Swamp Break

Each mile on a river will take you further from home than a hundred miles on a road.

~Bob Marshall

It has been a hectic spring at work so we decided to take a break last week and do something we both love to do – paddle in a swamp. We both blocked off 3 days some months ago to allow for a couple of nights camping on platforms on the Roanoke River, one of our favorite get-away spots. Turns out the weather had other plans, and, with the forecast for our second day calling for cold rain and wind, we almost canceled the whole trip. But my swamp queen convinced me that one night in the swamp is better than nothing, so off we went Monday morning to paddle Gardner Creek and camp on the Barred Owl Roost platform. As I have mentioned before, the platforms are part of an amazing (and underutilized) resource for outdoor enthusiasts along the Roanoke River. Information and reservations are available through the Roanoke River Partners web site.

Melissa in canoe

Melissa in her element – a canoe in a swamp (click photos to enlarge)

We put in where Gardner Creek crosses under Hwy 64. Melissa arranged with a local teacher she had met on workshops for a quick shuttle (during the teachers’ lunch break). Melissa drove our car to to the take-out point at the boat ramp in Jamesville, and the teacher brought her back to our starting point (a 5-minute drive instead of a 5-hour paddle).

Swamp along te Roanoke River

Spring is just beginning to show in the swamp

Gardner Creek is one of our favorite paddles, a narrow, winding blackwater stream. One side was clear cut several years ago, but there is a slight buffer. The other side is a beautiful huge cypress-tupelo gum swamp. April is a great time to paddle as things are just starting to green up, and the wildlife is more active.

bald cypress leaf out

Bald cypress needles starting to emerge gave the swamp just a hint of green

red maple color

Splashes of color from red maples

red maple seeds 1

Red maple seeds are firetruck red

Scattered along our route were bright splashes of red from the strikingly colored red maple seeds. By the time I am writing this, there will be white patches from hawthorns and shadbush blooms, yellow streaks from the newly arrived prothonotary warblers, and the greens from leaf out will start to fill in the gaps. But we were there on the cusp of color in the swamp.

Barred owl

Barred owls were numerous along our paddle

Our main companions along the way were the birds, both year round residents and new arrivals. At the launch site, we heard our first barred owls, a sound that would escort us along out route the next 24 hours. I had left my usual camera and lenses behind and just had my waterproof point-and-shoot for this trip, a decision I soon regretted with the great close-up views of some owls within the first few miles of our paddle. Several anhinga, osprey, red-shouldered hawks, a yellow-crowned night heron, and a plethora of pileateds made for pleasant birding both days (see bird list at end of post).

Fragile forktail

Fragile forktail damselfly

beaver lodge along Devil's Gut

A huge beaver lodge along Devil’s Gut

Other wildlife included some basking turtles, a gorgeous damselfly, and a muskrat.

river herring and swamp scene

Our highlight was what was under the water’s surface

But our highlight for the trip was what was just beneath the surface of the water…the fish, thousands of them. With the water level’s dropping, fish were coming out of the flooded swamps and feeding along the edges, often right at the surface. We talked to a few fishermen who were catching white perch and “bream”. We also saw a few huge fish jump clear of the black water, probably some carp and maybe bass. But the dominant fish, by far, were the river herring. It is spawning time on the Roanoke, and schools of herring were concentrated in the creeks, one of which was where our platform was located. They were breaking the surface as we paddled, becoming more common the farther up the creek we went. Finally, at our platform, we could see into the shallow water and watched in awe as hundreds of fish swam by in small swirling schools of silver-gray. With the onset of darkness, the activity intensified (do they spawn mainly at night, or was it feeding activity?) and the splashing was noticeable all around us.

Nearing the platform

A gnarled cypress trunk greets us as we near the platform

Barred owl roost platform

Home sweet home, Barred Owl Roost camping platform

view from platform barred owl roost

View from the platform

We slept without the usual rain fly to see the stars twinkling through the treetops. Occasional barred owl choruses echoed through the swamp throughout the night. The temperatures dropped, and, by morning, cloud cover came in with the approaching storm. It was time to pack up and head for Jamesville.

barred owl carcass tied in fishing line

The tragedy of discarded fishing line

The day before, we came across a particularly poignant tragedy. After enjoying close views of a couple of barred owls on the way in, we were heartbroken to find a dead owl that had somehow become entangled in some discarded fishing line. It looked as though a lure was tossed and wrapped around a tree branch. I imagine the fisherman yanked and broke the line, but left it dangling from the branch. The barred owl had it tightly wound around the tip of its wing, perhaps flying into the line or maybe the lure that swayed in the wind. We cut the owl loose, gathered the remaining line, and found ourselves trying to collect any discarded line we found along the rest of our route (and there was way too much of it tangled in tree branches). It is certainly one of those things that takes a toll on wildlife and just doesn’t disappear from the landscape if left behind.

Huge Bald cypress along Gardner Creek

Swamp sentinel

We beat the approaching rain and got loaded up and headed home, sorry to be leaving but happy for our time in this great watery woodland. One slight disappointment was that our platform showed some signs of age, effects of high water this winter, and some abuse/negligence by previous campers (luckily, not a typical thing we see out here). Melissa mused that in a future life she would love to take on the job of maintaining the platforms and leading interpretive trips in the swamp. Who knows, there may be many more swamp trips in our future (and that will be okay by me).

Bird list:

Wood duck, Anhinga, Great blue heron, Yellow-crowned night heron, Barred owl, Osprey, Bald eagle, Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed hawk, Turkey vulture, Black vulture, Wild turkey, Belted kingfisher, Fish crow, Pileated woodpecker, Red-bellied woodpecker, Downy woodpecker, White-breasted nuthatch, Carolina chickadee, Tufted titmouse, Northern cardinal, Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Northern parula, Yellow-throated warbler, Common grackle, Red-winged blackbird, Eastern wood-peewee, Tree swallow

Wild Places

The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it, the more beautiful does it appear.

~Richard Dawkins

Memories of Yellowstone are still lingering in my head…the scenery, the snow, the quiet, and the incredible wildlife. So, I did what I needed to do for my spirit last weekend, and headed to Pungo for the day. What better way to reinforce that feeling of wildness, the freedom that comes from being outside with countless wild creatures, than to go to my favorite spot in North Carolina, the Yellowstone of the East – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Melissa was out of town, so I did a solo one day trip, leaving home at 4:30 a.m. to get down there close to sunrise. When I pulled in, the morning show had already started…

Snow geese in field in morning light

Snow geese feeding in a cornfield at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

Snow geese, mixed with a flock of tundra swans, filled one of the fields close to the maintenance area. I pulled down on the side of the field where the low angle morning sunlight was hitting the birds, stopped the car, and watched as thousands of white forms moved through the fresh corn stubble in a feeding frenzy. The birds were close to the road so I could hear that mechanical sound made by thousands of snow geese grunting, squabbling, and gleaning kernels of corn from the field.

snow geese blasting off

A blast off close to the road

Suddenly, they all blasted off, circled the field a few times and started to land closer than before. I scanned the skies, and soon saw the cause of all the commotion…

bald eagle flying through snow geese

The cause of the blast-off, a cruising bald eagle

An adult bald eagle was flying across the field, looking over the flock for any possible weaknesses. When it got to the other side I saw two more eagles, perched, waiting, hoping for a chance at a goose breakfast.

snow goose in flight

The light was perfect for photos

A car drove by and spooked the eagles, so the snow geese quickly calmed down and started making short flights to leapfrog ahead of the moving mass of white to get to untouched spilled corn. This allowed me to get several nice views of them flying by and landing in beautiful light.

