Swamping Again

The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten.

~Sigurd F. Olson

The Swamp Queen (aka Melissa) did it again…planned a canoe/camping adventure to our favorite swamp destination, the Roanoke River. So, last week, we headed east to spend a planned 6 days paddling over 50 miles on the Roanoke and Cashie (pronounced cash-EYE) Rivers and staying at a number of the wonderful platforms managed by the Roanoke River Partners (RRP) organization. We planned to include two platforms that neither of us had camped on – Conine and Lost Boat (there’s no need to worry about that name, right?). The timing of our trip was perfect as April is our favorite month to paddle this swamp – the bright green colors of spring and the arrival of migratory birds are a huge plus (as is the general lack of mosquitoes this early in the season). And it coincided with my article in the April issue of Walter Magazine highlighting the natural wonders of paddling this area. Check it out for more information on this region.

Weather conditions changed during our trip so we made some alterations in our plans and took out a day early before the heavy rains hit. Below is a rough map of our paddle from Williamston to Windsor. With the changes in platform destinations (we called from the river and changed our reservations as you need to reserve platforms in advance), we ended up paddling a little over 46 miles in four and a half days and stayed on four platforms – Conine, Barred Owl Roost, Cypress Cathedral, and Lost Boat.

-A rough map showing our route from Williamston to Windsor (just off the map at the top) with the names of the platforms where we camped and showing the Thoroughfare connector between the Roanoke River (in red) and the Cashie (in blue)

A satellite view shows a huge swath of green along the river corridors between Wiliamston and Windsor. Mush of this land is protected by the Nature Conservancy, the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge, and various hunt clubs. But some of our trip took us by through shorelines that are not protected and have been recently clear-cut, leaving only the required 30 foot buffer along the waterway. I just don’t think a 30 foot buffer is adequate to protect the integrity and beauty of these amazing habitats. Thank goodness various groups have managed to protect some large sections of the swamp forests.

-A Google Earth view of the rivers we paddled showing the vast expanse of bottomland forest

This post will cover some of the highlights of the Roanoke River portion of our trip. Next time, I’ll finish the trip up the Cashie to Windsor. I want to thank Travis, a teacher that Melissa knows through some of the museum workshops, for helping us shuttle our vehicle between our put in and take out points.

-We set off from Williamston with a fully loaded canoe

-Water levels were as low as we have seen them and when we arrived at the first camping platform, it was a big distance from the river to the newly renovated dock. The steep muddy bank made for a challenging unloading experience. After hearing of our experience, RRP plans to add a lower dock section.

-RRP is renovating many of the camping platforms. This is the refurbished Conine platform – it is really beautiful and one of the few with a screened structure. The walls on the right are the toilet enclosure (but you must bring your own private latrine for these outings – more on that later)

-The first day we were serenaded by countless warblers that had recently arrived from their wintering grounds. This Northern Parula stopped by at sunset for a buzzy song while we sat on the dock (image converted to black and white since it was in total shade)

-View across the Roanoke River from the Conine platform dock at sunset

With the low water there was relatively little current so we decided to paddle upstream on the river the next morning and then travel downstream on the waterway known as Devil’s Gut to our next campsite, Barred Owl Roost. We have paddled the lower section of the “Gut” many times over the years, but never the upper half, so this was a treat. It did not disappoint…

-Turning into the upstream portion of Devil’s Gut from the Roanoke River (note the clear-cut behind the small buffer on the right shoreline – this did not go too far down the “Gut”)

-One of our favorite camping platforms, Barred Owl Roost, is set in a gorgeous swamp.

-Bathroom with a view. This is our portable latrine – a 5-gallon bucket, a pool noodle cut for a seat (quite comfy I might add), and some toilet kit waste bags (each kit contains 1 waste bag; Poo Powder® gelling/deodorizing agent; a zip-close storage bag; toilet paper; and a hand wipe). We bring our own toilet paper and some cleaning wipes. We stash the sealed waste bags in a trash bag and dispose of it when we reach land (these kits are approved for landfill disposal)…now you know.

-There were a lot of Great Blue Herons fishing in the swamp waters and hanging out on our platform walkway

-A panoramic view from the Barred Owl Roost platform

The next morning we canoed to the juncture with the Roanoke River. Normally, we would have paddled downriver to Broad Creek and then upstream to our next site. But, with the low water and slow current, we decided to go upstream on the Roanoke for a few miles and hit the shortcut known simply as “The Cut”. We’ve paddled The Cut many times when doing a loop trip (requiring no shuttle) but always upstream (and that can be tough when the water is high). This was going to cut off a few miles of paddling and we had the plus of being in the more intimate setting of a narrow swamp waterway rather than the wide open river. That usually means more wildlife…

-Looking back upstream from our boat in the Roanoke to where it is joined by Devil’s Gut

-One of many Brown Water Snakes we saw perched up in tree limbs along the waterways

-A lunch stop along the river yields a twisted Supplejack Vine growing up into a Bald Cypress

-There was a lot of Beaver sign along The Cut and we even caught this large Beaver out cutting some saplings during the day (it quickly disappeared to the safety of the water as we passed). A few places had large scent mounds (piles of mud and debris along the shore that Beavers mark with scent to let others know this is their territory). One stretch had 17 scent mounds all in a row, the most we have ever seen in one location.

-We came across a female Wood Duck with about a dozen young. The low water made for a high bank and she was herding her ducklings downstream ahead of us. As we got near, she climbed the bank (only one duckling managed to go with her) and squawked and flopped around on the ground trying to distract us from her young. Meanwhile, the little ones were trying to get ahead of us along the shore. Melissa managed a great photo of a couple as we passed. We paddled away quickly and the ducklings turned back upstream to join their mom. (photo by Melissa Dowland)

-The duckies have more to worry about than a couple of people paddling by in a canoe. We saw this huge Snapping Turtle not far from the ducks.

