…It is always my place to come back and feel normal again.
That quote referred to a special place for its writer, one of the Hawaiian islands. For me, one of the special places I seek is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina. I had not been in many months, so, when our good friend Scott paid a visit (the first overnight guest we have had in over a year), he and I decided to make a road trip back to normal (we are vaccinated now).
Arriving at the refuge, we found a large section of the road system remains closed. which concentrated the many carloads of visitors even more. We soon managed to spot some birds along one of the canals and pulled over for a closer look. Sitting alongside a trio of large turtles was a oddly paired duo – a Blue-winged Teal and an American Coot. We sat with these birds for almost an hour, watching their feeding behaviors and reactions to what was happening around them.
Blue-winged Teal are so named because of the blue visible in their wings when in flight. In the photo above, you can see a tiny hint of that baby blue color.
Field guides almost always describe the American Coot as a plump, chicken-like bird (if the shoe fits…). It is North America’s largest rail and is found near wetlands throughout much of the country. They tend to be gregarious (I have seen hundreds together at Lake Mattamuskeet in winters past) but this one had decided to just hang with his buddy, the teal. Coot feed primarily on aquatic vegetation which they grab from the surface or dive to get. They don’t nest here in NC, but undergo nocturnal migrations to freshwater marshes in western and northern states.
While we were watching the bird buddies from the car, I looked down the road and saw a Raccoon heading toward us. It swam across the canal and began foraging in the shallows fifty feet or so behind the birds, who seemed unconcerned. It was the first of four Raccoons we saw that morning, all searching for a meal at the edge of a canal.
Though there were several cars at “Bear Road” each time we drove by, we finally decided to check out the fields, and, right away saw three bears out from the edge of the far woods. They soon went back in and we hiked a bit to see what we could see. As we rounded the edge of a tree-line we spotted a mother bear with three of her yearlings coming out into the field. Though she was a considerable distance away and the wind was in our favor, she apparently spotted us kneeling along the edge of a well-worn bear path, one she has no doubt walked many times in the past. I am guessing she recognized that there were two new bumps sticking out near her favorite trail and wasn’t quite sure what they were. She didn’t rush away, but did stop and stare at us and her cubs soon became a little nervous, so they all sauntered back into the woods.
That would be the first of a total of nine bears we saw, the others being on the stretch of pocosin on the south shore of Lake Phelps.
One of the highlights of any springtime trip to Pungo is the abundance of butterflies. Palamedes Swallowtails were everywhere last weekend, with most preferring to nectar on the scattered thistles instead of the large swaths of ragwort blooming along the roadsides (the yellow in the background in the photo above). I spent several minutes watching one thistle that was quite popular with the passing swallowtails (when I first saw it there were four of them fluttering on it).
We also saw some Black Swallowtails, a few Zebra Swallowtails, and my second Monarch Butterfly of this spring season.
Late in the day, we decided to head over to Mattamuskeet NWR via the long route through the other section of Pocosin Lakes NWR. It requires heading over to the south shore of Lake Phelps and driving for an hour or so on gravel roads through a landscape of thick pocosin and swamps. You never know what you might see but our main sightings on this day were a ton of turkeys, doves, and other birds (and the five bears we saw before we got back onto the refuge roads).
Our quick drive around Mattamuskeet as the sun was getting low on the horizon yielded no wildlife, but it did provide a very nice sunset to cap off what was almost a normal day for two old friends that finally got to spend some time together doing what we love to do. Get your vaccine and you can get back to almost normal too.
Now Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas side hunt, in the form of a Christmas bird-census. We hope that all our readers who have the opportunity will aid us in making it a success by spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds and sending a report of their ‘hunt’ to Bird-Lore before they retire that night.
~Frank Chapman, originator of the Christmas Bird Count, 1900
It was a tradition in the late 1800’s for men and boys to gather into teams during the holidays and go out into the woods and fields and shoot as many birds, mammals, and other critters as they could find. Whichever team killed the most wildlife was the winner. These so-called side hunts often took a huge toll on local wildlife including many species of songbirds. In the winter of 1900, out of concern for the wanton destruction of so many birds, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History, proposed an alternative – gather together and count birds instead of shooting them. He published the results of the first count in his magazine, Bird-Lore, which later became Audubon magazine. That first census had 27 volunteers in 25 locations in the U.S. and Canada, and tallied a total of about 90 species across all the counts. That tradition became what is now the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, with over 81,000 observers in 2646 count circles (participants divide up a set 15-mile diameter circle and estimate the total number of birds in that area) participating in the Americas in 2019. They tallied more than 42 million birds representing more than 2500 different species. This is the longest running citizen science wildlife census in the world and the collected data is used by scientists and conservation organizations for bird research and protection efforts.
So, as we have done for most of the past several years, this past week, we headed east the day before our count centered on Pettigrew State Park, and spent the night at the campground so we would be out early the next morning. Our portion of the count circle is the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, about a 40 minute drive from the campground, even though it is only about 8 miles as the soon-to-be-counted crow flies. The afternoon before the count was rewarding with lots of swans, Snow Geese, and more visitors than usual. We even ran into some friends that were watching five Sandhill Cranes feeding in a cornfield near the refuge entrance.
The next morning, we headed out before sunrise and arrived at Pungo as the birds were beginning to stir. We headed to a marsh impoundment to eat breakfast and search through the couple of thousand Tundra Swans for the Trumpeter Swan we had seen a few weeks before. Unfortunately, we neither saw nor heard this rare species, so it eluded us for our tally this year.
As visitors started arriving at the marsh, we decided to head over to the observation platform to estimate the swan numbers on the lake. We were in for a nice surprise in the canal next to the platform – an American Bittern! Somehow, we missed it as we drove in and parked, but Melissa spotted it alongside the canal when we climbed the platform.
I eased down to the truck and grabbed my camera, and for several minutes the bittern provided us with a close up view of its hunting style and funky, neck-weaving movements through the grasses. Its long toes help support it as it strides atop aquatic vegetation and the striped neck helps it blend in to the grasses it calls home. This is a species we see occasionally at this refuge but one that is particularly welcome on count day. We told a friend about it later that day, and when he went to see it, there were two bitterns!
The day turned out much warmer than the previous one, and the good weather brought out all sorts of unusual wildlife (for December anyway). We saw a lot of spider silk floating through the air and a large adult orbweaver. And at one point, we were startled by a huge water snake along the edge of a canal. But, though we looked, “our” canebreak rattlesnake was not at its long-time hollow tree den site.
We have a disadvantage in getting a true assessment of the number of birds in this location because so many areas are closed to access when the waterfowl are present. And on this count day, we had an even bigger problem – crowds (not something we want during this time of Covid). The weather, the holidays, and perhaps weariness of being trapped inside during the pandemic, brought out a lot of visitors. Unfortunately, many of them were not obeying the rules. We saw multiple groups of people walking into closed areas, resulting in some disturbance to the birds and actually reducing the numbers of birds we saw and counted (especially ducks). Several times during the day, we attempted some on-site education about refuge rules and Melissa finally texted the refuge law enforcement person to make them aware of the unusual number of violations. I understand the desire to get closer to the birds to see them, and I actually wish the refuge had more accessible observation areas around the lake (maybe some day), but rules is rules, and the number of people ignoring or missing the signage for closed areas was the most I have ever witnessed.
