I just take it one day at a time, and it always leads you to the right place.

~ Kyle Massey

My two recent trips to Pungo were two day trips, leaving home before dawn and leaving the refuge after sunset. While not the ideal way to do this, even a day trip ca yield some great wildlife moments. I shared some images and stories about the dominant winter birds (Tundra Swans and Snow Geese) in my last post. This one covers some of the other interesting wildlife I (we, on the second trip) encountered.

The first thing I saw was an adult Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree in someone’s yard on the way in to the refuge. The hawk seemed to be surveying the hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding in the corn field across the road. (click photos to enlarge)
A flooded portion of a cornfield across the canal on private land had this Greater Yellowlegs patrolling the shallows.
Just beyond the shorebird was an immature Bald Eagle out in the field. There may have been a small carcass of some sort as there were also a couple of crows just out of camera view.
Another car pulled up and the eagle took to the skies.
Farther down the road was an immature Red-shouldered Hawk surveying the roadside canal. They feed on amphibians, small reptiles, birds, and small mammals, as well as invertebrates like earthworms. Why is it the hawks that don’t fly away as I approach are always surrounded by a thousand sticks in the background (or right in front of their head)?
I watched this hawk for about 10 minutes before yet another car pulled in and it flew to a perch a little farther back from the road
A few deer were out grazing along some grassy roadways
February is the month when large flocks of blackbirds (mostly Red-winged Blackbirds) flood the fields with their undulating swarms and noisy antics. This field was near one with a few hundred Tundra Swans feeding on the waste corn (the swans can be seen in the background as a white line)
Zoom in to see the red epaulets of the male birds. Females are all brown (streaked). There are also several Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in with this flock (can you find any?)
Turtles were out basking in the sun in many of the canals. One log in a swamp forest along the road had this beautiful Spotted Turtle.
I stepped out of the car to receive a phone call (much to my surprise since most of the refuge has no cell phone service) and was surprised by a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds foraging in the swamp next to the road.

On my first trip, I saw 4 River Otter, a family grouping (I think) that I have seen on other trips to Pungo this winter. The next week we had a 9 otter day, with three groupings of 2, 3, and 4 otters seen at different times and locations. I didn’t try to get close to any but did get to spend quite a while watching a group of 4 where one had a very large fish that it didn’t want to share.

This otter was swimming with two others and decided to climb out on the back across the canal from where i was standing

–A group of River Otters on a canal bank, and one of them apparently doesn’t want to share any of its huge fish meal

A pair of otters came up out of the canal and started running down the road toward me. They eventually thought better of it and returned to the canal.

We stopped the car to look at an American Bittern, one of two we saw in Marsh A, when I heard squalls across the canal. It turned out to be the otters arguing over the large fish one had captured. For the next hour, we had this beautiful bird on one side of the road and the four otter on the other. Melissa stayed with the otter while I went back and forth trying to observe and photograph both wildlife events. There were a few other cars nearby but they were mainly concentrating on the thousands of swans in the shallow water of Marsh A just down the road.

An American Bittern slowly moves through the grasses looking for prey. I watched it catch three items but could never clearly see what it caught because it was behind a clump of grass each time.
When the bittern was among the grasses, it was very difficult to spot due to its streaked camouflage. Here it creeps across an opening and you can see that intense look they always seem to show.
Another bird that is a master of disguise is the Wilson’s Snipe. Their streaked plumage blends in perfectly with their primary habitat – edges of wet marshy areas or muddy fields of patchy grass. You can drive by and never see one, and then stop, look around, still nothing. But if you make a noise or get out of your car, they can explode into the air right in front of you and then zigzag to a landing spot only to vanish once more. This one has its back toward me.
I took dozens of photos of a group of snipe right next to the road and managed only two shots where they are out in the open enough to see the entire bird.
One of the snipe finally walked across a small area of open water and gave me a chance for a reflection photo

On one trip, I introduced myself to a woman I follow on social media that I recognized walking along the road. She is an excellent photographer and visits Pungo way more than I do. She was trying to get a photo of a screech owl she had found in a hollow next to the road. She was gracious enough to show me the tree, though the bird wasn’t visible at the time (she said it would slide down into the hole when a car drove by and it had been a very busy day on the refuge). I thanked her and checked on the tree later that day, but still no owl. On my second trip, I spotted the owl the first time I drove by, but the light was terrible. I decided to wait until late that afternoon when the low angle sunlight would flood into this group of trees.