The Cut joins Broad Creek a couple of miles upstream from where that aptly named creek flows into the Roanoke River. We headed upstream along Broad Creek to our next night’s destination, the idyllic Cypress Cathedral platform.

-Another favorite camping spot along the Roanoke – Cypress Cathedral, with a renovated walkway

-One of the most common birds we heard on our trip was the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. We heard them everywhere and found a pair building a hummingbird-style nest above the walkway at this platform

All along our journey, we saw and heard an amazing number and variety of birds. These bottomland forests have got to be one of the primary refuges for migrating songbirds (and NC resident birds as well) along the East Coast. But the one we always delight in seeing is the one Melissa calls “the friendliest warbler”, the Prothonotary. Along the way, and at a couple of the platforms, they shared their persistent peet, tsweet, tsweet, tsweet song and bright yellow plumage. Their name comes from this yellow color which resembles the bright yellow robes of papal clerks (prothonotaries) in the Roman Catholic church. In addition to being the “friendliest” (they readily hang out and forage near us) they also hold the distinction of being the only eastern wood-warbler that nests in tree cavities. And Cornell’s online compendium of all things birdy, Birds of the World, shares another little known fact. The Prothonotary Warbler played a partial role in the conviction of alleged spy Alger Hiss and the eventual political rise of Richard Nixon. An ex-communist, Whittaker Chambers, accused Hiss of espionage. Chambers claimed to know a lot about Hiss as they were friends, even though Hiss denied ever knowing Chambers. To verify his claims, Chambers said that Hiss was an avid bird-watcher and he had been very excited when they had seen a Prothonotary Warbler on an outing along the Potomac River. When asked about it later, Hiss admitted he had seen the warbler. Richard Nixon, then a freshman congressman, was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating the Hiss allegations, and played a prominent role in proving that the two men knew each other and that Hiss had perjured himself. The lesson here is be careful who you tell your bird sightings to…but I feel I can trust you all.

Here are a few of the many Prothonotary portraits captured on our journey:

-Male Prothonotary letting the swamp know he is there and ready for spring

-Prothonotary investigating a tree cavity for a possible nest site

-Peeking out of the tree hole

The next post will cover the final two days of our trip from Cypress Cathedral through the Thoroughfare and up the Cashie River.

Hunting in Huntington

It’s all about whose where on the food chain.

~Len Wein

My trip last weekend included some time at both Myrtle Beach State Park and nearby Huntington Beach State Park. While hanging with friends at the former park, I was impressed by the amount of bird activity and marine life (from the ocean pier) we saw. Cedar Waxwings were everywhere scarfing up the ripe Yaupon berries. The surprise birthday party for my friend was held at one of the picnic shelters and there happened to be some Yaupon trees along the road edge so I finally took my camera over toward the trees and stood for awhile hoping the flock would come in closer. They were pretty spooked by all the bicycles and cars going by so I managed only a few images.

Cedar Waxwing eating a Yaupon berry (click photos to enlarge)

While sitting at the picnic shelter, Scott saw an immature Red-tailed Hawk fly in and land on a pine limb over the road. It had captured what looked like a young squirrel. We all got up and looked at it and it just sat there looking around. I finally eased over underneath to get a photo. It finally took off and flew into the woods a few hundred feet away and began to eat its meal.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (see the bands on its tail?, that means it is an immature) that captured a young Gray Squirrel

Back at Huntington Beach, the falling tide on the salt marsh side of the causeway revealed a smorgasbord of dining opportunities for the local birds. Great and Snowy Egrets stalked the shallows for small fish.

A Great Egret strikes at a small fish

The Tri-colored Heron and Greater Yellowlegs were mainly going after smaller prey, the abundant transparent Grass Shrimp.

A Greater Yellowlegs catches a small Grass Shrimp at low tide

My favorite hunters were the pair of Ospreys patrolling both sides of the causeway. I was hoping to get a series of shots of one diving and catching a fish, their primary prey (an Osprey’s diet is 99% fish). An Osprey typically soars over a water body at a height of 30 – 100 feet, scanning the water surface for fish. When it spots one, it will usually momentarily hover, and then fold its wings and drop toward the water. I watched as one bird did this time and again and then pulled up before actually hitting the water.

An Osprey begins its dive after hovering for a few seconds
Wings angled and feet dangling are part of the speedy dive. I found it difficult to keep up with the diving birds with my camera

Finally, one bird hovered close to the causeway and quickly started its dive. I tried following it but missed a few images or had some blurry ones as it dove toward the surface near the causeway.

This one turned and headed straight down toward the water near me

It hit the water several feet out in front of me and was so close that I couldn’t get the whole bird in the photos! Their long wings give the extra lift to pull their prey out of the water. Their nostrils also shut tight as they hit the water.

The Osprey briefly disappeared under the water with a huge splash and then rebounded to the surface with wings spread

Studies show success rates for Osprey dives of between 24% and 82% (meaning they don’t catch a fish every time). They have specialized toe pads, strongly hooked talons, and a reversible outer toe, all of which give them a better grip on the fish.

The Osprey flaps and rises up out of the water, a fish in its right foot
It takes a couple of flaps to clear the surface

Osprey are the only raptor that has oily feathers, which allows them to shake off the water as they emerge from the surface, making it easier to lift off with their prey.

