Refuges as refuge

For every day of loneliness we endure, we’ll spend a day in communion with the life around us until the loneliness passes away.

~Richard Louv

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you know that we are lucky to live in a beautiful wooded setting with abundant wildlife from insects to birds. But one of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic has been spending time with other wildlife, things we typically don’t see here at home. Yesterday, Melissa had to work (in one of her first in-person workshops in quite some time) so I decided to hit the road and visit some of my favorite spots – the wildlife refuges of Eastern North Carolina.

First stop, Pocosin Lakes (aka Pungo). I was surprised to see a few Snow Geese still around along with the usual late Tundra Swans. Several ducks (mainly Northern Shovelers) and four Bald Eagles were a good way to start. All were a bit too far off for photos, so I just watched though binoculars. Some roads are still closed due to the very wet weather and there were already 3 carloads of people at “Bear Road”, so I headed over to Lake Mattamuskeet to try my luck there.

I saw a post last week on Facebook about a Great Horned Owl nest out on the lake, and from the photo, I knew exactly which tree it was in – a small Bald Cypress out on the lake that had an old Osprey nest in it. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nest, but often use broken snags or nests of other large birds. I had to look from the top of the car in order to get a clear view over the tall Phragmites that lines the lake, but you can clearly see the owls in the nest with binoculars or a spotting scope. My 500mm telephoto (plus 1.4x teleconverter) brings it all in a bit closer, but due to the great distance over water, there is a bit of atmospheric interference, which makes a sharp photo difficult. I saw two young plus an adult at one point but have heard there may be three young in the nest.

Great Horned Owls have taken over an old Osprey nest on Lake Mattamuseet (click photos to enlarge)
An adult owl plus two (I think) young can be seen in this photo

Since many of the waterfowl have headed north, I was hoping to see some other critters as I started down Wildlife Drive. A small, dark rabbit greeted me near the entrance and seemed unconcerned as I slowly pulled over across the road. My first thought was this was a Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris. One of three species of rabbits found in NC (Eastern Cottontail and Appalachian Cottontail being the others), Marsh Rabbits are usually found in coastal regions near marshes and swamps. They tend to be slightly darker brown in color, have shorter ears, smaller eyes, and, most distinctly, lack the fluffy white underside to the tail that gives the more common and widespread cottontail its name (their tails are brownish underneath). Unfortunately, this little guy never showed me that part of its anatomy, but I’m still pretty sure its a Marsh Rabbit.

A rabbit out in the open along Wildlife Drive
The rabbit with a mouthful

I enjoyed watching it for several minutes and managed a quick video clip of its constant munching.

This is me with a plate of cookies or chips

I always enjoy the short hike along the New Holland Trail with its beautiful cypress swamp setting. The water levels are very high everywhere in our state right now and, for the first time I can remember, the walk to get to the boardwalk was slightly underwater. But that made for beautiful reflections in the swamp.

The boardwalk on the New Holland Trail at Mattamuskeet NWR
Red Maple flowers signaling the arrival of spring
Playing with post=processing settings on a phone photo of the cypress reflections along the boardwalk

The far end of Wildlife Drive was closed due to high water and the back side of the loop around the impoundment had the most water I have ever seen. That meant fewer wading birds although I did spy a couple of egrets squabbling over feeding territory.

A Great Egret flies to chase off another in its territory

It was still fairly early when I finished my lunch, so I decided to head over to the last refuge for the day, Alligator River NWR. As soon as I drove in off Hwy 264, I spotted an otter in a roadside canal. I stopped to watch and it disappeared into the high water in the trees off the canal. It was the first of five River Otter I spotted in my couple of hours on the refuge. I ended up spending some time with one otter as it swam down a long canal. I would drive ahead and park on the opposite side of the road, then get out and use the vehicle as a blind and a support for my camera and snap a few photos as the otter swam by. Once it was down the canal a bit, I got back in and drove another hundred yards or so beyond the otter to watch it pass again. At one spot, there was an opportunity to get closer due to some trees and brush on my side of the canal. I sat and waited for quite some time and suddenly the otter was alongside me. I managed a couple of quick shots as it passed and then it slowed and turned to look back at me. I imagine the otter might not have been thinking the peaceful thoughts I was having, but it quickly continued on its way.

