Day-tripping

I just take it one day at a time, and it always leads you to the right place.

~ Kyle Massey

My two recent trips to Pungo were two day trips, leaving home before dawn and leaving the refuge after sunset. While not the ideal way to do this, even a day trip ca yield some great wildlife moments. I shared some images and stories about the dominant winter birds (Tundra Swans and Snow Geese) in my last post. This one covers some of the other interesting wildlife I (we, on the second trip) encountered.

The first thing I saw was an adult Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree in someone’s yard on the way in to the refuge. The hawk seemed to be surveying the hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding in the corn field across the road. (click photos to enlarge)
A flooded portion of a cornfield across the canal on private land had this Greater Yellowlegs patrolling the shallows.
Just beyond the shorebird was an immature Bald Eagle out in the field. There may have been a small carcass of some sort as there were also a couple of crows just out of camera view.
Another car pulled up and the eagle took to the skies.
Farther down the road was an immature Red-shouldered Hawk surveying the roadside canal. They feed on amphibians, small reptiles, birds, and small mammals, as well as invertebrates like earthworms. Why is it the hawks that don’t fly away as I approach are always surrounded by a thousand sticks in the background (or right in front of their head)?
I watched this hawk for about 10 minutes before yet another car pulled in and it flew to a perch a little farther back from the road
A few deer were out grazing along some grassy roadways
February is the month when large flocks of blackbirds (mostly Red-winged Blackbirds) flood the fields with their undulating swarms and noisy antics. This field was near one with a few hundred Tundra Swans feeding on the waste corn (the swans can be seen in the background as a white line)
Zoom in to see the red epaulets of the male birds. Females are all brown (streaked). There are also several Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in with this flock (can you find any?)
Turtles were out basking in the sun in many of the canals. One log in a swamp forest along the road had this beautiful Spotted Turtle.
I stepped out of the car to receive a phone call (much to my surprise since most of the refuge has no cell phone service) and was surprised by a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds foraging in the swamp next to the road.

On my first trip, I saw 4 River Otter, a family grouping (I think) that I have seen on other trips to Pungo this winter. The next week we had a 9 otter day, with three groupings of 2, 3, and 4 otters seen at different times and locations. I didn’t try to get close to any but did get to spend quite a while watching a group of 4 where one had a very large fish that it didn’t want to share.

This otter was swimming with two others and decided to climb out on the back across the canal from where i was standing

–A group of River Otters on a canal bank, and one of them apparently doesn’t want to share any of its huge fish meal

A pair of otters came up out of the canal and started running down the road toward me. They eventually thought better of it and returned to the canal.

We stopped the car to look at an American Bittern, one of two we saw in Marsh A, when I heard squalls across the canal. It turned out to be the otters arguing over the large fish one had captured. For the next hour, we had this beautiful bird on one side of the road and the four otter on the other. Melissa stayed with the otter while I went back and forth trying to observe and photograph both wildlife events. There were a few other cars nearby but they were mainly concentrating on the thousands of swans in the shallow water of Marsh A just down the road.

An American Bittern slowly moves through the grasses looking for prey. I watched it catch three items but could never clearly see what it caught because it was behind a clump of grass each time.
When the bittern was among the grasses, it was very difficult to spot due to its streaked camouflage. Here it creeps across an opening and you can see that intense look they always seem to show.
Another bird that is a master of disguise is the Wilson’s Snipe. Their streaked plumage blends in perfectly with their primary habitat – edges of wet marshy areas or muddy fields of patchy grass. You can drive by and never see one, and then stop, look around, still nothing. But if you make a noise or get out of your car, they can explode into the air right in front of you and then zigzag to a landing spot only to vanish once more. This one has its back toward me.
I took dozens of photos of a group of snipe right next to the road and managed only two shots where they are out in the open enough to see the entire bird.
One of the snipe finally walked across a small area of open water and gave me a chance for a reflection photo

On one trip, I introduced myself to a woman I follow on social media that I recognized walking along the road. She is an excellent photographer and visits Pungo way more than I do. She was trying to get a photo of a screech owl she had found in a hollow next to the road. She was gracious enough to show me the tree, though the bird wasn’t visible at the time (she said it would slide down into the hole when a car drove by and it had been a very busy day on the refuge). I thanked her and checked on the tree later that day, but still no owl. On my second trip, I spotted the owl the first time I drove by, but the light was terrible. I decided to wait until late that afternoon when the low angle sunlight would flood into this group of trees.

Eastern Screech Owl (red color morph) resting in a hollow tree opening. There are a lot of branches in front of this tree, so it is difficult to find a spot for a clear view.

We were trying to not disturb the owl and be discreet in our attempts to get a photo so as to not attract a crowd that might disrupt the little guy’s napping. The owl didn’t seem to mind our vehicle slowly driving by and stopping for a few seconds, so we did a couple of back-and-forths, hoping to get a clear look. After admiring this beauty on several drive-bys, we decided to move on and let it rest comfortably. I wonder how many times I have driven by this bird (and others) without seeing it? I guess that is one reason to keep going back…there is always something new to observe, even if only on a day trip. Here’s looking forward to many more in the future.

