A Sense of Place

Being aware of the splendor of the seasons, of the natural world, makes us understand man’s critical need for wild places. Living with familiar things and moving in the seasons can fulfill that profound need common to us all: a sense of place.

~Jo Northrop

It was time. Time for another trip to that place I find so special – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It has been over two months since my last visit and I was getting antsy, so this past weekend’s nice weather prompted me to get in the car and go. Of course, I was hoping for bears or bobcats, but would take whatever nature would give me, as spring was starting to explode across the state.

Red-winged Blackbird male singing

Red-winged Blackbird male singing (click photos to enlarge)

One of the first sounds I heard as I drove in was the distinctive, konk-la-ree call of the Red-winged Blackbird. Back in February, there had been tens of thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds foraging in the fields. Now, only a few males are singing from prominent perches, defending a territory, attracting a mate, luring a naturalist with a camera a bit closer.


Red-winged Blackbird male

Red-winged Blackbird male

Males prominently display their red shoulder patches during the breeding season and respond to any nearby male that sings. I watched two going at it, calling back and forth, for several minutes. This one, perhaps a younger male (due to the brownish edges to its feathers) was always on a lower perch relative to the other, all black-feathered, male. These close-up views always make me appreciate the beauty of these birds and the sharpness of their bill.

White-eyed Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

I was hoping to see some early spring arrivals and did manage a few such species in my day and a half – my first Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parula Warblers and Purple Martins of the season. Then, while driving slowly down one of the refuge roads, I heard the unmistakable call of a White-eyed Vireo, and stopped to search. In a few seconds, the pale-eyed gaze of this beautiful thicket-loving bird greeted me. The call is described in most guides as CHICK-a-per-weeoo-CHICK, but I prefer QUICK, take me to the railroad, QUICK. The distinctive white iris’ are found in the adult birds – immatures have dark eyes.

Green Heron

Green Heron

I also got quick glimpses of several Green Herons in roadside canals, but one bird went “out on a limb” for me as I drove past. I stopped and watched it raise its crest and stare at me with those intense heron eyes, before it flew off into the dense shrubs below.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

Another species that I have found here mainly in early spring is the Horned Lark. This is a bird of open habitats, and I usually spot them in barren fields before the crops have been planted. Their dorsal coloration looks like the bare dirt habitat they prefer, so I usually notice them while I am driving slowly and see what looks like a dirt clod moving. But a closer look reveals their subtle beauty and the unusual “horns” (tufts of feathers) of the adults. These birds do nest in NC (they are ground nesters), so perhaps this one already has a nest somewhere in the acres of open fields on and near the refuge.

American Coot 1

American Coot

There were also some leftover “winter” birds, including several small flocks of American Coot, a lone Ruddy Duck, and a few scattered Blue-winged Teal. Although there are scattered records of all of these nesting in NC, I believe it is a fairly rare event, and I anticipate they will all be gone in a few weeks.

Bullfrog head

Bullfrog male

I spent some time surveying one of the marshy areas looking for some American Bittern, as it was about this time last year that I heard them calling in an impoundment. Though one finally flushed out of the marsh while I was watching some Pied-billed Grebes, there was none of the unusual bittern calling to be heard. But there was the deep bass sounds of Bullfrogs coming from the marsh, especially on the first afternoon. The second day was much windier and this may have inhibited their calling. At first, I was trying to locate the callers along the edges of the marsh grasses. But, then I started spotting Bullfrog heads poking up out of the open water, mixed in with patches of emergent vegetation.

Bullfrog head 2

Bullfrog head showing large tympanum of male

The ones I saw were all males. In male Bullfrogs, the tympanic membrane (external ear drum) is considerably larger then their eye (in females it is about the same size as the eye). The deep resonating calls have been likened to sounds made by cattle and have also been described by the phrase, jug-o-rum, jug-o-rum.

