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.

bittern eating killifish 2

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.

American bittern eyes 2

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.




When the Geese are Gone

Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing.

~Barry Lopez

What a difference a week makes. Less than seven days had passed between my last two groups, but things have dramatically changed at Pocosin Lakes NWR. The snow geese had arrived later than normal this year, and now have left earlier than usual. Where there had been 40,000+, we saw one. And, it seems, the tundra swans may be departing the refuge a little early as well. There still seem to be a few thousand, but their numbers are way down from what we saw back in late December, and almost none are feeding on refuge lands. The warm weather, and what appears to be less corn and winter wheat on the refuge, may be to blame. Or maybe, as Barry Lopez so eloquently puts it, the land is simply breathing and exhaling the geese northward. But, there are still things to discover and enjoy, if you look closely.

Immature bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle overhead at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived early the day of my tour, in hopes of finding some interesting things to share later with my group. With the snow geese gone, the eagles are not as numerous as in recent trips. But, a young bald eagle (looks like a first year bird based on the plumage) still gave me a nice fly over shortly after my arrival.

black bear in woods

Large black bear sow

I took a short walk into the forest and was rewarded with a couple of black bears, including one large sow. I took a few photos but quickly left, after requesting that she and her two youngsters hang around for another few hours.

great horned owl nest

Finally, I find the great horned owl nest

I have been hearing the great horned owls calling in a patch of woods on previous trips so I was went looking for any sign of a nest. I have found two other nests on the refuge over the years. One was in a pine in what was probably an old red-tailed hawk nest; the other atop a snag with a platform of poison ivy vines spreading out from the top. I finally spotted a large stick nest in the fork of a lone pine tree. I didn’t see anything at first, but then noticed a feather on the side of the nest blowing in the wind. When I put the spotting scope on it, it looked like an owl feather. I moved around for a different view and saw what looked like ears sticking up above the nest.

great horned owl nest close up

Great horned owl sitting on eggs or young (heavily cropped photo)

The scope revealed it to be the ear tufts of a great horned owl, most likely sitting on her eggs, as this species is probably the earliest breeder in our state. I stayed well away from the nest so as to not disturb her. I can check on the nest on future trips with the spotting scope without getting close. This is a good time to remind readers that almost all of the photos of wildlife in this blog are taken with a large telephoto lens, and are cropped in processing, so the animals are not as close as they sometimes appear.

bear cub in woods 1

Young black bear rushes across trail to cover

When my group arrived, we headed back to check on the bears and the owl nest. It seemed as though the bear had heeded my wishes and was walking toward us as we headed down the path. We stopped and she wandered off, followed by two young, both sporting a distinctive grayish coat. Then, another bear crossed the path, followed by three more bears! Quite a start to our trip.

bears in woods

Black bear sow and young

At least some of these same bears hung around that general area for the next day as well. We saw another group on our hike the next morning. I always try to give the bears plenty of room. We are quiet and try to stand still when we see one, and I like to let the bears take whatever path they want. I have seen people try to cut them off in order to get a closer look or a better picture, but it is best to respect their wildness, and let them be. Enjoy the experience, but keep the bears unstressed and wild.

find the rattlesnake

Excellent camouflage makes these snakes difficult to see on the forest floor

The other thing I wanted to check on was the tree where I had seen the rattlesnake two weeks earlier. I carefully checked the area around the tree as I approached, knelt down and shined a light inside the base – no snake. Not too surprising as it had been a cold night and there was even ice in tire ruts on the road when we walked in. So, with all the bears in the area, I started to walk down the path, looking ahead for any signs of bears through the trees. The next thing I know, I had what can only be described as a too-close-of-an-encounter with that snake, who was luckily quite docile in the chilly air.

Canebrake rattlesnake strecthed out

Rattlesnake stretched out in morning sun

We took a bunch of photos and then left the snake alone. We checked on it the next day, after seeing even more bears, and found it a little more active in the warming weather. It was slowly crawling in roughly the same area where we had seen it the day before.

canebrake rattlesnake

A close look (and a telephoto lens) shows the beauty of this snake

This is a beautiful specimen, and apparently a tough one, as it doesn’t seem to mind being out in some pretty cool weather. Today, it chose to lie in a sunny spot, soaking in the morning warmth.

canebrake rattlesnake head

The rattler was more active than the past couple of sightings, and even flicked its tongue a few times

canebrake rattlesnake tail

Close up of rattle

We took some more pictures and then left it alone. I can’t help but wonder how it will fare if a bear encounters it in this cool weather. I also can’t believe I may now need to look at the ground more carefully as I walk these winter woods, instead of constantly scanning the skies for waterfowl and other birds as I have done for over thirty five years. Strange times indeed.

shed antler

We found two shed deer antlers

My first morning at Pungo I saw a buck white-tailed deer, with only one antler, running through a field. It is that time of year when male deer are dropping their antlers in preparation for starting the new growth later this spring. As it turned out, we found two different shed antlers as we walked. You are most likely to find them shortly after they are dropped and before squirrels, mice, and other animals start chewing them up to get the calcium.