Our final look at the resting owl as it was facing into the setting sun. The golden light actually makes it even more difficult to see this color owl since the surrounding trees all take on a reddish-golden hue in the low angle light. I have seen both red (generally called rufous) and gray color morphs on the refuge. No one is quite certain what advantage, if any, a bird derives from being one color or the other.

Those White Winter Birds

Twenty thousand birds moved away from me as one, like a ground-hugging white cloud…

~Michael Pollan

I managed a couple of trips to my favorite NC winter place recently and was rewarded with some wonderful scenes of wide colorful skies, masses of birds, quiet moments of watching wildlife, and some surprises. I’ll cover much of the events in this and the next post. Today, I’ll focus on the birds, specifically those elegant white birds of winter – Great Egrets, Tundra Swans, and Snow Geese (well, egrets can be seen any time of year actually). In addition to the Pungo Unit, I spent some time at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, where I enjoyed watching some Great Egrets hunting in the flooded impoundment. Their typical hunting strategy involves walking slowly in shallow water, and moving their head and neck to get a closer look at potential prey. They then either strike quickly or lean in close to the water and, with incredible speed, slice through the surface to snag a meal. Their preferred food is small fish, although I have seen them take invertebrates, fairly large fish, and a friend recently reported one catching an amphiuma (a large aquatic salamander). Below is a record of one that walked by me several times spearing tiny fish.

A Great Egret does the leeeaaan for a successful strike (click photos to enlarge)
A Great Egret spears a small fish, and then did it again, and again, and…

Over at Pungo, the water levels have finally come back up to normal in the impoundments and the swans are appreciating it. There were a few thousand in Marsh A and many more in the flooded corn field along D-Canal Road. Even though I have taken hundreds (no, probably a few thousand) photos of swans over the years, I enjoy watching and listening to them so much, I always manage to spend an hour or two sitting in the car at Marsh A and taking it all in.

One of the most elegant moves a swan makes is the wing flap They do this frequently as part of preening and also after interacting with other swans in the so-called triumph ceremony
I never tire of watching (and listening) to swans taking flight…the huge wings flapping and the slap, slap, slap of their large webbed feet hitting the water surface as they run to gain lift
A few swans engaged in acrobatic bathing – rolling over in the water, flapping, splashing, dunking their heads and necks, and then shaking it all off before repeating the process

–A quick video clip of a swan taking an energetic bath

A lone Snow Goose swims among thousands of swans in Marsh A

I always hope to be where the Snow Geese are at sunset. They typically fly off the lake and head out to a field to feed a half hour or more before the sun goes down. If you are near, the sights and sounds of thousands of birds flying overhead are something you never forget.

Snow Geese landing in one the fields at Pungo already occupied by a few hundred Tundra Swans

–The sunset show of thousands of Snow Geese circling a field at Pungo (taken the same day as the photo above, but from the other side of the field)

A bonus on our last trip was the rising moon. We kept waiting for the Snow Geese to fly off the lake and head to the fields, but they were still on the lake at 5:30 p.m. (much later than on the trip where I filmed their flock behavior). We waited at a field with hundreds of swans feeding as that is usually a good bet where the geese will go when they finally lift off for their evening feed.

Tundra Swans across a rising moon

Melissa finally spotted the geese flying off the lake at about 5:45 p.m., but they didn’t head our way. Instead they flew north, so we hustled over to “Bear Road” and, sure enough, there was the flock of thousands of Snow Geese circling the corn field (the corn had been knocked down in the last few days so was prime for the birds). They kept circling for about 15 minutes, an unusually long time this late in the day. I managed a few images of geese flying across the moon while we watched. At last, birds started to drop into the field, but they only only stayed a short time before taking off and flying back to the lake. They may be getting antsy to head north. I probably won’t see them again this winter but I have promised myself to spend more time down there next year!

Snow Geese flying across the moon – they will probably be gone within days (if not already as you read this)

Refuge Ramble – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Last week was another of those times I really appreciate our public lands. I spent four days on the road in eastern North Carolina doing what I love to do – watching and photographing wildlife and sharing it with others. I started out Wednesday morning at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR. It was sunny when I arrived and one of the impoundments finally had some standing water in it so there were some swans hanging out close enough to observe and photograph.

Tundra Swans milling about in Marsh A on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

The day started to take a turn as mid-day approached with light rain showers developing and a rainbow out across the fields.

Distant swans in a rainbow

The rest of the day was the kind of weather where my camera stayed in the car. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and before the day was done I was soaked along with a couple of folks hanging out with me. It wasn’t a total loss (it never is) as we did see a nice young bear and a wild canid. I am pretty sure it was a Red Wolf (that would be the 15th I have seen at Pungo over the years) but I can’t be 100% sure as it was about a hundred yards away when it dashed across a grassy road giving us about a 5 second view. In all my trips to Pungo, I have never seen a coyote but I know they do occur. This canid looked large and leggy, so I am pretty sure it was one of the few remaining Red Wolves in the wild.

The next couple of days were spent further east and I’ll share those highlights in the next post. Friday I was back at Pungo and enjoying the gang of four otters that have been a mainstay of the Pungo wildlife show this winter. One had caught a Bowfin and was munching away in a tangle of brush.

