Getting Back To It

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

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

Black Bear Festival

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

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

Black Bear tracks

Fresh bear  and deer tracks

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

Black-bellied whistling duck

Black-bellied whistling duck

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

Dugoutr canoe in museum

Dugout canoe in the Roanoke River Maritime Museum in Plymouth

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

Exhibit sign about dugout canoes

A blast from the past

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

Southern toad calling

Southern toad calling

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

Black bear standing in field

Black bear – “outstanding” in his field

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

Black bear in wheat field

Bear surrounded by delicious wheat, the breakfast of champions

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

Young black bear crossing road

Young bear walking near our group

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

Young black bear crossing road 2

Another young bear on the other side of our group

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

Black bear comes up next to group

This one popped up right next to us

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

Black bear entering canal

The wheat field bear entering the canal

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

Black bear starts across canal 1

Why swim when you can walk across?

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

Black bear walking across canal

Keeping those front paws dry

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

Swamp Break

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

~Bob Marshall

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

Melissa in canoe

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

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

Swamp along te Roanoke River

Spring is just beginning to show in the swamp

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

bald cypress leaf out

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

red maple color

Splashes of color from red maples

red maple seeds 1

Red maple seeds are firetruck red

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

Barred owl

Barred owls were numerous along our paddle

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

Fragile forktail

Fragile forktail damselfly

beaver lodge along Devil's Gut

A huge beaver lodge along Devil’s Gut

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

river herring and swamp scene

Our highlight was what was under the water’s surface

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

Nearing the platform

A gnarled cypress trunk greets us as we near the platform

Barred owl roost platform

Home sweet home, Barred Owl Roost camping platform

view from platform barred owl roost

View from the platform

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

barred owl carcass tied in fishing line

The tragedy of discarded fishing line

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

Huge Bald cypress along Gardner Creek

Swamp sentinel

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

Bird list:

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

Grubosaurus

The Eastern Hercules has a wing span up to half a foot, the armor of a knight, and the spots of a leopard.

~Orin McMonigle

I guess I should be honored that the front desk volunteer thought of me first. One day a little over a week ago, I got a call saying a woman was at the front desk with something she thought the Garden might want. She had a tree company take down a large tree in her front yard and the workers had discovered some Eastern Hercules beetle (Dynastes tityus) grubs in the rotten core of the tree. They had taken most of the grubs but she later discovered some still living in the rotten stump. So, she brought them to the place she knew cares for all things natural, and asked if anyone might want to keep them. Somehow, my name came up….go figure.

Eastern hercules beetle grubs

Eastern Hercules beetle grubs (click photos to enlarge)

When I went downstairs, the lady pulled out a flower pot filled with rotting wood from the stump and shook it around to reveal two huge grubs.

Eastern hercules beetle grub

They resemble the large grubs you frequently find under logs, only much larger!

These grubs are as thick as my thumb and as long as my index finger. They resemble the large, curled beetle larvae I often find under logs, but these are much larger. The only other grubs I have seen that were this large were in the Amazon. Years ago, on a museum educator workshop, we were walking in the jungle along the river. One of our participants was a teacher from a local village. The group stopped next to a fallen tree to look at some birds in the canopy above. I noticed the local teacher leaning over the fallen tree trunk, listening. He then became very excited, ran back to his village and returned with a machete. He began to chop into the log, pausing, and listening, then chopping some more. He soon exposed a group of huge beetle grubs. He had heard them chewing inside the log and wanted to get them out as they are a prized food in that region. After explaining what they were, he proudly presented one grub to the three group leaders for us to take the first bites. Being the youngest of the three, I managed to get the back end of the larva. I can’t say I really recommend them raw (or maybe it was just the choice of my cut). On his recommendation, we took the remaining grubs back to the lodge as a side dish for dinner that night. The roasted grubs were much more palatable, with a somewhat nutty flavor.