Great blue heron with catfish

Great blue heron with a nice catfish for breakfast

While watching the swans one morning, someone in the group spotted a great blue heron with something in its beak. It turned out to be a large catfish. We watched as the heron repeatedly tried to swallow the large meal. We think it finally gulped down its meal before flying off to hunt again.

tundra swans in morning light

Tundra swan fly over

Tundra swans flew back and forth overhead as the day progressed so we had plenty of good looks and photo opportunities.

nutria feeding in canal

Nutria feeding on duckweed

Trio of young nutria

A trio of young nutria

We split our time between the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR and Mattamuskeet. As the weather warmed over the weekend, we saw a lot of nutria out feeding.

great blue heron silhouette

Great blue heron at sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet

Northern Pintails in marsh

Northern pintails in marsh

great blue heron in tree

Great blue heron resting in a pine

white ibis feeding 1

White ibis feeding in impoundment along Wildlife Drive

Driving along Wildlife Drive, we saw hundreds of ducks and swans, along with a variety of other birds.

vulture comparison

Silhouette of turkey vulture (lower left) compared to black vulture (upper right)

Late Saturday afternoon we enjoyed seeing vultures come into roost in trees near the lodge. At one point I grabbed a photo of a turkey vulture alongside its smaller cousin, a black vulture. The latter looks as though someone had trimmed its tail feathers (relative to a turkey vulture). Black vultures are also smaller and tend to flap their wings more than a turkey vulture.

Great egret landing in top of pine

Great egret landing in tree top

The late hour also brought in several great egrets, white ibis, and some cattle egrets to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. This spot has traditionally been a roost for black-crowned night herons, but I have seen none of them in these trees this winter.


Alligator in canal at Gull Rock Game Lands

alligator head

Close up of smiling gator

One of the biggest eye-openers of the trip came on our last afternoon as we explored some new territory down toward Gull Rock Game Lands. In a canal bordering a wetland containing ibis, a grebe, and a double-crested cormorant, we discovered another surprising January reptile – an American alligator. It was about a 6-footer, basking in the sun, and seemingly unconcerned about the three cameras being pointed at it.

And so this month of wildlife wonders has come to a close. A strange month indeed, but an exciting one. One other critter worth mentioning that we saw on the last day of January – an orange and black butterfly near the lodge at Mattamuskeet. It was flying away from me when I spotted it out about 75 feet, but through the binoculars it looked like a monarch, not a viceroy. Either one is a big surprise for a winter day in North Carolina. It seems the land is breathing a bit oddly this season. I wonder what the coming spring will hold?

Sunrise, Sunset

Let the beauty we love be what we do.


The older I get, the more I find beauty in the dazzling displays of light and clouds that form the sunrises and sunsets of my life. They remind me of the passing of time, of things seen and to be seen. They can form the book ends of a memorable experience in a wild place, or in a day simply looking out the window here in the woods. And, true to form for me, I prefer the skies (and temperatures) of winter to those of summer. This past weekend, I had a group of photographers with me on a trip to Pungo and Mattamuskeet, and we were keenly aware of the majesty in the skies as we chased the light each morning and evening, and enjoyed the subtleties of color that paint our surroundings and the life that calls this big sky country home. Later this week I will post about some of the extraordinary wildlife we observed, but, today, I just want to share some of the simple artistry we experienced at sunrise and sunset, surely the best times of day.

Sunset Friday night at Pungo…

Swans at sunset 1

Tundra swans flying back to the refuge at sunset (click photos to enlarge)

Sunrise Saturday at Pungo…

canal reflections

Canal reflections at sunrise

Swans at sunrise

Morning light tinting the feathers of flying swans

Sunset Saturday at Mattamuskeet…

Ibis in golden light

A golden hour spotlight falls on roosting white ibis

ibis silhouette at sunset

Juvenile white ibis in bald cypress tree

Great egret preening in golden light

Great egret preening at last light

Great egret flying at sunset 2

Sunlight bathes the underside of a great egret coming to roost


Great egret flying at sunset 1

A different angle to the sun creates very different lighting on another egret

broomsedge highlighted by setting sun

Broomsedge seeds glow in the setting sun

Cypress tree at Lake Mattamuskeet 1

“The tree” at sunset at Lake Mattamuskeet

pink cloud at sunset

Pink clouds and tree silhouettes

Sunrise Sunday at Lake Mattamuskeet…


cypress island at sunrise

Sunrise at the cypress island at Lake Mattamuskeet

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise

Telephoto shot of clouds on the horizon

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise 1

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise

Sunset Sunday at Pungo…

swans at sunset

Swans flying in against a thickening cloud cover

Fiery sunset

A surprise fiery sky as we drove back to Plymouth

These ephemeral glimpses of beauty help remind us what an amazing world we live in and how we should pause to enjoy it, to make it what we do, and to live in the moment.

Here is a moment of extravagant beauty: I drink it liquid from the shells of my hands and almost all of it runs sparkling through my fingers: but beauty is like that, it is a fraction of a second, quickness of a flash and then immediately it escapes.

~ Clarice Lispector

Quiet Beauty

Intimate knowledge can make a place beautiful.

~Melissa Dowland

I had a one day refuge tour with a wonderful couple on Monday. I went down Sunday evening, just to make sure I could get down there, given the wild weather we had over the weekend. Turns out, once I got out of the neighborhood, the roads were fine. I arrived at Pungo just in time for sunset.

deer in fields

White-tailed deer in fields (click photos to enlarge)

A large flock of swans was feeding close to the road. I drove by to turn around so I could have my side of the car close to the flock. When I stopped to turn, I noticed a large number of deer out in the corn stubble. When I scanned the field, I counted twenty four deer. As the evening progressed, I saw the most deer in one spot that I have seen in a number of years, upward of fifty.

swans at last light

Tundra swans feeding in field next to road

As I pulled up next to the flock, the swans scurried several feet away from the road, necks outstretched in their typical alert pose. It only took a couple of minute for the swans to return to the edge of the field where the last of the corn was most abundant. The late afternoon light was beautiful on their white feathers, giving them a golden cast.

flying swan at sunset

Tundra swan with hints of gold from the setting sun

The light quickly faded to grays and birds began to fly back toward the lake, singly, and in small groups.

swans in fields b & w

A few thousand swans feeding in a field

The flock was in constant motion and the sounds were mesmerizing. I was the only person watching and it was magical. But, something was missing…the loud sounds of tens of thousands of snow geese. They had been here the previous week, feeding with the swans. Tonight, there were only a handful.


