Feeling Alive

Go where you feel most alive.

~Author unknown

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

Swans on ice

Tundra swans on ice (click photos to enlarge)

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

sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes on the refuge!

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

Black-crowned night heron shimmy

Night heron shimmy

Black-crowned night heron shimmy 1

Shaking it

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

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

Eastern screech owl out on branch

Eastern screech owl out on a limb

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

Screech owl in wood duck box close up

Gray morph Eastern screech owl from 2016

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

Eastern Screech owl

That look that only a screech owl can give

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

Black bear standing

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

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

Snow geese swirling above the field at sunset

Snow geese swirling over the corn at sunset

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

Buddy Bear

I just want to cross at my usual spot

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

More snow geese arriving

Huge flock of snow geese flying into the field

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

Great horned owl at sunset

A great horned owl at sunset

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

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

Birds (61 species):

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

Mammals (7 species):

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

Winter in the Woods

There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.

~William Sharp

Road out front

Our road during the snow on Wednesday (click photos to enlarge)

The quiet beauty of a winter snow storm…this is one of the true blessings of living in the woods (and of loving cold weather, since you don’t mind getting out in it…in fact, you can’t wait!).

Under the branches close view

The view from beneath a snow-covered branch

I love the winter quiet of a snow storm…and the simple beauty it imparts on everything it touches. The patterns of branches, the trails of woodland creatures, the shapes of trees covered in white…all mesmerizing, magical. This snow lasted all day. Toward the end of the storm we went for a walk in the gray stillness of our woods, and felt lucky to live in such surroundings.

The house in snow

The house the morning after the storm

A brilliant blue sky greeted us the next morning, with a chilly 14 degrees on the thermometer. A walk in the woods seemed the thing to do (after filling the bird feeders, of course).

Road with diamond dust

The road out front with the air glistening with falling ice crystals

What had been a gray sky and a black and white landscape of patterns and shapes was now a glistening white, with the air full of tiny diamonds every time a breeze shook the snow-covered branches.

View through the woods to house

A view of the house through our woods

We walked the property boundary, taking in the scenes of a forest transformed by a sculptor working with powdery white clay.

Wind dust

Snow falling from limbs


Snow burst

The wind started blowing and the tree branches began to shake their white blankets, releasing a snow burst of crystals that sparkled as they fell.

Beech strains

A beech hunched over with its burden of snow

Our woods

Melissa walking through the winter wonderland

We ended the day with a perhaps too late attempt at sledding the big hill just down the road. The sun was already melting the lone tire track down to gravel, making for a few scrapes down the hill. Not as fast as previous snows, but still not bad.

Snow bear

Snow bear

This morning we went out and decided to make some wildlife in the yard. If only we had the time and could get to Pungo and see some real snow bears!

Crow pattern in snow

Snow crow in black and white

The real wildlife, especially the birds, have been very active since the storm. A group of American crows stopped by this morning, no doubt looking for some of the scattered seed. They are wary, so when I walked by the window they all took off, including the one that was brave enough to land in the yard. We checked out the track trail and tried to decipher what had happened. Look at it and decide for yourself before reading further to see if you agree with our conclusion.

I think the crow landed on the left side of the image, leaving a deep imprint of its body when it hit the snow (and a wing tip print on the far left). It then hopped up and turned to the right, leaving some wing tips seen at the top of the image. It took off from a position facing the right edge of the image, leaving two deep footprints and a sweep of its wings on both sides as it leapt off the snow. Let me know if you conclude something else.




Heron Dreams

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

~Henry David Thoreau

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

Great blue heron

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

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

Great blue heron strikes

The heron strikes

There was something else on the island of grass…

The prize

The prize revealed

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

A beakfull

A lot to get your beak around

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

Getting a drink

The heron took frequent sips of water

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

Stabbing the fish

A few sharp jabs with the beak eventually subdued the mullet

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

How do I get this thing off

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

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

Displacement behavior?

Displacement behavior?

