Pungo Spring

That is one good thing about this world…there are always sure to be more springs.

― L.M. Montgomery

As luck would have it, I spent a few afternoons at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge the last week or so of April. I wish I lived closer, so I could make more impromptu runs down that way, particularly in certain seasons, like spring (although winter isn’t too bad either). Spring on the refuge is usually less crowded, and the stifling heat of summer has not yet arrived. The light green of the emerging leaves filters the sunlight with tints of yellow and shadows that aren’t quite as dark as in a few more weeks. Everywhere you look, there is life – an almost solid band of yellow of ragwort flowers along many of the roads; zebra and palomedes swallowtail butterflies by the hundreds flitting along the roadsides; birds singing and searching for insects in the dense pocosin vegetation; frogs and toads calling from the canals; turtles basking on logs and mud banks; and, of course, bears. Here are a few more images from a great time of year at my favorite refuge…


Muskrats seem to be more active this time of year (click photos to enlarge)

late tundra swan

There were still two tundra swans on the refuge in late April

Bald eagle in snag

An adult bald eagle surveys the marsh

Wild turkey in wheat field

Wild turkey are abundant on the refuge in spring

prairie warbler

Prairie warblers were seemingly everywhere in the thick vegetation

prairie warbler hunting for bugs

A foraging prairie warbler looks over each twig for a tasty treat

prairie warbler hunting for bugs 1

It spies something…

prairie warbler hunting for bugs 2

…and grabs it. The quick snack may have been a scale insect of some sort.

American toad calling

American toads called from many of the canals

Eastern box turtle

I’m always amazed that box turtles seem to survive so well here with all the bears

Palomedes swallowtail on thistle

Palomedes swallowtails are abundant in these pocosin habitats

Palomedes swallowtail on thistle close up

Thistle pollen covers a butterfly body

Yearling black bear standing

A yearling cub stands to check us out

young black bear running after crossing canal

Another yearling swam across a canal, climbed up into the road, and decided to go elsewhere when it saw our car

Sow black bear eating grass

A sow black bear contentedly grazes on lush grass along the roadside



A Month for Songs

The air is like a butterfly
With frail blue wings.
The happy earth looks at the sky
And sings.

~Joyce Kilmer, Spring

Sipping my coffee with the cool air coming in the window before sunrise this morning, I can hear the first songs of the new day – a northern cardinal, a late spring peeper, and my favorite, the melodious call of a wood thrush. Last evening, before the storm, others were singing – the yellow-throated warbler that may be building a nest in the yard, Carolina chickadees, a summer tanager. Over the past few years, I have unfortunately lost some ability to hear high frequency sounds, so I am missing the calls of many other spring migrants, unless they are very close. Melissa tells me there are many black-throated blues out back, a northern parula, and a pair of hooded warblers down the hill. But, I still hear plenty in these woods, and elsewhere as I travel. It is the season of song, it is spring. The urge to sing is strong. During a slight break in the storm last evening, a wood thrush commenced calling, even though it continued to rain and blow. One of the joys of spring bird-watching is to hear these songs, and to see the songsters in action. Last weekend, on a trip to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, we were treated to a couple of energetic vocal displays, the kind that stick with you, and imprint the melodies in your head.

brown thrasher singing 1

Brown thrasher singing on top of a sweet gum (click photos to enlarge)

Early in the day, there was a lot of stopping and listening for warblers (at least by the others in the car), and prairie warblers seemed to be everywhere in the front half of the refuge that is dominated by thick pocosin vegetation. Later that afternoon, we heard the loud call of a brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), a member of the mimic thrush family that includes mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrashers. Normally a secretive bird, foraging in thick vegetation, male brown thrashers change their habits during the breeding season and let forth with a series of loud notes from atop a high, conspicuous perch.


brown thrasher singing 2

Every time we drove by his corner, the thrasher was singing

We drove by a clump of trees at an intersection of refuge roads a few times before stopping to find the singer. There, atop the tallest tree limb, was a brown thrasher belting out his melodious song. Distinguishing the varied songs of a gray catbird, a northern mockingbird, and a brown thrasher can be tricky (all three species occur on the refuge). But, the thrasher seems to sing louder than the others, and usually repeats a phrase in its song twice, whereas the mockingbird usually repeats three times, and the catbird only once. Brown thrashers are known to have a repertoire of over 1,000 songs, with some researchers saying it exceeds 3,000 song phrases, giving them the largest playlist of any North American bird. This guy was certainly proud of his singing, and probably continued long after we finally moved on.

red-winged blackbird  in marsh

Red-winged blackbirds were vying for attention in the marsh impoundment

Late in the day, we passed by the large marsh making up one of the refuge’s moist soil units. Managers seasonally control the water level in this impoundment to maximize the production of food and access for wintering waterfowl. This time of year, the water is shallow, with abundant marsh and wetland vegetation, making it an ideal place for many species of birds. We saw American bitterns, lots of great blue herons, and heard several king rails. But the birds of the hour were the red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus). Males were everywhere in the marsh, flying about, chasing other males, and establishing or defending territories.

red-winged blackbird singing

They would land on a tall reed, and burst into…song?

