Pungo Sunrise

Nature has not only given us life, but can also give us reasons for living positively: Curiosity, wonderment, imagination, and knowledge are just a few of the ways Nature can beckon us.

~Mike McDowell

Between the phenomenal evening shows of snow geese last week, I had a quiet sunrise at Pungo, mostly to myself. It was a cold morning and overnight a skim of ice had formed in the waters of the managed impoundment, and in the nearby swamps. I headed for a place I knew I could see swans in the early morning light. As I neared the water, I saw first one, then two, and finally, four bald eagle silhouettes patrolling the flooded area, no doubt looking for a carcass or a weak swan.

bald eagle silhouette

A bald eagle surveys the marsh before dawn while a group of swans flies in the distance (click photos to enlarge)

The huge birds seemed to prefer a couple of snags along the canals as their morning perch, so I positioned my car where I had a good look at them as the sun began to creep above the horizon. Many of the trees along the canals have been pushed over by heavy equipment in recent years, perhaps due to the potential for trees along ditch banks to weaken the canal edges if they fall. But, the raptorss certainly like to use them for perches to survey their surroundings.

snow geese out at sunrise

Snow Geese began flying off Pungo Lake just after sunrise

As daylight increased, so did the activity in the air, with swans, ducks, and snow geese beginning their morning departures. The snow geese came off in smaller groups than usual, but still flying in their characteristic wavy lines.

Bald eagle silhouette taking off

An eagle takes flight at first light

The eagles continued to make short flights out over the impoundment, but I didn’t see any attacks or dropping down to a possible carcass. As the sun rose above the treeline, all the eagles flew off in search of better hunting. Later that morning, I did see four bald eagles on a fresh swan carcass in a field just beyond the refuge boundary. It is that time of year when birds weaken and die or are wounded by hunters on nearby private lands. The abundance of carcasses provides a bounty for eagles, vultures, and a host of other scavengers.

Tundra swans before sunrise 1

Tundra swans, tinged in pinkish morning light, waking up at dawn to a frozen world

The swans in the nearby marshy area were waking up to changes in their world – parts of it had frozen overnight. I always enjoy seeing these huge birds standing on the ice. There was one small group surrounding a small open pool. The swans kept splashing and dunking their bodies in the cold water, and then would get out, preen, and flap their wings to greet the new day. I watched them for several minutes and then headed off to explore other parts of the refuge as the daylight intensified.

double-crested cormorant

Double-crested cormorant perched on a post in the impoundment

I had not gone far when I spied a double-crested cormorant perched on a post out in the water. These are not common birds at Pungo, as there are not many fish here except in the canals and perhaps the impoundment. Pungo Lake, unlike nearby Lake Phelps and Mattamuskeet, is peat-based, and, therefore, too acidic and turbid to support much aquatic vegetation of fish life.

cormorant eye

The eye of a cormorant is a beautiful green

I particularly admire the eyes of these primitive birds – a striking green under the right conditions of sunlight. This one never turned just right to have the eye color pop, but you can see hints of it here.

norhern harrier

Northern harrier cruising the corn, looking for a meal

Driving along D-Canal Road, I saw four northern harriers buzzing a stand of flooded corn just across the canal on private land. This standing corn is a duck hunting area and is very effective in attracting ducks and other wildlife. The harriers were cruising back and forth repeatedly, so I pulled over and attempted a few passing shots with my 500 mm lens. Northern harriers are efficient fliers, using a slight dihedral wing pattern (much like a turkey vulture’s wing profile while soaring) that helps keep them aloft with little flapping of their long wings. They fly low, moving back and forth over fields, looking for small birds and mammals.

norhern harrier 1

Northern harriers that are brown in color are either adult females or immature birds

Three of the four were either adult female or immature harriers. Immatures and adult females are brown, with varying degrees of brown streaks on their breast. I think this might be an adult female since the breast is primarily white with heavy streaking.

Northern Harrier adult male

Northern harrier adult male

Adult males are ghostly in appearance – a light belly, gray upper parts with black wing tips, and the characteristic white rump patch found in all ages and sexes of harriers.

norhern harrier with potential prey in corn

A small bird pops up in the corn after a harrier passes

I watched the hawks for about 20 minutes, constantly working the patch of corn, trying to stir up some prey. A female harrier did hover once, then dropped down into the corn, but I did not see whether it caught anything or not. My favorite moment came when a small bird popped up right after a harrier passed overhead, looked at the hawk, and flew off in the opposite direction. Such are the priceless moments of nature you can witness at a place like Pungo…reason enough to visit time and again.




Pungo Reflections – Sky

The sky is that beautiful old parchment in which the sun and moon keep their diary.

~ Alfred Kreymborg

Sunrise at Pungo Lake

Sunrise at Pungo Lake (click photos to enlarge)

One of my favorite things about eastern North Carolina is the big sky (maybe that’s why I like Montana so much as well). And I have seen some wonderful big skies at Pungo this year, especially at sunrise…

Snow Geese against moon

Snow Geese in front of the moon in the golden light of sunset

…and sunset. And so it was on my last trip. The morning had been spectacular at the swan impoundment. I wasn’t paying much attention at first to the goings on in the sky as I was so focused on the swan silhouettes on the water in the orange-gold glow of sunrise.

Tundra Swan in early morning light

Tundra Swan in early morning light

After photographing the swans swimming and preening, I finally turned my attention to those starting to fly out of an adjacent area. The last bits of golden light soon faded, but not before I caught an image or two with it bathing the undersides of a passing swan.