Snow geese (dark morphs) landing 1

Blue phase snow geese coming in for a landing

Northern shoveler drake

Northern shoveler ducks were abundant in the marsh impoundment

I drove on to the lake and was surprised to see very few swans. The impoundment was also relatively quiet (only a couple of hundred swans), but the shoreline was crowded with ruddy ducks and northern shovelers.

northern shoveler pair feeding

Pairs of northern shovelers were feeding together in tight circles

As I pulled in to a spot and parked, the ducks moved away in short flights, but soon returned as I sat in the car, camera out the window. This is where I see many people make a mistake and get out of their cars for a better view. If you use your vehicle as a blind, the birds will often return faster and you usually get a better image.

Ruddy duck in canal

A ruddy duck in a canal next to the road

Mid-day found me over at Mattamuskeet. Things were very quiet there with high water in the marshes along Wildlife Drive leading to fewer waterfowl than usual. I did notice several swan carcasses in the shrubbery along the entrance road…bobcats perhaps?

Trumpeter swan?

Swan at Mattamuskeet – Trumpeter or Tundra?

On the back loop of Wildlife Drive, I stopped to photograph some swans and in looking at the images a little later, found one that resemble a trumpeter swan – longish bill, no yellow on the bill (not always a guarantee it isn’t a tundra swan). What do you think?

yellow-rumped warbler

What are you staring at?

I cruised slowly along the shrub zone, looking for song birds, and, at one point, found a group of yellow-rumped warblers moving through some wax myrtles and sweetgum saplings. They always seem to have a bit of an attitude when they stop and look at you.

Sandhill cranes in cornfield

Back at Pungo, the wintering sandhill cranes

I returned to Pungo at about 4 pm, a little later than I hoped, but just in time for the start of the evening show. There were vehicles near the refuge entrance observing a few thousand swans out in the winter wheat so I drove on toward D-Canal Road where a local farmer had been cutting the last remaining standing corn in one of the refuge fields earlier. I hoped the birds would find this fresh food supply. I got down there and had several hundred swans in the field all to myself for awhile. A car finally pulled up and the occupants got out and walked into the field a short distance to take selfies with the birds in the background. You can imagine my thoughts…I pulled up to them, admonishing them for walking out toward the flock and spooking the birds. I suggested they should stay in their vehicle for a better look and not disturb the flock. To their credit, they offered an apology and got back in their car as I drove off. As I drove by the adjoining field, I saw the familiar stooped posture of feeding sandhill cranes in the fresh cut cornfield. No doubt the same three birds we had seen on the Christmas Bird Count several weeks ago.

Sandhill cranes, swans, and rwb in cornfield

Cranes sharing the field with swans and red-winged blackbirds

The cranes were soon joined by several hungry swans and hundreds of red-winged blackbirds. As I watched, I heard the sound of approaching snow geese. I looked up and could see thousands of birds coming in from high up in the graying sky. This is why I keep coming back – this spectacle of the birds in winter at Pungo is unlike an other wildlife experience in North Carolina.

snow geese descending into field

Snow geese beginning their descent

I love the sounds and sights of a huge flock of snow geese, swirling above a field, and gradually coming down.

snow geese landing

Landing in a swirl of wings

I am always amazed they seemingly aren’t landing on top of their flock-mates, but maybe that’s what all the noise is about – snow goose warnings.

snow goose blast off

Late day blast-off of snow geese

After feeding for many minutes, something caused the massive flock to explode from the field in a wall of black and white feathers. That sound is one of the most amazing, loud, whumpfs in nature. I may not get back down this winter before they all start their long journey northward, but am thankful for this incredible day in this amazing wild place.

Endings

For this final post on our recent winter trip to Yellowstone, I share a poem that Melissa wrote on a previous trip and read to our group while snowshoeing one day. It seems like an appropriate ending for this incredible journey.

Yellowstone (a poem by Melissa Dowland)

            I want so much

To connect ever deeper

            With this place;

            Idolized,

                        But perhaps rightly so.

            I want to feel

Home

            To become part

            Of all that I see

                        And hope

            That this special place

            Embodies

                        And is.

Is it home? Not home maybe.

            I want to become the

                        Person who’s home this is.

Who knows intimately

            Who connects deeply

Who embodies the wild freedom

Who glories in the spectacular

            And the common

Who loves deeply

            (who never dulls)

                        who lives courageously

                                    who embraces wonder

and who teaches others

            as this place itself teaches,

to connect

            to glory

                        to live

in that same way:

something larger than oneself

something as big as the whole world.

People on boardwalk

The boardwalk at Grand Prismatic Spring (click photos to enlarge)

Ice-covered trees at Grand Prismatic 2

Icy trees at Grand Prismatic

Dead trees at Upper Geyser Basin

Dead trees in the Upper Geyser Basin

Ephydrid flies and eggs

Ephydrid flies and their salmon-colored eggs in one of the thermal areas

Bull moose in snow

Bull moose at Round Prairie

snowy cow elk

Elk cow near the North entrance

snowy bison 1

Snowy bison face

Baby bison - late calf

A late-born bison calf, still sporting its reddish-orange coat

Lamar hills

Snowy hills in Lamar Valley

Rocky moutain bighorn ram at confluence

Bighorn ram near the Confluence

coyote that was chased by ranger

A coyote that had apparently been fed and was being harassed by a park ranger (moving toward it in her vehicle with flashing lights) in an attempt to keep it away from people

Elk resting in snow - cow and bull

Elk resting in a snow storm

Mule deer buck

Mule deer buck

Golden eagle

Golden eagle

Almost mature bald eagloe

Bald eagle (about 3 1/2 years old based on plumage)

Hayden Valley Highlight

At this season Nature makes the most of every throb of life that can withstand her severity. How heartily she endorses this fox!

~John Burroughs, “The Snow-Walkers”, 1866

Hayden Valley is one of my favorite spots in winter, with its gently rolling hills covered in deep, smooth snow, interrupted only by an isolated tree here and there and the tracks of some animal wandering across a seemingly endless blanket of white. As our snow coach pulled away from the river’s edge and started to climb a hill, we saw another coach headed our way that had stopped, photographers out along the road. Moving steadily away from them (and us) was a gorgeous red fox in great low angle winter light. The other group was headed back to their vehicle as we jumped out, and I admit I was frustrated that this beauty was soon to disappear over the hill toward the river.

