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.

A Beary Hot Summer Day

The month of August had turned into a griddle where days just lay there and sizzled.

~Sue Monk Kidd

Last week, we spent 5 days in the wilds of eastern NC, a combination mini-vacation and working trip to further investigate the area around the Scuppernong River for the project I am working on with NCLOW. As you might expect, it was a tad warm (especially for the guy that loves cold weather), but we planned to be on or near water most of the week. Turns out, we are not the only ones that think that way. Returning to Columbia after a short excursion to the Outer Banks, we drove through Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, in the hopes of seeing some wildlife. Temperatures had been hot all week with high humidity adding to the discomfort. We entered the refuge about 5:30 p.m., that time of day when wildlife begins to come out of the forest in search of an evening meal. Driving down one of the main gravel roadways, Melissa spotted something off to the side in the canal…a bear cooling off in the water, a bear bathtub.

bear in canal

Black bear cooling off in a canal on a hot August afternoon (click photos to enlarge)

It was a big bear, and it was just chillin’. When we pulled up, it glanced our way and then quickly went back into that chillin’ mode, eyes closed, almost a grin of cool relief on its face.

bear in canal wider view

We could almost hear a sigh of relief in that look

The afternoon temperatures reached into the low 90’s that day, so I am sure this water, in spite of its less than desirable look, was quite satisfying. A black bear’s normal body temperature isn’t far from our own, around 98 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (it is less during hibernation). The thick black fur is a good insulator, but can present problems in the heat of summer. And, like dogs, bears lack sweat glands, so they must use other means to cool off – panting, lying in the shade, digging day beds to lie on the cool ground, or taking a nice plunge in the water. I have seen bears cooling off before in canals at Pocosin Lakes NWR, but have never been this close to one seemingly so relaxed in the cool water.

bear in canal wider view 1

The bear relaxed onto all fours when another car pulled up

Another vehicle soon pulled up, but the large bear did not seem concerned. It did shift its posture and sat down in the water with all four paws presumably on the muddy bottom.

bear in canal scrunching up face

The bear began to scrunch up its nose

After remaining almost motionless for a few minutes, the bear began to scrunch up its nose, revealing more of its teeth and tongue. We wondered what it was up to…trying to smell us (a third car had driven up at that point)? When I got home and looked at the images, I think I now know what was happening.

bear in canal scrunching up face close up

Was this face in response to biting flies?

The photos taken when the bear was scrunching up its nose show a couple of biting flies on its snout. Pictures prior to that (like the first three photos above) show none of the irritating insects.

bear with biting flies on face

A trickle of blood from a fly bite on his nose

The last few photos showed a tiny trickle of blood running off his nose. Look carefully at the previous image and you can see there was a fly in that spot. Guess I, too, would scrunch up my face under those conditions.

bear leaving canal

The big fella finally departs for the corn fields

After spending nine minutes with this big guy (no telling how long he was chillin’ in the canal before we arrived), he finally decided to head back up into the fields. I suppose he was headed for a nice corn dinner, and maybe some dense vegetation where those pesky flies couldn’t get to his sensitive nose.

 

 

A Hot Day at the Refuges

All that is beautiful is difficult.

~Plato

That sort of sums up my last trip to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. It was beautiful, but difficult. Made so by the intense heat and humidity on the day of my tour last week. The heat was stifling, but, my clients and I managed to survive, and see some interesting wildlife as well. My friend, Petra, had once again helped arrange a tour for some folks from the Netherlands (this is the fourth trip I have guided for wonderful guests from the Netherlands). And, like the others, they wanted to see bears, so I met them in Plymouth early Thursday morning for a trip over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR. After driving through the refuge and seeing mainly butterflies and a few birds, we parked and walked down one of my favorite dirt roads, hoping for bears. Tracks in the mud showed they were around, but none showed themselves as we strolled and sweated a mile down the road. We did have a couple of Bald Eagles, some woodpeckers, toads, lizards, and more butterflies, but no bears for the first part of the walk. After reminding folks that you should always look behind you, one of my clients did just that, and spotted a bear. Of course, it was only a hundred yards or so from our parked car and here we were about a mile away. The grasses and weeds had grown up in most of the side paths, so we skipped those and headed back, spotting a couple of more distant bears along the way. Closer to the car, a large bear was ambling along the edge of the crop field on the other side of the canal, headed in the same direction we were walking. As we got closer, I saw it suddenly turn around and start walking in our direction, so we stopped.

Big Boy Bear

Large Black Bear passes by across the canal (click photos to enlarge)

He passed by on the other side of the canal, partially obscured by the tall weeds. He was a big guy, maybe 300+ pounds, I am guessing. And it looked as though he has seen his share of scuffles with other bears, from the look of his ears and coat.

Big Boy Bear 1

The bear swam across the canal after moving past us

The wind was in our favor but I think he heard our loud camera shutters and picked up the pace, running down the far side of the canal about one hundred yards, where he swam across and stood in the road looking back at us. Needless to say, that was quite a thrill for us all. The morning turned out pretty good for bears with twelve sightings for most of us (one person saw one more run across a road that the rest of us missed). The highlights were the big guy across the canal and two sightings of bears in trees – a mother with two cubs in one tree, and a lone cub lounging in the shade of another tall tree. We all agreed that cub had the right idea for such a hot day – get in the shade up where there was some breeze, drape your legs over a large limb, and chill out. A good spotting scope really helps you appreciate the behaviors of wildlife in these types of situations.