We still ended the day with a reasonable number of birds. Compared to previous years, there were fewer duck species and fewer swan numbers (one area that was packed with swans had all the birds flushed by people walking in on them as we were approaching). Obviously, when counting birds in such a large area that has so much inaccessible habitat (dense pocosin vegetation, closed areas to protect the waterfowl, and flooded forests), we are only getting a sampling of the total number and types of birds present. But, the value is in looking at these trends over time and seeing changes. One notable change has been the number of Bald Eagles observed since I started the count back in the mid-1980’s. Back then, seeing one eagle in the entire count circle was a big deal. We had 3 just in our portion this day. Our complete list for our portion of the count circle is at the end of this post. Overall, the Pettigrew Count did pretty well, with some unusual species recorded in other sections (including Short-eared Owls, a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and some Evening Grosbeaks).
We camped that night back at the park and decided to run by the Pungo Unit the next morning before heading home. The Snow Geese were right on schedule, flying out from the lake about 8 a.m. to feed in the fields, and we were one of only two cars to witness it (what a difference a day makes).
We went back to the platform, hoping to see the bittern(s) again, but no luck. However, we did have a nice encounter with a Beaver swimming in one of the canals. It didn’t seem to mind us slowly following along in our truck, but then it suddenly went under and disappeared when four River Otters showed up. Not a bad way to end a trip to our favorite wildlife watching destination.
Checklist of species for our portion of the Pettigrew Christmas Bird Count:
Snow Goose – 20,000; Ross’ Goose – 2; Canada Goose – 45; Tundra Swan – 10,000; Wood Duck – 3; Northern Shoveler – 40; Gadwall – 2; American Black Duck – 35; Green-winged Teal – 124; Ring-necked Duck – 6; Bufflehead – 6; Ruddy Duck – 13; Great Blue Heron – 6; Sandhill Crane – 4 (not sure where the fifth guy from the day before and after was); American Bittern – 2; Pied-billed Grebe – 1: American Coot – 6: Northern Bobwhite – 4; Wild Turkey – 8; Killdeer – 52; Ring-billed Gull – 3; Mourning Dove – 70; Turkey Vulture – 21; Northern Harrier – 4; Cooper’s Hawk – 1; Bald Eagle – 3; Red-shouldered Hawk – 2; Red-tailed Hawk – 1; American Kestrel – 1; Belted Kingfisher – 1; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker – 11; Downy Woodpecker – 4; Hairy Woodpecker – 3; Pileated Woodpecker – 3; Northern Flicker – 7; Eastern Phoebe – 12; Blue-headed Vireo – 3; Blue Jay – 1; American Crow – 24; Carolina Chickadee – 18; Tufted Titmouse – 5; Tree Swallow – 15; Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 4; Red-breasted Nuthatch – 1; Brown-headed Nuthatch – 3; House Wren – 1; Carolina Wren – 10; Gray Catbird – 8; Northern Mockingbird – 9; Brown Thrasher – 1; Eastern Bluebird – 6; American Robin – 48; Purple Finch – 5; American Goldfinch – 13; Song Sparrow – 39; White-throated Sparrow – 86; Savannah Sparrow – 87; Field Sparrow – 1; Swamp Sparrow – 8; Eastern Towhee – 1; Eastern Meadowlark – 10; Red-winged Blackbird – 1000; Rusty Blackbird – 8; Common Grackle – 10; Palm Warbler – 4; Yellow-rumped Warbler – 67; Pine Warbler – 2; Northern Cardinal – 20
A few days after our virtual program outing, I decided to make a day trip to the refuges for some quiet time watching wildlife. I headed out last Friday about 6 a.m. and pulled into the Pungo Unit on what started as an overcast, drizzly morning. A refuge worker was just beginning to grade D-Canal road and there was a long row of debris in what would be the right lane of the dirt road. I veered over to the left, which turned out to be fortunate, as it gave me a better view down into the canal. As I passed what I call “New Bear Road”, I spotted movement in the canal. It was three River Otters, my second group of these amazing animals that week. They did their typical otter thing of undulating motions in the water while glancing up at me as I was trying to ease the truck into position for a photo. One otter suddenly emerged on the far bank with a decent-sized fish in its mouth. It moved quickly to subdue it while tossing its head back and forth and chomping down on the fish (it looked like a young Bowfin). The low light, their quick movements, and my excitement at seeing the otters, made for less than ideal images, so many of the shots are blurred. But, I enjoyed watching the one otter claim its catch and turn away when others came too close.
Here’s a brief clip showing the otter enjoying its breakfast (and not wanting to share with another otter)…
The otters eventually swam to my side of the canal, making them difficult to see from he truck, so I slipped out to look where I last saw their ripples. They were gone! There is a large culvert under the road right there so I guessed they had swam under the road and disappeared into the much smaller canal leading away from the road. I looked, but didn’t see them…were they still under the road? I went back and forth a couple of times looking and finally saw them about a hundred feet away looking back at me. Nice move on their part!
I continued driving down towards “Bear Road”, but saw several cars already there, so I decided to forego scratching my bear itch for the time being. I headed over to spend some time with the swans at Marsh A and saw a car stopped in the middle of the road with a photographer out looking into the flooded swamp along the canal. I didn’t want to disturb whatever she was seeing, so I stopped and looked down the road with my binoculars. Otter again! And again, three of them. I seriously doubt it was the same three otter because I was now a couple of miles from where they were last seen. The photographer finally walked back to her car and I drove on, seeing the wake of the otters as they swam down the canal and in and out of the trees. They kept diving and swimming great distances, their pathway marked by a trail of air bubbles at the surface.
Then one would suddenly pop up, scan around, snort, and then take off underwater once again. I took a few photos and then drove on, leaving them to their otter doings
The gray skies and almost no wind made for some nice views of swans at Marsh A. I have found that if I park near the edges of the flock I have more time to view the swans by myself (most photographers go to where the flock is most dense), which causes them to relax more and just do what they do. I also stay in the vehicle, which causes less concern for any nearby birds. A group of three swans were close to the road and after I stopped, they settled back down and started napping again, with an occasional stretch for good measure.
As usual, I could have stayed all day with the swans, but the sun started to pop out making the light much less appealing for images, and I wanted to head to Mattamuskeet to see what I might find over there. I’m always amazed at how different the wildlife can be in a place at different times. At Mattamuskeet, the waterfowl were further out in the marsh now compared to our virtual program day, and things were much quieter – no eagles scaring up the ducks, no kingfisher in its usual spot, but there was a nice Great Blue Heron standing quietly on a log.
A large flock of American Coot were crowded in the canal along Wildlife Drive, feeding on submerged aquatic vegetation. I sat with them a few minutes, listening and watching their antics. Here is a brief clip…
On my way back out, I spotted an Anhinga on a log in the canal. I drove by and parked, and, next thing I know, it comes swimming by me, with only half its neck and head above water. Snake bird is an apt moniker as that skinny neck bobs back and forth just above the water as they swim.