The bird clears the surface with powerful wing beats, pulling a Mullet up from the water
Look at those talons!
It looks like a tenuous grip on the struggling fish, but it managed to fly off with its meal

It all happened so fast, I lost track of the Osprey as it flew away, did the characteristic body shake that follows most dives (to shake off the water) and headed to a perch to eat its meal. Ospreys usually orient the fish head first to reduce drag as they fly. On this day, no Bald Eagle appeared to try to steal a meal and I finally saw the Osprey fly far across the marsh to a large dead tree.

All in all, a great couple of hours of hunting at Huntington Beach. Watching all that feeding had made me hungry, so I decided to grab a bite myself and head home.

Huntington Portraits

Portraits are about revealing aspects of an individual.

~Kehinde Wiley

Last weekend I drove down to Myrtle Beach, SC, for a surprise birthday party for my friend Scott. Of course, I had to visit one of my favorite birding and photography spots while I was there, the nearby Huntington Beach State Park. The causeway leading to the beach passes across an oasis for birds with a freshwater lake on one side and a tidal salt marsh on the other. With lots of time with old friends from my state park days, I didn’t make it over to Huntington at prime time of dawn or sunset, but still managed to grab a few mid-day photos of some of the residents. One of the great aspects of this place for photography is that the critters are very accustomed to people walking on the causeway and nearby trails and can be quite tolerant while you capture their portrait.

Great Blue Heron stalking prey among the oysters at low tide (click photos to enlarge)
A Tri-colored Heron moves about swiftly stabbing at small fish and shrimp
Snowy Egret staring into the water right before lunging at a small fish
A Great Egret sporting its breeding colors around the eyes grabs a killifish
I sat with this Double-crested Cormorant for several minutes while it dried its wings and preened. You need to be close to appreciate their eye color.
It is breeding season for the striking Anhingas and this male was looking dapper as it perched near a group of nesting pairs
While sitting with the cormorant, a passer-by asked me “Have you seen any?”. I asked, “Any what?” This is what she and many other visitors are hoping to see along the causeway.

Frosted Feathers

It’s not that I like ice Or freezin’ winds and snowy ground. It’s just sometimes it’s kind of nice To be the only bird in town.

~Shel Silverstein

This final post on our January Yellowstone trip shares a few highlights of the birds we encountered. There are certainly way fewer birds in this frozen land in winter, though the thermal features do keep some waterways open for the few waterfowl that remain (or gather there in winter, in the case of Trumpeter Swans). And the activities of wolves and the bottleneck of cold and food limitations do provide sustenance for the avian scavengers – the eagles, magpies, and ravens. Here are a few bird highlights from the trip…

Common Ravens are one of the most noticeable of the winter birds. They are large, noisy, and bold (will try to steal food if you are careless) (click photos to enlarge)

Recent surveys have estimated there are 200-300 ravens utilizing the northern part of the park as habitat. They are frequently seen near areas of concentrated human activity (pit stops, favorite pullouts, etc.) where they are very clever at taking advantage of any potential food items left unguarded. They are also abundant at any carcass, be it a roadkill or wolf kill.

This was my first time seeing a Raven with leg bands and a GPS backpack on in the park (Melissa has seen them on some of her previous trips the past couple of years). We learned that this is part of a study of Raven movements and interactions with wolves being conducted by researchers at the University of Washington.

The sight of Ravens wearing mini-backpacks (satellite transmitters) really peaked my curiosity. The one above was photographed at Tower Junction near the pit toilets and trash/recycling bins. We saw another one (maybe more) flying back and forth with chunks of meat at the bison carcass where we watched the wolves. When I got home I started searching for more information about this study, the Yellowstone Raven Project. The goal is to have about 70 ravens tagged in the park, all wearing solar-powered GPS backpacks with an antenna that submits the birds’ locations every 30 minutes throughout the day. Using this data, researchers are able to piece together the movement of Ravens from sunrise to sunset. There are many things they are investigating about these highly intelligent birds (how do Ravens consistently find wolf kills?; how far do they travel daily/monthly/yearly,?; where are they roosting?, etc.). I contacted Dr. Marzluff, the lead scientist, this week and asked about the Raven above, as I could not find the color code combination of leg bands on the Animal Tracker app, (this free app allows you to peek in on the movements of various tagged animals around the world, including the Yellowstone Raven Project). He promptly responded to let me know that this bird, a female, was captured and tagged on December 10, 2021, at Tower Junction, and has not yet been added to the app. In fact, he was watching that bird the day I emailed him! I’ll try to follow up with him in a few weeks to see what this bird has been up to. It is really amazing to be able to follow research going on in the park (and there is a lot of it!).

A gorgeous Stellar’s Jay at a friends tree stump feeder outside the park

One of the more unusual bird interactions was with a roadkill Ruffed Grouse. We passed it and Melissa radioed me asking if that thing in the road was an animal or just a mud blob or other inanimate object. I wasn’t sure, so when we came back through, I noticed it was, indeed, an animal. I radioed her and she stopped, exclaiming it was a bird, a grouse! We parked and everyone got out to do a spontaneous roadside necropsy. We saw the track trail of the bird approaching the road in the snow and then the tragic result. Melissa poked around and we could see the stomach contents, which included some rose hips (something I had ironically mentioned as a bird food source to the group on one of our snowshoe hikes when we passed one of the shrubs with its bright red fruit). This close up view also allowed us to admire the beautiful plumage and the amazing adaption of the bristles along the birds’ toes which act like grouse-sized snowshoes. Another unique Yellowstone teachable moment!