Swans coming in for a landing

Swans coming in for a landing

High clouds soon moved in and the light changed dramatically. Now a few small groups of swans were starting to land in the impoundment to join the hundreds of others already enjoying the swan spa. I love to watch them as they prepare for a graceful touch down.

Snow Geese circling the field

Snow Geese circling the field

I left to head towards a favorite area and was surprised to see no cars in spite of it being a beautiful (albeit cold) Saturday morning. The Snow Geese had already flown off the lake by the time I arrived and were circling the fields in their usual erratic attempt at settling down. I took a few shots as they circled far across the corn and then started walking down the road.

Snow Geese blasting off from corn field

Snow Geese blasting off from corn field

Suddenly, they all blasted off with the distinctive whoosh sound of thousands of wings. I stopped, hoping to see what might have spooked them. It can be anything, or seemingly nothing at all. I scanned the field edge for bears and the sky for any sign of a predator.

Bald Eagle flushes Snow Geese

It was hard to tell what had flushed the flock at first

Bald Eagle flushes Snow Geese 1

The Bald Eagle finally came out into clear view

One thing that will always flush the flock is an eagle. Finally, from behind the cloud of flapping white and black, a flapping black and white appeared – a Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle lowering its landing gear

Bald Eagle lowering its landing gear

The eagle cruised past the scattering Snow Geese and seemed intent on a particular spot on the ground in between the rows of standing corn. I had seen a few vultures in that area when I had walked by, and the eagle dropped down in the same area and disappeared behind the corn. Undoubtedly, the vultures and eagle had found a carcass of some sort.

Red-winged Blackbirds in dense flock

Red-winged Blackbirds in dense flock

Snow Geese and Red-winged Blackbirds

Snow Geese and Red-winged Blackbirds

Now a new flock was added to the aerial commotion – Red-winged Blackbirds. The sky was soon a swirl of tiny black spots and noisy white blobs.

Blackbird flock 2

Red-winged Blackbirds showing their flashy side

Red-winged tornado

Red-winged tornado

These huge flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds (and usually some other species mixed in) are one of my favorite things about Pungo in winter. There were probably close to ten thousand birds sweeping across the corn, and flying to and from the trees. The sound was incredible. And every now and then a tornado of red wings erupted from the field. As with the Snow Geese, this was usually caused by an aerial predator.

Northern Harrier and potential prey

Northern Harrier and potential prey

In the case of the blackbirds, it is often a Northern Harrier cruising the fields looking for a meal. I could see two of them canvassing the corn so I set up my tripod and waited, hoping for a passing shot, especially of the male I could see on the far side. I have tried to get an image of one of the ghostly gray adult males for several years but they have always eluded me.

Male Northern Harrier criusing for a meal

Male Northern Harrier looking for a meal

The male Northern Harrier finally sailed by my side of the field, gliding on his large wings, head down, looking for a bird or small mammal.

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier

A close pass by a male Northern Harrier

He swung by close enough for a few good shots, the sunlight catching his contrasting feathers and highlighting his bright yellow eyes.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle

I soon encountered the Black Bear and Raccoon from my previous post and spent a couple of hours watching things in the trees instead of the sky. But I finally I headed back out to the fields to see what was going on. There were several eagles perched in trees around the field edges. A couple of people were now walking on the road, and they spooked a couple of the eagles, one of which flew close by me for a nice look. It was an immature Bald Eagle, recognized by the mottled whitish “arm pits” as it flew over my head.

Snow Geese in golden light

Snow Geese in golden light

The light was getting beautiful, a golden glow from the low angle of the sun. I soon heard the loud, low whoosh made by the wings of the Snow Geese lifting off the lake. The show was about to begin. I could hear them coming and then the first of the birds flew over the tree tops, headed out to the corn. The light was gorgeous, turning the flock into a gilded swarm. The people on the road stopped to watch the birds fly overhead and then headed back down the path once the flock was across the field. I knew there were a couple of more eagles ahead of them and I figured these birds would soon fly, so I stepped up against a tree trunk to help hide my outline and waited, hoping one of the adult birds would fly by me.

Bald Eagle in golden light

Bald Eagle in late afternoon light

Sure enough, I saw the remaining two eagles head out over the field and one banked and headed my way. Then I heard more Snow Geese flying in from the lake. If only….

Bald Eagle and potentil prey

Bald Eagle and Snow Geese sharing the golden light

As luck would have it, the eagle circled back just in time for the Snow Geese to fly behind it, giving me a rare opportunity to see and photograph this spectacle three times in one day, predator and prey sharing the sky. But this light was by far the best of the day. The eagle spotted me and flew out over the tree tops, leaving me to watch in awe as thousands of Snow Geese flew into the field for one last feeding before nightfall.

Snow Geese returning to lake

Snow Geese returning to lake

Thirty minutes passed with the flock in a feeding frenzy on the far side of the field. Another eagle flew out near the restless birds and they once again exploded into the now pinkish-purple sky. Thousands of birds circled and then headed back to the lake for the night. It had been an amazing day of colors and sounds, with my focus on the water, forest, and sky of Pungo. While this is not a wilderness, it is a very special wild place to me. And I think it is important for us all that these wild places exist. Spending time in them helps us understand ourselves, and gives us insights into the workings of the world and our place in it. I found this quote by former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas that does a good job of putting into words what a day like this means to me…

Wilderness helps us preserve our capacity for wonder

the power to feel, if not so see,

the miracles of life, of beauty,

and of harmony around us.

I will carry this sense of harmony for a long time to come.