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

Almost there

A lot to lift

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

eye to eye

Eye to eye

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

maybe if I wet it

Maybe if I get it wet…

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

almost lost it

Almost lost it

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

stand off

Pondering your dreams

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

a quick snack

Settling for less, or just grabbing a quick snack?

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

Really really big

Dream big

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

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

~Walt Disney


It’s Nasty Out There

The simplicity of winter has a deep moral. The return of nature, after such a career of splendor and prodigality, to habits so simple and austere, is not lost either upon the head or the heart. It is the philosopher coming back from the banquet and the wine to a cup of water and a crust of bread.

~John Burroughs, 1866

After a strange couple of days of unseasonably warm temperatures, winter has returned. A reminder that I am one of those odd folk that enjoys cold weather. In fact, the colder the temperatures, the better. I remember fondly the coldest day I ever experienced – a frigid -33 degrees Fahrenheit morning in my favorite place, Yellowstone. But it was spectacular! The air was clear and crisp, no wind, and the world was twinkling with tiny crystals of ice, called diamond dust, suspended in the air. Magical, indeed. Back here in the Piedmont of North Carolina, we have had some unusually cold temperatures this winter, dipping down to 9 degrees a week or so ago, and supposedly headed that way again this week. It makes for very active bird feeding stations, brisk walks under clear blue skies, and a better-than-usual seat bu a roaring fire as you read a good book. It has also has an interesting impact on one of my favorite plants – rhododendron.

Rhododendron leaves at 32 degrees

Rhododendron leaves at 32 degrees (click photos to enlarge)

It turns out that rhododendron leaves can be used as a biological thermometer. This is a phenomenon that is well-known, though the cause is not so well understood. I have made a resolution to get outside at least once a day at work, an easy thing to convince myself to do since I work in such a beautiful setting. Our mountain habitat has several large rhododendron shrubs and I noticed the leaves had started to droop as the weather got colder. I remember seeing them tightly curled in the true mountains on a few freezing occasions, so, with the predicted cold spell last week, I decided to photograph the tip of a single rhododendron branch at different temperatures. The first photo shows the branch at 32 degrees, the temperature at which the leaves are known to start to droop.

Rhododendron leaves curled at 26 degrees 1

Rhododendron leaves at 26 degrees

As it got colder, the leaves drooped even more, and began to curl.

Rhododendron leaves at 15 degrees

Rhododendron leaves at 15 degrees

On the coldest morning we had recently, the leaves were tightly curled, resembling green cigars. This curling is called thermonasty. That’s right, thermonasty. This odd-sounding name comes from the two root words- thermo (temperature), and nastic, which are non-directional plant movements that occur in response to environmental stimuli, in this case, temperature. The nastic movements of rhododendron leaves follow a fairly predictable pattern – when temperatures fall below freezing, the leaves start to droop but remain flat. At 25 degrees F the leaves start to curl and by 20 degrees F they are as tightly curled as they can get. Many people believe the curling is to protect the leaves from desiccation by shielding the stomata (the openings in the bottom of the leaf which allow the leaf to “breathe” or transpire). But recent research shows that the stomata are already closed when it is cold, and one researcher suggests a different theory for the change in leaf position.

According to Dr. Erik Nilsen (Why Do Rhododendron Leaves Curl?), the stomata are always closed in cold weather — they have nothing to do with drooping or curling of the leaf. The drooping is more likely a way to protect from the thawing that can occur on a sunny winter day. When the leaf is held in its normal flat and horizontal position, it will absorb sunlight and heat up and thaw, then could refreeze at night. Experiments have shown that flat leaves thaw faster than curled leaves. This is because a curled leaf exposes far less surface area to the sun than does a flat one. By thawing more slowly, cured leaves are better able to avoid the damaging effects of daily freeze-thaw cycles which can rupture cell membranes and eventually kill the leaf. By drooping and curling the leaf may be protecting itself from too much sun — opposite of what you might think it would try to do.

