Otter Outing

It swims and dives with great readiness and with peculiar ease and elegance of movement…

Thomas Bell on otters, 1874

I recently spent a couple of days with a great group of guys in my favorite winter haunts – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges.

Sunrise, Pocosin Lakes NWR

Sunrise, Pocosin Lakes NWR (click photos to enlarge)

The first day started out beautifully with a rich sunrise…and that was about the end of the nice weather. The next day and a half, we experienced very little sunshine, and a lot of wind, cold, drizzle, and clouds (did I mention wind?!!). And much of the wildlife thought we were crazy being out there, so they stayed home.

Tundra swan flock on impoundment

Tundra Swans on impoundment

Tundra Swan flyover

Tundra Swan flyover

The Snow Geese have arrived, but they continue the trend of the past few years and are a bit unpredictable. Instead of flying out to the refuge fields in the morning, they took off far to the east for points unknown. The Tundra Swans were a bit more obliging as they flew out of Pungo Lake in small groups, giving us some nice views. A few hundred landed in one of the impoundments and graced us with their mesmerizing calls, one of my favorite natural sounds.

Bald eagle adult

Bald Eagle flying behind treetops on a gray morning

And where there are waterfowl, there are eagles. We saw several Bald Eagles as they flew over the flocks looking for possible weak birds that would make an easy target.

Otter dive

What you often capture when trying to photograph a swimming River Otter

But the highlight of the day was seeing several River Otters. A friend had said he had seen a bunch on a recent trip so I was looking. Finally, I caught some motion out of the corner of my eye through the thick vegetation lining the canals – an otter! We drove up a bit and got out waiting on the otter to swim our way. It turned out to be three River Otters cruising the canal. They were very aware of our presence and barked and snorted their disapproval. At first, they proved to be difficult subjects for photography – just about the time I focused on an otter head, it would disappear with a ker-plunk.

River Otter 3

River Otter bobbing up and down in the canal

Finally, one raised up to get a better look and I got a shot. It soon became a whole lot of images, as we walked along the banks of the canal trying to figure out where they would pop up next.

River Otter 2

River Otter checking us out

The first siting had three otters. They disappeared through a culvert under the road and then we found five lounging on the bank. When they swam off, we came across three of them on another canal and began watching them. Two suddenly came up across the canal while one seemingly disappeared.

Otter catches fish

River Otter catches a fish

The two began swimming very close together and one had its head down relative to the other. I soon saw why – it had a fish it was dragging beneath the surface of the water. At first, I couldn’t make much out, but then the otter reached the shore opposite me and began to drag its prize up on the canal bank.

River Otter with fish

River Otter with fish

River Otter with fish 2

Trying to subdue the meal

The fish looked huge compared to the size off the otter. I think it was a Carp, or perhaps a Bowfin. One otter had its paws full tying to lug the fish up on the bank while keeping the other otter at bay. This made for a lot of commotion and splashing, and not a very good view of the fish from where I stood.

Pair of otter with fish

The otters quickly stripped off chunks of the huge fish

The finest chefs have nothing on the skill of these otters as they quickly stripped off chunks of the fish and gulped them down, essentially fileting it, all while swimming and tussling with each other in the water.

River Otter 1

River Otter giving us “the look”

We finally decided we had disturbed their meal long enough (in between bouts of fish eating one or both would occasionally give us “the look”). So, when they turned and swam off with the remains of their lunch, we let them be, amazed at what we had just witnessed.

River Otter

A River Otter pauses to look one last time before swimming off down the canal

I never tire of watching these energetic mammalian masters of the aquatic realm. I will certainly keep my eyes open for them on my next trips down this way in the coming weeks.

 

 

 

Learning by Experience

The feeling of respect for all species will help us recognize the noblest nature in ourselves.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of sharing two of my favorite places with an enthusiastic group of NC State students in the Leopold Wildlife Club. I was asked if I would accompany them on a field experience by the group’s president, who had been on trips with me when I was at the museum and he was in the youth group at the museum called The Junior Curators. I was happy to participate in a field experience for these students, almost none of whom had been to this wildlife-rich region of the state before. The plan was to go to Mattamuskeet NWR first, then cruise back to Pocosin Lakes NWR for sunset. But, when I asked my van what they wanted to see the most, the answer was a resounding, “bears”. So, to increase our chances, I decided to visit the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR on the way to Mattamuskeet, then come back at sunset, if we had time.

Sure enough, we spotted five bears on our quick drive through the refuge, along with some nice views of a feeding Nutria, several shorebird species (Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, and an abundance of Wilson’s Snipe) , and my first Tundra Swans of the season flying to and from the lake.

