Warbler Watching

The real jewel of my disease-ridden woodlot is the prothonotary warbler … The flash of his gold-and-blue plumage amid the dank decay of the June woods is in itself proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa.

~Aldo Leopold

This final post on our recent swamp trip is about one of spring’s most enjoyable wildlife experiences, the return of the warblers. As my high frequency hearing has waned, I rely more and more on Melissa’s abilities to hear their songs and locate them. And on this trip, she was hearing them throughout our paddle. And she had her spotting skills in high gear as she came up finding what I thought were the trip highlights – a swimming Mink, two Barred Owls close enough to photograph, some cute Raccoons, the flying squirrel, and a few nesting birds. My challenge was to try to photograph them.  And I find warblers to be a particularly challenging subject.

bad warbler shot

My usual warbler image, mostly of where one used to be – note tail feathers exiting top left of image (click photos to enlarge)

But this trip had waves of warblers moving through the swamp at times. On our second platform at Three Sisters, we had birds all around us our last morning, including a swarm of migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers. The rather drab colors we see on this species in winter have now been replaced by bold black and white and intensified yellows. A throng of butter-butts came though our camp that morning, but most were either obscured in the thick understory brush or high in the tree tops, foraging on insects.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler showing off its spring attire

Melissa heard and then found a Prairie Warbler just off our platform and I finally managed a few pictures in the dappled sunlight.

Prairie warbler

Prairie Warbler skulking through the brush

Northern parula warbler

Northern Parula Warblers were everywhere in the swamp, but difficult to photograph on this trip

It turns out, the real photographic test was shooting warblers from a moving canoe. I had my 300 mm telephoto and 1.4x teleconverter on my older camera body with us. Needless to say, I was trying to be careful with the gear and, when paddling, often had it secured in a dry bag in front of me. When we saw something, I would have to open the bag, pull out the camera and then try to shoot from a wobbly canoe (usually in a current) while Melissa positioned us. For some shots, I carefully passed the gear up to her if we could not get the back of the canoe into position. Prothonotary Warblers were singing and displaying all along our route, but when she spotted one carrying nesting material, we pulled over and steadied the canoe on a log in the shallows. The bird did not disappoint.

Prothonotary warbler gathring moss on nearby tree

This bird really liked the moss on one particular tree trunk and made several trips to gather a beak full while we watched.

Prothonotary warbler with moss in bill

Most trips back to the nest were quick, with a brief landing, and then darting directly into the cavity. On this one though, he (I think it is a he because it is very brightly colored) paused on top of the snag for just a moment.

Prothonotary wwarbler head stickig out nest cavity

After depositing the moss, he would come out, look around, and then fly off for more. This time, he stuck his head out far enough so that the sun highlighted his face.

Prothonotary warbler gathring moss on cavity tree

On one exit, he noticed a little piece of moss just below the cavity

Prothonotary warbler gathring moss on cavity tree 1

My favorite pose

Male prothonotaries arrive first on the breeding grounds and begin setting up territories which they defend. They will select a few choice nesting cavities (and the swamp is full of potential nest holes) and gather and stuff them with moss, hoping a female will approve. We wished him good luck, and moved on as this was a big paddle day for us.

The current was stong and the wind was at our back out on the river proper when Melissa saw what she at first thought was a Northern Parula exiting a clump of Spanish Moss dangling on a low branch over the river (their preferred nest site). We turned and started paddling back upstream when she saw the bird return – it was a Yellow-throated Warbler!

Yellow-throated warbler at nest in Spanish moss

A Yellow-throated Warbler bringing material back to its nest site in a clump of Spanish Moss

This beautiful warbler is one of Melissa’s favorites, but frustratingly so, since they tend to be treetop dwellers and, though she hears them often (even at our woodland home in Chatham County), we rarely get a decent look at one. And here she finds one nesting, and down low. Cornell’s excellent online Birds of the World resource (for a subscription fee, but well worth it), states It nests and performs most of its daily activities high in the canopy of these forests. The exact location of nests is usually hard to determine.