Rhododendron leaves at 58 degrees

Rhododendron leaves at 58 degrees following the cold spell

My observations last week agree with the overall temperature response of these evergreen leaves. The thing I don’t yet have a good feel for is how quickly these changes occur. I need to watch the leaves this coming week to see how rapidly the rhodo-thermometer can track temperature changes. Always something to ponder and discover at the Garden.

Haw-inspiring Hike

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

― Alec Wilkinson

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

Mystery trails on ice

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

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

Beaver trail through ice

An open channel helped solve the mystery

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

beaver chew marks

Beaver teeth marks on a sycamore log

beaver chew

There is abundant beaver sign all along the trail

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

river rock surrounded by ice

An exposed rock in a sea of ice

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


crystals in ice

Needles of ice in a patch along the shoreline

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

beech leaf on ice

Beech leaf frozen in the surface of thick ice

ice shelf

A small ice shelf next to a riffle area

ice shelf 1

Ice lace edging along the rocky shore next to flowing water

ice waves

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

Frozen haw

The mix of ice and open water along the river

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


Cold Snap

Winter’s barren landscapes chide us to give our attention to the splendor of things nearby.  When the air is thick and the sky overcast, we need not travel so far to have high expectations, for in her nakedness she teaches us to be less distracted but instead to be more connected, more aware.

~Henry David Thoreau

Here in the Piedmont, we are accustomed to having our hopes for snow dashed at the last minute. Places an hour away usually get the white stuff and we get nothing, or just a couple of flakes. Last week was different. They had predicted a trace for our area, but we managed a full 2.5 inches! Not huge by any stretch, but this snow is “real snow” – dry powdery snow that you can sweep off the walkway instead of shovel. And it has been so cold (temperatures at night in the lower teens) that it is still white, a full four days after the snowfall. Unlike most of the people I know, I like cold weather. It is physically invigorating, gives more reason to chop wood for the fireplace, and, on a sunny day, brings a crispness to your surroundings that help you see and appreciate details in the landscape. I notice this about winter skies, and a winter walk in the woods is no different. Here are a few of those details from a hike in the neighborhood this week.

Leaves frozen in creek

Leaves frozen in creek water (click photos to enlarge)

I am fascinated by ice. We walked down to the neighborhood pond to check for ice, following the path of an intermittent stream that runs behind our house. Close to the pond, the creek has permanent water, and we had to look closely to see these leaves were actually suspended in extremely clear ice.

Hoar frost in mud

Needle ice along the muddy shore of the neighborhood pond

Walking along the creek bank at the pond was a noisy stroll, the soil crunching with every step.

Hoar frost columns on chunk of mud that dislodged while walking

Holding a chunk of needle ice in my gloved hand

I turned to look at a duck out on the pond (which was still mostly ice-free that day) and saw my path littered with chunks of ice crystals. This distinctive columnar shape is called needle ice (also known as frost pillars or frost columns). This occurs in porous soils where the ground temperature is above freezing and the air temperature is below. Water from the soil is pulled upward by capillary action. The ice columns tend to push away the soil at the surface and can make for a very noisy walk, with each step throwing chunks of connected ice columns, some a few inches in length.

Sycamore bark - young treeWhite Sycamore bark - young tree

Peely Sycamore bark - young tree

The many faces of young American sycamore trees near the pond

Along the back edge of the pond you walk through a grove of young American sycamores. The variety of bark textures and colors is amazing. Another advantage to the winter woods, a new appreciation for bark.

Tulip poplar in front yard

The large tulip poplar in the front yard

Back on our property (about a mile from the community pond), I pause to admire the unusual bark of a huge tulip poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in the front yard. This, and a couple of other smaller tulip poplars nearby, have strange bumps and twists in the bark that are particularly noticeable in the golden glow of late afternoon light in winter. I have asked several people, but no one seems to know for sure what causes this.