Red fox in Hayden Valley

Red fox in Hayden Valley (click photos to enlarge)

We waited, and watched. In a short while, the fox came trotting back over the hill toward us and then plopped down in the snow, eyes squinting against the bright light, looking incredibly regal in its luxuriant fur coat.

Red fox sitting

The fox sat for a few minutes, surveying the scene

Most red foxes in the lower 48 states (especially East of the Rockies), are believed to be a subspecies introduced from Europe in the 1700 and 1800’s for hunting and fur farming. But, there are also native subspecies that occur at high elevations in Yellowstone (generally above 8000 feet in the park) and other northern regions. The latter tend to be lighter in color and are known as mountain foxes. This fox was full-on red – an incredibly beautiful animal, and the scene we were lucky enough to see it in was equally stunning.

Red fox looking back

As it moved across the snow, the light brought out the rich colors of the fox’s fur

Red fox in deep snow

Though it usually was able to walk on top of the snow, the fox sank deep at one point and paused for a few seconds

As we walked along the road, the fox moved steadily across the snow field. Periodically, it paused, and I kept hoping for the classic fox snow pounce, an arching leap ending with a head plunge into the snow to grab an unsuspecting creature tunneling beneath the white surface. But, it never happened.

Red fox walking on snow

The fox continued walking, stopping occasionally to sniff and listen

The closest we got was a nose plunge, but I’ll take it. Fox sightings have increased over the years since the reintroduction of wolves. Wolves keep coyote numbers in check, Coyotes kept fox numbers down. Fewer coyotes, more foxes.

Red fox sticking snout in snow close up

It paused, looked down, and stuck its snout into the snow

Red fox sitting in snow

Finding nothing, the fox sat back and looked around

red fox strolling through snow as it leaves us

After glancing back our way, this beautiful animal headed back over the hill

These are the moments that stay with me, the chance to observe a beautiful wild creature going about its life, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. It is a rare treat enhanced by the fact that it happened in a spectacular location and was shared with good friends. How lucky for us all.

 

Sharing The Place We Love

Through the weeks of deep snow we walked above the ground on fallen sky…

~Wendell Berry

After a few days of hanging out with our friends in Gardiner and exploring the park on our own, we drove to Bozeman to pick up a group of friends from NC that would be joining us on our Yellowstone adventure. We both love sharing wild places with people and we have been fortunate to do it as part of our careers for many years. Sharing a love of place with others makes your own sense of place even stronger and more satisfying.

img_6440

Devil’s Slide just outside the northern entrance to Yellowstone (click photos to enlarge)

Cloudy skies and light snow greeted our group as we drove towards the park, but there is a stark beauty in this landscape that those conditions tend to intensify. The crisp air gives more detail to the land than we are used to back home and the vastness provides a humbling backdrop to any outdoor experience.

Pronghorn along dirt road

Pronghorn along the road into Yellowstone

We drove in on the dirt road that starts at the bridge over the Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs, a route we had never taken before, but that will probably be our go-to route in the future. It passes through some sagebrush and grasslands and is a haven for wildlife, like pronghorns, that migrate out of the park in winter to avoid the deep snow. You pass through some private property along the roadside and finally enter the park after a couple of miles. Right before we entered the park, we saw what would be our third ermine for the trip (amazing!). Unfortunately, we never managed a decent image of these beautiful little weasels as they are very fast and often disappear under the snow or in a log jam. One of our friends did grab a phone pic but all you see is a little white blur on the surrounding snow-free landscape.

rooseveltarch

Roosevelt Arch at the northern entrance

We have a long tradition of driving through the iconic Roosevelt Arch on our first and last days in Yellowstone, stopping on the way in to admire its architecture and engraved words – For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People. Those words are from the National Parks Organic Act that established Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The arch rises 50 feet and is constructed of columnar basalt rocks quarried nearby. President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting the park while the arch was being built and ceremoniously laid the cornerstone in 1903 and was thereby honored by having it named after him. It is a dramatic feature on the landscape and a powerful emblem of the value of what Ken Burn’s called “America’s Best Idea”, our national parks. And this year was a particularly poignant one for the parks. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the park employees (and all other Federal workers) that were furloughed for so long in the government shutdown. By the time we arrived, many had been called back to duty without pay to maintain the safety of the parks’ resources and visitors. This is a dedicated group of people that performed professionally in spite of the crazy politics of our time.

Mule deer at entrance

Mule deer near Arch

Adjacent to the Arch were a few mule deer lying among the golden grasses, their huge ears surveying the scene. It is always a good sign to be greeted in such a beautiful fashion as you enter.

Snowy bison face

Snowy bison face

Our first full day with our friends was spent traveling the northern range looking for wildlife on our way to visit our friends in Silver Gate, the Hartman’s. The fresh snow made for some photogenic portraits of the wildlife we saw, mainly bison and herds of elk.

Bulll elk in snow

Large bull elk feeding in snow

A large bull elk drew a crowd at one point along the road. The down side of a fixed telephoto lens is you may have a hard time fitting it all in the frame if the animal is not off in the distance. A vehicle had run off the road at this point and was trying to shovel out so there was no place to park. We dropped our friends off to enjoy the view of this magnificent bull, drove a ways, turned around and picked them back up in time to see a furloughed park employee helping the stuck vehicle out of the ditch. In Silver Gate, I grabbed my camera as we walked up to our friends’ house as they often have a great variety of birds at their feeders in winter.

Pine grosbeak male

Male pine grosbeak

Once again, the fixed lens proved a difficult choice as the birds darted back and forth among the feeders a short distance away from the window where I stood.

Gray jay

Canada jay (formerly called gray jay)

Stellar's jay

Stellar’s jay

I did finally manage a decent image of the stunningly brilliant Stellar’s jay, a bird of the high elevation spruce-fir forests in this region.

Clark's nutcracker

Clark’s nutcracker

Red squirrel

Red squirrel

Other creatures also visit the feeder area, including red squirrels, the occasional wild turkey, red foxes, and pine martens. They also have flying squirrels and various owls checking out the area on occasion.

Snowshoeing

Friends snowshoeing behind Dan and Cindy’s house

After a show of some of Dan and Cindy’s incredible wildlife photos and videos, we headed out for the first of our snowshoe hikes on a trail behind the house. The fresh snow revealed tracks of martens, coyote, fox, ermine, and mice, along with some haystacks of pika up under some log overhangs.

weathered log in snow

Weathered log peeking out from the snow

The scenery in Silver Gate is breathtaking with high mountain peaks in every direction, coupled with small points of beauty all around.

Hike behind Dan's

Scene behind Dan and Cindy’s house

And snowshoeing is the perfect way to explore these woods, especially on a trail that has been walked before. It is easy and can be incredibly quiet when you stop to take it all in. Though it could be a tough life here, especially in winter, we all felt drawn to this place, to this lifestyle. Thank you, Dan and Cindy, for sharing it with us.