Photographing a spider in the swamp

The short boardwalk loop through the swamp is one of my favorite stops

We decided to run over to nearby Mattamuskeet NWR to see what else we could see. There were the usual waders, Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons, plus lots of turtles in the canals. People were catching Blue Crabs in several places (a very popular summer activity at this refuge). But, after driving the length of Wildlife Drive, no foxes or other wildlife were seen. We stopped to walk the short boardwalk through the swamp as it is one of my favorite hikes at Mattamuskeet. It was made more appealing on this afternoon due to the shade. As is often the case when I am leading a group, I left my camera in the car. My goal is to find things for the clients to observe and photograph, plus I always joke that by leaving my camera behind, it increases our chances of seeing something interesting. Well, it did not disappoint.

Golden Orb Weaver

Golden Orb Weaver (photo by Petra Glorie)

I spotted a huge web of a Golden Silk Orbweaver, Nephila clavipes (also called the Golden Silk Spider and the Banana Spider) . This female provided a great photo opportunity in the late day sun, and I thank Petra for the use of one of her excellent images. This is one of our largest spiders, the female being up to 1.5 to 2 inches in body length, with a leg span of up to 4 inches. Males are tiny, averaging only a little over one-quarter of an inch in body length. The spider is named for the unusual gold-colored silk in its web. And the web is huge, spanning a few feet across the swamp. I don’t remember seeing them at Mattamuskeet before, but I am not down there as often in the summer. Records have shown a range expansion for this species, especially in the past two decades. I remember seeing them in the Wilmington area fifteen or twenty years ago, and then seeing them gradually move northward and inland. They are now found from North Carolina (primarily the Coastal Plain) south to Texas. And for those of you cringing at the thought of this huge spider moving into your neighborhood in the near future as range expansion continues with climate change, at least we can be thankful it is such a beautiful species.

Pungo Reflections – Forest

Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares that will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering…observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.

~Maya Angelou

Looking up through the trees at Pungo

Looking up through the trees at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

It was certainly too cold for ants on my last trip, but not for enjoying the treetops. On my trips with clients I often feel the pressure to keep moving, to cover as much of the refuge as possible to increase our chances of seeing wildlife. When I have my own Pungo Time, I tend to wander and linger in an area for longer, just observing. I enjoy being a woods-watcher, looking closely at the details of a place, listening, sitting quietly and letting nature come to me. The forests of Pungo are challenging – there are relatively few places you can walk in them during the winter waterfowl season as many areas are closed to minimize human disturbance to wildlife. Other areas are so dense or so wet as to make walking next to impossible. But, there are a few paths where you can stroll along a dirt road next to the woods and peek in and see what is, or has been, going on in the forest.

Bald Eagle in dead tree at sunrise

Bald Eagle in dead tree at swan impoundment at sunrise

Of course, I also survey the edges of the forest as I am driving the refuge roads, and these trees, especially dead snags, are often quite productive. Bald Eagles like to perch in large trees at the edges of impoundments or fields where waterfowl congregate. Here, they can survey the scene in the hopes of spotting a weakling in the flock that might make an easy meal.

Turkey Vulture on dead tree

Turkey Vulture in early morning light

One section of forest edge has also been good for vultures early and late in the day, so I assume they have been roosting in this spot this winter. Even at some distance, their silhouettes can be distinguished from those of eagles because of their somewhat hunched appearance and the way they tend to hold their heads at a downward angle. If you can get a beak profile in your binoculars you can definitely discern the difference between the two species since an eagles’ beak appears much stronger and more massive.

Bears must love the sap and cambium of Sweet Gum trees

Bears must love the sap and cambium of Sweet Gum trees

After an early morning drive through the refuge, I decided to head down one of my favorite paths and spend some time along the edge of the forest. This area is well known for the population of Black Bears that frequent the corn fields and associated woodland borders. There is so much bear sign here – almost every large tree has claw marks from scratching or climbing. Large Sweet Gum trees are particularly susceptible to bear activity and many show scars where bears have torn off sections of bark near the base. There are usually vertical teeth marks and often some horizontal claw marks. I think the bears must be going after the sweet sap and perhaps the cambium layer of these trees. It looks like this past year (I assume it happens mainly in spring when the sap is rising) has been a particularly busy one for bears with a sweet tooth. Surprisingly, I see most of these trees surviving years after this happens.

Bear puling at Cross Vine

Young Black Bear standing next to tree

On a recent trip, I encountered a young bear as he was standing up against a large tree near the forest edge. I have seen this same young Black Bear several times this season in this same general area. But here he was apparently hugging a tree as if he wanted to climb it but was hesitant. He really paid me little mind but rather seemed more interested in something on the tree.

Bear puling at Cross Vine 1

Bear puling at vine on tree

As I watched, I could see him sniff, then start mouthing something just out of my view around the trunk of the tree. It really wasn’t until I put down the camera and looked with binoculars that I could tell what it was – he was pulling at a Crossvine, a common semi-evergreen native vine of this area, and one I blogged about in 2013.