Eastern Screech Owl (red color morph) resting in a hollow tree opening. There are a lot of branches in front of this tree, so it is difficult to find a spot for a clear view.

We were trying to not disturb the owl and be discreet in our attempts to get a photo so as to not attract a crowd that might disrupt the little guy’s napping. The owl didn’t seem to mind our vehicle slowly driving by and stopping for a few seconds, so we did a couple of back-and-forths, hoping to get a clear look. After admiring this beauty on several drive-bys, we decided to move on and let it rest comfortably. I wonder how many times I have driven by this bird (and others) without seeing it? I guess that is one reason to keep going back…there is always something new to observe, even if only on a day trip. Here’s looking forward to many more in the future.

Our final look at the resting owl as it was facing into the setting sun. The golden light actually makes it even more difficult to see this color owl since the surrounding trees all take on a reddish-golden hue in the low angle light. I have seen both red (generally called rufous) and gray color morphs on the refuge. No one is quite certain what advantage, if any, a bird derives from being one color or the other.

How Many Birds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitternsweet Memories

Life wants you to have gratitude for the gift of living.  Treasure every second.

~ Bryant McGill

The season is about over. It is hard to believe I just finished what is probably my last tour for this winter season at Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes. But, if it is to be the last, at least it was a spectacular one. I was with a wonderful couple from Raleigh that were excited to see everything and learn about the incredible diversity of wildlife in the area. And we got great looks at a lot of species, including a couple of rarities.

Ice on reeds at Lake Mattamuskeet

Ice on reeds at Lake Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

We moved up our scheduled time one day to Sunday morning, due to the predicted wintry weather moving into the state on Monday. To be honest, it was wintry already, with low temperatures in the  20’s when we arrived at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. And that means ice. It also means active birds, so we were in for a treat.

American bittern

American bittern in its usual spot

As has been the case most of the winter, there were few birds were along the causeway, probably due to the extremely high water making it too deep for effective feeding by most waterfowl. As we turned into the refuge, things picked up. Right away, I spotted the faithful American bittern hunting in its usual spot next to Wildlife Drive.

American bittern and reflection

Admiring his reflection?

With the high water, the bittern was a bit more exposed as it fed along the edge of the water. That gave us a chance to really admire this beauty.

American bittern feathers

The bittern’s streaked plumage helps it blend in with its surroundings

I put the scope on it to really be able to see the subtle colors, piercing eye, and greenish-yellow legs of this usually incredibly well-camouflaged marsh inhabitant.

blonde nutria

Blonde nutria

A little farther down the road we spied an unusual-looking mammal, a very light-colored nutria. A few other, darker nutria, had greeted us when we first arrived, looking somewhat stunned in the cold weather (these South American imports don’t seem to do well when ice appears). But this little blonde guy had been feeding on the bank in the sunlight, and seemed now to be waiting for us to move on so he could get back to his lunch break. This is the first nutria I have seen with this coat color.

coot on ice

American coot skating on the marsh

Flocks of American coot dotted the canal banks and patches of open water, while others skated on the skim of ice out in the impoundment. You can really appreciate their lobed toes when you see them up on ice.

common gallinule

Common gallinule

A common gallinule was mixed in with the coot near the observation platform. These relatives of rails look similar to coots (especially this juvenile) but can be distinguished by the white stripe along each side, their habit of flicking their tail, and the lack of lobes on their especially long toes. Known to breed in isolated locations in our state, the common gallinule is fairly rare in winter, and this is the first I have seen at Mattamuskeet this year.

Great egret with plumes 1

Great egret showing off its plumes

doe face

White-tailed deer were out browsing along the edge of the road

The high water had closed the far end of Wildlife Drive, but we got great views of a showy great egret and several deer before turning back.

New Holland Trail under water

New Holland Trail partially submerged due to high water

ice in swamp 1

Skim of ice in the swamp along New Holland Trail

We stopped for a short hike along New Holland Trail, one of my favorite spots at Mattamuskeet. Extremely high water and a skim of ice gave the swamp a very different look from my last visit a week ago. I love it when there is ice down here…a different world with new artistry everywhere you look.

