Refuge Renewal

In such surroundings – occasional as our visits may be – we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.

~Laurence Rockefeller

It is the season of renewal for me, the season of experiencing some of the wild spectacles of this place I call home. I had a trip this past week to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges and, though we ended up leaving a bit early due to the predicted winter storm, it was still a refreshing reminder of why these places are so important – important to the amazing wildlife that can be found there, and important to those of us lucky enough to spend time in them.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron walking in shallows along causeway (click photos to enlarge)

I stopped by the Pungo Unit on my way down Wednesday. Very quiet and the roads were pretty muddy. We started our tour at sunrise the next morning at Lake Mattamuskeet. There are relatively few birds out along the causeway this year, due to the wet year and resulting high lake levels, and the decline in the submerged aquatic vegetation (see recent Wildlife in North Carolina magazine article). You can still usually find a couple of birds near the south end of the causeway, especially some waders like the great blue heron above. I love the textures of their feathers, which seem even more prominent in cold weather.

black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron adult

I always look for a heron or black-crowned night heron on the pilings in the marsh pool just inside the gate to the refuge, but they were empty. But, at the next pool, an adult night heron was out in plain view, and was hunting. I have never seen a night heron at this particular pool in all the years I have been going to the refuge (and haven’t seen much else here the past couple of years since the Phragmites grass has taken over the edge of the pool).

black-crowned night heron strikig at prey

Night heron strikes and catches a small fish (note nictitating membrane to protect eye)

black-crowned night heron scratching

Nothing like a good scratch after a meal

black-crowned night heron close up

The red eye of an adult black-crowned night heron is spectacular

Their red eye is stunning in sunlight. Young black-crowned night herons have yellow eyes, that gradually change to orange, and then red as they mature. Though many species of birds show a change in eye color from young to adult, no one seems sure what the evolutionary significance of this may be.

Bald eagle immature

Immature bald eagle

Among the many birds we saw, there were the usual bald eagles perched along the edges of the lake and marshes scanning the areas for weakened waterfowl that make an easy meal. At one point, we had two immature eagles and a red-tailed hawk all soar out over us.

eagles tangling in mid-air

The eagles engaged in aerial combat

eagles tangling in mid-air 1

One eagle rolled over, extending its talons

Suddenly, the two eagles started to chase one another and were soon performing some serious acrobatics. This may be a territorial battle, or simply their form of play, I’m not sure. Almost as quickly as it had started, it was over. We saw some more of this over at Pungo the next day involving three eagles, two adults chasing one juvenile through the woods.

Anhinga sunning

An anhinga sunning itself

I had seen an anhinga in the Mattamuskeet canals on a visit in December, so I was looking for it again. We found it sunning itself in a tree across the canal from the lodge. Interestingly, this spot used to be the best place on the refuge to see black-crowned night herons (especially juveniles), but the past two winters they have been scarce.

Anhinga swimming

Anhinga, often called the snakebird, for its swimming style

As we admired the anhinga through my scope, another one came swimming down the canal. I think this is the first time I have ever seen two at once on the refuge.

white ibis

White ibis landing in marsh

We continued looking for wildlife throughout much of the day, with many of the usual suspects being observed. We found almost 100 white ibis feeding in a field at Lake Landing, and felt lucky to see a group of American white pelicans soaring over us. We also had a couple of good warbler sightings – a cooperative common yellowthroat male and an orange-crowned warbler. Overall waterfowl numbers seemed low, but there is still enough diversity to get some good looks and decent photos.

Photo blind

New photo blind at Mattamuskeet

It wasn’t until late in the day we discovered the new photo blind on the refuge. It is located along Hwy 94, between the entrance and exit points of Wildlife Drive. Kudos to those responsible – it is a great design with good viewing ports covered by camouflage netting. When we drove up, there were several species of waterfowl just off the front of the blind. They swam off as we walked in, but I think if you spend some time in this spot, you could get some good results once the birds return (you can’t really sneak in without nearby birds seeing you; bring a seat or bucket if you plan to spend time in it). I look forward to returning on a future trip. I hope other public land managers will consider putting up similar structures. This one was funded, at least in part, by a grant from the North American Nature Photography Association.

Swan taking off in Marsh A

Tundra swan taking off

That afternoon, we headed over to the Pungo Unit to hopefully enjoy the evening show of swans and snow geese returning to Pungo Lake. As I mentioned in my last post, the swans have been amazing this winter, and they did not disappoint.