After another trip around Wildlife Drive, I came back to that downed log, hoping for another chance at one of two Anhingas I had seen. I got lucky and had what I think was an adult female on the log along with a few Double-crested Cormorants. It was busy sunning as I pulled up. Like the cormorants, Anhingas frequently display this wing-spreading behavior. Cormorants have a dense insulating layer of waterproof feathers against their skin, so wing-spreading is believed to be primarily for drying out their wing feathers. Anhingas, on the other hand, lack that insulating layer and have a different micro-structure to their feathers which allows water to penetrate through and decrease their buoyancy. This allows them to swim and hunt with most of their body submerged. And, in Anhingas, the wing-spreading is believed to be more for thermoregulation.
The sunning log was partially hidden from view by some tall vegetation between the edge of the canal and where I was parked. By slowly opening the truck door and standing on the running board with the camera resting on top of the open door, I was able to get some nice shots of this beautifully patterned bird as it preened.
As is common with me, I took way to many photos of the Anhinga, so the sun was starting its downward trajectory when I headed back to Pungo for the last couple of hours of my trip. Though I really wanted to see bears, there were once again just too many cars and people at Bear Road, so I opted for some more quality time with the swans. The lighting was very different in the afternoon but I always enjoy the sights and sounds of these wonderful waterfowl.
The scene created some beautiful swan watching…
All of the corn in the fields near the refuge entrance had been knocked down for the birds since our trip earlier in the week, so I headed up there for sunset, hoping some Tundra Swans or Snow Geese would fly in for a late feeding (and hoping to see a bear). It wasn’t long until I heard them and then saw the sky filling with the silhouettes of a few thousand Snow Geese headed my way. As is common early in the season, they seemed very wary, and flew circles around the corn field a few times before starting to drop in to feed.
After feeding for about 20 minutes, something startled them and they took to the sky, flying around a few times before heading back to the lake for the night. Here is a brief clip of one of the sights and sounds that make this place so special.
Birds have always had the ability to bring me out of a dark space and provide relief in bad times.
You may have noticed I have fallen way behind in my musings on the natural world this past month. I still haven’t even finished posting about our last road trip back in October! I guess there have been a lot of distractions lately (for all of us) – some good, some stressful. We are lucky to live in a place where we can connect on a daily basis with the beauty of nature so that has helped. But here lately, it has been too easy to get involved in some chore outdoors or a minor repair on the house, so it was good to have an excuse earlier this week to help travel back to my favorite wild place in North Carolina…Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
Melissa needed to test the feasibility of doing a remote broadcast for a museum program being planned for early December on some of the wonders of winter wildlife found on our coastal wildlife refuges. Limited cell phone service throughout the region would be the challenge and it requires a lot of gear and coordination with her co-workers, so she asked me to help. The plan was to hit both the Pungo Unit and Lake Mattamuskeet and try to broadcast live images and sound back to folks in Raleigh via Zoom. We would camp overnight in our trusty truck at Pettigrew State Park, to enable us to get both a sunset and sunrise to maximize our chances for seeing wildlife.
We arrived at Pungo mid-morning and drove toward the observation platform to check on the swans and the cell signal (not my usual combo on these trips). Melissa soon spotted some tracks in the sandy road and they turned out to be those of a large canid, most likely a Red Wolf, one of only one or two believed to still roam the refuge. Unfortunately, there was no service at the platform, but we could see swans far across the lake.
The next stop was Marsh A, a managed impoundment that has been a hot spot for swans for many years and so it is again this winter. The signal here was weak and it kept dropping during the test, which is unfortunate because the birds were putting on a great show of both sights and sounds.
Our next stop was “Bear Road” which had a couple of other groups with cameras and long lenses out looking for bruins. They reported seeing a few that morning, and we soon spotted one, and then several, all far across the field. We did have a weak signal here and could send images, but the lack of swans and the great distances and unpredictability of seeing bears may make this location less than ideal for the broadcast. Of course, while we were focused on the bears off in the distance, I forgot one of the main lessons you learn about the bears at Pungo….always look behind you. Sure enough, a bear had come out of the woods behind us (quite close according to other people on the road) and walked away from us toward a path that leads over to the adjacent cornfield. When I turned and saw it, I managed a few seconds of video before it disappeared into the canal and up into the tall cornstalks of its dining room.
We headed back to Marsh A hoping for a better signal since that spot provided the best bet for a sure wildlife moment for the broadcast. We drove along, checking our phone signal strength at various spots, but it was still weak and somewhat variable. Toward one end, I suddenly heard the distinctive bugling call of a Trumpeter Swan (it reminds me of a clown car horn from the cartoons) mixed in with the cacophony of Tundra Swan oo-oo-oo’s and hoots. For the past several winters, we have seen a few of these magnificent birds, the largest of our native waterfowl, at either Mattamuskeet or Pungo. I started scanning the seemingly endless sea of white necks and heads looking for the less discernible bill traits of a Trumpeter Swan (larger and straighter than that of a Tundra Swan and their eye is usually not distinctly separate from the bill as those of a Tundra Swan). I finally found one swimming and honking in the mix. I kept trying to make others nearby into trumpeters, but can’t say for sure, even after looking at my images. Trumpeters are larger than Tundra Swans (as much as a foot more wing span and up to 10 pounds heavier on average), but that is tough to tell in the field. Plus, to make matters more difficult, Tundra Swans can vary quite a bit in bill size, eye position, and whether they do or don’t have the usually diagnostic yellow patch on the bill near the eye. For more details on distinguishing between the two species, see this link.
Mid-day on our second day, we drove over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge to scout for birds (and cell service). The problem with Mattamuskeet (as far as video or photography is concerned) is the lighting is very bad (harsh back-lighting) on the impoundment along Wildlife Drive for most of the day. There certainly are a variety of birds that are easily seen, but finding a good spot for the broadcast was a challenge, although in general, there is a better signal for sending images over most of the accessible parts of the refuge. We found a nice variety of birds and other wildlife and are now thinking that this may be the best spot for the program. The next few images show some of the highlights of the couple of hours spent at Mattamuskeet. One nice surprise we found that I didn’t have a chance to photograph was an American Bittern that flushed from the side of the boardwalk in the cypress swamp.
Our last stop was a return to Pungo, hoping to get some more bear footage. When we arrived at the spot, there were already 4 cars parked at the gate, so we decided to skip the bears and spend the rest of the day at Marsh A enjoying the sights and sounds of the elegant swans. Late in the day on both of our afternoons, the swans starting taking off in large numbers from Marsh A, presumably heading out to nearby fields for their last feeding of the day. With so many birds head bobbing (they usually do this as a prelude to take-off) and slapping their feet across the water to get airborne, I can’t resist the urge to capture some lift-off moments. The answer to Melissa’s question of How many pictures of swans taking off do you need? is…there’s never enough.
Looking forward to returning in a couple of weeks for the program (and hoping technology and weather will cooperate). Information and registration for the upcoming NC Museum of Natural Sciences virtual program on winter waterfowl in this region (which targets a family audience, including young children) is on their web site here.
There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.
This past Thursday evening, Melissa participated in a Science Cafe hosted by her workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. She joined a couple of other staff that had been authors of chapters in a book released this spring entitled, 30 Great North Carolina Science Adventures, edited by April C. Smith. Melissa had written a chapter on one of her favorite places, the Lower Roanoke River. I enjoyed watching the Cafe and learning more about the book from April. I had also written a chapter for the book on two of my favorite outdoor areas in our incredibly diverse state – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges (no surprise there to any of you that read this blog regularly). For a great overview of some fabulous natural areas to visit across North Carolina, I highly recommend this book (and we don’t receive anything for plugging it as it was all done on a volunteer basis).