River Otter chewing on the head of a Bowfin

Two other cars had stopped and were out photographing the otter, so I moved on. Later that afternoon, I encountered the otter again and this time they climbed out on the bank and I was able to grab a portrait of one before they all disappeared into the canal.

Otter portrait

At sunset, we were out in the fields near the maintenance area where several thousand Snow Geese were already landing for their evening snack of corn. It is such a privilege to witness this gathering of birds and to share it with others.

I have been lucky to have seen this sunset show well over a hundred times in the almost 40 years I have been going to Pungo and it never gets old. And I love the reactions of people witnessing it for the first time. It is something they never forget.

The next morning was very cold, but sunny. Birds were flying, we had glimpses of the otter again, and a friend spotted a bird I don’t see very often – a King Rail. It was feeding along the bank of D-Canal and allowed us to sit and watch it for several minutes before disappearing into the tangle of vines and debris in what looked like a Muskrat or Nutria burrow entrance.

A King Rail was a highlight for me at Pungo

Mid-day found us driving over to Mattamuskeet where there were many more visitors and tons of waterfowl in the impoundment. Many of the visitors looked like duck hunters and I always wonder what’s going through their minds as they stare out at thousands of ducks. Northern Pintails are particularly abundant this time of year. The whistle calls of the males can be heard everywhere along Wildlife Drive. Anytime an eagle flies over, hundreds of ducks take flight and circle until the threat is gone.

A Great Egret stalking small fish in the shallows

The water level was high in the impoundment, so the ducks had free range over most of it and the waders tended to feed along the edges or at grassy islands. Great Egrets and White Ibis stood out in their white outfits against the dried grasses and blue water.

A pair of White Ibis crisscrossing their bills for the photo

Back at Pungo, we looked for and found the King Rail not far from its morning feeding area. It continued to skulk up under the overhanging tangle of vines and grasses along the canal edge…no wonder I rarely see them.

The King Rail was only a few yards from its morning spot when we returned from Mattamuskeet
The golden glow of late afternoon light on a pair of Tundra Swans in Marsh A

We walked down “Bear Road” seeing a couple of bears across the field and enjoying the beautiful crisp winter day. A few swans flew over, serenading us with their mournful whoo-whoo calls. I ran into several folks I know (I guess I am partly responsible for all these refuge visitors) and then headed out to the front fields, hoping for a show of several thousand Snow Geese. I stopped at the observation platform and did not see the birds out on the lake, so we rushed to the front fields where we found several hundred geese mixed in with feeding swans in the field. Where were the others?

Snow Geese swarming over the fields after a pair of Bald Eagles made the scene

We had not been there very long when I saw waves of birds flying in from the north. They had either been off refuge or around the bend in the lake, invisible from the platform. This was a huge flock of several thousand, flying in with their noisy nasal calls, swirling around the field with the late day sun reflecting on their bodies in a soft rainbow of colors. We were on the west side of the fields this time (I had been on the east side the night before) so the light was very different. The flock was landing about midway in the field, but when they would swirl around, hundreds of birds flew near us, squawking as they tried to settle down to feed. A couple of Bald Eagles flew across, chasing one another, and the geese exploded into the air (the swans stay put when eagles appear).

The magic of Pungo…

I believe there were more cars that night than I have seen at the sunset show (at least twenty scattered on both sides of the field), but, quite frankly, I’m amazed there aren’t a hundred cars every night. But, the birds are not always predictable and the weather can greatly affect their behavior. When conditions are right, like this past week, there is nothing like this anywhere else in North Carolina. Thank you, public lands managers.

1 Bird, 2 Birds, …and some cool other stuff

Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own.

~Charles Dickens

This past Thursday was our annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. As usual, Melissa and I covered our part of the count circle, much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We had planned to camp at Pettigrew State Park the night before, but predicted rain convinced us to just get up early and head down and start close to sunrise. The day dawned cloudy with the potential for rain and conditions on the refuge were not ideal for seeing birds (the dark gray skies make seeing any color or patterns difficult). We started with two bears ambling along the edge of a cornfield as we entered the refuge (I know it is supposed to be a bird count, but we can’t help ourselves). A little farther along, we were seeing a bunch of sparrows and other songbirds in the thick vegetation along one of the canals when I spotted a bunny sitting quietly on the bank.

A rabbit sitting quietly along a roadside canal (click photos to enlarge)

The weather wasn’t the only thing making our observations difficult. The drought and some much needed road construction that impacted one of the feeder canals has left the managed waterfowl impoundments dry this year. This makes it much more difficult to observe the waterfowl up close and it looks like it has caused some of the birds to move elsewhere this winter as swan numbers seemed quite low compared to previous years.

Marsh A is almost totally dry this year (iPhone photo)

The roadside canals were also very low with many having dry spots or mounds of vegetation. Those with water had hunting herons, kingfishers, and a group of otters taking advantage of the concentration of potential prey. We stopped at one spot to look for songbirds and Melissa spotted a wake in the canal, most of which was obscured by overhanging vegetation. She then saw the wake maker – an otter, then 2, 3, and 4 otters appeared. We followed them for awhile and they eventually piled onto a ledge in a tangle of brush and brambles and started rolling around and grooming, occasionally glancing our way. Certainly not the ideal photo, but cool to watch.

