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.

A Good Day Down East

One of the great things about retirement is the freedom to take advantage of good weather and make a wildlife watching trip on the spur of the moment. Yesterday was one of those days and I spent it in my favorite area in NC – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I arrived about 8 a.m. and was going to scout the area for bears. The rains this season (and perhaps some Federal budget cuts) have made for tall vegetation along many of the roadsides so it is a little tough to see while driving in certain areas but I soon found one bruin waddling along a dirt road. It wandered off as I approached and I could hear it walking through the swamp when I stopped and got out. I continued over to one of my favorite spots and was surprised to see two other vehicles at the gate. Turns out one was a couple of friends who were down the road looking for bears and the other was a man that knows an old friend of mine from graduate school – small world. The last thing I thought I would be doing at Pungo yesterday was socializing!

Canebrake Rattlesnake defensive posture

Canebrake Rattlesnake crossing dirt road on refuge (click on photos to enlarge)

After spending about an hour chatting I decided to explore some other areas of the refuge and headed out. I soon found a large Timber Rattlesnake crossing a sandy stretch of road. Timber Rattlesnakes in this part of the state are usually lighter colored than those in the mountains and are often referred to as Canebrake Rattlesnakes. The name refers to the large patches of River Cane, a type of vegetation common in the coastal plain, and an excellent habitat for these snakes.

Canebrake Rattlesnake

Canebrake Rattlesnake in defensive posture

This area has a healthy population of these beautiful snakes so I got out and watched it for a few minutes before it finally crossed the road and disappeared. Unfortunately, I later found one in another section of the refuge that had been recently killed by a vehicle.

Needham's Skimmer

Needham’s Skimmer

I drove over to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to look around, and, while I did see two bears in a soybean field, it was the abundance of invertebrates that caught my eye. Dragonflies and butterflies were out in large numbers.

Black and Yellow Argiope at ARNWR

Black and Yellow Argiope

I also spotted several large Argiope spiders as I drove slowly along the refuge roads. Late in the afternoon I decided to drive back through a section of the Pocosin Lakes refuge that I had never explored. I ended up driving all the way through the refuge from Hwy 94 to the Pungo Unit on miles of well-maintained gravel roads  Along the way I saw three Black Racer snakes, a few Wild Turkey, two bears, some deer, and more Northern Bobwhite Quail than I have seen in several years.

Palamedes Swallowtail on dead box turtle

Palamedes Swallowtail on dead box turtle

Palamedes Swallowtails were flying everywhere along the route. These are the quintessential swamp swallowtails and large numbers were puddling in moist spots along the gravel roadways. There was also one sipping a macabre meal form a dead Eastern Box Turtle, one of two box turtles I found dead in the road on the refuge. Both turtles were laying upside down and did not seem to be damaged by cars so I am not sure what happened to them.

Bear with two cubs on Allen Rd

Black Bear with two cubs

It was getting late in the day by the time I arrived back at the Pungo Unit of the refuge. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bear standing, looking over the vegetation. By the time I stopped the car and grabbed the camera, she had dropped down and was ushering her two young cubs in the opposite direction. Too bad I had missed that shot of her standing looking at me with the cubs huddled by her side. I ended up seeing eleven bears for the day but the last one was my favorite.

Black Bear after coming out of soybean field

Black Bear walking down path

The bears are now feeding in the corn fields on the refuge so I went to one where the fading sun was at a good angle and started walking down a path. As if on cue, a bear walked up out of a canal and ambled down the path ahead of me. It sniffed, walked, sniffed some more, and then went back down into the canal and into an adjacent soybean field.

Blsck Bear standing in soybean field

Black Bear standing in soybean field

All I could see were the round black ears moving through the tall soybeans. The sunlight was almost gone so I took a few more steps and apparently made a little too much noise, which caused the bear to stand up, providing me with the shot of the day. The bear looked around and must have decided all was well, as it dropped down and continued walking off to find a nice spot to dine in peace. You never know what you are going to see on these refuges, but there is almost always something memorable.

Refuges Revisited

Spring scene along swamp boardwalk

Spring scene along swamp boardwalk at Lake Mattamuskeet (click to enlarge)

Spent a windy, dusty day in the field with friends on Wednesday exploring my two favorite refuges in NC – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes. It has been two weeks since I was last down that way and things have changed dramatically – the heat is here as are the deer flies (both of which have to count as being among my least favorite things).

But, as always, these incredible wildlife hot spots did not disappoint. The day started with sightings of large numbers of wading birds at Mattamuskeet in the impoundemnts which have become more mud and grass flats than water-filled marshes. Lots of egrets and herons were concentrated out in the flats, undoubtedly feasting on fish and tadpoles. Looking out over the vegetation we could see some very large white birds and when they took off there was no doubt as to their identity – American White Pelicans! They are becoming more common in winter at Mattamuskeet (last winter I saw over 40 in one flock) but I have never seen this many in late spring (we counted 11). Their appearance in our state has increased greatly in the last decade. I also see them every summer in Yellowstone where they breed on islands in Yellowstone Lake, but, as of yet, they are not known to breed here. They are always impressive, with black wing tips on wings that, at nine feet, are the longest wingspan of any regularly occurring North American bird.