Eastern hercules beetle grub in hand

And to think, I ate something like this once

But not to worry, I have no intention of chowing down on these grubs. My interest is purely scientific. After bringing these not-so-wee-beasties home, I started searching the web for information on how to keep them. As is often the case these days when I search for what seems like an obscure topic, I found a wealth of information, including a link to purchase a guide to rearing Eastern Hercules beetles. Well, naturally, I had to have it.

Raising Hercules Beetles guide

You never know what you will find on our bookshelf

The booklet arrived a few days later and has everything you need to know about breeding and raising these beautiful insects. Apparently, it has become a thing to raise these behemoths (or their close relatives) as pets, especially in Japan, where they are sold in many pet stores. I learned I may have my pets for awhile, as they remain larvae for 12-18 months! Based on the information in the book, I now have them in a large flower pot with some potting soil and rotten wood. The grubs feed on the decomposing wood and associated microbiota. The substrate needs to stay moist (not wet) and I will need to replenish the rotten wood from time to time and maybe enrich the substrate with some rotting fruit or dry dog food on occasion. After pupating, the adult beetles will emerge and can live for 6-12 months.

Eastern hercules beetles adults specimens

Female (left) and male (right) Eastern Hercules beetle specimens from our collection at work

I have seen the adult beetles come to lights and have found a few dead ones over the years, but had never seen the grubs until now.

Eastern hercules beetles adult male specimen

Male Eastern Hercules beetles are adorned with prominent horns

The adult males are among the largest and heaviest beetles in the United States. The horns are harmless to humans and are used for battling between rival male beetles. The spot pattern is distinctive for individual beetles. Adult beetles feed on rotting fruit and tree sap. The large horn on top has a lining of stiff  “hairs” underneath. I tried to find a purpose for this distinctive trait, but, as yet, have not found any information on it. If anyone reading this knows, please drop me a note.

Here’s hoping I can successfully raise these larvae to adulthood. In the dedication to his book on rearing these beetles, the author thanked his wife for tolerating the beetles flying around the living room. Melissa and I are both looking forward to seeing and hearing that in a few months. Stay tuned…

Tribute

Wow, what a planet!

~Mary Ann Brittain, May 20, 1942 – March 17, 2019

I’m going to post something a little different this morning. A brief tribute to my dear friend and mentor, Mary Ann Brittain. We attended her memorial yesterday at her beloved Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. It was a beautiful, hopeful, memorial to one of the most amazing people I have ever known. She was full of grace, kindness, laughter, and had an endless curiosity about the natural world (and all another aspects of the world we live in). In looking for some images to include, I sadly realized that most are in the files of the museum as digitized slides from my early years at that amazing institution. So, I’ll just share a couple I still have (those who know me, know I have few people pictures among my thousands of images, and this is one of those times I regret that). And I will only share a tiny bit of Mary Ann’s impact on me this morning (to tell it all, would require a book, a book that is still being written).

I met Mary Ann while I was working as a naturalist/educator for NC State Parks. Back then, we were sometimes stationed at popular parks far from our usual station on busy holidays to serve as roving interpreters or to provide programs to visitors. I was at Mount Mitchell State Park one Fourth of July when this woman approached me and asked about the skeletons of fir trees scattered across the mountain. Scientists were discussing the impacts of acid deposition on high elevation forests in the southeast at that time and the impacts of the introduced Balsam Woolly Adelgid as a factor in the die-offs of Fraser Firs. But, many visitors assumed there had been a fire. After discussing this with Mary Ann, she emphatically said we should be interpreting the science to the public to make them more aware of the issues. What could I say? I had to agree. So, we discussed it back in Raleigh and over the next several months a display was developed and installed on Mount Mitchell about “What’s Killing the Trees?”.

privy-front

My career with Mary Ann began with a call about this…

I don’t remember the exact timeline, but some months after that, I got a call from Mary Ann. We chatted for a moment about our meeting at Mount Mitchell, and then she got to the reason for her call. She had a farm in Franklin County with a small cottage on it as a weekend retreat, and she needed to build an outhouse up there. She had pondered who might have plans for an outhouse. State Parks has outhouses, she thought. Who did she know in state parks? That guy she met at Mount Mitchell (me). During the conversation, she mentioned the potential for hiring an education position at the museum. Thus began my 24 years in the best job that state government has to offer (and she got her plans for an outhouse).