The gang of four otters lounging in a tangle and of branches on the bank

Oh, yeah, back to the birds. I look forward to spending time up close to the swans every winter on Marsh A (the usually flooded impoundment with easy road access and plenty of space so people can space themselves out). But the drought and road construction this winter (which hindered the re-flooding of Marsh A) has left it high and dry with only a few puddles scattered over the vast area that typically has a couple of thousand swans in it every day from December through February. It is interesting to finally see how very shallow it is, making it ideal for puddle ducks and the swans. There are a couple of species that have taken advantage of the new giant mud flats – Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe were scattered about. It is amazing how well both species (especially the snipe) blend in to this type of habitat. We started glassing the area after finding the first few snipe and eventually counted over 50 strewn across the rumpled terrain.

Wilson’s Snipe blend in very well to the mud and dried vegetation covered landscape of the dry Marsh A

The unusually warm temperatures gave us the odd combination of winter birds and spring time reptiles and amphibians – lots of turtles out basking, spring peepers calling, along with numerous flying insects (even one Sleepy Orange butterfly).

A male (right) and female Yellow-bellied Slider chilling on a log. Note the long claws on the front feet of the male that he uses to stroke the neck of a female during courtship.

One of the day’s highlights was spotting a group of nine Sandhill Cranes far out in a field feeding alongside swans. The cranes have been regular winter visitors at Pungo for several years now, starting with a group of three for a few winters, then up to five last winter. Nine is a new high for us on the Christmas Count. I guess they’re telling their friends about the wonders of NC.

Seven of the nine Sandhill Cranes we observed

The unseasonably warm day wore on without a lot of bird activity. Luckily, we were given a Special Use Permit for access to a viewing area on Pungo Lake where we spent quite awhile scanning the water for ducks (without that permit, our grand total for ducks observed would have been two mallards since everything was in the lake due to the dry conditions). Satisfied we had seen most of the waterfowl on the lake, we headed back to look for species we thought should be on the refuge that we had not yet seen. But we were soon distracted again by our gang of otters.

The otter gang (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove up alongside the group as they were swimming in one of the canals. They were on Melissa’s side of the vehicle and she managed a rare shot where all four heads are visible at once. I drove ahead and we waited as they approached us and a large mat of vegetation in the canal.

One otter coming toward me

As is often the case, when they reached the vegetation-clogged area in the canal, they disappeared for a few seconds. Then, one by one, they popped their heads up and looked at us, occasionally snorting their disapproval. This went on for about a minute, and then they were off again swimming out ahead of us.

Two of the otter popping up from the vegetation to check me out

Up ahead was a juncture of several canals where otter frequently cross the road, so we drove beyond them and waited just beyond that spot. They kept coming toward us and then one otter came up out of the canal and ran across the dike, carrying a large prey. On our first sighting that morning, one otter had caught a large fish and carried it into the brush on the bank to eat. This one had something long and skinny. I thought it might be an amphiuma, a type of large aquatic salamander common in these habitats, but the otter moved out of sight quickly, followed by the other three, all heading into a canal on the other side.

Otter moving across the canal dike with fresh prey (photo by Melissa Dowland)

I had stepped out of the truck to move to the front to hopefully get a photo, but Melissa had the better angle (again!) and managed several photos as the otter carried its prey across the open ground. Indeed, looking at it on her camera, we could see it was a large salamander! There are a couple of species of large aquatic salamanders that live in these coastal plain ditches and swamps – the Greater Siren and the Two-toed Amphiuma. Both species can grow to over 3 feet in length and both resemble large eels when seen at a distance. Sirens have external gills (we can’t readily distinguish any in the few photos we have) and have only a front pair of legs. The back of the salamander was dragging on the ground so I can’t tell if there are hind legs or not. Looking at images online, it seems that the front legs of a Greater Siren are more substantial than those of an amphiuma, so I am now leaning toward this otter snack being a Greater Siren, but I will happily listen to any opinions from salamanderologists out there.

A close crop reveals the prey is a large aquatic salamander, probably a Greater Siren! (photo by Melissa Dowland)

The otter incident revived our spirits and we moved into high gear, looking for species likely to occur here but that we were still missing. Wild Turkeys are often seen in a field at the edge of the refuge, so we headed in that direction, stopping at a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds to scan for cowbirds and grackles. The turkeys were out in their field, so that added another species.

A gathering of Red-winged Blackbirds

Back near the lake, groups of Snow Geese flew off for their late day feeding in nearby crop fields. We scanned the long lines of birds overhead, looking for a smaller bird mixed in with the flock, a Ross’s Goose. They look like a diminutive Snow Goose, being just over half the size of their bigger cousin. I can find them when they are in a field feeding if the smaller bird is on the outside edge of the flock. Or, I have learned to spot them by scanning a line of flying geese and seeing the obviously smaller one. Thursday, we only managed one Ross’s Goose despite scanning a few hundred flying birds.