Yellow-throated warbler at nest in Spanish moss closer view

Melissa did a great job keeping the canoe in place while the bird came and went with nesting materials

Yellow-throated warbler looking at us

A good view of that brilliant yellow throat that gives this warbler its common name

Yellow-throated warbler just going into nest

Entering the entrance hole in the Spanish Moss with nesting material (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Yellow-throated warbler coming out of nest jusy head

Peeking out of the nest entrance (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Yellow-throated warbler coming out of nest

Our final look at an extraordinary bird

Research shows they usually nest out on horizontal branches high in the canopy in mature forests. In coastal areas with Spanish Moss, they prefer to nest in clumps hanging below branches (like Northern Parulas). But the nests of Yellow-throated Warblers tend to be an average of 30-45 feet above ground in coastal swamps. I’d say we were pretty lucky to find this one at about eye level from our canoe. As it turned out, we didn’t have a decent look at another of these beauties on our entire trip. So, thanks for a special moment in a very special place.

 

Bird Spot

Simply wait, be quiet, still. The world will freely offer itself to you.

~Franz Kafka

Yesterday’s post mentioned the excellent birding we experienced on our recent paddle trip on the Roanoke River. When we arrived at our second camping platform, Three Sisters, the late day light was gorgeous and the sky was filled with all sorts of birds. After setting up camp (and shooing away the vultures dining on the fish skeletons) we sat out on the small dock by the creek for over an hour watching the parade of birds go by. I decided to practice some birds in flight photography to see what I could capture. Here are a few of the results…

anhinga overhead

The distinctive cross-shape of Anhingas soaring overhead was a common sight on the blackwater tributaries of the Roanoke (click photos to enlarge)

anhinga fly by

An Anhinga flying low over the creek. We commented on how many of these unusual “snakebirds” we saw on this trip compared to our previous outings.

wood duck female

A female Wood Duck blasts past our dock in late afternoon light.

wood duck male

Almost all the ducks we saw were in pairs. This is the male Wood Duck escorting the one above.

chimney swift

The real challenge was tying to photograph Chimney Swifts in flight. As you can see, I never really got it right as they are just too darned fast and erratic. It is comforting to know that they are no doubt nesting in many of the giant hollow Bald Cypress trees scattered throughout the swamp.

great blue heron overhead

A Great Blue Heron flying to roost.

great egret overhead

We saw more Great Egrets on this trip than in the past. This one’s wing bones showed through its backlit feathers.

white ibis in flight

As the sun set, large flocks of White Ibis started flying in to the next creek and surrounding wetlands.

I had planned to do some more dock sitting the next morning, but after the water came up during the night, I ended up strolling the short walkway to the platform and trying to photograph the many birds that were active all around us.

blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are always a treat to see up close.

summer tanager singing

This male Summer Tanager sang for much of the morning from high atop a partially defoliated Water Tupelo.

White-breasted nuthatch

A White-breasted Nuthatch knocked off some bark that fell on my head, alerting me to his presence right above me.

White-eyed vireo

A male White-eyed Vireo was loudly singing in thick brush out near the creek. I kept stalking him, hoping for a clear shot.

white-eyed vireo singing

He finally obliged and came out on an open twig for a few notes of pick up the beer check quick, before disappearing back into a thicket.

These images represent just a fraction of what we saw on this trip. Below is a checklist of species we observed/heard during our time in this magical swamp. Tomorrow, I’ll share some highlights of our warbler watching.

Birds: Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; White Ibis; Spotted Sandpiper; Double-crested Cormorant; Anhinga; Wood Duck; Mallard; Canada Goose; Turkey Vulture; Black Vulture; Red-shouldered Hawk; Bald Eagle; Osprey; Barred Owl; Belted Kingfisher; Great Crested Flycatcher; Blue Jay; American Crow; Fish Crow; Common Grackle; Red-winged Blackbird; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; Pileated Woodpecker; Chimney Swift; Barn Swallow; Eastern Towhee; Northern Cardinal; Mourning Dove; Gray Catbird; Swamp Sparrow; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; Carolina Wren; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; White-eyed Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Yellow-throated Vireo; Eastern Bluebird; White-breasted Nuthatch; Summer Tanager; Yellow-billed Cuckoo;Northern Parula Warbler; Black-and-white Warbler; Prairie Warbler; Prothonotary Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Common Yellowthroat; Yellow-rumped Warbler

Mammals: White-tailed Deer; Gray Squirrel; Southern Flying Squirrel; Nutria; Mink; Raccoon; (active Beaver lodges)

Herps: Painted Turtle; Yellow-bellied Slider; River Cooter: Brown Water Snake; American Bullfrog; Southern Cricket Frog

 

Social Distancing – Swamp Style

Yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else of a Dismal Swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.