A roadkill Ruffed Grouse in the coniferous forest near the Northeast entrance (photo by Melissa Dowland)
A more fortunate Ruffed Grouse after it crossed the road in front of Melissa (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Bald Eagle perched along the Lamar River during a light snow fall
A distant leucistic Bald Eagle (leucism is a genetic mutation which reduces pigment in a bird’s feathers) – taken with an iPhone through a spotting scope by Melissa Dowland
A Golden Eagle at its favorite perch overlooking the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River
The most common duck we see in winter – a male Common Goldeneye

One of my favorite birds in the park, anytime of year, is the American Dipper. I sat along the river one day watching one feed from the edge of the ice.

An American Dipper on the edge of the ice along the Lamar River
I think this prey item ls a stonefly

— American Dipper feeding at the confluence of Soda Butte Creek and the Lamar River

I reviewed 7 video clips I made of athe dipper feeding and the average time spent underwater was 6 seconds (five 6’s, a 5, and a 7). The dipper was successful in bringing up a prey item in all seven instances. All were small invertebrates with the exception of one decent-sized macroinvertebrate that I think was a stonefly larva.

So, why do dippers dip? There are a few theories out there: 1) the repetitive bobbing against the backdrop of turbulent water may help conceal the bird’s profile from predators; 2) dipping in this and some other birds may helps it sight prey; 3) the one that an Audubon article I ran across thinks is the most likely is that dipping and the rhythmic batting of those bright white eyelids is a mode of visual communication with other dippers in their typically noisy environment where the usual calls might not be easily heard.

We also saw several other species that evaded a decent photo including Common Redpoll, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, Black-billed Magpie, Pine Grosbeak, Hairy Woodpecker, Clark’s Nutcracker, Gray Jay, and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mallard, and Trumpeter Swan.

Thanks for following our winter adventure. Can’t wait to go back!

Refuge Ramble, Part 2 – Pea Island and Alligator River

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.

~John Muir

This is the last in a series on my wanderings last week in eastern North Carolina and is about the middle of my trip when I visited the coast. After my brief visit with the pool birds at Bodie Island, I drove down to Pea island National Wildlife Refuge. At the Visitor Center, I got out to look for birds in the pool at the start of the walkway and found just a few sparrows, Several people were down on the dike and most birds were pretty far out in the ponds on both sides. Walking back toward the center, I saw a couple of ducks along the marsh edge a bit closer than the rest of the birds in sight. I sat down and waited and soon a Blue-winged Teal swam by followed by a couple of Gadwall. A Common Moorhen made brief appearances at the edge of the marsh but never long enough for a photo.

Blue-winged Teal drake at Pea Island (click photos to enlarge)

A Tricolored Heron flew in and chased off an egret back in the grasses. A few other folks came over to photograph the birds and I soon headed back to the car.

Tricolored Heron flying into the marsh

On the drive in I noticed a bunch of birds close to the highway visible in a break in the dunes. I drove up and parked and started taking some photos while balancing the telephoto lens on a bean bag on the car door. Whenever possible, I try to stay in my vehicle when photographing wildlife as most species are more tolerant of a vehicle than a human form. Soon, another car pulled up and people got out and walked over toward the birds. The mixed flock of shorebirds and waterfowl surprisingly didn’t seem to care, so I got out and moved a little closer, steadying the camera on a tripod while sitting in the sand. Below are some of the subjects I sat with for over an hour with dump trucks loaded with sand whizzing by twenty feet away on a busy Hwy 12.

Marbled Godwit using that long bill to probe for food
A small flock of Dunlin (note the slightly down-curved bill tip) foraged along the shoreline
A Tundra Swan preens with amazing flexibility in that long neck
There was a flock of 30+ American Avocet resting and feeding in the shallows
Avocets typically feed by swinging their unusual bill back and forth through the water (called scything) but that day they seemed to be picking and plunging after their prey (small aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, occasionally small fish)
Avocet doing a head dunk
The impressive bills of a group of Marbled Godwits

I overheard a group of birders (you know, those people with binoculars and scopes standing out in the cold) nearby say they spotted a Peregrine Falcon on the far side of North Pond. I scanned the area and finally saw it far away in the top of a dead tree snag. Soon, there was an eruption of shorebirds (mainly the Dunlin) and some of the smaller ducks as the swift predator streaked by overhead. The falcon circled the area high in the sky and then disappeared. I soon spotted it again perched in the same snag. The shorebirds and ducks would alert me every time the falcon took to the air by making high-pitched squeaks and a general ruckus of sounds. If you’re a potential meal, it pays to keep an eye on a bird that regularly takes birds as prey at speeds of up to 200 mph. When I finally left this spot, I stopped closer to the falcon’s perch. As I was watching, it took off and flew by me allowing me to swing the big lens and attempt a few shots on the wing…lucky for me, a couple turned out okay.

Immature Peregrine Falcon in flight

I decided to head over to Alligator River NWR for the afternoon in hopes of seeing some bear, a Red Wolf, or whatever the refuge might offer. First up was one of the most elusive birds I have tried to photograph over the years – a Belted Kingfisher. I spotted it perched in a jumble of branches in a tree along one of the canals. Shocked that it didn’t fly as I slowed down, I fired off a few pics with plenty of sticks in the way. I backed the car up a bit for a clearer view (the kiss of death usually when trying to get closer to wildlife – they really don’t seem to like a car backing up) and found a tiny opening in the twigs. It was still a pretty busy background but the bird was amazingly calm and not paying much attention to me.

Belted Kingfisher posing for a portrait

I studied the tree and decided to back up further and angled the car for a better view. Again, the kingfisher remained in place! I finally got about as good a photo of a kingfisher as I have ever taken. Not sure why this particular male (males lack the rusty belly-band found on female Belted Kingfishers) was so cooperative, but I’ll take it.