Tulip poplar in front yard looking up trunk

The unusual bark of our tulip poplar

mouse tracks in snow

Mouse tracks in the snow…

Mouse hole in snow

…disappear into a hole

Of course, tracks in the snow are one of the perks of a winter walk and the property is covered with distinctive shapes and patterns of hopping songbirds, bounding squirrels, a lone coyote trail, small groups of deer, and, surprisingly, only one white-footed mouse. Maybe they are laying low in these cold temperatures. This one trail led across a path and disappeared into a tiny hole under the snow next to a tree trunk.

South ridge at sunset

Our far ridge glowing in the setting sun

With sunset approaching, we decided to walk the path we have through our 14+ acres. It was so quiet in the woods with the sun glowing on the far ridge line of our property.

Large white oak

The largest tree on our property, a huge white oak, lost a large limb this winter

The far property boundary is marked by a nearby giant – a huge white oak that is the largest tree on our land. I like to think it is 250+ years old based on its huge size compared to other trees I had to cut after storm damage. One of those had 126 growth rings, and it was nowhere near the diameter of this behemoth. A huge limb broke out this winter, providing a sheltered hollow that I hope one day will be taken up by one of the resident owls. I can’t help but think that I am not the only creature in these woods fascinated by this giant.

Snow face on tree hollow

One more night of frigid temperatures

While many of my friends look like this old tree hollow when temperatures drop, I find it exhilarating and definitely worth the chill to explore the nearby woods. I encourage you to bundle up, and do the same.

Puffed Up

Nature now, like an athlete, begins to strip herself in earnest for her contest with her great antagonist Winter. In the bare trees and twigs what a display of muscle.

~Henry David Thoreau, 1858

It is not so much muscle I saw the other day on a walk in the Garden, but rather puffiness. I took the camera with me when I went out to feed the birds at our bird blind, then sat for a few minutes to see who was hungry. Turns out, they all were, and soon I was surrounded by a mixed flock, many that looked a bit rounder and more puffed up than usual.

tufted titmouse

A tufted titmouse seems to be wondering when this cold spell will end (click photos to enlarge)

The tufted titmouse above is a prime example. That bird even threw in a somewhat stern countenance as if totally unhappy about the current situation of very cold temperatures. The puffed up appearance is actually one of the more efficient ways that our winter birds manage to survive the bitter cold. Air trapped between its feathers is heated up by a bird’s body. Puffing up (raising their feathers) traps as much air as possible in their feathers. More trapped air means more warmth, with some sources stating the heat retention can increase by as much as 30% when all puffed up.

northern cardinal male

Northern cardinal moving in to feed

And, as any backyard bird watcher knows, bird activity at feeders greatly increases in cold or stormy weather. This week is no exception with many species (including a few, like Eastern bluebirds, that aren’t usually present at our feeders) spending more time at the feeding stations at work. Frequent feeding helps birds maintain their fat reserves which provide insulation and store extra energy used to increase body heat when necessary.

Northern mockingbird with berries

Northern mockingbird surrounded by its winter food supply

On my way out, to the blind, I saw the resident northern mockingbird in the usual spot – a large deciduous holly in the display garden of our courtyard. That bird has stationed itself in one of the two berry-covered hollies most days for the past few months. This is a common strategy for this species – guard your winter food supply from all those upstart berry thieves like bluebirds, robins, and cedar waxwings. As you can see, the strategy seems to be working. Other hollies in the garden are mostly stripped of the berries now.

red-shouldered hawk immature

Juvenile red-shouldered hawk wondering where all the frogs went

Back in the office, I glanced out to see an immature red-shouldered hawk looking intently in the grasses below for any sign of something edible. Since this species prefers a diet of reptiles and amphibians, these cold weeks must be stressful, especially for young and inexperienced birds. I am keeping an eye in hopes of seeing what they might add to their diet when times are tough.

hawk standing on one leg

Standing on one leg is another strategy for staying warm

A closer look at our hawk shows another strategy used by birds to stay warm in winter – standing one leg with the other one tucked up under a blanket of feathers. They will often then switch to give the other leg a turn. In this case, the placement of the foot looked a bit odd at first and resembled a knot coming out of its belly.

