Return to Merchants Millpond

Paradise is just a paddle away.

~Author unknown

When I worked as a District Naturalist for the state park system oh-so-many years ago, one of my favorite parks was Merchants Millpond State Park in northeastern North Carolina. It is a true natural gem of our state and remains one of my favorite spots to spend some time in the solitude of a beautiful swamp. The millpond was created in 1811 by damming Bennetts Creek to construct a grist mill, sawmill, and other commercial enterprises that gave rise to the name Merchants Millpond. Today, the park encompasses over 3200 acres of cypress-tupelo swamp and beech-mixed hardwood uplands. Melissa has a workshop on the millpond in a few weeks, so she wanted to do a scouting trip and introduce some of her co-leaders to the place. She decided to take a day off for exploring before her staff arrived, so we packed up the truck and threw our kayaks on top for a mid-week adventure in this perfect springtime weather.

Truck camping with some new accessories on top (click photos to enlarge)

I contacted our friends, Floyd and Signa, that live just outside the park, to see if they wanted to paddle with us on Wednesday. They are some of the best naturalists I know and certainly know the millpond better than anyone (Floyd was a ranger there for many years). They offered to take us up Lassiter Swamp to “the big trees”, a scattered group of Bald Cypress trees that are hundreds of years old and tower above the rest of the swamp forest – heck yeah!

The dominant trees on the millpond – Bald Cypress (left) and Tupelo Gum (right)

The 760-acre millpond is dominated by two tree species – Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum. Stumps of ancient cypress cut in the 1800’s form islands of vegetation with Swamp Rose, Wax Myrtle and a host of other plant species. Spanish Moss is draped off most of the tree branches and Yellow Cow Lily (Spatterdock) is just starting to poke its leaves out of the water surface.

Spanish Moss adorns many of the trees on the millpond

Paddle to the far end and you enter an entirely different world – Lassiter Swamp. The channel narrows and winds through a maze of gnarled Tupelo Gum that have been transformed into gargoyle-like shapes by Mistletoe (a semi-parasitic plant that causes the gum trees to create odd growths as they forms “scar tissue” in reaction to the Mistletoe’s intrusion). So many trees have been disfigured by the Mistletoe that the entrance to the swamp is known as “the enchanted forest” by locals.

Paddling up Lassiter Swamp with our friends
The Tupelo Gum take on new forms under the influence of Mistletoe

I have always loved Lassiter Swamp for its solitude and abundance of wildlife. And this trip provided both. As we paddled around one bend, Melissa said, There’s a Raccoon in that tree. I looked, but didn’t see it at first. It was curled up inside a giant gnarl on a gum tree. We were all impressed she spotted it.

The Raccoon tree
A closer look reveals the sleepy Raccoon
Swamp cuteness

After a few hours of paddling, we started seeing some of the really big Bald Cypress scattered about the upper end of Lassiter Swamp. One of the big ones I remembered climbing inside years ago (9 people could stand inside the hollow base of the giant) had fallen victim to Hurricane Isabelle and lay covered in moss along the creek bank. But the matriarch of the swamp is still standing. This cypress was aged by the team that designated those well-known cypress along the Black River as the oldest known trees in the Eastern United States (one has been dated to be at least 2,624 years old). This tree is much larger than those on the Black River due to the nutrient-rich waters of this swamp and is estimated to be at least 1000 years old. It is humbling to stand next to one of these giants.

Standing next to an ancient sentinel of the swamp
This Bald Cypress is estimated to be over 1000 years old
Golden light in the swamp

As we paddled back to the launch area, Melissa spotted a large Alligator basking in the late day sun. Floyd told us about the first confirmed Alligator sighting on the millpond back in 1996. Rumors of gators in the park had been around a couple of years, but, in 1996, a fisherman told Floyd he had seen one. In fact, he had caught it while fishing and had it in his boat (he didn’t know what to do with it and had brought it to shore hoping a ranger could help). After unhooking the ~3-foot gator, keeping it in an unused dog pen with a kiddie pool, and contacting wildlife officials, the decision was made to release it back into the millpond. There are now a few Alligators that call the millpond home, including one larger than the ~7-footer we observed.

Alligator sunning on the bank

A highlight of the trip was one that did not occur on the millpond but on the uplands. Our friends shared the location of an Eastern Screech Owl roosting in a hollow tree, something I have been hoping to find for several years now (I have seen them, but only when I didn’t have a camera in hand). The owl did not disappoint. It is a gray phase (they can also be reddish in color) and has a perfect perch in the hollow of a tree. We checked the tree each time we drove in and out of the campground and it has a habit of disappearing down into the hollow and then reappearing so you never know when it will be visible. What a treat!

The screech owl tree
A closer view of a sleepy Eastern Screech Owl

Another wonderful wildlife encounter was the Bald Eagle nest in a tall pine out on the millpond. The eagle is easily seen with binoculars and must be sitting on eggs still as she didn’t move much on either day we paddled.

The nest tree
Bald Eagle on nest (heavy crop of telephoto image)

On my last trip by the nest tree, the male eagle flew in and perched nearby, giving me the side eye from behind a tree trunk. I paddled on not wanting to disturb them.

The male flew in and perched nearby as I was paddling back out of the millpond
Turtles were basking on almost every log on Thursday (note the very long front claws on the male turtle on the left – used during courtship to stroke the necks of females)

Thursday was even warmer and turtles were everywhere on the millpond. Pickerel Frogs and the occasional Southern Leopard Frog were calling as I paddled solo up the pond to spend the day in the swamp (Melissa was with her co-workers planning the workshop). There is something magical about being in a swamp by yourself. The quiet, the sense of isolation, and yet a feeling of being wrapped in the arms of a living forest. You tend to become a part of the swamp and more in tune to your surroundings.

A large Beaver lodge in Lassiter Swamp

I passed the Raccoon tree and found it empty, but there were plenty of birds and signs of animals (otter scat, beaver lodges and cut trees, raccoon tracks in the mud) as I paddled. Finally, I saw a swirl in the water along one side of the creek and then some movement – otter! I stopped paddling and slowly drifted with camera in hand as the four River Otter realized there was something in their creek and swam out to get a better view. They bobbed up and down, snuffing and snorting as they tried to figure me out. I never got all four in the same field of view at once, but it was great spending a few minutes with these aquatic acrobats. They finally had enough of me and headed upstream.

Two River Otter swimming across the creek
Three of the four otter pause to check me out

Two gorgeous male Wood Ducks graced me with their presence as I sat on a beech slope adjacent to the creek eating my lunch. Of course, the camera was in the kayak and as soon as I slowly tried to reach for it, one of the ducks spotted me and the game was over, off they went. On the way out, I paddled along the edge of Lassiter Swamp seeing plenty of Beaver sign and scaring up flocks of Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks, along with a bunch of noisy pairs of Canada Geese.