Bear puling at Cross Vine 3

Bear puling at Crossvine

The bear walked part-way around the tree trunk, yanking and pulling the vine.

Bear puling at Cross Vine close up

Bear eating Crossvine leaf

Once he got some of it down, he pulled it back around and stood up and appeared to eat a few of the leaves. Seems like a lot of effort for little reward to me, and, while I have heard deer will eat the leaves, I had not heard of bears eating them. But, young bears are particularly curious, so, even though there was a field of corn less than 200 feet away, this was perhaps a more pleasant way to spend some time while trying new things. On my next visit, I took my clients to this area, hoping to see the young bear again. Instead, we were privileged to spend some quality time quietly observing a mother bear with her two young cubs. The next day I went back to this area with high hopes for bears.

Looking up at the bear

A young Black Bear sleeping in a tree

After walking a short distance I caught something out of the corner of my eye up in a large Tulip Poplar tree along the edge. Sure enough, it was the same young Black Bear I had seen on a few previous trips. This time, he seemed to be sound asleep high in a tree.

Looking back at me

Looking back at me

When I walked around the tree for a closer look, the bear gave me one as well, peering down to see what was rustling leaves beneath its bed.

Sleeping bear

The young bear finally turned around and was in the sun

Not wanting to disturb its sleep, I went back around to the sunny side of the tree and waited. After about twenty minutes, the bear moved a bit, stood up, turned so its head was on my side of the tree, and laid back down.

Waking up

Waking up

Another ten minutes went by as I watched the bear doze off and then open one eye to glance around. Finally, it raised up, checked on my whereabouts, and began to groom.

Time to groom

Time to groom

It apparently doesn’t take too long to ready yourself for an afternoon out in the forest (about 8 minutes for this bear after waking up). The short video below shows a few of the bear’s primping techniques.

During that time, the bear raised up, laid down, chewed its paws and belly, scratched a few times, and looked pretty relaxed while accomplishing all of this about 40 feet off the ground. The screechy sounds you hear in the video are from thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds that were sitting in nearby treetops. How did that bear sleep through all that?

Coming down

Coming down

Finally, about 40 minutes after I first spotted the bear sleeping in a tree, it decided to climb down to spend time foraging on the forest floor below. That was my signal for me to move on and let the bear go about its business. I don’t want this young bear to become too comfortable around people, so I thought it better to let it be.

Napping Raccoon

Another tree napper

I walked less than a hundred yards and noticed a well-camouflaged blob in a tree- this time a young Raccoon. I frequently advise clients to keep an eye out for sleeping Raccoons on our winter walks. I have found two others this winter, but they were both crammed into what seemed like uncomfortable positions in cracks and crevices of hollow trees. This one was out in the open, resting in the fork of a large tree trunk. I have noticed over the years that Raccoons like to sleep out in the open more on cold days with lots of sunshine and little wind.

Looking down at me

Looking down at me

Like the bear, this little guy also had its best side toward me, so I walked around to look up and, once again, the tree-napper looked down the trunk at me.

Turning around

The Raccoon turns around and faces the sun after being awakened

The young Raccoon slowly turned around and then began the same pattern of afternoon preparations that the nearby bear had done – a sequence of grooming. But, apparently, it takes a Raccoon a lot longer than a bear to get ready to head out.

Raccoon scratching 1

This little guy had a lot of itches

Twist and turn

You sometimes really have to reach to get that itch

I sat and watched the Raccoon take care of business for 45 minutes.

Yawning

The big yawn

After all that, we were both a little tired, so I decided to continue on. I could hear the Tundra Swans and Snow Geese out on the lake starting to stir, so I headed back out into the open where I could more clearly view another component of this amazing habitat – the sky.

Sunset sky and lone pine

And the sky did not disappoint (more on that in the next post). The pink sky directed me to my car after what had been an incredible day at Pungo. A lone pine provided a stark silhouette to guide me back. It reminded me of a quote I found some time ago by an unknown author…

The young pine knows the secrets of the ground, the old pine knows the stars.

The old trees also know the habits of many of the forests’ wild creatures, and at least one woods-watcher on this day, one who is very grateful for the presence of these stately trees, and for the company they keep.

 

 

Learning by Experience

The feeling of respect for all species will help us recognize the noblest nature in ourselves.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of sharing two of my favorite places with an enthusiastic group of NC State students in the Leopold Wildlife Club. I was asked if I would accompany them on a field experience by the group’s president, who had been on trips with me when I was at the museum and he was in the youth group at the museum called The Junior Curators. I was happy to participate in a field experience for these students, almost none of whom had been to this wildlife-rich region of the state before. The plan was to go to Mattamuskeet NWR first, then cruise back to Pocosin Lakes NWR for sunset. But, when I asked my van what they wanted to see the most, the answer was a resounding, “bears”. So, to increase our chances, I decided to visit the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR on the way to Mattamuskeet, then come back at sunset, if we had time.

Sure enough, we spotted five bears on our quick drive through the refuge, along with some nice views of a feeding Nutria, several shorebird species (Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, and an abundance of Wilson’s Snipe) , and my first Tundra Swans of the season flying to and from the lake.