wooden owl

The only bird at the Garden that doesn’t seem to mind the cold

There are a couple of other ways birds strive to stay warm – they shiver, although they typically don’t shake like we do. These muscle contractions help maintain their body temperature around 105 degrees (average for most songbirds). If all these adaptations are pushed to the limit on days like we have had lately, then surviving the cold, dark, nights of winter must be extra tough. That’s why many songbirds flock together after dark. Some, like chickadees and kinglets, crowd together in tight groups in protected areas like brush piles, evergreens, or even nest boxes, which helps them to conserve and share body heat.

We can help our feathered friends that don’t migrate to warmer climes by doing a few things in our landscapes:

  • Plant native plants that provide cover and food. North Carolina Audubon has some great suggestions here.
  • Don’t tidy your wildflower beds until later in winter or early spring, leaving seed heads and structure for food and cover.
  • Provide winter water in the form of moving water, a bird bath heater, or regular re-filling with warm water in freezing weather.

Next time you head outside with your puffed up winter jacket, think of how the birds are managing to survive, and how what we do in our yards and gardens can help.

The Bats of Bracken

…one of the most spectacular wildlife events that you can see anywhere…It’s the largest congregation of bats in the world, and they come out of this cave by the millions.

~Mylea Bayless, a senior director at Bat Conservation International

Here is another long overdue post from a wonderful trip to Austin, Texas, a few months ago. Melissa had a presentation at a national conference, and I was lucky enough to tag along on the front end. Our gracious hosts are long-time friends of her family, so we had a great tour of this beautiful city, its food, and nearby natural wonders. I have been lucky to see some incredible wildlife spectacles in my wanderings – the overwintering reserves of monarch butterflies in Mexico; thousands of reef fishes in all colors of the rainbow in the Virgin Islands; bison herds in Yellowstone; huge flocks of sandhill cranes and snow geese at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico; and fields full of black bears and tundra swans back home in North Carolina. On this trip, I added another, the bats of Bracken Cave.

Bracken Cave

The unassuming entrance to Bracken Cave (click photos to enlarge)

We had heard about the bats in Austin and at Bracken (closer to San Antonia) from our hosts’ son, Skip, a professional wildlife filmmaker, when he visited us last year. We joined Bat Conservation International (BCI) before our trip in order to qualify for an overnight camp-out near the cave. This allowed us to witness both the evening departure and early morning return of the millions of Mexican free-tailed bats that call the cave home for several months each year.  I wasn’t that thrilled with the idea of camping in Texas in early September, but we decided it would be worth it for this. And it turned out just fine, with mild temperatures, a wayward wild turkey that hung out with us, and a great group of fellow nature nerds with which to share a campfire.

Shortly after arriving, we walked down to the seating area near the cave for an introduction by one of the volunteers that help manage the site. Here are just a few of the amazing facts he shared about this incredible place:

  • There are an estimated 15-20+ million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) using the cave. Most of these bats spend the winter in Mexico (~1000 miles from this cave), where they mate before returning to Texas. Pregnant females form huge maternity colonies at places like Bracken Cave that have the right temperatures and humidity for raising their young (male bats form smaller colonies elsewhere).
  • Bracken Cave has one of the largest concentrations of mammals anywhere in the world.
  • The cave is a birthing place for millions of bat babies (called pups) every year with concentrations of up to 500 pups per sq. ft. hanging on the cave ceiling. Somehow, using a combination of sight and sound, mothers returning from a night of foraging manage to find and nurse their own pup amid this chaos. Pups are about 1/3 the weight of the mother (the equivalent of a human mother giving birth to a 40 lb. baby).
  • Each female bat gives birth to one pup per year with only about 50% of the pups surviving their first year. Once they reach adulthood, these bats may live up to 15+ years in the wild.
  • Mother bats must leave the cave each night to feed on night-flying insects to sustain themselves and their growing young.  They fly up to 60 miles away from the cave each night, consuming huge quantities of flying beetles, winged ants and moths. Scientists estimate the Bracken bats eat 140 tons of insects every night. The value of this to Central Texas is huge in that one study showed the bats save the just the region’s cotton growers an estimated $741,000 per year in pesticide costs and crop damage.