I put this in her tribute only because Mary Ann loved to laugh, and helped everyone around her to find the humor in our daily lives. Her friends and family shared many stories yesterday about the crazy shenanigans that Mary Ann got us all involved in over the years.

MAB

“Laugh often”, a life lesson she shared

She was a woman of vision (my nickname for her was “The Force”) and worked tirelessly to make good ideas into reality. Her background in social work helped shape her amazing abilities at bringing groups of people together for a common purpose, be it reaching across social barriers, or helping you get outside of your comfort zone to see the world with a new set of eyes. All of her former museum co-workers smiled as we entered the church yesterday and saw a flip chart with instructions to make a name tag for the service. As our friend, Liz, mentioned in her tribute to Mary Ann yesterday, if only the pews could have been arranged in a circle…the classic arrangement for seating a group of people and classic Mary Ann.

UTOTES school

Habitat components at a UTOTES school

When I started at the museum, I went with Mary Ann all over the state for 3-hour workshops that took teachers outside the classroom walls to get them excited about using plants and animals to teach all sorts of subjects. She lamented the fact that 3 hours just wasn’t enough time to make a real difference, so she came up with the idea for a program to provide teachers with workshops at their schools over the course of many months. After convincing some people in the state’s education department of the value of such a plan, the successful UTOTES (Using The Outdoors to Teach Experiential Science) program was born with a huge NSF grant. Thousands of teachers have now been through the program, helping to introduce tens of thousands of NC students to the wonders of nature with the simple idea of exploring and teaching outdoors. I like to think that it has helped shift the views of a lot of people for the need to learn about, care about, and help conserve the world we live in. The signs shown below went up at UTOTES schools after teachers took their students outdoors to learn about some common schoolyard critters we had shared in the workshops. To me, it is just one example of how powerful direct experience with nature can be. When observed closely, even the sometimes unloved wild creatures can be beautiful and fascinating, and those experiences can foster an understanding and appreciation for the entire natural world.

dirt dauber preserve

Perhaps the only mud dauber preserve in the state

spider sanctuary

This sign went up after sharing a math activity involving spritzing  (with water) the spider webs in the bushes around the school. The kids fell in love with the diversity of spiders they found.

Years before UTOTES, she had started taking educators to amazing natural areas from NC to Belize to get them turned on to the natural world. She believed that sometimes it requires taking people to far-away places to help them understand the beauty in their own backyards.

early Belize

Mary Ann, with the first museum educator group to go to Belize, 1987

The Educators of Excellence program has profoundly influenced hundreds of teachers across the state and still lives on at the Museum, over 30 years after it began.

ynp

Wolf-watching at sunrise, Yellowstone (another Educator of Excellence program that continues to influence teachers and their students)

Several years ago, after her husband, Bill, died, she decided to write some words for her own eventual obituary. Here is a selection of those powerful words shared at the service yesterday…

The purpose of life is not to be happy but to make a difference – to have it matter that you lived at all.

You only have to do your part to help with the overwhelming need and hurt on this planet; and you do not have to live wracked with guilt that you cannot do more.

Be full of gladness, and cherish your deep connection to all living things from bugs to bears.