Leopold Wildlife Club and roadkill bear

Students observing young roadkill bear (click photos to enlarge)

As we continued on toward Mattamuskeet, we saw a car sitting along the road, flashers blinking. As we pulled up, we could see why – a roadkill Black Bear. It was a small bear, less than 100 pounds I guessed, probably dead less than a day. The students all piled out of the vans to take a closer look – sad for the bear, but a learning opportunity to see one of these animals up close. The other car had stopped for the same reason, just to look.

Roadkill Black Bear

Roadkill bears are becoming a more common sight in eastern NC

When I returned home, I looked for data on bear roadkills in NC and  came cross a comprehensive overview of bears in NC put out by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission entitled, North Carolina Black Bear Management Plan 2012-2022. It included a graph showing the increase in reported bear roadkills in eastern NC from the 1970’s until 2010. The data showed a steady increase rising from less than 20/year in 1980 to over 150/year in 2010. Another chart showed a similar trend in population estimates of Black Bears in the state. Wildlife biologists believe there are now close to 10,000 bears living in the Coastal Plain compared to about 6,000 in the Mountains. So, Black Bears are, indeed, increasing in numbers and the Commission is looking at ways to better manage this growing population. Use of wildlife passageways across major roads in good bear habitat is just one of many things being considered. I recommend this report and its appendices for anyone interested in what the future holds for our states’ bears. I also found a recommendation for contacting local officials when a roadkill is found. So, I left a message for the district biologist giving the approximate location of our bear. Data collected from dead bears on age, sex, and general condition provide important information for wildlife management agencies.

We proceeded on to Lake Mattamuskeet and spent a couple of hours looking at waterfowl and other wildlife (including great views of three Gray Foxes). But the group really wanted to finish our day at the Pungo Unit, so off we went. And we were not disappointed. Driving in with the sun getting low in the west, we soon encountered a young bear out foraging along the edge of a winter wheat field.

young Black Bear

Sub-adult bear at edge of field

We stopped the vans and got out to listen and look as the day shift wound down and the late shift began. Groups of Tundra Swans were flying back toward the lake as sunset approached and small flocks of Wood Ducks were flying out of the swamps to feed in the fields and impoundments. A Great Horned Owl cruised by as we walked back to the vans. Woodcock twisted and turned in their dizzying flight out to the fields for their evening meal of earthworms. And we were treated to several more bear sightings as they went from forest to cornfield to feed. It is such a privilege to help people experience the thrill of seeing bears in the wild and having the feeling that you are the only ones around to appreciate it. Our total for the day was 20 bears. Definitely not a bad way to spend a Saturday…observing wildlife in some of my favorite places with some enthusiastic learners and future decision-makers on the fate of our wild lands and their inhabitants. I never tire of sharing such special moments in special places.

Dutch Treat

One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin.

~William Shakespeare

I spent a couple of days late last week with some clients from the Netherlands and a Dutch friend of theirs that now lives in North Carolina. They had been with me for a couple of days last Fall, but arrived a day before the Federal Government shutdown and had to totally reschedule their plans which had been to visit many of our national wildlife refuges, parks, and seashores. They really wanted to experience some of the wildlife of eastern North Carolina, so decided to come back for a short visit to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges this past week. And I think they are glad they did.

Black Bear in field

Black Bear in field (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived at our meeting place a little before they did, and out in the field was a young Black Bear foraging for food. My group had just texted that they were close, but the bear, of course, started to meander toward the nearby woods. Luckily, it found enough of something to keep it interested in the field until they arrived for a look. Not an especially close look, but a good way to start our trip.

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

We encountered several deer over the course of our stay along with a variety of birds from Wild Turkey displaying along the roadsides, to American Coot and Pied-billed Grebes feeding in the impoundments. While watching the latter that first afternoon, we spotted some dark objects in a tree on the far side.

Black Bear and cub in tree

Black Bear and cub in tree

It was a mother bear and her new cub. I am so accustomed to seeing bears with two and three cubs here at Pocosin Lakes, that it was unusual to just see just a single cub up in the tree. This little guy seemed to be hanging on for dear life, while mom was moving around, apparently feeding on some of the newly emerging leaves. I suppose there might have been a less adventurous sibling or two down below out of our sight.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle with Turkey Vulture flying in the distance

After driving through the refuge until sunset, we spotted another bear, making four for our first afternoon, along with more deer, an eagle, and some of the usual small bird life.