Reflections along swamp boardwalk

Reflections along swamp boardwalk (click to enlarge)

Other highlights at Mattamuskeet included an abundance of dragonflies, a walk on the swamp boardwalk, a large number of turtles out along every bank, and three gray foxes.

Rat Snake in road

Rat Snake in road (click to enlarge)

Toward mid-afternoon, we drove over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge for bears and anything else we might see.We quickly encountered a snake crossing one of the sandy roads and got out for a closer look – it was a beautiful Rat Snake, and it quickly decided to turn and headed back for cover. When we got out in front it assumed the classic defensive posture that would keep almost any mammal at bay.

Green Rat Snake

Rat Snake in defensive posture (click to enlarge)

Rat Snakes are a highly variable species with individuals in much of the Coastal Plain being a greenish or yellowish color with four dark stripes running the length of the body. In most of the rest of the state they tend to be blackish in color. This one was a little over three feet long but looked like it had retained some of the juvenile coloration consisting of some dark blotches instead of the cleaner dark stripes.

Driving through the refuge we saw a few bear (ended up with nine bears for the afternoon) and birds of various sorts including an American Bittern in the marsh where I had photographed them calling a couple of weeks ago.

American Bittern calling

American Bittern calling late last month at Pungo (click to enlarge)

After getting out and listening at various points along the marsh, we did not hear any calls or see any other bitterns, so perhaps most have migrated on toward their breeding areas further north.

Greater Yellowlegs in impoundment at Pungo

Greater Yellowlegs in impoundment (click to enlarge)

Late in the day we decided to walk out toward the Jones Pond impoundment along the dike since it had produced so much wildlife a couple of weeks ago. This is where the deer flies decided to remind us this was their turf, but we plowed ahead and soon startled a small bear who made a quick retreat off to our right in the woods. As we walked we saw several deer, a Raccoon, two River Otter, and lots of birds feeding around the rapidly drying pools scattered across the impoundment. The refuge manages these so-called Moist Soil Units to maximize food availability to overwintering waterfowl and this is the time of year when the impoundments are drained so seed-producing vegetation can grow and supply a food source within reach of dabbling ducks next winter when the area is again flooded. These areas also provide a valuable resource for shorebirds (such as this Greater Yellowlegs) and waders as well as raccoon, otter, and hungry bears. The pools are teeming with tadpoles (and perhaps small fish) as they get concentrated by the dropping water levels, making for an easy meal for various predators.

And, as I always like to do, we ended the day spending some time with bears. First, a familiar group of three (mom and two yearling cubs with distinctive stripes on their sides – from lying in mud?), and then a single adult bear that was busy eating the emerging vegetation from the growing mud flats. Not sure what caused the bear to jerk its head back a couple of times while feeding – crayfish encounter, snake, bee??, but it was both fun and peaceful to watch.

Yet another satisfying refuge visit.

Species list for Mattamuskeet NWR May 15, 2013:

Mammals:

White-tailed Deer, Gray Fox

Birds:

American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, American Coot, Mallard, Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy egret, Tri-colored Heron, Little Blue Heron, White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Killdeer, Solitary Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Common Tern, American Crow, Bald Eagle, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Mourning Dove, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Brown Thrasher, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Summer Tanager, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Eastern Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Wood Peewee

Herps:

Painted Turtle, Yellow-bellied Slider, Mud Turtle, Spotted Turtle, Southern Cricket Frog, Green Frog

Species list for Pocosin Lakes NWR May 15, 2013:

Mammals:

Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, River Otter, Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Birds:

Double-crested Cormorant, American Coot, Mallard, Black Duck, Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron, American Bittern, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Solitary Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Northern Bobwhite, American Crow, Pileated Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Orchard Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Eastern Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher

Herps:

Painted Turtle, Yellow-bellied Slider, Rat Snake, Southern Cricket Frog, Bull Frog, Green Treefrog

A Spring trip to Pungo

Sunset at Pocosin Lakes NWR

Sunset at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

American Bittern

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

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

Black Bear after sunset

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

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

Swamp scene from Mattamuskeet boardwalk

Swamp scene from Mattamuskeet boardwalk (click to enlarge)

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

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (click to enlarge)

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

American Bittern

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

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

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

Young Black Bear walking on dike

Young Black Bear walking on dike (click to enlarge)

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

Young bears

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

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

Last Black Bear of the evening

Last Black Bear of the evening (click to enlarge)

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

More information on the refuge and their public events can be found on their web site, http://www.fws.gov/pocosinlakes/, and on the web site of their support group, the Friends of Pocosin Lakes, http://www.pocosinlakesfriends.org/.