Snow geese overhead

Snow geese flying high overhead

In our almost two days on the Pungo Unit, we did see the elusive snow geese flying far off the refuge to feed, returning a relatively short time later. A few thousand (of the estimated 15-20,000 birds) flew over us as walked down North lake Drive on our second day out, coming in at a very high altitude as they approached the lake. They continue to be unpredictable in their movements, although I think they will be closer to the refuge roads once some of remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down (I expect that to happen very soon).

bear jumping ditch

A young bear jumps over a drainage ditch

This has been a strange winter for the black bears at Pungo. We saw what seemed the usual number on our trip in mid-December (8, as I recall). But since then, sightings have been few and far between, including being skunked in bear sightings on our Christmas Bird Count the last week of December (maybe the only time that has happened in over 30 years of doing that count). On this trip, I saw three (a sow and two yearlings) my first afternoon, and then we saw only three others in two days – one in the front fields coming out of the corn at sunrise, one feeding in corn and one cruising across the corn fields along North Lake Road.

bear play area

What looks like a bear play area in the woods

Pawpaw with stripped bark

Bark stripped from a pawpaw tree by a bear

There seems to be plenty of fresh bear sign in the woods and along the edges of the fields (although not as much scat in the roads as usual), so I am not quite sure what is going on. I think there may be increased hunting pressure on local bears at the edge of the refuge and this may be altering their behavior and making them more secretive, as well as reducing their numbers with greater numbers of bears that venture off the refuge being taken.

sunset and swans

Sunset with swans returning to the refuge

It is still a magical place, especially at sunrise and sunset. The swans fill the evening sky with magical sounds and the graceful lines of returning birds. I’ll leave you with a video clip from our sunrise at Pungo and the swans that make this refuge such a place of renewal for myself and so many others that spend any time in it.

Pungo Sunrise

Nature has not only given us life, but can also give us reasons for living positively: Curiosity, wonderment, imagination, and knowledge are just a few of the ways Nature can beckon us.

~Mike McDowell

Between the phenomenal evening shows of snow geese last week, I had a quiet sunrise at Pungo, mostly to myself. It was a cold morning and overnight a skim of ice had formed in the waters of the managed impoundment, and in the nearby swamps. I headed for a place I knew I could see swans in the early morning light. As I neared the water, I saw first one, then two, and finally, four bald eagle silhouettes patrolling the flooded area, no doubt looking for a carcass or a weak swan.

bald eagle silhouette

A bald eagle surveys the marsh before dawn while a group of swans flies in the distance (click photos to enlarge)

The huge birds seemed to prefer a couple of snags along the canals as their morning perch, so I positioned my car where I had a good look at them as the sun began to creep above the horizon. Many of the trees along the canals have been pushed over by heavy equipment in recent years, perhaps due to the potential for trees along ditch banks to weaken the canal edges if they fall. But, the raptorss certainly like to use them for perches to survey their surroundings.

snow geese out at sunrise

Snow Geese began flying off Pungo Lake just after sunrise

As daylight increased, so did the activity in the air, with swans, ducks, and snow geese beginning their morning departures. The snow geese came off in smaller groups than usual, but still flying in their characteristic wavy lines.

Bald eagle silhouette taking off

An eagle takes flight at first light

The eagles continued to make short flights out over the impoundment, but I didn’t see any attacks or dropping down to a possible carcass. As the sun rose above the treeline, all the eagles flew off in search of better hunting. Later that morning, I did see four bald eagles on a fresh swan carcass in a field just beyond the refuge boundary. It is that time of year when birds weaken and die or are wounded by hunters on nearby private lands. The abundance of carcasses provides a bounty for eagles, vultures, and a host of other scavengers.