Next post…into the park’s interior.

The Place We Love

Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this, and suddenly the air is filled with snow. That is the way the whole world happened – there was nothing, and then…

~William Stafford

We have returned from our special place – Yellowstone. Not all of us is back. We seem to always leave a little of each of us there to soak it in, to be ready to relive it at the slightest opportunity. Winter in Yellowstone is truly magical and we were lucky to spend ten days in our paradise.

Cottonwoods in mist vertical

Winter scene with fog in Lamar Valley (click photos to enlarge)

The trip had been planned for over a year, with NC friends joining us for a while, and Melissa and I out there on our own a few days, spending some time with some of our Yellowstone friends. This is the first of a few posts on the trip, this one being the first few days before our NC friends joined us. The forecast looked snowy for most of our time, with only occasional breaks for sun. Forecasts can be iffy in Yellowstone, but this one turned out to be pretty accurate. The region needs snow, as it is only about 50% of the normal amount on the ground for this time of year in many places.

Dead snag at Hitching Post

Dead snag near Hitching Post on the edge of Lamar Valley

Our first few days were spent traveling the Northern Range from Gardiner, MT (where our friends live) to Silver Gate and Cooke City (where other friends live). This is the only roadway open to cars in winter due to the isolated communities outside the Northeast entrance that would otherwise be cut off due to deep snows in the mountain passes to the East.

Bull elk

A couple of big boys in a band of bull elk chillin’ in the snow

We saw the usual wildlife in the lower elevations – bison and elk – with larger herds of elk (especially cows, young bulls, and young of the year) than I have seen in a few years. As usual, we ran into a few bands of bulls peacefully hanging out together, even though they had battled fiercely for dominance just a few months ago.

ungulate paths

The snow reveals the well-worn paths of countless mammals that have moved through this valley over the years

Round Prairie

Round Prairie

 

Reports online had indicated this is a good year for moose, especially in the area known as Round Prairie, out past the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley.

Moose and calf lying down

A pair of moose relaxing in Round Prairie

Our first full day confirmed that – a total of five moose seen on out first visit out there. Two (possibly a cow and her calf from this year) were fairly close to the road bedded down. They seemed quite at ease until a young bull sporting only one antler (it is antler shedding time for moose) passed through, seemingly intent on something in the woods beyond the resting pair. They sprang up and stared in the direction he had disappeared.

Moose and calf standing

Something has their attention

We never saw the object of all their attention but they soon calmed down and moved on to browse on vegetation sticking up out of the deepening snow. We were standing along the roadside when a truck pulled up, said something about the moose out in the meadow and then mentioned, “you know you have a moose up on the hill behind you, don’t you?”.

Moose coming down hill

Indeed, there is a moose above us on the ridge

We looked behind us, and there it was, a huge moose standing along the ridge line, looking out toward Round Prairie. It was what one photographer out there called a “silver dollar moose” – a bull that has recently dropped its antlers, leaving two large circles of bone exposed on the head.

Moose coming down hill 2

Coming down the hill in deep snow

The moose quickly came down the hill, moving gracefully through the drifted snow. Large hooves, long legs, and a special gait (due to the ability to swing out their legs over the snow) allow moose to move through deep snow more efficiently than most ungulates (hoofed mammals). This one made its way down the hill, across the road, and into the forest in a matter of seconds.

One of Melissa’s goals on this trip was to cross country ski on our first few days, so we headed up the Tower Road, a groomed ski trail. My sore leg didn’t care for that activity, so she went solo on her next two trips, with me being her shuttle and waiting for wildlife in the interim.

Old bison in winter

An old bull bison that may not make it through this winter

I hung out for a time at Soda Butte, where an old bull bison seemed not long for this world. A visitor told me a coyote had been sitting with it most of the morning, waiting its turn for a possible buffet. When I arrived, the coyote was across the road trying to extract a morsel form an old wolf-killed elk carcass. A pair of magpies kept hopping up on the old bull, wondering when they might have a chance at feeding. When one hopped on its face (they often go for the eyes on a fresh carcass), the bull shook its head to let us all know he wasn’t through quite yet.

Coyote

This coyote came toward the old bison by walking right past a few of us

The coyote then decided to come back to the bison and check in. But, to our surprise, it chose a path that took it right past a small group of us standing at the pullout.

 

Coyote approaching road 1

Coyote made a bee line for the opposite side of the road, but we happened to be nearby

Coyote looking sideways

Something catches its attention away from us

Once across the road, it went over, checked on the bull, and then walked away, stopping to listen for unknown sounds in the snow.

Aspens in Little America

Aspens in Little America

The first few gray days were broken only occasionally by brief bursts of sunlight. The snow fell each day, a light, fluffy snow that accumulated faster than seemed possible.

Little America

Most days had at least a sliver of sunlight to illuminate the landscape for a few minutes

Bighorn ram

Bighorn sheep ram at the confluence (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove back and forth along the Northern Range, watching wildlife (including scope views of wolves in Lamar Valley), with Melissa skiing through some gorgeous scenery, and me taking in the features of the landscape, from huge mountains, to wildlife, to delicate plant stems posing above the increasingly thick white blanket covering the ground. More in the next post…

Cross country skiing

Melissa’s cross country skiing backdrop

Seed heads in snow

Even the small things are beautiful if you stop to look

Winter Bliss

When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go.     

~Alexandra Stoddard

I certainly carry certain places with me. And moments in those places have a way of adhering to my memory, reappearing when my mind wanders to sights and sounds of their wildness, their beauty, their mystery. And I now need these places and these memories even more. The beauty of nature has a way of helping us cope with the confounding issues of our times and gives us hope. One such place for me is what I usually simply call “Pungo”. Its official name is the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I managed another trip last weekend, heading down after a program at work on Saturday, and meeting friends from work Sunday morning.

Blackbirds flock

Flock of blackbirds swimming through the sky above a corn field (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived fairly late in the day on Saturday and went straight to North Lake Road. Flocks of blackbirds (mainly red-winged blackbirds and common grackles) were flying back and forth from the corn field to the trees, twittering as they flew in wave-like patterns in response to aerial predators (real or imagined) or some other cues. I ran into some friends and we had a nice flyover of snow geese that couldn’t make up their minds where to go. Melissa was down last weekend also, leading a Museum trip, and I found that group on the way out. We parked and watched swans returning to the refuge for the night along with the swarms of ducks (called ducknados by a young observer a couple of years ago) flying into the corn fields from the adjacent swamp.

sunrise on Marsh A

The quiet beauty of a sunrise at Pungo

The next morning found me sitting in the quiet of a Pungo sunrise with the soft cooing sounds of swans. There is something magical about sunrises, the way they slowly change the landscape – the silence, the peacefulness.

sunrise from Duck Pen

Morning clouds over Pungo Lake from Duck Pen blind

I decided to walk down to the Duck Pen observation blind hoping to see some swans in close. Instead, I was treated to a beautiful sky over the calm waters. A long swooshing sound turned out to be an approaching flock of red-winged blackbirds undulating westward to the corn fields.

