Heron Dreams

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

~Henry David Thoreau

We all have dreams, some bigger than others. I dream of experiences, being in wild places, and seeing the spectacles that nature has to offer. I have often wondered if other species dream. Having had dogs much of my life, and watching them as they seem to chase something in their sleep with paws twitching and soft barks, I think they do dream. I’m not sure about other species – whether, for instance, herons dream, but we met one earlier this week that seemed to dream big…really big.

Great blue heron

A stately great blue heron at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (click photos to enlarge)

We did a quick day trip on Monday down to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I just haven’t been able to get away as much as my soul needs, so a day-trip would have to do. A friend from work (who had never been) was able to travel with us so I was hoping for a good show for her sake. After a bitterly cold morning at Pungo (more on the Pungo portion of the trip in the next post), we headed over to Mattamuskeet mid-day to see what we could find. As is often the case, there was a stately great blue heron at the pool near the entrance along Wildlife Drive. But I noticed something different this time…

Great blue heron strikes

The heron strikes

There was something else on the island of grass…

The prize

The prize revealed

A huge fish! A mullet! Even though Mattamuskeet is a freshwater lake, this bird was on a canal outside the lake proper, one that connects via a long (~7 mile) system of canals out to Pamlico Sound, where striped mullet are very common. My apologies for posting so many images of this epic struggle, but I have always wanted to see a heron swallow a huge fish, and here it was, out in the open, a “dream” come true.

A beakfull

A lot to get your beak around

We watched as the bird tried to grab the still-flopping fish. It was a lot to get your beak around.

Getting a drink

The heron took frequent sips of water

The heron would work at grabbing the fish, then drop it, and almost every time dip the tip of its bill in the water. Was it taking a drink, removing slime, washing out a bad taste…who knows?

Stabbing the fish

A few sharp jabs with the beak eventually subdued the mullet

The heron used its stiletto beak in a series of quick jabs to try to subdue the mullet.

How do I get this thing off

Now…how do I get this thing off my beak?

It sometimes took a few shakes to get the fish off. After several bouts of spearing the fish, the mullet stopped moving.

Displacement behavior?

Displacement behavior?

Curiously, in between efforts to swallow the fish, the heron would every now and then grab some roots, sticks, and shoots of vegetation on the island. Is this some sort of displacement behavior? Taking out its frustrations on plants?

Almost there

A lot to lift

Not only was this fish a challenge in terms of its girth, it was a heavy lift for the heron. A typical adult great blue heron weighs about 5 pounds. Their upper bill is about 5+ inches in length. Looking at this photo, I estimate this fish to be about 14 inches in length (compare bill length to fish length). I found an online length-weight conversion estimator for fishes in Texas and used that to estimate the weight of this fish at about 1 pound – 1/5 the weight of the bird. So, that’s like me trying to gulp down a 40 pound hamburger!

eye to eye

Eye to eye

This photo “caught my eye”…the juxtaposition of the eye of the predator and the prey, now resigned to its fate. Our friend, Janna, suggested this caption…””that feeling you have when you realize who you have been trying to kiss”.

maybe if I wet it

Maybe if I get it wet…

We watched the struggle for about 20 minutes and reluctantly decided to head off to see some other areas of the refuge, wondering if the heron would ever be successful. We came back about an hour and a half later, and the heron was still at it. Another couple of photographers had stopped, but the heron was paying us no mind. It had eyes only for the mullet. While we were gone, the heron seemed to have figured out a better strategy for lifting the fish, and came oh-so-close to swallowing it a couple of times.

almost lost it

Almost lost it

But it almost lost it into the water at one point, managing a quick grab to pull it back onshore.

stand off

Pondering your dreams

The heron was starting to tire. It took longer breaks between feeding attempts. We watched another 20 minutes. The proud bird twice turned its back (maybe hoping we woudn’t see?) and caught tiny fish and gulped them down.

a quick snack

Settling for less, or just grabbing a quick snack?

It was getting late. The heron had been at this for at least two hours. We had spent almost 45 minutes watching the struggle, camera shutters firing away (I’m almost embarrassed to admit I took 892 photos of this battle), and there was no end in sight. It was time to leave and head for Pungo for what we hoped would be a great sunset show.

Really really big

Dream big

I hated to leave without knowing whether the heron realized its dream. But I guess I had achieved mine, even though I didn’t witness a successful end to the story. Perhaps the important thing, for both heron and human, is to dream in the first place.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.

~Walt Disney

 

Returning

When the uniqueness of a place sings to us like a melody, then we will know, at last, what it means to be at home.

~ Paul Gruchow

It has been almost a year since I went back to work. Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky to have landed in such a wonderful place as the NC Botanical Garden – a beautiful setting, a staff of knowledgeable, fun, and kind people, and a mission that I believe in (plus, the nicest office I have had in all my years). But, I have to tell you, in case you are not aware already, work sure gets in the way of some of the things you want to do. And with the chill of winter in the air lately, my mind turns to a special place for me in my home state, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). It hit me recently that I have not been down there in months and that is such a departure from my last few years. So, when I was offered a chance to tag along with a museum group last weekend, I jumped at the chance. The only down side was the weather…it was pretty miserable, especially Friday night and Saturday. Cold, windy, and wet. Because of that, I now realize I did not take a single photo all day Saturday, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say the highlights were seeing my first swans of the season on Lake Phelps, and four river otter and a bobcat at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (especially the bobcat!).

Tundra swans at sunrise

One of my favorite scenes, tundra swans at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

The next day proved to be much nicer, but bitterly cold. We spent the day at Pungo arriving before sunrise, seeing a couple of bears right away, and watching the sun rise over the trees at Marsh A, watching and taking in the sounds at the place that calls me back year after year. This is how certain places are – they are part of who you are, a brief sighting, a certain sound that can fill your mind’s eye with years of images and feelings in amazing detail.

We spent the day cruising the roads, looking for wildlife, keeping track of our sightings.

Estern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

We spotted many of the usual suspects, from Eastern phoebes to killdeer, and saw the first flocks of snow geese of the season lift off from Pungo Lake in the early morning light.

Bald eagle perched

A bald eagle viewed through the van windshield

Bald eagle flying away

Taking flight

Several eagles were spotted, including one that allowed us to drive up quite close before taking flight. My first winter walk of the season on “Bear Road” was brisk but beautiful.

Large black bear

Huge black bear resting next to the corn

We only saw one bear on that walk, but he was a huge one, easily 500+ pounds. When I first spotted him, he was lying up against rows of standing corn, soaking in the morning sun. He finally sat up, walked a few steps to get a drink out of a nearby ditch, then laid back down. I hope he stays on the refuge and makes it through the upcoming bear hunting season  (the refuge boundary is just beyond those trees in the background of the photo above). We didn’t see as much bear sign as usual, but there was still evidence of several bears (different sized tracks) using the corn fields.

