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.


Refuge Magic

I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.

~Marjorie Kinnan Rawling

For me, that place of enchantment in my home state is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge…more specifically, the Pungo Unit of that refuge. I had a trip this past week with a couple of friends and it never fails to deliver. It is not always the same thing, but it is a wild enough area that there is always something to provide a memorable moment. It was a day trip, leaving Raleigh at 7 a.m. That makes for a long day, especially when you start by going to my other favorite wildlife spot, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.

Immature Black-crowned Night Heron

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

Lake Mattamuskeet is the largest natural lake in North Carolina and attracts thousands of waterfowl in the winter. But most of those birds are hidden from view, spending much of their time in the east end of the lake or in impoundments that are closed to the public. However, a drive along Wildlife Drive will allow you glimpses of that wildlife richness. There are a couple of small pools near the gate that reliably produce good bird sightings (although the invasive plant, Phragmites, is beginning to block much of the view in this area). One species you are likely to see there is the Black-crowned Night Heron. This trip provided a good view of an immature bird, while the nearby adult was hidden in thick vegetation.

Great Blue Heron gets a drink

Great Blue Heron gets a drink

There is almost always a sentinel of the marsh, a Great Blue Heron, present in this area when you first drive in. Unlike Great Blues in many other areas, these are fairly tolerant of our presence and thus are probably amongst the most photographed of their species in North Carolina.

Great Egret striking at prey

Great Egret striking at prey

Another almost sure bet near the entrance is a Great Egret. These elegant white birds forage throughout the area, most often taking small fish, with the occasional larger specimen caught for the luckier viewers. I have hundreds of images of these marsh stalkers from this location over the years, but I can’t seem to resist trying to get a few more on each trip. I particularly enjoy trying to capture the moment of the strike – their white head splashing in the water as they snag a meal.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Another reliable species near the entrance is the diminuitive Pied-billed Grebe (PBG for short). These chunky little divers scoot about the pools, diving for fish, and generally going less appreciated than the long-legged marsh dwellers. But, I like these little guys, and they often swim close enough to shore to allow a nice reflection shot when waters are calm.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

A surprise sighting in the pools this trip was a Horned Grebe. I have seen them out on the lake in some winters, but never in one of the canal areas where you can appreciate their winter plumage and bright red eyes.

Fish eye lens in swamp

Fish eye lens view of swamp

One of my favorite stops at Mattamuskeet is the short boardwalk through a cypress swamp just off Wildlife Drive. I borrowed my friend’s fish eye lens for some unusual perspectives and then learned of a simple trick with my iPhone that produces some interesting results as well.

iPhone pano in swamp

iPhone vertical pano shot in swamp

I have used the pano feature on my phone’s camera many times in this area, but never vertically. Simply turn the camera sideways in pano mode and start overhead and bring it down. By starting overhead, you get the proper exposure for the sky. You can then lighten the darker areas near the base of the image with some shadow reduction features in post processing. Not nearly as nice or sharp as the fish eye, but it doesn’t require the outlay of thousands of dollars that the high quality lens does.

Tundra swans flying out of Pungo Lake

As the afternoon shadows lengthened, we drove over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes for the sunset show. Tundra Swans were flying to and from the lake, providing some beautiful views in the afternoon light. But what I wanted was the return of the Snow Geese to the fields or lake itself. The large flocks have been leaving the refuge in the morning, apparently feeding in fields far to the east. I was hoping they would fly back into some of the refuge fields before heading into the lake to roost for the night.

We positioned ourselves near one of the fields containing several hundred swans and enough bear tracks along the road to make you think you would certainly see a bruin as it came out to feed.  Finally, I spotted them – several thousand Snow Geese flying in from the east in undulating waves of wings. They began to circle and land, joining the hundreds of Tundra Swans already in the field. Right at sunset, a Black Bear came out and wandered over, setting the flock into the air where they circled a few times before heading out to the lake to spend the night. Refuge magic at its best.

I will be leading trips to this area for the next several weeks to observe the wintering waterfowl and other wildlife. Most weekends in January are already booked, but I have many week days left as well as some single weekend dates. I’ll also soon be posting details on my blog Trips page for my June trips to Yellowstone and my July trip to Trinidad and Tobago (the latter in conjunction with EcoQuest Travel and the NC Zoo Society). If you are looking for that last gift for someone special (or yourself), consider giving the gift of nature – a field experience with the Roads End Naturalist. Contact me at my email address – roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com – for more information, rates, and availability.



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.