Male belted Kingfisher studying the canal for a possible meal

I moved on and found another favorable subject, a Great Egret, patiently stalking small fish in another canal. I just love watching them strike the water with their stiletto beaks, rise up out of the water with a squirming prey, and toss it up in the air to gulp it down that elongate neck.

The intense concentration of a Great Egret can be seen in its eyes

Clouds moved in during the afternoon so when I first found this little raptor, it was hard to see any details, but the relative length of the tail and somewhat stocky body made me think – Merlin! Indeed, it was one of our second largest falcons found in NC, although still rather small as raptors go. Though somewhat similar in appearance to Accipiters like Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks, Merlins are a bit stockier, have a shorter tail relative to overall body length, and have brown eyes (Accipiters have yellow eyes as juveniles and reddish eyes as adults).

A Merlin surveys the area for bird prey
Shades of red hug the horizon in a refuge sunset

I was a bit worried at the increasing clouds that night and what it meant for the next day, but, Friday dawned bright and beautiful and very windy. So windy that when I stepped out of the car at the Pea Island Visitor Center, my hat blew off and went halfway across the parking lot. I just got back in the car and drove up to the break in the roadside dunes where I had been yesterday and decided to observe from the vehicle. It turned out to be another productive morning.

Snow Goose adult in the morning sun
It’s tough to look your best when you turn your back in a strong wind (Marbled Godwit with ruffled feathers – and that incredibly long bill)
An American Wigeon male. Depending on the angle of the sun, the swoosh of color covering the eye can appear blackish, bronze, …
…or green. Males also have the distinctive white stripe across the top of their head, giving them their other common name, Baldpate.
A Green-winged Teal, showing its dark green eye stripe and its namesake wing patch
A drake Gadwall with its distinctive black rump. Enlarge the pic to appreciate the intricate details of the feathering on the sides
A flock of American Avocets was a constant at this spot both days I visited
Shorebirds in flight – Marbled Godwits, Dunlin, and an American Avocet (some very nice bill variety)
A female Northern Harrier cruised by and flushed many of the small shorebirds

When it came time to head back to Pungo, I couldn’t help but drive through Alligator River NWR one last time. I did see one bear, but the highlight was a trio of otters (three singles in different canals). With the gang of four I saw later that afternoon at Pungo, it became a 7-otter day.

A River Otter pops up from underneath a mat of aquatic vegetation

It’s always a good day when you see an otter, but what a day when you see seven! The trip was a huge success with birds, a few bears, lots of otter, and good friends. Hoping I can get back down that way again this winter before the birds head back north. We are truly fortunate to have such extraordinary wild places in our state.

This otter had just swam and crawled through a huge patch of vegetation blocking the canal and probably wasn’t thrilled that I was waiting on the other side. After watching me for a few seconds, it dove and swam by me leaving only a trail of bubbles. I left it to its otterly important tasks after that.

Bodie Island

I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence – that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light.

~Lynn Thomson

After a rainy first day at Pungo, I headed to the coast, hoping for better weather the next day. On my way to Pea Island, I stopped at Bodie Island lighthouse early the next morning under gray skies and a steady breeze.

Bodie Island lighthouse a day after heavy rains (click photos to enlarge)

Over the years, I have had good luck birding here, especially on the large marshy ponds out past the lighthouse. But this day yielded almost no birds out there, at least none close enough to see. But the heavy rains the day before had left large pools of standing water in every low spot on the grounds, including a very large pool out by the parking lot. I pulled the car alongside just off the road enough to allow others to pass, and I sat for well over an hour, observing and photographing the birds feeding and bathing in the pool.

A trio of White Ibis feeding at the edge of the grassy pool
The dark water made for good reflections

— The ibis continually probed the soft ground as they walked along, probably picking up worms.

— Some birds came to the pool to bathe.

A Killdeer hunts farther from the water in the short grass

My favorite subject at the pool was a group of Greater Yellowlegs feeding in the shallow water. They did not call so the best way to identify them as Greater Yellowlegs instead of their smaller cousin, the Lesser Yellowlegs, was their stockiness and the bill length relative to their head depth. In greaters, the rather stout bill is 1.5+ times the depth of the head. In lessers, it is just a little larger than the depth of the head, plus the bill is noticeably thinner its entire length. They were masters at catching earthworms that had no doubt come to the surface of the soil due to the flooded conditions.

A Grater Yellowlegs catches a worm
That bill is a delicate but deadly instrument for handling their prey
Great Black-backed Gull dipping its beak in the water
A Boat-tailed Grackle high-stepping it through the pool

The birds seemed totally unconcerned by my presence (and by a couple of other bird watchers out of their vehicles), but did fly off in a panic when two Bald Eagles came flying through, one chasing the other. They moved through so fast I missed my chance at a photo, but, after that, the only birds that came back were a few gulls and some grackles. But, a good start to my day on the coast. More about the other critters I saw in the next post.

1 Bird, 2 Birds, …and some cool other stuff

Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own.

~Charles Dickens

This past Thursday was our annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. As usual, Melissa and I covered our part of the count circle, much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We had planned to camp at Pettigrew State Park the night before, but predicted rain convinced us to just get up early and head down and start close to sunrise. The day dawned cloudy with the potential for rain and conditions on the refuge were not ideal for seeing birds (the dark gray skies make seeing any color or patterns difficult). We started with two bears ambling along the edge of a cornfield as we entered the refuge (I know it is supposed to be a bird count, but we can’t help ourselves). A little farther along, we were seeing a bunch of sparrows and other songbirds in the thick vegetation along one of the canals when I spotted a bunny sitting quietly on the bank.