~Henry David Thoreau

I will admit to feeling a little guilty about this, but we recently returned from a two-night camping and paddling trip on the Roanoke River. For the month of April, we had previous plans for two trips to the swamp with friends, and Melissa had one for work. Though we are very fortunate to live in a beautiful wooded setting, we are missing our spring swamp time. So, after discussing if we could manage a trip without putting ourselves (or anyone else) at risk, we decided to go. We both agreed that there is no better place to self-isolate than the camping platforms on the Roanoke. We departed Monday afternoon, following a storm front that left us with a bit of rain and wind for the start of our journey. Our plan was to put in at Gardner Creek between Williamston and Jamesville on Monday afternoon and paddle to the Barred Owl Roost platform the first night. We arrived at the launch site about 4 p.m. with just a slight drizzle. As we paddled away from the highway, the sounds soon became those of the swamp…a peaceful quiet interrupted only by the wind in the trees, a squawk of a Great Blue Heron, or Wood Ducks exploding off the water.

Raccoon in tree

Our first major wildlife spotting was a pair of Raccoons up in a skinny tree along Gardner Creek (click photos to enlarge)

Melissa soon spotted two Raccoons halfway up a skinny tree surrounded by water. One was trying to ignore us by hugging a branch while the other managed to stay partially hidden alongside a clump of Spanish Moss.

devil's Gut after the storm

The sun finally broke through the dark clouds and lit up the trees along Devil’s Gut

Our three-hour paddle seemed to go quickly and we soon were at our home for the night – Barred Owl Roost. This platform is always surrounded by black water, so you really feel isolated and a part of the swamp. And true to its name, we heard Barred Owls cranking up their Who cooks for you calls soon after we arrived. There were also a lot of other birds in, and flying above, the trees – Prothonotary and Northern Parula Warblers, Common Grackles, Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, and lots of Wood Ducks.

Berred Owl Roost

One of our favorite camping platforms – Barred Owl Roost

Prothonotary warbler in tree

Prothonotary Warblers seemed to be everywhere in the swamp

Sunrise at Barred Owl

Sunrise looking up through our tent – a Prothonotary Warbler greeted us by delivering his dawn song from the top of the tent

Many of the Water Tupelo trees have been stripped again this spring by the huge population of Forest Tent Caterpillars. In some sections of the swamp, the majority of the trees are bare and look dead at first glance. And leaf debris from the feeding caterpillars literally covers the water surface in some areas.

Forest tent caterpillar

A Forest Tent Caterpillar doing what it does best – chewing on the leaves of a Water Tupelo 

The next morning, we headed down the Gut and out into the river proper for a long day of paddling. Melissa even did an online program with a school class that would have been participating in the Museum’s Shad in the Classroom program this spring as we drifted downriver, giving the students a unique look at where the American Shad live for part of their life cycle. Along the way we saw lots of eagles, herons, and many songbirds (more on those in a future post).

Juvenile bald eagle

Juvenile Bald Eagle taking flight as we drifted by on the river

The wind was at our back and the current was strong so we made good time until we got to Broad Creek, where we headed upstream for a few miles to our next platform. This section proved to be a tough paddle with not only the current against us but the wind as well. The slow pace allowed us good views of a variety of wildlife from White-eyed Vireos (Melissa spotted one in the early stages of building its nest) to a lot of snakes hanging out in tree branches.

Brown water snakes in tree

One of many congregations of Brown Water Snakes in shrub and tree branches along the water’s edge. There were nine snakes in this one tree!

Black vultures at platform

This is not the welcoming committee we were hoping for at our next camping platform

After a tiring paddle, we finally pulled up to our next camping platform, Three Sisters. But all was not as we would have wanted. Someone had caught and cleaned several large fish, including a monster catfish, on the dock at the platform, leaving the skeletons along the shore, This bounty had attracted several vultures (both Turkey and Black) who didn’t care for us interrupting their fish dinner. We used our paddles to push the carcasses into deeper water, hoping the smell would go way (along with the birds).