Sunrise from the observation platform

The next morning we were at the platform for sunrise. Pungo Lake was partially frozen and the birds were far off on the north side. Snow geese lifted off, circled, and resettled onto the lake surface. There were only a few thousand, not the 40,000+ of a week ago. Are they already departing?

heavy frost

Heavy frost decorated every fallen leaf…

feather frost

…and even a fallen feather

The cold morning air had left the leaf litter and standing weed stalks heavy with frost, a beautiful coating of crystals on everything near the ground.

ruddy duck

Ruddy duck and reflection

The impoundment was partially frozen and we watched swans trying to push their way through the skim of ice as we slowly drove past. A cooperative ruddy duck allowed us to get out of the car and create portraits with detailed reflections. Continuing down the road we started seeing lots of ducks – gadwall, northern shovelers, mallards, and wood ducks – flush out of the swamp along the roadside canal. Suddenly, something streaked across the road in pursuit of one of the ducks. It was a Cooper’s Hawk, tying to catch a northern shoveler hen. The pair bobbed and weaved in the air down the canal and then the duck dove into the water with a huge splash in a last ditch effort to escape. The hawk swooped up to an overhanging limb. The duck surfaced and swam around nervously. We drove slowly toward them and the hawk flew back across the road. More ducks flushed out ahead of us and the hawk swooped back, and the whole scene was repeated again, and again a duck (this time a wood duck) barely escaped. Finally, the hawk gave up and moved elsewhere to find a meal. It is always amazing to witness such an event.

northern shoveler male

Northern shoveler male

Not far down the canal, we encountered another pair of northern shovelers. The stunning drake swam out into the open and the morning light made his colors pop in intensity. And that eye…that  striking yellow eye.

raccoon blob

Fur ball in a hollow tree

We continued on, hoping for snow geese. They flew out of the lake but headed beyond the refuge. Instead of waiting for the missing geese to come into the fields, I opted for a leisurely stroll through the woods. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds danced over the corn, flying back and forth to the safety of the tree tops as we headed down the edge of the field. Tiny helicopters, pine seeds, rained down on us as the hungry birds picked at pine cones high over our heads. Temperatures were warming, it was sunny, a perfect day for finding a bear napping against a tree trunk or a sleeping raccoon in a tree. A pair of pileated woodpeckers sounded the alarm as we entered the forest. Flocks of American robins were feeding on the ground in openings in the trees, probably finding worms forced to the surface by the wet conditions. I am always scanning the trees looking for anything out of place – a lump on a limb, a pair of eyes peering out of a knot hole, or a patch of fur in a hollow trunk. And then, there it was, a blob of gray fur barely visible in an open hollow in a tree trunk.

raccoon in hollow tree

A sleepy raccoon gives us the eye

We walked closer, briefly waking the raccoon. It gave us a couple of glances like the ones you get when you awaken a sleeping spouse or child. You know, the “hey, can’t you see I’m sleeping here” sort of look, half disgust, half “I’m just too tired to do anything about it”. We apologized and walked on.

raccoon in hollow tree 1

Another ball of fur

Before heading back to the car, I wanted to check the hollow tree where I had found a sleeping raccoon on a previous trip. There was no raccoon in the tree trunk this time, but it was obvious that a bear had clawed at the opening since my last visit. I suppose the raccoon had to find another bedroom after that. But, it looks like it might not have moved very far. I looked up at a hole in a nearby tree and there was another ball of raccoon fur. This time, the raccoon barely moved as we walked by. At least we weren’t scratching at his door.

american bittern

American bittern

We spent the afternoon at Lake Mattamuskeet, getting great looks at a variety of waterfowl and waders. Large flocks of northern pintails jumped into the sky along Wildlife Drive anytime an eagle flew across the wetlands. And we managed to find a cooperative bittern snagging small fish along the edge of the marsh (if only they would come out into the open for their picture).

deer face

Deer were common at Mattamuskeet as well

We ended the day back at Pungo, hoping to see a show of snow geese, but they were nowhere to be found. Even the swans had largely moved onto private lands as corn supplies have apparently been picked over in most of the refuge fields. The evening ended with a spectacular sunset (and me with no camera) as we walked along a quiet roadside, soaking it all in. Great horned owls were calling. A few American woodcock zigzagged out of the swamps into the fields to feed. Then we heard something that I have never heard here – first, one howl, then another. And they were close to us, just out of sight in a thicket of river cane in the woods. The sky was on fire with a pink and red sunset, and here we are listening to two animals welcoming the approaching darkness. I must admit, the sound sent chills through me. The howls continued for a minute or so. We walked back to the car, admiring the spectacular show in the sky and wondering what we had just heard. Listening to some audio files online when I got home that night, I guess they could have been red wolves. I like to think so. Even in a place where you have intimate knowledge of its beauties, there are always new mysteries to be solved. I can’t wait to see what we find on my next trip.

Birds Galore

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.