Leopold Wildlife Club and roadkill bear

Students observing young roadkill bear (click photos to enlarge)

As we continued on toward Mattamuskeet, we saw a car sitting along the road, flashers blinking. As we pulled up, we could see why – a roadkill Black Bear. It was a small bear, less than 100 pounds I guessed, probably dead less than a day. The students all piled out of the vans to take a closer look – sad for the bear, but a learning opportunity to see one of these animals up close. The other car had stopped for the same reason, just to look.

Roadkill Black Bear

Roadkill bears are becoming a more common sight in eastern NC

When I returned home, I looked for data on bear roadkills in NC and  came cross a comprehensive overview of bears in NC put out by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission entitled, North Carolina Black Bear Management Plan 2012-2022. It included a graph showing the increase in reported bear roadkills in eastern NC from the 1970’s until 2010. The data showed a steady increase rising from less than 20/year in 1980 to over 150/year in 2010. Another chart showed a similar trend in population estimates of Black Bears in the state. Wildlife biologists believe there are now close to 10,000 bears living in the Coastal Plain compared to about 6,000 in the Mountains. So, Black Bears are, indeed, increasing in numbers and the Commission is looking at ways to better manage this growing population. Use of wildlife passageways across major roads in good bear habitat is just one of many things being considered. I recommend this report and its appendices for anyone interested in what the future holds for our states’ bears. I also found a recommendation for contacting local officials when a roadkill is found. So, I left a message for the district biologist giving the approximate location of our bear. Data collected from dead bears on age, sex, and general condition provide important information for wildlife management agencies.

We proceeded on to Lake Mattamuskeet and spent a couple of hours looking at waterfowl and other wildlife (including great views of three Gray Foxes). But the group really wanted to finish our day at the Pungo Unit, so off we went. And we were not disappointed. Driving in with the sun getting low in the west, we soon encountered a young bear out foraging along the edge of a winter wheat field.

young Black Bear

Sub-adult bear at edge of field

We stopped the vans and got out to listen and look as the day shift wound down and the late shift began. Groups of Tundra Swans were flying back toward the lake as sunset approached and small flocks of Wood Ducks were flying out of the swamps to feed in the fields and impoundments. A Great Horned Owl cruised by as we walked back to the vans. Woodcock twisted and turned in their dizzying flight out to the fields for their evening meal of earthworms. And we were treated to several more bear sightings as they went from forest to cornfield to feed. It is such a privilege to help people experience the thrill of seeing bears in the wild and having the feeling that you are the only ones around to appreciate it. Our total for the day was 20 bears. Definitely not a bad way to spend a Saturday…observing wildlife in some of my favorite places with some enthusiastic learners and future decision-makers on the fate of our wild lands and their inhabitants. I never tire of sharing such special moments in special places.

The Wilds Close to Home

What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which the bounty is received.

~Richard Nelson

You all know by now how I feel about Yellowstone and its extraordinary wildlife. But, I have learned that every place can be special if you take the time to look closely and appreciate what the place can give you. My last post was about the wilds of my garden, a place with much in the way to offer in terms of interesting creatures, although most are admittedly a bit on the small side. So, when I want a wildlife fix back in North Carolina, I usually head to that other place you have seen me blog so much about – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Brownish bear

A bear greeted me shortly after my arrival at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

So, when I woke up a bit too early Monday, I decided, what the heck, I think I’ll drive down to Pungo and see what I can see. I arrived about 8:30 a.m. and spotted my first bear within a few minutes. It was a bit unusual-looking in that it was distinctly brownish in color. While brown-colored Back Bears are common in Yellowstone, they are not in the East. I have seen this coloration a couple of times at Pungo on bears in their summer coat, which is probably much thinner than the winter one, so some of the color may actually be due to their skin showing through.

Bear in reeds

Black Bear in reeds along canal bank

After passing two more bears, I drove by a bear that stood up in a patch of reeds along a canal when it saw me. Not wanting to spook it, I kept driving past and then did a three-point turn, before heading back for a photo attempt. The bear had dropped back to a sitting position and stared at me when I pulled to a stop across the canal. I snapped a couple of quick images before the bear slowly turned away and walked back into the forest. I started to make another turn as it walked away to resume my drive when I noticed something in my rear view window. But I’m going to make you wait until the next post to find out what I saw,

After driving around the refuge for a couple of more hours (and chatting with a friend that frequents Pungo even more than me), I decided to head over to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to check things out. The heat and the abundance oi Deer Flies had convinced me this might be a good day for a driving tour instead of a lot of hiking. So, off I went, making a detour to get access to roads leading through another section of Pocosin Lakes (budget cuts have hampered the road maintenance on the refuge so some roads are closed requiring a long drive around outside of the refuge). That part of the refuge produced another couple of bear sightings, plus two White-tailed Deer and a Raccoon.

Bear in soybean field 2

Black Bear grazing in soybean field at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

As soon as I drove onto one of the dirt roads at Alligator River, I spotted a bear. It was a young one (2 or 3 year old most likely) and it was slowly walking through one of the refuge soybean fields, chowing down on the leaves as it went.