Three Sisters platform view

The view from our dock

The wind helped dissipate the aroma and we were able to finish our day relaxing on the dock at our campsite, watching the comings and goings of an amazing variety of birds.

smilax berries

The vegetation surrounding our campsites was diverse and beautiful…here are the bright red berries of Coral Greenbrier (Smilax walteri) and flower buds on Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

While we sat enjoying the late day light, Melissa heard something back in the forest that concerned her…a growing whining noise (no, not me), reminiscent of a cloud of mosquitoes we had once experienced. We gathered our gear and headed for the tent, expecting to be swarmed, but nothing happened. We discovered the sound source later that evening as our tent light attracted literally thousands of the tiniest mayflies (non-biting) I have ever seen.

Three Sisters dock after water rise

During the night, the water level rose about 6 inches, flooding our dock

The next morning, the birds put on an amazing show for us (again, more pics in the next post) and we finally dragged ourselves away and headed out for another long paddle day.

barred owl

Barred owl scanning the shallows for a meal

The route Melissa chose included a 2+ mile paddle upstream on what is known as the “Cut” (Cut Cypress Creek). This is a narrow creek that connects Broad Creek to the Roanoke River upstream of Devil’s Gut and allows us to do a circuit route without paddling against the much stronger current on the river. The Cut has an intimate feel and is a great place to see wildlife because it is only about 20 feet wide in most places. Though we had heard many owls, we had not been close enough for a photograph so at one point I asked Melissa to find us a close owl in sunlight. Literally 30 seconds later, she spots one down low (in the shade, but still…). She was proving her naturalist skills throughout the trip, spotting amazing critters everywhere and hearing tons of songbirds. One of the coolest finds was a Mink swimming across Broad Creek. It disappeared into the swamp forest before I could get my camera out of the dry bag, but it is always a good day when you see a Mink.

adult bald eagle

Adult Bald Eagle on the river

Once we hit the river, we could relax and let the current help carry us. A few miles passed quickly and the we headed back upstream along Devil’s Gut. Once again, our pace slowed, and we saw more wildlife as we paddled along the edges of the swamp.

osprey in flight

Osprey taking flight as we paddle underneath

turtles

Basking turtles were a common sight

Melissa spotted another Raccoon feeling its way along the edge of the swamp. We drifted over for a closer look and spent the next 15 minutes watching it search for food. It barely even looked at us the entire time and was focused on digging and sniffing in the shallows.

raccoon with meal

A Raccoon snacks on a tasty treat found on a log

It seemed to make a point of walking along every log it encountered and on one, it found something to snack on. We could see what looked like a red rope that it grabbed and was loudly crunching. Close looks at the images once we returned show what looks like an amphiuma (an aquatic salamander common in these swamps) that something else may have caught and partially consumed.

raccoon on log

The Raccoon traversed every log in its path and this one brought it close to our canoe

As we neared the end of our paddle, I once again asked Melissa to find me another owl to photograph. This time it look a little longer (maybe a minute) and she spotted one sitting inside the edge of the swamp in a cypress tree.

barred oiwl 1

A more cooperative Barred Owl allows me to capture a quick portrait

Just before we reached our launch site, she saw something down low on a tree trunk on one of the few spots of dry land we saw on the entire trip. It was a flying squirrel clinging to the tree, out in broad daylight. We watched it for several minutes and it moved a little, but mainly just clung to the tree. Not sure what was happening, but it added another species to our impressive list of wildlife along the river.

flying squirrel

A mystery as to why this Southern Flying Squirrel was out in daylight (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We paddled over 30 miles and had been totally isolated on the river for two and a half days, seeing only some fishermen at very safe distances. It was the prefect way to self-isolate and get some much needed outdoor recreation. We give thanks to those with the foresight to preserve this magical place and to create the paddle trail that allows such great access. More on the trip in the next two posts.

