When the Geese are Gone

Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing.

~Barry Lopez

What a difference a week makes. Less than seven days had passed between my last two groups, but things have dramatically changed at Pocosin Lakes NWR. The snow geese had arrived later than normal this year, and now have left earlier than usual. Where there had been 40,000+, we saw one. And, it seems, the tundra swans may be departing the refuge a little early as well. There still seem to be a few thousand, but their numbers are way down from what we saw back in late December, and almost none are feeding on refuge lands. The warm weather, and what appears to be less corn and winter wheat on the refuge, may be to blame. Or maybe, as Barry Lopez so eloquently puts it, the land is simply breathing and exhaling the geese northward. But, there are still things to discover and enjoy, if you look closely.

Immature bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle overhead at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived early the day of my tour, in hopes of finding some interesting things to share later with my group. With the snow geese gone, the eagles are not as numerous as in recent trips. But, a young bald eagle (looks like a first year bird based on the plumage) still gave me a nice fly over shortly after my arrival.

black bear in woods

Large black bear sow

I took a short walk into the forest and was rewarded with a couple of black bears, including one large sow. I took a few photos but quickly left, after requesting that she and her two youngsters hang around for another few hours.

great horned owl nest

Finally, I find the great horned owl nest

I have been hearing the great horned owls calling in a patch of woods on previous trips so I was went looking for any sign of a nest. I have found two other nests on the refuge over the years. One was in a pine in what was probably an old red-tailed hawk nest; the other atop a snag with a platform of poison ivy vines spreading out from the top. I finally spotted a large stick nest in the fork of a lone pine tree. I didn’t see anything at first, but then noticed a feather on the side of the nest blowing in the wind. When I put the spotting scope on it, it looked like an owl feather. I moved around for a different view and saw what looked like ears sticking up above the nest.

great horned owl nest close up

Great horned owl sitting on eggs or young (heavily cropped photo)

The scope revealed it to be the ear tufts of a great horned owl, most likely sitting on her eggs, as this species is probably the earliest breeder in our state. I stayed well away from the nest so as to not disturb her. I can check on the nest on future trips with the spotting scope without getting close. This is a good time to remind readers that almost all of the photos of wildlife in this blog are taken with a large telephoto lens, and are cropped in processing, so the animals are not as close as they sometimes appear.

bear cub in woods 1

Young black bear rushes across trail to cover

When my group arrived, we headed back to check on the bears and the owl nest. It seemed as though the bear had heeded my wishes and was walking toward us as we headed down the path. We stopped and she wandered off, followed by two young, both sporting a distinctive grayish coat. Then, another bear crossed the path, followed by three more bears! Quite a start to our trip.

bears in woods

Black bear sow and young

At least some of these same bears hung around that general area for the next day as well. We saw another group on our hike the next morning. I always try to give the bears plenty of room. We are quiet and try to stand still when we see one, and I like to let the bears take whatever path they want. I have seen people try to cut them off in order to get a closer look or a better picture, but it is best to respect their wildness, and let them be. Enjoy the experience, but keep the bears unstressed and wild.

find the rattlesnake

Excellent camouflage makes these snakes difficult to see on the forest floor

The other thing I wanted to check on was the tree where I had seen the rattlesnake two weeks earlier. I carefully checked the area around the tree as I approached, knelt down and shined a light inside the base – no snake. Not too surprising as it had been a cold night and there was even ice in tire ruts on the road when we walked in. So, with all the bears in the area, I started to walk down the path, looking ahead for any signs of bears through the trees. The next thing I know, I had what can only be described as a too-close-of-an-encounter with that snake, who was luckily quite docile in the chilly air.