Snow Geese flying out of Pungo Lake for their late day feeding (iPhone photo)

We ended the day walking down my long-time favorite spot – “Bear Road”. As rain showers were looming, the now usual crowd at Bear Road had headed home so we had it all to ourselves. Solitude here is now a rare privilege that makes me appreciate even more all the times I experienced this in years past. We picked up an Eastern Screech Owl and another Great Horned Owl, along with bunches of White-throated Sparrows and a few other songbirds (oh, and a mama bear with two cubs). Though not one of our more productive bird species days, a day in the field, especially at Pungo, is always a good day.

Species observed on our part of the count:

10000 Snow Goose
1 Ross’s Goose
280 Canada Goose
3140 Tundra Swan
1 Wood Duck
48 Northern Shoveler
300 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
75 Mallard
12 American Black Duck
26 Northern Pintail
428 Ring-necked Duck
2 Ruddy Duck
5 Wild Turkey
33 Mourning Dove
9 Sandhill Crane
89 Killdeer
55 Wilson’s Snipe
230 Ring-billed Gull
7 Great Blue Heron
3 Black Vulture
36 Turkey Vulture
2 Northern Harrier
3 Bald Eagle
2 Red-shouldered Hawk
4 Red-tailed Hawk
1 Eastern Screech-Owl
4 Great Horned Owl
1 Belted Kingfisher
2 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
4 Red-bellied Woodpecker
1 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
2 Pileated Woodpecker
4 Northern Flicker
4 American Kestrel
8 Eastern Phoebe
4 Blue Jay
25 American Crow
8 Carolina Chickadee
2 Tufted Titmouse
2 Tree Swallow
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
1 Brown-headed Nuthatch
1 Winter Wren
10 Carolina Wren
3 Gray Catbird
2 Brown Thrasher
3 Northern Mockingbird
2 Eastern Bluebird
2 Hermit Thrush
548 American Robin
2 American Goldfinch
103 White-throated Sparrow
1 Savannah Sparrow
49 Song Sparrow
18 Swamp Sparrow
1 Eastern Towhee
7 Eastern Meadowlark
430 Red-winged Blackbird
1 Common Grackle
50 Yellow-rumped Warbler
35 Northern Cardinal

Butterflies, Blooms, and Bears

Summer is a promissory note signed in June, its long days spent and gone before you know it, and due to be repaid next January.

~Hal Borland

I headed down to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge last week for an “end of summer” day trip (actually more of a “before hunting season begins” road trip). The refuge allows deer and small game hunting and archery season for deer begins next week. I was hoping for a post holiday weekend lull in visitation so I packed up and drove into the rising sun Tuesday morning. My goal was to spend some time with bears, but, as always, I knew there would be some natural highlights to observe, along with the joy of simply spending time in a wild place that I love.

There was a hint of crispness in the air, that sure-fire sign that summer is winding down. Nearing the refuge, I drove past fields where the corn had recently been harvested, which tells me the bears will be busy in the refuge fields harvesting their own share of the crop. The roadsides were showing signs of fall in other ways too, with swaths of autumn flowers growing along the canal edges. Yellows and purples seem to dominate the flower colors this time of year, a nice visual combination and another sign of the changing season.

The most abundant refuge roadside flower right now, Bitterweed or Sneezeweed (Helenium sp.) (click photos to enlarge)
Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum

I got out and walked along some of the grassy roads, looking for bears and observing the many wildflowers and butterflies. I saw several fresh-looking Monarchs, no doubt on their long journey to Mexico. The beautiful Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed was a favorite nectar stop for many species. I wonder if that species of Joe-Pye would do well in our yard? It blooms later, is shorter than the one we have by a couple of feet, and is a darker pink in color.

Monarch Butterfly on Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed (Eutrochium dubium)
Black Swallowtail on Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed

Along the now closed South Lake Road (I see they are working on it, so I hope it will be open by winter), I saw several butterflies stopping to sun in the open sandy spots, and a few were stopping at the local roadside diner to partake of the daily special – bear scat.

A Red Admiral that has probably had an encounter with a bird’s beak
A Buckeye with its bold eyespot wing pattern
A fresh Zebra Swallowtail imbibing on some mineral-rich bear scat
A Viceroy checking out the menu selection on another pile of bear poo
A Viceroy caterpillar feeding on willow leaves

With my eyes trained on finding the small things hidden in the roadside vegetation, I spotted an otter trail going into the canal through some tall weeds, so I set my camera and telephoto lens down and walked a few feet to peer over the canal bank and photograph some of the goldenrod’s intense yellow flowers with my phone.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) flowers stand in bold contrast to the dark canal waters and green pocosin shrubs

When I stepped through the vegetation, my eye caught movement on the opposite side of the canal. There were two of us surprised by this encounter…me (sans camera) and a very large boar Black Bear. I slowly moved back to retrieve my camera, and he grudgingly left the water and ambled back into the vegetation, giving me one glance before slinking off and disappearing into the thick greenery. That was bear #3 of the morning, but the closest by far.

This large bear was in shallow water at the edge of a canal when I accidentally surprised him (and me)

After the bruin hello, I continued on toward the north shore of Pungo Lake. This time of year I always stop the vehicle and scope far down the road ahead of me to see if I see any sticks moving in the road – snakes. As soon as I headed down West Lake Rd., I saw a skinny twig move. I rushed up to it and was pleased to see an Eastern Ribbon Snake. This species is usually found near water (this one was crossing from a canal to a large marshy area) and feed on small fish and amphibians.

Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus)

I hiked in to a small pond on the back side of a refuge crop field in hopes of seeing a bear cooling off, but there were none. However, I was rewarded with a couple of unusual robber flies flitting about in the tall grass. I could see they had very long, dangling legs. As I walked, they would fly off a few feet and land again in the grasses, hanging by one or two of their legs in the tangle of linear blades. One in particular caught my eye as it was carrying a prey item (I think some type of Digger Wasp). I had my telephoto lens so it was a challenge to get down and find a spot that wasn’t entirely blocked by crisscrossed grass blades.

One of the so-called Hanging-Thieves Robber Flies (probably Diogmites salutans), showing its typical posture when consuming prey – dangling by one or two legs and clinging to the prey with the others

When I looked it up back home, this group goes by the apt name of Hanging-Thieves. They usually prey on wasps and bees but are known to also take dragonflies and other robber flies.

Looking head-on as it shows its strength by hanging on with one leg

I soon headed over to my favorite location, “Bear Road”, to see if it had the usual array of parked cars at the gate. To my pleasant surprise, their was only one vehicle and I could see one person walking back toward his car. I decided this was my lucky day and I parked and headed down the road for the first time this season. My knee has been bothering me a lot lately so, instead of my usual habit of walking down the road and into the woods, I carried a camp chair and sat toward the far end of the corn field that lies across the canal from the grassy road. I have seen many photographers and bear watchers do this over the years (especially in the recent past) but I always hesitated. I especially don’t care for people sitting adjacent to major bear paths that run from the woods, across “Bear Road” and into the canals for access to the corn. I just think it may cause too much stress if the bears encounter a person up close as they emerge from the woods. If I am walking, the bears can usually see me at a distance, take action to avoid me by going into the woods until I pass, and then come back out to resume their trek to the food bank. After spending a couple of hours sitting along the road with no one else around, I decided I was correct in my concerns.

I spotted three bears crossing into or out of the field within 15 minutes of being there. Things settled down and I waited another half hour before a young sow and lone cub of the year (COY) appeared far down the road, walking my way. She was steadily moving toward me with the cub stopping, then scrambling to catch up. At one point she stood up briefly, looking my way, but probably unsure of what I was. I was sitting along the edge of the road but not in the tall grasses due to the abundance of poison ivy, so i wasn’t particularly hidden. I expected her to do what most bears (especially those with cubs) do, and head into the safety of the woods and either attempt to wait me out or go beyond me before coming back out into the road. But, she didn’t, she just kept coming.

Sow and cub of the year headed toward the corn field

I started talking to her, advising that she shouldn’t get any closer and hoping she would head off. She paused, the cub stood up, and she continued on. The cub then decided it wanted none of this strange thing and headed into the woods. Mom just walked past me, never even giving me a glance as she did. I will admit, that is the first time I have ever pulled my bear spray out of the holster, but I now think she is just so used to people being on that road and sitting just like I was, that she wasn’t spooked. And that gives me pause, as that probably is not in the best interest of her (or the people).

The cub gives me a wary side eye (cropped image with telephoto)

Once she was 100 feet or so beyond my location, the cub came racing out of the woods near her and they both continued to a crossing point, swam across the canal and headed into the corn.

A few minutes later, another sow and two cubs came walking down the road. This time, however, she noticed me from far down the road and began to stand up trying to ascertain what was ahead.

Another young female with two COYs (one is hidden behind mama in this pic)
Black Bear and cubs walking down the road and she takes note of the strange object ahead (me)
She stands up again and decides she wants no part of whatever that is ahead and takes her cubs into the woods

After getting within about 50 yards or so, she stands up one more time and then takes her young ones into the woods. A few minutes later, she and the cubs emerge far beyond where i am sitting. She looks back my way, and walks on toward a spot to cross the canal.

One of the cubs mimics its mama and looks back at the strange object that had been in their path

Some other bear watchers showed up and I soon found myself exchanging pleasantries with three people on E-bikes (the apparent new rage for wildlife photographers on the eastern refuges). Four other people hung back at the gate and watched. I decided it was time to move on, but another bear appeared far down the road before I could get packed up. It did something strange and came out of the woods, and walked around several times, sniffing, and then laid down in the road. It remained there for several minutes, yawned a few times, then got back up and moved across into the tall vegetation to swim the canal. As it disappeared into the tall grasses, two COYs came streaking out of the woods to join her.

A bear decides to chill in the middle of “Bear Road”

So, I left the refuge that day with a total of 18 different bear sightings (plus a couple of repeats of bears that crossed into and then back out of the corn field). A magical day to be sure, but one that left me wondering about my impact on the bears and how having so many people now on that road may be habituating some bears to humans With bear hunting season approaching in December, I worry that bears that become too used to us will not be as wary as needed to survive. Plus, it is never a good idea to have bears and humans become too complacent about each other. I probably won’t be sitting on that road in prime bear season in the future, but will continue with my former mode of slowly walking, letting the bears know way ahead of time that there is a human nearby. Not sure if it makes much difference, but it will make me feel better. I suppose the best approach is to watch bears from afar and photograph them from your vehicle whenever possible. Here’s hoping bears and humans continue to coexist on this and other refuges because there really is something special about seeing bears in the wild.