Tundra swans before sunrise 1

Tundra swans, tinged in pinkish morning light, waking up at dawn to a frozen world

The swans in the nearby marshy area were waking up to changes in their world – parts of it had frozen overnight. I always enjoy seeing these huge birds standing on the ice. There was one small group surrounding a small open pool. The swans kept splashing and dunking their bodies in the cold water, and then would get out, preen, and flap their wings to greet the new day. I watched them for several minutes and then headed off to explore other parts of the refuge as the daylight intensified.

double-crested cormorant

Double-crested cormorant perched on a post in the impoundment

I had not gone far when I spied a double-crested cormorant perched on a post out in the water. These are not common birds at Pungo, as there are not many fish here except in the canals and perhaps the impoundment. Pungo Lake, unlike nearby Lake Phelps and Mattamuskeet, is peat-based, and, therefore, too acidic and turbid to support much aquatic vegetation of fish life.

cormorant eye

The eye of a cormorant is a beautiful green

I particularly admire the eyes of these primitive birds – a striking green under the right conditions of sunlight. This one never turned just right to have the eye color pop, but you can see hints of it here.

norhern harrier

Northern harrier cruising the corn, looking for a meal

Driving along D-Canal Road, I saw four northern harriers buzzing a stand of flooded corn just across the canal on private land. This standing corn is a duck hunting area and is very effective in attracting ducks and other wildlife. The harriers were cruising back and forth repeatedly, so I pulled over and attempted a few passing shots with my 500 mm lens. Northern harriers are efficient fliers, using a slight dihedral wing pattern (much like a turkey vulture’s wing profile while soaring) that helps keep them aloft with little flapping of their long wings. They fly low, moving back and forth over fields, looking for small birds and mammals.

norhern harrier 1

Northern harriers that are brown in color are either adult females or immature birds

Three of the four were either adult female or immature harriers. Immatures and adult females are brown, with varying degrees of brown streaks on their breast. I think this might be an adult female since the breast is primarily white with heavy streaking.

Northern Harrier adult male

Northern harrier adult male

Adult males are ghostly in appearance – a light belly, gray upper parts with black wing tips, and the characteristic white rump patch found in all ages and sexes of harriers.

norhern harrier with potential prey in corn

A small bird pops up in the corn after a harrier passes

I watched the hawks for about 20 minutes, constantly working the patch of corn, trying to stir up some prey. A female harrier did hover once, then dropped down into the corn, but I did not see whether it caught anything or not. My favorite moment came when a small bird popped up right after a harrier passed overhead, looked at the hawk, and flew off in the opposite direction. Such are the priceless moments of nature you can witness at a place like Pungo…reason enough to visit time and again.

 

 

 

Pungo Reflections – Sky

The sky is that beautiful old parchment in which the sun and moon keep their diary.

~ Alfred Kreymborg

Sunrise at Pungo Lake

Sunrise at Pungo Lake (click photos to enlarge)

One of my favorite things about eastern North Carolina is the big sky (maybe that’s why I like Montana so much as well). And I have seen some wonderful big skies at Pungo this year, especially at sunrise…

Snow Geese against moon

Snow Geese in front of the moon in the golden light of sunset

…and sunset. And so it was on my last trip. The morning had been spectacular at the swan impoundment. I wasn’t paying much attention at first to the goings on in the sky as I was so focused on the swan silhouettes on the water in the orange-gold glow of sunrise.

Tundra Swan in early morning light

Tundra Swan in early morning light

After photographing the swans swimming and preening, I finally turned my attention to those starting to fly out of an adjacent area. The last bits of golden light soon faded, but not before I caught an image or two with it bathing the undersides of a passing swan.

Swans coming in for a landing

Swans coming in for a landing

High clouds soon moved in and the light changed dramatically. Now a few small groups of swans were starting to land in the impoundment to join the hundreds of others already enjoying the swan spa. I love to watch them as they prepare for a graceful touch down.

Snow Geese circling the field

Snow Geese circling the field

I left to head towards a favorite area and was surprised to see no cars in spite of it being a beautiful (albeit cold) Saturday morning. The Snow Geese had already flown off the lake by the time I arrived and were circling the fields in their usual erratic attempt at settling down. I took a few shots as they circled far across the corn and then started walking down the road.

Snow Geese blasting off from corn field

Snow Geese blasting off from corn field

Suddenly, they all blasted off with the distinctive whoosh sound of thousands of wings. I stopped, hoping to see what might have spooked them. It can be anything, or seemingly nothing at all. I scanned the field edge for bears and the sky for any sign of a predator.

Bald Eagle flushes Snow Geese

It was hard to tell what had flushed the flock at first

Bald Eagle flushes Snow Geese 1

The Bald Eagle finally came out into clear view

One thing that will always flush the flock is an eagle. Finally, from behind the cloud of flapping white and black, a flapping black and white appeared – a Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle lowering its landing gear

Bald Eagle lowering its landing gear

The eagle cruised past the scattering Snow Geese and seemed intent on a particular spot on the ground in between the rows of standing corn. I had seen a few vultures in that area when I had walked by, and the eagle dropped down in the same area and disappeared behind the corn. Undoubtedly, the vultures and eagle had found a carcass of some sort.