Canebrake rattlesnake strecthed out

Rattlesnake stretched out in morning sun

We took a bunch of photos and then left the snake alone. We checked on it the next day, after seeing even more bears, and found it a little more active in the warming weather. It was slowly crawling in roughly the same area where we had seen it the day before.

canebrake rattlesnake

A close look (and a telephoto lens) shows the beauty of this snake

This is a beautiful specimen, and apparently a tough one, as it doesn’t seem to mind being out in some pretty cool weather. Today, it chose to lie in a sunny spot, soaking in the morning warmth.

canebrake rattlesnake head

The rattler was more active than the past couple of sightings, and even flicked its tongue a few times

canebrake rattlesnake tail

Close up of rattle

We took some more pictures and then left it alone. I can’t help but wonder how it will fare if a bear encounters it in this cool weather. I also can’t believe I may now need to look at the ground more carefully as I walk these winter woods, instead of constantly scanning the skies for waterfowl and other birds as I have done for over thirty five years. Strange times indeed.

shed antler

We found two shed deer antlers

My first morning at Pungo I saw a buck white-tailed deer, with only one antler, running through a field. It is that time of year when male deer are dropping their antlers in preparation for starting the new growth later this spring. As it turned out, we found two different shed antlers as we walked. You are most likely to find them shortly after they are dropped and before squirrels, mice, and other animals start chewing them up to get the calcium.

Great blue heron with catfish

Great blue heron with a nice catfish for breakfast

While watching the swans one morning, someone in the group spotted a great blue heron with something in its beak. It turned out to be a large catfish. We watched as the heron repeatedly tried to swallow the large meal. We think it finally gulped down its meal before flying off to hunt again.

tundra swans in morning light

Tundra swan fly over

Tundra swans flew back and forth overhead as the day progressed so we had plenty of good looks and photo opportunities.

nutria feeding in canal

Nutria feeding on duckweed

Trio of young nutria

A trio of young nutria

We split our time between the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR and Mattamuskeet. As the weather warmed over the weekend, we saw a lot of nutria out feeding.

great blue heron silhouette

Great blue heron at sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet

Northern Pintails in marsh

Northern pintails in marsh

great blue heron in tree

Great blue heron resting in a pine

white ibis feeding 1

White ibis feeding in impoundment along Wildlife Drive

Driving along Wildlife Drive, we saw hundreds of ducks and swans, along with a variety of other birds.

vulture comparison

Silhouette of turkey vulture (lower left) compared to black vulture (upper right)

Late Saturday afternoon we enjoyed seeing vultures come into roost in trees near the lodge. At one point I grabbed a photo of a turkey vulture alongside its smaller cousin, a black vulture. The latter looks as though someone had trimmed its tail feathers (relative to a turkey vulture). Black vultures are also smaller and tend to flap their wings more than a turkey vulture.

Great egret landing in top of pine

Great egret landing in tree top

The late hour also brought in several great egrets, white ibis, and some cattle egrets to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. This spot has traditionally been a roost for black-crowned night herons, but I have seen none of them in these trees this winter.

alligator

Alligator in canal at Gull Rock Game Lands

alligator head

Close up of smiling gator

One of the biggest eye-openers of the trip came on our last afternoon as we explored some new territory down toward Gull Rock Game Lands. In a canal bordering a wetland containing ibis, a grebe, and a double-crested cormorant, we discovered another surprising January reptile – an American alligator. It was about a 6-footer, basking in the sun, and seemingly unconcerned about the three cameras being pointed at it.

And so this month of wildlife wonders has come to a close. A strange month indeed, but an exciting one. One other critter worth mentioning that we saw on the last day of January – an orange and black butterfly near the lodge at Mattamuskeet. It was flying away from me when I spotted it out about 75 feet, but through the binoculars it looked like a monarch, not a viceroy. Either one is a big surprise for a winter day in North Carolina. It seems the land is breathing a bit oddly this season. I wonder what the coming spring will hold?

Snakes on a Plain (Coastal Plain, that is)

For hibernating rodent and hidden turtle, what dreams, I wonder, come on such a day of spring in January?

~Edwin Way Teale

I just returned from several days down at Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. The weather started off beautiful, then wet and warm, then cold and windy – quite a variety of conditions in a 6-day span. The trend thus far this winter has been for unusually warm conditions which has lead to some strange wildlife sightings. I reported in an earlier blog on the butterflies we saw on the Christmas Bird Count, and the still active mosquitoes and biting flies. This past Sunday set a new personal record for strange winter wildlife sightings in North Carolina – a 4 species-of-snake-day in January. I have seen a few snakes out in December and January over the years (mostly Rough Green Snakes at Pungo), but never 4 species in one day.