A Spatterdock root jam swept by the wind into a cove in the upper end of the millpond

My last wildlife highlight of the day was an Anhinga, a symbol of swamps and black waters in the south. I now see them much more frequently than when I first started paddling the swamps of the Coastal Plain some 40 years ago, but it is always a treat.

An Anhinga flies overhead displaying its distinctive silhouette

Merchants Millpond remains one of my favorites places to spend time on the water. It has a rich history, amazing wildlife, beautiful scenery, great facilities and staff, and can provide you with a sense of being one with a wild place like few other places so close to home. And seeing our friends and knowing all they know and do for the park, it reminds me how much I truly appreciate people like Floyd and Signa that have given (and continue to give) so much to help conserve and make one special wild place available to plants, wildlife, and people. That is one of the things that makes North Carolina State Parks so special, the dedicated people that love and protect them.

The sunset on our first day’s paddle

Refuges as refuge

For every day of loneliness we endure, we’ll spend a day in communion with the life around us until the loneliness passes away.

~Richard Louv

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you know that we are lucky to live in a beautiful wooded setting with abundant wildlife from insects to birds. But one of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic has been spending time with other wildlife, things we typically don’t see here at home. Yesterday, Melissa had to work (in one of her first in-person workshops in quite some time) so I decided to hit the road and visit some of my favorite spots – the wildlife refuges of Eastern North Carolina.

First stop, Pocosin Lakes (aka Pungo). I was surprised to see a few Snow Geese still around along with the usual late Tundra Swans. Several ducks (mainly Northern Shovelers) and four Bald Eagles were a good way to start. All were a bit too far off for photos, so I just watched though binoculars. Some roads are still closed due to the very wet weather and there were already 3 carloads of people at “Bear Road”, so I headed over to Lake Mattamuskeet to try my luck there.

I saw a post last week on Facebook about a Great Horned Owl nest out on the lake, and from the photo, I knew exactly which tree it was in – a small Bald Cypress out on the lake that had an old Osprey nest in it. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nest, but often use broken snags or nests of other large birds. I had to look from the top of the car in order to get a clear view over the tall Phragmites that lines the lake, but you can clearly see the owls in the nest with binoculars or a spotting scope. My 500mm telephoto (plus 1.4x teleconverter) brings it all in a bit closer, but due to the great distance over water, there is a bit of atmospheric interference, which makes a sharp photo difficult. I saw two young plus an adult at one point but have heard there may be three young in the nest.

Great Horned Owls have taken over an old Osprey nest on Lake Mattamuseet (click photos to enlarge)
An adult owl plus two (I think) young can be seen in this photo

Since many of the waterfowl have headed north, I was hoping to see some other critters as I started down Wildlife Drive. A small, dark rabbit greeted me near the entrance and seemed unconcerned as I slowly pulled over across the road. My first thought was this was a Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris. One of three species of rabbits found in NC (Eastern Cottontail and Appalachian Cottontail being the others), Marsh Rabbits are usually found in coastal regions near marshes and swamps. They tend to be slightly darker brown in color, have shorter ears, smaller eyes, and, most distinctly, lack the fluffy white underside to the tail that gives the more common and widespread cottontail its name (their tails are brownish underneath). Unfortunately, this little guy never showed me that part of its anatomy, but I’m still pretty sure its a Marsh Rabbit.

A rabbit out in the open along Wildlife Drive
The rabbit with a mouthful

I enjoyed watching it for several minutes and managed a quick video clip of its constant munching.

This is me with a plate of cookies or chips

I always enjoy the short hike along the New Holland Trail with its beautiful cypress swamp setting. The water levels are very high everywhere in our state right now and, for the first time I can remember, the walk to get to the boardwalk was slightly underwater. But that made for beautiful reflections in the swamp.

The boardwalk on the New Holland Trail at Mattamuskeet NWR
Red Maple flowers signaling the arrival of spring
Playing with post=processing settings on a phone photo of the cypress reflections along the boardwalk

The far end of Wildlife Drive was closed due to high water and the back side of the loop around the impoundment had the most water I have ever seen. That meant fewer wading birds although I did spy a couple of egrets squabbling over feeding territory.

A Great Egret flies to chase off another in its territory

It was still fairly early when I finished my lunch, so I decided to head over to the last refuge for the day, Alligator River NWR. As soon as I drove in off Hwy 264, I spotted an otter in a roadside canal. I stopped to watch and it disappeared into the high water in the trees off the canal. It was the first of five River Otter I spotted in my couple of hours on the refuge. I ended up spending some time with one otter as it swam down a long canal. I would drive ahead and park on the opposite side of the road, then get out and use the vehicle as a blind and a support for my camera and snap a few photos as the otter swam by. Once it was down the canal a bit, I got back in and drove another hundred yards or so beyond the otter to watch it pass again. At one spot, there was an opportunity to get closer due to some trees and brush on my side of the canal. I sat and waited for quite some time and suddenly the otter was alongside me. I managed a couple of quick shots as it passed and then it slowed and turned to look back at me. I imagine the otter might not have been thinking the peaceful thoughts I was having, but it quickly continued on its way.

I spent some time with this River Otter traveling a canal at Alligator River NWR
My favorite photo of a day filled with much needed wildlife encounters

The opening quote above is from a wonderful book (Our Wild Calling) by Richard Louv on the value of human – wildlife interactions. It is the last line in part of a closing paragraph on something he says we should try to adopt in our relations with animal life – what he calls the reciprocity principle. Th other parts of that principle are equally worthy of our attention:

For every moment of healing that humans receive from another creature, humans will provide an equal moment of healing for that animal and its kin. For every acre of wild habitat we take, we will preserve or create at least another acre for wildness. For every dollar we spend on classroom technology, we will spend at least another dollar creating chances for children to connect deeply with another animal plant, or person.

Our wildlife refuges go a long way toward meeting the goals of that principle. And I have been lucky to have a small chunk of woodlands to care-take and to have spent a career trying to provide outdoor experiences for a wide range of people. Now I guess I need to figure out how to repay that otter…

How Many Birds?

Now Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas side hunt, in the form of a Christmas bird-census. We hope that all our readers who have the opportunity will aid us in making it a success by spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds and sending a report of their ‘hunt’ to Bird-Lore before they retire that night.

~Frank Chapman, originator of the Christmas Bird Count, 1900

It was a tradition in the late 1800’s for men and boys to gather into teams during the holidays and go out into the woods and fields and shoot as many birds, mammals, and other critters as they could find. Whichever team killed the most wildlife was the winner. These so-called side hunts often took a huge toll on local wildlife including many species of songbirds. In the winter of 1900, out of concern for the wanton destruction of so many birds, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History, proposed an alternative – gather together and count birds instead of shooting them. He published the results of the first count in his magazine, Bird-Lore, which later became Audubon magazine. That first census had 27 volunteers in 25 locations in the U.S. and Canada, and tallied a total of about 90 species across all the counts. That tradition became what is now the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, with over 81,000 observers in 2646 count circles (participants divide up a set 15-mile diameter circle and estimate the total number of birds in that area) participating in the Americas in 2019. They tallied more than 42 million birds representing more than 2500 different species. This is the longest running citizen science wildlife census in the world and the collected data is used by scientists and conservation organizations for bird research and protection efforts.