Bald eagle flyby

Bald eagle fly-by

Though it was a weather-challenged trip, it was great to be back. Returning to this part of the state, especially in winter when the waterfowl have returned, always makes things seem better in the world, that the morning light will still brighten the dark sky, and the spirit of wildness still lives in a place close to home.

_-3

Even when surrounded by charismatic wildlife, don’t forget to take the time to enjoy the simple beauties that surround us

Species observed at Pettigrew State Park, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on December 8-10, 2017:

Birds: American coot, Common loon, Double-crested cormorant, Pied-billed grebe, Canada goose, Snow goose, Tundra swan, Canvasback, Ring-necked duck, Mallard, Black Duck, American widgeon, Wood duck, Green-winged teal, Northern shoveler, Gadwall, Bufflehead, Northern pintail, Hooded merganser, Forster’s tern, Ring-billed gull, American bittern, Cattle egret, Great egret, Great blue heron, White ibis, Black-crowned night heron, Killdeer, Greater yellowlegs, Bald eagle, American kestrel, Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed hawk, Barred owl, Turkey vulture, American crow, Fish crow, Wild turkey, Belted kingfisher, Mourning dove, Northern flicker, Yellow-belliied sapsucker, Pileated woodpecker, Downy woodpecker, Red-bellied woodpecker, White-breasted nuthatch, Brown-headed nuthatch, Northern cardinal, Northern mockingbird, Carolina chickadee, Tufted titmouse, American robin, Eastern bluebird, Hermit thrush, Eastern phoebe, Carolina wren, Winter wren, Marsh wren, White-throated sparrow, Swamp sparrow, Eastern meadowlark, Red-winged blackbird, Yellow-rumped warbler

Reptiles: Ribbon snake (dead); Worm snake, Skink sp., River cooter, Painted turtle

Mammals: White-tailed deer, Black bear (4), River otter (4), Gray squirrel, Eastern cottontail rabbit, Virginia opossum, Raccoon, Nutria, Bobcat

Another Winter Season

We are not the only species who lives and dreams on our planet. There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Snow geese flying high

Snow geese flying high (click photos to enlarge)

I ended my winter tour season last weekend, a little earlier than usual, but it finished on a spectacular note. I had two groups of wonderful people; one all day Saturday, and one Sunday. It was beautiful weather, and both mornings started out cold, just the way it is supposed to feel in winter at Pungo and Mattamuskeet. There continued to be a couple of things this season that baffle me. I am still seeing the fewest number of bears of any winter since I started visiting this wildlife-rich region. And the snow geese are still acting strange, coming and going at a very high altitude, and I never saw them feeding in any of the refuge fields all winter. If the few remaining stands of corn are knocked down before they head back north, perhaps the snow geese will make a late appearance.

Black bear clawed pawpaw

A pawpaw tree that has been climbed and clawed by bears

We did finally see six bears on Sunday, five of them the first thing as we drove in past one of the few remaining fields with standing corn. The last was seen after sunset on another field along D-Canal Road at Pungo. Still, no bears the past few weeks along the one-time sure spot, North Lakeshore Drive, aka Bear Road. There is still plenty of sign in the woods, but some of it may be from a month or two ago, before the bear hunting season on adjacent private lands. Almost every pawpaw tree in the woods along that road has been climbed, clawed, or snapped in half by the bears. They must really like pawpaws, and, who knows, maybe there is something in the bark they like as well, because many of the mid-sized trees have had their bark pulled off in strips.

Great egret coming to roost

Great egret coming to roost in the trees near the lodge at Mattamuskeet NWR

On Saturday, we saw plenty of birds at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR, in spite of the closure of the entire road along the south shore of Pungo Lake. The past few weeks have had heavy rains and some vehicles apparently got stuck in the mud, causing the closure. My advice to visitors is, if the roads look too bad to go through in your minivan or sedan, then don’t attempt it (you may be right). The refuge tries to repair the really bad spots if and when they dry out enough to allow their heavy equipment to get in to do the work. Mid-day we ran over to Mattamuskeet NWR where we found high water again limiting the number of birds in the usual spots. But, there was a good diversity of ducks that cooperated with our efforts to view them through a scope, and we were rewarded late in the day with the first wave of great egrets coming to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. That is quite a sight to see them sailing in on cupped wings, squawking as they juggle for space in the soon-to-be-crowded branches.

Pied-biled grebe in brush

Pied-billed grebe peeking out from under some low branches along a canal

Both days were full of interesting sightings ranging from bald eagles near a swan carcass, to pied-billed grebes hiding in the brush along the canals. We had a nutria with 3 young in one canal, plus a very unusual blonde-colored nutria at sunset. Finally, back at Pungo late in the day, we witnessed an incredible sunset show of tundra swans flying in and out of the lake. The strange thing was that as we drove in about 4:30 p.m., there were thousands of swans leaving the lake, which seemed late for so many to be headed out. But, they all returned (plus thousands more it seems) as the sky turned orange-red at sunset…spectacular.

Swans before surise

Pungo Lake covered in birds in the pre-dawn light

Swans at sunrise

After the sun rose above the horizon, the lake looked like a sea of white

Amazing what a difference a day makes…Saturday morning was windy, causing the birds (numerous ducks, snow geese, and tundra swans) to seek shelter on the lee side of the west shore, which left the area in front of the observation platform a void, without any waterfowl readily visible. Sunday morning was calm, and our arrival at the platform before sunrise was greeted by thousands of birds just beyond the lake shore in front of us, seemingly filling almost every square foot of the lake’s surface. As the sun climbed higher, the dark shapes became a sea of brilliant white objects that filled the air with their sounds.

River otter with fish

River otter crunching a small fish

After the sunrise show at the platform, we headed over to “Bear Road” for a walk. Along the way, I spotted a pair of river otter in the roadside canal. They tend to raise up and snort a time or two when they first spot you, and then often disappear beneath the waters with a distinct kerplunk, only to reappear near or far, depending on how much they feel like tolerating your presence. These two were busy searching for fish in the thick mats of vegetation in the canals, and by the looks (and sounds) of things, they were quite successful. One guy caught several small fish while we watched, tossing his head back and crunching them in his jaws, the hapless fish seemingly gazing at us asking for help. But each fish disappeared rather quickly, with the otter then glancing our way before disappearing into the floating green mat.