As it turns out, I decided a couple of days before the Science Cafe that it was high time I visited my favorite place in North Carolina again. So, I headed east to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). My last trip was in late January so I was way overdue for a day in the wilds of eastern North Carolina. Summer is a great time to see bears, so I was hoping to spend some time observing them as they feed in the crop fields and as new mamas teach their rambunctious cubs the ways of the world. Melissa had to work, so it was just me, with no agenda other than to hang out and enjoy the beauty of this special place.
I didn’t get as early a start as I had hoped, so it was almost 10 a.m. when i drove into the refuge. But, it was only 5 minutes down a dirt road that I had my first bear encounter. I didn’t get a photo (unfortunate, because it was a beautiful bruin) because it was a bear that stood up across the canal as I drove by, then retreated back into the corn when I stopped.
Soon, I was seeing clouds (or maybe cloudlets) of butterflies – primarily two species, Sleepy Oranges and Zebra Swallowtails. As I have mentioned before, this refuge, and nearby Pettigrew State Park, are two of the best places in North Carolina to see one of my favorite butterflies, the Zebra Swallowtail. They are abundant here because of the large stands of their host plant, Pawpaw, in the understory.
My next bear was one I spotted down the road ambling toward me when I turned a corner. It was a few hundred yards away, so I pulled over under an overhanging limb as far off the road as I could (which wasn’t that far) and got out and sat in front of the car. This was a large bear, most likely a male, and he sniffed the ground and nearby vegetation as he slowly made his way toward me.
When he was about 100 yards out, he suddenly realized that something was in his path (my car) and he stood up to get a better look. Impressive! The heat waves made for a slightly soft image with my telephoto lens, but I always love to see these magnificent animals stand to check things out. He did this two more times as he walked and then decided that, yeah, that is something up there, and headed into the vegetation. When viewing the images at home, I saw something I had not noticed in the field. Another bear crossed the road far behind the one I was watching, and I was so intent on photographing this big guy, that I missed it.
Each winter, I spend hours at a particular marsh impoundment on the southwest corner of Pungo Lake observing the thousands of Tundra Swans and other waterfowl that rest and feed in its shallow waters. This time of year, that area is packed with water lilies, frogs, and wading birds like egrets and herons.
The marsh and roadside canals are also home to thousands of dragonflies. I noted 6 species while driving along – Halloween Pennant, Needham’s Skimmer, Blue Dasher, Great Blue Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, and Slaty Skimmer.
Around 3 p.m., I headed to North Lake Road. A fawn grazed along the roadside until I got too close, then vanished in the tall grasses. I parked and started strolling down the path that I have walked hundreds of times in the past 35 years. I was lucky, there were no other cars at the gate, so I had the walk to myself (an increasingly rare event). One of the things I like most about Pungo is the quiet, the almost total lack of human sounds (most days).
The soybeans and corn are at their peak now, so a bear can easily disappear in the crops or the tall roadside vegetation. It was hard to keep an eye out for the large critters when there were so many small ones all around me on the path. Butterflies, lizards, songbirds, and even a Bald Eagle accompanied me as I walked.
After taking a few butterfly pictures using a telephoto, I looked up the road and saw a bear headed my way. I sat down as the bear stopped to scratch and look around. It was visibly panting from the heat and definitely had an itch as it would walk a few steps, then stop and scratch. It walked from side to side in the road, sniffing, scratching, and occasionally nibbling at vegetation. Finally, it wandered off the path and into the woods. I waited, hoping it would return, but, after a few minutes, I continued my stroll.
I stopped to look at some tracks in a mud puddle, and when I stood back up, I saw a bear coming out of the woods behind me. I got down on my knees and the bear caught my movement and stood up. I thought it might be the itchy bear, but it stared for a few seconds, then slowly lowered itself and went back into the trees. Again, I waited…
The wind was in my favor so I was hopeful. About a minute passed, and I saw the dark head of a bear coming back out. But now, she had two little ones trailing her.
She sniffed, looked in my direction, and headed down the road away from me, the cubs tightly on her heels. Twice, she stood and looked back, presumably making sure that blob in the road was not a threat to her little ones. She finally led her cubs into the canal and across to the corn field and disappeared for her evening meal. Again, after looking at the sequence of images, I saw a bear I had missed seeing (the dark blob in the photo below) cross the road way beyond the mother and cubs.
After that encounter, I continued down the road until I was a little over a mile from my car. I sat for about 30 minutes and watched and listened. No bears, but a satisfying peacefulness that comes from being in a wild place by yourself. On my way back, frogs started calling, and the phenomenal big sky of the flat lands of eastern North Carolina put on a colorful show as developing thunderheads were tinted pink and orange by the setting sun.
A couple of hundred yards from the car, I noticed something dark in the soybeans. It was the top of a bear’s head. The bear swung its head around, nose pointed up, mouth open, sniffing the air. I stood still, hoping it would stand. But, it just sat there, panting and sniffing, occasionally turning more towards me, but seemingly unaware of my presence. The air was still and I was at least partially hidden behind some tall goldenrod. After several minutes, I was surprised when another bear stood up behind the one I was watching.
After a few looks around, it dropped and disappeared in the soybeans. Finally, the first bear stood up, glanced back and forth, and sat back down. That one moment in good light was a great way to end the day. I shouldered the tripod and camera and headed back to the car for the long drive home.
The standing bears and seeing the cubs were definitely highlights of the day. I ended up seeing 6 cubs for the day, 21 bears in total (I’m not counting those two I did not see until I reviewed images at home). Along with the birds, butterflies, and serenity, it was a pretty good return to Pungo. It felt good to be back.
It’s always good to get back to the places you love…
Life has been way too busy these past many weeks and my blog entries have suffered, but I finally have a break this morning while I wait on some overdue car maintenance. With the busyness has been less time exploring outside, but this weekend saw a return to one of my favorite places, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The occasion was the 5th annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC.
The entryway to the Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)
The NC Museum of Natural Sciences was again assisting with the popular “bear tours” on the Pungo Unit of the refuge and I volunteered to help out. We did six 3-hour tours from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, so it was busy schedule, but a good time nonetheless. It included severe weather before and during Friday’s tour that saw hail, lightning, strong winds, and heavy rains. In spite of all that, we managed two bears on that first tour.
Fresh bear and deer tracks
The next morning, we headed out at 6 a.m. with a dense layer of fog limiting our viewing across the fields, but we managed a few bears once the fog started to lift. The plus side of the heavy rain was that we knew any tracks we saw were fresh!
Black-bellied whistling duck
A rare find was a black-bellied whistling duck perched along one of the canals in the refuge. I have seen this species a few times in NC and FL, but never on the Pungo Unit. I was told by a friend that this one has been hanging around this area for a couple of weeks. They are a beautiful duck, more typically found in marshes from Texas to Florida, but seem to be slowly expanding their range northward.
