Those White Winter Birds

Twenty thousand birds moved away from me as one, like a ground-hugging white cloud…

~Michael Pollan

I managed a couple of trips to my favorite NC winter place recently and was rewarded with some wonderful scenes of wide colorful skies, masses of birds, quiet moments of watching wildlife, and some surprises. I’ll cover much of the events in this and the next post. Today, I’ll focus on the birds, specifically those elegant white birds of winter – Great Egrets, Tundra Swans, and Snow Geese (well, egrets can be seen any time of year actually). In addition to the Pungo Unit, I spent some time at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, where I enjoyed watching some Great Egrets hunting in the flooded impoundment. Their typical hunting strategy involves walking slowly in shallow water, and moving their head and neck to get a closer look at potential prey. They then either strike quickly or lean in close to the water and, with incredible speed, slice through the surface to snag a meal. Their preferred food is small fish, although I have seen them take invertebrates, fairly large fish, and a friend recently reported one catching an amphiuma (a large aquatic salamander). Below is a record of one that walked by me several times spearing tiny fish.

A Great Egret does the leeeaaan for a successful strike (click photos to enlarge)
A Great Egret spears a small fish, and then did it again, and again, and…

Over at Pungo, the water levels have finally come back up to normal in the impoundments and the swans are appreciating it. There were a few thousand in Marsh A and many more in the flooded corn field along D-Canal Road. Even though I have taken hundreds (no, probably a few thousand) photos of swans over the years, I enjoy watching and listening to them so much, I always manage to spend an hour or two sitting in the car at Marsh A and taking it all in.

One of the most elegant moves a swan makes is the wing flap They do this frequently as part of preening and also after interacting with other swans in the so-called triumph ceremony
I never tire of watching (and listening) to swans taking flight…the huge wings flapping and the slap, slap, slap of their large webbed feet hitting the water surface as they run to gain lift
A few swans engaged in acrobatic bathing – rolling over in the water, flapping, splashing, dunking their heads and necks, and then shaking it all off before repeating the process

–A quick video clip of a swan taking an energetic bath

A lone Snow Goose swims among thousands of swans in Marsh A

I always hope to be where the Snow Geese are at sunset. They typically fly off the lake and head out to a field to feed a half hour or more before the sun goes down. If you are near, the sights and sounds of thousands of birds flying overhead are something you never forget.

Snow Geese landing in one the fields at Pungo already occupied by a few hundred Tundra Swans

–The sunset show of thousands of Snow Geese circling a field at Pungo (taken the same day as the photo above, but from the other side of the field)

A bonus on our last trip was the rising moon. We kept waiting for the Snow Geese to fly off the lake and head to the fields, but they were still on the lake at 5:30 p.m. (much later than on the trip where I filmed their flock behavior). We waited at a field with hundreds of swans feeding as that is usually a good bet where the geese will go when they finally lift off for their evening feed.

Tundra Swans across a rising moon

Melissa finally spotted the geese flying off the lake at about 5:45 p.m., but they didn’t head our way. Instead they flew north, so we hustled over to “Bear Road” and, sure enough, there was the flock of thousands of Snow Geese circling the corn field (the corn had been knocked down in the last few days so was prime for the birds). They kept circling for about 15 minutes, an unusually long time this late in the day. I managed a few images of geese flying across the moon while we watched. At last, birds started to drop into the field, but they only only stayed a short time before taking off and flying back to the lake. They may be getting antsy to head north. I probably won’t see them again this winter but I have promised myself to spend more time down there next year!

Snow Geese flying across the moon – they will probably be gone within days (if not already as you read this)

A Foggy Start

After the incredible experience with the Snowy Owl at Hatteras last week, I waited in line for an hour and a half for the emergency ferry to get off the island. Bright and early the next day, I headed to Lake Mattamuskeet, always an incredible place to experience the first light of a new day. But this morning was going to prove difficult for a sun-over-the-lake image as the fog was as thick as the proverbial pea soup. I drove at a cautious pace on my way down from Columbia since this is prime deer and bear habitat, and I wanted neither to become acquainted with the front of my car. I decided to bypass the usual spot for greeting the morning sun on the causeway that stretches across the lake, and looked, instead, for something close to shore that I might actually be able to see in the fog.

Foggy sunrise on Lake Mattamuskeet

Foggy sunrise on Lake Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

What I found was a surreal scene as the pale light of the rising sun tried in vain to penetrate the gray curtain laying across the lake. A few skeletons of cypress trees in the foreground provided the only depth in the scene.