River otter

One last glace at us before disappearing under the surface

After the otter, we walked down Bear Road, but didn’t see much other than lots of bear sign, and a couple of groups of red-winged blackbirds. Once back at the car, we were starting to grab a bite to eat when a car pulled up with folks I knew from Christmas Bird Counts at Goose Creek State Park years ago. They said they had just seen a wood stork feeding in a canal around the corner. I must admit, a thought raced through my mind…I responded, a wood stork?, as if questioning their ID of this somewhat unmistakable bird…but a bird I have never seen anywhere near this part of the state in over 30 years of birding.  Wait, I told myself, these are people that used to come to the Christmas Bird Count, and they should know a wood stork if they see one. Yes, they said, a wood stork, and they had stayed with it so long that they got tired of taking pictures. They drove off, and I interrupted our lunch break and said, Sorry, but we have to check this out.

wood stork profile

Juvenile wood stork, a first for me at Pungo

We quickly loaded up and drove around the corner and could see a car stopped down the road. As we approached, I saw it, and indeed, it was a wood stork! It was a juvenile, distinguished by its straw-colored beak (instead of black of an adult) and it fuzzy feathers on the head and upper neck. It totally ignored us as it went about its business of feeding along the canal edge.

wood stork bill close up

Tactile feeding strategy involved shuffling of feet near the open bill

I have watched storks feeding in a group in Florida and South Carolina, but this one was doing something I had not seen – slowly walking, shuffling one foot, then the other, beak agape. The strategy is to startle a prey item by kicking the substrate with your feet, and if a fish, crayfish, or whatever hits the beak, it snaps shut.

wood stork wing outstretched while feeding

The bird would occasionally spread one wing out, and then turn, bill still in the water

The really odd thing it did was once a minute or so, it would extend one wing (almost always the right wing) and pivot, without pulling its beak out of the water. Some waders will spread a wing to supposedly startle prey, so maybe that is what was happening, or maybe it was to help balance the bird as it did a tight spin.

Here is a quick video clip showing this behavior, although the extended wing here is not as prominent as in most of the spins we witnessed. And my friends were right, we stayed with this bird until we got tired of taking photos…what a treat.

Another trip over to Mattamuskeet with similar results to the day before, although there was one highlight that made me think this trip might go into the record books for unusual sightings. As we drove in the back entrance of the refuge, a mink ran across the road in front of us. Wow, a mink, one of the most elusive mammals in our state, out in the middle of the day.

We headed back to Pungo later than usual and, once again, thousands of swans were flying out of the lake around 5 p.m., much later than in past winters. But this time, some were landing in a cut-over corn field right next to the refuge road. We stopped, got out, and stood in awe of the sights and sounds.

This short video gives you some idea of the spectacle, but imagine this going on all around you, the sky full of birds. As it grew darker, thousands of ducks came out of the swamps and circled a field of standing corn next to the swan field in what one young guest the evening before had called a “ducknado”. Birds everywhere in the sky…amazing.

sunset

A spectacular sunset

To top it all off, the sunset was painting the sky with broad brush strokes of orange, gray, and pink, with long lines of the black silhouettes of wings, most still heading west, away from the lake.

sunset and tree silhouette

A beautiful end to another winter season

As the fire in the sky smoldered, preparing for darkness, we looked out on the horizon with our binoculars and could see the lines of swans returning. Who knows why they flew out so late, only to turn back a short while later, filling the sky with their wing beats and whoops. Whatever the reason, it made for an amazing finish to another winter season at my favorite place, and I was so glad to be able to share the experience with others. Until next year…

Here is a species list total for our weekend outings:

Birds (56 species):

Double-crested Cormorant, Canada Goose, Snow Goose, Tundra Swan, Mallard, Black Duck, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Wood Stork, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Merlin, Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, American Woodcock, Wilson’s Snipe, Wild Turkey, American Crow, Eastern Phoebe, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Wren, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Common Grackle, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-rumped Warbler

Mammals:

Black Bear, Gray Squirrel, White-tailed Deer, Nutria, Mink, River Otter, Gray Fox

Reptiles:

Yellow-bellied Slider

Being in the Moment

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Sometimes you just need to spend time in a wild place, in your special place. This weekend was such a time. Luckily, I had a magical trip to two of my favorite public lands this weekend – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. My friend, Art, and several of his friends, were supposed to go with me the weekend of the snow/ice storm, but we had to reschedule because of road conditions. Once again, the weather did not look promising (rain this time), but we managed to dodge most of the storms, and enjoyed the subtle light and saturated colors of the overcast skies. Oddly, even though I had my gear with me, I only took about 20 images for the entire weekend, all with my phone. This weekend was for reflecting, for taking it in, for renewal. I wanted to experience the place, to feel land-rich.

duck feathers

Duck feathers along the bear trail (click photos to enlarge)

The swans are still putting on quite a show at Pungo and their sounds define this place. Gray skies and the occasional mist made the surroundings more intimate. The snow geese continue to be unpredictable and the low cloud ceiling made it even harder to see them. Several flocks went over us during our first day and we could hear them, but not see them, which I found both frustrating and somehow peaceful. We spent a lot of time with the swans, and all found a way to be in the moment as they returned to the lake by the thousands at sunset.

bear claw marks

Bear claw marks on a tree

A walk in the woods revealed plenty of bear sign, but no bears (we finally saw one moving into a corn field after sunset). I am concerned about the lack of bear sightings this winter, but hope they are just spooked from the hunting season and so many people on the refuge, and things will return to normal later this spring.

cattail marsh after snow/ice

Cattail marsh along the boardwalk at Mattamuskeet NWR

This was a very visual group of people, with eyes trained by careers in design and time spent surveying scenes of the world. I enjoy being with folks like that, it encourages a slow pace, the pace of discovery and wonder. Lichens on tree trunks, the disheveled appearance of a cattail marsh after ice and snow, and the track patterns of a deer highway through the woods are all cause for quiet celebration and contemplation.

rain drops and reflections

Rain drops on tree reflections along the boardwalk

Water levels are still quite high at Mattamuskeet, so bird numbers seem low, at least in the areas accessible to the public. The variety of ducks did provide some excellent views, along with  couple of sleeping raccoons in a small tree, and a few white-tailed deer in the marsh. A gentle rain started falling as we walked the boardwalk, adding another pattern to the already elegant design of tree trunk reflections in the dark waters.

tree silhouette north shore mattamuskeet

Reflections along the north shore

Gray skies and thick, low clouds helped us decide to bring our trip to a close. One last stop imprinted the message of the wildness in our minds – the stillness, the reflections, the stark beauty of the places we had witnessed. The abundance and proximity of life found here is to be cherished. I am thankful for these places and the opportunity to experience and share them. I have probably used this quote before, but it seems appropriate after a good weekend with good people in two of my favorite places…

Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.

~Stewart Udall

Refuge Renewal

In such surroundings – occasional as our visits may be – we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.