The viewing at Bracken is controlled by BCI and limited to small groups a few nights per week. They are doing a great job of ensuring the bats keep returning to Bracken Cave. The site and surrounding landscape has been threatened by developments but recent partnerships brokered by the Nature Conservancy between business, politicians, and conservationists, have set aside more land to provide a buffer for the bats.

As we sat and listened, we saw some of the many predators that stalk the bats as they exit – a skunk, two coachwhip snakes, a couple of hawks, all seeking an easy meal provided by a nightly cloud of bats, that now included the inexperienced young. The air was still and had a slight pungent aroma of bat guano, which was once harvested from this cave for fertilizer.

The show begins slowly, a few bats fluttering out of the dark hole. People start pointing and you can hear some excited chatter. In the clip above, the wind was blowing so there is a bit of sound distortion.

Bats blurred coming out of entrance 1

Bats emerging from the cave entrance

The sound of thousands of bat wings flapping is a bit like running water, and it fades and grows depending on where the swarm circles in relation to our viewing area.

Bat silhouettes above entrance 1

A cloud of bats in the sky above Bracken Cave

After circling the cave for a few minutes, the swarm begins to form, circling around higher until it trails off like a stream of smoke on the horizon.

Mexican free-tailed bats flying out of Bracke Cave

The exodus continued for a few hours

It became very quiet, except for the whir of wings, as we all sat there in awe at this spectacle, trying to comprehend the sheer numbers of animals emerging from the ground before us.

Bats in late sunlight

A bat storm

Bats blurred coming out of entrance

The beauty of bats in motion

Bat caught on cactus

The cacti surrounding the cave claimed a few bats

Snake at entrance

As so did a couple of snakes patrolling the entrance (one is in the lower right in photo above)

We began to look at other details in the scene as the seemingly endless stream of beating wings continued – a bat caught on a cactus spine; snakes grabbing bats that hit the ground near the entrance; a peregrine falcon and a Cooper’s hawk that each nabbed a bat mid-flight; missed attacks by a red-tailed hawk. It apparently isn’t easy being in such a dense crowd, especially if you are an inexperienced youngster.

Bats and people at Bracke Cave

People viewing the bats from above the cave entrance

Several people eventually walked the designated path to the other side of the cave entrance to experience that view, providing me with a unique perspective of two groups of mammals.

As darkness settled, the stream of winged creatures continued to emerge and fly off to hunt. I finally walked over to a point in the path where the exiting swarm was flying directly over my head.

Absolutely stunning! Be sure to turn your sound up for the roar of the wings and the clicking noises. And a reminder that this scene continued for a few hours! We finally retreated to our campsite and enjoyed some good conversation before retiring to our tent for the evening.

We were up early the next morning to witness a very different event – the return of the bats to the cave. By the time we arrived (at the first hint of light), the bats had already been returning for a couple of hours. There wasn’t a huge swarm like the mass departure of the night before, but rather a continuous stream of small groups of bats. They zigzagged down into the cave at rapid speed from high in the sky, perhaps to avoid predators. The sound of plummeting bats was like that when you rapidly swing a short section of rope above your head – whup, whup, whup. After a couple of hours, the numbers dwindled, and then finally stopped. We packed up and headed back to Austin to witness another bat spectacle.

Crowd in Austin watching bats

Crowds gather each evening in Austin to watch the bats

It turns out that among the many cool things about Austin (breakfast tacos, live music, art) it also is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America. About 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats call downtown’s Congress Avenue bridge home from mid-March to early November. It has become a nightly tourist attraction for hundreds of visitors.