Red-winged Blackbirds in dense flock

Red-winged Blackbirds in dense flock

Snow Geese and Red-winged Blackbirds

Snow Geese and Red-winged Blackbirds

Now a new flock was added to the aerial commotion – Red-winged Blackbirds. The sky was soon a swirl of tiny black spots and noisy white blobs.

Blackbird flock 2

Red-winged Blackbirds showing their flashy side

Red-winged tornado

Red-winged tornado

These huge flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds (and usually some other species mixed in) are one of my favorite things about Pungo in winter. There were probably close to ten thousand birds sweeping across the corn, and flying to and from the trees. The sound was incredible. And every now and then a tornado of red wings erupted from the field. As with the Snow Geese, this was usually caused by an aerial predator.

Northern Harrier and potential prey

Northern Harrier and potential prey

In the case of the blackbirds, it is often a Northern Harrier cruising the fields looking for a meal. I could see two of them canvassing the corn so I set up my tripod and waited, hoping for a passing shot, especially of the male I could see on the far side. I have tried to get an image of one of the ghostly gray adult males for several years but they have always eluded me.

Male Northern Harrier criusing for a meal

Male Northern Harrier looking for a meal

The male Northern Harrier finally sailed by my side of the field, gliding on his large wings, head down, looking for a bird or small mammal.

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier

A close pass by a male Northern Harrier

He swung by close enough for a few good shots, the sunlight catching his contrasting feathers and highlighting his bright yellow eyes.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle

I soon encountered the Black Bear and Raccoon from my previous post and spent a couple of hours watching things in the trees instead of the sky. But I finally I headed back out to the fields to see what was going on. There were several eagles perched in trees around the field edges. A couple of people were now walking on the road, and they spooked a couple of the eagles, one of which flew close by me for a nice look. It was an immature Bald Eagle, recognized by the mottled whitish “arm pits” as it flew over my head.

Snow Geese in golden light

Snow Geese in golden light

The light was getting beautiful, a golden glow from the low angle of the sun. I soon heard the loud, low whoosh made by the wings of the Snow Geese lifting off the lake. The show was about to begin. I could hear them coming and then the first of the birds flew over the tree tops, headed out to the corn. The light was gorgeous, turning the flock into a gilded swarm. The people on the road stopped to watch the birds fly overhead and then headed back down the path once the flock was across the field. I knew there were a couple of more eagles ahead of them and I figured these birds would soon fly, so I stepped up against a tree trunk to help hide my outline and waited, hoping one of the adult birds would fly by me.

Bald Eagle in golden light

Bald Eagle in late afternoon light

Sure enough, I saw the remaining two eagles head out over the field and one banked and headed my way. Then I heard more Snow Geese flying in from the lake. If only….

Bald Eagle and potentil prey

Bald Eagle and Snow Geese sharing the golden light

As luck would have it, the eagle circled back just in time for the Snow Geese to fly behind it, giving me a rare opportunity to see and photograph this spectacle three times in one day, predator and prey sharing the sky. But this light was by far the best of the day. The eagle spotted me and flew out over the tree tops, leaving me to watch in awe as thousands of Snow Geese flew into the field for one last feeding before nightfall.

Snow Geese returning to lake

Snow Geese returning to lake

Thirty minutes passed with the flock in a feeding frenzy on the far side of the field. Another eagle flew out near the restless birds and they once again exploded into the now pinkish-purple sky. Thousands of birds circled and then headed back to the lake for the night. It had been an amazing day of colors and sounds, with my focus on the water, forest, and sky of Pungo. While this is not a wilderness, it is a very special wild place to me. And I think it is important for us all that these wild places exist. Spending time in them helps us understand ourselves, and gives us insights into the workings of the world and our place in it. I found this quote by former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas that does a good job of putting into words what a day like this means to me…

Wilderness helps us preserve our capacity for wonder

the power to feel, if not so see,

the miracles of life, of beauty,

and of harmony around us.

I will carry this sense of harmony for a long time to come.