tundra swan in impoundment

Tundra swan lounging in the impoundment

Driving along the back side of the impoundment we watched thousands of ducks lift off when an eagle flew overhead. Another American bittern was standing along the edge of the marsh, and swans, coot, and ducks were feeding in the shallows as the sun started to dip toward the horizon. Then my phone chirped that sound it makes when I get a text message. I glanced at it…a local number, but I didn’t know who…it read least bittern on entrance road!! Whoa, I said, let’s go….but there were cars in front of us, stopping to look at swans and ducks…we waited…another text…where are you? Our volunteers told me you were around. Now I knew, it was my friend, Keith, who works at the refuge. One of the volunteers from the office had apparently spotted the bird, told Keith, and then mentioned that I was at the refuge (we spoke at the visitor center earlier in the day). Keith knew I would be interested in this bird because we had talked about it when someone saw one a few weeks ago. So, thankfully, he texted me with this news while he was photographing it on the other side of Wildlife Drive. A least bittern is not something I see very often. In fact, I have only seen two in all my years of wildlife watching.

least bittern

Least bittern stands like a statue along the water’s edge

When we finally got over there, I saw Keith out with his camera. We got out, and there it was, in perfect light, standing right next to the road, motionless, like a piece of yard art. What a beautiful bird! I am guessing this is a male because of the dark head and back.

least bittern 1

Like their larger cousins, least bitterns have an intense, piercing gaze

Least bitterns are one of the smallest herons in the world, standing only a little over 12 inches tall when stretched out, much smaller than its bulky cousin, the American bittern. The least bittern is usually more difficult to see, because of its small size and its preference for thick vegetation. These diminutive herons often walk through thick marsh vegetation (like cattails), not by wading, but by grasping the grasses with their long toes and striding through the narrow openings between the upright blades, literally sneaking through the grass above the water. This little guy was not bothering with stilt-walking, but was instead on the ground next to some standing water.

least bittern with fish

It grabs a small killifish

Keith and I crawled around on the edge of the road trying to get a good angle for some photos, while the bittern stood still. It finally moved its head, then went into classic bittern feeding mode. Within a minute of staring at the water, and slowly stretching out and downward, it struck and grabbed a small fish, gulping it down with a quick snap of its beak.

least bittern and reflection 1

A fine way to wrap up a winter season

I would love it of this bird decides to stick around and nest somewhere in the vicinity. The young bitterns, like many young herons, are fine examples of punk feather-do birds, and I would enjoy a chance to photograph them. Odds are slim though, as they usually hide their nests fairly well in thick marsh vegetation.

The trip ended the next day with icy conditions, muddy roads at Pungo (including a large section closed due to flooding), and relatively few sightings at Pungo (although we did manage some species we did not see at Mattamuskeet –  wild turkeys, a snipe, two cooper’s hawks, a sharp-shinned hawk, and a great horned owl).

It has been another very good winter season. While I am sorry to see the swans and snow geese starting to depart, I have many memories to fall back on. And the shifting season means new life just around the corner…spring wildflowers, calling frogs, migrating warblers, and so much more. I can’t wait…and I will back to the wildlife refuges to see what they offer this spring and summer, so, if you are interested in a trip, just contact me.

Grass with Eyes

He prefers solitude, and leads the eccentric life of a recluse, “forgetting the world, and by the world forgot.” To see him at his ordinary occupation, one might fancy him shouldering some heavy responsibility, oppressed with a secret, or laboring in the solution of a problem of vital consequence. He stands motionless, with his head drawn in upon his shoulders, and half-closed eyes, in profound meditation, or steps about in a devious way,

~Elliott Coues, describing an American Bittern,1874

One of my highlights of any winter trip to Mattamuskeet NWR is the sighting of a most unusual denizen of the marsh, the American bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus. This is a bird ideally adapted to its surroundings.

American bittern 1

American bittern out in the open at Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

They can be fairly reliable at the refuge this time of year if you look long enough in the right places. This past trip we managed to see at least 5 individuals, including a couple that flushed from grasses along a canal at Pungo, where they are generally much harder to locate. They are easiest to see when they are feeding right along the edge of the marsh next to the road. I think most people are looking farther out at the numerous waterfowl in the impoundment, and manage to drive by the secretive bitterns without ever seeing one.