Swan preening 1

The elegant moves of a Tundra Swan preening

As the sun rose above the trees, I headed back to the impoundment known as Marsh A to spend some quiet time with the majestic swans. These birds are simply feathered elegance. The low angle of morning light produces sharp lines and highlights the gentle curves of these beautiful birds. They spend a lot of time preening their 25,000 feathers…

Swan with feather on bill

They look good even with a little feather stuck on their bill

…and occasionally get one stuck on their bill (probably the equivalent of that piece of lettuce that your friend tries to tell you is stuck in your teeth). I truly enjoy spending time with the swans. But, my friends were going to arrive soon, so I decided to drive around and get a few pictures of other birds (or whatever I could find) while the light was so nice.

Swamp sparrow 1

A Swamp Sparrow feeding along the edge of a canal

I drove slowly along the canal edges looking for brushy spots that often harbor a variety of small birds. The usually secretive swamp sparrows were feeding out in the open along the edge of the water. If you take the time to look at sparrows, they really are elegant little birds, each species with a distinct personality and a blend of subtle colors and patterns.

Savannah sparrow

Savannah Sparrows along the edge of a field

As I drove along the field edges, groups of Savannah Sparrows flitted up from the corn stubble and grasses into the shrubs and trees lining the canals. I appreciated a chance to view them against the sky rather than camouflaged in the grasses.

Turkey vultures

Bright skies and warm temperatures made for a good day for vultures

The calm winds and clear skies made for a good vulture day. There are a few large turkey vulture roosts along the road edges at Pungo, so it is common to see them perched in snags along the roadsides in the morning, waiting for the warmth of the day to create thermals for their efficient flight. One member of the pair above demonstrated a common vulture behavior – the spread wing posture. This is often seen early in the day as birds try to warm up or dry their feathers after a damp night.

Turkey vulture head

A Turkey Vulture close-up

One vulture allowed me to drive up closer than most, so I was able to get a few portrait shots (maybe not your dream photo, but they are interesting nonetheless). There is a stark beauty in their ugliness, a lot of detail and character in their wrinkled faces. Adult turkey vultures have reddish skin (juveniles have blackish-gray skin) and an ivory bill. You can also see their huge nostrils (nares) which help them have one of the keenest senses of smell in the bird world. They also have a larger olfactory lobe in their brain compared to other species so they are well-equipped to detect dead animals as they soar above the landscape. As I drove along D-canal road, I spotted a few vultures squabbling over a duck or goose carcass in the private fields across the canal. As I watched, they suddenly took flight, along with a great blue heron that had been stalking prey in the nearby drainage ditch.

Great blue heron flying

As I watched the carcass, a Great Blue Heron flew by in a hurry

The heron flew in an arc from one field to another across the road, squawking as it went. I turned and saw the reason for all this commotion…

Bald eagle

The reason the heron took flight

…an adult bald eagle had flown into the trees behind me, no doubt alerted to the possibility of a meal by the gathering vultures. Though I waited patiently for 30 minutes, the cautious eagle maintained its perch, waiting for me to move on, which I finally did. When my friends arrived, we piled into one car and continued searching for wildlife. Our first stop was to view the swans. Warm days seem to make the wildlife lazy, content to hang out longer, making some species a bit tougher to find.

Painted turtle basking

Painted Turtle basking in Marsh A

But lazy winter days also make some species, like turtles, easier to see. As we drove along, there were turtles (mainly a mix of painted turtles and yellow-bellied sliders) basking on almost every log. That made me both wary and excited as we entered the woods, for this is the kind of day you might see a snake, especially “my snake”. I had stumbled upon the large canebrake rattlesnake again last weekend during the Christmas Bird Count at the same hollow tree as 3 years ago. We hiked slowly to the tree, looking carefully around the surroundings in case the rattler was out enjoying the warmth. After looking all around the area without spotting it, I knelt down and shined my flashlight into the hollow – no snake. I moved to the right, and shined the light in the other hollow – nothing. Suddenly, my eye caught a familiar pattern…there it was, a few feet from me, curled up at the entrance, partially hidden behind the grass and vines that now block part of the hollow.

rattlesnake

Even after we knew where it was, the snake was tough to see (photo by Janna Starr)

I seem to have a strange affinity (and partial blindness, apparently) for this snake. The others in my group couldn’t see it at first, and then, one by one, they spotted it.

Canebrake rattlesnake at entrance to den tree

Holding the camera high allowed a better view

We all jockeyed positions to get a better angle to view the snake which was partially obscured by the vegetation in front of the hole. This rattler (it probably is the same one from previous encounters at this tree) has not lived up to its name, having never rattled in any of my encounters with it over the past few years. I must admit, I wouldn’t mind a little noise the next time we meet.

Canebrake rattlesnake head shot

The telephoto view from the side

Even with all the commotion from its admiring crowd, the rattlesnake remained still, no doubt confident of its ability to defend itself from this group of interlopers. We wandered on, wishing it well until we meet again.

Snow geese at sunset

The last scene of the day – the magic of snow geese overhead

We headed back out to the road, hoping for a flyover of birds from the lake. The evening before, the snow geese had flown out and around a few times, but not landed. As we walked back to the car, we heard them coming. We paused as they flew over toward the far corner of the corn field. At first, a few hundred. That flock went back to the lake and returned with a few thousand. More joined the flock as they began to circle the fields. Some would spin off toward the lake, but more kept coming in, until perhaps they felt they had enough critical mass to make a decision – to land in the field. They finally started to drop down into the corn and thousands more birds came in from the lake to join the circling mass. Finally, several thousand birds were feeding in the corn. After what seemed like a very brief meal (considering all the energy they burned flying around beforehand), they all lifted off and headed back to the refuge of the lake. There is nothing like this anywhere else in North Carolina (or anywhere else in the East for that matter)…thousands of birds filling the sky, golden light tinging their undersides as they noisily fly over you. The true meaning of spectacle, and the reason I keep returning to Pungo.

Another Count, Another Great Day at Pungo

Conservation is a cause that has no end. There is no point at which we say, “Our work is finished…”

~Rachel Carson

Saturday was our chance to participate in the 119th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. We did it, as we have for many years, at the Pettigrew Christmas Count centered on Lake Phelps in Pettigrew State Park. I helped start this count back in 1985 with the park superintendent and one of my favorite naturalists, Paris Trail. For those that may not know, the idea of a Christmas Bird Count was created in 1900 as an alternative to the then common practice of Christmas bird shoot contests, where people would go out and shoot as many birds as possible. Conservationists worried that this trend was harming bird populations, so they came up with the idea of going out and seeing how many birds you could see in one day as a way to foster appreciation of our incredible bird neighbors. To learn more about the history of the Count and how the data is being used, check out Audubon Christmas Bird Count. For this count, we were joined by our good friend, Scott, and his cousin’s family. As always, we cover the section of the count circle that includes my favorite spot in North Carolina, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The heavy rains squashed our plans to camp at Pettigrew for a few days around the count, so we left our home at 4 a.m. Saturday for the trip down to try to beat the sunrise.