~Laurence Rockefeller

It is the season of renewal for me, the season of experiencing some of the wild spectacles of this place I call home. I had a trip this past week to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges and, though we ended up leaving a bit early due to the predicted winter storm, it was still a refreshing reminder of why these places are so important – important to the amazing wildlife that can be found there, and important to those of us lucky enough to spend time in them.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron walking in shallows along causeway (click photos to enlarge)

I stopped by the Pungo Unit on my way down Wednesday. Very quiet and the roads were pretty muddy. We started our tour at sunrise the next morning at Lake Mattamuskeet. There are relatively few birds out along the causeway this year, due to the wet year and resulting high lake levels, and the decline in the submerged aquatic vegetation (see recent Wildlife in North Carolina magazine article). You can still usually find a couple of birds near the south end of the causeway, especially some waders like the great blue heron above. I love the textures of their feathers, which seem even more prominent in cold weather.

black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron adult

I always look for a heron or black-crowned night heron on the pilings in the marsh pool just inside the gate to the refuge, but they were empty. But, at the next pool, an adult night heron was out in plain view, and was hunting. I have never seen a night heron at this particular pool in all the years I have been going to the refuge (and haven’t seen much else here the past couple of years since the Phragmites grass has taken over the edge of the pool).

black-crowned night heron strikig at prey

Night heron strikes and catches a small fish (note nictitating membrane to protect eye)

black-crowned night heron scratching

Nothing like a good scratch after a meal

black-crowned night heron close up

The red eye of an adult black-crowned night heron is spectacular

Their red eye is stunning in sunlight. Young black-crowned night herons have yellow eyes, that gradually change to orange, and then red as they mature. Though many species of birds show a change in eye color from young to adult, no one seems sure what the evolutionary significance of this may be.

Bald eagle immature

Immature bald eagle

Among the many birds we saw, there were the usual bald eagles perched along the edges of the lake and marshes scanning the areas for weakened waterfowl that make an easy meal. At one point, we had two immature eagles and a red-tailed hawk all soar out over us.

eagles tangling in mid-air

The eagles engaged in aerial combat

eagles tangling in mid-air 1

One eagle rolled over, extending its talons

Suddenly, the two eagles started to chase one another and were soon performing some serious acrobatics. This may be a territorial battle, or simply their form of play, I’m not sure. Almost as quickly as it had started, it was over. We saw some more of this over at Pungo the next day involving three eagles, two adults chasing one juvenile through the woods.

Anhinga sunning

An anhinga sunning itself

I had seen an anhinga in the Mattamuskeet canals on a visit in December, so I was looking for it again. We found it sunning itself in a tree across the canal from the lodge. Interestingly, this spot used to be the best place on the refuge to see black-crowned night herons (especially juveniles), but the past two winters they have been scarce.

Anhinga swimming

Anhinga, often called the snakebird, for its swimming style

As we admired the anhinga through my scope, another one came swimming down the canal. I think this is the first time I have ever seen two at once on the refuge.

white ibis

White ibis landing in marsh

We continued looking for wildlife throughout much of the day, with many of the usual suspects being observed. We found almost 100 white ibis feeding in a field at Lake Landing, and felt lucky to see a group of American white pelicans soaring over us. We also had a couple of good warbler sightings – a cooperative common yellowthroat male and an orange-crowned warbler. Overall waterfowl numbers seemed low, but there is still enough diversity to get some good looks and decent photos.

Photo blind

New photo blind at Mattamuskeet

It wasn’t until late in the day we discovered the new photo blind on the refuge. It is located along Hwy 94, between the entrance and exit points of Wildlife Drive. Kudos to those responsible – it is a great design with good viewing ports covered by camouflage netting. When we drove up, there were several species of waterfowl just off the front of the blind. They swam off as we walked in, but I think if you spend some time in this spot, you could get some good results once the birds return (you can’t really sneak in without nearby birds seeing you; bring a seat or bucket if you plan to spend time in it). I look forward to returning on a future trip. I hope other public land managers will consider putting up similar structures. This one was funded, at least in part, by a grant from the North American Nature Photography Association.

Swan taking off in Marsh A

Tundra swan taking off

That afternoon, we headed over to the Pungo Unit to hopefully enjoy the evening show of swans and snow geese returning to Pungo Lake. As I mentioned in my last post, the swans have been amazing this winter, and they did not disappoint.

Snow geese overhead

Snow geese flying high overhead

In our almost two days on the Pungo Unit, we did see the elusive snow geese flying far off the refuge to feed, returning a relatively short time later. A few thousand (of the estimated 15-20,000 birds) flew over us as walked down North lake Drive on our second day out, coming in at a very high altitude as they approached the lake. They continue to be unpredictable in their movements, although I think they will be closer to the refuge roads once some of remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down (I expect that to happen very soon).

bear jumping ditch

A young bear jumps over a drainage ditch

This has been a strange winter for the black bears at Pungo. We saw what seemed the usual number on our trip in mid-December (8, as I recall). But since then, sightings have been few and far between, including being skunked in bear sightings on our Christmas Bird Count the last week of December (maybe the only time that has happened in over 30 years of doing that count). On this trip, I saw three (a sow and two yearlings) my first afternoon, and then we saw only three others in two days – one in the front fields coming out of the corn at sunrise, one feeding in corn and one cruising across the corn fields along North Lake Road.

bear play area

What looks like a bear play area in the woods

Pawpaw with stripped bark

Bark stripped from a pawpaw tree by a bear

There seems to be plenty of fresh bear sign in the woods and along the edges of the fields (although not as much scat in the roads as usual), so I am not quite sure what is going on. I think there may be increased hunting pressure on local bears at the edge of the refuge and this may be altering their behavior and making them more secretive, as well as reducing their numbers with greater numbers of bears that venture off the refuge being taken.

sunset and swans

Sunset with swans returning to the refuge

It is still a magical place, especially at sunrise and sunset. The swans fill the evening sky with magical sounds and the graceful lines of returning birds. I’ll leave you with a video clip from our sunrise at Pungo and the swans that make this refuge such a place of renewal for myself and so many others that spend any time in it.

Kayaking in Columbia

I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place…far away from human society.

~Henry David Thoreau, on swamps

sunset on Columbia town dock

Sunset from the town dock in Columbia, NC (click photos to enlarge)

Columbia, North Carolina, that is. We spent several days in this beautiful little town last week, part vacation, part getting out to see some of the region for the trails project I am working on with NCLOW. It didn’t help that it was one of the hottest weeks of the summer, but it did help that we spent much of it on the water. And this region has lots of water, from Lake Phelps, the second largest natural lake in North Carolina, to the Scuppernong River, to the numerous creeks and sloughs that beckon paddlers to explore. So, we decided to take our kayaks, throw them in where we could, and see what we could see in a few days on the water. First stop, was the NW Alligator River.

NW Alligator wide view

NW Alligator meanders up into Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge from Hwy 94

I had scouted out some potential put-in points (they are few, unfortunately) so we decided to put in at what looks like an old boat ramp near where Hwy 94 crosses this section of river, about 14 miles south of Columbia. The access is now flooded, but there is a substantial old dock at the site, indicating its past use, perhaps in logging or fishery operations.

NW Alligator put-in

We launched on the east side of Hwy 94 at an old boat ramp area

The lands surrounding this waterway have scattered trees, low pocosin vegetation, and a border of marsh grasses, including pockets of wild rice. Shortly after we passed under the Hwy 94 bridge, we spotted a bald eagle, who managed to stay with us much of the morning. The other wildlife highlight were several red-headed woodpeckers, flying between the many standing dead trees along the route.

