Refuges as refuge

For every day of loneliness we endure, we’ll spend a day in communion with the life around us until the loneliness passes away.

~Richard Louv

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you know that we are lucky to live in a beautiful wooded setting with abundant wildlife from insects to birds. But one of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic has been spending time with other wildlife, things we typically don’t see here at home. Yesterday, Melissa had to work (in one of her first in-person workshops in quite some time) so I decided to hit the road and visit some of my favorite spots – the wildlife refuges of Eastern North Carolina.

First stop, Pocosin Lakes (aka Pungo). I was surprised to see a few Snow Geese still around along with the usual late Tundra Swans. Several ducks (mainly Northern Shovelers) and four Bald Eagles were a good way to start. All were a bit too far off for photos, so I just watched though binoculars. Some roads are still closed due to the very wet weather and there were already 3 carloads of people at “Bear Road”, so I headed over to Lake Mattamuskeet to try my luck there.

I saw a post last week on Facebook about a Great Horned Owl nest out on the lake, and from the photo, I knew exactly which tree it was in – a small Bald Cypress out on the lake that had an old Osprey nest in it. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nest, but often use broken snags or nests of other large birds. I had to look from the top of the car in order to get a clear view over the tall Phragmites that lines the lake, but you can clearly see the owls in the nest with binoculars or a spotting scope. My 500mm telephoto (plus 1.4x teleconverter) brings it all in a bit closer, but due to the great distance over water, there is a bit of atmospheric interference, which makes a sharp photo difficult. I saw two young plus an adult at one point but have heard there may be three young in the nest.

Great Horned Owls have taken over an old Osprey nest on Lake Mattamuseet (click photos to enlarge)
An adult owl plus two (I think) young can be seen in this photo

Since many of the waterfowl have headed north, I was hoping to see some other critters as I started down Wildlife Drive. A small, dark rabbit greeted me near the entrance and seemed unconcerned as I slowly pulled over across the road. My first thought was this was a Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris. One of three species of rabbits found in NC (Eastern Cottontail and Appalachian Cottontail being the others), Marsh Rabbits are usually found in coastal regions near marshes and swamps. They tend to be slightly darker brown in color, have shorter ears, smaller eyes, and, most distinctly, lack the fluffy white underside to the tail that gives the more common and widespread cottontail its name (their tails are brownish underneath). Unfortunately, this little guy never showed me that part of its anatomy, but I’m still pretty sure its a Marsh Rabbit.

A rabbit out in the open along Wildlife Drive
The rabbit with a mouthful

I enjoyed watching it for several minutes and managed a quick video clip of its constant munching.

This is me with a plate of cookies or chips

I always enjoy the short hike along the New Holland Trail with its beautiful cypress swamp setting. The water levels are very high everywhere in our state right now and, for the first time I can remember, the walk to get to the boardwalk was slightly underwater. But that made for beautiful reflections in the swamp.

The boardwalk on the New Holland Trail at Mattamuskeet NWR
Red Maple flowers signaling the arrival of spring
Playing with post=processing settings on a phone photo of the cypress reflections along the boardwalk

The far end of Wildlife Drive was closed due to high water and the back side of the loop around the impoundment had the most water I have ever seen. That meant fewer wading birds although I did spy a couple of egrets squabbling over feeding territory.

A Great Egret flies to chase off another in its territory

It was still fairly early when I finished my lunch, so I decided to head over to the last refuge for the day, Alligator River NWR. As soon as I drove in off Hwy 264, I spotted an otter in a roadside canal. I stopped to watch and it disappeared into the high water in the trees off the canal. It was the first of five River Otter I spotted in my couple of hours on the refuge. I ended up spending some time with one otter as it swam down a long canal. I would drive ahead and park on the opposite side of the road, then get out and use the vehicle as a blind and a support for my camera and snap a few photos as the otter swam by. Once it was down the canal a bit, I got back in and drove another hundred yards or so beyond the otter to watch it pass again. At one spot, there was an opportunity to get closer due to some trees and brush on my side of the canal. I sat and waited for quite some time and suddenly the otter was alongside me. I managed a couple of quick shots as it passed and then it slowed and turned to look back at me. I imagine the otter might not have been thinking the peaceful thoughts I was having, but it quickly continued on its way.