Bear with three bears behind

As I watched, another group of black blobs moved in to the field from the adjoining woods and walked through my view finder behind my bear. It was a sow and two young from a previous year. They slowly moved across, grazing on soybean leaves, until they reached the tree line. One stayed out in the field eating, but, it too, finally headed into the coolness of the shade. My bear count for the day was growing,

Needham's Skimmer most likely 1

Dragonflies were constant companions on the refuge

In addition to the abundant Deer Flies, I saw plenty of other insects on both refuges. Dragonflies were everywhere, hopefully catching some of the biting flies that streamed into the car every time I opened a window or door. A particularly common species was the one shown above – I think it is a Needham’s Skimmer, since I have photographed the bright red adult males in this location in previous summers.

Roadkill rattlesnake

Roadkill rattlesnake

I was hoping to see some snakes out and about on this hot day, but, surprisingly (and sadly), the only snake I saw was a roadkill Canebrake Rattlesnake at Alligator River NWR.

Fawn running away

Fawn running

As I came around a curve I spotted a fawn, which immediately took off running, foiling any attempt at a decent photo.

Fawn standing at edge of road crop

Fawn starting to come back across the road

Suddenly, the fawn stopped and walked across the road. It turned and paused, allowing a few quick pictures.

Fawn running 1

Fawn jumping

Fawn running

Missed opportunities

I had the 500 mm lens plus a 1.4 teleconverter to get a close image. That was fine until the fawn took off across the road, managing to jump out of my frame every single time. Less can be more I suppose.

Sow with cubs hidden

The low angle sun was reminding me of the 3+ hour drive home, but it was soooo nice after the heat and noticeable atmospheric interference of most of the day. On the way out, I stopped where I had seen the first bears on this refuge a few hours earlier. It did not disappoint. There was a bear in one field that had bright yellow ear tags. I have seen a couple of bears on the refuge with ear tags from someone’s research in past years. When I stopped, she looked up and quickly walked over to the edge of the field into the taller vegetation. I moved on and when I came back a few minutes later, she was back in the field eating. But this time, I saw something I had missed in the first sighting.

Sow and three cubs

Tagged bear with her three cubs

She had three tiny cubs in tow. They were small enough that they were pretty well hidden in the soybeans until they lifted their heads or stood up.

Sow and one cub standing

They stuck close to their mom as she maneuvered through the field. Finally, she gathered them and headed back toward the edge, perhaps a bit frustrated with the guy in the car across the canal.

One cub standing crop

Bear cub getting one last look at me

The day ended on a high note with the last cub in line standing “tall” and looking my way. It finally dropped and left a wake of soybean tops waving in its path as it rejoined the rest of the family. For what started as a spur of the moment trip, it had turned out to be an incredible day for wildlife – the final mammal count for both refuges was 24 Black Bears, 4 White-tailed Deer, 2 Raccoons, and…something else I will tell you about in a future blog. A good day, indeed, in the wilds of North Carolina.

 

 

 

Dutch Treat

One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin.

~William Shakespeare

I spent a couple of days late last week with some clients from the Netherlands and a Dutch friend of theirs that now lives in North Carolina. They had been with me for a couple of days last Fall, but arrived a day before the Federal Government shutdown and had to totally reschedule their plans which had been to visit many of our national wildlife refuges, parks, and seashores. They really wanted to experience some of the wildlife of eastern North Carolina, so decided to come back for a short visit to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges this past week. And I think they are glad they did.

Black Bear in field

Black Bear in field (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived at our meeting place a little before they did, and out in the field was a young Black Bear foraging for food. My group had just texted that they were close, but the bear, of course, started to meander toward the nearby woods. Luckily, it found enough of something to keep it interested in the field until they arrived for a look. Not an especially close look, but a good way to start our trip.

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

We encountered several deer over the course of our stay along with a variety of birds from Wild Turkey displaying along the roadsides, to American Coot and Pied-billed Grebes feeding in the impoundments. While watching the latter that first afternoon, we spotted some dark objects in a tree on the far side.

Black Bear and cub in tree

Black Bear and cub in tree

It was a mother bear and her new cub. I am so accustomed to seeing bears with two and three cubs here at Pocosin Lakes, that it was unusual to just see just a single cub up in the tree. This little guy seemed to be hanging on for dear life, while mom was moving around, apparently feeding on some of the newly emerging leaves. I suppose there might have been a less adventurous sibling or two down below out of our sight.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle with Turkey Vulture flying in the distance

After driving through the refuge until sunset, we spotted another bear, making four for our first afternoon, along with more deer, an eagle, and some of the usual small bird life.