So, as we have done for most of the past several years, this past week, we headed east the day before our count centered on Pettigrew State Park, and spent the night at the campground so we would be out early the next morning. Our portion of the count circle is the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, about a 40 minute drive from the campground, even though it is only about 8 miles as the soon-to-be-counted crow flies. The afternoon before the count was rewarding with lots of swans, Snow Geese, and more visitors than usual. We even ran into some friends that were watching five Sandhill Cranes feeding in a cornfield near the refuge entrance.

The sunset show the night before our Christmas Bird Count was spectacular with a cloud of Snow Geese swirling over the field (click photos to enlarge)

The next morning, we headed out before sunrise and arrived at Pungo as the birds were beginning to stir. We headed to a marsh impoundment to eat breakfast and search through the couple of thousand Tundra Swans for the Trumpeter Swan we had seen a few weeks before. Unfortunately, we neither saw nor heard this rare species, so it eluded us for our tally this year.

One of several raptors we observed on the count day, this Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was searching the nearby marsh for a potential meal

As visitors started arriving at the marsh, we decided to head over to the observation platform to estimate the swan numbers on the lake. We were in for a nice surprise in the canal next to the platform – an American Bittern! Somehow, we missed it as we drove in and parked, but Melissa spotted it alongside the canal when we climbed the platform.

Pungo Lake was dotted with Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) and a dense line of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) on the far side

I eased down to the truck and grabbed my camera, and for several minutes the bittern provided us with a close up view of its hunting style and funky, neck-weaving movements through the grasses. Its long toes help support it as it strides atop aquatic vegetation and the striped neck helps it blend in to the grasses it calls home. This is a species we see occasionally at this refuge but one that is particularly welcome on count day. We told a friend about it later that day, and when he went to see it, there were two bitterns!

When we climbed to the top of the observation platform, Melissa whispered, There’s a bittern right there
The bittern begins to assume the pose – Nothing but us marsh grasses here, move on…
I have told people when looking for bitterns, to look for a clump of grass that has eyes
The bittern ignored our nearby vehicle and strutted through the marsh grasses searching for prey
One of the things I find fascinating about bitterns is their neck wriggle, which is particularly noticeable when they slink through the grass

The day turned out much warmer than the previous one, and the good weather brought out all sorts of unusual wildlife (for December anyway). We saw a lot of spider silk floating through the air and a large adult orbweaver. And at one point, we were startled by a huge water snake along the edge of a canal. But, though we looked, “our” canebreak rattlesnake was not at its long-time hollow tree den site.

Can’t remember ever seeing a large Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscoma domiciliorum) on a Christmas Bird Count in the past
Walking in the woods on a very well used bear trail
Surprised to see a very large Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota) out and about (although it looks like it had just emerged from a muddy retreat and it was very sluggish)

We have a disadvantage in getting a true assessment of the number of birds in this location because so many areas are closed to access when the waterfowl are present. And on this count day, we had an even bigger problem – crowds (not something we want during this time of Covid). The weather, the holidays, and perhaps weariness of being trapped inside during the pandemic, brought out a lot of visitors. Unfortunately, many of them were not obeying the rules. We saw multiple groups of people walking into closed areas, resulting in some disturbance to the birds and actually reducing the numbers of birds we saw and counted (especially ducks). Several times during the day, we attempted some on-site education about refuge rules and Melissa finally texted the refuge law enforcement person to make them aware of the unusual number of violations. I understand the desire to get closer to the birds to see them, and I actually wish the refuge had more accessible observation areas around the lake (maybe some day), but rules is rules, and the number of people ignoring or missing the signage for closed areas was the most I have ever witnessed.

We still ended the day with a reasonable number of birds. Compared to previous years, there were fewer duck species and fewer swan numbers (one area that was packed with swans had all the birds flushed by people walking in on them as we were approaching). Obviously, when counting birds in such a large area that has so much inaccessible habitat (dense pocosin vegetation, closed areas to protect the waterfowl, and flooded forests), we are only getting a sampling of the total number and types of birds present. But, the value is in looking at these trends over time and seeing changes. One notable change has been the number of Bald Eagles observed since I started the count back in the mid-1980’s. Back then, seeing one eagle in the entire count circle was a big deal. We had 3 just in our portion this day. Our complete list for our portion of the count circle is at the end of this post. Overall, the Pettigrew Count did pretty well, with some unusual species recorded in other sections (including Short-eared Owls, a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and some Evening Grosbeaks).

We camped that night back at the park and decided to run by the Pungo Unit the next morning before heading home. The Snow Geese were right on schedule, flying out from the lake about 8 a.m. to feed in the fields, and we were one of only two cars to witness it (what a difference a day makes).

Snow Geese setting their wings for a landing
The morning after the count, the Snow Geese gave us a great show, coming and going to the fields for corn. A Bald Eagle flew over part of the field, resulting in this classic blast off (sound on)

We went back to the platform, hoping to see the bittern(s) again, but no luck. However, we did have a nice encounter with a Beaver swimming in one of the canals. It didn’t seem to mind us slowly following along in our truck, but then it suddenly went under and disappeared when four River Otters showed up. Not a bad way to end a trip to our favorite wildlife watching destination.

Checklist of species for our portion of the Pettigrew Christmas Bird Count:

Snow Goose – 20,000; Ross’ Goose – 2; Canada Goose – 45; Tundra Swan – 10,000; Wood Duck – 3; Northern Shoveler – 40; Gadwall – 2; American Black Duck – 35; Green-winged Teal – 124; Ring-necked Duck – 6; Bufflehead – 6; Ruddy Duck – 13; Great Blue Heron – 6; Sandhill Crane – 4 (not sure where the fifth guy from the day before and after was); American Bittern – 2; Pied-billed Grebe – 1: American Coot – 6: Northern Bobwhite – 4; Wild Turkey – 8; Killdeer – 52; Ring-billed Gull – 3; Mourning Dove – 70; Turkey Vulture – 21; Northern Harrier – 4; Cooper’s Hawk – 1; Bald Eagle – 3; Red-shouldered Hawk – 2; Red-tailed Hawk – 1; American Kestrel – 1; Belted Kingfisher – 1; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker – 11; Downy Woodpecker – 4; Hairy Woodpecker – 3; Pileated Woodpecker – 3; Northern Flicker – 7; Eastern Phoebe – 12; Blue-headed Vireo – 3; Blue Jay – 1; American Crow – 24; Carolina Chickadee – 18; Tufted Titmouse – 5; Tree Swallow – 15; Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 4; Red-breasted Nuthatch – 1; Brown-headed Nuthatch – 3; House Wren – 1; Carolina Wren – 10; Gray Catbird – 8; Northern Mockingbird – 9; Brown Thrasher – 1; Eastern Bluebird – 6; American Robin – 48; Purple Finch – 5; American Goldfinch – 13; Song Sparrow – 39; White-throated Sparrow – 86; Savannah Sparrow – 87; Field Sparrow – 1; Swamp Sparrow – 8; Eastern Towhee – 1; Eastern Meadowlark – 10; Red-winged Blackbird – 1000; Rusty Blackbird – 8; Common Grackle – 10; Palm Warbler – 4; Yellow-rumped Warbler – 67; Pine Warbler – 2; Northern Cardinal – 20

Otterly Fantastic (and more)

The heron and the otter are my friends

And we are all connected to each other

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends!