American bittern 3

Grass with eyes and a beak

I usually coach my participants to look for a clump of grass with eyes and a beak – that’s your bittern. On my last trip, while driving along the road that skirts the northwest shore of Lake Mattamuskeet, I spotted a dark shape in marsh grass next to the road. I shouted, “bittern”, to my group, brought the car to a stop, looked for traffic in my rear view mirror, and then backed up about fifty feet, hoping I was right. I pulled up next to the bird, and I noticed no one said anything, so I said, “right there, next to the car”. Indeed, it was a bittern, and not a bittern-shaped log. Everyone but me ( I was watching for cars) got some great shots, as the light was perfect, and the bittern assumed its upright posture that makes it blend so well with the surrounding grasses. Driving on, we found another near the refuge entrance kiosk. I saw in the wildlife observation notebook at the Visitor Center that someone had spotted the much less common least bittern in this same area the week before. We continued along Wildlife Drive and spotted another American bittern in thick grasses next to the road. This one allowed us to exit the vehicle and watch it for about thirty minutes, as it skulked along, appearing and disappearing among the waves of wind-flattened grasses.

American bittern 2

They stalk with a deliberate, creeping motion

They are very deliberate mash stalkers, slowly, yet smoothly, gliding through grasses looking for their favorite prey.

bittern eating killifish 2

A bittern gulps down a killifish snack

I have seen them eat a variety of food from small fish to tadpoles, large aquatic insects, and even a baby painted turtle.

American bittern

Finally out in the open

They can be a tough subject to photograph, as they usually are found in, or quickly retreat to, thick vegetation. A quick look at their feathers and you can see why – they blend very well with grass stalks in a marsh.

American bittern eyes 2

The bittern stare

When they think they have been discovered by a photographer (or potential predator), they often assume an upright stance, pointing their bill skyward. This behavior has given rise to a few of their other common names such as sky-gazer, look-up, and stake-bird. To complete the disguise, if a light breeze blows through the grasses, a bittern will gently sway back and forth, imitating the movement of its surroundings.

American Bittern calling

A male American bittern calling (photo taken in April, 2013)

A couple of years ago, I reported about finally hearing the strange mating call that has given this unusual bird a host of other odd-sounding names like thunder pumper, water-belcher, and stake-driver. The sound reminds me of the noise the bubbles make when someone draws a glass of water from from the office water cooler. This is accompanied by an impressive visual display that includes lots of head bobbing, neck puffing, and beak thrusting. All in all, the American bittern is a treat anytime you encounter one. Just keep looking at those marsh grasses until you see a clump staring back at you.




Trip Report Part 2: Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes

I just returned from the second recent guided trip to these incredible wildlife refuges. My client was particularly interested in bird photography, so that was high on the agenda. But he made a point of saying he was open to anything, since he was fully aware of the vagaries of wildlife photography – sometimes wildlife cooperates, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Due to heavy rains the previous day, I decided to visit Matamuskeet first to hopefully give the roads at Pungo a chance to dry out at least a little. We left Raleigh a little before 6 a.m. and arrived at Mattamuskeet by about 9:30.

Black-crowned Night Heron adult

Black-crowned Night Heron adult (click photos to enlarge)

Just inside the entrance to Wildlife Drive, we were greeted by a stunning Black-crowned Night Heron adult. I usually see more of the immature night herons here (brown colors with light speckles in their plumage), with just an occasional adult. The most reliable place to see them is in a grove of trees across the canal from the lodge, often partially obscured by branches. But this one was in a much better spot for photographs, and its scarlet red eye seemed to glow in the morning light. As I walked a few steps off the road for a clear photo, I accidentally flushed the first of several bitterns we would see.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron with one head feather amiss

The next open pool held the usual Great Blue Heron, along with a Great Egret. You can almost always count on one or both of these species in this spot.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing feeding on Privet berries

As we watched the herons, small flocks of Cedar Waxwings flitted by in their usual jerky flight pattern. Later in the day, we finally tracked some down as they swarmed the all-too-numerous fruit of the invasive Privet shrubs that line sections of the refuge’s roads. Always one of my favorite songbirds to observe, waxwings are often tough to photograph without a mishmash of twigs in the background.

American Bittern in the open

American Bittern

Another American Bittern soon revealed itself in a narrow strip of grasses along a canal and we used the car as a blind to photograph the bird for several minutes before it disappeared in a thick patch of vegetation. This year seems to be an especially good one for bitterns at Mattamuskeet.

Immature White Ibis

Immature White Ibis

It is so interesting what a difference a couple of days makes in what you see in a location. Last week there had been about 50 adult White Ibis along with one immature (distinguished by its brown coloration) feeding in an impoudment along Wildlife Drive. Things were different today and on our second pass through the area, we finally saw our one and only ibis of the day, an immature. It was vigorously probing the mud with its unusual bill. Looking more closely at a few images last night I could finally see that it was primarily eating worms.