~Rachel Carson

I had two groups scheduled for trips over the last week, one a group of photographers, and one some friends from my museum world. The weather for the first group did not look great, but they all decided to roll the dice and give it a try.  And I am glad they did, as there were some beautiful photographs taken and some wild scenes observed. The second group had much better weather, but it turned windy and much colder, which is often a good thing in terms of wildlife activity. Birds were abundant, with an estimated 40,000+ Snow Geese now on the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR.

snow geese overhead 2

Snow Geese against a gray sky (click on photos to enlarge)

The flocks are still being a little antsy, with the main flock circling the fields for quite some time before settling, and various groups breaking up and peeling off from the main aggregation. When they do swarm as a flock, they are truly magnificent to see, and hear. On the first morning with a group, we were treated to a bear wandering through the flock of Snow Geese in the field, causing a commotion as the birds parted to allow the bruin to pass (unfortunately, I had not carried my camera due to impending rain). I answered  a question from one of the group about where these birds had migrated from by showing them an image on my phone of a certificate I just received from my report of a Snow Goose collar (as related in an earlier post). The two collared birds both had been caught and tagged in Nunavut, Canada, above the Arctic Circle. That is almost due north of their wintering grounds at Pungo Lake, and a distance of about 2600 miles.

certificate for collar

Certificate from collared Snow Goose report

One thing that really surprised me was the age of one of the birds (MXO7) who was at least 11 years old. Assuming this Snow Goose has made this same trip, back and forth each year, it has flown at least 52,000 miles in its 11 years…that’s a lot of wing beats.

snow geese over field

Snow Geese circling over corn field in early morning light

Over the next few days, we saw the flocks in the same fields, coming out in the morning early, feeding for a couple of hours, returning to the lake to rest, and repeating the pattern late in the afternoon.

snow geese over field 2

Snow Geese just after blast off

As we walked along the path, the entire flock would occasionally blast off with a loud cacophony of calls and circle noisily before returning to feed.

Immature Bald Eagle

A Bald Eagle fly-by will almost always cause the flock to blast off

If you look closely, the usual cause for these nervous lift-offs is a passing Bald Eagle, like the immature eagle in the photo above.. I imagine the eagles are testing the flock as they cruise over, looking for weak birds, or something that might cue them in on an easy meal.

snow and ross' goose

Snow Goose (left) and Ross’s Goose, flying next to each other

My new game when the birds fly over is to try to pick out a smaller Ross’s Goose out of the flock of Snow Geese as they pass overhead. It is obviously much easier once the flock has stretched out in lines, rather than when they are tightly packed together.

The spectacle of the Snow Geese flying overhead is one of the reasons I love this place. While my groups were able to experience it in various ways, I had an absolutely amazing experience Sunday evening between leading trips. It was a beautiful evening and I was walking back toward the gate. My friend, Rick, was at the gate, along with a first-time visitor to Pungo, Sydney. The birds came into the field as I walked, so I stopped, then turned and walked back some distance to where I thought they might fly over on their way back to the lake. And I waited…

They did as I had hoped, taking off in one giant swoop, and spreading out over the pink-tinged sky, making an incredible sound as they winged their way to the safety of the dark waters just beyond the trees. Sydney had walked out toward me just before the bird’s departure. It was an a truly spectacular introduction to the wonders of Pungo on her first visit.

There were many other bird highlights in my 6 days at the two refuges, many not recorded by my camera, but indelibly etched in my memory. Of the latter, there was a Peregrine Falcon streaking by the corn field; a Merlin accelerating across s the tops of the corn resulting in an explosion of Red-winged Blackbirds, but no kill this time; and the high-pitched shriek of a Wood Duck as it dipped and ripped through the treetops with a raptor of some sort (probably a Peregrine or a Cooper’s Hawk) in hot pursuit.

Trumpeter Swan close up

Trumpeter Swan at Mattamuskeet

Tundra Swan close up

Tundra Swan head for comparison

At Mattamuskeet, there have been reports of a few Trumpeter Swans hanging out along Wildlife Drive. On my scouting trip the first day, I came across a group that I think were the Trumpeters – slightly larger, no yellow on the bill (although that can vary on Tundra Swans), and a longer, and more sloping bill. They also apparently curl their necks into more of an S-shape and rest it on their body when in a sitting or resting position.

Swan juvenile

Juvenile swan

There were a couple of juvenile swans nearby that I think were also Trumpeters as they had darker heads than most of the immature Tundra Swans I see.

A few other highlights of a great trip to two of my favorite places…I can’t wait to go back.

bears in rod

A good way to end a trip – 5 Black Bears between you and your car

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret along the causeway at Mattamuskeet

bald eagle with rabbit

Bald Eagle flying across a roadside field with a small rabbit

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern at Mattamuskeet

Pungo sunset 3

Beautiful sunset at Pungo

Another Winter Season, Sort Of

What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

~John Steinbeck

Tundra Swans flying by

Tis the season for winter visitors such as these Tundra Swans (click photos to enlarge)

It is time for another season of winter wildlife watching. Now, if only the weather would catch up and cooperate. I will have to admit, my group seemed to enjoy the warm conditions as we explored Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge last Saturday. But, the unseasonably high temperatures made for some strange bedfellows. While watching Arctic visitors such as Tundra Swans, we also saw three species of butterflies (Cloudless Sulphur, Palamedes Swallowtail, and Orange Sulphur) and heard the quacking sound of Southern Leopard Frogs calling. Temperatures were in the 70’s both days and I slapped more than a few mosquitoes…in mid- December!