I spent some time with this River Otter traveling a canal at Alligator River NWR
My favorite photo of a day filled with much needed wildlife encounters

The opening quote above is from a wonderful book (Our Wild Calling) by Richard Louv on the value of human – wildlife interactions. It is the last line in part of a closing paragraph on something he says we should try to adopt in our relations with animal life – what he calls the reciprocity principle. Th other parts of that principle are equally worthy of our attention:

For every moment of healing that humans receive from another creature, humans will provide an equal moment of healing for that animal and its kin. For every acre of wild habitat we take, we will preserve or create at least another acre for wildness. For every dollar we spend on classroom technology, we will spend at least another dollar creating chances for children to connect deeply with another animal plant, or person.

Our wildlife refuges go a long way toward meeting the goals of that principle. And I have been lucky to have a small chunk of woodlands to care-take and to have spent a career trying to provide outdoor experiences for a wide range of people. Now I guess I need to figure out how to repay that otter…

Yellowstone in Feathers

 ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
~Emily Dickinson

It has been a busy week, but I finally had a chance to wrap up some images and thoughts about my recent Yellowstone trip. Like every trip out there, this one helped me see the world as it should be, at least the wild parts do. Being there is an experience of feeling free – free from the drumbeat of the daily news (and it has been a particularly steady drumbeat this political season); free to feel the joy of sharing a place I love; and free to feel that there is hope in this world. I usually don’t take quite as many images when I have other folks with me as I spend more time trying to get them to places to see the things they want to see. But, I still managed some shots, especially of birds. Plus, I had a couple of days by myself before the others arrived and decided to spend some of it just watching some of the smaller wildlife the park has to offer.

Great Horned Owl nest with three young

Great horned owl chicks in nest in Lamar Canyon (click photos to enlarge)

It seemed it was the season of the owls this summer, especially great horned owls. I had seen reports online of a nest high on a rock face in Lamar Canyon and was delighted to see it on my first evening in the park. The three chicks were quite visible in their seemingly precarious perch across the Lamar River. I checked on them every day I was in the area, and they all apparently fledged by the time we left the park.

Great Horned Owl chick under eave

Great horned owl fledgling in Mammoth

I also checked in on another nest that is usually in a tree in the Fort Yellowstone area of Mammoth. It was in the same conifer as last year and the  two chicks fledged within a few days. Much to my surprise, one of the chicks ended up about 200 feet from the nest up under the eaves of a three story building. I guess it must have some flight ability as I can’t imagine it “branching” and climbing up the side of that stone building.

Great Horned Owl adult

Great horned owl adult sitting near chick

Just a few feet away was one of the adults, calmly sleeping under the roof overhang. The next day both birds were gone, but we found the chick in a nearby cottonwood tree.

Great horned owl with chick in nest in Beartooths

Great horned owl nest in Beartooths

The day we went up the Beartooth Highway, I checked a nest I had found last year along the road. Sure enough, another active great horned owl nest. These chicks seemed a bit further behind developmentally than their counterparts from the lower elevations in the park.

Great Gray owl fledgling

Great gray owl chick

I was fortunate to once again tag along with my friend, Dan Hartman, as he checked a great gray owl nest he has been observing outside the park. Great grays are the largest owl in North America, and it is always a pleasure to spend time with these magnificent birds in their forest home. When we walked in, I spotted a chick that had just fledged and had climbed a leaner to perch above the ground (a much safer place to be in these woods).

Great Gray Owl chick

Great gray owl chick high in branches near nest

We soon spotted another fledgling high in the branches just beyond the nest. A third, smaller chick, remained in the nest.

Great Gray Owl female

Female great gray owl

The adult female was nearby, watching over the chicks. A northern goshawk nest was not far away, and we soon witnessed an encounter between an agitated hawk and the female owl. The hawk came screaming through the trees as the owl took flight, striking the owl from behind. The owl went down to the ground. But, other than missing a few feathers, the owl seemed fine, and soon continued to hunt while the hawk disappeared into the forest. Soon, the male owl showed up and we witnessed a simultaneous feeding of the two fledged chicks by the two adults.

Great Gray chick with prey 3

Great gray owl chick with food brought by male owl

I was near the first owl chick, which was closer to the ground than its sibling. The male owl flew in, clung to the side of the tree trunk next to the chick, and transferred a small mammal to its begging beak. It was a mouthful (looks like a northern pocket gopher, a favorite prey of great grays). The chick struggled with it, and in the dim light, I managed a lot of blurred images and a few decent ones.

Great Gray chick with prey

Going down…

The chick finally managed to swallow the food after a lot of gulping and head shaking.