Snakes generally seek sheltered locations when cold weather strikes, but can be seen out, even in winter, when temperatures warm to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or more. Last week had a string of warm days, with daytime highs reaching the mid-60’s on Saturday and Sunday. I had a group of photographers and we heard a few frogs calling as we walked around on Saturday, which was rainy and mild. Melissa was down at Pungo with a group of teachers and texted me about an amazing observation. She had walked up to a tree with a hollow base to investigate what looked like some digging at the entrance to the hole. When she looked inside, she saw what appeared to be a large snake, perhaps a Canebrake Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. I called her that evening and quizzed her on its location. The next day, I walked my group down the trail to where Melissa had described the tree. As I approached what I thought was the tree, I was at first disappointed, as I did not see a snake.

Canebrake Rattlesnake on tree trunk

Canebrake Rattlesnake on tree trunk (click photos to enlarge)

But, then, I noticed something on the side of the trunk – a snake’s tail! I glanced around the trunk and there it was, a huge, beautiful rattlesnake, wedged between some vines about two feet off the ground. Needless to say, I was excited, and members of my group that had stayed on that morning were provided with a rare opportunity to photograph a winter snake. Little did I realize then that the day held many more reptile surprises.

Banded Watersnake?

Water Snake along the boardwalk at Goose Creek

After our walk at Pungo, we headed over to Goose Creek State Park for our final outing of the weekend. As we walked the long boardwalk behind the Visitor Center, one of the folks in the group called out…”snake”. Lying on a clump at the base of a larger tree was a water snake. At first glance, I thought it might be a Red-bellied Water Snake, Nerodia erythrogaster, due to the colors on its head and general lack of dorsal markings.

Banded Water Snake close up

Water Snake close up

The more I looked, I thought maybe it was a Banded Water Snake, Nerodia fasciata, which can be rather dark on its dorsal surface, but can retain faint bands, like this one appeared to have. They usually have a diagnostic dark stripe from the eye to the back of the jaw line, and this one might have that, although it is hard to see. So, not quite sure, but snake species #2 for the day, nonetheless.

Spotted Turtle

Someone spotted a Spotted Turtle

A few feet beyond the snake, someone glimpsed a Spotted Turtle, Clemmys guttata, basking on a log. These beautiful turtles are more active in the spring, although it is not uncommon to see them on warm winter days.

The wind started picking up and the temperature seemed to be dropping as we drove out of the park.Not far beyond the park entrance, I saw a car stopped in the oncoming lane, flashers on. The driver was out of the car and I noticed a large, orange-ish snake right in front of the stopped vehicle. It was a Corn Snake, Elaphe guttata. The driver picked up a flat piece of wood along the road and was undoubtedly headed back to shoo the snake out of harm’s way. A good deed, indeed. But for the Sheriff’s car behind us, I would have stopped for a closer look and a photo. Species #3!

After everyone headed for home, I went back over to the Pungo Unit in hopes of getting some better photos of the rattlesnake, and seeing the Snow Geese in sunlight instead of gray skies like the previous couple of days. When I reached the tree with the hollow base, the snake was nowhere to be seen. That causes you to be extra cautious I might add….where did it go?

Rough Green Snake on tree trunk

Rough Green Snake climbing a tree

I walked a little farther, and saw a slight movement – snake species #4 for the day, a Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus. It was on the ground when I first saw it, but quickly moved to a tree trunk and began to climb.

Rough Green Snake

Rough Green Snake, flicking its tongue

I soon walked on, carefully scanning the dried leaves ahead of me for signs of a snake, while still trying to look ahead for wildlife, such as bears, and overhead for eagles and other birds. It was, needless to say, a slow pace. I found myself shining my small flashlight (I always carry one) into every tree hollow and open base, looking for more snakes.

Raccoon in hollow tree

I woke this little guy up from his nap

One of the last trees I checked had a narrow opening just above the ground. When I leaned over and turned on my light, I was surprised (as was he) to see a sleepy Racoon roll over and look up at me. I guess I’ll be checking more hollow trees in the future. I’ll share more of what happened later that afternoon in another post (it was spectacular).