Yellow-bellied Sliders on log

Yellow-bellied Sliders seemed to be enjoying the warm temperatures

Even the many turtles we stopped to photograph looked a little hot while sunning themselves in this December heat wave.

Great Blue Heron at sunrise

Great Blue Heron silhouette at sunrise

The day started mildly enough with a beautiful sunrise and a few birds along the causeway. The lake level is very high again this winter so there are not as many birds as in the past feeding along this area. But, you can always count on a few herons and egrets to grace the edges with their stately silhouettes.

swamp boardwalk

Boardwalk at the New Holland Trail

After spending time driving Wildlife Drive and admiring the numerous species of waterfowl feeding in the shallows, we took a couple of hikes along the trails where we saw Nutria, the aforementioned butterflies, and a host of small birds. As usual, when I am with a group, I didn’t take all that many photos with my telephoto lenses, but carried a point and shoot to document the day.

reflections in swamp

Reflections along the boardwalk

And, as usual, I can’t resist stopping for a few photos of the exquisite reflections along the New Holland Trail boardwalk. The dark, still waters along this 1/4 mile trail offer a reverse image of the stark trees and sky that calls to my camera.

Merlin in snagg

Merlin perched in a snag in one of the impoundments

On our final pass around the roadway loop for the day, I had just started to comment on how I appreciate the two dead tree snags out in the impoundment because they are often graced with a raptor….wait, there’s one now. I pulled over, thinking it was an American Kestrel, but my binoculars told me otherwise – a Merlin, our second largest falcon. I jumped out and grabbed the spotting scope so everyone could get a look. About the time we all had our first quick glance, the Merlin took off. We watched it pick up speed and fly out about 25 yards, then make a swoop and an abrupt turn and return to the snag. It immediately started reaching down to its clinched talons and begin to feed. It had caught something! I reset the scope and looked, but didn’t see anything at first. Then the bird moved and I saw wings. Not the usual bird wings you would expect as prey of this mid-sized falcon, but insect wings. More precisely, dragonfly wings. This was so cool…I have seen Merlins nab a few different species of birds over the years, but never a dragonfly. The feisty raptor took off again, this time flying more in our direction, accelerating as it cruised the marsh, and, once again, ending its flight with a sharp turn and a return to the snag. And again, a dragonfly. We watched it go out on 6 forays and return with 5 dragonflies. One was spotted and caught at a remarkable distance of about 50 yards. Unfortunately, I got so involved watching this unusual event that I never got the 500 mm lens out to attempt a better photo. I tried to identify the seemingly mid-sized dragonflies through the scope, but could only see a dark abdomen clutched in the bird’s talons as it quickly pulled the wings off and ate the head. One member of my group saw it slurp down the abdomen of one dragonfly like a kid eating spaghetti. The Merlin finally took off and flew over the treetops leaving us all appreciative of its keen eyesight and aerial acrobatics as it dined on its out-of-season menu items. In reading about the bird that night I came across David Allen Sibley’s description of this species in his field guide…Pugnacious…An active and energetic hunter: spots prey from perch or during low fast flight, closes with incredible speed, and attacks with abrupt turns, often from below. Feeds almost entirely on small birds; also take dragonflies in mid-air. I’d say Mr. Sibley nailed it!

Sky Watching

There’s a sunrise and a sunset every single day, and they’re absolutely free. Don’t miss so many of them.

~Jo Walton

I had a trip to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges with a great group this past weekend. The birds have arrived (well, maybe not all the birds as yet) and it was a beautiful weekend of clear skies and warm weather. Too warm for my tastes, but I don’t think my friends minded. In addition to the wildlife, we enjoyed some beautiful skies, especially at sunrise and sunset. While almost everyone I know appreciates a good sunset, I find that many people are not fond of the concept of sunrise. A teacher that attended one of our Yellowstone workshops one summer (when sunrises are really early) sent me a cartoon whose caption summed up her feelings…the only problem with sunrise is that it comes too damned early.

sunrise Lake Mattamuskeet from platform 1

Just before sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

To make it even tougher for the dawn-weary, the 15-30 minutes just before sunrise are often the most spectacular in terms of color. Such was the case Saturday at Lake Mattamuskeet. The usual spot for viewing the sunrise is the observation platform along the causeway (Hwy 94) over the lake. From that location, a small island of cypress trees provides a nice added element in any photograph. In fact, I think this may be the most photographed “island” in the state of North Carolina, based on the many entries in the annual Wildlife in NC Photo Competition that include this photogenic group of trees.

sunrie Mattamuskeet

Getting closer to sun popping up

As the sun started to peek above the horizon, the colors had subsided, and more clouds became visible in the eastern sky.

rising sun on lake mattamuskeet

Telephoto sunrise

Switching to my Canon 7D MII and a telephoto lens created a much different perspective on the orange orb coming over the distant trees. But, from what I have read, the actual sun may not quite be up in this photograph. Say what? Due to the bending of light (refraction) in the Earth’s atmosphere, we see the sun in a position slightly different from where it really is. If I understand this correctly, this effect means that we “see the sun” about two minutes before the actual position of the sun is above the horizon.

Sunset north shore of Mattamuskeet

Sunset along the north shore

Back to just appreciating the sky…After a full day of wildlife watching, we headed back to Belhaven in late afternoon. Cruising along the north shore of the lake we passed a perfect spot for a quick stop to appreciate the final light of the day, as watched by us and a lone Bald Cypress tree.