A Foggy Start

After the incredible experience with the Snowy Owl at Hatteras last week, I waited in line for an hour and a half for the emergency ferry to get off the island. Bright and early the next day, I headed to Lake Mattamuskeet, always an incredible place to experience the first light of a new day. But this morning was going to prove difficult for a sun-over-the-lake image as the fog was as thick as the proverbial pea soup. I drove at a cautious pace on my way down from Columbia since this is prime deer and bear habitat, and I wanted neither to become acquainted with the front of my car. I decided to bypass the usual spot for greeting the morning sun on the causeway that stretches across the lake, and looked, instead, for something close to shore that I might actually be able to see in the fog.

Foggy sunrise on Lake Mattamuskeet

Foggy sunrise on Lake Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

What I found was a surreal scene as the pale light of the rising sun tried in vain to penetrate the gray curtain laying across the lake. A few skeletons of cypress trees in the foreground provided the only depth in the scene.

Great Blue Heron on foggy morning at Mattamuskeet

Great Blue Heron on cypress trunk

Then, a Great Blue Heron flew out of the mist and landed with a squawk, and became frozen in the gray painting.

Sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet in fog

Great Blue Heron in fog

I took several shots but I’m not sure which one I like the best – a tight view of the lone cypress and heron, or a wide view that includes some other tree silhouettes.

Swan in fog

Tundra Swan in fog

The sun was starting to win the battle as I drove across the lake. A few Tundra Swans fed silently near the road, making glints in the water as they probed the lake bottom for some breakfast of aquatic vegetation.

Swans in early morning light

Swans in early morning light

A few minutes later, and the sun claimed victory as it glowed on a group of waterfowl farther down the road. This area is thick with Tundra Swans and Northern Pintails right now, with a variety of other waterfowl in smaller numbers (American Wigeon, Green and Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, American Black Ducks, etc.). I shared some of these excellent views with some of my former co-workers from the Museum, who happened to be leading a group of folks that same morning. It was, indeed, a great day for sharing this incredible place with good people.

Kingfisher hovering

Belted Kingfisher hovering

While sitting alone with the swans, I was entertained by a couple of Belted Kingfishers as they hunted. They would swoop in, hover for a what seemed like a minute or two, and then either swoop to a new spot, or, if they spotted something, plunge headfirst into the water. After several failed attempts, I saw one finally catch a small fish and fly off to eat its meal in peace.

DC Cormorant wings outstretched

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings

Along the canals on Wildlife Drive is always a good place to find water birds of various sorts. That morning had a crowd of Double-crested Cormorants perched on a fallen tree in the canal. Cormorants are relatively primitive birds, and, unlike most other waterfowl, their feathers are not water repellant. This necessitates their spread-wing poses throughout the day as they must dry their feathers after repeated dives in the water while searching for fish. The light-colored breast and neck indicate this is a first-year bird (adults have dark plumage throughout).

With some remnant patches of fog drifting along the canal, the short video below shows a “mistical” scene and allows you to hear a few of their grunts as they maneuver for position on the branches.

Herd of turtles

A herd of turtles

The foggy morning was warm enough for turtles to be out in force. For a reason known only to those with shells, one small island of grass in a canal seemed particularly appealing to a group of what appear to be Yellow-bellied Sliders. They had climbed over one another in a jumble, perhaps in hopes of being closer to the emerging sunlight.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle

Lake Mattamuskeet is one of the best places in NC to view Bald Eagles, especially in winter, when the large concentrations of waterfowl provide a reliable food source. Bald Eagles are particularly fond of American Coot, which tend to occur in higher numbers on the lake a little later in the winter. This immature (it usually takes 4 or 5 years for a Bald Eagle to acquire its fully white head and tail feathers) was very cooperative as it scanned the marshes from a high perch.

Immature Bald Eagle close up

Immature Bald Eagle close up

I always marvel at the size of their beak and the intensity seen in their eyes. Based on what I have read online (a nice photographic summary of aging Bald Eagles is at http://www.featheredphotography.com/blog/2013/01/27/a-guide-to-aging-bald-eagles/), I am guessing this is a first year bird, due to the dark iris and fairly dark beak.

Great Egret with fish from behind

Great Egret with fish

As I drove out Wildlife Drive on my way over to Pocosin Lakes, I saw something I had always wanted to photograph. Great Egrets on this refuge generally eat small fish which are abundant in the shallow waters. But here was one with a beak full of fins! And it apparently did not want to risk losing its meal, as it started to walk away as soon as I slowed down for a look.