Black Bear eating wheat

Large Black Bear far off in a wheat field

Overall, the trip produced fewer wildlife sightings than I had hoped. While I did get plenty of views of Wild Turkeys, some Muskrats, Nutria, and even a couple of Gray Foxes, it wasn’t until late the second day that I spotted my first Black Bear, a youngster along the road edge on the south shore of Lake Phelps. As I drove into the Pungo Unit for my final few hours of daylight, I finally saw a large adult Black Bear lying in a field of winter wheat. It was chowing down on the lush greenery and raised up to a sitting position when I stopped to look. After watching it for several minutes I drove on, leaving it to its dinner. I am a bit surprised I didn’t see more bears, but will look for them again later this week when I have a client group down that way. In spite of few bears on this trip, I look forward to whatever this special place cares to offer on my next visit.

The Long and Short of It

I admire herons, herons of all sorts. They have a stately posture, epitomize patience, and have bright eyes that can stare down anyone. My recent trip to Florida had lots of heron highlights. Here I report on the long and short of it, Great Blue Herons and Green Herons.

Standing four feet tall with a wing span of six feet, Great Blue Herons are among our largest birds, even though they weigh in at only 5 or 6 pounds. I was surprised to see them already nesting at Viera Wetlands. In fact, a volunteer said that they were re-nesting, as a recent storm had destroyed several nests that already had eggs. I have seen nesting colonies in NC that were in tall dead trees in swamps, but the ones at Viera were on top of palm trees out in the wetlands.

Great Blue Heron pair at nest silhouette

Great Blue Heron nesting pair at Viera Wetlands

The herons were sitting quietly on their nests early in the day, but as the sun got higher, the male flew off and began collecting sticks. He would drop down to a broken branch laying on the ground and inspect it, before twisting off a section and flying back to the nest. Occasionally, a male would go to an unoccupied nest and steal a stick to take back to his mate.

GBH flying into nest with sticks

Male Great Blue Heron flying into nest with a stick

Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 1 Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 3 Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks

Once he lands, he presents the stick to the female, and she accepts it (not sure what happens if she doesn’t like a stick).

Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 5

Female heron inspects the stick brought to the nest by her mate

She occasionally simply plucked the stick from him without standing up and carefully placed it in the nest. He would then fly off for another. At other times, there was more ceremony involved, with both birds stretching and bill pointing before she accepted the stick. Must have been a really good stick!

Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 4

Great Blue Heron pair with stick at nest 1

Great Blue Heron pair with stick at nestA few times there was a wing stretch display involved in the stick transfer, and often there would be a prolonged period of neck stretching and bill pointing.

Wing stretch display

Wing stretch display

Great Blue Heron pair at nest

Bill pointing and neck stretch display

The stick ferry finally ended for the morning and I walked down the border of the wetland dike. Soon I found one of the many diminutive Green Herons I saw on the trip. Green Herons are one of our smallest herons, standing only 18 inches tall with neck outstretched, and have a wing span of 26 inches (about one third that of a Great Blue Heron). They are found in freshwater swamps and marshes throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and up the west coast. Green Herons are richly colored in shades of chestnut, dark glossy green, and streaks of beige and white.

Green Heron on dried reeds

Green Herons are richly colored when viewed up close

They have piercing eyes and are slow motion stalkers of fish and other aquatic organisms at the edge of marshy areas and open beds of wetland vegetation. Green Herons are one of the few birds known to use tools to hunt. They have been observed using twigs, feathers, and other objects to create “fishing lures”. They drop the object on the water surface, luring small fish to within striking distance.

Green Heron profile

Hunting in a stand of reeds

Green Heron in pennywort bed

Green Heron hunting in bed of Marsh Pennywort

Often, as I prepared to get a shot of one that had momentarily stepped out in the open, it would raise its crest feathers and jump out in pursuit of a nearby Green Heron that had escaped my notice. I’m not sure if these were territorial interactions over food, breeding territory, or both.

Green Heron raised crest 1

Green Heron with raised crest

This display was usually accompanied by a neck stretch designed to make this tiny marsh hunter appear bigger.

Green Heron with neck stretched

Green Heron with neck stretched

Both species are a joy to watch, and I have decided that time spent with herons, short or tall, is time well spent.

Green Heron preening

Green Heron twisting itself while preening