NW Alligator River 1

A perfect day for paddling

Eastern Pondhawk male

Dragonflies were our constant companions

NW Alligator River 2

Calm winds made for great reflections

An abundance of clouds made for beautiful reflections and a respite from the heat. After paddling about 1.5 miles, we came to the juncture of the SW and NW branches of the Alligator, and headed north. The path narrows after this, and we found ourselves going through patches of alligator weed and a grass of some sort, most likely maiden cane. Patches of the alligator weed looked as though they had been treated (this is an invasive species that can clog small waterways and is often treated chemically by local agencies).

Maidencane blockage

Large patches of maiden cane finally blocked our path

After paddling another couple of miles, we finally reached a patch of the maiden cane that seemed too large to easily push through, so we turned around and headed back. Our total paddle was about 5 to 6 miles. The only sounds, other than fish jumping, dragonflies buzzing, and woodpeckers drumming, was the distant hum of some crop dusters spraying some of the huge farm fields down the road. I want to go back in colder weather , once some of the vegetation dies back, and see if I can make it all the way up to the refuge road system.

Wide view Riders Creek

Friends recommended we try Riders Creek, near Columbia. It enters the Scuppernong River on the far left.

The next day we hit Riders Creek, a small tributary to the Scuppernong River about 2 miles south of Columbia. Finding a suitable launch site was again the challenge. The two road bridges didn’t offer much so we drove down a side road after looking at Google Earth and Melissa tested a large log on the bank of a roadside canal as a potential launch site. Nothing fancy, but it worked. This day, we had help, and another paddler, and were dropped off (there is no place to park at this makeshift put-in) and planned to paddle back to the canoe/kayak launch behind the Pocosin Lakes Visitor Center in town, a total paddle distance of a little over 5 miles.

 

Rider's Creek

The narrow creek is a beautiful paddle

The upper portion of the creek was my favorite as it is narrow and intimate, allowing us to see and hear the many bird species (prothonotary warblers, woodpeckers, and a great horned owl) and appreciate the small things along the way (an owl feather floating on the black water, the distinctive webs of the many black and yellow argiope spiders, and a clump of blooming cardinal flower adding a splash of brilliant red to the sea of green around us).

Rider's Creek 1

Large bald cypress trees are scattered along the creek

Scuppernoing River

Riders Creek joins the Scuppernong River about 1.5 miles south of Columbia

It was another great paddle, only a couple of hours long, but through a beautiful swamp forest, into the wide waters of the lower Scuppernong, and ending back in the picturesque town of Columbia. And, we were the only ones on the water, probably not unusual in this underutilized area of rich scenery and wildlife.

That afternoon, we drove through portions of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and saw a few bears (no surprise) as well as some smaller wildlife.

Palomedes swallowtails on scat

A group of palamedes swallowtails gathering nutrients from a somewhat unsavory source – scat

Canebrake rattlesnake

A large canebrake rattlesnake along a back road

The palamedes swallowtails were out and about everywhere, and we managed to find a large canebrake rattlesnake crossing one of the refuge roads. I never tire of seeing this magnificent reptiles, and the refuge seems to have a healthy population.

Lake Phelps from Pocosin overlook

The south shore of Lake Phelps

Our last stop was at the pocosin overlook at Pettigrew State Park, along the south shore of Lake Phelps. The clear water at Lake Phelps is such a surprise after spending a couple of days in the dark, tannin-colored waters of the region. It made for a refreshing dip on a hot afternoon.

NCLOW is looking at how we might help bring more tourists into this region to explore and enjoy its rich natural and cultural heritage. The waterways here offer scenic beauty, abundant wildlife, and the chance for quiet and uncrowded paddling. And Columbia is a beautiful town with a rich history and great potential. It is also home to Pocosin Arts, a real treasure of eastern North Carolina, whose mission is to connect culture to the environment through the arts. They offer a range of classes year-round, and are looking at ways to incorporate even more of their unique natural surroundings into their offerings.

One area that does seem to be getting a lot of attention from tourists is nearby Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Situated only about 15 minutes from the Outer Banks certainly helps fuel the busy summer tourist season on this refuge. It is known for its large population of black bears and for paddling opportunities along Milltail Creek. Several OBX outfitters provide canoe/kayak rentals and guided trips on the refuge. We decided to spend our last paddle day checking out this area. We drove to the main launch site at Buffalo City and were surprised to see 10+ vehicles, a crowd of people, and probably 20+ kayaks and canoes. Most people probably go downstream along Milltail Creek, so we decided to drive to another, lesser-known launch site upstream to seek some solitude.

Milltail Crk

Milltail Creek is obviously a popular paddle destination (Alligator River is on the far left of image)

Upper Milltail Crk launch

We launched upstream where Milltail Road crosses the creek

floating dock - jet doc

Floating dock at the launch site

Besides the advantage of proximity to a large tourist population on the Outer Banks, the refuge also has two well-maintained launch sites on Milltail Creek. Ours had a neat floating dock that makes for a very easy launch. As we put in, a trailer with 6 boats pulled up, so I guess this site is not as unknown as I had thought. We quickly got out ahead of the group and for a few hours felt like we were the only people anywhere near this beautiful swamp.

Upper Milltail Creek

Milltail Creek starts out narrow at this launch

 

Iris on upper Milltail Creek

Swamp iris occur in many places along the creek

Upper Milltail Creek 8

Another beautiful day for paddling

We paddled for a few hours, traveling a total of about 7 miles out and back. The creek is rich in bird life and we saw lots of wood ducks, herons, and a few anhinga. My highlights were seeing a large alligator and a black bear along the route. The scenery is beautiful, it is incredibly quiet (if the jets are not buzzing overhead), and it is a great combination of solitude, ease of access, and abundant wildlife. I can see why it is such a popular destination.

Cypress tree on Upper Milltail Creek

A large bald cypress beckoned us over for a closer look

At one point along the way, I noticed a large bald cypress tree hugging the shoreline. Its large limbs draped down, seemingly embracing the dark water, making it look like a perfect place to pull in and escape the sun.

Cypress tree trunk on Upper Milltail Creek

The giant trunk looked inviting

Melissa in tree

A great place to relax in the shade

Sure enough, it offered a chance to climb out of our boats, relax for a lunch break, and it provided a Swiss Family Robinson moment for a couple of thankful paddlers.

Our three days of paddling showed me the great potential for the Scuppernong region, truly one of the jewels of wildness in our state. I hope we can help foster an awareness and appreciation of the incredible resources of this unique area, provide some economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs, and maintain the incredible natural heritage and beauty of this wild landscape. On our way home, we decided to check out an area that is making a strong effort to do just that.

treehouse in Windsor

Recently completed tree houses along the Cashie River in Windsor

The town of Windsor is located along the Cashie River, between Williamston and Edenton. The town is making a commitment to ecotourism along its waterways (see Destination Windsor) with kayak and canoe rentals, pontoon boat tours, a wetlands walk, and the recently completed tree houses. These two tree houses, funded in part by grants, are to be the start of a village along the river including a few more tree houses and a renovated campground. They hope to have these available for rent starting this fall. It looks like a great start to getting visitors to come to appreciate their natural surroundings. Let’s hope they prove successful and can pave the way for more such ventures in the wilds of eastern North Carolina.