Dugout canoe in the Roanoke River Maritime Museum in Plymouth
Between tours on Saturday, we visited the festival in downtown Plymouth. Lots of local food vendors, exhibits and talks about bears, and the usual crowd of knick-knack vendors and local organization booths that show up at such events. We visited the Roanoke River Maritime Museum to see some displays of wildlife photography and local boating history. Imagine my surprise when I came across something from my past – the section of dugout canoe I found years ago in Lake Phelps when I was working as the East District Naturalist for NC State Parks. I had no idea it was on display and was even more surprised to see what is probably the original exhibit text label made when this section of canoe sat on display in a make-shift exhibit shed at Pettigrew State Park. When I started working at the NC Botanical Garden and was designing a program on uses of native pants (for example, bald cypress for dugout canoes), I tracked down the NY Times article from my 15 minutes of fame for being the guy that first stumbled upon this treasure trove of ancient canoes. The large canoe mentioned in the text is now on display at the NC Museum of History in Raleigh.
A blast from the past
Each tour yielded some wildlife surprises (king rails running down the road ahead of the bus, turtles being helped across the road, nutria in the canals, etc.), improving muddy roads, and visitors delighted to see their first bears in the wild. In between tours, we had a few moments to take in the sights and sounds of the town – grab a bite to eat, check out the noisy southern toads and squirrel treefrogs in the retention pond at the hotel, and get ready for the next busload of people. With two buses running each tour, we shared the wonders of Pungo with over 180 visitors from all around NC (and a few other states).
Southern toad calling
While every tour had its moments of adventure, one tour stood out for all of us, the Sunday morning 6 a.m. trip. We had just turned onto the refuge road when a bear went across the road, immediately starting us off with a bear encounter. Just down the road was standing bear…a medium-sized back bear with a propensity for standing up in the corn field to check us out.
Black bear – “outstanding” in his field
Once we hit the dirt of D-Canal Road, we spotted another bear feeding in a wheat field on private lands adjacent to the refuge. Bears love wheat and we saw them in this field on several of the tours. The golden color of the wheat provided a beautiful backdrop for the jet black fur of the bears.
Bear surrounded by delicious wheat, the breakfast of champions
While we were all watching that bear, a young bear came out into another field on the refuge next to us and walked right in front of the bus and group of excited onlookers.
Young bear walking near our group
Then, another young bear (these are probably last year’s cubs) strolled out behind the buses and disappeared into the woods.
Another young bear on the other side of our group
Most of the people continued to watch the first young bear that was still wandering around in front of the buses, while a few of us were standing at the edge of the canal watching the bear in the wheat. Suddenly, I see a bear head pop up from the bank of the canal just a few feet from us. I whispered to the few people between me and the bear to move back and give it some room. It looked like the young bear that had crossed behind us and gone into the woods just a few minutes before. Apparently, it had gone to the canal and walked down the bank, climbing up in front of us.
This one popped up right next to us
The confused bear walked up, moved across in front of us, and passed in front of the buses and the rest of the group. Minutes later, another head popped up and followed the same path. It seemed like bears were everywhere around us. These young bears probably aren’t sure what they should do in these situations so you need to give them space to move freely. The second one started to climb a tree when it saw the large group gathered in front of the bus, but when they stepped back and remained quiet, it came down and hustled across the road.
The wheat field bear entering the canal
Meanwhile, the wheat field bear finished breakfast and angled toward us to cross the steep-banked canal. I positioned myself to get a good view, and as she slowly entered the water, I expected to get a nice shot of her swimming across.
Why swim when you can walk across?
Instead, she surprised me and slowly stood up, holding her front paws above the water, In all my years of watching bears, I have never seen one cross a canal like this.
Keeping those front paws dry
Just one more reason I love the Pungo Unit and love observing bears. They are a constant source of amazement, curiosity, and wonder.
The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it, the more beautiful does it appear.
Memories of Yellowstone are still lingering in my head…the scenery, the snow, the quiet, and the incredible wildlife. So, I did what I needed to do for my spirit last weekend, and headed to Pungo for the day. What better way to reinforce that feeling of wildness, the freedom that comes from being outside with countless wild creatures, than to go to my favorite spot in North Carolina, the Yellowstone of the East – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Melissa was out of town, so I did a solo one day trip, leaving home at 4:30 a.m. to get down there close to sunrise. When I pulled in, the morning show had already started…
Snow geese feeding in a cornfield at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)
Snow geese, mixed with a flock of tundra swans, filled one of the fields close to the maintenance area. I pulled down on the side of the field where the low angle morning sunlight was hitting the birds, stopped the car, and watched as thousands of white forms moved through the fresh corn stubble in a feeding frenzy. The birds were close to the road so I could hear that mechanical sound made by thousands of snow geese grunting, squabbling, and gleaning kernels of corn from the field.
A blast off close to the road
Suddenly, they all blasted off, circled the field a few times and started to land closer than before. I scanned the skies, and soon saw the cause of all the commotion…
The cause of the blast-off, a cruising bald eagle
An adult bald eagle was flying across the field, looking over the flock for any possible weaknesses. When it got to the other side I saw two more eagles, perched, waiting, hoping for a chance at a goose breakfast.
The light was perfect for photos
A car drove by and spooked the eagles, so the snow geese quickly calmed down and started making short flights to leapfrog ahead of the moving mass of white to get to untouched spilled corn. This allowed me to get several nice views of them flying by and landing in beautiful light.
Blue phase snow geese coming in for a landing
Northern shoveler ducks were abundant in the marsh impoundment
I drove on to the lake and was surprised to see very few swans. The impoundment was also relatively quiet (only a couple of hundred swans), but the shoreline was crowded with ruddy ducks and northern shovelers.
Pairs of northern shovelers were feeding together in tight circles
As I pulled in to a spot and parked, the ducks moved away in short flights, but soon returned as I sat in the car, camera out the window. This is where I see many people make a mistake and get out of their cars for a better view. If you use your vehicle as a blind, the birds will often return faster and you usually get a better image.
A ruddy duck in a canal next to the road
Mid-day found me over at Mattamuskeet. Things were very quiet there with high water in the marshes along Wildlife Drive leading to fewer waterfowl than usual. I did notice several swan carcasses in the shrubbery along the entrance road…bobcats perhaps?
Swan at Mattamuskeet – Trumpeter or Tundra?
On the back loop of Wildlife Drive, I stopped to photograph some swans and in looking at the images a little later, found one that resemble a trumpeter swan – longish bill, no yellow on the bill (not always a guarantee it isn’t a tundra swan). What do you think?
What are you staring at?
I cruised slowly along the shrub zone, looking for song birds, and, at one point, found a group of yellow-rumped warblers moving through some wax myrtles and sweetgum saplings. They always seem to have a bit of an attitude when they stop and look at you.
Back at Pungo, the wintering sandhill cranes
I returned to Pungo at about 4 pm, a little later than I hoped, but just in time for the start of the evening show. There were vehicles near the refuge entrance observing a few thousand swans out in the winter wheat so I drove on toward D-Canal Road where a local farmer had been cutting the last remaining standing corn in one of the refuge fields earlier. I hoped the birds would find this fresh food supply. I got down there and had several hundred swans in the field all to myself for awhile. A car finally pulled up and the occupants got out and walked into the field a short distance to take selfies with the birds in the background. You can imagine my thoughts…I pulled up to them, admonishing them for walking out toward the flock and spooking the birds. I suggested they should stay in their vehicle for a better look and not disturb the flock. To their credit, they offered an apology and got back in their car as I drove off. As I drove by the adjoining field, I saw the familiar stooped posture of feeding sandhill cranes in the fresh cut cornfield. No doubt the same three birds we had seen on the Christmas Bird Count several weeks ago.