A rabbit sitting quietly along a roadside canal (click photos to enlarge)

The weather wasn’t the only thing making our observations difficult. The drought and some much needed road construction that impacted one of the feeder canals has left the managed waterfowl impoundments dry this year. This makes it much more difficult to observe the waterfowl up close and it looks like it has caused some of the birds to move elsewhere this winter as swan numbers seemed quite low compared to previous years.

Marsh A is almost totally dry this year (iPhone photo)

The roadside canals were also very low with many having dry spots or mounds of vegetation. Those with water had hunting herons, kingfishers, and a group of otters taking advantage of the concentration of potential prey. We stopped at one spot to look for songbirds and Melissa spotted a wake in the canal, most of which was obscured by overhanging vegetation. She then saw the wake maker – an otter, then 2, 3, and 4 otters appeared. We followed them for awhile and they eventually piled onto a ledge in a tangle of brush and brambles and started rolling around and grooming, occasionally glancing our way. Certainly not the ideal photo, but cool to watch.

The gang of four otters lounging in a tangle and of branches on the bank

Oh, yeah, back to the birds. I look forward to spending time up close to the swans every winter on Marsh A (the usually flooded impoundment with easy road access and plenty of space so people can space themselves out). But the drought and road construction this winter (which hindered the re-flooding of Marsh A) has left it high and dry with only a few puddles scattered over the vast area that typically has a couple of thousand swans in it every day from December through February. It is interesting to finally see how very shallow it is, making it ideal for puddle ducks and the swans. There are a couple of species that have taken advantage of the new giant mud flats – Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe were scattered about. It is amazing how well both species (especially the snipe) blend in to this type of habitat. We started glassing the area after finding the first few snipe and eventually counted over 50 strewn across the rumpled terrain.

Wilson’s Snipe blend in very well to the mud and dried vegetation covered landscape of the dry Marsh A

The unusually warm temperatures gave us the odd combination of winter birds and spring time reptiles and amphibians – lots of turtles out basking, spring peepers calling, along with numerous flying insects (even one Sleepy Orange butterfly).

A male (right) and female Yellow-bellied Slider chilling on a log. Note the long claws on the front feet of the male that he uses to stroke the neck of a female during courtship.

One of the day’s highlights was spotting a group of nine Sandhill Cranes far out in a field feeding alongside swans. The cranes have been regular winter visitors at Pungo for several years now, starting with a group of three for a few winters, then up to five last winter. Nine is a new high for us on the Christmas Count. I guess they’re telling their friends about the wonders of NC.

Seven of the nine Sandhill Cranes we observed

The unseasonably warm day wore on without a lot of bird activity. Luckily, we were given a Special Use Permit for access to a viewing area on Pungo Lake where we spent quite awhile scanning the water for ducks (without that permit, our grand total for ducks observed would have been two mallards since everything was in the lake due to the dry conditions). Satisfied we had seen most of the waterfowl on the lake, we headed back to look for species we thought should be on the refuge that we had not yet seen. But we were soon distracted again by our gang of otters.

The otter gang (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove up alongside the group as they were swimming in one of the canals. They were on Melissa’s side of the vehicle and she managed a rare shot where all four heads are visible at once. I drove ahead and we waited as they approached us and a large mat of vegetation in the canal.

One otter coming toward me

As is often the case, when they reached the vegetation-clogged area in the canal, they disappeared for a few seconds. Then, one by one, they popped their heads up and looked at us, occasionally snorting their disapproval. This went on for about a minute, and then they were off again swimming out ahead of us.

Two of the otter popping up from the vegetation to check me out

Up ahead was a juncture of several canals where otter frequently cross the road, so we drove beyond them and waited just beyond that spot. They kept coming toward us and then one otter came up out of the canal and ran across the dike, carrying a large prey. On our first sighting that morning, one otter had caught a large fish and carried it into the brush on the bank to eat. This one had something long and skinny. I thought it might be an amphiuma, a type of large aquatic salamander common in these habitats, but the otter moved out of sight quickly, followed by the other three, all heading into a canal on the other side.

Otter moving across the canal dike with fresh prey (photo by Melissa Dowland)

I had stepped out of the truck to move to the front to hopefully get a photo, but Melissa had the better angle (again!) and managed several photos as the otter carried its prey across the open ground. Indeed, looking at it on her camera, we could see it was a large salamander! There are a couple of species of large aquatic salamanders that live in these coastal plain ditches and swamps – the Greater Siren and the Two-toed Amphiuma. Both species can grow to over 3 feet in length and both resemble large eels when seen at a distance. Sirens have external gills (we can’t readily distinguish any in the few photos we have) and have only a front pair of legs. The back of the salamander was dragging on the ground so I can’t tell if there are hind legs or not. Looking at images online, it seems that the front legs of a Greater Siren are more substantial than those of an amphiuma, so I am now leaning toward this otter snack being a Greater Siren, but I will happily listen to any opinions from salamanderologists out there.

A close crop reveals the prey is a large aquatic salamander, probably a Greater Siren! (photo by Melissa Dowland)

The otter incident revived our spirits and we moved into high gear, looking for species likely to occur here but that we were still missing. Wild Turkeys are often seen in a field at the edge of the refuge, so we headed in that direction, stopping at a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds to scan for cowbirds and grackles. The turkeys were out in their field, so that added another species.