~Carl Binder

A few days after our virtual program outing, I decided to make a day trip to the refuges for some quiet time watching wildlife. I headed out last Friday about 6 a.m. and pulled into the Pungo Unit on what started as an overcast, drizzly morning. A refuge worker was just beginning to grade D-Canal road and there was a long row of debris in what would be the right lane of the dirt road. I veered over to the left, which turned out to be fortunate, as it gave me a better view down into the canal. As I passed what I call “New Bear Road”, I spotted movement in the canal. It was three River Otters, my second group of these amazing animals that week. They did their typical otter thing of undulating motions in the water while glancing up at me as I was trying to ease the truck into position for a photo. One otter suddenly emerged on the far bank with a decent-sized fish in its mouth. It moved quickly to subdue it while tossing its head back and forth and chomping down on the fish (it looked like a young Bowfin). The low light, their quick movements, and my excitement at seeing the otters, made for less than ideal images, so many of the shots are blurred. But, I enjoyed watching the one otter claim its catch and turn away when others came too close.

River Otter chowing down on a Bowfin caught in a canal on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Here’s a brief clip showing the otter enjoying its breakfast (and not wanting to share with another otter)…

The otters eventually swam to my side of the canal, making them difficult to see from he truck, so I slipped out to look where I last saw their ripples. They were gone! There is a large culvert under the road right there so I guessed they had swam under the road and disappeared into the much smaller canal leading away from the road. I looked, but didn’t see them…were they still under the road? I went back and forth a couple of times looking and finally saw them about a hundred feet away looking back at me. Nice move on their part!

I continued driving down towards “Bear Road”, but saw several cars already there, so I decided to forego scratching my bear itch for the time being. I headed over to spend some time with the swans at Marsh A and saw a car stopped in the middle of the road with a photographer out looking into the flooded swamp along the canal. I didn’t want to disturb whatever she was seeing, so I stopped and looked down the road with my binoculars. Otter again! And again, three of them. I seriously doubt it was the same three otter because I was now a couple of miles from where they were last seen. The photographer finally walked back to her car and I drove on, seeing the wake of the otters as they swam down the canal and in and out of the trees. They kept diving and swimming great distances, their pathway marked by a trail of air bubbles at the surface.

An otter cruising the canal

Then one would suddenly pop up, scan around, snort, and then take off underwater once again. I took a few photos and then drove on, leaving them to their otter doings

Two otters keeping a wary eye on me as they swim the forested edge of the canal

The gray skies and almost no wind made for some nice views of swans at Marsh A. I have found that if I park near the edges of the flock I have more time to view the swans by myself (most photographers go to where the flock is most dense), which causes them to relax more and just do what they do. I also stay in the vehicle, which causes less concern for any nearby birds. A group of three swans were close to the road and after I stopped, they settled back down and started napping again, with an occasional stretch for good measure.

Tundra Swan resting in soft light
Elegance
Not so elegant

As usual, I could have stayed all day with the swans, but the sun started to pop out making the light much less appealing for images, and I wanted to head to Mattamuskeet to see what I might find over there. I’m always amazed at how different the wildlife can be in a place at different times. At Mattamuskeet, the waterfowl were further out in the marsh now compared to our virtual program day, and things were much quieter – no eagles scaring up the ducks, no kingfisher in its usual spot, but there was a nice Great Blue Heron standing quietly on a log.

A Great Blue Heron looking serene at Mattamuskeet

A large flock of American Coot were crowded in the canal along Wildlife Drive, feeding on submerged aquatic vegetation. I sat with them a few minutes, listening and watching their antics. Here is a brief clip…

On my way back out, I spotted an Anhinga on a log in the canal. I drove by and parked, and, next thing I know, it comes swimming by me, with only half its neck and head above water. Snake bird is an apt moniker as that skinny neck bobs back and forth just above the water as they swim.

Anhinga swimming with just its neck above water. Like Pied-billed Grebes, Anhingas can submerge without diving, much like a submarine, by regulating their buoyancy. As I watched, the long neck and dagger-like bill seemed to just slide under the water as it swam.

After another trip around Wildlife Drive, I came back to that downed log, hoping for another chance at one of two Anhingas I had seen. I got lucky and had what I think was an adult female on the log along with a few Double-crested Cormorants. It was busy sunning as I pulled up. Like the cormorants, Anhingas frequently display this wing-spreading behavior. Cormorants have a dense insulating layer of waterproof feathers against their skin, so wing-spreading is believed to be primarily for drying out their wing feathers. Anhingas, on the other hand, lack that insulating layer and have a different micro-structure to their feathers which allows water to penetrate through and decrease their buoyancy. This allows them to swim and hunt with most of their body submerged. And, in Anhingas, the wing-spreading is believed to be more for thermoregulation.

Anhinga with wings spread and a Double-crested Cormorant in the background

The sunning log was partially hidden from view by some tall vegetation between the edge of the canal and where I was parked. By slowly opening the truck door and standing on the running board with the camera resting on top of the open door, I was able to get some nice shots of this beautifully patterned bird as it preened.

The large fan-shaped tail resembles that of a Wild Turkey, giving rise to another common name for this unusual bird – Water Turkey
Close up of Anhinga preening

As is common with me, I took way to many photos of the Anhinga, so the sun was starting its downward trajectory when I headed back to Pungo for the last couple of hours of my trip. Though I really wanted to see bears, there were once again just too many cars and people at Bear Road, so I opted for some more quality time with the swans. The lighting was very different in the afternoon but I always enjoy the sights and sounds of these wonderful waterfowl.

The elegant wing flap

The scene created some beautiful swan watching…

All of the corn in the fields near the refuge entrance had been knocked down for the birds since our trip earlier in the week, so I headed up there for sunset, hoping some Tundra Swans or Snow Geese would fly in for a late feeding (and hoping to see a bear). It wasn’t long until I heard them and then saw the sky filling with the silhouettes of a few thousand Snow Geese headed my way. As is common early in the season, they seemed very wary, and flew circles around the corn field a few times before starting to drop in to feed.

Snow Geese headed for the corn field for a late snack

After feeding for about 20 minutes, something startled them and they took to the sky, flying around a few times before heading back to the lake for the night. Here is a brief clip of one of the sights and sounds that make this place so special.

They’re Back and All is Right with the World

Birds have always had the ability to bring me out of a dark space and provide relief in bad times.