Great Blue Heron on foggy morning at Mattamuskeet

Great Blue Heron on cypress trunk

Then, a Great Blue Heron flew out of the mist and landed with a squawk, and became frozen in the gray painting.

Sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet in fog

Great Blue Heron in fog

I took several shots but I’m not sure which one I like the best – a tight view of the lone cypress and heron, or a wide view that includes some other tree silhouettes.

Swan in fog

Tundra Swan in fog

The sun was starting to win the battle as I drove across the lake. A few Tundra Swans fed silently near the road, making glints in the water as they probed the lake bottom for some breakfast of aquatic vegetation.

Swans in early morning light

Swans in early morning light

A few minutes later, and the sun claimed victory as it glowed on a group of waterfowl farther down the road. This area is thick with Tundra Swans and Northern Pintails right now, with a variety of other waterfowl in smaller numbers (American Wigeon, Green and Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, American Black Ducks, etc.). I shared some of these excellent views with some of my former co-workers from the Museum, who happened to be leading a group of folks that same morning. It was, indeed, a great day for sharing this incredible place with good people.

Kingfisher hovering

Belted Kingfisher hovering

While sitting alone with the swans, I was entertained by a couple of Belted Kingfishers as they hunted. They would swoop in, hover for a what seemed like a minute or two, and then either swoop to a new spot, or, if they spotted something, plunge headfirst into the water. After several failed attempts, I saw one finally catch a small fish and fly off to eat its meal in peace.

DC Cormorant wings outstretched

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings

Along the canals on Wildlife Drive is always a good place to find water birds of various sorts. That morning had a crowd of Double-crested Cormorants perched on a fallen tree in the canal. Cormorants are relatively primitive birds, and, unlike most other waterfowl, their feathers are not water repellant. This necessitates their spread-wing poses throughout the day as they must dry their feathers after repeated dives in the water while searching for fish. The light-colored breast and neck indicate this is a first-year bird (adults have dark plumage throughout).

With some remnant patches of fog drifting along the canal, the short video below shows a “mistical” scene and allows you to hear a few of their grunts as they maneuver for position on the branches.

Herd of turtles

A herd of turtles

The foggy morning was warm enough for turtles to be out in force. For a reason known only to those with shells, one small island of grass in a canal seemed particularly appealing to a group of what appear to be Yellow-bellied Sliders. They had climbed over one another in a jumble, perhaps in hopes of being closer to the emerging sunlight.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle

Lake Mattamuskeet is one of the best places in NC to view Bald Eagles, especially in winter, when the large concentrations of waterfowl provide a reliable food source. Bald Eagles are particularly fond of American Coot, which tend to occur in higher numbers on the lake a little later in the winter. This immature (it usually takes 4 or 5 years for a Bald Eagle to acquire its fully white head and tail feathers) was very cooperative as it scanned the marshes from a high perch.

Immature Bald Eagle close up

Immature Bald Eagle close up

I always marvel at the size of their beak and the intensity seen in their eyes. Based on what I have read online (a nice photographic summary of aging Bald Eagles is at, I am guessing this is a first year bird, due to the dark iris and fairly dark beak.

Great Egret with fish from behind

Great Egret with fish

As I drove out Wildlife Drive on my way over to Pocosin Lakes, I saw something I had always wanted to photograph. Great Egrets on this refuge generally eat small fish which are abundant in the shallow waters. But here was one with a beak full of fins! And it apparently did not want to risk losing its meal, as it started to walk away as soon as I slowed down for a look.

A big meal

A big meal

I am not quite sure what species of fish this is, although it resembles a Spot…if you know, please comment on the blog. Luckily, the egret paused long enough for a few quick images before getting behind some brush on the shore of the canal. Although partially hidden, I could see the fish did finally get swallowed, appearing as a large, squirming lump as it passed down the long neck of the bird. Made my PB&J seem easy.

Tomorrow, I’ll post how my day ended when I made my way to Pocosin Lakes for the rest of the afternoon.

NOTE: I am offering weekend trips on the first and second weekend of January and another trip (exact date to be determined) in February. We will visit both Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. Contact me at for details if interested.