The next morning was overcast, windy, and much colder than it normally is for mid-April. I must admit, I was a bit worried that we might not see much wildlife under those conditions, especially the abundant frogs, warblers, and butterflies I had seen a few days earlier. After a slow start, I decided we should go for a walk down one of the dirt roads and explore the nearby patch of woods. If nothing else, they could see lots of wildlife tracks and sign, especially of the bears that use this area. The wind was blowing steady from the north making for a cold hike, more like some of my mid-winter outings. At least everyone would appreciate the car after this. After a few minutes, we headed into the woods to get out of the wind. The first thing that struck me was the refuge had done a controlled burn in the woods since I had visited in February – I’m not sure I have ever been in these woods after a burn.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy was everywhere

The second thing I noticed was the incredible abundance of Poison Ivy. The new growth was thick with it – on some of the paths we walked, covering large patches of ground along the roadsides and in the woods, climbing tree trunks – everywhere. I warned the group to watch out for it, but getting it on our shoes and pant legs was inevitable. A recent study in Duke Forest, where researchers pumped increased levels of carbon dioxide into forest enclosures to mimic increased greenhouse gases in the environment, showed that Poison Ivy rwas one of the species that esponded with vigorous growth. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come (or perhaps it is in response to the burn, or it has always been this way and I just have not been in these woods this time of year). Whatever the cause, it makes you think twice about every move you make. As usual, there was abundant bear sign, and as I was showing some to my guests, one spotted a bear (Marja turned out to be an excellent wildlife spotter). We watched it slowly amble away into the thickets bordering the lake. Shortly afterwards, she spotted another bear nearby. A quick look showed it to be a different one, slightly larger and much blacker than the first. This is what I always hope will happen – to be able to observe bears in the woods, doing what most wild bears do, rather than out along a road or in a crop field.

Younfg Black Bear eating Supplejack leaves

Young Black Bear in tree

We had walked only a few feet when I heard something and stopped. Then I saw a bear coming down out of a small tree. After being on the ground a short time, it climbed back up, using a couple of small trees and vines to work its way about 20 feet off the ground. Then it began feeding. After looking at it through the scope, I could see it was eating the emerging leaves of a vine common to these woods – Supplejack (Berchemia scandens). We watched as the bear pulled vines toward it and munched the leaves. It repositioned itself and turned its attention to other nearby leaves, balancing on small limbs and the tangle of vines as if it were a circus performer on a high wire. The bear fed this way for 15 minutes or more as we watched. I think it had an idea we were there, but, since we were quiet and still, it seemed unconcerned. Finally, it started to climb down and I whispered to the group that it looked like the most likely path out of the tangle of vines was towards us. Indeed, the bear turned and ambled out in our direction. It glanced our way, and started walking off away from us.

The sun had come out after we got into the woods, but I had left my camera in the car in order to carry a scope, so the images and short video clip of this incredible encounter are from my phone. The bear still seemed oddly unconcerned about us but I decided to have everyone walk in the opposite direction. The bear climbed out on a suspended tree trunk, then dropped off and glanced in our direction. There is something magical about being able to watch an animal like this as it goes about its daily routine. It helps me understand some of what they face, how we share some similarities in what we do, and yet how amazingly adapted to their surroundings they are. I think we were all on a “bear high” the rest of the afternoon.

Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake

As we headed out of the Pungo Unit toward Lake Mattamuskeet, we came across a small Eastern Hognose Snalke crossing the road.

Eastern Hognose Snake 2

Eastern Hognose Snake defensive posture

I got close, hoping it would display some of this species’ unusual behavior of playing dead, but, after it spread its neck, hissed, and sprayed some musk without feigning death, we left it alone.

New Holland Trail swamp

New Holland Trail swamp at Lake Mattamuskeet

The day ended with another incredible wildlife moment which I, unfortunately, have no record of, as my camera was buried under some gear in the back of the car. A Gray Fox came out alongside our vehicle far down Wildlife Drive at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. It hunted alongside the road for several minutes as we watched, passing only a few feet from our car, catching many small insects or perhaps frogs, and licking it lips several times in apparent satisfaction. Another incredible moment with wildlife.

Reflections in swamp 1

Reflections in swamp at Lake Mattamuskeet

It was an amazing day and a half with up-close and personal time spent with some interesting wildlife. The bear and fox were behaving as if we were not around, a rare treat when out in the woods with a group of people. And while I did not get any great images of the experience, I am so happy to have shared it with such a great group of folks.

Dutch dragonfly wranglers

The Dutch camera brigade stalking a dragonfly

We had a lot of fun. They are all excellent wildlife spotters and appreciate learning about our North Carolina wildlife, both large and small. It is a privilege to be able to share the places I love with people like this group of folks I now call friends.

 

Trip Report – a Frozen Mattamuskeet and Pungo

To me, the beautiful and ever-changing patterns formed in lake ice – and in snowflakes, the ice of the sky – are winter’s “bloom,” corresponding to the flowering plants of summer.