Cranes sharing the field with swans and red-winged blackbirds
The cranes were soon joined by several hungry swans and hundreds of red-winged blackbirds. As I watched, I heard the sound of approaching snow geese. I looked up and could see thousands of birds coming in from high up in the graying sky. This is why I keep coming back – this spectacle of the birds in winter at Pungo is unlike an other wildlife experience in North Carolina.
Snow geese beginning their descent
I love the sounds and sights of a huge flock of snow geese, swirling above a field, and gradually coming down.
Landing in a swirl of wings
I am always amazed they seemingly aren’t landing on top of their flock-mates, but maybe that’s what all the noise is about – snow goose warnings.
Late day blast-off of snow geese
After feeding for many minutes, something caused the massive flock to explode from the field in a wall of black and white feathers. That sound is one of the most amazing, loud, whumpfs in nature. I may not get back down this winter before they all start their long journey northward, but am thankful for this incredible day in this amazing wild place.
When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go.
I certainly carry certain places with me. And moments in those places have a way of adhering to my memory, reappearing when my mind wanders to sights and sounds of their wildness, their beauty, their mystery. And I now need these places and these memories even more. The beauty of nature has a way of helping us cope with the confounding issues of our times and gives us hope. One such place for me is what I usually simply call “Pungo”. Its official name is the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I managed another trip last weekend, heading down after a program at work on Saturday, and meeting friends from work Sunday morning.
Flock of blackbirds swimming through the sky above a corn field (click photos to enlarge)
I arrived fairly late in the day on Saturday and went straight to North Lake Road. Flocks of blackbirds (mainly red-winged blackbirds and common grackles) were flying back and forth from the corn field to the trees, twittering as they flew in wave-like patterns in response to aerial predators (real or imagined) or some other cues. I ran into some friends and we had a nice flyover of snow geese that couldn’t make up their minds where to go. Melissa was down last weekend also, leading a Museum trip, and I found that group on the way out. We parked and watched swans returning to the refuge for the night along with the swarms of ducks (called ducknados by a young observer a couple of years ago) flying into the corn fields from the adjacent swamp.
The quiet beauty of a sunrise at Pungo
The next morning found me sitting in the quiet of a Pungo sunrise with the soft cooing sounds of swans. There is something magical about sunrises, the way they slowly change the landscape – the silence, the peacefulness.
Morning clouds over Pungo Lake from Duck Pen blind
I decided to walk down to the Duck Pen observation blind hoping to see some swans in close. Instead, I was treated to a beautiful sky over the calm waters. A long swooshing sound turned out to be an approaching flock of red-winged blackbirds undulating westward to the corn fields.
The elegant moves of a Tundra Swan preening
As the sun rose above the trees, I headed back to the impoundment known as Marsh A to spend some quiet time with the majestic swans. These birds are simply feathered elegance. The low angle of morning light produces sharp lines and highlights the gentle curves of these beautiful birds. They spend a lot of time preening their 25,000 feathers…
They look good even with a little feather stuck on their bill
…and occasionally get one stuck on their bill (probably the equivalent of that piece of lettuce that your friend tries to tell you is stuck in your teeth). I truly enjoy spending time with the swans. But, my friends were going to arrive soon, so I decided to drive around and get a few pictures of other birds (or whatever I could find) while the light was so nice.
A Swamp Sparrow feeding along the edge of a canal
I drove slowly along the canal edges looking for brushy spots that often harbor a variety of small birds. The usually secretive swamp sparrows were feeding out in the open along the edge of the water. If you take the time to look at sparrows, they really are elegant little birds, each species with a distinct personality and a blend of subtle colors and patterns.
Savannah Sparrows along the edge of a field
As I drove along the field edges, groups of Savannah Sparrows flitted up from the corn stubble and grasses into the shrubs and trees lining the canals. I appreciated a chance to view them against the sky rather than camouflaged in the grasses.
Bright skies and warm temperatures made for a good day for vultures
The calm winds and clear skies made for a good vulture day. There are a few large turkey vulture roosts along the road edges at Pungo, so it is common to see them perched in snags along the roadsides in the morning, waiting for the warmth of the day to create thermals for their efficient flight. One member of the pair above demonstrated a common vulture behavior – the spread wing posture. This is often seen early in the day as birds try to warm up or dry their feathers after a damp night.
A Turkey Vulture close-up
One vulture allowed me to drive up closer than most, so I was able to get a few portrait shots (maybe not your dream photo, but they are interesting nonetheless). There is a stark beauty in their ugliness, a lot of detail and character in their wrinkled faces. Adult turkey vultures have reddish skin (juveniles have blackish-gray skin) and an ivory bill. You can also see their huge nostrils (nares) which help them have one of the keenest senses of smell in the bird world. They also have a larger olfactory lobe in their brain compared to other species so they are well-equipped to detect dead animals as they soar above the landscape. As I drove along D-canal road, I spotted a few vultures squabbling over a duck or goose carcass in the private fields across the canal. As I watched, they suddenly took flight, along with a great blue heron that had been stalking prey in the nearby drainage ditch.
As I watched the carcass, a Great Blue Heron flew by in a hurry
The heron flew in an arc from one field to another across the road, squawking as it went. I turned and saw the reason for all this commotion…
The reason the heron took flight
…an adult bald eagle had flown into the trees behind me, no doubt alerted to the possibility of a meal by the gathering vultures. Though I waited patiently for 30 minutes, the cautious eagle maintained its perch, waiting for me to move on, which I finally did. When my friends arrived, we piled into one car and continued searching for wildlife. Our first stop was to view the swans. Warm days seem to make the wildlife lazy, content to hang out longer, making some species a bit tougher to find.
Painted Turtle basking in Marsh A
But lazy winter days also make some species, like turtles, easier to see. As we drove along, there were turtles (mainly a mix of painted turtles and yellow-bellied sliders) basking on almost every log. That made me both wary and excited as we entered the woods, for this is the kind of day you might see a snake, especially “my snake”. I had stumbled upon the large canebrake rattlesnake again last weekend during the Christmas Bird Count at the same hollow tree as 3 years ago. We hiked slowly to the tree, looking carefully around the surroundings in case the rattler was out enjoying the warmth. After looking all around the area without spotting it, I knelt down and shined my flashlight into the hollow – no snake. I moved to the right, and shined the light in the other hollow – nothing. Suddenly, my eye caught a familiar pattern…there it was, a few feet from me, curled up at the entrance, partially hidden behind the grass and vines that now block part of the hollow.
Even after we knew where it was, the snake was tough to see (photo by Janna Starr)
I seem to have a strange affinity (and partial blindness, apparently) for this snake. The others in my group couldn’t see it at first, and then, one by one, they spotted it.
Holding the camera high allowed a better view
We all jockeyed positions to get a better angle to view the snake which was partially obscured by the vegetation in front of the hole. This rattler (it probably is the same one from previous encounters at this tree) has not lived up to its name, having never rattled in any of my encounters with it over the past few years. I must admit, I wouldn’t mind a little noise the next time we meet.
The telephoto view from the side
Even with all the commotion from its admiring crowd, the rattlesnake remained still, no doubt confident of its ability to defend itself from this group of interlopers. We wandered on, wishing it well until we meet again.