I spent some time with this River Otter traveling a canal at Alligator River NWR
My favorite photo of a day filled with much needed wildlife encounters

The opening quote above is from a wonderful book (Our Wild Calling) by Richard Louv on the value of human – wildlife interactions. It is the last line in part of a closing paragraph on something he says we should try to adopt in our relations with animal life – what he calls the reciprocity principle. Th other parts of that principle are equally worthy of our attention:

For every moment of healing that humans receive from another creature, humans will provide an equal moment of healing for that animal and its kin. For every acre of wild habitat we take, we will preserve or create at least another acre for wildness. For every dollar we spend on classroom technology, we will spend at least another dollar creating chances for children to connect deeply with another animal plant, or person.

Our wildlife refuges go a long way toward meeting the goals of that principle. And I have been lucky to have a small chunk of woodlands to care-take and to have spent a career trying to provide outdoor experiences for a wide range of people. Now I guess I need to figure out how to repay that otter…

Happy Birthday

Wherever you meet this sign [National Wildlife Refuge sign], respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children, as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization.

Wild creatures, like men, must have a place to live. As civilization creates cities, builds highways, and drains marshes, it takes away, little by little, the land that is suitable for wildlife. And as their space for living dwindles, the wildlife populations themselves decline. Refuges resist this trend by saving some areas from encroachment, and by preserving in them, or restoring where necessary, the conditions that wild things need in order to live.

~Rachel Carson

Snow Geese at Bosque del Apache

Snow Geese at Bosque del Apache NWR, NM

I never realized how special the month of March truly is…of course, much of the nation is caught up in so-called March Madness right now with the end of the regular college basketball season. Now, I like college hoops as much as the next person, but, given my preferences, I would probably rather be in some remote place enjoying wildlife or hiking or just being outside. And it turns out March has been a very important month in our history for people like me, people that enjoy using our public lands of parks and refuges. March 1 was the birthday of Yellowstone National Park, and therefore of the National Park System. March 3 was the birthday of Mt. Mitchell State Park and of the North Carolina State Park System, a former employer of mine, and the caretaker of many of our state’s premier natural landscapes. And I just found out that March 14 is the birthday of the organization that presides over my other favorite group of natural settings – the National Wildlife Refuge System – our refuge system turns 112 years old today. By Executive Order of March l4, l903, President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, along Florida’s central Atlantic coast, as the first unit of the present National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). I am a huge fan of NWRS as you may have guessed if you follow this blog. My favorite wildlife watching spot in my home state is Pocosin Lakes NWR, and I have shared the wonders and beauty of this wild place with hundreds of people over the years. But our public lands are facing many threats, from budget cutbacks to environmental challenges, and in our age of increasing population and increasing development pressures on our wild lands, the mission of the NWRS is becoming more critical to the wildlife they protect and to our own well-being. In honor of their birthday, I am sharing a few of my favorite images taken at refuge units in recent years. I encourage everyone to get out and visit a refuge (or several) in the coming months. I intend to do just that, so stay tuned. Happy birthday to a very good idea.

Black Bear in wheat at Pocosin Lakes NWR

Black Bear in wheat at Pocosin Lakes NWR, NC (click photos to enlarge)

Sunrise Lake Mattamuskeet

Sunrise at Mattamuskeet NWR, NC

Great Blue Heron strike 2

Great Blue Heron strike at Chincoteague NWR, VA

Merlin

Merlin on refuge sign at Currituck NWR, NC

Three cubs close up

Black Bear cubs at Alligator River NWR, NC

Roseate Spoonbill and Pintails

Roseate Spoonbill and Northern Pintails at Merritt Island NWR, FL

Sandhill Cranes landing at sunset

Sandhill Cranes landing at sunset at Bosque del Apache NWR, NM

Marsh Wren male singing head-on view 2

Marsh Wren singing at Bombay Hook NWR, DE

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, NJ