Ground fog and dawn light at the Pungo Unit

The next morning we were at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. My car arrived first, and two of us got out and viewed the horizon as we waited for the remaining folks. The sky was on fire and had the added beauty of a thin layer of morning fog hanging just above the ground. This type of fog is often called radiation fog. On clear, calm nights, especially in fall and winter, the land cools after sunset by radiating heat upward into the sky. This causes condensation in the air above the cooling ground. Under calm conditions, the fog will often form a thin layer just above the ground. This type of fog usually dissipates shortly after sunrise as the ground warms back up.


Wide view from the corn field

The striking colors of the the sky on this trip had me wondering,,,why do winter sunrises and sunsets seem so much more intense? A quick online search produced this confirming statement in one scientific article In the middle latitudes and over the eastern half of the United States, fall and winter generally produce the most spectacular low-sun hues. In general, sunsets and sunrises tend to be more colorful because of something called Rayleigh Scattering. That is because air molecules tend to absorb and radiate (scatter) the shorter wavelengths of incoming light best. Since blue and violet are the shorter wavelengths in the sun’s spectrum of light, those colors are scattered in all directions first, which is why we see the daytime sky as blue.

During sunrise and sunset, sunlight must pass through more of our atmosphere before reaching us, so it comes into contact with more air molecules and particulates such as dust. This longer path causes even more of the shorter wavelengths of blue light to be scattered from the incoming beam. That means that more of the longer wavelengths reach our eyes, resulting in a red or orange tinted sky. In colder months, the air tends to be dry and clear with fewer particles. That means more colors of the spectrum make it through to our eyes, resulting in more vivid colors early and late in the day.

sunrise Pungo over field

Tree silhouette at dawn

While I find all of this interesting, for me, the beauty of a winter sunrise or sunset is enough reason to be outside to watch them. And I must admit, sunrise is my favorite time of day. It is usually the quietest time since most of the world is still asleep, or at least still inside. It is a good time to think and to reflect on the importance of the simple fact of being alive to greet another day. It is also a humbling experience, especially when viewed in the big sky country of Eastern North Carolina, or out West, in places like my beloved Yellowstone. So, give yourself (and others, if they are willing) a gift of sky watching this holiday season. It is simple, really. Make time to get outside at the right time of day, take a deep breath, and enjoy. I especially encourage the gift of a sunrise with the addition of a warm coat and a steaming mug of your favorite morning beverage. You won’t regret it.

A Hot Day at the Refuges

All that is beautiful is difficult.


That sort of sums up my last trip to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. It was beautiful, but difficult. Made so by the intense heat and humidity on the day of my tour last week. The heat was stifling, but, my clients and I managed to survive, and see some interesting wildlife as well. My friend, Petra, had once again helped arrange a tour for some folks from the Netherlands (this is the fourth trip I have guided for wonderful guests from the Netherlands). And, like the others, they wanted to see bears, so I met them in Plymouth early Thursday morning for a trip over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR. After driving through the refuge and seeing mainly butterflies and a few birds, we parked and walked down one of my favorite dirt roads, hoping for bears. Tracks in the mud showed they were around, but none showed themselves as we strolled and sweated a mile down the road. We did have a couple of Bald Eagles, some woodpeckers, toads, lizards, and more butterflies, but no bears for the first part of the walk. After reminding folks that you should always look behind you, one of my clients did just that, and spotted a bear. Of course, it was only a hundred yards or so from our parked car and here we were about a mile away. The grasses and weeds had grown up in most of the side paths, so we skipped those and headed back, spotting a couple of more distant bears along the way. Closer to the car, a large bear was ambling along the edge of the crop field on the other side of the canal, headed in the same direction we were walking. As we got closer, I saw it suddenly turn around and start walking in our direction, so we stopped.

Big Boy Bear

Large Black Bear passes by across the canal (click photos to enlarge)

He passed by on the other side of the canal, partially obscured by the tall weeds. He was a big guy, maybe 300+ pounds, I am guessing. And it looked as though he has seen his share of scuffles with other bears, from the look of his ears and coat.

Big Boy Bear 1

The bear swam across the canal after moving past us

The wind was in our favor but I think he heard our loud camera shutters and picked up the pace, running down the far side of the canal about one hundred yards, where he swam across and stood in the road looking back at us. Needless to say, that was quite a thrill for us all. The morning turned out pretty good for bears with twelve sightings for most of us (one person saw one more run across a road that the rest of us missed). The highlights were the big guy across the canal and two sightings of bears in trees – a mother with two cubs in one tree, and a lone cub lounging in the shade of another tall tree. We all agreed that cub had the right idea for such a hot day – get in the shade up where there was some breeze, drape your legs over a large limb, and chill out. A good spotting scope really helps you appreciate the behaviors of wildlife in these types of situations.

Photographing a spider in the swamp

The short boardwalk loop through the swamp is one of my favorite stops

We decided to run over to nearby Mattamuskeet NWR to see what else we could see. There were the usual waders, Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons, plus lots of turtles in the canals. People were catching Blue Crabs in several places (a very popular summer activity at this refuge). But, after driving the length of Wildlife Drive, no foxes or other wildlife were seen. We stopped to walk the short boardwalk through the swamp as it is one of my favorite hikes at Mattamuskeet. It was made more appealing on this afternoon due to the shade. As is often the case when I am leading a group, I left my camera in the car. My goal is to find things for the clients to observe and photograph, plus I always joke that by leaving my camera behind, it increases our chances of seeing something interesting. Well, it did not disappoint.