~Jason Ward

You may have noticed I have fallen way behind in my musings on the natural world this past month. I still haven’t even finished posting about our last road trip back in October! I guess there have been a lot of distractions lately (for all of us) – some good, some stressful. We are lucky to live in a place where we can connect on a daily basis with the beauty of nature so that has helped. But here lately, it has been too easy to get involved in some chore outdoors or a minor repair on the house, so it was good to have an excuse earlier this week to help travel back to my favorite wild place in North Carolina…Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Melissa needed to test the feasibility of doing a remote broadcast for a museum program being planned for early December on some of the wonders of winter wildlife found on our coastal wildlife refuges. Limited cell phone service throughout the region would be the challenge and it requires a lot of gear and coordination with her co-workers, so she asked me to help. The plan was to hit both the Pungo Unit and Lake Mattamuskeet and try to broadcast live images and sound back to folks in Raleigh via Zoom. We would camp overnight in our trusty truck at Pettigrew State Park, to enable us to get both a sunset and sunrise to maximize our chances for seeing wildlife.

Canid tracks (most likely a Red Wolf based on their size) at the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

We arrived at Pungo mid-morning and drove toward the observation platform to check on the swans and the cell signal (not my usual combo on these trips). Melissa soon spotted some tracks in the sandy road and they turned out to be those of a large canid, most likely a Red Wolf, one of only one or two believed to still roam the refuge. Unfortunately, there was no service at the platform, but we could see swans far across the lake.

Tundra Swans have returned to Eastern North Carolina for another winter

The next stop was Marsh A, a managed impoundment that has been a hot spot for swans for many years and so it is again this winter. The signal here was weak and it kept dropping during the test, which is unfortunate because the birds were putting on a great show of both sights and sounds.

Black Bear sow and cubs far across the field

Our next stop was “Bear Road” which had a couple of other groups with cameras and long lenses out looking for bruins. They reported seeing a few that morning, and we soon spotted one, and then several, all far across the field. We did have a weak signal here and could send images, but the lack of swans and the great distances and unpredictability of seeing bears may make this location less than ideal for the broadcast. Of course, while we were focused on the bears off in the distance, I forgot one of the main lessons you learn about the bears at Pungo….always look behind you. Sure enough, a bear had come out of the woods behind us (quite close according to other people on the road) and walked away from us toward a path that leads over to the adjacent cornfield. When I turned and saw it, I managed a few seconds of video before it disappeared into the canal and up into the tall cornstalks of its dining room.

A bear heads for the corn across the canal (this is a screen capture from a video clip); note the photographer down the road looking back at the bear and us

We headed back to Marsh A hoping for a better signal since that spot provided the best bet for a sure wildlife moment for the broadcast. We drove along, checking our phone signal strength at various spots, but it was still weak and somewhat variable. Toward one end, I suddenly heard the distinctive bugling call of a Trumpeter Swan (it reminds me of a clown car horn from the cartoons) mixed in with the cacophony of Tundra Swan oo-oo-oo’s and hoots. For the past several winters, we have seen a few of these magnificent birds, the largest of our native waterfowl, at either Mattamuskeet or Pungo. I started scanning the seemingly endless sea of white necks and heads looking for the less discernible bill traits of a Trumpeter Swan (larger and straighter than that of a Tundra Swan and their eye is usually not distinctly separate from the bill as those of a Tundra Swan). I finally found one swimming and honking in the mix. I kept trying to make others nearby into trumpeters, but can’t say for sure, even after looking at my images. Trumpeters are larger than Tundra Swans (as much as a foot more wing span and up to 10 pounds heavier on average), but that is tough to tell in the field. Plus, to make matters more difficult, Tundra Swans can vary quite a bit in bill size, eye position, and whether they do or don’t have the usually diagnostic yellow patch on the bill near the eye. For more details on distinguishing between the two species, see this link.

A Trumpeter Swan (the bird on the right facing left)

Mid-day on our second day, we drove over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge to scout for birds (and cell service). The problem with Mattamuskeet (as far as video or photography is concerned) is the lighting is very bad (harsh back-lighting) on the impoundment along Wildlife Drive for most of the day. There certainly are a variety of birds that are easily seen, but finding a good spot for the broadcast was a challenge, although in general, there is a better signal for sending images over most of the accessible parts of the refuge. We found a nice variety of birds and other wildlife and are now thinking that this may be the best spot for the program. The next few images show some of the highlights of the couple of hours spent at Mattamuskeet. One nice surprise we found that I didn’t have a chance to photograph was an American Bittern that flushed from the side of the boardwalk in the cypress swamp.

A juvenile Anhinga bobbed its head as we drove across the canal bridge
A huge Golden Orb Weaver along the boardwalk
A vertical pano of the cypress swamp along the boardwalk lends a strange curvature to the trees
Bald Cypress needles carpet the water surface

Our last stop was a return to Pungo, hoping to get some more bear footage. When we arrived at the spot, there were already 4 cars parked at the gate, so we decided to skip the bears and spend the rest of the day at Marsh A enjoying the sights and sounds of the elegant swans. Late in the day on both of our afternoons, the swans starting taking off in large numbers from Marsh A, presumably heading out to nearby fields for their last feeding of the day. With so many birds head bobbing (they usually do this as a prelude to take-off) and slapping their feet across the water to get airborne, I can’t resist the urge to capture some lift-off moments. The answer to Melissa’s question of How many pictures of swans taking off do you need? is…there’s never enough.

Looking forward to returning in a couple of weeks for the program (and hoping technology and weather will cooperate). Information and registration for the upcoming NC Museum of Natural Sciences virtual program on winter waterfowl in this region (which targets a family audience, including young children) is on their web site here.

The energetic take-off of a swan trailing behind one that left splashes in its wake
A pair of swans seem coordinated in their take-off
After a long run and much flapping, a successful lift-off in the golden light of sunset

Reaching the Mountains

We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.

~John Muir

After driving across the high plains for several days, we finally saw the sharp peaks of southern Colorado reaching for the hazy skies (fires in Wyoming brought smoky skies for our first few days in CO). The mountains at last…for many reasons, much more aligned with our spirits than the flat lands. Our main concern was that was a weekend, and, like us, people were flocking to these spiritual landscapes for relief during these trying times. Would we find a campsite? Melissa had picked a couple of areas in the Spanish Peaks, Bear Lake and Blue Lake, that had Forest Service campgrounds and some limited dispersed camping. The campgrounds were full, but a campground host recommended driving up a nearby rocky road and finding a spot. We passed one camper as we climbed until we reached the end of the road. As it was getting late, we settled for this less than ideal, but still beautiful, spot. The next morning as we headed out, the other camper had his truck hood up and, as we slowed, asked if we had jumper cables. Indeed, we did, and he was happy to have his engine running again (it would have been a long bike ride down to the campground fro assistance).

