Go where you feel most alive.
I have been missing my usual winter routine of several trips down east. Schedules have been busy, and this thing called work has a way of occupying a lot of your time! So, last week we decided to make a day-trip to my favorite spots in North Carolina – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I wrote about one of the highlights in a previous blog – the epic battle between heron and fish. This post covers the rest of that amazing day, starting with a rendezvous with our friend in Raleigh at 6:45 a.m. (admittedly, a rather leisurely hour for such a trip).
Tundra swans on ice (click photos to enlarge)
We arrived at the Pungo Unit a little after 9. The skies were gray, the wind whipping, temperatures below freezing – a Pungo kind of day. This is the reason I often tell people to dress as if “you will be the coldest you have ever been”. To our surprise, the only birds in the fields behind the maintenance compound were a ton of American robins. Friends had reported that large flock of snow geese had been feeding there in recent days, and it was the time of day when they are usually in the fields for breakfast. We drove on, spotting a couple of uncooperative river otter in a canal. Try as we might, we only managed quick glimpses before they totally disappeared. A quick stop at the blustery observation platform confirmed that the waterfowl know not to be out in the open on such a windy day. All we could see were some thin white lines of swans on the far shore where the forested shoreline provides them with some protection from the north wind.
Sandhill cranes on the refuge!
On to Marsh A, one of the managed wetland areas for waterfowl, and a favorite place of both swans and swan-watchers. Indeed, there were a few thousand tundra swans milling about, some, on the fringes of the flock, walking on ice. A quick glass of the area revealed a bonus – three sandhill cranes! They were reported earlier in the season, but we had missed them on the Christmas Bird Count. I have seen this species here sporadically over the years, usually just as a fly-over. but these three were hunkered down in the marsh, no doubt wondering why they had not opted for a warmer habitat. We then saw a giant flock of snow geese flying into the lake from the north. Had they been feeding in the fields along “Bear Road”? We drove over, hoping to see some stragglers and were greeted by a few hundred snow geese out in the corn. We encountered some other friends from Raleigh, shared a few stories, and then headed over to Mattamuskeet for the middle part of the day. We spent a lot of the time with the aforementioned heron, but also saw thousands of ducks (especially northern pintails), another disappearing otter, and a dancing night heron.
Night heron shimmy
An adult black-crowned night heron was on one of the usual pilings in the pool near the entrance to Mattamuskeet, so we stopped and walked over to admire. It was striking their usual stoic pose, when, all of a sudden, it went through a series of gyrations that would make any dance contestant proud. When it settled back down, it did a quick poop (lighten the load) and flew off.
After spending a couple of hours at Mattamuskeet, we headed back to Pungo for what we hoped would be a grand evening show. The walk down Bear Road quickly showed why I dubbed it thus years ago, before real road name signs went up – five bears came out across the field to feed. After watching them mill about and horse around (a couple of young ones were wrestling), we headed into the woods. Melissa and I both commented that there isn’t as much fresh bear sign in these woods this winter – there is some, but not the totally worn down “bear living rooms” we have seen in the past. Suddenly, our friend said, “Look, a tiny owl”!
Eastern screech owl out on a limb
I had been checking out every snag as we walked, so I naturally looked at the dead top of the tree where she was pointing. I couldn’t see it. “Right there”, she exclaimed. I followed her outstretched hand, and, to my surprise, there is a screech owl sitting out in the open on a branch several feet away from the trunk. The little guy barely moved its head to watch us as we slowly maneuvered, trying not to scare it. The fading sunlight would move on and off the owl, highlighting its beautiful rufous plumage.
Gray morph Eastern screech owl from 2016
In a post from a very “owly” day a couple of years ago, I shared photos of another Eastern screech owl from the Pungo Unit. That one was a gray morph using a wood duck box as a nest site. Eastern screech owls come in two primary color morphs in our state – red (or rufous) and gray (there is a third, a brown morph, in the far south). That doesn’t mean they can change color (they remain whichever color they are their entire life), it simply means there are two primary colors seen in this species. It turns out that the red color morph is more common in southern parts of the range, while the gray is predominant in colder regions. Plumage color appears to be correlated with thermal adaptation. One ornithologist writing about the color morphs summarized findings that showed that gray birds survive colder temperatures better than red birds, which may account for their differential distribution.