Golden Orb Weaver

Golden Orb Weaver (photo by Petra Glorie)

I spotted a huge web of a Golden Silk Orbweaver, Nephila clavipes (also called the Golden Silk Spider and the Banana Spider) . This female provided a great photo opportunity in the late day sun, and I thank Petra for the use of one of her excellent images. This is one of our largest spiders, the female being up to 1.5 to 2 inches in body length, with a leg span of up to 4 inches. Males are tiny, averaging only a little over one-quarter of an inch in body length. The spider is named for the unusual gold-colored silk in its web. And the web is huge, spanning a few feet across the swamp. I don’t remember seeing them at Mattamuskeet before, but I am not down there as often in the summer. Records have shown a range expansion for this species, especially in the past two decades. I remember seeing them in the Wilmington area fifteen or twenty years ago, and then seeing them gradually move northward and inland. They are now found from North Carolina (primarily the Coastal Plain) south to Texas. And for those of you cringing at the thought of this huge spider moving into your neighborhood in the near future as range expansion continues with climate change, at least we can be thankful it is such a beautiful species.

Changing Weather

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

~John Ruskin

My group last weekend certainly experienced most of these types of weather, something not that uncommon on an eastern North Carolina winter outing. I always fret about the weather for my groups, especially those interested in photography, but, I also know I can’t do anything about it. When we went down Thursday afternoon, it was beautiful, with an incredible sunset and sky full of Snow Geese. But, of course, the weather forecast for the weekend called for cold and rain, and then warming and rain, and even thunderstorms.

Sunrise at Pungo

Sunrise at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

Part of the group arrived Thursday night and we were out before sunrise on Friday, with what looked like an overcast sky as we headed over to the refuge. Arriving at the observation platform a few minutes before sunrise, we were greeted with a brief, but stunning display of light shining up under the cloud cover. It vanished in about ten minutes, and I thought that would be the last sun we would see for the weekend.

Bald Eagle and swans flying against a golden sky

Bald Eagle and swans flying against a darkening morning sky

We spent the morning looking for birds and photo opportunities with an increasingly gray sky. A few breaks in the clouds made for an interesting backdrop for bird silhouettes, both in color, and black and white.

Swans flying against a rain-laden sky

Tundra Swans flying against a dramatic sky

One of the impoundments has been full of swans much of the winter, so we lingered there watching them interact and listening to the swan music. Lots of birds were flying over us as they left the lake to head out to the fields. providing the group with plenty of practice shooting what one participant called BIF (birds in flight).



With all the birds flying overhead, it soon prompted the swans we were watching on the water to join in, providing us with the challenge of capturing BTO (birds taking off). Waterfowl tend to take off into the wind, so, if you watch their behavior, you can often predict when they will make their move. Swans have to run across the water to gain enough speed for lift off. They often swim with the wind until they get to a place that provides a good runway of open water, then they will turn into the wind and start slowly swimming, often bobbing their heads. Then, they start running, slapping those large feet against the water, and flapping their 6 feet of wing span until they achieve lift-off.

Cypress tree in Lake Mattamuskeet

Cypress tree in Lake Mattamuskeet

Throughout the day, the skies darkened, making the use of the long lenses more difficult. After lunch we drove over to Lake Mattamuskeet. The lake surface was glassy, mirroring the leaden sky. But the wildlife was sparse, so we headed to back to Pungo for sunset, hoping to see the flocks of Snow Geese coming into the fields for a late meal.

Tundra Swnas packed into corn field

Tundra Swans packed into a corn field

At first, the fields contained only swans, lots of swans. I have rarely seen a flock of swans so densely packed as they were in one of the fields, heads up, necks bobbing, and squabbling with one another over the abundant corn lying on the field.

Snow Geese flying over field full of swans

Snow Geese flying over field full of swans

Then the unmistakable sound of incoming geese, and soon the sky was filled with a swarm of birds circling over the swans, trying to find a place to land. It is still a spectacle, even without the glow of an orange sunset like the night before.

Swans on a gray morning

Swans on a gray morning

The next morning continued the graying trend of the previous day, and black and white images seemed like the best way to relate the mood of the refuge. But, it would turn out to be an eventful morning, in spite of the clouds and drizzle.

Bear day bed

Bear day bed

The wet conditions made for very quiet woods-walking, so we headed into the trees, looking for signs of wildlife. And the signs were everywhere. We soon spotted a young bear, sitting against a large tree trunk. We all watched it, the bruin returning our gaze, until it finally stood up and ambled off into the thickets. We checked out its tree and found where it had been laying down. There was a nice pile of flattened, dry leaves where the bear had been laying, surrounded by wet leaves from the rain. There was also some chewing on the edges of a hollow leading under the base of the tree, as if the bear was trying to enlarge an access hole for an entryway. We continued on, noticing the abundance of bear and deer trails.

Black Bear sleeping in tree

Black Bear sleeping in tree

We soon spotted other bears, and, then, something I had hoped for – a bear in a tree. This young bear seemed totally undisturbed by our small group of camera-pointing humans, as it occasionally glanced our way, in between short naps. We spent some quality time with this bear, before heading back to the cars. Once out of the woods, I could see that thick fog was beginning to roll in, making a sunset show of Snow Geese unlikely. I have been there one other time this year when the fog obscured the birds coming into the field, even though I could hear them swirling overhead. So, we headed over to nearby Lake Phelps, the second largest natural lake in the state, at a little over 16,000 acres.