The last scene of the day – the magic of snow geese overhead
We headed back out to the road, hoping for a flyover of birds from the lake. The evening before, the snow geese had flown out and around a few times, but not landed. As we walked back to the car, we heard them coming. We paused as they flew over toward the far corner of the corn field. At first, a few hundred. That flock went back to the lake and returned with a few thousand. More joined the flock as they began to circle the fields. Some would spin off toward the lake, but more kept coming in, until perhaps they felt they had enough critical mass to make a decision – to land in the field. They finally started to drop down into the corn and thousands more birds came in from the lake to join the circling mass. Finally, several thousand birds were feeding in the corn. After what seemed like a very brief meal (considering all the energy they burned flying around beforehand), they all lifted off and headed back to the refuge of the lake. There is nothing like this anywhere else in North Carolina (or anywhere else in the East for that matter)…thousands of birds filling the sky, golden light tinging their undersides as they noisily fly over you. The true meaning of spectacle, and the reason I keep returning to Pungo.
Conservation is a cause that has no end. There is no point at which we say, “Our work is finished…”
Saturday was our chance to participate in the 119th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. We did it, as we have for many years, at the Pettigrew Christmas Count centered on Lake Phelps in Pettigrew State Park. I helped start this count back in 1985 with the park superintendent and one of my favorite naturalists, Paris Trail. For those that may not know, the idea of a Christmas Bird Count was created in 1900 as an alternative to the then common practice of Christmas bird shoot contests, where people would go out and shoot as many birds as possible. Conservationists worried that this trend was harming bird populations, so they came up with the idea of going out and seeing how many birds you could see in one day as a way to foster appreciation of our incredible bird neighbors. To learn more about the history of the Count and how the data is being used, check out Audubon Christmas Bird Count. For this count, we were joined by our good friend, Scott, and his cousin’s family. As always, we cover the section of the count circle that includes my favorite spot in North Carolina, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The heavy rains squashed our plans to camp at Pettigrew for a few days around the count, so we left our home at 4 a.m. Saturday for the trip down to try to beat the sunrise.
Huge black bear ambling away from the corn field before sunrise (click photos to enlarge)
We were greeted, as often happens at Pungo, with a huge bear leaving his dinner table in the corn fields at the entrance to the refuge. He was one of the big boys, probably weighing in at over 500 pounds. We met the rest of the group at the observation platform where thousands of swans were scattered across the lake in the pre-dawn gray. Our next stop was the impoundment known as Marsh A, where the tundra swans luckily like to congregate within range of most telephoto lenses.
Tundra swans in early morning light
Almost every move a tundra swan makes is made with grace, especially the wing flap
By mid-morning, swans were leaving the lake in droves, headed for their feeding fields
After spending some time with the swans, we headed on and soon found a beautiful bufflehead and her reflection swimming along in a roadside canal.
A female bufflehead swimming in one of the roadside canals
The warm temperatures made for a slow birding day so we stepped up our efforts to find a diversity of songbirds by walking and driving slowly near brushy spots along the miles of dirt roads in the Pungo Unit.
This beautiful field sparrow paused for a portrait
Clutching a treetop twig, this Eastern phoebe bobbed in the wind while checking out our group
Our guests spotted this furry pile of nutria babies at a den entrance across the canal
We succeeded in a few locations and got good looks at several species. We moved on to scan some of the crop fields for shorebirds and other species that like these huge open spaces. We were also hoping to see a trumpeter swan or the sandhill cranes that had been reported in the area.
Three sandhill cranes feeding with a group of tundra swans
At one area in a harvested soybean field, a group of 50 or so tundra swans were resting and feeding. As we scanned, we all simultaneously noticed the grayish bodies of three sandhill cranes mixed in with swans. Success!
Female northern bobwhite trying to sneak away to cover
As we left that area, we spotted some quail moving along the edge of the canal bank. When we stopped, they dashed under the overhanging grasses, climbed the hill under their vegetative cover, and finally popped out on the top edge of the canal and scurried to safety in the corn stubble.
One of two butterfly species observed on pour Christmas Bird Count
The warm temperatures (about 70 degrees) made for a pleasant day for us humans, but I think it may have curtailed some of the usual winter activity we see in the birds and other animals. On the plus side, we saw a lot of turtles out basking, had two species of butterflies (a sleepy orange and a cloudless sulphur), a green darner dragonfly, an anole, and an even bigger warm-weather surprise later in the day.
Immature tundra swan seen from Duck Pen blind
The hike down to the Duck Pen observation blind yielded a few new songbird species, several river otter scat piles, and great views of tundra swans from the blind.
A sleepy gray phase Eastern screech owl at the entrance to a wood duck box
At each stop we added a new species or two to our list. As we drove along one stretch, Melissa spotted an owl peering out of one of the wood duck boxes. We all got out and enjoyed a close-up look through the spotting scope. The little fellow didn’t seem to mind the paparazzi oohing and aahing every time it even slightly opened one eye. It seemed to quickly drift back asleep to enjoy its owl dreams.
Our afternoon ended with a walk down North Lake Road. There were the usual couple of photographers set up near the gate in hopes of catching a bear crossing over into the corn. We walked beyond them and down into the woods to try for some of the many songbirds we were still missing. It is also a great place to see a raccoon sleeping in a tree or a bear walking down one of the many well-worn paths, so we quietly walked through the understory of pawpaw with high hopes for something exciting…and we found more than we could have imagined.
A surprise waiting inside the base of a large tulip poplar (photo by Melissa Dowland)
As we walked, one of our guests let out a sharp whistle. When I looked over, I saw him pointing to what I assumed was a bear out in the woods. As I walked over to him, I could see he was pointing at a tree close by, and not at some distant object. He whispered, there’s bear in that tree. I think I said something profound like, that tree right there?, pointing to one just a few feet away. Indeed, as he had walked up to look into the hollow base of this large tree, a bear had lifted its head and looked back at him. He backed off (perhaps with a sense of urgency and surprise) and the bear laid back down. I maneuvered around to face the hollow and at first could just barely make out the dark shape inside as the bear had its head tucked, so all you saw was black fur inside a black tree hollow. But at one point, the bear raised its head just a bit and you could make out the brown color of its nose. I have looked inside this type of hollow for years and, other than having one bear bolt out of a tree well before we got too close, have found only bear sign and the occasional sleeping raccoon or opossum. This experience will certainly be on the highlight reel of my brain for years. We walked away leaving our bear to his cozy bed. But, the surprises were not over yet…
A look inside the hollow base reveals a partial view of the rattlesnake (photo by Scott Hartley)
Not far from from the bear tree, we eased up to another tree where I had a special encounter three years ago. I was telling one of our guests about that incident as I slowly approached another tree with a hollow base, when, suddenly, a huge canebrake rattlesnake flung itself toward the tree and disappeared into the hollow. I had been scrutinizing this particular hollow as this was the same tree where I had encountered a rattlesnake on a day in January, 2016. But this time, the snake was several feet outside the hole, and, I must admit, it startled me with its quick retreat back into the safety of the tree. I had left my phone back in the car, so Scott was kind enough to get a photo where you could at least see part of the snake inside the hollow. This is pretty remarkable if this is the same snake from 3 years ago (and I think there is a good chance it is, since research has shown snakes are often quite faithful to their overwintering sites). This place never ceases to amaze me.