The next morning was overcast, windy, and much colder than it normally is for mid-April. I must admit, I was a bit worried that we might not see much wildlife under those conditions, especially the abundant frogs, warblers, and butterflies I had seen a few days earlier. After a slow start, I decided we should go for a walk down one of the dirt roads and explore the nearby patch of woods. If nothing else, they could see lots of wildlife tracks and sign, especially of the bears that use this area. The wind was blowing steady from the north making for a cold hike, more like some of my mid-winter outings. At least everyone would appreciate the car after this. After a few minutes, we headed into the woods to get out of the wind. The first thing that struck me was the refuge had done a controlled burn in the woods since I had visited in February – I’m not sure I have ever been in these woods after a burn.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy was everywhere

The second thing I noticed was the incredible abundance of Poison Ivy. The new growth was thick with it – on some of the paths we walked, covering large patches of ground along the roadsides and in the woods, climbing tree trunks – everywhere. I warned the group to watch out for it, but getting it on our shoes and pant legs was inevitable. A recent study in Duke Forest, where researchers pumped increased levels of carbon dioxide into forest enclosures to mimic increased greenhouse gases in the environment, showed that Poison Ivy rwas one of the species that esponded with vigorous growth. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come (or perhaps it is in response to the burn, or it has always been this way and I just have not been in these woods this time of year). Whatever the cause, it makes you think twice about every move you make. As usual, there was abundant bear sign, and as I was showing some to my guests, one spotted a bear (Marja turned out to be an excellent wildlife spotter). We watched it slowly amble away into the thickets bordering the lake. Shortly afterwards, she spotted another bear nearby. A quick look showed it to be a different one, slightly larger and much blacker than the first. This is what I always hope will happen – to be able to observe bears in the woods, doing what most wild bears do, rather than out along a road or in a crop field.

Younfg Black Bear eating Supplejack leaves

Young Black Bear in tree

We had walked only a few feet when I heard something and stopped. Then I saw a bear coming down out of a small tree. After being on the ground a short time, it climbed back up, using a couple of small trees and vines to work its way about 20 feet off the ground. Then it began feeding. After looking at it through the scope, I could see it was eating the emerging leaves of a vine common to these woods – Supplejack (Berchemia scandens). We watched as the bear pulled vines toward it and munched the leaves. It repositioned itself and turned its attention to other nearby leaves, balancing on small limbs and the tangle of vines as if it were a circus performer on a high wire. The bear fed this way for 15 minutes or more as we watched. I think it had an idea we were there, but, since we were quiet and still, it seemed unconcerned. Finally, it started to climb down and I whispered to the group that it looked like the most likely path out of the tangle of vines was towards us. Indeed, the bear turned and ambled out in our direction. It glanced our way, and started walking off away from us.

The sun had come out after we got into the woods, but I had left my camera in the car in order to carry a scope, so the images and short video clip of this incredible encounter are from my phone. The bear still seemed oddly unconcerned about us but I decided to have everyone walk in the opposite direction. The bear climbed out on a suspended tree trunk, then dropped off and glanced in our direction. There is something magical about being able to watch an animal like this as it goes about its daily routine. It helps me understand some of what they face, how we share some similarities in what we do, and yet how amazingly adapted to their surroundings they are. I think we were all on a “bear high” the rest of the afternoon.

Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake

As we headed out of the Pungo Unit toward Lake Mattamuskeet, we came across a small Eastern Hognose Snalke crossing the road.

Eastern Hognose Snake 2

Eastern Hognose Snake defensive posture

I got close, hoping it would display some of this species’ unusual behavior of playing dead, but, after it spread its neck, hissed, and sprayed some musk without feigning death, we left it alone.

New Holland Trail swamp

New Holland Trail swamp at Lake Mattamuskeet

The day ended with another incredible wildlife moment which I, unfortunately, have no record of, as my camera was buried under some gear in the back of the car. A Gray Fox came out alongside our vehicle far down Wildlife Drive at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. It hunted alongside the road for several minutes as we watched, passing only a few feet from our car, catching many small insects or perhaps frogs, and licking it lips several times in apparent satisfaction. Another incredible moment with wildlife.

Reflections in swamp 1

Reflections in swamp at Lake Mattamuskeet

It was an amazing day and a half with up-close and personal time spent with some interesting wildlife. The bear and fox were behaving as if we were not around, a rare treat when out in the woods with a group of people. And while I did not get any great images of the experience, I am so happy to have shared it with such a great group of folks.

Dutch dragonfly wranglers

The Dutch camera brigade stalking a dragonfly

We had a lot of fun. They are all excellent wildlife spotters and appreciate learning about our North Carolina wildlife, both large and small. It is a privilege to be able to share the places I love with people like this group of folks I now call friends.

 

Trip Report – a Frozen Mattamuskeet and Pungo

To me, the beautiful and ever-changing patterns formed in lake ice – and in snowflakes, the ice of the sky – are winter’s “bloom,” corresponding to the flowering plants of summer.

~Stephen Hatch

I had another trip to North Carolina’s winter wonderland this past weekend. And a wonderland it was…Lake Mattamuskeet was largely frozen, a most unusual sight. The last time this happened was 1986, and, ironically, I was there that winter as well. I met my group on the causeway at sunrise and we marveled at the expanse of grayness before us. A few cold Canada Geese walked on the ice, probably wondering what had happened to their once watery haven.

Lake Msattamuskeet frozen at sunrise

A frozen Lake Mattamuskeet at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

The marsh impoundments along Wildlife Drive were also frozen, but we soon spotted a Bald Eagle standing on the ice, surveying the scene for a weakened duck or goose that might make an easy kill. A few other eagles patrolled the area, sending hundred of ducks skyward with every pass. Small birds such as kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers were busy in the shrub thickets, and American Coot grazed on the vegetation along the banks of the road. But it was a much more quiet drive than normal, save for the loud crunching of my tires on the ice-covered road. Our wildlife highlight for the morning was an otter trying to move across some thin ice, but forced to do a combination of loping and swimming as it frequently broke through the ice on its way to the marsh.