~Stephen Hatch

I had another trip to North Carolina’s winter wonderland this past weekend. And a wonderland it was…Lake Mattamuskeet was largely frozen, a most unusual sight. The last time this happened was 1986, and, ironically, I was there that winter as well. I met my group on the causeway at sunrise and we marveled at the expanse of grayness before us. A few cold Canada Geese walked on the ice, probably wondering what had happened to their once watery haven.

Lake Msattamuskeet frozen at sunrise

A frozen Lake Mattamuskeet at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

The marsh impoundments along Wildlife Drive were also frozen, but we soon spotted a Bald Eagle standing on the ice, surveying the scene for a weakened duck or goose that might make an easy kill. A few other eagles patrolled the area, sending hundred of ducks skyward with every pass. Small birds such as kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers were busy in the shrub thickets, and American Coot grazed on the vegetation along the banks of the road. But it was a much more quiet drive than normal, save for the loud crunching of my tires on the ice-covered road. Our wildlife highlight for the morning was an otter trying to move across some thin ice, but forced to do a combination of loping and swimming as it frequently broke through the ice on its way to the marsh.

Bald Eagle on ice 1

Bald Eagle on ice

After lunch, we ventured out on the swamp boardwalk across the canal from the lodge. I always take folks on this walk as it is beautiful, quiet, and gives you a view of a habitat that is hidden from most people.

Swamp boardwalk

Swamp boardwalk

I have photographed this area many times and love the reflections you get in the dark waters beneath the cypress trees, but I have never seen it like this.

swamp pano

Panorama of frozen swamp

Frozen swamp 1

Ice and reflections in cypress swamp

Frozen swamp with cypress knees

Bald Cypress knees in the deep freeze along the boardwalk

Frozen swamp with ice circle

Patterns in ice create circles around each tree trunk

Frozen swamp

Blue-gray cast to ice in swamp

As we walked into the swamp, one of the participants excitedly asked about a bird she spotted. I looked out on the ice and was surprised when I saw movement just beneath my feet under the boardwalk. It was a Sora Rail, and only a few feet from us!

Sora Rail on ice 1

Sora Rail emerged from under the boardwalk and walked out onto the ice

The Sora is a quail-sized rail that is more often heard than seen due to its secretive habits. As the small bird strutted out on the ice, I was amazed at its huge feet. We watched it for a few minutes as it foraged amongst the debris surrounding tree trunks and cypress knees protruding from the ice.

Sora Rail on ice 2

Sora Rail on ice

The weather started to take a downward turn with heavy clouds and periodic drizzle. Driving along Wildlife Drive, we came across a large flock of Cedar Waxwings feeding on the berries of the invasive Privet shrubs that unfortunately cover the roadsides and thickets on the refuge.

Cedar Waxwing eating privet berry vertical 1

Cedar Waxwing eating Privet fruit

Waxwings are one of our most beautiful birds. They have an air-brushed, silky-smooth appearance, with a bold black mask and yellow (sometimes orange) tail tip. Adults have red, waxy-looking tips to the feathers on their wings.

Cedar Waxwing eating privet berry

Cedar Waxwings have a silky appearance

Weather conditions worsened and the drive back to the hotel was in dense fog. We were on the observation platform at Pungo Lake at “sunrise” the next morning, but it might as well have been a deck in the clouds. It was magical to hear the sounds of thousands of swans and Snow Geese on the lake while not being able to see a single one.

Fog at Pungo Lake

Dense fog at Pungo Lake

I was worried about road conditions at the Pungo Unit after the unusual heavy snow and it was a worry with merit. Thankfully, refuge staff had repaired two of the large holes in the road I had encountered on my last trip a couple of weeks ago, but the snow melt had worsened other portions of the roads, giving us a few anxious moments as we plowed through the mud and occasional deep ruts. As the fog started to lift, we could see swans flying out to the surrounding fields to feed. Anywhere the birds congregated, they did so under the watchful eyes of predators such as this immature Bald Eagle. We saw over 20 eagles, along with an assortment of other avian predators such as Northern Harriers, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, and a Merlin that nabbed one of the thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding in the cornfields.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle watching swans feed in the field below

At one point, we were watching a flock of swans feeding while more swans continually landed to join the flock. We all heard a strange call, which reminded me of a specialty car horn on a clown car in a parade. I had never heard anything quite like it, but it seemed to come from a swan that was landing in the midst of the hundreds of others feeding on the corn. The only thing I could think of was it might have been the call of a Trumpeter Swan. After playing the calls on our phone birding apps that, indeed, was what it sounded like. Even though we desperately searched the flock, looking for the subtle differences in bill shape that distinguish the western species of swan from our Tundra Swan, I could not find it amongst the hundreds of feeding birds. I have written a few experts to see what they think, but it certainly seems we heard a North Carolina rarity. Listen to the call on the web site of The Trumpeter Swan Society here – http://www.trumpeterswansociety.org/swan-voice.html.