Creating a Sense of Wonder at Pocosin Arts

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.

~Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Downton Columbia 1

Downtown Columbia at sunrise  (Pocosin Arts lodge on left, studios across the street) (click photos to enlarge)

I spent a few days last week helping others learn to observe and visually record the natural world in a workshop sponsored by Pocosin Arts in Columbia, North Carolina. This is the fourth time I have taught a class at Pocosin Arts, and each time has been a real treat. The staff are so accommodating and the facility is wonderful, and now includes a beautiful lodge. A small group gathered to explore some of the areas I love in this region of rich natural resources, and to learn how to better observe nature, and record it in a journal. My friend and neighbor, Jane Eckenrode, took the lead in helping students gain confidence in creating memorable sketches of nature as we spent a few days observing the features and creatures of this wild area, including Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. My goal, as always, was to help people learn to see the world through new eyes, and learn to appreciate some of the tremendous natural diversity that surrounds us.

sunrise on boardwalk at PLNWR VC

Sunrise view form the boardwalk on the Scuppernong River at Pocosin Lakes NWR

After some initial hands-on observations of natural history mysteries and tips on sketching, we spent the next few days out looking for wildlife.

White-tailed deer at PLNWR

White-tailed deer at Pocosin Lakes NWR

Our primary mammals were white-tailed deer and several of the region’s most famous critters, black bears. We also saw some animal signs that intrigued us, including some huge bear tracks (we made a couple of plaster of paris casts)…

Turtle tracks

Turtle tracks crossing a sandy road

…and some initially puzzling trackways.

Great egrets

Great egrets at Mattamuskeet

Birds were a constant companion at both refuges, with the impoundment at the entrance to Mattamuskeet providing great views of flocks of waders (including great and snowy egrets, little blue herons, great blue herons, white and glossy ibis).

green heron

Green heron along boardwalk in Columbia

pileated woodpecker juvenile

Juvenile pileated woodpecker along boardwalk

The interpretive boardwalk behind the visitor center at Pocosin Lakes NWR in Columbia proved to be one of the best places to see and hear birds. I had not spent much time on this boardwalk in the past, but will now try to walk through any time I am in the area as it is rich in plant and animal life and affords close up views of a variety of species.

Dragonfy on grass stalk

Dragonflies ruled the skies last week

The most common wildlife we saw were the small ones that many people rarely notice, and, foremost among the legion of invertebrates, were the dragonflies.

Golden-winged Skimmer

Golden-winged skimmer

Golden-winged skimmers seemed to be perched on every grass stalk at the observation platform at Mattamuskeet. They had easy pickings as there were what appeared to be millions of midges emerging from the lake as a tasty morning snack.

Eastern Pondhawk male

Eastern pondhawk, male

Eastern Pondhawk female

Eastern pondhawk, female

Other species we observed included Eastern pondhawks, great blue skimmers, slaty skimmers, and blue dashers (dragonflies have some interesting names as well as behaviors).

Argiope and shadow

Argiope spider and its shadow

We even found eco-art in some strange places including a beautiful spider web and shadow lit by the rising sun on the side of a pit toilet at Lake Mattamuskeet. You just never know what you might find if you pay attention (or where you might find it!).

After our four days together, we all had a better sense of place about this area, and a better appreciation for how special it is. I know I will be back to Pocosin Arts soon…it is a great place to relax and take in the scenery, the culture, and the wildlife of one of my favorite places on the planet, the wilds of Eastern North Carolina. And the name is perfect because the natural art found in these wetlands is food for both the eyes and the soul. If you find yourself traveling toward the Outer Banks this summer, stop and check them out. Better yet, take a class at this unique facility and expand your vision of the world around you. Hope to see you there…

Some natural beauty along the boardwalk in Columbia…

swamp leatherflower

Swamp leatherflower, a type of wild clematis

Painted turtle and reflection

Painted turtle and reflection

bumblebee on pickerelweed

Bumblebee on pickerelweed flower

Marsh mallow buds

Marsh mallow (Hibiscus) buds

swamp rose

Swamp rose

Royal fern b and w

Royal fern patterns

Fly eyes

Fly eye art

bald cypress trunk b and w

Bald cypress trunk

Meandering at Mattamuskeet

By thus coordinating the management of the refuge with the natural cycles of plant and animal life, the Fish and Wildlife Service has developed Mattamuskeet to the point where it now supports much larger flocks of waterfowl than came to this refuge in former years.

~Rachel Carson, on a discussion of managing the lake for a natural cycle of draw-down in spring and summer, and higher water in fall and winter; in Mattamuskeet: A National Wildlife Refuge, 1947

I had a meeting last week in Greenville, so I decided to head down a day early and meander around Mattamuskeet. I was hoping for another look at the least bittern I photographed last week, but was up for anything that this treasure trove of wildlife might offer. The weather cooperated (for a change this winter), as did much of the wildlife (unfortunately, not the least bittern).

Northern shoveler pair feeding

Pair of northern shovelers feeding (click photos to enlarge)

Now that hunting season is over, the ducks and other birds seem a little more relaxed, and approaching them is easier than a few weeks ago. There were several cooperative ducks along Wildlife Drive, including a couple of of pair of northern shovelers in good afternoon light.

northern shoveler bill close up

Close up of bill of northern shoveler showing lamellae

Shovelers are aptly named in that they have a spade-like bill, unlike any other duck. A unique feature of this spoon-shaped beak is how the edges are lined with fine, comb-like projections (called lamellae). The shovelers use them to strain out tiny food particles as they ingest water and muddy debris. The female shoveler above kindly opened wide for a nice close up of the “teeth of her comb”.

Another strange feeding behavior of shovelers is their spinning in tight circles (sometimes called called pin-wheeling or spin-feeding). This apparently helps pull fine particulate material off the bottom, concentrating it, and making it more available for ingestion.

The quick video clip above shows the scene that was being repeated by many northern shovelers as they dizzily dined.