That look that only a screech owl can give
After observing the owl (and it, half open-eyed, observing us) for several minutes, we walked on, hoping it would not fall prey to any of the numerous winged predators that hunt these woods (great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, etc.). About that time, flocks of snow geese started to fly overhead and began circling the fields along Bear Road. We headed out into the open, hoping they would land. As we watched (and wondered about the energy budget of snow goose behavior), something else caught my eye down the road.
This town isn’t big enough for the two of us
A medium-sized black bear came out into the road and started ambling our way. When I alerted the others, we undoubtedly moved a bit, and the bear stopped in its tracks. He looked our way, then stood up to check us out. A standing bear always reminds me of how much we have in common with bruins. This one also looked as if he was trying out for a role in Gunfight at the Pungo Corral. He dropped and cautiously went back into the woods.
Snow geese swirling over the corn at sunset
Our attention shifted back to the birds, which were now circling near us in dense, squawking clouds. I never tire of this visual spectacle and the incredible sounds that accompany it.
I just want to cross at my usual spot
For the next several minutes, we stood in awe of the scene before us – countless birds swirling nearby, swans flying over our heads back to the lake, and our bear friend tentatively trying to reach his canal crossover spot. The bear may be one I have seen over the past couple of years that we dubbed “buddy bear” (for his tolerance of humans). He kept coming out to the road, looking our way, then retreating back into the woods. He would then ease closer to us, come back out into the road, and repeat the sequence. All the while, thousands of birds circled out in front of us…which way to look? The bear ended up catching our attention again when he came out on the crossover path and headed down the canal bank. We all watched as he swam across, shook off, and scurried into the standing corn. What a privilege to be able to witness all this.
Huge flock of snow geese flying into the field
We started to head back to the car and then saw wave after wave of snow geese flying in from the northeast to join the thousands already landing in the corn. This was like the scenes of a few years ago – thousands of snow geese in the fields along Bear Road at sunset, hundreds of ducks swooping in to join them, bears coming out from several directions, swans calling as they fly in from the north, deer coming out of the woods, and woodcock streaking out into the fields to feed. Then we heard the final actor in this grand play – the haunting call of a great horned owl.
A great horned owl at sunset
Melissa soon spotted it in a tree not far from us. It flew to a branch out over Bear Road, silhouetted against the fading orange sky. What a great ending to an amazing day! This place is truly magical. It really is somewhere you go to feel alive, to recharge your spirit, and to rediscover a sense of awe and wonder about our world, Thank you, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for making this possible. We all need to support these public lands, especially now, so they remain available for us and these amazing natural spectacles.
Species observed at Pocosin Lakes (Pungo Unit) and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges 1/15/18:
Birds (61 species):
Double-crested Cormorant; Canada Goose; Snow Goose; Ross’s Goose; Tundra Swan; Mallard; Black Duck; Northern Shoveler; Northern Pintail; Ring-necked Duck; Wood Duck; Gadwall; Bufflehead; Ruddy Duck; Hooded Merganser; American Coot; Pied-billed Grebe; Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; Sandhill Crane; Black-crowned Night Heron; Turkey Vulture; Red-tailed Hawk; Bald Eagle; Northern Harrier; American Kestrel; Eastern Screech Owl; Great Horned Owl; Ring-billed Gull; Mourning Dove; Belted Kingfisher; Northern Flicker; Pileated Woodpecker; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; American Woodcock; Killdeer; American Crow; Eastern Phoebe; American Robin; Eastern Bluebird; Northern Mockingbird; Carolina Wren; Winter Wren; White-throated Sparrow; Swamp Sparrow; Savannah Sparrow; Song Sparrow; Tree Swallow; Red-winged Blackbird; Common Grackle; Brown-headed Cowbird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; European Starling; Orange-crowned Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Golden-crowned Kinglet
Mammals (7 species):
River Otter; Black Bear; Gray Squirrel; White-tailed Deer; Hispid Cotton Rat; Raccoon; Nutria