A gathering of Red-winged Blackbirds

Back near the lake, groups of Snow Geese flew off for their late day feeding in nearby crop fields. We scanned the long lines of birds overhead, looking for a smaller bird mixed in with the flock, a Ross’s Goose. They look like a diminutive Snow Goose, being just over half the size of their bigger cousin. I can find them when they are in a field feeding if the smaller bird is on the outside edge of the flock. Or, I have learned to spot them by scanning a line of flying geese and seeing the obviously smaller one. Thursday, we only managed one Ross’s Goose despite scanning a few hundred flying birds.

Snow Geese flying out of Pungo Lake for their late day feeding (iPhone photo)

We ended the day walking down my long-time favorite spot – “Bear Road”. As rain showers were looming, the now usual crowd at Bear Road had headed home so we had it all to ourselves. Solitude here is now a rare privilege that makes me appreciate even more all the times I experienced this in years past. We picked up an Eastern Screech Owl and another Great Horned Owl, along with bunches of White-throated Sparrows and a few other songbirds (oh, and a mama bear with two cubs). Though not one of our more productive bird species days, a day in the field, especially at Pungo, is always a good day.

Species observed on our part of the count:

10000 Snow Goose
1 Ross’s Goose
280 Canada Goose
3140 Tundra Swan
1 Wood Duck
48 Northern Shoveler
300 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
75 Mallard
12 American Black Duck
26 Northern Pintail
428 Ring-necked Duck
2 Ruddy Duck
5 Wild Turkey
33 Mourning Dove
9 Sandhill Crane
89 Killdeer
55 Wilson’s Snipe
230 Ring-billed Gull
7 Great Blue Heron
3 Black Vulture
36 Turkey Vulture
2 Northern Harrier
3 Bald Eagle
2 Red-shouldered Hawk
4 Red-tailed Hawk
1 Eastern Screech-Owl
4 Great Horned Owl
1 Belted Kingfisher
2 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
4 Red-bellied Woodpecker
1 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
2 Pileated Woodpecker
4 Northern Flicker
4 American Kestrel
8 Eastern Phoebe
4 Blue Jay
25 American Crow
8 Carolina Chickadee
2 Tufted Titmouse
2 Tree Swallow
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
1 Brown-headed Nuthatch
1 Winter Wren
10 Carolina Wren
3 Gray Catbird
2 Brown Thrasher
3 Northern Mockingbird
2 Eastern Bluebird
2 Hermit Thrush
548 American Robin
2 American Goldfinch
103 White-throated Sparrow
1 Savannah Sparrow
49 Song Sparrow
18 Swamp Sparrow
1 Eastern Towhee
7 Eastern Meadowlark
430 Red-winged Blackbird
1 Common Grackle
50 Yellow-rumped Warbler
35 Northern Cardinal

Singing in the Rain

I’m happy again
I’m singin’ and dancing in the rain
I’m dancing and singin’ in the rain

~Lyrics from Singing in the Rain by Arthur Freed & Nacio Herb Brown

I will admit to not quite feeling that happy to wake up to the downpour this morning, but somebody did. At least, they seemed happy right after the deluge stopped. I looked out the kitchen door to check on our little vegetable garden (one of the few down sides of living in our woods is a lack of sun for vegetables, so the garden is small) and spotted something on one of the fence posts.


Our veggie garden as seen from the kitchen door (click photos to enlarge)

It was our resident male Carolina Wren singing his little heart out. He looked a bit ruffled after all the rain, but he was determined to let everything know he was in good spirits. I grabbed the camera with the telephoto on it and eased out onto the side porch. The only view of him I had was through a small circular gap in the pea plants growing on the line trellis. He serenaded the world for a couple of minutes, dancing his way around the fence top to make sure no matter where you were in the yard, you could hear his loud tea- kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle lyrics. So, here is Mr. Wren, singin’ and dancing in the rain…

Carolina wren singing right

Carolina Wren in full song mode

Carolina wren singing right 1

After a brief shake (in which he lost a feather), the song resumes

Carolina wren singing

Here’s looking at you

Carolina wren singing left

Okay, I can move on now


Suet Sampler

I don’t feed the birds because they need me; I feed the birds because I need them.

~Kathi Hutton

Sunday was a gray, chilly day here in the woods and the birds were quite active at the feeders. One group of birds, in particular, had my attention, the gorgeous Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been back about two weeks. They make a stop of a few weeks every spring on their way to their breeding grounds further north (and in our mountains), and then again in the fall as they head to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. I decided to set up the camera and tripod in our bedroom, open the door to the deck, and record who came to visit the suet feeder mounted on the deck rail. I did something similar a few years back and shared images in another post. This time, I sat for a little over an hour, and tried to take pictures of everything that came in to the feeder. Enjoy the view from our deck…

Rose-breasted grosbeak male

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (click photos to enlarge)

It started with a single male and we are now up to our usual number of 9 grosbeaks visiting the feeders – 7 males and 2 females. They tend to come in all at once and spread out between our two feeding stations. Their favorite treat seems to be the sunflower seeds at the platform feeders (they have trouble balancing on the tube feeder). But they are also frequent the suet feeders as well, especially the one on the deck which has a branch underneath where birds can perch and reach up to the suet. Because of our superabundance of squirrels, we use only hot pepper suet, which is a deterrent to mammals, but not birds.

Rose-breasted grosbeak males at feeder

Lining up at the suet.

Rose-breasted grosbeak female

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are brown with striping and a bold eye stripe.

Blue jay

The undisputed piggies at the suet are the Blue Jays. They can quickly take chunks away, but they are a bit skittish, and flush easily if we are outside or walking near widows inside.

Red-bellied woodpecker female

A pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers (this is the female which lacks a full red head) are regular year-round visitors to the suet.