Adult Bald Eagle 1

Adult Bald Eagle

We had seen several Bald Eagles at both Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet, but failed to get close enough for any nice images. At the end of Wildlife Drive we saw a flash of white through the trees, which turned out to be the head and tail of an adult Bald Eagle landing in a large pine alongside a side road. I was able to position the car so that my participant could get some good shots with his 600mm lens (yes, I did have lens envy the entire trip). The eagle was surprisingly cooperative, so I was able to back out, turn the car around, and back in along the road so I could get a few shots as well. The eagle was still perched, surveying the scene, when we decided to move on.

Moonrise at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

Moon above cypress island at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

As the light faded, we stopped at the observation platform along the road crossing the lake. I wanted to enjoy the scene in the fading light at what must be the most photographed island of trees in the state. I always try to stop and view the sunrise from here if I am in the area, but sunset is equally compelling. As we stood watching the sky turn shades of pink and purple, I reflected on how lucky I am to share this incredible place with people interested in the beauties of nature.

Sunrise the next morning found us on the platform on the south shore of Pungo Lake. The lake was full of swans and the air was sweet with their peaceful calls. But the pocosin shrubs near the platform were full of the harsher notes of another species – Red-winged Blackbirds. Their loud chatter began to increase with the approach of sunrise and then the first birds started flying up and heading west over the trees. Then more birds joined in from further east, and soon it was a continuous stream of blackbirds that flew by us for the next 10-15 minutes. On the recent Christmas Bird Count, we had a similar experience, and estimated that 160,000 blackbirds flew by us on that morning.

Mud hole in road at Pungo

Mud hole in road at Pungo

My usual routine at Pungo is to watch sunrise at the platform and then cruise the refuge looking for wildlife until the Snow Geese fly off the lake and out to some nearby fields to feed. The Snow Geese were running late in their usual departure, so we decided to move on. Hopefully, we can find which fields they fly out to and spend some time observing the huge flock (they are less predictable this year for some reason). As we headed out, I could see the recent heavy rains had taken a toll on the often cantankerous roads on the refuge. The odd soil type makes road maintenance difficult, so visitors need to be cautious when the roads are muddy.

Tundra Swan pair 1

Tundra Swan pair from Duck Pen Observation Blind

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake 2

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake

Swan pulling head out of water close up

Tundra Swan feeding in lake

One of the newer visitor services additions on the refuge is the Duck Pen Observation Blind farther down the road on the south shore of Pungo Lake. A short hike from the parking area leads to a large wooden enclosure with a great view out on the lake (although I hope to volunteer once the waterfowl are gone to cut a few more observation ports and make some of the existing ones larger to accommodate telephoto lenses). Since the winds were out of the south, the waterfowl were in close to the south shore, making for some great views. Swans were feeding in the shallows, something I see all the time at Mattamuskeet with its abundant aquatic vegetation, but rarely here at Pungo Lake, due to the peat lake bottom and relative lack of plants and aquatic life.

Snow Goose blast off on Pungo Lake

Snow Geese blast off on Pungo Lake from Duck Pen Observation Blind

Far out on the lake was a huge raft of Snow Geese packed into a solid white line on the water. They blasted off two or three times while we were in the blind, but simply circled and settled noisily back on the lake, instead of flying out to feed. Mixed in with the swans and geese were hundreds of other waterfowl, mostly Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Pintails.

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

The middle of the day, as is often the case, was a bit slow for wildlife viewing. There were coots and some other waterfowl on various impoundments, a few eagles, and the ubiquitous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds swirling in the corn stubble. Rather than continuing to cruise the muddy roads, we decided to walk through the woods looking for wildlife and hoping to see a bear. We spotted lots of bear sign, including one tree trunk that looked like the bear tic-tac-toe championship had been played on it, but no bears. We could hear the calls of thousands of swans on the lake and the thunderous whoosh every time the Snow Geese would blast off, but they never seemed to fly off to feed the entire day, which is a bit unusual. So, late in the afternoon, we headed to a spot where bear activity has been good and settled in to watch and wait, and wait some more.