Pungo Heat

…the light of July and August is the day’s dazzle, hot light, with the season’s dust slowly accumulating and making the sky we see a giant silvered reflector.

~Hal Borland

Last Friday was probably the hottest day of this summer thus far. So, naturally, I decided to head to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR in search of bears, butterflies, and anything else I could find. Back in the old days, extreme heat would keep most people indoors, but things are different now, and as I drove into the refuge, I encountered a couple of cars already scoping things out. I also saw a turkey and a bear within my first 5 minutes on the refuge, so I figured it was going to be a good day.

Ten minutes later, I spotted a young bear in a tree where I have seen bears twice before, I stopped and stuck a camera out the window and he raised his head to check me out.

The second bear of the morning was lounging in a tree along one of the refuge roads. It raised its head to glance my way when the truck stopped (click photos to enlarge)
As I watched, he settled down and started chewing on some small branches and breaking them…
This must be how a bear “fluffs its pillow” in the tree branches. It put its head down in the space where the branches were removed and seemed to take a nap.

I spent about 15 minutes with this tolerant bear and then moved on so as not to attract a crowd. The bear was sleeping peacefully when I left.

Meadow Beauty (Rhexia sp.) was an abundant bloom along the roadsides
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) was also very common along the canals and roads.
The Buttonbush flowers (Cephalanthus occidentalis) attract numerous pollinators, including this Palamedes Swallowtail and what I think is a Cuckoo Wasp of some sort.
This beautiful Eastern Kingsnake started slithering away as I approached (another reason to drive slow on refuge roads).
Eastern Kingsnakes feed on a variety of prey including lizards, frogs, rodents, birds, and other snakes. They are resistant to pit viper venom and readily eat cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlesnakes.

I spent most of the morning slowly cruising the refuge roads. In addition to the kingsnake, I saw a Black Racer and what i am pretty sure was a Canebrake Rattlesnake. It got into the thick brush before I was close enough to be sure, but when something looks like a thick branch crawling across the road from a distance, it’s most likely a rattlesnake. Unfortunately, South Lake Road remains closed (it has been that way all year I think), so one of my favorite areas remains inaccessible by vehicle.

I drove back around to the bear tree over an hour after my first encounter and the sleepy bruin had moved down the branch a bit with its rear end braced against the trunk and was looking pretty relaxed. Once again, I didn’t stay long so as not to disturb.

The bear seemed pleased with this perch

As I often do on these day trips, I headed over to Mattamuskeet NWR mid-day to see if anything was going on there. To be honest, there wasn’t much happening. I saw a few songbirds, a couple of waders, and lots of invertebrates. I got out and walked two short trails and was rewarded with some beautiful spiders.

I saw several Black and Yellow Argiope spiders (aka Yellow Garden Spiders, Argiope aurantia) sitting upside down in their distinctive webs
Two magnificent Golden Orb Weaver spiders in a web stretched across a six-foot pathway. The smaller one is the male, and he must be very careful when approaching the much larger female for a chance at an arachnid date. These huge spiders have expanded their range northward and are now quite common at Lake Mattamuskeet.

I drove back via the long series of gravel roads that pass through the part of Pocosin Lakes NWR that stretches from Hwy 94 to the south shore of Lake Phelps. You never know what you might encounter. Today’s finds included a couple of bears, some turkeys, and an abundance of dragonflies along the miles of canals that line the roads.

This Halloween Pennant dragonfly had a heck of a time holding on to this dried grass tip in the gusty winds
Another dragonfly, in a moment of calm air, spread its wings and looked ready to pounce on any passing winged insects
This Golden-winged Skimmer always managed to land in a spot with a busy background of jumbled grasses

By mid-afternoon I was back on the Pungo Unit and spotted a mother bear with three cubs of the year ambling down a side road. As much as I love seeing the new cubs, I decided to let her and her youngsters have some quiet time without a human pursuing them, so I just took a couple of long distance photos and watched as they finally turned into the woods.

A sow and her young cubs strolling along a road in 92 degree heat
A young (probably 2 or 3 year old) bear out in a soybean field on the refuge
While watching a bear out in a field, I was distracted by this striking Zebra Swallowtail that landed next to me

There were still cars and people on “Bear Road”, so I headed over to what I call “New Bear Road” for a little solitary saunter. I saw my first bear of the day on this road and it is usually good for a sighting or two. I walked down the road a ways and spotted a mid-sized Snapping Turtle crawling from the canal into the woods. They are so prehistoric-looking, and this one expressed its displeasure at my presence by raising up the hind part of its body in a defensive posture and looking at me in a less than welcoming manner as I waked past.

Such a sweet face…
I saw my first Monarch Butterfly of the fall season along the edge of the road

I walked down close to where another road joins and sat down along the edge of the woods, hoping something might travel this juncture. It was hot, very hot, and I sat there with sweat dripping off my forehead and listening to the chorus of insects buzzing all around me. Soon, a bear crossed far down the road and into the woods. Then, a deer came walking down the other road and paused to look at that strange blob sitting at the edge of the trees. It gave a few cautious stiff-legged steps, and stopped to make sure I hadn’t moved. It finally made its way into the woods, no doubt satisfied I was just some slow, ugly bear.