Great words from a great person. As I reflected (something she always encouraged everyone to do) on what I learned from Mary Ann over the years, I realized how hard it is to pay tribute to someone that is larger than life. But, the Mary Ann I knew was always helping people see the world around them in new ways, turning them on to the mysteries and beauty of nature. That is how we first connected. I think back to one of my favorite snippets from a Mary Oliver poem. Mary Ann embodied the spirit of these words…

Instructions for Living a Life

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

And tell about it she did, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Thank you, Mary Ann, for helping me (and so many others) find ways to tell about it too, to follow our passion to share the wonders of nature with others, and for being such a tremendous role model and friend. And to all those who knew her, and will miss her, I truly believe she will continue to inspire and shape us. Remember, she never gives up on anything…

May “The Force” be with you.

Mary Ann on sunrise canoe trip on Turner River, FL

Mary Ann on a sunrise paddle on the Turner River, Florida

 

 

This Bud’s For You

There is April, in the swelling bud. There is Spring. There are the deep wonders of this season, not in the flower, but in the flower’s beginnings….the bud itself is the major miracle.

~Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

One of my favorite plants to watch this time of year is the Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica. It is a common shrub in our woods, and one of the few things the deer don’t seem to bother. It is also our first shrub to leaf out in Spring. We walked the property this weekend, looking for signs of Spring and possible nest cavity trees. Along the way, I stopped to admire and document the various stages of buckeye buds. There is so much life and hope contained in a single bud. I think Spring is finally here…

Painted buckeye bud unopened

Painted buckeye bud, swollen, but unopened (click photos to enlarge)

Painted buckeye bud just opening

A bud that has split open

painted-buckeye-bud-with-flower-stalk.jpg

The twisted emerging leaves surround a developing flower stalk

Painted buckeye bud after opening

Bud scales peeling back and textured leaves emerging

painted-buckeye-bud-opening-wider.jpg

Leaves beginning to unfurl

Painted buckeye with flower stalk

A flower cluster with a swirl of leaves around it

Painted buckeye leaves showing

The palmate leaves eventually spread out and continue to enlarge

 

Anticipation

The sun’s summons will not be answered overnight, but the answer is inevitable. The first hungry bee at the first crocus hums of June, and the first green leaf forecast cool summer shade. All is in order. Spring is the earth’s commitment to the year.

~Hal Borland

I have been extra busy this year at work and have not had much chance to get out and take pictures (plus the rainy weather has not been too conducive to such ventures). Today was glorious in its sunshine, though the ground still squishes as I walked the yard. But I saw signs of spring everywhere. I was at work for awhile this morning, prepping for a program tomorrow on vernal pools. In a quick walk to check on the nesting red-shouldered hawks, I also found a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest cavity (after a tip from a volunteer). Spring ephemerals have been blooming for a week or so at the Garden (trout lily, hepatica, windflower, some bloodroot). At home, on our north-facing slope, there hasn’t been much action as yet. But today showed me that spring is just around the corner…

Spotted salamander egg masses in water garden

Spotted salamander egg masses in one of our water gardens (click photos to enlarge)

I saw several spotted salamander egg masses one morning a few weeks ago following a couple of nights of particularly heavy downpours. And again, this past week, new egg masses appeared. When I reached down into the water at one of our water gardens, I could feel an almost solid blob of egg jelly reaching several inches below the water. At least something has liked all this rain!

Redbud buds

Redbud buds about to open

I carefully picked my way through the muddy mess that is our yard and found several species of plants ready to explode.

Wild columbine buds

Wild columbines have flower stalks with enlarged buds

Trout lily buds

Trout lilies will soon be blooming

Spicebush flowers opening

Spicebush has just started to bloom

Spring beauty

A single spring beauty is blooming

After a walk around the house, I sat and watched and listened for a few minutes. A male bluebird was serenading nearby and I caught a glimpse of a chickadee checking out one of the nest boxes. I remembered hearing spring peepers in last night’s rain. Melissa found a spotted salamander crossing the road toward a vernal pool last night as she was coming home. It seems as though everything is alive with anticipation for the season. I decided to check the weather for the next couple of days…more rain is forecast for tomorrow, and then a significant drop in temperatures. So much for anticipation. I think I’ll split some firewood.