Mid-afternoon, we walked through the woods along my favorite spot for locating bears (“Bear Road”). While we saw plenty of bear sign, we did not see any bears, and, to my surprise, no fresh bear tracks in the muddy road. So, I altered my normal routine of ending the day in this usually productive section of the refuge, in favor of heading toward some recently cut over corn fields near the refuge maintenance area. When we arrived at the paved road, we could see thousands of Tundra Swans feeding in the fields. Suddenly, they started filling the skies, much like a slow-motion blast off of a dense flock of Snow Geese. I have never seen this many swans take off at once.

Tundra Swans taking off from field 1

Tundra Swans taking off from field

The sun popped out, flooding the field with light, and the source of the swan’s concern soon appeared…a large Black Bear coming into the field from the adjoining woods.

Bear and swans

Black Bear moving into field and flushing thousands of swans

The bear moved quickly into the field, picked up what I thought was an ear of corn, and retreated back to the woods. A closer look at my images (the bear was over a hundred yards from us) showed that it had picked up either a leg bone or wing bone, probably from one of several swan carcasses in the fields.

Bear with food and swans

Bear picks up a bone in the field and heads back to the woods

We saw seven other bears move into the edges of the field over the next thirty minutes as we watched this unbelievable scene of wildlife abundance unfold in the beautiful light of a gorgeous winter sky. Shortly after the large bear disappeared, I looked up and saw what must have been the entire Snow Goose population on the refuge headed our way.

Snow Geese arriving

Waves of Snow Geese arrive to join the Tundra Swans feeding in the cornfield

The light continued to get better, turning the geese into golden-winged fliers at times, then bright white ones as they banked. The sky in front of us was soon swirling with thousands of geese noisily making their approach.

Snow Goose swirl

A swirl of descending Snow Geese

We watched as wave after wave started to land. How they manage to pick a spot amongst the hundreds of feeding and squawking geese on the ground is beyond me.

Snow Gees landing 1

Snow Geese landing – note the blue color morphs that appear as darker geese

I always try to spot a few Ross’ Geese whenever there are this many Snow Geese close by. We had seen a couple at the edge of feeding flocks, but I enjoy the challenge of identifying them in the sky amongst thousands of their larger cousins.

Ross' Goose landing

Ross’ Goose landing – it is the smaller goose in the lower left – you can see the smaller size, more rounded head, and the lack of a black “lip line” on the bill (when zoomed in)

The grand finale of this unbelievable wildlife spectacle was when, on some unknown cue, the entire flock of 30,000+ Snow Geese lifted off in the classic blast off. The whoosh of their wings as their collectively rise from the fields or lake can be heard for over a mile.

Snow Geese blast off

Snow Geese blast off

The geese all headed back to the lake for the night, leaving the swans alone to feed (I always imagine they let out a swan sigh when their noisy neighbors depart). It had been an incredible finish to a great weekend, in spite of the challenging weather and roads. I was glad to have shared it with such great folks and happy to introduce the magic of Pungo to another group.

Trip Report Part 2: Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes

I just returned from the second recent guided trip to these incredible wildlife refuges. My client was particularly interested in bird photography, so that was high on the agenda. But he made a point of saying he was open to anything, since he was fully aware of the vagaries of wildlife photography – sometimes wildlife cooperates, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Due to heavy rains the previous day, I decided to visit Matamuskeet first to hopefully give the roads at Pungo a chance to dry out at least a little. We left Raleigh a little before 6 a.m. and arrived at Mattamuskeet by about 9:30.

Black-crowned Night Heron adult

Black-crowned Night Heron adult (click photos to enlarge)

Just inside the entrance to Wildlife Drive, we were greeted by a stunning Black-crowned Night Heron adult. I usually see more of the immature night herons here (brown colors with light speckles in their plumage), with just an occasional adult. The most reliable place to see them is in a grove of trees across the canal from the lodge, often partially obscured by branches. But this one was in a much better spot for photographs, and its scarlet red eye seemed to glow in the morning light. As I walked a few steps off the road for a clear photo, I accidentally flushed the first of several bitterns we would see.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron with one head feather amiss

The next open pool held the usual Great Blue Heron, along with a Great Egret. You can almost always count on one or both of these species in this spot.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing feeding on Privet berries

As we watched the herons, small flocks of Cedar Waxwings flitted by in their usual jerky flight pattern. Later in the day, we finally tracked some down as they swarmed the all-too-numerous fruit of the invasive Privet shrubs that line sections of the refuge’s roads. Always one of my favorite songbirds to observe, waxwings are often tough to photograph without a mishmash of twigs in the background.