Black bear at dawn

Huge black bear ambling away from the corn field before sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

We were greeted, as often happens at Pungo, with a huge bear leaving his dinner table in the corn fields at the entrance to the refuge. He was one of the big boys, probably weighing in at over 500 pounds. We met the rest of the group at the observation platform where thousands of swans were scattered across the lake in the pre-dawn gray. Our next stop was the impoundment known as Marsh A, where the tundra swans luckily like to congregate within range of most telephoto lenses.

Tundra swan reflections

Tundra swans in early morning light

Tundra swan wing flap 1

Almost every move a tundra swan makes is made with grace, especially the wing flap

Tundra swan flyover

By mid-morning, swans were leaving the lake in droves, headed for their feeding fields

After spending some time with the swans, we headed on and soon found a beautiful bufflehead and her reflection swimming along in a roadside canal.

Bufflehead reflection

A female bufflehead swimming in one of the roadside canals

The warm temperatures made for a slow birding day so we stepped up our efforts to find a diversity of songbirds by walking and driving slowly near brushy spots along the miles of dirt roads in the Pungo Unit.

Field sparrow

This beautiful field sparrow paused for a portrait

Eastern phoebe

Clutching a treetop twig, this Eastern phoebe bobbed in the wind while checking out our group

Baby nutria

Our guests spotted this furry pile of nutria babies at a den entrance across the canal

We succeeded in a few locations and got good looks at several species. We moved on to scan some of the crop fields for shorebirds and other species that like these huge open spaces. We were also hoping to see a trumpeter swan or the sandhill cranes that had been reported in the area.

Sandhill cranes

Three sandhill cranes feeding with a group of tundra swans

At one area in a harvested soybean field, a group of 50 or so tundra swans were resting and feeding. As we scanned, we all simultaneously noticed the grayish bodies of three sandhill cranes mixed in with swans. Success!

Norther bobwhite female

Female northern bobwhite trying to sneak away to cover

As we left that area, we spotted some quail moving along the edge of the canal bank. When we stopped, they dashed under the overhanging grasses, climbed the hill under their vegetative cover, and finally popped out on the top edge of the canal and scurried to safety in the corn stubble.

Cloudless sulphr

One of two butterfly species observed on pour Christmas Bird Count

The warm temperatures (about 70 degrees) made for a pleasant day for us humans, but I think it may have curtailed some of the usual winter activity we see in the birds and other animals. On the plus side, we saw a lot of turtles out basking, had two species of butterflies (a sleepy orange and a cloudless sulphur), a green darner dragonfly, an anole, and an even bigger warm-weather surprise later in the day.

Immature tundra swan

Immature tundra swan seen from Duck Pen blind

The hike down to the Duck Pen observation blind yielded a few new songbird species, several river otter scat piles, and great views of tundra swans from the blind.

Eastern screech owl gray phase in duck box

A sleepy gray phase Eastern screech owl at the entrance to a wood duck box

At each stop we added a new species or two to our list. As we drove along one stretch, Melissa spotted an owl peering out of one of the wood duck boxes. We all got out and enjoyed a close-up look through the spotting scope. The little fellow didn’t seem to mind the paparazzi oohing and aahing every time it even slightly opened one eye. It seemed to quickly drift back asleep to enjoy its owl dreams.

Our afternoon ended with a walk down North Lake Road. There were the usual couple of photographers set up near the gate in hopes of catching a bear crossing over into the corn. We walked beyond them and down into the woods to try for some of the many songbirds we were still missing. It is also a great place to see a raccoon sleeping in a tree or a bear walking down one of the many well-worn paths, so we quietly walked through the understory of pawpaw with high hopes for something exciting…and we found more than we could have imagined.

Black bear in tree base - Dowland pic

A surprise waiting inside the base of a large tulip poplar (photo by Melissa Dowland)

As we walked, one of our guests let out a sharp whistle. When I looked over, I saw him pointing to what I assumed was a bear out in the woods. As I walked over to him, I could see he was pointing at a tree close by, and not at some distant object. He whispered, there’s bear in that tree. I think I said something profound like, that tree right there?, pointing to one just a few feet away. Indeed, as he had walked up to look into the hollow base of this large tree, a bear had lifted its head and looked back at him. He backed off (perhaps with a sense of urgency and surprise) and the bear laid back down. I maneuvered around to face the hollow and at first could just barely make out the dark shape inside as the bear had its head tucked, so all you saw was black fur inside a black tree hollow. But at one point, the bear raised its head just a bit and you could make out the brown color of its nose. I have looked inside this type of hollow for years and, other than having one bear bolt out of a tree well before we got too close, have found only bear sign and the occasional sleeping raccoon or opossum. This experience will certainly be on the highlight reel of my brain for years. We walked away leaving our bear to his cozy bed. But, the surprises were not over yet…

_

A look inside the hollow base reveals a partial view of the rattlesnake (photo by Scott Hartley)

Not far from from the bear tree, we eased up to another tree where I had a special encounter three years ago. I was telling one of our guests about that incident as I slowly approached another tree with a hollow base, when, suddenly, a huge canebrake rattlesnake flung itself toward the tree and disappeared into the hollow. I had been scrutinizing this particular hollow as this was the same tree where I had encountered a rattlesnake on a day in January, 2016. But this time, the snake was several feet outside the hole, and, I must admit, it startled me with its quick retreat back into the safety of the tree. I had left my phone back in the car, so Scott was kind enough to get a photo where you could at least see part of the snake inside the hollow. This is pretty remarkable if this is the same snake from 3 years ago (and I think there is a good chance it is, since research has shown snakes are often quite faithful to their overwintering sites). This place never ceases to amaze me.

Great horned owl at sunset in cherry tree broken by bears

Great horned owl calling from a perch at sunset

The walk back to our cars was classic Pungo – we could hear swans calling on the lake, a few scattered flocks flying in from the north, a bald eagle flying out over the fields, and bears starting to move from the protective cover of the forest edges to their evening meal in the corn. Closer to the cars, we heard, and then saw, a great horned owl, silhouetted against the sky. A perfect ending to a great walk. One thing of interest about the owl photo – the tree top has a lot of broken branches in it. This is a wild cherry tree, and, though it looks like storm damage, it is actually where black bears have broken the branches to get to the cherry fruit. Every cherry tree along this road edge has broken branches like this where foraging bears have climbed the tree and pulled down the smaller twig tips to gorge on the ripe cherries.