Bald Eagle on ice 1

Bald Eagle on ice

After lunch, we ventured out on the swamp boardwalk across the canal from the lodge. I always take folks on this walk as it is beautiful, quiet, and gives you a view of a habitat that is hidden from most people.

Swamp boardwalk

Swamp boardwalk

I have photographed this area many times and love the reflections you get in the dark waters beneath the cypress trees, but I have never seen it like this.

swamp pano

Panorama of frozen swamp

Frozen swamp 1

Ice and reflections in cypress swamp

Frozen swamp with cypress knees

Bald Cypress knees in the deep freeze along the boardwalk

Frozen swamp with ice circle

Patterns in ice create circles around each tree trunk

Frozen swamp

Blue-gray cast to ice in swamp

As we walked into the swamp, one of the participants excitedly asked about a bird she spotted. I looked out on the ice and was surprised when I saw movement just beneath my feet under the boardwalk. It was a Sora Rail, and only a few feet from us!

Sora Rail on ice 1

Sora Rail emerged from under the boardwalk and walked out onto the ice

The Sora is a quail-sized rail that is more often heard than seen due to its secretive habits. As the small bird strutted out on the ice, I was amazed at its huge feet. We watched it for a few minutes as it foraged amongst the debris surrounding tree trunks and cypress knees protruding from the ice.

Sora Rail on ice 2

Sora Rail on ice

The weather started to take a downward turn with heavy clouds and periodic drizzle. Driving along Wildlife Drive, we came across a large flock of Cedar Waxwings feeding on the berries of the invasive Privet shrubs that unfortunately cover the roadsides and thickets on the refuge.

Cedar Waxwing eating privet berry vertical 1

Cedar Waxwing eating Privet fruit

Waxwings are one of our most beautiful birds. They have an air-brushed, silky-smooth appearance, with a bold black mask and yellow (sometimes orange) tail tip. Adults have red, waxy-looking tips to the feathers on their wings.

Cedar Waxwing eating privet berry

Cedar Waxwings have a silky appearance

Weather conditions worsened and the drive back to the hotel was in dense fog. We were on the observation platform at Pungo Lake at “sunrise” the next morning, but it might as well have been a deck in the clouds. It was magical to hear the sounds of thousands of swans and Snow Geese on the lake while not being able to see a single one.

Fog at Pungo Lake

Dense fog at Pungo Lake

I was worried about road conditions at the Pungo Unit after the unusual heavy snow and it was a worry with merit. Thankfully, refuge staff had repaired two of the large holes in the road I had encountered on my last trip a couple of weeks ago, but the snow melt had worsened other portions of the roads, giving us a few anxious moments as we plowed through the mud and occasional deep ruts. As the fog started to lift, we could see swans flying out to the surrounding fields to feed. Anywhere the birds congregated, they did so under the watchful eyes of predators such as this immature Bald Eagle. We saw over 20 eagles, along with an assortment of other avian predators such as Northern Harriers, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, and a Merlin that nabbed one of the thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding in the cornfields.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle watching swans feed in the field below

At one point, we were watching a flock of swans feeding while more swans continually landed to join the flock. We all heard a strange call, which reminded me of a specialty car horn on a clown car in a parade. I had never heard anything quite like it, but it seemed to come from a swan that was landing in the midst of the hundreds of others feeding on the corn. The only thing I could think of was it might have been the call of a Trumpeter Swan. After playing the calls on our phone birding apps that, indeed, was what it sounded like. Even though we desperately searched the flock, looking for the subtle differences in bill shape that distinguish the western species of swan from our Tundra Swan, I could not find it amongst the hundreds of feeding birds. I have written a few experts to see what they think, but it certainly seems we heard a North Carolina rarity. Listen to the call on the web site of The Trumpeter Swan Society here – http://www.trumpeterswansociety.org/swan-voice.html.

Mid-afternoon, we walked through the woods along my favorite spot for locating bears (“Bear Road”). While we saw plenty of bear sign, we did not see any bears, and, to my surprise, no fresh bear tracks in the muddy road. So, I altered my normal routine of ending the day in this usually productive section of the refuge, in favor of heading toward some recently cut over corn fields near the refuge maintenance area. When we arrived at the paved road, we could see thousands of Tundra Swans feeding in the fields. Suddenly, they started filling the skies, much like a slow-motion blast off of a dense flock of Snow Geese. I have never seen this many swans take off at once.

Tundra Swans taking off from field 1

Tundra Swans taking off from field

The sun popped out, flooding the field with light, and the source of the swan’s concern soon appeared…a large Black Bear coming into the field from the adjoining woods.

Bear and swans

Black Bear moving into field and flushing thousands of swans

The bear moved quickly into the field, picked up what I thought was an ear of corn, and retreated back to the woods. A closer look at my images (the bear was over a hundred yards from us) showed that it had picked up either a leg bone or wing bone, probably from one of several swan carcasses in the fields.