The next morning I returned to Pungo while waiting on my next group to arrive from Raleigh. Overnight temperatures had dropped to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, much colder than the previous couple of days. I walked down and entered the woods again, hoping to see bears or other animals that might be active on a chilly morning. As I walked by the rattlesnake tree, I couldn’t help but check it one last time…

Canebrake Rattlesnake in tree trunk

Canebrake Rattlesnake curled up deep in tree trunk

First glance, nothing. But shining my light into the back of the recess, I saw the snake curled up, probably close to where Melissa had first seen it two days before. Amazing! I figured it would stay put since it was so cold, so I brought my group back several hours later. After having built up the fact that we would see an amazing winter surprise, I was, indeed, surprised when I looked back into the hollow – no snake. Lesson learned…you can’t get cocky when dealing with nature’s critters and their behavior. They are on their own schedule, and do things that constantly mystify and amaze me. Where had it gone? I thought I could see most of the area inside the hollow, but maybe there is a hole in there that the snake crawls into, which would be a much better insulator that lying up on the ground. Maybe that is where it had gone the afternoon before when I came back looking for it and couldn’t find it. But, whatever the case, the entire experience was incredible, and I am happy I could share at least parts of it with others. Pungo never disappoints.

 

Definitely Not a Baby Rattle

Venomous snakes are among the most maligned and misunderstood animals on earth.

~In Snakes of the Southeast by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas

In a recent post, I mentioned my first ever encounter with a juvenile Canebrake Rattlesnake while at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to drive through the refuge again, and this time was rewarded with an encounter with a much larger specimen of Crotalus horridus.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult defensive posture 1

Canebrake Rattlesnake drawing back into defensive posture when I stopped the car (click photos to enlarge)

This one was a beauty, and big…I am guessing maybe 4 feet or so in length and several inches in girth.. It looked like a tree limb in the road as I approached, but I knew from previous encounters this limb would move when I pulled up in the car and got out.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult

Don’t tread on me

It immediately made a tight coil and started to rattle – that distinctive sound that would undoubtedly stop me cold if I did not see the snake beforehand. It was a magnificent animal, one of the largest I have ever seen. I think it is a male, based on the length of the tail (the area of the body behind the vent on a snake). The tail of a male rattlesnake is longer and less sharply tapered from the body than that of a female. But, I am no snake sexing expert, so if someone out there knows better, please drop me a note.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult 2

The rattlesnake made a tight coil and rattled every time I moved

I walked around the snake, admiring its robust body, the length of its rattle, the powerful head, and the strongly keeled scales. The snake initially had its head tilted downward with some of the coil raised off the ground, but then dropped its body and tightened the coil, presenting a large, rough-textured lump with penetrating eyes. I quickly put on my 300 mm telephoto lens (no macro shots on this one) and remained at a respectful distance while trying to get a few angles for photographs. Every time I moved, the snake would raise its tail tip and vibrate it, producing that characteristic percussive rattle. When I stopped, the tail would drop, and all was quiet.

I set the camera on a tripod for a quick video hoping to capture the sound, but in my haste to set up and to not keep the snake in the road too long, I didn’t do such a great job, but you can still see it in action. Unfortunately, it was windy, and the snake was several feet from the camera microphone, so the rattling sound is a bit faint. The loud crunching noise is a boot on the gravel each time I took a step.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult head

Canebrake Rattlesnake stretching out its head and neck when I walked away

I wanted the snake to get out of the road (this one was a couple of hundred feet from where I found a roadkill Canebrake Rattlesnake earlier this summer), so I grabbed the camera and backed away. The large rattler slowly stretched its head and neck out toward the roadside vegetation and began to deliberately crawl toward safety. The look of power and striking angles on the head of these big rattlesnakes is just so impressive.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult rattle