As we drove out of the refuge, we pulled over and got out for one more experience that only Pungo offers, the return of thousand of swans from their feeding fields to the safety of the refuge waters. The video quality is poor because of the low light, but, trust me, the sights and sounds of Pungo will leave a lasting impression on you. Experiences like this help create an understanding of and appreciation for the importance of public lands like this for both the wildlife they support, and for our own well-being and peace of mind. I urge everyone to support these special places and the people that work so hard to protect them for our future.

One last surprise came with the seemingly endless waves of swans flying overhead. As one group passed, I heard the unmistakable honking sound of a trumpeter swan mixed in with the chorus of tundra swans (unfortunately, I was not recording at the time). I photographed a couple of trumpeters on our visit back in November, and, though we had tried hard to find them earlier in the day with no success, the final bird of the day was a special one. Below is the list of species we saw in our part of the count circle from about 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. I saw on social media that elsewhere in the count area. friends got a very special bird, a Western tanager. I can’t wait to see our totals for the entire circle.  Indeed, another count, another good day out in the field.

Species Number Observed
Snow Goose 30000
Ross’s Goose 1
Canada Goose 40
Trumpeter Swan 1 (heard)
Tundra Swan 25000
Wood Duck 28
Northern Shoveler 35
Gadwall 17
American Wigeon 7
Mallard 30
Black Duck 7
Northern Pintail 7
Green-winged Teal 20
Ring-necked Duck 30
Bufflehead 4
Hooded Merganser 1
Ruddy Duck 27
Northern Bobwhite 11
Wild Turkey 28
Mourning Dove 43
Sandhill Crane 3
Killdeer 142
American Woodcock 3
Ring-billed Gull 73
Great Blue Heron 5
Turkey Vulture 64
Northern Harrier 12
Sharp-shinned Hawk 2
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Bald Eagle 6
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 4
Eastern Screech-Owl 3
Great Horned Owl 2
Belted Kingfisher 2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 5
Red-bellied Woodpecker 7
Downy Woodpecker 11
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Pileated Woodpecker 4
Northern Flicker 3
American Kestrel 3
Merlin 1
Eastern Phoebe 9
Blue-headed Vireo 4
Blue Jay 1
American Crow 37
Tree Swallow 6
Carolina Chickadee 14
Tufted Titmouse 5
Brown Creeper 2
House Wren 2
Carolina Wren 6
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 6
Eastern Bluebird 13
American Robin 220
Gray Catbird 3
Brown Thrasher 1
Northern Mockingbird 1
European Starling 97
American Pipit 4
American Goldfinch 4
Chipping Sparrow 12
Field Sparrow 1
Fox Sparrow 4
White-throated Sparrow 84
Savannah Sparrow 20
Song Sparrow 12
Swamp Sparrow 6
Eastern Towhee 4
Red-winged Blackbird 3000
Common Grackle 37
Pine Warbler 7
Yellow-rumped Warbler 21
Northern Cardinal 6

 

They’re Baaaaack

The homing instinct in birds and animals is one of their most remarkable traits: their strong local attachments and their skill in finding their way back…It seems at times as if they possessed some extra sense—the home sense—which operates unerringly. 

~John Burroughs, 1905

Last weekend we managed to escape for a couple of days and head down to our favorite spot, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. My friend, Michael, had been sharing images of the many bears he was seeing feeding in the cornfields on the refuge, and it finally got to me, I had to get down there! We were met at the refuge by some new friends that understand the power and beauty of wild places and the creatures that call them home. Though seeing bears was the goal, we were all open to whatever the refuge cared to share, so we were delighted to find the first swans of the season already on the lake.

Swans in Marsh A

Tundra swans have returned from their Arctic breeding grounds to spend the winter in NC (click photos to enlarge)

When we drove up to the impoundment known as Marsh A, there they were, hundreds of graceful white forms, filling the crisp air with their mellow sounds. We stopped, watched them for several minutes, quietly taking it all in and appreciating the fact that these birds had just completed an amazing journey of 3000 miles or more to spend the winter here. It is reassuring that these natural rhythms continue, that the natural world has some order to it, even when much of what we hear on the news does not.

Black bear tracks

Large bear tracks (plus another creature…do you see it?)

On to “Bear Road” where we saw several people parked at the gate and sitting along the road waiting for an appearance by one of the area’s many resident bruins. The tracks in the hardened mud tell the story…frequent comings and goings from the dense woods to the local feed store, the cornfield across the road and canal.

Bear Rd tracks

A busy bear crossing

With a small crowd of photographers hanging out near one of the main bear crossings, we decided to walk on down the road, away from the chatter, and experience a little quieter part of the scene. Quiet, except for the sounds of swans and Canada geese coming from the lake a short distance through the woods. We soon saw our first of many bears across the open field at the edge of a patch of woods.

black bear

Most of our views were distant

This would be our fate for this day of woods-walking and refuge road exploration – a total of 19 bears, all seen at a considerable distance. We did find three in a large tree, two resting and one playfully climbing up and down. But most were headed to or from a cornfield, stocking up before the bitter cold of winter might cause them to go into hibernation (perhaps an abbreviated one that is more typical of bears in the Coastal Plain). We also witnessed some bad human behavior of people trying to get just the right photo and causing a bear to alter its choice of pathways (it is always best for the human to give way and let the bear go where it wants). The day ended with a great horned owl calling against a flame orange sunset through the black branches of tree silhouettes…another beautiful Pungo day coming to a close.

sunrise Pungo

One of my favorite things in the flat lands of Eastern NC – a large-scale sunrise

Our friends departed for home and we drove to our campsite at “nearby” Pettigrew State Park. We could hear swans flying over us to the lake all night indicating they are just arriving from their long journey. We spoke with people that had seen almost no swans two days before so it seems we were lucky enough to be there with the first wave of winter arrivals. We were awakened by some noisy campers at a ridiculously early hour, so we were out at sunrise, headed back to Pungo. The big sky of these flat lands is always a highlight at sunrise and sunset, especially in the crisp air of cold weather.

injured wood duck

Injured wood duck along a canal bank

A few flocks of ducks were mixed in with the swans, whose numbers grew to a few thousand by Monday morning. It is not unusual to see wood ducks in the canals along refuge roads as they flush in front of your car and zip through the trees. It is unusual to see one stay put after you spot it. I caught a glimpse of a stunning drake as I drove past it, so I stopped and backed up, fully expecting it to dart away (it seems no creature will tolerate a car that is backing up). One glance at its awkward posture and you could tell something was wrong. It shuffled up the bank a little when I stopped for a photo, so we drove on, sorry to see this beautiful bird in such a state, but knowing that some predator will probably get a meal.

Eastern phoebe on sign

Eastern phoebe on sign

Driving over to Bear Road, we encountered another group of photographers hanging out, waiting for bears. There was also a phoebe debating the true meaning of a road sign…surely this doesn’t apply to me (I have seen many human visitors debating that same thing, unfortunately). So, we drove back over to Marsh A to fix our breakfast and to spend time watching the swans greet the day.