Wild Places

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

~Richard Dawkins

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

Snow geese in field in morning light

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

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

snow geese blasting off

A blast off close to the road

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

bald eagle flying through snow geese

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

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

snow goose in flight

The light was perfect for photos

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

Snow geese (dark morphs) landing 1

Blue phase snow geese coming in for a landing

Northern shoveler drake

Northern shoveler ducks were abundant in the marsh impoundment

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

northern shoveler pair feeding

Pairs of northern shovelers were feeding together in tight circles

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

Ruddy duck in canal

A ruddy duck in a canal next to the road

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

Trumpeter swan?

Swan at Mattamuskeet – Trumpeter or Tundra?

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

yellow-rumped warbler

What are you staring at?

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

Sandhill cranes in cornfield

Back at Pungo, the wintering sandhill cranes

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

Sandhill cranes, swans, and rwb in cornfield

Cranes sharing the field with swans and red-winged blackbirds

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

snow geese descending into field

Snow geese beginning their descent

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

snow geese landing

Landing in a swirl of wings

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

snow goose blast off

Late day blast-off of snow geese

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

Endings

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

Yellowstone (a poem by Melissa Dowland)

            I want so much

To connect ever deeper

            With this place;

            Idolized,

                        But perhaps rightly so.

            I want to feel

Home

            To become part

            Of all that I see

                        And hope

            That this special place

            Embodies

                        And is.

Is it home? Not home maybe.

            I want to become the

                        Person who’s home this is.

Who knows intimately

            Who connects deeply

Who embodies the wild freedom

Who glories in the spectacular

            And the common

Who loves deeply

            (who never dulls)

                        who lives courageously

                                    who embraces wonder

and who teaches others

            as this place itself teaches,

to connect

            to glory

                        to live

in that same way:

something larger than oneself

something as big as the whole world.

People on boardwalk

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

Ice-covered trees at Grand Prismatic 2

Icy trees at Grand Prismatic

Dead trees at Upper Geyser Basin

Dead trees in the Upper Geyser Basin

Ephydrid flies and eggs

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

Bull moose in snow

Bull moose at Round Prairie

snowy cow elk

Elk cow near the North entrance

snowy bison 1

Snowy bison face

Baby bison - late calf

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

Lamar hills

Snowy hills in Lamar Valley

Rocky moutain bighorn ram at confluence

Bighorn ram near the Confluence

coyote that was chased by ranger

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

Elk resting in snow - cow and bull

Elk resting in a snow storm

Mule deer buck

Mule deer buck

Golden eagle

Golden eagle

Almost mature bald eagloe

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

Hayden Valley Highlight

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

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

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

Red fox in Hayden Valley

Red fox in Hayden Valley (click photos to enlarge)

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

Red fox sitting

The fox sat for a few minutes, surveying the scene

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

Red fox looking back

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

Red fox in deep snow

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

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

Red fox walking on snow

The fox continued walking, stopping occasionally to sniff and listen

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

Red fox sticking snout in snow close up

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

Red fox sitting in snow

Finding nothing, the fox sat back and looked around

red fox strolling through snow as it leaves us

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

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

 

Into the Interior – Day 1

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

~Anamika Mishra

A trip into the interior of Yellowstone in winter is truly magical. Most of the extensive road system is closed in winter to all but over-snow travel via snowmobiles or snow coaches. We had chartered a snow coach for our group so we could travel in comfort and have more control of our route and stops. We set off early in the morning with a first stop at Swan Lake Flats, a vast, flat expanse surrounded by high peaks.

Sunrise at Swan Lake FDlats

Sunrise at Swan Lake Flats (click photos to enlarge)

Cold temperatures and our first full sun morning made for beautiful conditions, including sun dogs at sunrise.