Blue Lake in the Spanish Peaks of CO (click photos to enlarge)

Our next stop was a beautiful area in the Rio Grande National Forest. We drove some back country roads looking for an isolated site but there were a lot of large RVs with 4-wheelers scattered throughout the valley along the creek. So, we took one of the high roads and found a pullout with a view through the trees of a nice peak with golden aspens illuminating its lower slope.

Our campsite along Fox Mountain Road
Aspens were in peak color in much of southern Colorado
Aspen cathedral

After passing through Durango, our route entered the San Juan Mountains and the glorious golds of fall aspens were a constant. Melissa steered us to what turned out to be one of the rockiest roads I have ever been on, Old Lime Creek Road, in San Juan National Forest. At about 3 miles we passed a small trailhead to Spud (actually Potato, but the locals call it Spud) Lake. We passed by hoping to find a secluded campsite and paused to ask a vehicle coming the other way about road conditions farther along as I was beginning to squeeze the steering wheel a bit too tightly. The driver, a local, said the road got worse and was mainly one lane with few good places to turn around. That convinced us to look for something back behind us. We both wanted something special since it was Melissa’s pre-birthday night campsite. We passed a small side road with huge ruts from when the area had been muddy. Melissa walked down it as I walked ahead on the main “road”, looking for a site. When we got back together, she thought we could make it past the giant ruts and camp in a grove of aspens on the side road. We carefully pulled in and set up camp and climbed a short hill above our site to a rock outcrop with a fabulous view of the surrounding peaks. This would do, indeed it would. The sunset and sunrise were fabulous and everything was perfect except for the mice that invaded our truck cab during the night. For some reason, this was the trip of the mouse, with several mice coming into the cab at night over the first several campsites…as much as I hated doing it, we ended up catching 5 mice total over several nights in a single trap I had brought along (the truck has had issues with mice ever since I accidentally left a bag of bird seed in it for a few nights in our driveway a few months ago).

Sunset on the rock outcrop above our campsite
Some aspens show distinct orange colors instead of the usual golden yellow

The same local that told us about the roadway also mentioned that the trail we passed was an easy 1-mile hike to a beautiful lake, so we headed up there the next morning. It turns out it is a very popular trail for locals and by the time we got out a few hours later (we walked all the way around the lake) several cars were parked at the trailhead and along the road (many people gave up driving the extremely rocky road all the way to the trailhead and parked a half mile or more down the road).

The beautiful reflections in Potato Lake
Beaver pond along trail to Potato Lake

Next on our itinerary was a forest service road described as one of the most beautiful in the region – Last Dollar Road. Ironically, it runs through many vast private holdings where the ranches and homes look like their last dollar (if they even have one) is a couple of orders of magnitude greater than ours would be. Melissa spotted a young coyote hunting in the open near the road so we stopped and watched it catch a couple of rodents.

Young coyote hunting near road
The only Elk we saw in Colorado (elk season started while we were there)

She also spotted the only Elk we saw on the entire trip emerging from the brush on a private ranch along the road.

Vertical pano of aspen grove

All along the road were groves of beautiful aspens in their prime fall colors. And there were lots of people out enjoying it and camping in the best spots. We kept going, hoping for a place with a view. We came through a pass and then headed down what was the steepest dirt road I have traveled and eventually popped out to an opening in the trees with a wonderful vista of distant mountains. People had obviously camped here before even though it was basically just a flat spot on an expansive talus slope. There was a small area at the edge that had solid ground and some trees where we set up our table and chairs. Like most of our campsites thus far, the talus slope was above 9000 feet in elevation, so temperatures dropped quickly as the sun slid beneath the peaks.

Sunset at our talus slope campsite on Last Dollar Road

With so many crevices and hiding places among the field of rocks, it was a perfect habitat for small mammals (uh-oh, more mice), especially the ubiquitous chipmunks. There are 5 species of chipmunks in Colorado and everywhere we had camped, we had chipmunks that apparently had no fear of humans. While taking in the view at this site, one came up and touched my shoe, not in an aggressive way, but just curious. They can be tough to tell apart, but I think the ones we saw here were Colorado Chipmunks, Neotamias quadrivittatus. We commented on how this was also perfect habitat for one of our favorite western mammals, the Pika, but we had not heard their distinctive alarm call as we set up camp.

Extremely bold Colorado Chipmunk

At breakfast the next morning, Melissa spotted one of the little rock lovers scurrying nearby. It sounded its shrill alarm and was answered by several others scattered down the slope. The place was full of Pika!

Pika

The end of Last Dollar Road takes you through Telluride, a beautiful small town that we both decided we could live in (if we came into large sums of money). Melissa’s research had found another location a short drive away that looked promising, one with open meadows and views of high mountains. The narrow road started off a bit hairy with steep drop-offs, but it wasn’t nearly as rough as some we had been on, until we finally took a rocky side road. We passed a public-access corral that had an unoccupied RV parked next to it and then we drove up a rutted path to the top of a knoll with an incredible vista. This would be our home for a couple of nights (one of the peaks in the picture below is even called Dunn Mountain!).

Camp robbers in action

After setting up camp, we were visited by one, then two more, Gray Jays (aka camp robbers). Formerly called Canada Jays, these birds are known for their boldness in approaching humans and carrying off food or other items from your camp. They hung out with us for a while, hopping around on the ground, then on our table and chairs, and the top of the truck. One even was temporarily confused when it got inside the back of our truck through the open tent screen. They checked in on us several times during our stay, no doubt hoping we would be a bit careless with our food.

Hiking above our campsite (set just off the gray-topped ridge on right side of image)

In addition to the jays, we had a ton of Dark-eyed Juncos, a couple of Coyotes, several raptors, and a small group of Mule Deer sharing our space (or vice versa I suppose). But no Elk, and this place just looked like great Elk habitat. After deciding to stay another night, we hiked up behind our campsite where we found plenty of sign. Elk season would start in a couple of days, so maybe they were all hiding back away from the roads due to the increase in human activity as hunters starting scouting the area. This spot had an incredible feel to it – wildness, openness, beauty, exactly what we had hoped to find on this journey.

Another mountain sunset at camp

Next stop, the dry, dusty canyon lands of the Utah desert.

Heading West

The road is there, it will always be there. You just have to decide when to take it.

~Chris Humphrey

Two days before departing on our journey, we finally made plans to head toward Colorado. Why not, right? We had been there last year about the same time and it was beautiful, but this time we would try southern Colorado, a new area for us. But, from my mom’s place in the Virginia mountains, roads to Colorado cross the vast plains. Crossing the Midwest means long days of driving and searching for isolated campsites in areas other than national forests (for the most part). Once again, Melissa did some excellent online searching and came up with a couple of destinations for us for the first leg of the trip.

Sunrise looking across the Ohio River onto Kentucky farmland at Buzzard Roost Recreation Area (click photos to enlarge)

Our first day ended in Hoosier National Forest in Indiana at Buzzard Roost Recreation Area. Our first free camping site was an actual Forest Service campground with five campsites on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River. The site was named for the large numbers of buzzards (Turkey Vultures) that once roosted here when there was an operating meat smokehouse nearby in the late 1800’s. It was a quiet little campground and a short walk to the overlook provided us with a beautiful scene to start the first full day of our journey.