Trumpeteer swan

Trumpeter swan honking as it comes in for a landing

It wasn’t long until we heard a sound very different from the coos, whistles, and hoots of the tundra swans – the distinctive horn sound of a trumpeter swan. This is the swan species we see in Yellowstone (although less frequently in recent years) and are seeing now more regularly each winter here in NC. The past few years have brought a few of the larger trumpeters to Pungo and Mattamuskeet. The characteristic calls are by far the easiest way to locate a trumpeter in a sea of look-alike tundra swans. If they are standing next to each other, you can tell a trumpeter is larger, and, in this case, the call was coming from a flying bird, and we soon spotted it flying with a group of tundras. In flight, it is possible to see a size difference, but I don’t think I would really notice it unless I heard the call and was looking for it. Another clue to separate them is the head – look closely at the two photos of swans in flight. Trumpeter swans have a long, straight bill. The inner edge of the bill forms a rather straight line up to the eye, encompassing the eye so that it is difficult to separate from the black bill. The eye of tundra swans is more distinct as a circle separated from the bill. Plus, the inner bill line comes off the eye, and then drops downward. Most tundras also have a yellow spot on the bill below the eye, trumpeters do not. And a trumpeter has “red lipstick” along the inner edge of its black bill. After looking at the birds circling us and then comparing images, I think there were at least three trumpeter swans in the group, two immatures and the adult shown here. I hope we can spot them on the Christmas Bird Count next month! To learn more, check out this link for some of the ways to distinguish these species.

Tundra swans flying out of Pungo Lake

Pair of tundra swans – compare the outline of their bills to photo above

We ended our trip just after lunch, with only 3 bear sightings for Monday, but plenty of memories to last until we get back in a few weeks. I really do love this time of year!

Hiking the High Country

Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance toward the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point.

~Harold B Melchart

Seems like just a little over a week ago that I was struggling to climb a mountain with a heavy load on my back…wait, it was just a little over a week ago! And this past weekend, we did it again. This time, in one of our favorite areas, the Mt. Rogers-Grayson Highlands region of southwest Virginia. My back was a bit sore from chainsawing fallen trees after the remnants of Hurricane Michael passed through, but we had planned this trip for some time. Melissa’s sister and boyfriend were going to meet us at Grayson Highlands State Park for a two-night adventure in the high country of Virginia. The weather forecast was a bit iffy, but off we went, ever hoping for the best. Our first day was a short one and after a hike of only a couple of miles, we found a great campsite along a beautiful mountain stream (Wilson Creek, I believe).

campsite first night

Campsite for our first night along a rushing stream (click photos to enlarge)

The overcast skies soon turned to rain after dark, but we were comfortable under a stretched tarp and the fire continued until a break in the rain let us get into our tents.

sunrise day 2

Sunrise in the high country

The next morning dawned clear and cool, with a mist drifting through the trees. It finally felt a little like Fall.

sunrise mist

Early morning mist in the boggy meadow near camp

spider web

Invertebrate designs – a dewy spider web

I love early mornings – the quiet, the morning coffee, the first stirrings of the wildlife around you, and the softness of the light that gently touches everything, especially if there has been condensation overnight. I spotted a couple of shimmering orb weaver spider webs at the edge of the trees and we walked over. One was a particularly odd design. At first, we thought the spider was still busy weaving, but a closer look showed it was sitting in the center and the interior spirals of silk were there, just not glistening with dew like the rest of the web.

morning scene

A scene near camp in the early morning light

moss and fern

The greens of mosses, club mosses, lichens, and ferns added a rich backdrop to every scene

I suppose backpacking on wet, rocky trails does have one advantage – I tend to not look around too much in order to keep my feet under me and the rest of me upright. Though I may miss some beautiful scenery or treetop wildlife, I do see a lot of interesting things on the ground. The lushness of moss hummocks and beds of club mosses were particularly noticeable on this trip. And there are still caterpillars out there to be found!

Hickory tussock moth caterpillar

Hickory tussock moth larva

Fall webworm?

A Fall webworm (I think) covered in dew

Our day 2 hike was about 7 miles, with a steady climb through the forest to the more open high country for which this region is so well known. In addition to the expansive mountain views, the other major tourist attraction in this area are the herds of wild ponies. I saw an article stating this region is “the only place on the Appalachian Trail where you can see wild ponies”. Depending on which reference you use, the ponies are believed to have been introduced in the early 1940’s by locals wanting to keep the area open, or by the Forest Service decades later for the same land management purpose. There are believed to be about 100 ponies spread out over thousands of acres of high grassy balds and forests. They live up here year-round, but are watched over and rounded up once a year by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. The Fall round-up serves to check the health of the herd and to auction off some of the ponies (mostly males) to keep the population under control. Park rules ask visitors to observe the ponies from a distance and to not feed them. We had to step aside a couple of times as ponies walked by on the trail.

nursing pony

A foal nursing along the trail

Grazing of cattle in the highlands has long been a part of the local way of life, and in 2012, the Forest Service allowed herds of longhorn cattle to graze alongside the wild ponies during the growing season. The cattle are removed every winter, but the ponies stay through the bitter cold months.

grass competition

This grass patch isn’t big enough for the two of us

As we approached the rocky outcrops of Wilburn Ridge, the strong winds caused us to rethink our plans for camping on the crest. So, we searched for something a little more protected in the open landscape. We ended up picking a spot of the leeward side of the ridge, partially protected by a large rock outcrop and a small grove of trees.

Wilburn Ridge

Our home for the night – not a bad view

There were a couple of campfire rings and a few relatively flat spots without too much pony poo, so we were able to set up camp, gather firewood, and relax and enjoy the spectacular views.

campsite 2

Sitting by our protected campfire looking out toward our tents

Shortly after dark, it started to rain, so we had an early end to the evening, climbing into our tents and hoping the gusty winds would subside before a tent wall collapsed under the strain. At one point during the night, I woke up to a sky full of stars. But by sunrise (well, when it got light anyway), it was a different story.

cloud camp

Inside a cloud on Wilburn Ridge

We were socked in and the view was a bit different from the sunset the night before. The wind was gently blowing as the clouds blew around us. A couple of ponies were barely visible100 feet away, and there was an eerie silence, save for the whap, whap, whap of a tent flap. It was only a couple of miles to the cars, so we grabbed a quick breakfast, packed up our wet gear, and headed out.

below the couds

Below the clouds on our way out

The trail down the ridge is rocky but we were soon below the cloud deck and could see rolling ridges of highlands stretching to the gray horizon. Though the skies had been leaden for much of the trip, we appreciated the solitude and serenity of our time in the high country and are looking forward to a return trip. In case you go, our hike took us from the Overnight Backpackers Parking Area near Massie Gap (you must register and pay at the entrance station to Grayson Highlands State Park), up the AT to the Scales Trail, then to the Pine Mountain Trail, and finally rejoining the AT back to the parking area.