 

 

Savanna Sights

To think that plants ate insects would go against the order of nature…

~Carl Linnaeus

After a crazy busy spring field trip season at work, I am finally getting around to catching up on a couple of posts. Like last year, toward the end of April I collaborated with Melissa and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences to offer an educator workshop on carnivorous plants. We traveled to the Green Swamp and Holly Shelter, two of the hot spots for insect-eating plants in our state. Check out these earlier posts on these habitats, the variety of carnivorous plants they contain, and the marvelous Venus Flytrap. Since I covered a lot of information in those earlier posts, I’ll just share a few of the highlights from this year’s workshop.

carnivorous lants in green swamp

A trio of carnivores in the Green Swamp (click photos to enlarge)

Our first stop was one of the savannas in the Green Swamp. As we took off on the trail, someone found a snake shed and we stopped to admire the beauty of its patterns.

snake shed 1

Snake shed

snake shed

The beautiful patterns of a snake shed

We spent the afternoon in a longleaf pine savanna, enjoying the distinctive sound of wind through the pines and the filtered sunlight on the grasses and other beautiful plants found beneath our feet.

sundew

Pink sundew, Drosera capillaris

We stayed overnight in Wilmington, and, as we usually do on these workshops, offered an optional trip to the beach for sunrise before eating breakfast and heading over to Holly Shelter.

sunrise at beach

Sunrise did not disappoint

Willet feeding at sunrise

A willet feeding along the surf line at sunrise

Sanderling at sunrise 1

A sanderling rushing on the beach between waves at sunrise

Driving into the game lands, we stopped on a dry sand ridge to photograph a lupine alongside the road. But a bright green larva caught the eye of one participant and we were all distracted for a few moments, admiring this stout beauty.

Dark marathyssa or Roland's sallow?

My best guess is a Roalnd’s sallow caterpillar

Sandhills lupine whole plant view

Blue sandhill lupine, Lupinus diffusus

bullfrog

Bullfrog

The canals alongside the road proved to be a distraction as well with lots of turtles, frogs, and an American alligator.

Southern cricket frog

Southern cricket frog

alligator head

American alligator

Finally, we piled out of the vans and found a treasure trove of insect-eating plants, orchids, and other savanna species that have responded spectacularly to the regular prescribed burns.

studying flytraps

Workshop participants observing Venus flytraps

Flytraps and sundews

Venus flytraps and sundews covered the ground in places

Butterwort flowers

Flowers of blue butterwort, Pinguicula caerulea

Grass pink orchid

Bearded grass-pink orchid, Calopogon barbatus

rose pogonia orchid open flower 1

Rose pogonia orchid, Pogonia ophioglossoides

Orange milkwort

Orange milkwort, Polygala lutea

caterpillar in pitcher plant

Caterpillar living inside yellow pitcher plant

_

Distinctive bulls-eye in the web of a lined orbweaver

As we left the game lands, we stopped occasionally to look for red-cockaded woodpeckers (we saw plenty of nest cavities, but no birds on this day). One nice discovery was a ditch with another species of carnivorous plant – the bizarre little floating bladderwort.

Utricularia radiata?

Little floating bladderwort, Utricularia radiata

Utricularia radiata

Close up of inflated flotation structures

Our workshop concluded with a group of educators excited about the strange world of our state’s carnivorous plants and the incredibly diverse longleaf pine and pocosin habitats where they are found. Hopefully, their enthusiasm and new knowledge will help their students and colleagues better appreciate these unique features of our coastal plain.

Longleaf pine savanna

Longleaf pine savanna in Holly Shelter Game Lands

Getting Back To It

It’s always good to get back to the places you love…

Life has been way too busy these past many weeks and my blog entries have suffered, but I finally have a break this morning while I wait on some overdue car maintenance. With the busyness has been less time exploring outside, but this weekend saw a return to one of my favorite places, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The occasion was the 5th annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC.

Black Bear Festival

The entryway to the Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences was again assisting with the popular “bear tours” on the Pungo Unit of the refuge and I volunteered to help out. We did six 3-hour tours from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, so it was busy schedule, but a good time nonetheless. It included severe weather before and during Friday’s tour that saw hail, lightning, strong winds, and heavy rains. In spite of all that, we managed two bears on that first tour.

Black Bear tracks

Fresh bear  and deer tracks

The next morning, we headed out at 6 a.m. with a dense layer of fog limiting our viewing across the fields, but we managed a few bears once the fog started to lift. The plus side of the heavy rain was that we knew any tracks we saw were fresh!

Black-bellied whistling duck

Black-bellied whistling duck

A rare find was a black-bellied whistling duck perched along one of the canals in the refuge. I have seen this species a few times in NC and FL, but never on the Pungo Unit. I was told by a friend that this one has been hanging around this area for a couple of weeks. They are a beautiful duck, more typically found in marshes from Texas to Florida, but seem to be slowly expanding their range northward.