American Bittern in the open

American Bittern

Another American Bittern soon revealed itself in a narrow strip of grasses along a canal and we used the car as a blind to photograph the bird for several minutes before it disappeared in a thick patch of vegetation. This year seems to be an especially good one for bitterns at Mattamuskeet.

Immature White Ibis

Immature White Ibis

It is so interesting what a difference a couple of days makes in what you see in a location. Last week there had been about 50 adult White Ibis along with one immature (distinguished by its brown coloration) feeding in an impoudment along Wildlife Drive. Things were different today and on our second pass through the area, we finally saw our one and only ibis of the day, an immature. It was vigorously probing the mud with its unusual bill. Looking more closely at a few images last night I could finally see that it was primarily eating worms.

Adult Bald Eagle 1

Adult Bald Eagle

We had seen several Bald Eagles at both Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet, but failed to get close enough for any nice images. At the end of Wildlife Drive we saw a flash of white through the trees, which turned out to be the head and tail of an adult Bald Eagle landing in a large pine alongside a side road. I was able to position the car so that my participant could get some good shots with his 600mm lens (yes, I did have lens envy the entire trip). The eagle was surprisingly cooperative, so I was able to back out, turn the car around, and back in along the road so I could get a few shots as well. The eagle was still perched, surveying the scene, when we decided to move on.

Moonrise at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

Moon above cypress island at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

As the light faded, we stopped at the observation platform along the road crossing the lake. I wanted to enjoy the scene in the fading light at what must be the most photographed island of trees in the state. I always try to stop and view the sunrise from here if I am in the area, but sunset is equally compelling. As we stood watching the sky turn shades of pink and purple, I reflected on how lucky I am to share this incredible place with people interested in the beauties of nature.

Sunrise the next morning found us on the platform on the south shore of Pungo Lake. The lake was full of swans and the air was sweet with their peaceful calls. But the pocosin shrubs near the platform were full of the harsher notes of another species – Red-winged Blackbirds. Their loud chatter began to increase with the approach of sunrise and then the first birds started flying up and heading west over the trees. Then more birds joined in from further east, and soon it was a continuous stream of blackbirds that flew by us for the next 10-15 minutes. On the recent Christmas Bird Count, we had a similar experience, and estimated that 160,000 blackbirds flew by us on that morning.

Mud hole in road at Pungo

Mud hole in road at Pungo

My usual routine at Pungo is to watch sunrise at the platform and then cruise the refuge looking for wildlife until the Snow Geese fly off the lake and out to some nearby fields to feed. The Snow Geese were running late in their usual departure, so we decided to move on. Hopefully, we can find which fields they fly out to and spend some time observing the huge flock (they are less predictable this year for some reason). As we headed out, I could see the recent heavy rains had taken a toll on the often cantankerous roads on the refuge. The odd soil type makes road maintenance difficult, so visitors need to be cautious when the roads are muddy.

Tundra Swan pair 1

Tundra Swan pair from Duck Pen Observation Blind

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake 2

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake

Swan pulling head out of water close up

Tundra Swan feeding in lake

One of the newer visitor services additions on the refuge is the Duck Pen Observation Blind farther down the road on the south shore of Pungo Lake. A short hike from the parking area leads to a large wooden enclosure with a great view out on the lake (although I hope to volunteer once the waterfowl are gone to cut a few more observation ports and make some of the existing ones larger to accommodate telephoto lenses). Since the winds were out of the south, the waterfowl were in close to the south shore, making for some great views. Swans were feeding in the shallows, something I see all the time at Mattamuskeet with its abundant aquatic vegetation, but rarely here at Pungo Lake, due to the peat lake bottom and relative lack of plants and aquatic life.

Snow Goose blast off on Pungo Lake

Snow Geese blast off on Pungo Lake from Duck Pen Observation Blind

Far out on the lake was a huge raft of Snow Geese packed into a solid white line on the water. They blasted off two or three times while we were in the blind, but simply circled and settled noisily back on the lake, instead of flying out to feed. Mixed in with the swans and geese were hundreds of other waterfowl, mostly Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Pintails.

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

The middle of the day, as is often the case, was a bit slow for wildlife viewing. There were coots and some other waterfowl on various impoundments, a few eagles, and the ubiquitous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds swirling in the corn stubble. Rather than continuing to cruise the muddy roads, we decided to walk through the woods looking for wildlife and hoping to see a bear. We spotted lots of bear sign, including one tree trunk that looked like the bear tic-tac-toe championship had been played on it, but no bears. We could hear the calls of thousands of swans on the lake and the thunderous whoosh every time the Snow Geese would blast off, but they never seemed to fly off to feed the entire day, which is a bit unusual. So, late in the afternoon, we headed to a spot where bear activity has been good and settled in to watch and wait, and wait some more.