While we watched, several males were displaying their classic behavior – alight on a prominent perch (usually a tall reed); lean forward, puff up, spread your tail feathers and arch your wings, and let loose with a loud conk-la-ree! The most prominent visual aspect of this display is showing the bright red shoulder patch on each wing, their so-called epaulettes.

red-winged blackbird singing 1

Older males tend to have brighter red patches

red-winged blackbird singing with membrane showing

I noticed they usually lower the nictitating membrane on the eye during part of the call

red-winged blackbird singing 2

It may not be that musical, but it is one heck of a display

I wrote about the displays of red-winged blackbirds in an earlier post. Studies have shown that displaying epaulettes can be used to both defend a territory from other males, and to attract a female. In a series of experiments, two researchers explained some of the intricate aspects of this behavior in what they termed the “coverable badge hypothesis“. In one test, they temporarily dyed the epaulettes of some males to a black color and found this reduced the social status of these birds. In another study, by observing males that already had established a territory, and then watching newcomers into that territory, they noticed that the intruders usually conceal their epaulettes (badges) and leave without a fight when the owners display theirs. This is believed to help reduce fights between birds that can result in injury.

It certainly is a display I enjoy watching, and a bird I find fascinating during the nesting season, and in winter, when tens of thousands may flock together on the refuge. I suppose it is no surprise then that their song is the ringtone on my phone. Now, if only I could make it flash red when you call…





Sunrise to Sunset Owls

I too felt a slumberous influence after watching him half an hour, as he sat thus with his eyes half open, like a cat, winged brother of the cat.

~Henry David Thoreau, on watching an owl

I got a surprise email this week from a friend that had been one of my Yellowstone participants last summer. He told me about a barred owl nest that was on the golf course where he plays. A few years ago, there had been one on the course in the same tree and he was able to photograph the young on the day they left the nest cavity. He even published a children’s book about the owl nest. Some friends had told him they saw an owl going in and out of the nest cavity again this week. After speaking to officials at the club, he got permission to go out early, before tee time, to photograph the nest once again. The club is supportive of promoting bird conservation and awareness and is part of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf, an award-winning education and certification program that helps managers enhance the valuable natural areas and wildlife habitats that can be found on many golf courses. My friend knows I am a sucker for wildlife photo opportunities and was kind enough to invite me along.

owl nest cavity

What a barred owl nest cavity looks like about a minute after the owl flies off (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived at the golf course in the predawn light the next morning and we hiked out to the tree. I took my 500mm telephoto, a 1.4X teleconverter, tripod, and flash. I was carrying my gear in a backpack while my friend carried his rig already to go mounted on his tripod. Note to self, that is a better plan. When we arrived at the tree, the owl stared at the two early morning odd-balls and took flight soon after the first photo was taken (I was still assembling my gear onto the tripod, unfortunately). She probably is not used to people standing on the fairway this time of day. She flew across to some trees in a nearby backyard. In a few minutes, the owl let loose with a series of calls, including the monkey-like hooting and squawking I have heard so many times in the past. Shortly afterward, the owl cruised back toward the nest and settled on a branch within sight of the cavity.

Barred owl near nest

Barred owl watching the nest cavity

Something soon caught her attention – there was a squirrel climbing up the trunk near the nest entrance. The owl sailed across, harassing the squirrel as it tried to run around the trunk and hide. After a quick spin around the trunk, the owl landed back on a large branch, only to dive after the squirrel once again when it resumed its climb up the trunk. This time the squirrel leaped across to another tree and moved far enough away to satisfy the protective parent, and the chase ended.

Barred owl near nest 1

Once the normal activity of the grounds crew commenced, the owl seemed to calm down

A member of the grounds crew showed up near us and started grooming the area and blowing leaves. It seems that the familiar noise and movement of staff helped calm the bird. The owls are undoubtedly accustomed to this daily ritual near their nest and the passage of golfers throughout the day. Maybe we should carry a golf bag next time to ease her concerns.

Owl preening

Preening must be relaxing based on this look

After the squirrel chase, it seems that a good preening was in order.

owl preening 2

Nothing like a good scratch in the morning

owl preening 1

One feather at a time

We watched the owl preen for several minutes. At times, she almost seemed to doze off in the middle of a feather pull. I think Thoreau might be right…the slow, deliberate movements of an owl are reminiscent of a cat lying in a sunny window and surveying its world.