Dugoutr canoe in museum

Dugout canoe in the Roanoke River Maritime Museum in Plymouth

Between tours on Saturday, we visited the festival in downtown Plymouth. Lots of local food vendors, exhibits and talks about bears, and the usual crowd of knick-knack vendors and local organization booths that show up at such events. We visited the Roanoke River Maritime Museum to see some displays of wildlife photography and local boating history. Imagine my surprise when I came across something from my past – the section of dugout canoe I found years ago in Lake Phelps when I was working as the East District Naturalist for NC State Parks. I had no idea it was on display and was even more surprised to see what is probably the original exhibit text label made when this section of canoe sat on display in a make-shift exhibit shed at Pettigrew State Park.  When I started working at the NC Botanical Garden and was designing a program on uses of native pants (for example, bald cypress for dugout canoes), I tracked down the NY Times article from my 15 minutes of fame for being the guy that first stumbled upon this treasure trove of ancient canoes. The large canoe mentioned in the text is now on display at the NC Museum of History in Raleigh.

Exhibit sign about dugout canoes

A blast from the past

Each tour yielded some wildlife surprises (king rails running down the road ahead of the bus, turtles being helped across the road, nutria in the canals, etc.), improving muddy roads, and visitors delighted to see their first bears in the wild. In between tours, we had a few moments to take in the sights and sounds of the town –  grab a bite to eat, check out the noisy southern toads and squirrel treefrogs in the retention pond at the hotel, and get ready for the next busload of people. With two buses running each tour, we shared the wonders of Pungo with over 180 visitors from all around NC (and a few other states).

Southern toad calling

Southern toad calling

While every tour had its moments of adventure, one tour stood out for all of us, the Sunday morning 6 a.m. trip. We had just turned onto the refuge road when a bear went across the road, immediately starting us off with a bear encounter. Just down the road was standing bear…a medium-sized back bear with a propensity for standing up in the corn field to check us out.

Black bear standing in field

Black bear – “outstanding” in his field

Once we hit the dirt of D-Canal Road, we spotted another bear feeding in a wheat field on private lands adjacent to the refuge. Bears love wheat and we saw them in this field on several of the tours. The golden color of the wheat provided a beautiful backdrop for the jet black fur of the bears.

Black bear in wheat field

Bear surrounded by delicious wheat, the breakfast of champions

While we were all watching that bear, a young bear came out into another field on the refuge next to us and walked right in front of the bus and group of excited onlookers.

Young black bear crossing road

Young bear walking near our group

Then, another young bear (these are probably last year’s cubs) strolled out behind the buses and disappeared into the woods.

Young black bear crossing road 2

Another young bear on the other side of our group

Most of the people continued to watch the first young bear that was still wandering around in front of the buses, while a few of us were standing at the edge of the canal watching the bear in the wheat. Suddenly, I see a bear head pop up from the bank of the canal just a few feet from us. I whispered to the few people between me and the bear to move back and give it some room. It looked like the young bear that had crossed behind us and gone into the woods just a few minutes before. Apparently, it had gone to the canal and walked down the bank, climbing up in front of us.

Black bear comes up next to group

This one popped up right next to us

The confused bear walked up, moved across in front of us, and passed in front of the buses and the rest of the group. Minutes later, another head popped up and followed the same path. It seemed like bears were everywhere around us. These young bears probably aren’t sure what they should do in these situations so you need to give them space to move freely. The second one started to climb a tree when it saw the large group gathered in front of the bus, but when they stepped back and remained quiet, it came down and hustled across the road.

Black bear entering canal

The wheat field bear entering the canal

Meanwhile, the wheat field bear finished breakfast and angled toward us to cross the steep-banked canal. I positioned myself to get a good view, and as she slowly entered the water, I expected to get a nice shot of her swimming across.

Black bear starts across canal 1

Why swim when you can walk across?

Instead, she surprised me and slowly stood up, holding her front paws above the water, In all my years of watching bears, I have never seen one cross a canal like this.

Black bear walking across canal

Keeping those front paws dry

Just one more reason I love the Pungo Unit and love observing bears. They are a constant source of amazement, curiosity, and wonder.

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.