Bear cub

Black Bear cub

As sunset approached I was afraid this might be the first tine this season I would be skunked in bear sightings, but, right as we started to head out, a sow and her two cubs materialized out of the woods. The adult and one cub headed out into the corn field, but the other cub seemed nervous, and stayed near the tree line. My goal was to not disturb the bears, so we remained still, hoping the cub would go on by us to feed in the corn. After pacing back and forth, sitting on its rear end, moaning and groaning a bit, and then laying down for a few minutes, the cautious cub finally did join the rest of the family. We then headed back to the car. Our two day excursion ended with a setting sun in an immense sky, punctuated by the melodious sounds of small flocks of swans flying overhead, accompanied by the hoots of the resident Great Horned Owls as they started their evening conversations. A great way to end it, indeed.

Trip Report, Part 1: Pocosin Lakes-Mattamuskeet

I am in the middle of leading two  trips to my favorite places in NC – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. This is a brief visual report on the first. Last week, I had four great folks from the Raleigh area join me for a wildlife viewing trip. We started at Pocosin Lakes last Thursday and spent some time with some of the stars of the refuge this time of year – Red-winged Blackbirds, Tundra Swans, and my perennial favorites, the Black Bears.

Red-winged Blackbird flock over filed

Red-winged Blackbird flock over field (click photos to enlarge)

We started and ended our day with Red-winged Backbirds. There are huge flocks of these beautiful birds at the refuge in winter which provide a visual and audible delight to observers (and meals to a variety of predators). They roll across the fields as dark clouds, often fashioned into swirls by the movements of raptors such as Northern Harriers.

Red-winged Blackbird flock

Flashes of red from the shoulder patches of males in the Red-winged Blackbird flock

They change from twisting masses of dark feathers to spiraling flashes of red depending on the light and whether you have huge numbers of male Red-winged Blackbirds in the flock (the males have bright red shoulder patches that flash in the sunlight as they twist and turn in flight). The flocks also usually contain smaller numbers of other species of black-colored birds such as Common Grackles and Brown-headed Blackbirds.

Swan feather

Swan feather

Swan feather close up

Swan feather close up

We spent time photographing Tundra Swans flying out of Pungo Lake and watching Bald Eagles patrol the area for injured or weak waterfowl. But I am always looking for the small beauties on the landscape as well….a lone swan feather in a puddle caught my eye and deserved a closer look.

Black Bear sow and young

Black Bear sow and young

The day ended walking through the woods and listening to sounds of thousands of swans and Snow Geese on the lake. As we waited for the Snow Geese to hopefully come into the field (unfortunately, they only flew over) we were kept company by a few bears, coming out for their evening saunter.

Sunrise near Intracoastal Waterway bridge

Sunrise near Fairfield, NC

The next day was a full day spent at Mattamuskeet. Sunrise was over marshes near the Intracoastal Waterway on Hwy 94.

This is camouflage

American Bittern in its element

We were greeted at the entrance to Wildlife Drive with an expert in camouflage, an American Bittern.

Bittern close up6

American Bittern close up

Then another allowed some close viewing a few minutes later. These birds are a delight to watch and this refuge is one of the best places I know to find them.

Looking up in cy6press swamp

Looking up in a cypress swamp

Looking down in cypress swamp

Looking down in cypress swamp

Mattamuskeet provided great looks at a variety of waterfowl and scenery throughout the day. Clouds started to move in mid-day, providing a different perspective to the landscape.

Cypress in Lake Mattamuskeet

Bald Cypress in Lake Mattamuskeet

Back and white of impoundment

Clouds moved in and provided some interesting highlights to the scenery

Reed in ice along noardwalk

Reed in ice along boardwalk

There was still a lot of ice in the canals and swamp even as the temperatures warmed throughout the day. As the skies darkened with the promise of an upcoming storm front, we drove through the refuge one last time.

White Ibis fly-by 1

White Ibis fly-by

A large group of White Ibis kept our attention until one participant spotted something moving on the ground.

Green Treefrog 1

Green Treefrog

An unexpected January amphibian, a Green treefrog! It must have looked odd to passing cars as a group of five people squatted on the ground intently taking pictures of an unseen subject, but it was a great way to finish our experience – from birds to bears to frogs, it had been a great trip.

A Foggy Start

After the incredible experience with the Snowy Owl at Hatteras last week, I waited in line for an hour and a half for the emergency ferry to get off the island. Bright and early the next day, I headed to Lake Mattamuskeet, always an incredible place to experience the first light of a new day. But this morning was going to prove difficult for a sun-over-the-lake image as the fog was as thick as the proverbial pea soup. I drove at a cautious pace on my way down from Columbia since this is prime deer and bear habitat, and I wanted neither to become acquainted with the front of my car. I decided to bypass the usual spot for greeting the morning sun on the causeway that stretches across the lake, and looked, instead, for something close to shore that I might actually be able to see in the fog.