Barred owl near nest 2

Heard something

After tidying up the feathers, the owl became more alert and was staring off in various directions for long periods of time.

Shortly after this video clip was made, the owl flew down to the fairway, sat for a few seconds, then returned to another branch with a large beetle. She soon took it into the nest cavity to presumably share with the young owls waiting inside. We waited, but the owl did not reappear, and I needed to leave for a meeting later that day at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. What a great way to start a day. Ironically, after the meeting, I was telling another friend about the owl incident and wishing I could find a screech owl in a similar situation. We drove around the refuge for a couple of hours and saw plenty of wildlife (bear, including our first new cub of the year, beaver, deer, etc.). As we made the final loop, I looked down the road and spotted something in one of the wood duck boxes next to the canal….

Screech owl in wood duck box

An Eastern screech owl peeking out of a wood duck box

Yep, an Eastern screech owl with its head poking out of the entrance hole. I have seen screech owls in wood duck boxes many times over the years, especially in winter. The usual thing is for them to wait until the car is almost close enough to stop for a photo and then they duck back inside. And this one was on the passenger side of the vehicle, so I had no chance at a photo. By the way, this proves that I don’t always have the wildlife on my side of the car as some have suggested:) As I pulled up, my friend got some great shots.

Screech owl in wood duck box 1

Checking me out as I eased the car forward

We decided to go down the road, turn around and see if I could get a few photos out my side of the car, although I fully expected the owl to disappear back into the box as soon as I pulled up. Well, it surprised me, and even turned and gave me a once over with a rather sleepy look on its face.

Screech owl in wood duck box close up

What a face

It finally turned, and pulled back in, and we drove on.

Tree owl

Owl or not?

As we pulled away, the sun was setting, and I saw what looked like another owl on top of a snag across the canal. But, it was just a very owl-shaped broken top to a dead tree. Still, a perfect way to end a day with the owls.





When the Geese are Gone

Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing.

~Barry Lopez

What a difference a week makes. Less than seven days had passed between my last two groups, but things have dramatically changed at Pocosin Lakes NWR. The snow geese had arrived later than normal this year, and now have left earlier than usual. Where there had been 40,000+, we saw one. And, it seems, the tundra swans may be departing the refuge a little early as well. There still seem to be a few thousand, but their numbers are way down from what we saw back in late December, and almost none are feeding on refuge lands. The warm weather, and what appears to be less corn and winter wheat on the refuge, may be to blame. Or maybe, as Barry Lopez so eloquently puts it, the land is simply breathing and exhaling the geese northward. But, there are still things to discover and enjoy, if you look closely.

Immature bald eagle

Juvenile bald eagle overhead at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived early the day of my tour, in hopes of finding some interesting things to share later with my group. With the snow geese gone, the eagles are not as numerous as in recent trips. But, a young bald eagle (looks like a first year bird based on the plumage) still gave me a nice fly over shortly after my arrival.

black bear in woods

Large black bear sow

I took a short walk into the forest and was rewarded with a couple of black bears, including one large sow. I took a few photos but quickly left, after requesting that she and her two youngsters hang around for another few hours.

great horned owl nest

Finally, I find the great horned owl nest

I have been hearing the great horned owls calling in a patch of woods on previous trips so I was went looking for any sign of a nest. I have found two other nests on the refuge over the years. One was in a pine in what was probably an old red-tailed hawk nest; the other atop a snag with a platform of poison ivy vines spreading out from the top. I finally spotted a large stick nest in the fork of a lone pine tree. I didn’t see anything at first, but then noticed a feather on the side of the nest blowing in the wind. When I put the spotting scope on it, it looked like an owl feather. I moved around for a different view and saw what looked like ears sticking up above the nest.

great horned owl nest close up

Great horned owl sitting on eggs or young (heavily cropped photo)

The scope revealed it to be the ear tufts of a great horned owl, most likely sitting on her eggs, as this species is probably the earliest breeder in our state. I stayed well away from the nest so as to not disturb her. I can check on the nest on future trips with the spotting scope without getting close. This is a good time to remind readers that almost all of the photos of wildlife in this blog are taken with a large telephoto lens, and are cropped in processing, so the animals are not as close as they sometimes appear.

bear cub in woods 1

Young black bear rushes across trail to cover

When my group arrived, we headed back to check on the bears and the owl nest. It seemed as though the bear had heeded my wishes and was walking toward us as we headed down the path. We stopped and she wandered off, followed by two young, both sporting a distinctive grayish coat. Then, another bear crossed the path, followed by three more bears! Quite a start to our trip.

bears in woods

Black bear sow and young

At least some of these same bears hung around that general area for the next day as well. We saw another group on our hike the next morning. I always try to give the bears plenty of room. We are quiet and try to stand still when we see one, and I like to let the bears take whatever path they want. I have seen people try to cut them off in order to get a closer look or a better picture, but it is best to respect their wildness, and let them be. Enjoy the experience, but keep the bears unstressed and wild.