A big meal

A big meal

I am not quite sure what species of fish this is, although it resembles a Spot…if you know, please comment on the blog. Luckily, the egret paused long enough for a few quick images before getting behind some brush on the shore of the canal. Although partially hidden, I could see the fish did finally get swallowed, appearing as a large, squirming lump as it passed down the long neck of the bird. Made my PB&J seem easy.

Tomorrow, I’ll post how my day ended when I made my way to Pocosin Lakes for the rest of the afternoon.

NOTE: I am offering weekend trips on the first and second weekend of January and another trip (exact date to be determined) in February. We will visit both Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. Contact me at roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com for details if interested.

Looking for Leviathan

Many years ago I had the privilege of co-leading a week-long whale watching workshop aboard a schooner in Maine for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. It was an experience I will never forget (for many reasons). So, while traveling up the coast of Maine I was looking for opportunities to see whales again. There is a well-known whale watch company in Bar Harbor that cruises many miles offshore in a large, fast catamaran. They have a good success record, but it looked like it might be so crowded that it would not be my cup of tea.

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When I found out about a smaller company out of Eastport, Maine, that took smaller groups out for whale watching, I jumped at the chance. Coastal towns like Lubec and Eastport are a far cry from the hustle and bustle of touristy Bar Harbor. This is what Maine is really all about. It was a dreary morning and when I went in to pay for the trip I was very pleased to see the company name, Eastport Windjammers. Looking across the street to the dock I could see a beautiful old wooden schooner, the Ada C. Lore. Originally built in 1923, this 118 foot beauty was used to dredge oysters under sail. She is one of only three remaining historic Chesapeake Bay oyster schooners in the United States.
The weather had reduced the number of willing passengers to only 10, barely enough to make a go of the trip. Once the captain and crew arrived we were off.

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There were a number of birds we passed as we cruised out toward the bay – Bonaparte’s Gulls, Black Guillemots, and a couple of Razorbills. As we neared the shore of an island, the Bald Eagles began to appear. First only a couple, then many, all flying and calling in the gray sky. Every now and then, an Osprey would swoop down and harass one of the larger birds. One of the deckhands said that toward the end of August eagle numbers would jump dramatically as schools of fish moved into the bay. That is also the time when the most whales are nearshore, including the Humpbacks. The deckhand referred to Humpbacks as the rock star whales because of their tendency to put on quite a show for visitors.

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Within a few minutes we encountered our first Minke Whale. The Minke (pronounced “mink-ee”) Whale, is a small, streamlined baleen whale found in most of the world’s oceans. They can reach lengths up to 33 feet and weigh up to 10 tons. Minke Whales are one of the most commonly seen baleen whales along the Maine coast. This area is an important feeding ground for whales, who go there to take advantage of the rich amounts of schooling fish, plankton and krill during the warmer months.

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The dorsal fin of the Minke is tall and curved, and is located two-thirds of the way back on the body. That is usually about all you get to see when a Minke breaks the surface. They have a small blow, and usually do not extend the flipper, tail or much of their body above the surface, and rarely breach like Humpbacks.

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Soon there were several Mlinkes around the ship. And they were close. One whale in particular was swimming all around our vessel. It was distinctive in that it was missing most of its dorsal fin. The deckhand called it Stumpy and it was well-known to this ships’ crew.

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On one close approach, Stumpy raised up out of the water a little more than usual. My photo shows a series of whitish marks on Stumpy’s body at the waterline. I initially thought they were some sort of ectoparasite but looking online it appears as though these are scars on the whales’ skin left by feeding Lampreys. Lampreys feed by attaching themselves to the skin of fish and marine mammals, rasping through the skin and sucking out blood. If these are indeed Lamprey feeding scars, Stumpy has apparently fed quite a few.

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After spending over an hour with the whales, we headed back to port. Along the way we were treated to a large group of seals laying out on some exposed rock. There are both Gray and Harbor Seals in this area, but most of these appeared to be the latter.

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Harbor Seals grow to about 5-6 feet in length, and weigh between 200-300 pounds. They can be quite variable in color ranging from light brown to dark gray, with light undersides. They also may have scattered light and dark spots.

A Harbor Seal in the water looks a bit like a dog, with its round head, long whiskers and large eyes peeking above the water surface. This is the species we most often see on the North Carolina coast. The short cruise brought back a lot of good memories and increased my desire to spend more time in the future looking for marine mammals.