Bats at bridge in Austin

Bats flying out from the Congress Ave. bridge with viewers lining the bridge and the surrounding shoreline

Bats have apparently lived in Austin for many years but did not start using the bridge in large numbers until some renovations in 1980 that created 16-inch deep crevices running the length of the underside of the bridge. Bats use the cracks that are 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches wide where temperature and humidity conditions are just right for raising their young.

Dense cloud of bats

A spectacle definitely worth experiencing

It was quite a contrast from the quiet and solemn feel of Bracken Cave (above), but it was very cool to see so many people congregate for a natural event. In fact, I can’t think of too many other places on the planet where this many people regularly gather to witness such a spectacle of wild creatures. Kudos to the people of Texas that have helped protect these amazing concentrations of mammals that allow us to experience such moments of awe in the natural world.








Long Distance Traveler

I liked the name, snow goose, and I liked the sight of them.

~Mary Burns, In The Private Eye: Observing Snow Geese

Here is a brief update on my post about this year’s Christmas Bird Count on the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge…as I mentioned yesterday, we spent some time observing a large flock of snow geese when they landed in one of the fields near the refuge entrance. I finally got out of the car, went around back, and stood out of the rain under the open hatch to scope the flock. I was looking for Ross’s geese, and for collared birds. As I scanned the far edge of the flock, I finally spotted a yellow neck collar on one snow goose. As is often the case, the bird was partially obscured by a layer of bobbing necks and heads of other birds, making it difficult to read the collar code. I managed to get T as the first letter, and then 08 as the last two digits. I finally had Melissa get out and take a look and she nailed it…TJ08. We recorded that to report when we got home. Yesterday morning, I submitted our observation online at the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory site for so-called auxiliary markers.

Collared Snow Goose 1

A collared snow goose from a previous winter shows how difficult it can be to read (click photos to enlarge)

Many researchers use markers that allow observers to identify an individual bird at a distance. The most common one for large waterfowl, like geese and swans, is a plastic neck collar. I have helped put this type of marker on tundra swans on many earlier visits to the Pungo Unit when the refuge was participating in migration studies of this species. That study was concluded many years ago, so it is now rare to find a collared swan, but I have observed and reported collared snow geese on several occasions over the past few years. I was surprised to receive an email last night with the certificate for our bird…

Snow goose TJ08 certificate

Certificate from the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory

This bird was banded by the same researcher that banded some of my previous records. The location is above the Arctic Circle in Canada, a distance of about 2600 miles from where TJ08 is spending this winter.

Snow goos TJ08 migration map 1

The migration distance of TJ08

Seeing this record of one bird’s remarkable journey reminds me of how much I have missed the huge flocks of snow geese the past couple of years. Their behavior has been less predictable, their numbers lower, but there are signs that this year may be a good one for observing snow geese at Pungo. There really is something magical about the huge flocks of noisy birds. Mary Burns puts it well in her book about snow geeseI was surprised, then stopped breathless for a moment, by the sudden rising of tens of thousands of snow geese at once, the airy tumult of the madly beating black-tipped wings, the high soprano bark of their calls. I described them to someone as poetic, the way they stretch out across the sky like the broken lines of verse. I thank TJ08 for helping make the winter wonderland of Pungo another memorable line of poetic verse.

Counting Our Blessings

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

~Walt Streightiff

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

Tundra swans in field

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

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

Tundra swans in field 1

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

Tundra swans in field crop

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

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

Snow geese landing on gray day

A large flock of snow geese landing to feed

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

Injured snow goose

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

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

Comparison of Ross' and Snow Goose in flight

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

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

Yellow-rumped warbler

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

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


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

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

Four bald eagles

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

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

Red wolf track in mud

Fresh red wolf tracks

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

Resting swans

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

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

Flying swans

Tundra swan flyover with sunset approaching

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

sunset at Pungo

A fiery end to a chilly day

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

half moom

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

2017 Christmas Bird Count results (Pungo Unit only)

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