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 http://www.featheredphotography.com/blog/2013/01/27/a-guide-to-aging-bald-eagles/), 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 roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com for details if interested.

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:


White-tailed Deer, Gray Fox


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


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

Species list for Pocosin Lakes NWR May 15, 2013:


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


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


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/.