Impressive rattle

I noticed as it crawled that it carried its tail tip high off the ground, unlike most snakes. This is probably an adaptation to preserving the delicate segments that form the rattle. The tissue making up the rattle is akin to a thin brittle fingernail. And, just like we can break our nails, a rattlesnake can break off segments of its rattle. A newborn rattlesnake has a rounded button at the tail tip. Each time the rattlesnake sheds its skin (probably one to three times per year on average depending on food availability and health of the snake) it adds a new segment to its rattle. If the rattle ends in a smooth button, it is complete, and has not been broken off. If it ends in a squarish or tiered piece (like this one where you see what look like pointy projections off to each side), it has been broken and some segments are missing. This, coupled with the fact they produce a segment each time they shed, is why you cannot accurately age a rattlesnake by the number of rattles. Their trademark sound is made by the segments knocking against one another as the snake rapidly vibrates its tail. The many interlocking connections of the segments, plus the hollow spaces between them, help amplify the sound. But, whenever you are in rattlesnake habitat, be sure to keep both your eyes and ears open, as not every rattler will rattle if you accidentally get too close too quickly. Luckily, they are usually just trying to get out of harms way if given a chance. Populations of these impressive creatures are dwindling almost everywhere they occur, so please watch out for them, and educate yourself and others about the important role they play in our environment.

 

Baby Rattle

…a wonderful creature, when we consider his form, nature and disposition…he is never known to strike until he is first assaulted or fears himself in danger, and even then always gives the earliest warning by the rattles at the extremity of his tail.

~William Bartram, 1791

I made some time last week to do a day trip down to eastern North Carolina for some wildlife viewing. Spent the morning at the Pungo Unit at Pocosin Lakes NWR, but saw only a few butterflies and birds, along with a friend from the area. We chatted for awhile and exchanged notes on our lack of wildlife encounters that morning. After that, I decided to head over to Alligator River NWR and see what might be moving around over there. I did eventually spot a couple of bears and some cool insects (more on the bugs in a later post). I also came across a roadkill Cottonmouth. It saddens me anytime I see animals hit by cars, but especially on these wildlife refuges, where the gravel roads, and the purpose of the place, should slow people down enough that they can avoid most animals before making them a casualty. I was headed out for the long trip home when I came across what looked like another roadkill snake. As I opened the door, I thought I saw a flicker of movement, so I got out and took a closer look.

Canebrake Rattlesnake juvenile

Young rattlesnake in road (click photos to enlarge)

I could see it was a small rattlesnake, about 13 or 14 inches total length. It had flattened its body but was not moving. I grabbed a twig from the roadside and gently touched its tail…the head jerked toward the twig. The little guy was alive after all. The grayish color and small size at first made me think this could be a Pygmy Rattlesnake, a species of small rattler found primarily in this part of the state. But the pattern didn’t seem right from what I remembered seeing before. It took comparing the images with some field guides and consulting a herper friend when I got back, to confirm that it was, instead, a very young Canebrake Rattlesnake, (Crotalus horridus). Canebrakes are what most people call the Timber Rattlesnakes that are found in the Coastal Plain. Those in the Coastal Plain tend to be lighter in color than those in the mountains and usually have an orange or brown stripe running down the middle of the back.

Canebrake Rattlesnake juvenile 1

A young Canebrake Rattlesnake

After reading more about this species, I think this one could have been a very young Canebrake. Females typically give birth in August or September, to anywhere from 4 to 20 young, that average about 13 or 14 inches in length.

Canebrake Rattlesnake juvenile 3

Closeup of head and button of young Canebrake Rattlesnake

Young snakes usually have very conspicuous body patterns and an enlarged button at the end of their tails instead of the segmented rattle of larger specimens.

Canebrake Rattlesnake juvenile 2

The snake was very docile as I tried to help it get out of the road

As I gently nudged the snake back toward the woods with the twig, it occasionally curled up in a defensive posture, but never struck. When it finally reached the vegetation, it picked up speed and disappeared into the thicket. It was a privilege to see this, my first young rattlesnake, and to ensure that it made it at least one more day in what could be a long life. Studies have shown that female Timber Rattlesnakes may not reach sexual maturity for 5-10 years and then may only have young every 3 or 4 years. Populations are believed to be declining throughout much of their range due to habitat destruction and human-related activities, so I’m glad this one is in a relatively safe habitat…maybe I’ll see it again on a future visit.

 

 

 

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 oneĀ 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 roadsĀ  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.