Bear cub

Black Bear cub

As sunset approached I was afraid this might be the first tine this season I would be skunked in bear sightings, but, right as we started to head out, a sow and her two cubs materialized out of the woods. The adult and one cub headed out into the corn field, but the other cub seemed nervous, and stayed near the tree line. My goal was to not disturb the bears, so we remained still, hoping the cub would go on by us to feed in the corn. After pacing back and forth, sitting on its rear end, moaning and groaning a bit, and then laying down for a few minutes, the cautious cub finally did join the rest of the family. We then headed back to the car. Our two day excursion ended with a setting sun in an immense sky, punctuated by the melodious sounds of small flocks of swans flying overhead, accompanied by the hoots of the resident Great Horned Owls as they started their evening conversations. A great way to end it, indeed.

A Spring trip to Pungo

Sunset at Pocosin Lakes NWR

Sunset at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

This weekend I decided to get back to my favorite North Carolina wildlife area – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. When I first started going there back in the early 80’s, it was known as Pungo National Wildlife Refuge and it was centered on Pungo Lake, an important wintering area for waterfowl. In the early 90’s the refuge added over 90,000 acres and changed the name to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (although I still often refer to it as just Pungo). I usually make 10 or more trips a year to the refuge, most in winter when the thousands of wintering waterfowl provide an unsurpassed wildlife spectacle. But in the past few years I have enjoyed visiting in the warmer months to see another side of this unique area. On this trip I was hoping to see and photograph some of the Black Bears that are so abundant at Pungo. The weather was perfect – crisp air and very still. It was obvious that the storm the previous night had dumped a lot of rain as the fields contained standing water and the often-problematic dirt roads were still a bit slippery.

I looked for wheat fields, as I know that bears love to graze on wheat. The refuge has an agreement with local farmers who plant hundreds of acres of refuge land with crops (mainly corn, soybeans, and winter wheat) and in exchange they leave a certain percent for the wildlife, especially the wintering waterfowl.  No bears yet in the small amount of wheat on the refuge so I kept driving to check out more areas.

I pulled over at one of their managed marshes and got out to see if I could see or hear anything. There were a couple of late American Coot, a Greater Yellowlegs, and a Great Egret. I then heard a clucking sound a few feet from me in the marsh grass, but I couldn’t see anything. It sounded like a bird – I was guessing some sort of small rail. It moved away so I assumed it might be an alarm note and I had disturbed it.

American Bittern calling in marsh at Pocosin Lakes NWR (best with volume turned up)

Then, from farther out in the marsh, came a sound I knew only from audio recordings – the bizarre mating call of the American Bittern.  It reminds me of the sound of large bubbles in the office water cooler.  I was amazed to hear one call, then another, and another. Three bitterns calling, and I could not see any of them. They kept calling back and forth and I kept looking, but no luck on spotting the callers, although I did see four bitterns fly into the marsh during that time. Surprised to see so many bitterns in one small marsh, I did some research online that night and found a great web site for this type of information – Birds of North Carolina ( It says that bitterns are most numerous in our state during migration (in April and May for spring migration). Below is a pic of one at Mattamuskeet from last winter, when they are not nearly as abundant.

American Bittern

American Bittern taken at Lake Mattamuskeet last winter (click to enlarge)

After about an hour of enjoying the scene, I decided to go look for what I had come for – bears.  I could see two bears out in the wheat fields but I drove to North Lake Shore Drive (aka Bear Road – before they had road signs on the refuge I made up names for some of the more memorable ones) to see if any were out in that usual hot spot. As if on cue, one bear came out of the woods a few hundred feet beyond the gate.  But there is no wheat in the fields along Bear Road this year so I went back to the other location and now there were six bears out feeding.  It was still overcast and the bears were over one hundred yards away so not a good photo opportunity.

Black Bear after sunset

Black Bear at sunset along “New Bear Road” (click to enlarge)

I drove a little further and saw a bear silhouette down a grassy side road – this one has been dubbed New Bear Road since it tends to produce bear sightings almost as regularly as the original Bear Road (I know, not very inventive names).  And, as luck would have it, just then the sun dipped below the cloud cover flooding the area with a golden light that looked like it would last the 15 minutes or so until sunset. So, I grabbed the camera and scrambled down the side road. The bear was so busy eating grass that it never looked up. I was able to get close enough for a couple of shots before the sun set, Turns out there was another bear off to the side of the road and they both gradually ambled away as I headed back to the car.