Chincoteague was Misty

Delmarva Fox Squirrel

Delmarva Fox Squirrel (click to enlarge)

I was looking forward to the final stop on the refuge tour, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, as I had seen a ton of wildlife there a couple of years ago on a winter visit. But the afternoon I arrived, it was gray, rainy, and windy. Turns out the theme of the next 24 hours was gray and misty. I decided to wait until the next morning to venture in and the first critter seen was a large gray squirrel that wasn’t a Gray Squirrel – it was an endangered Delmarva Fox Squirrel.  It is roughly twice the size of our Gray Squirrel and lives in mature forests of mixed hardwoods and pines with a closed canopy and open understory. Habitat loss and probably over-hunting contributed to population declines that led to this species being placed on the Endangered Species List. From 1969 to 1971, biologists relocated 30 Delmarva Fox Squirrels to Chincoteague NWR and released them. The population of squirrels at the refuge has since grown to over 300  and Chincoteague  remains one of the best places to see this beautiful animal.

Snowy Egret with feathers flared 1

Snowy Egret (click to enlarge)

Driving on I could see a gathering of white birds in a roadside marsh channel. There were a half dozen Snowy Egrets running around catching something and interacting with one another when one egret would impinge on another birds’ space. I pulled over to a nearby safe spot and the birds could have cared less.

Snowy Egret catching shrimp

Snowy Egret catching shrimp (click to enlarge)

Turns out there was shrimp for breakfast! The tide was moving water rapidly in the channel and shrimp were flowing with it past a shallow spot that made for easy pickings for the sharp-eyed egrets. They were all dashing about, grabbing and swallowing shrimp.

Snowy Egret with feathers flared 2

Snowy Egret with crest flared in threat display (click to enlarge)

A couple of the egrets were apparently higher on the pecking order and would fluff up their feathers and chase other birds away anytime they would get into a prime shrimping spot so there was a lot to see and photograph. Crest raising is an important threat and territorial display in egrets and one guy in particular was using it to the fullest.

Great Egret preening 2

Great Egret preening (click to enlarge)

Just down the channel a Great Egret stood on a fallen tree and was making itself more presentable for the tourists. It was methodically preening every feather, including the long nuptial plumes, or aigrettes. Early in the breeding season adults grow long plumes on their backs, which they raise in courtship displays. Those plumes were considered fashionable for ladies’ hats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, shockingly, it is estimated that more than 95 percent of the Great Egrets in North America were killed for their plumes in those decades. In 1903, plume hunters were getting $32 an ounce for the ornate feathers. Plume-hunting was banned, for the most part, around 1910, and Great Egret populations started to recover. The Great Egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America, which was founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers.

Great Egret gulping

Great Egret gulping (click to enlarge)

I watched this bird delicately preen itself for many minutes before it made one quick move that showed it was not all grace and elegance. I’m betting it wishes the shutter had not been firing at that moment.

Blue Grosbeak male

Blue Grosbeak male (click to enlarge)

During a brief few minutes of sunshine, I walked part of the Wildlife Loop, a paved 3.5 mile  loop through managed wetlands that is kept closed most of the day for hikers and bicyclists to enjoy and then opened for cars later in the afternoon. It is a great place to see a variety of wildlife and it started of with a Bald Eagle flying overhead. Next, a gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak jumped out of the grass. Then, uncharacteristically for this species when it is anywhere close to me and my camera, it landed close enough and stayed long enough on a perch for me to grab a few quick shots.

Black Skimmer flock at rest

Black Skimmer flock at rest (click to enlarge)

Driving back out toward the beach I came across a flock of Black Skimmers resting on a shallow sand bar. They are such comical-looking, yet beautiful, birds. As I have mentioned before, they ae a favorite of mine, so I spent the last hour of my time on my “refuge tour” hanging out with the skimmers, trying to capture their beauty and precision as they sliced through the shallow water searching for a meal.

Black Skimmer flock 1

Black Skimmer flock (click to enlarge)

Black Skimmer skimming 3

Black Skimmer skimming (click to enlarge)

Check out the lateral compression of this bill – it really looks like a knife blade slicing through the water.

Black Skimmer flock landing

Black Skimmer flock landing (click to enlarge)

Black Skimmer in black and white

Black Skimmer in black and white (click to enlarge)

My time in a few of the refuges of NJ, DE, and VA was awesome but now I am headed to my favorite place on the planet, Yellowstone, for a couple of weeks. I imagine the blog posts will be less frequent and perhaps a bit shorter due to limited internet access and cellular service throughout much of the park. But I’m sure I’ll have some images and adventures to share when I return.