Bear with food and swans

Bear picks up a bone in the field and heads back to the woods

We saw seven other bears move into the edges of the field over the next thirty minutes as we watched this unbelievable scene of wildlife abundance unfold in the beautiful light of a gorgeous winter sky. Shortly after the large bear disappeared, I looked up and saw what must have been the entire Snow Goose population on the refuge headed our way.

Snow Geese arriving

Waves of Snow Geese arrive to join the Tundra Swans feeding in the cornfield

The light continued to get better, turning the geese into golden-winged fliers at times, then bright white ones as they banked. The sky in front of us was soon swirling with thousands of geese noisily making their approach.

Snow Goose swirl

A swirl of descending Snow Geese

We watched as wave after wave started to land. How they manage to pick a spot amongst the hundreds of feeding and squawking geese on the ground is beyond me.

Snow Gees landing 1

Snow Geese landing – note the blue color morphs that appear as darker geese

I always try to spot a few Ross’ Geese whenever there are this many Snow Geese close by. We had seen a couple at the edge of feeding flocks, but I enjoy the challenge of identifying them in the sky amongst thousands of their larger cousins.

Ross' Goose landing

Ross’ Goose landing – it is the smaller goose in the lower left – you can see the smaller size, more rounded head, and the lack of a black “lip line” on the bill (when zoomed in)

The grand finale of this unbelievable wildlife spectacle was when, on some unknown cue, the entire flock of 30,000+ Snow Geese lifted off in the classic blast off. The whoosh of their wings as their collectively rise from the fields or lake can be heard for over a mile.

Snow Geese blast off

Snow Geese blast off

The geese all headed back to the lake for the night, leaving the swans alone to feed (I always imagine they let out a swan sigh when their noisy neighbors depart). It had been an incredible finish to a great weekend, in spite of the challenging weather and roads. I was glad to have shared it with such great folks and happy to introduce the magic of Pungo to another group.

Trip Report Part 2: Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes

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

Black-crowned Night Heron adult

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

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

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron with one head feather amiss

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

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing feeding on Privet berries

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

American Bittern in the open

American Bittern

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

Immature White Ibis

Immature White Ibis

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

Adult Bald Eagle 1

Adult Bald Eagle

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

Moonrise at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

Moon above cypress island at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

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

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

Mud hole in road at Pungo

Mud hole in road at Pungo

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

Tundra Swan pair 1

Tundra Swan pair from Duck Pen Observation Blind

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake 2

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake

Swan pulling head out of water close up

Tundra Swan feeding in lake

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

Snow Goose blast off on Pungo Lake

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

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

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

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

Bear cub

Black Bear cub

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

The Black and White of Pungo

To see in color is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul. ~Andri Cauldwell

Last Wednesday, I headed to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to scout the area for an outing later that week. I’ll report on the outing in the next post, but wanted to share a few highlights of the scouting trip. If only the critters would realize they need to show up when I schedule them so I don’t have to tell people…”well, yesterday…”

There seemed to be a somewhat monochromatic theme to the critters last week, so here are a few of my favorite shots:

Blackbirds in trees

Red-winged Blackbirds in trees at Pungo – note male Northern Harrier streaking by the treetop (click photos to enlarge)

Tundra Swan flyover

Tundra Swan flyover

American Coot

American Coot feeding on submerged aquatic vegetation

Black Bear sow 1

Black Bear sow

When my participants arrived, we again saw all of this wildlife, and more. Unfortunately, I was treated to one spectacle that afternoon that eluded my group during their stay…but such are the vagaries of wildlife watching. They never behave on cue.

Blackbird flock in front of snow goose flock

Blackbird flock in front of Snow Goose flock

I was waiting at a favorite location for bears when thousands of Snow Geese came out of the lake and started circling the field as if wanting to land. In the foreground, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds drifted across the corn stubble in dark clouds. The geese landed about a mile away and I started walking in their direction.

Bear with snow geese

Snow Geese circling field where bear was feeding

A young Black Bear had been out in the field when the flock started to circle, and many of the loud birds started landing near the bear. The young bear retreated into cover and the then reappeared a short while later. It fed for a few minutes and then retreated once more, while the flock on the ground grew larger and was moving toward both me and the bear.

Bear with snow geese 1

Young bear approaching flock of Snow Geese

On its next appearance in the field with the geese, the bear must have decided to try to reclaim the corn supply. The next few images show the bear running toward the flock.

Bear with snow geese 3

Young bear running at flock

Bear with snow geese 4

They just won’t leave…

Bear standing looking st snow geese

Bear standing, looking at Snow Geese as they circle and land nearby

A few birds spooked and flew, but more were landing all the time. The bear stood up as more Snow Geese began to circle and land nearby. If only I could read a bear’s mind…The bear then walked off the field, leaving the corn to the growing, noisy flock.

White cloud at sunset

As the sun neared the horizon, the Snow Geese all decided it was time to return to the safety of the lake for the evening. The flock was white against the dark tree line and then appeared black as it crossed the open sky.

Snow Geese at sunset

Snow Geese at sunset

Snow Geese flying over field at sunset

Snow Geese flying over field at sunset

I wish they had waited for my group, but knowing that there is always a chance to witness such a spectacle is what keeps me going back. If interested in scheduling a guided trip to this amazing area, please contact me at roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com.