Group on dock at Lake Phelps

Group on “the dock to nowhere” at Lake Phelps

In all my trips over the years to this lake, I have never experienced the silvery curtain we had that afternoon. The water surface was glassy, and everything seemed suspended in a gray sky. The group posed on what one dubbed “the dock to nowhere”. The grayness seemed to absorb everything, including sounds.

fog silhouettes

Silhouettes in the fog

Tree silhouettes in fog

Young Bald Cypress tree silhouettes

Grasses in the grayness

Grasses in the grayness

It turned out to be a dramatic way to end our day – a colorless scene for the cameras and minds to record.

Surprise sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet

Surprise sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet

I thought the next morning would be the same, but we headed out before sun-up to Mattamuskeet anyway, some in the group hoping for a shimmer of predawn light. Much to my surprise, the sky did not disappoint. We had ten minutes of a stunning sunrise before the clouds pulled the curtain down on the stage.

Swamp colors

Swamp colors

The rains started early, at first a slow, spotty rain, then a few downpours to make me regret leaving my rain pants in my luggage. But, the ashen atmosphere enriched the colors, making the lichens and mosses on the trees pop in a way that is normally absent when sunlight paints the scene. The weather radar hinted at stronger rains headed our way, so we departed the refuge and headed west, hoping to get on the other side of what was looking like a strong storm front.

Swamp patterns

Swamp patterns on the boardwalk at Goose Creek State Park

Goose Creek State Park welcomed us with overcast skies, rapidly warming temperatures, and no serious rain. The boardwalk behind the Visitor Center is a favorite of mine, especially in spring and summer when the frogs, insects, and other small critters are so prominent. Much to our surprise, a Southern Leopard Frog greeted us within a few feet of entering the swamp. The reflections on this winter day were beautiful, allowing us to peer into another world, beneath the surface, while being suspended in the world above.

Turkey Tail fungus

Turkey Tail fungus on fallen log

Like at Mattamuskeet, the gray skies and palpable humidity enhanced the palette of the swamp, augmenting the colors and making for an ethereal landscape.

Storm clouds along the Pamlico

Storm clouds along the Pamlico River

Once again, the clouds and approaching front did not dissuade the wildlife. We saw several species of woodpeckers and countless Yellow-rumped Warblers along the boardwalk, plus a total of five Bald Eagles soaring over the swamp and the Pamlico River, our last stop of the day. Weather radar again indicated an approaching front, this one with the potential for strong winds and heavy rain. We all agreed to head home, thankful for our time spent in the changing winter weather. If only it had snowed…


The Tree Fox

The Fox of Carolina is gray…When hunted, they make a sorry Chace, because they run up Trees, when pursued.

~John Lawson, 1709

Gray Fox 2

Gray Fox after waking up from a nap (click photos to enlarge)

On almost every visit to Mattamuskeet NWR these past few months, I have seen one or more Gray Foxes. I am guessing they had a den somewhere along Wildlife Drive and the adults, and their young, have stayed in that general vicinity all Summer and Fall. A few weeks ago, I was driving down the dirt road along the lake and my friend hollered, “fox”, as we drove right by one sleeping in the grass along the road. When I started to back up, it quickly got up and slipped into the thick brush (seems as though most wildlife does not like it when you back up your vehicle). As John Lawson pointed out oh-so-long-ago, Gray Foxes are the only canid in North America that can climb trees. I have seen that twice, once on the coast, where a fox was after some persimmons (a favorite Fall meal), and once on a teacher workshop at the Belize Zoo. It seems that Gray Foxes really are much more cat-like than other members of their dog clan, having semi-retractable claws, and short legs relative to their body size (ideal for climbing trees). Gray Foxes are often mistaken for Red Foxes, due to the reddish coloration that is so noticeable on portions of their body. An easy way to distinguish the two is that Gray Foxes have a dark stripe and dark tip on their tail, whereas Red Foxes have a white tail tip.

Gray Fox napping along road

Gray Fox napping along road

On a more recent trip, I was telling my companion about the sleeping fox incident when I spotted a gray lump over in the grass on the opposite side of the road from where I had seen the fox a week before. This time, I stopped the vehicle ahead of the lump and checked it out. Sure enough, a Gray Fox napping…really napping, it turned out. We got out, hoping not to spook it. But, not to worry, it continued napping. I was surprised the fox was still hanging around this area since the annual duck hunt at Mattamuskeet had started earlier in the week and takes place at a series of blinds adjacent to this dirt road. I really thought the shotgun blasts would have spooked it from this area.

Gray Fox napping

The fox finally looks up to check us out

We took a series of images, all with the fox laying there, eyes closed. It finally raised its head and gave us a look.

Gray Fox yawning

Gray Fox yawning

For the next several minutes, we stood there, watching the fox nap, raise its head, yawn, and then lay back down to nap again.

Gray Fox

The fox finally raised up and looked around

After several minutes of standing there and waiting, the fox finally stood up, looked at us sleepily, and slowly walked away.

Gray Fox 1

The fox finally walks away

I hated that we might have awakened the little guy, but was happy that we didn’t seem to upset it much by our presence. The fox stopped a few times, sniffing the ground, and perhaps grabbing something to snack on, as I had seen them do several times on previous visits to the refuge. Gray Foxes have an incredibly varied diet – everything from rabbits and mice to amphibians and insects, and lots of different types of fruits. Finally, the fox slipped into the thick underbrush, leaving us appreciative of our time spent with it. It is such a rare treat to be able to observe an animal going about its daily life, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. This is one more reason we should all be thankful for places like our wildlife refuges and parks, where there is adequate habitat and regulations that protect wildlife, so we can all have moments like this.