Blue-winged teal drake

Blue-winged teal drake

northern pintail

Northern pintail drake

tundra swan in marsh

Tundra swan feeding in the marsh

Other common species included Canada geese, northern pintails, blue-winged teal, and tundra swans. I did manage to spot a couple of American bitterns, but they sulked back into the grasses before I could get a photo.

deer in marsh

White-tailed deer in marsh

White-tailed deer were also abundant throughout the afternoon. Most were along the grassy canal banks on Wildlife Drive, but there was a small group wading out into the marsh to eat aquatic plants.

turkey vulture with wings spread 1

Turkey vulture with wings spread

Toward sunset, I drove over to check the trees near the lodge for vultures and egrets coming in for their evening roost. The usual vulture snag had about ten turkey vultures perched in the last light of the day. Several were in the ominous-looking spread-wing posture. Turns out this has a name – the horaltic pose. It probably serves multiple functions – to dry the wings, increase surface area exposed to the sun for warming the body, and exposing to sunlight the microbes that might have been picked up while feeding on carcasses, which may help kill potentially harmful bacteria.

grat egret and reflection

Great egrets in marsh earlier in the day

Much of the day I saw great egrets feeding and resting out in the marsh grass. But, starting about 5 pm, they begin heading to roost sites. Large numbers sometimes roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge, and it looked like that was going to happen again.

Great egret preening in black and white

Great egret preening

They started arriving singly, then a few more at a time, jostling for position among the swaying branches, squawking at one another, and occasionally jabbing with their sharp bills to try to secure a spot. Once settled, many began the ballet of preening their beautiful white plumage.

It is unusual to be at the refuge with so few people around, so I stood there alone, watching, and listening as the birds ended their day. Before I left, more than a hundred white ibis had joined forty or fifty great egrets for what seemed like a less than peaceful evening. The video clip above shows some of the hazards of a sleepover with your feathered friends – note what happens to the egret as it is preening its feathers…something falls from above that requires a couple of good shakes, and then more preening.

sunrise north shore of mattamuskeet 1

Sunrise along north shore of Lake Mattamuskeet

The next morning, I only had a couple of hours before I had to leave the refuge for my meeting, so I tried to cover a lot of area, looking for the least bittern. The sunrise was spectacular, as they often are at the lake, and I managed a different view point than usual.

orange-crowned warbler

Orange-crowned warbler

There were a lot of birds out in the shrubs along the edge of the road, including a ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-rumped warblers, a blue-gray gnatcatcher, and a photogenic orange-crowned warbler.

American coot flock

American coot feeding along canal edge

The usual ducks and swans rested near the road, and groups of American coot were waddling around all along Wildlife Drive. I was really hoping to see the bobcat(s) that are frequenting the far grassy edge of the canal, often hunting the coot, but, no such luck.

American coot along roadside

American coot along roadside

Coot are favorite food items of a variety of predators, undoubtedly due to their abundance, and relative ease of capture. One little guy was standing along the edge of the road and allowed me to pull up and get a few cute coot photos.

American coot feet

Lobed toes of an American coot

Coot are odd little ducks (well, actually they are not ducks at all, but are related to rails) with scarlet red eyes and a white bill with a dark frontal shield (a bump that goes up on the forehead from the upper bill). But their most noticeable strange feature is seen when they are on land – they have large feet with lobed toes (not webbed feet like ducks). This adaptation helps in both swimming, and walking on mud and mats of floating vegetation.

dead swan in marsh

Dead tundra swan in impoundment

One of the sad notes from this trip was seeing a few more dead swans. There have been a fair number this winter (perhaps as many as several dozen), more than I have seen in recent years. Lead poisoning from ingestion of lead shot is believed to be the cause for many, and I think several have been sent off for analysis. This helps point out yet another way that we tend to impact wildlife populations, intentionally or not. There was also another interesting development this past week that may impact the future of the refuge’s waterfowl populations. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed to allow joint management of the refuge by both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. While I generally support both agencies and their missions, it is unclear to many why this MOU is needed, why the federal government may be relinquishing some of its control over a refuge they have managed since its establishment in 1934. There has been a lot of talk in some parts of the community the past few years about a desire to manage the lake at higher levels in the summer for fishing, but there is also concern this may have a detrimental impact on waterfowl use of the lake. I have observed a drastic reduction on the number of birds that are easily seen in the lake along the causeway the past couple of winters, perhaps due to the higher than normal water levels that may limit food plant production and access to food for dabbling ducks and swans. This is a world-class waterfowl refuge that is used by thousands of visitors every year for hunting, fishing, crabbing and bird observation. I hope any new or revised management plans will continue to maintain it as such.

 

 

 

Bitternsweet Memories

Life wants you to have gratitude for the gift of living.  Treasure every second.

~ Bryant McGill

The season is about over. It is hard to believe I just finished what is probably my last tour for this winter season at Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes. But, if it is to be the last, at least it was a spectacular one. I was with a wonderful couple from Raleigh that were excited to see everything and learn about the incredible diversity of wildlife in the area. And we got great looks at a lot of species, including a couple of rarities.

Ice on reeds at Lake Mattamuskeet

Ice on reeds at Lake Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

We moved up our scheduled time one day to Sunday morning, due to the predicted wintry weather moving into the state on Monday. To be honest, it was wintry already, with low temperatures in the  20’s when we arrived at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. And that means ice. It also means active birds, so we were in for a treat.

American bittern

American bittern in its usual spot

As has been the case most of the winter, there were few birds were along the causeway, probably due to the extremely high water making it too deep for effective feeding by most waterfowl. As we turned into the refuge, things picked up. Right away, I spotted the faithful American bittern hunting in its usual spot next to Wildlife Drive.

American bittern and reflection

Admiring his reflection?

With the high water, the bittern was a bit more exposed as it fed along the edge of the water. That gave us a chance to really admire this beauty.

American bittern feathers

The bittern’s streaked plumage helps it blend in with its surroundings

I put the scope on it to really be able to see the subtle colors, piercing eye, and greenish-yellow legs of this usually incredibly well-camouflaged marsh inhabitant.

blonde nutria

Blonde nutria

A little farther down the road we spied an unusual-looking mammal, a very light-colored nutria. A few other, darker nutria, had greeted us when we first arrived, looking somewhat stunned in the cold weather (these South American imports don’t seem to do well when ice appears). But this little blonde guy had been feeding on the bank in the sunlight, and seemed now to be waiting for us to move on so he could get back to his lunch break. This is the first nutria I have seen with this coat color.

coot on ice

American coot skating on the marsh

Flocks of American coot dotted the canal banks and patches of open water, while others skated on the skim of ice out in the impoundment. You can really appreciate their lobed toes when you see them up on ice.

common gallinule

Common gallinule

A common gallinule was mixed in with the coot near the observation platform. These relatives of rails look similar to coots (especially this juvenile) but can be distinguished by the white stripe along each side, their habit of flicking their tail, and the lack of lobes on their especially long toes. Known to breed in isolated locations in our state, the common gallinule is fairly rare in winter, and this is the first I have seen at Mattamuskeet this year.

Great egret with plumes 1

Great egret showing off its plumes

doe face

White-tailed deer were out browsing along the edge of the road

The high water had closed the far end of Wildlife Drive, but we got great views of a showy great egret and several deer before turning back.