A White-tailed deer on alert when it spotted me sitting at the edge of the woods
A Slaty Skimmer kept me company while I waited, flitting all around me, but returning to the same dried stem to perch
My last bear of the day was this one that ran across at the juncture of the two grassy roads, I think it had been spooked by someone on an electric bicycle (one of several I have seen on the refuge this past year) far down the road that joined New Bear Road
A hazy, big sky sunset was a great way to end a good day

It had been a hot day, but a good one. I ended up driving more than I had intended, but my favorite times were those just sitting and watching the wildlife, from bears (my count for the day was 18) to dragonflies. As always, I left feeling grateful for our public lands and all that they provide to the wildlife, plants, and all of the human visitors that need that connection to the wild.

Almost Normal?

…It is always my place to come back and feel normal again.

~Alana Blanchard

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 along a canal at the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

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.

The teal was dabbling along the edge as it fed. Check out the sheen on its head feathers.
American Coot hanging out with the teal – those lobed toes are incredible!

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.

These two hung out together and alternately fed, preened, and rested while we observed them

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.

A Raccoon pauses to check us out before continuing to search for food
This Raccoon, the second of four we saw at Pungo, was intent on finding a meal
Two of the Raccoons we watched used the same hunting technique – rapidly walking in shallow water and doing short lunges with both front paws out, flailing around for anything that moved or felt right

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.

A mother bear with three of last year’s young

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.

A Palamedes Swallowtail nectaring on a thistle

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).

Palamedes Swallowtails loading up with nectar on a thistle flower

We also saw some Black Swallowtails, a few Zebra Swallowtails, and my second Monarch Butterfly of this spring season.

My second monarch sighting of this spring, this male was feeding on the abundant ragwort flowers

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).

A great way to end a day, a spectacular sunset at Lake Mattamuskeet

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.

How Many Birds?

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 sunset show the night before our Christmas Bird Count was spectacular with a cloud of Snow Geese swirling over the field (click photos to enlarge)

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.

One of several raptors we observed on the count day, this Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was searching the nearby marsh for a potential meal

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.

Pungo Lake was dotted with Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) and a dense line of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) on the far side

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!

When we climbed to the top of the observation platform, Melissa whispered, There’s a bittern right there
The bittern begins to assume the pose – Nothing but us marsh grasses here, move on…
I have told people when looking for bitterns, to look for a clump of grass that has eyes
The bittern ignored our nearby vehicle and strutted through the marsh grasses searching for prey
One of the things I find fascinating about bitterns is their neck wriggle, which is particularly noticeable when they slink through the grass

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.

Can’t remember ever seeing a large Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscoma domiciliorum) on a Christmas Bird Count in the past
Walking in the woods on a very well used bear trail
Surprised to see a very large Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota) out and about (although it looks like it had just emerged from a muddy retreat and it was very sluggish)

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).

Snow Geese setting their wings for a landing
The morning after the count, the Snow Geese gave us a great show, coming and going to the fields for corn. A Bald Eagle flew over part of the field, resulting in this classic blast off (sound on)

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

Otterly Fantastic (and more)

The heron and the otter are my friends

And we are all connected to each other

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends!

~Carl Binder

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.

River Otter chowing down on a Bowfin caught in a canal on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

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.

An otter cruising the canal

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

Two otters keeping a wary eye on me as they swim the forested edge of the canal

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.

Tundra Swan resting in soft light
Elegance
Not so elegant

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 Great Blue Heron looking serene at Mattamuskeet

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.

Anhinga swimming with just its neck above water. Like Pied-billed Grebes, Anhingas can submerge without diving, much like a submarine, by regulating their buoyancy. As I watched, the long neck and dagger-like bill seemed to just slide under the water as it swam.

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.

Anhinga with wings spread and a Double-crested Cormorant in the background

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.

The large fan-shaped tail resembles that of a Wild Turkey, giving rise to another common name for this unusual bird – Water Turkey
Close up of Anhinga preening

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 elegant wing flap

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.

Snow Geese headed for the corn field for a late snack

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.

They’re Back and All is Right with the World

Birds have always had the ability to bring me out of a dark space and provide relief in bad times.

~Jason Ward

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.

Canid tracks (most likely a Red Wolf based on their size) at the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

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.

Tundra Swans have returned to Eastern North Carolina for another winter

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.

Black Bear sow and cubs far across the field

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.

A bear heads for the corn across the canal (this is a screen capture from a video clip); note the photographer down the road looking back at the bear and us

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.

A Trumpeter Swan (the bird on the right facing left)

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.

A juvenile Anhinga bobbed its head as we drove across the canal bridge
A huge Golden Orb Weaver along the boardwalk
A vertical pano of the cypress swamp along the boardwalk lends a strange curvature to the trees
Bald Cypress needles carpet the water surface

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.

The energetic take-off of a swan trailing behind one that left splashes in its wake
A pair of swans seem coordinated in their take-off
After a long run and much flapping, a successful lift-off in the golden light of sunset