As we had learned on our last trip, Kansas offers free camping at most of its State Fishing Lakes (SFL), so Melissa charted a course to Chase SFL in eastern Kansas.

Our campsite at Chase State Fishing Lake, KS

We pulled in late in the day and found a secluded site at the far end of this small lake. Rolling grasslands surround the lake for miles, reminding us a little of the Sandhills of Nebraska from our last trip.

Sunset on the grasslands at Chase Lake
Dingy Cutworm Moths were abundant on plants near the lake

Great Blue Herons, some ducks, a Great Horned Owl, and Coyotes accompanied an incredible moonrise that evening. A Bald Eagle flew across the lake the next morning at sunrise before we loaded up and headed across the flat lands of Kansas once again.

Full moon rising over Chase Lake

On our last trip, we fell in love with the patches of remnant prairie we visited in Nebraska, so this time we wanted to include more of that unique habitat. We made a side trip to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas. It is a joint project of The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. We hiked one of the trails out to see their herd of Bison. The views are expansive, with rolling hills of grasses (though not as “tall” as I had expected) and abundant evidence of wildflowers that had bloomed earlier in the season, plus the greatest number of meadowlarks in one place I have ever seen. It is no wonder the Western Meadowlark is their state bird.

Bison in the distance at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

After a morning on the prairie, we headed to a couple of other public lands, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. We were sort of in between peak times for migrating shorebirds and Sandhill Cranes for these two areas but we saw a lot of gulls, waders, and shorebirds nonetheless (especial American Avocets, one of my favorite shorebirds). We first stopped at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, a great starting point for a birding exploration of the region. I definitely would like a return visit in the future (Whooping Cranes are also regular visitors during migration).

American Avocet feeding in one of the ponds at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
Roadkill Massasauga (a small species of rattlesnake) on a refuge road

Driving through parts of Kansas involves incredibly straight stretches of highway through some of the flattest landscapes you will ever encounter, so it was quite a surprise to suddenly come upon a series of deep canyons as we approached our next campsite at Clark SFL.

The sudden appearance of canyons at Clark State Fishing Lake

Once again, the campsites were beautiful and there was only one other camper on the lake. We settled on an isolated site that ironically had a vulture roost adjacent to our site (is that a bad sign?).

The real buzzard’s roost at this campsite (a large group of vultures roosted in the trees near us)

The next morning we drove the rough road up out of the canyon and headed out across the flat plains dotted with wind turbines and hay rolls. We eventually hit a landscape more suitable to raising crops, and drove for miles seeing almost no wildlife other than meadowlarks.

Making a living on the high plains

Then we hit a stretch of recently harvested cornfield with a large group of raptors soaring overhead. We pulled over and started glassing the birds to try to identify them. It turned out to be a huge group of migrating Swainson’s Hawks. This species tends to migrate in groups (called kettles) and are particularly common in October over the plains where they often can be seen doing just what this group was doing – feasting on insects and small rodents found in crop fields. The strong northerly winds blowing across the open landscape of this region undoubtedly help these birds in their long migration to their wintering sites in the vast grasslands of Argentina.

We pulled over to watch about a hundred hawks moving over and on the fields
Hawks (the dark spots) dotted the corn stubble, presumably feeding on grasshoppers and other insects
A Swainson’s Hawk in migration

We detoured a bit to visit Cimarron National Grasslands in southwestern Kansas, the largest tract of public lands in the state, and the only one in Kansas administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Let’s just say it was an interesting side trip. The bulk of the grasslands seemed to be dry and overgrazed, but did have some nice camping spots along the Cimarron River. One particularly interesting spot was what we decided was the Kansas equivalent of NC’s Pilot Mountain, a high point in the seemingly endless landscape of sage and grasslands. It had the unimaginative name of Point of Rocks, and, though it appeared as only a slight rise on the horizon as we approached, is the third highest point in the state at 3,540 feet.

Point of Rocks, KS

It was an important landmark along the famed Santa Fe Trail, an 800-mile wagon route that was an important trade link between Mexico and the eastern U.S. from 1821-1880. This “high point”, along the Cimarron River (note the greenery along the river corridor compared to the distant dry grasslands) was a critical stopping point due to the nearby water source for thousands of wagons that made this six to ten week journey across this seemingly endless and dry terrain. The wagon ruts from those trading caravans can still be seen in many places along the trail.

Look closely and you can see the wagon ruts cutting across the landscape on this portion of the Santa Fe Trail

This leg of driving in southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado was the most barren of our trip. At one point, we took a county road (dirt and gravel) where the speed limit was 55 mph and we drove that straight as an arrow for over an hour (passing only one other vehicle) across dry, flat fields and the occasional farmstead every 10 or so miles. I can’t imagine eking a living in such a place, but there are some hardy souls that seem to manage it. Our next campsite would be in the mountains of Colorado!

Wait, What, Again?

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

~John Steinbeck

Yeah, we did it again. A mere two weeks after we returned from our first major truck camping trip, we hit the road again. This time to celebrate our birthdays (which fall one week apart, oh, and a few years difference). After celebrating with my Mom (her birthday is the same as mine, or vice versa, I suppose), we drove west, not really knowing where we would end up, although Colorado was a strong contender. Melissa created a map of our route and this link has more details of the particulars if you are interested.

Yep, we did it again…a map of our route on our latest truck camping adventure (click photos to enlarge)

This trip covered 8 states and about 4800 miles in 18 days. Once again, we were treated to some of the amazing scenery of our country and had several fantastic moments of wildlife watching. The pics below are a teaser for the next few blog posts that will give some of the highlights of this birthday bonanza…

Sunrise at our campsite on Chase State Fishing Lake in Kansas
Sunset in the Colorado mountains
Canyonlands National Park
Cow moose wading in a beaver pond in Colorado

Heading Home

Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected…

~Ann Patchett

We were up early on our last morning, hoping to get to nearby Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge at sunrise. The refuge was originally called Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, but was changed in 2017 in order to remove the derogatory word squaw from the name. This is a place we had intended to visit on our way to Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane trip last March because it is a critical stopover for many waterfowl. At times, this refuge can have as many as 300,000 to 1,000,000 Snow Geese during the spring migration. Along with that are many other species and a high concentration of predators such as Bald Eagles.

Sunrise at Loess Bluffs NWR (click photos to enlarge)
American White Pelicans

This time of year is much quieter, but it is just off the interstate, so it was an easy stop. We were pleasantly surprised. First, it is a wildlife watchers/photographers refuge with well maintained roads (and a long auto tour covering over 10 miles) that passes along prime habitats such as meadows, forest edges and lots of open water and wetlands.