Great horned owl calling from a perch at sunset
The walk back to our cars was classic Pungo – we could hear swans calling on the lake, a few scattered flocks flying in from the north, a bald eagle flying out over the fields, and bears starting to move from the protective cover of the forest edges to their evening meal in the corn. Closer to the cars, we heard, and then saw, a great horned owl, silhouetted against the sky. A perfect ending to a great walk. One thing of interest about the owl photo – the tree top has a lot of broken branches in it. This is a wild cherry tree, and, though it looks like storm damage, it is actually where black bears have broken the branches to get to the cherry fruit. Every cherry tree along this road edge has broken branches like this where foraging bears have climbed the tree and pulled down the smaller twig tips to gorge on the ripe cherries.
As we drove out of the refuge, we pulled over and got out for one more experience that only Pungo offers, the return of thousand of swans from their feeding fields to the safety of the refuge waters. The video quality is poor because of the low light, but, trust me, the sights and sounds of Pungo will leave a lasting impression on you. Experiences like this help create an understanding of and appreciation for the importance of public lands like this for both the wildlife they support, and for our own well-being and peace of mind. I urge everyone to support these special places and the people that work so hard to protect them for our future.
One last surprise came with the seemingly endless waves of swans flying overhead. As one group passed, I heard the unmistakable honking sound of a trumpeter swan mixed in with the chorus of tundra swans (unfortunately, I was not recording at the time). I photographed a couple of trumpeters on our visit back in November, and, though we had tried hard to find them earlier in the day with no success, the final bird of the day was a special one. Below is the list of species we saw in our part of the count circle from about 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. I saw on social media that elsewhere in the count area. friends got a very special bird, a Western tanager. I can’t wait to see our totals for the entire circle. Indeed, another count, another good day out in the field.
The homing instinct in birds and animals is one of their most remarkable traits: their strong local attachments and their skill in finding their way back…It seems at times as if they possessed some extra sense—the home sense—which operates unerringly.
~John Burroughs, 1905
Last weekend we managed to escape for a couple of days and head down to our favorite spot, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. My friend, Michael, had been sharing images of the many bears he was seeing feeding in the cornfields on the refuge, and it finally got to me, I had to get down there! We were met at the refuge by some new friends that understand the power and beauty of wild places and the creatures that call them home. Though seeing bears was the goal, we were all open to whatever the refuge cared to share, so we were delighted to find the first swans of the season already on the lake.
Tundra swans have returned from their Arctic breeding grounds to spend the winter in NC (click photos to enlarge)
When we drove up to the impoundment known as Marsh A, there they were, hundreds of graceful white forms, filling the crisp air with their mellow sounds. We stopped, watched them for several minutes, quietly taking it all in and appreciating the fact that these birds had just completed an amazing journey of 3000 miles or more to spend the winter here. It is reassuring that these natural rhythms continue, that the natural world has some order to it, even when much of what we hear on the news does not.
Large bear tracks (plus another creature…do you see it?)
On to “Bear Road” where we saw several people parked at the gate and sitting along the road waiting for an appearance by one of the area’s many resident bruins. The tracks in the hardened mud tell the story…frequent comings and goings from the dense woods to the local feed store, the cornfield across the road and canal.
A busy bear crossing
With a small crowd of photographers hanging out near one of the main bear crossings, we decided to walk on down the road, away from the chatter, and experience a little quieter part of the scene. Quiet, except for the sounds of swans and Canada geese coming from the lake a short distance through the woods. We soon saw our first of many bears across the open field at the edge of a patch of woods.
Most of our views were distant
This would be our fate for this day of woods-walking and refuge road exploration – a total of 19 bears, all seen at a considerable distance. We did find three in a large tree, two resting and one playfully climbing up and down. But most were headed to or from a cornfield, stocking up before the bitter cold of winter might cause them to go into hibernation (perhaps an abbreviated one that is more typical of bears in the Coastal Plain). We also witnessed some bad human behavior of people trying to get just the right photo and causing a bear to alter its choice of pathways (it is always best for the human to give way and let the bear go where it wants). The day ended with a great horned owl calling against a flame orange sunset through the black branches of tree silhouettes…another beautiful Pungo day coming to a close.
One of my favorite things in the flat lands of Eastern NC – a large-scale sunrise
Our friends departed for home and we drove to our campsite at “nearby” Pettigrew State Park. We could hear swans flying over us to the lake all night indicating they are just arriving from their long journey. We spoke with people that had seen almost no swans two days before so it seems we were lucky enough to be there with the first wave of winter arrivals. We were awakened by some noisy campers at a ridiculously early hour, so we were out at sunrise, headed back to Pungo. The big sky of these flat lands is always a highlight at sunrise and sunset, especially in the crisp air of cold weather.
Injured wood duck along a canal bank
A few flocks of ducks were mixed in with the swans, whose numbers grew to a few thousand by Monday morning. It is not unusual to see wood ducks in the canals along refuge roads as they flush in front of your car and zip through the trees. It is unusual to see one stay put after you spot it. I caught a glimpse of a stunning drake as I drove past it, so I stopped and backed up, fully expecting it to dart away (it seems no creature will tolerate a car that is backing up). One glance at its awkward posture and you could tell something was wrong. It shuffled up the bank a little when I stopped for a photo, so we drove on, sorry to see this beautiful bird in such a state, but knowing that some predator will probably get a meal.
Eastern phoebe on sign
Driving over to Bear Road, we encountered another group of photographers hanging out, waiting for bears. There was also a phoebe debating the true meaning of a road sign…surely this doesn’t apply to me (I have seen many human visitors debating that same thing, unfortunately). So, we drove back over to Marsh A to fix our breakfast and to spend time watching the swans greet the day.
Trumpeter swan honking as it comes in for a landing
It wasn’t long until we heard a sound very different from the coos, whistles, and hoots of the tundra swans – the distinctive horn sound of a trumpeter swan. This is the swan species we see in Yellowstone (although less frequently in recent years) and are seeing now more regularly each winter here in NC. The past few years have brought a few of the larger trumpeters to Pungo and Mattamuskeet. The characteristic calls are by far the easiest way to locate a trumpeter in a sea of look-alike tundra swans. If they are standing next to each other, you can tell a trumpeter is larger, and, in this case, the call was coming from a flying bird, and we soon spotted it flying with a group of tundras. In flight, it is possible to see a size difference, but I don’t think I would really notice it unless I heard the call and was looking for it. Another clue to separate them is the head – look closely at the two photos of swans in flight. Trumpeter swans have a long, straight bill. The inner edge of the bill forms a rather straight line up to the eye, encompassing the eye so that it is difficult to separate from the black bill. The eye of tundra swans is more distinct as a circle separated from the bill. Plus, the inner bill line comes off the eye, and then drops downward. Most tundras also have a yellow spot on the bill below the eye, trumpeters do not. And a trumpeter has “red lipstick” along the inner edge of its black bill. After looking at the birds circling us and then comparing images, I think there were at least three trumpeter swans in the group, two immatures and the adult shown here. I hope we can spot them on the Christmas Bird Count next month! To learn more, check out this link for some of the ways to distinguish these species.
Pair of tundra swans – compare the outline of their bills to photo above
We ended our trip just after lunch, with only 3 bear sightings for Monday, but plenty of memories to last until we get back in a few weeks. I really do love this time of year!