Foggy sunrise on Lake Mattamuskeet

Foggy sunrise on Lake Mattamuskeet (click photos to enlarge)

What I found was a surreal scene as the pale light of the rising sun tried in vain to penetrate the gray curtain laying across the lake. A few skeletons of cypress trees in the foreground provided the only depth in the scene.

Great Blue Heron on foggy morning at Mattamuskeet

Great Blue Heron on cypress trunk

Then, a Great Blue Heron flew out of the mist and landed with a squawk, and became frozen in the gray painting.

Sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet in fog

Great Blue Heron in fog

I took several shots but I’m not sure which one I like the best – a tight view of the lone cypress and heron, or a wide view that includes some other tree silhouettes.

Swan in fog

Tundra Swan in fog

The sun was starting to win the battle as I drove across the lake. A few Tundra Swans fed silently near the road, making glints in the water as they probed the lake bottom for some breakfast of aquatic vegetation.

Swans in early morning light

Swans in early morning light

A few minutes later, and the sun claimed victory as it glowed on a group of waterfowl farther down the road. This area is thick with Tundra Swans and Northern Pintails right now, with a variety of other waterfowl in smaller numbers (American Wigeon, Green and Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, American Black Ducks, etc.). I shared some of these excellent views with some of my former co-workers from the Museum, who happened to be leading a group of folks that same morning. It was, indeed, a great day for sharing this incredible place with good people.

Kingfisher hovering

Belted Kingfisher hovering

While sitting alone with the swans, I was entertained by a couple of Belted Kingfishers as they hunted. They would swoop in, hover for a what seemed like a minute or two, and then either swoop to a new spot, or, if they spotted something, plunge headfirst into the water. After several failed attempts, I saw one finally catch a small fish and fly off to eat its meal in peace.

DC Cormorant wings outstretched

Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings

Along the canals on Wildlife Drive is always a good place to find water birds of various sorts. That morning had a crowd of Double-crested Cormorants perched on a fallen tree in the canal. Cormorants are relatively primitive birds, and, unlike most other waterfowl, their feathers are not water repellant. This necessitates their spread-wing poses throughout the day as they must dry their feathers after repeated dives in the water while searching for fish. The light-colored breast and neck indicate this is a first-year bird (adults have dark plumage throughout).

With some remnant patches of fog drifting along the canal, the short video below shows a “mistical” scene and allows you to hear a few of their grunts as they maneuver for position on the branches.

Herd of turtles

A herd of turtles

The foggy morning was warm enough for turtles to be out in force. For a reason known only to those with shells, one small island of grass in a canal seemed particularly appealing to a group of what appear to be Yellow-bellied Sliders. They had climbed over one another in a jumble, perhaps in hopes of being closer to the emerging sunlight.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle

Lake Mattamuskeet is one of the best places in NC to view Bald Eagles, especially in winter, when the large concentrations of waterfowl provide a reliable food source. Bald Eagles are particularly fond of American Coot, which tend to occur in higher numbers on the lake a little later in the winter. This immature (it usually takes 4 or 5 years for a Bald Eagle to acquire its fully white head and tail feathers) was very cooperative as it scanned the marshes from a high perch.

Immature Bald Eagle close up

Immature Bald Eagle close up

I always marvel at the size of their beak and the intensity seen in their eyes. Based on what I have read online (a nice photographic summary of aging Bald Eagles is at http://www.featheredphotography.com/blog/2013/01/27/a-guide-to-aging-bald-eagles/), I am guessing this is a first year bird, due to the dark iris and fairly dark beak.

Great Egret with fish from behind

Great Egret with fish

As I drove out Wildlife Drive on my way over to Pocosin Lakes, I saw something I had always wanted to photograph. Great Egrets on this refuge generally eat small fish which are abundant in the shallow waters. But here was one with a beak full of fins! And it apparently did not want to risk losing its meal, as it started to walk away as soon as I slowed down for a look.

A big meal

A big meal

I am not quite sure what species of fish this is, although it resembles a Spot…if you know, please comment on the blog. Luckily, the egret paused long enough for a few quick images before getting behind some brush on the shore of the canal. Although partially hidden, I could see the fish did finally get swallowed, appearing as a large, squirming lump as it passed down the long neck of the bird. Made my PB&J seem easy.

Tomorrow, I’ll post how my day ended when I made my way to Pocosin Lakes for the rest of the afternoon.

NOTE: I am offering weekend trips on the first and second weekend of January and another trip (exact date to be determined) in February. We will visit both Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. Contact me at roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com for details if interested.