Swamp scene from Mattamuskeet boardwalk

Swamp scene from Mattamuskeet boardwalk (click to enlarge)

The next morning started off with a beautiful sunrise and the unusual site of a pair of opossums mating at the edge of a cornfield (more on that in a later blog).  The wind picked up and after driving slowly around the Pungo Unit for an hour I had managed only one bear butt, so I decided to head for Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge about 30 minutes east. By the time I got to Mattamuskeet, the wind was howling and there just were not many birds or other critters to be seen. I got out and walked some of the short boardwalks and experimented with the camera on my iPhone.

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (click to enlarge)

At one point I crawled around on my belly on a boardwalk for about 30 minutes “chasing” several Six-spotted Tiger beetles, hoping to get a close-up of these beautiful beetles. And this was after I had been checked by the federal game warden who thought I was acting a little suspicious! Turns out they have problems with people illegally collecting snakes and other critters on the refuge for the pet trade, etc. and when he saw me driving slowly along the road and getting out to look at things in the bushes, he thought he better check it out. He was a very nice guy and it is good to know there are people out there keeping an eye on things.

American Bittern

American Bittern – the one calling about 50 yards away (click to enlarge)

Returning to Pocosin Lakes I went straight to the bittern marsh determined to find one of the callers. The wind may have subdued them a bit but I finally had two calling in front of me, one off in the distance and one so close yet invisible that it was over-the-top frustrating. Finally I found one – the one off in the distance at about 50 yards. After watching his behavior, it was even more excruciating that I could not find the close one, who could not have been more than ten yards from me. The caller was standing upright in the marsh, turning his head from side to side, then he would lower his head, giving the clucking sound a few times, and then launch into the water cooler call and with each “bubble release” he would snap his head up and down rapidly with bill wide open.  He repeated this 3 to 5 times and then returned to the upright stance. The closer bird must have been behind the one tall clump of mash grass and remained invisible.

Having satisfied that goal I debated whether to stay and try to capture a picture of the close one if he ever moved, or go try for bears. The wind was still blowing hard but it was from a good direction as far as getting close for some possible bear photos so I decided to give it a try. I parked at the start of new bear road and hiked in about a mile to the edge of the wheat field. The bears were coming out of the woods into the field and I positioned myself at the boundary of the two in hopes of getting them crossing over. Ironically, I sat next to a large bed that had been scooped out of the side of the dike by a bear. I then waited (which is what a lot of wildlife photography is about)…and waited. One bear had made it into the field before I got settled, but for the next hour, only one deer and a Bald Eagle came close.  When I checked the wheat field, there were now four bears in it – three had managed to come in at the far end of the woods where I could not see them from my low position.

Young Black Bear walking on dike

Young Black Bear walking on dike (click to enlarge)

Then I saw one headed my way. It was a youngster from last year. Soon a sibling joined this bear and they began running around and playing, then back across the dike into the wheat field (which was out of my view on the other side of the dike, so in order to check it, I had to slowly stand up and look over).

Young bears

One young bear tries to stand and look around, the other wants to play (click to enlarge)

The young bears came back. One was curious about either my shape or the camera shutter noise and would stand and look in my direction but its playful sibling would jump on it every time it started to stand. Then they would amble back to the wheat field and continue to play. For the next 30 minutes I had bears crossing back and forth on the dike from woods to wheat field. I was about to leave when a larger bear (still not a huge one by Pungo standards) came walking down the dike toward me. As he approached, he kept looking in my direction and finally decided something was not quite right. He slowly turned and ran about fifty feet, and then with one more glance back at me, went down into the wheat field for dinner.

Last Black Bear of the evening

Last Black Bear of the evening (click to enlarge)

As I crouched and walked away I glanced back at the wheat field. There were all six bears out feeding in the golden light…simply beautiful. My goal is always to get a decent image without disturbing the wildlife. That is sometimes easier said than done. Tonight, the wind was in my favor and it allowed me to get close enough and yet the bears could not smell me. While they seemed curious a couple of times, I don’t think they were ever really spooked.  I really like sharing wildlife encounters with people, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide a group with the type of experience I had yesterday. The good news is it is possible to give people a great experience in a place like Pungo by allowing them to see bears and other wildlife through binoculars and spotting scopes. I have been lucky enough to do that for the past 30 years and I look forward to sharing more experiences in these special places in the years to come.  But getting close-ups of wildlife often requires lots of patience, the right gear (in this case a long lens), a little luck, the right environmental conditions, and sometimes, just being out there alone so you can blend in and become part of the landscape.

More information on the refuge and their public events can be found on their web site,, and on the web site of their support group, the Friends of Pocosin Lakes,