Bald Eagles wishing the Snow Geese were back

We were greeted with eagles, pelicans, and a variety of songbirds in that beautiful early morning light. A few other folks drove slowly along, telephoto lenses out the window, capturing natural moments. We spent a few minutes following a hummingbird (could not tell which species in that light) as it hovered at a variety of wildflowers along a canal edge. The back-lighting with shimmering dew drops in the distance made for a very artistic scene.

Hummingbird at sunrise (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Curious fawn and wary mamma (photo by Melissa Dowland)

But our most magical moment came when we came up behind a stopped car in a tunnel of overhanging tree limbs. We slowed to see what the driver was photographing and then looked up to see some butterflies fluttering slowly across the road. Then we saw them — hundreds, actually thousands of Monarchs clustered on tree branches, with some starting to fly as they warmed in the morning sun. We got out and gaped in awe. It reminded me of my incredible trip to Mexico years ago to see the overwintering sites of millions of Monarchs. Though, obviously, not as numerous, this was still quite a display with more butterflies than I have seen anywhere else. We walked the road for awhile just taking it all in as the sun encouraged more and more butterflies to leave the roost and head for flowers in the wetlands and meadows through the trees. We both agreed that this spectacle rivaled our moonlit night with the elk herd in terms of memories that will last a lifetime.

Monarchs draped on tree limbs
Monarch cluster as sun starts to warm them up (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Monarchs opening their wings to catch the morning sun

We finally had to say goodbye to this wonderful spot and hit the road one last time. Our final night was spent back in Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. We did a quick walk at the Garden of the Gods, a spectacular geologic formation that is obviously a very popular destination for people in the region as it was quite crowded late on a Sunday evening.

Garden of the Gods in Shawnee NF – my last rock picture

The next day we drove back and stopped to see my mother. Our last drive was home, back to our house in the woods. I miss being there even though we have probably spent more time at home since March than at any time we can remember. It is comfortable, it is serene and beautiful, and it is what we know and love. We tried to do this trip in a responsible way, staying out of crowds, social distancing, wearing masks whenever others were near. It made it surreal in many ways, not being able to eat at funky little restaurants along the way, not sharing a scope with wolf watchers, and so much more, but it was worth it. Traveling by road across much of the country highlights what a diverse place we call home, the many landscapes we are fortunate to share (especially all the public lands), and the amazing variety of ways people work so hard to make a living for themselves and their families. It was refreshing to see that, to know we are part of a grand country. But, it was also disheartening to feel some of the tension whenever we were in a populated place – the political signs (a thousand to one in favor of one particular candidate) and the obvious lack of understanding or concern among some about a simple thing like wearing a mask in public. I only hope that we all learn something from these trying times and that we can make decisions that will be in the best interests of protecting our public lands, addressing the imminent threat of climate change, and bringing back a sense of decency to our government. I usually don’t mix politics into my blog, but this is too important for everything I love about this country. I know which way I plan to vote. I encourage you to do the same.

The Detour

Sometimes, the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.

~Angela N. Blount

Driving away from the grandeur of the Tetons, we passed through some impressive landscapes along the Hoback River valley. Once we broke out of the mountains, the landscape shifted dramatically to an almost flat, endless expanse of sagebrush.

Sagebrush flats cover huge swaths of Wyoming (click photos to enlarge)

All throughout this type of habitat, we saw oil and natural gas extraction and the occasional wind farm. Wildlife visible from the highway included numerous Pronghorn, various raptors, Ravens, and Black-billed Magpies.

A wind farm lends an a majestic, and yet alien, look to the barren landscape (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Melissa set our course for Medicine Bow National Forest in a high elevation mountain range just west of Laramie. The forecast was for more snow, so we reluctantly decided to drive across the pass and find a campsite at a lower elevation. The highest points along the road reminded us of the Beartooths, with scattered conifers, rock outcrops, and lakes set below towering peaks.

A high elevation lake in Medicine Bow NF

We found a small campground with a few campers and decided to pull into a spot next to a beautiful creek. A couple of inches of snow covered the ground and light flurries soon started to fall. By now, we were getting used to the chilly nights in the back of an open truck but decent sleeping bags are essential gear.

Our campsite in Medicine Bow
The creek behind our campsite

The next morning we hit the road again, headed out into the flat plains once more. Melissa took a turn driving and I was searching for an interesting side trip/stop for our time in Nebraska. I searched online for natural areas in Nebraska and came across their Visit Nebraska web site which I had already contacted when we were planning our pandemic-postponed trip to see the Sandhill Crane migration last March. I decided to try to call a human and ask for their input rather than searching endlessly online. I stumbled across someone with the interesting title of Adventure Travel Specialist, and gave her a call. Jenna was very helpful (and sounds like she has a great job). One of her favorite areas are the Sandhills region up around the town of Valentine. That would mean a couple of hours of detour from our eastward trend, but, after hanging up and discussing it some more, we decided to just do it. We turned north toward Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the detour did not disappoint.

Gently rolling hills of grasses seemingly went on forever (photo by Melissa Dowland)
The Sandhills of Nebraska captured our hearts

There is something about the Sandhills that captures your imagination and heart. The Sandhills cover almost 20,000 square miles in northern and central Nebraska and parts of South Dakota. They range in height up to 400 feet and are the largest sand dune system in the United States. The soil is not suitable for growing crops, so most of this vast area still support grasslands and wetlands critical to wildlife. In the past, herds of bison grazed here, now over 500,000 head of cattle call the area home on large ranches. Melissa was particularly taken by the desolate beauty of this place and waxed poetic about somehow acquiring 500+ acres, having a tiny house (or maybe two, one for food storage since it looks like it is a long, long way to a grocery store), and a few head of bison to maintain the prairie grasses. We’ll send you the address if that happens.

Prairie grasses bowing in the wind
The soil is really sandy
One of our favorite birds – flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds (with a couple of Yellow-headed ones in the mix)
We saw several Sharp-tailed Grouse on our sunrise drive through the refuge
A wind mill pumping water into a cistern for cattle

There are over a million acres of wetlands in the Sandhills and many lakes. This is due to the presence of the vast Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest underground water sources in the world.

Some cows didn’t seem to want to let us pass

We camped at a wildlife management area (allowed throughout Nebraska) with thousands of swallows (barn swallows?) settling at sunset into the extensive marsh grasses across the adjacent lake.

The next morning we had to hit the road as it was a long drive to our next camp in Missouri. But, we also wanted to check out some prairie preserves, so we made slight detours to visit some remnant prairies, including one that apparently has never been plowed. At the Gjerloff Prairie, we hiked a short distance, once again admiring the great diversity of native wildflowers and grasses that define these habitats.

Future headquarters of the Prairie Plains Resource Institute at the Gjerloff Prairie in Nebraska

Our final stop had us once again pulling into the small campground at Brickyard Hill Conservation Area in the loess hills along the Missouri River (we camped here on our way out). Once again, we had the place almost to ourselves (only one other camper). The small prairie hill was swarming with over a hundred dragonflies ( mostly Green Darners, I think). After this, only one more night on the road…

Back at the small prairie at Brickyard Hill in Missouri