nearby guide shared that he had seen them surround a bison and perhaps take it down This was at a distance of about 2 miles through a spotting scope. The carcass seemed to be down in a ravine and the wolves would periodically come up to the ridge line where they were visible.

Another scope/iPhone video…

— On one of our many trips through Lamar Valley, we spotted a Raven about 1/4 mile out from the road acting oddly – jumping up and flapping its wings, and then grabbing at something in the snow. It turned out to be a dead duck. We could only guess as to how the duck ended up so far from the river – perhaps an eagle dropped it?

Melissa had discovered a new snowshoe hike near Pebble Creek in her workshop. We snowshoed in one afternoon and were rewarded with some wonderful surprises…

An American Thee-toed Woodpecker was busy pecking away at the bark of a conifer searching for insects and seemed oblivious to our presence. This, and the Black-backed Woodpecker, differ from all other North American woodpecker species in having only three toes (instead of four) and lacking red feathers. This woodpecker is associated closely with spruce forests and nests farther north than any other North American woodpecker. I can’t recall seeing this species before so this was a treat.

The highlight of this hike for me was when we paused to watch some birds and we both heard a noise behind us. I thought it was some ice cracking on the nearby stream edge, but Melissa quickly spotted the source – a nice bull Moose.

He was feeding on aspen branches, reaching high to snap off twig tips.

He then stuck his enormous snout into the snow and pulled up some hidden vegetation.

While we watched the one bull, I spotted another coming down the hill and headed our way. This was another bull that had recently dropped its antlers (most drop them in December and January). You can see the whitish pedicel where one of the antlers was attached to the skull. We stayed still and this moose walked across the path where we were headed and wandered off into the trees. We slowly snowshoed along the trail and the first bull eventually made his way behind us to join the other moose.

— I’ll leave you with some video shot by Melissa of this magnificent bull Moose browsing on aspen twigs – a privilege to witness such wild beauty.

Lake George

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

~Thomas Jefferson, 1791

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

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

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

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

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

Young North American Porcupine in mulberry tree

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

A look at the formidable claws that help porcupines climb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spongy Moth egg masses and pupae on a tree trunk

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

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

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

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

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

Summer is Bear Time

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

~Linda Jo Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bear notices something in the field across the canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two cubs wrestling

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

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

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

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

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

Another bear comes out of the forest

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

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

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

Where did she go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving South Along the Parkway

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

~Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black-throated Green Warbler sitting on her nest

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

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

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

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

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

Mountain High

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

~Kristen Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View from the Pinnacle

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

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

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

View from the meadow along the trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Gray-cheeked Salamander