Downy and chippie

Downy woodpeckers are also regular visitors, but this spring we also have a pair of Chipping Sparrows feeding in the yard.

White-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch.

Tufted titmouse

We have a gang of Tufted Titmice that make regular rounds throughout the yard.

Carolina chickadee

Carolina Chickadees are with us all year.

Northern cardinal 1

A pair of Northern Cardinals visit the feeders every day, but it is mainly the male that feeds on suet.

Summer tanager

Another of our special suet visitors is a pair of Summer Tanagers (we have only seen the male thus far).

Pine warbler with caterpillar

Pine Warblers are common at our suet in winter but not this time of year. This one stopped by his old diner with a side dish of caterpillar.

I missed photos of two other birds that eat the suet this time of year – American Crows (who are too savvy to come in while I’m sitting there), and our local pair of Carolina Wrens. They are busy feeding their newly fledged young and don’t have time for an appearance.

There have been some other good bird finds this week away from the feeders as spring migration is in full swing and our newly arrived breeding birds are setting up territories or starting to nest. I stumbled across an Ovenbird nest with eggs down in our woods while clearing some invasive shrubs (the dreaded Eleagnus). She flew out of her dome-shaped ground nest doing the broken wing act to lure me away. And we have seen and heard a variety of migrants all week long, some that will stay with us through the summer…

Red-eyed vireo

A bonus visitor just off the deck – a Red-eyed Vireo, foraging for insects.

Scarlet tanager

This is the best I could do with one of my favorite summer species, the vibrant Scarlet Tanager. They tend to be up high in the canopy but should come down lower in a few weeks when the mulberries ripen (a treat for both species of tanagers in our woods).

Yellow-throated warbler in yard

Remember how excited we were to see the Yellow-throated Warbler down low along the Roanoke River? Well, the other day one was hopping around in our garden. While this was happening we saw and heard American Redstarts, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, and Black-throated Blues. Ah, spring!

Bird Spot

Simply wait, be quiet, still. The world will freely offer itself to you.

~Franz Kafka

Yesterday’s post mentioned the excellent birding we experienced on our recent paddle trip on the Roanoke River. When we arrived at our second camping platform, Three Sisters, the late day light was gorgeous and the sky was filled with all sorts of birds. After setting up camp (and shooing away the vultures dining on the fish skeletons) we sat out on the small dock by the creek for over an hour watching the parade of birds go by. I decided to practice some birds in flight photography to see what I could capture. Here are a few of the results…

anhinga overhead

The distinctive cross-shape of Anhingas soaring overhead was a common sight on the blackwater tributaries of the Roanoke (click photos to enlarge)

anhinga fly by

An Anhinga flying low over the creek. We commented on how many of these unusual “snakebirds” we saw on this trip compared to our previous outings.

wood duck female

A female Wood Duck blasts past our dock in late afternoon light.

wood duck male

Almost all the ducks we saw were in pairs. This is the male Wood Duck escorting the one above.

chimney swift

The real challenge was tying to photograph Chimney Swifts in flight. As you can see, I never really got it right as they are just too darned fast and erratic. It is comforting to know that they are no doubt nesting in many of the giant hollow Bald Cypress trees scattered throughout the swamp.

great blue heron overhead

A Great Blue Heron flying to roost.

great egret overhead

We saw more Great Egrets on this trip than in the past. This one’s wing bones showed through its backlit feathers.

white ibis in flight

As the sun set, large flocks of White Ibis started flying in to the next creek and surrounding wetlands.

I had planned to do some more dock sitting the next morning, but after the water came up during the night, I ended up strolling the short walkway to the platform and trying to photograph the many birds that were active all around us.

blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are always a treat to see up close.

summer tanager singing

This male Summer Tanager sang for much of the morning from high atop a partially defoliated Water Tupelo.

White-breasted nuthatch

A White-breasted Nuthatch knocked off some bark that fell on my head, alerting me to his presence right above me.

White-eyed vireo

A male White-eyed Vireo was loudly singing in thick brush out near the creek. I kept stalking him, hoping for a clear shot.

white-eyed vireo singing

He finally obliged and came out on an open twig for a few notes of pick up the beer check quick, before disappearing back into a thicket.

These images represent just a fraction of what we saw on this trip. Below is a checklist of species we observed/heard during our time in this magical swamp. Tomorrow, I’ll share some highlights of our warbler watching.

Birds: Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; White Ibis; Spotted Sandpiper; Double-crested Cormorant; Anhinga; Wood Duck; Mallard; Canada Goose; Turkey Vulture; Black Vulture; Red-shouldered Hawk; Bald Eagle; Osprey; Barred Owl; Belted Kingfisher; Great Crested Flycatcher; Blue Jay; American Crow; Fish Crow; Common Grackle; Red-winged Blackbird; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; Pileated Woodpecker; Chimney Swift; Barn Swallow; Eastern Towhee; Northern Cardinal; Mourning Dove; Gray Catbird; Swamp Sparrow; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; Carolina Wren; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; White-eyed Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Yellow-throated Vireo; Eastern Bluebird; White-breasted Nuthatch; Summer Tanager; Yellow-billed Cuckoo;Northern Parula Warbler; Black-and-white Warbler; Prairie Warbler; Prothonotary Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Common Yellowthroat; Yellow-rumped Warbler

Mammals: White-tailed Deer; Gray Squirrel; Southern Flying Squirrel; Nutria; Mink; Raccoon; (active Beaver lodges)

Herps: Painted Turtle; Yellow-bellied Slider; River Cooter: Brown Water Snake; American Bullfrog; Southern Cricket Frog