New Holland Trail under water

New Holland Trail partially submerged due to high water

ice in swamp 1

Skim of ice in the swamp along New Holland Trail

We stopped for a short hike along New Holland Trail, one of my favorite spots at Mattamuskeet. Extremely high water and a skim of ice gave the swamp a very different look from my last visit a week ago. I love it when there is ice down here…a different world with new artistry everywhere you look.

tundra swan in impoundment

Tundra swan lounging in the impoundment

Driving along the back side of the impoundment we watched thousands of ducks lift off when an eagle flew overhead. Another American bittern was standing along the edge of the marsh, and swans, coot, and ducks were feeding in the shallows as the sun started to dip toward the horizon. Then my phone chirped that sound it makes when I get a text message. I glanced at it…a local number, but I didn’t know who…it read least bittern on entrance road!! Whoa, I said, let’s go….but there were cars in front of us, stopping to look at swans and ducks…we waited…another text…where are you? Our volunteers told me you were around. Now I knew, it was my friend, Keith, who works at the refuge. One of the volunteers from the office had apparently spotted the bird, told Keith, and then mentioned that I was at the refuge (we spoke at the visitor center earlier in the day). Keith knew I would be interested in this bird because we had talked about it when someone saw one a few weeks ago. So, thankfully, he texted me with this news while he was photographing it on the other side of Wildlife Drive. A least bittern is not something I see very often. In fact, I have only seen two in all my years of wildlife watching.

least bittern

Least bittern stands like a statue along the water’s edge

When we finally got over there, I saw Keith out with his camera. We got out, and there it was, in perfect light, standing right next to the road, motionless, like a piece of yard art. What a beautiful bird! I am guessing this is a male because of the dark head and back.

least bittern 1

Like their larger cousins, least bitterns have an intense, piercing gaze

Least bitterns are one of the smallest herons in the world, standing only a little over 12 inches tall when stretched out, much smaller than its bulky cousin, the American bittern. The least bittern is usually more difficult to see, because of its small size and its preference for thick vegetation. These diminutive herons often walk through thick marsh vegetation (like cattails), not by wading, but by grasping the grasses with their long toes and striding through the narrow openings between the upright blades, literally sneaking through the grass above the water. This little guy was not bothering with stilt-walking, but was instead on the ground next to some standing water.

least bittern with fish

It grabs a small killifish

Keith and I crawled around on the edge of the road trying to get a good angle for some photos, while the bittern stood still. It finally moved its head, then went into classic bittern feeding mode. Within a minute of staring at the water, and slowly stretching out and downward, it struck and grabbed a small fish, gulping it down with a quick snap of its beak.

least bittern and reflection 1

A fine way to wrap up a winter season

I would love it of this bird decides to stick around and nest somewhere in the vicinity. The young bitterns, like many young herons, are fine examples of punk feather-do birds, and I would enjoy a chance to photograph them. Odds are slim though, as they usually hide their nests fairly well in thick marsh vegetation.

The trip ended the next day with icy conditions, muddy roads at Pungo (including a large section closed due to flooding), and relatively few sightings at Pungo (although we did manage some species we did not see at Mattamuskeet –  wild turkeys, a snipe, two cooper’s hawks, a sharp-shinned hawk, and a great horned owl).

It has been another very good winter season. While I am sorry to see the swans and snow geese starting to depart, I have many memories to fall back on. And the shifting season means new life just around the corner…spring wildflowers, calling frogs, migrating warblers, and so much more. I can’t wait…and I will back to the wildlife refuges to see what they offer this spring and summer, so, if you are interested in a trip, just contact me.

Grass with Eyes

He prefers solitude, and leads the eccentric life of a recluse, “forgetting the world, and by the world forgot.” To see him at his ordinary occupation, one might fancy him shouldering some heavy responsibility, oppressed with a secret, or laboring in the solution of a problem of vital consequence. He stands motionless, with his head drawn in upon his shoulders, and half-closed eyes, in profound meditation, or steps about in a devious way,

~Elliott Coues, describing an American Bittern,1874

One of my highlights of any winter trip to Mattamuskeet NWR is the sighting of a most unusual denizen of the marsh, the American bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus. This is a bird ideally adapted to its surroundings.

American bittern 1

American bittern out in the open at Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

They can be fairly reliable at the refuge this time of year if you look long enough in the right places. This past trip we managed to see at least 5 individuals, including a couple that flushed from grasses along a canal at Pungo, where they are generally much harder to locate. They are easiest to see when they are feeding right along the edge of the marsh next to the road. I think most people are looking farther out at the numerous waterfowl in the impoundment, and manage to drive by the secretive bitterns without ever seeing one.

American bittern 3

Grass with eyes and a beak

I usually coach my participants to look for a clump of grass with eyes and a beak – that’s your bittern. On my last trip, while driving along the road that skirts the northwest shore of Lake Mattamuskeet, I spotted a dark shape in marsh grass next to the road. I shouted, “bittern”, to my group, brought the car to a stop, looked for traffic in my rear view mirror, and then backed up about fifty feet, hoping I was right. I pulled up next to the bird, and I noticed no one said anything, so I said, “right there, next to the car”. Indeed, it was a bittern, and not a bittern-shaped log. Everyone but me ( I was watching for cars) got some great shots, as the light was perfect, and the bittern assumed its upright posture that makes it blend so well with the surrounding grasses. Driving on, we found another near the refuge entrance kiosk. I saw in the wildlife observation notebook at the Visitor Center that someone had spotted the much less common least bittern in this same area the week before. We continued along Wildlife Drive and spotted another American bittern in thick grasses next to the road. This one allowed us to exit the vehicle and watch it for about thirty minutes, as it skulked along, appearing and disappearing among the waves of wind-flattened grasses.

American bittern 2

They stalk with a deliberate, creeping motion

They are very deliberate mash stalkers, slowly, yet smoothly, gliding through grasses looking for their favorite prey.

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A bittern gulps down a killifish snack

I have seen them eat a variety of food from small fish to tadpoles, large aquatic insects, and even a baby painted turtle.

American bittern

Finally out in the open

They can be a tough subject to photograph, as they usually are found in, or quickly retreat to, thick vegetation. A quick look at their feathers and you can see why – they blend very well with grass stalks in a marsh.

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The bittern stare

When they think they have been discovered by a photographer (or potential predator), they often assume an upright stance, pointing their bill skyward. This behavior has given rise to a few of their other common names such as sky-gazer, look-up, and stake-bird. To complete the disguise, if a light breeze blows through the grasses, a bittern will gently sway back and forth, imitating the movement of its surroundings.

American Bittern calling

A male American bittern calling (photo taken in April, 2013)

A couple of years ago, I reported about finally hearing the strange mating call that has given this unusual bird a host of other odd-sounding names like thunder pumper, water-belcher, and stake-driver. The sound reminds me of the noise the bubbles make when someone draws a glass of water from from the office water cooler. This is accompanied by an impressive visual display that includes lots of head bobbing, neck puffing, and beak thrusting. All in all, the American bittern is a treat anytime you encounter one. Just keep looking at those marsh grasses until you see a clump staring back at you.