Mountains at Swan Lake

Snowy mountains surrounding Swan Lake Flats

Ice crystals on grass

Ice-encrusted grasses greeted us on our first stop

Moon setting at Swan Lake Flats

Full moon setting at sunrise

Driving toward Canyon, you soon realize the interior of the park receives much more snowfall than much of the northern range. There are meadows covered by an untouched blanket of deep snow with only hints of what lies beneath – a sinuous line shows a creek channel and tips of tree branches reveal a partially buried conifer.

Meadow and creek near Canyon

A carpet of deep snow lies throughout the interior

When we drove into the parking lot at Artist Point at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the main reasons for my love of winter in Yellowstone became obvious – there was no one else there. In summer, this lot would be at capacity with hundreds of visitors crowding the trail and summit of the overlook. Today, our own private viewing of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the geological wonders that helped convince Congress to set this area aside as the world’s first national park.

Lower Falls and ice mountain

Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (308 ft)

If you take a closer look at Lower Falls in winter, you notice a huge dome-shaped mound in front of the falls. This is “ice mountain”, a large pile of frozen mist, water, and snow that accumulates every winter at the base of the falls, sometimes reaching heights of well over a hundred feet. One source I read said that it tends to vanish quickly in the spring, often collapsing on itself in just a few hours as temperatures warm.

Rolling hillside of untouched snow

Undisturbed snow field at Canyon

Tree top sticking out of snow at Canyon

Backlit conifer peeking above snow

Yellowstone River at Chittenden Bridge

Yellowstone River viewed from the Chittenden Memorial Bridge

Heading out of the Canyon area, we stopped and walked out onto the Chittenden Memorial Bridge that crosses the Yellowstone River just above the Upper Falls. In summer, this is a tranquil-looking area, with small rapids giving just a hint of the watery chaos that occurs just downstream as the river thunders over 100 feet at the Upper Falls and plunges another 308 feet at the Lower Falls. In winter, it is a great place to see signs of river otter hunting the open waters. The trails in the snow along the water’s edge you can see in the photo above were made by otter.

Trumpeter swans on ice

Trumpeter swans relaxing on the ice

Just upstream, we encountered our first trumpeter swans of the trip, a pair resting quietly on the edge of the ice.

Trumpeter swan in river

Trumpeter swan in the Yellowstone River

They were soon joined by another pair that flew in and landed near them, but that stayed out in the open water of the river. Trumpeters gather in the park in winter to take advantage of the many waterways kept open by thermal activity.

Tree in Hayden Valley

The majesty of Hayden Valley in winter

The trip down through Hayden Valley is always my favorite part of a winter journey and I was so glad that it had turned out to be a clear day for it. Massive snow-covered hills, many devoid of any visible vegetation, give a seemingly horizon-less world view. Here and there, isolated trees give perspective and some scale to the immensity of this windswept terrain.

Steam and ice at Mud Volcano

Frozen steam coats the trees at Mud Volcano

Mud Volcano provides a hint of things to come with our first major thermal features along the route. Cold temperatures enhance the steam production and nearby trees are coated with thick cushions of ice. Wildlife often congregate in these thermal areas to avoid the bitter cold and deep snow elsewhere.

Coyote at Mud Volcano

A coyote warily eyes our group

Ice crystals in parking lot

Ice crystals at thermal spots in the parking lot

West Thumb pool

Hot spring at West Thumb Geyser Basin

By the time we reached West Thumb Geyser Basin, a thick cloud cover had helped create a world of stark contrasts of black and white with occasional tinges of thermally induced color. I wish it wasn’t so expensive to charter a snow coach, as this trip is something more people need to experience. Being surrounded by a seemingly endless landscape of cold and ice, punctuated by otherworldly thermal activity, and having the opportunity to observe how wildlife adapts and survives in such a hostile place, gives one pause to consider the meaning of wildness, of beauty, and of life itself.

West Thumb trees

Overcast skies help paint this frigid world in tones of black and white