Raven nest

Raven nest on cliff

Several other nests were spotted during our visit, including the highly visible raven nest that is usually on the cliff wall in the area known as the Golden Gate, just outside Mammoth.

Sandhill cranes at sunset

Sandhill cranes at sunset

 We saw several pair of sandhill cranes with their young (called colts), feeding in wet meadows along various waterways in the park. It is always a thrill to see, and especially hear, these majestic birds.

Male and female green-winged teal

Female and male green-winged teal

Green-winged teal male

The male is distinguished by a cinnamon head with a beautiful green eye mask

One afternoon I was fortunate to spend about 30 minutes alone with a pair pf green-winged teal just behind Soda Butte. We were hidden from the road by the formations of this old thermal feature, and it was a pleasure to just sit and watch this pair as they fed in a side channel of Soda Butte Creek.

Ruddy duck male

Male ruddy duck with his Carolina blue bill

Eared grebe

Eared grebe

Floating Island Lake provided good views this year of several species of water birds, including some ruddy ducks and eared grebes that were busy courting and fussing.

Harlequin duck

Lone harlequin duck at LeHardy Rapids

American dipper on rock

American dipper bobbing on a rock before diving in…

American Dipper feeding

…looking for dinner underwater

LeHardy Rapids once again provided some good bird watching with a single harlequin duck out on the usual rock, and a very active American dipper feeding in the rushing water ( I never tire of watching these unique birds and their amazing feeding style).

Clark's nutcracker with bison scat pile

Clark’s nutcracker picking through some bison scat for who knows what

Cliff swallow nests

Cliff swallow nests under roof overhang of pit toilet

Trumpeter swan on Soda Butte Creek

Trumpeter swan along Soda Butte Creek

Trumpeter swan with leg band

It wasn’t until I looked at the image on my laptop that I saw the swan has a large leg band

Mountain Bluebird male 1

Mountain bluebird

 While most people are more interested in the charismatic mega-fauna of Yellowstone, I find some of the smaller forms of wildlife, especially those with feathers, to be just as interesting and fun to watch. It is a treat to be able to spend time with these feathered beauties each time I visit this incredible wonderland.

 

Here is the bird checklist for this year’s trip:

Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard,   Cinnamon Teal,  Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Harlequin Duck, Bufflehead,  Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Wild Turkey, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, American White Pelican,  Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, American Coot, Sandhill Crane,  Killdeer, American Avocet, Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, California Gull, Great Horned Owl, Great Gray Owl, White-throated Swift, Northern Flicker, Gray Jay, Stellar’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, American Magpie, American Crow, Common Raven, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, American Dipper, Mountain Bluebird, American Robin,  European Starling, American Pipit,  Yellow-rumped (aka Audubon’s) Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brown-headed Cowbird, Purple Finch, Cassin’s Finch, Pine Siskin

 

The Shadow

I rejoice that there are owls…

~Henry David Thoreau

I just returned from a very special place – Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. I came away with several thousand images, mostly of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, the “stars” of Bosque. But in the predawn light and in the twilight after sunset each day, I looked for something special in a certain area along the road. It was a  silhouette, a powerful shadow of the night sky – a Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl at sunrise

Great Horned Owl at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

Over five days, I probably saw the owl five or six times, all within a quarter mile stretch of road inside the refuge. It was always perched on a prominent object, surveying its domain, looking and listening for a potential meal amongst the grasses and shrubs. There are relatively few trees here so I imagine the owl may have a nest site in one of the groves of Cottownwoods near the highway. The image above was taken on the first morning in the refuge, a good omen I thought.

Great Horned Owl by the light of a full moon

Great Horned Owl by the light of a full moon

One of the many highlights of the trip was the full moon rising with cranes flying into one of the ponds along the road near the owl’s territory. As I drove out that night, there was the owl, sitting in the bare branches of a small tree along the railroad tracks. As I had stayed with the cranes until the moon was well up off the horizon, it was tough to get into position for a photo of the owl against the moon. I took a few images of it in the glow of the full moon before tying to get closer.

Great Horned Owl silhouette against full moon

Great Horned Owl silhouette against full moon

I now know my body wasn’t designed to crouch so low while messing with a camera and tripod trying to frame an owl against a brightening moon. But, the owl did not seem to mind, and I managed a few shots before it glided down on some unsuspecting rodent and then disappeared into the trees.

A shadow can a powerful thing, and this one gave me an experience I will not forget.