find the rattlesnake

Excellent camouflage makes these snakes difficult to see on the forest floor

The other thing I wanted to check on was the tree where I had seen the rattlesnake two weeks earlier. I carefully checked the area around the tree as I approached, knelt down and shined a light inside the base – no snake. Not too surprising as it had been a cold night and there was even ice in tire ruts on the road when we walked in. So, with all the bears in the area, I started to walk down the path, looking ahead for any signs of bears through the trees. The next thing I know, I had what can only be described as a too-close-of-an-encounter with that snake, who was luckily quite docile in the chilly air.

Canebrake rattlesnake strecthed out

Rattlesnake stretched out in morning sun

We took a bunch of photos and then left the snake alone. We checked on it the next day, after seeing even more bears, and found it a little more active in the warming weather. It was slowly crawling in roughly the same area where we had seen it the day before.

canebrake rattlesnake

A close look (and a telephoto lens) shows the beauty of this snake

This is a beautiful specimen, and apparently a tough one, as it doesn’t seem to mind being out in some pretty cool weather. Today, it chose to lie in a sunny spot, soaking in the morning warmth.

canebrake rattlesnake head

The rattler was more active than the past couple of sightings, and even flicked its tongue a few times

canebrake rattlesnake tail

Close up of rattle

We took some more pictures and then left it alone. I can’t help but wonder how it will fare if a bear encounters it in this cool weather. I also can’t believe I may now need to look at the ground more carefully as I walk these winter woods, instead of constantly scanning the skies for waterfowl and other birds as I have done for over thirty five years. Strange times indeed.

shed antler

We found two shed deer antlers

My first morning at Pungo I saw a buck white-tailed deer, with only one antler, running through a field. It is that time of year when male deer are dropping their antlers in preparation for starting the new growth later this spring. As it turned out, we found two different shed antlers as we walked. You are most likely to find them shortly after they are dropped and before squirrels, mice, and other animals start chewing them up to get the calcium.

Great blue heron with catfish

Great blue heron with a nice catfish for breakfast

While watching the swans one morning, someone in the group spotted a great blue heron with something in its beak. It turned out to be a large catfish. We watched as the heron repeatedly tried to swallow the large meal. We think it finally gulped down its meal before flying off to hunt again.

tundra swans in morning light

Tundra swan fly over

Tundra swans flew back and forth overhead as the day progressed so we had plenty of good looks and photo opportunities.

nutria feeding in canal

Nutria feeding on duckweed

Trio of young nutria

A trio of young nutria

We split our time between the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR and Mattamuskeet. As the weather warmed over the weekend, we saw a lot of nutria out feeding.

great blue heron silhouette

Great blue heron at sunrise at Lake Mattamuskeet

Northern Pintails in marsh

Northern pintails in marsh

great blue heron in tree

Great blue heron resting in a pine

white ibis feeding 1

White ibis feeding in impoundment along Wildlife Drive

Driving along Wildlife Drive, we saw hundreds of ducks and swans, along with a variety of other birds.

vulture comparison

Silhouette of turkey vulture (lower left) compared to black vulture (upper right)

Late Saturday afternoon we enjoyed seeing vultures come into roost in trees near the lodge. At one point I grabbed a photo of a turkey vulture alongside its smaller cousin, a black vulture. The latter looks as though someone had trimmed its tail feathers (relative to a turkey vulture). Black vultures are also smaller and tend to flap their wings more than a turkey vulture.

Great egret landing in top of pine

Great egret landing in tree top

The late hour also brought in several great egrets, white ibis, and some cattle egrets to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. This spot has traditionally been a roost for black-crowned night herons, but I have seen none of them in these trees this winter.


Alligator in canal at Gull Rock Game Lands

alligator head

Close up of smiling gator

One of the biggest eye-openers of the trip came on our last afternoon as we explored some new territory down toward Gull Rock Game Lands. In a canal bordering a wetland containing ibis, a grebe, and a double-crested cormorant, we discovered another surprising January reptile – an American alligator. It was about a 6-footer, basking in the sun, and seemingly unconcerned about the three cameras being pointed at it.

And so this month of wildlife wonders has come to a close. A strange month indeed, but an exciting one. One other critter worth mentioning that we saw on the last day of January – an orange and black butterfly near the lodge at Mattamuskeet. It was flying away from me when I spotted it out about 75 feet, but through the binoculars it looked like a monarch, not a viceroy. Either one is a big surprise for a winter day in North Carolina. It seems the land is breathing a bit oddly this season. I wonder what the coming spring will hold?

Sunrise, Sunset

Let the beauty we love be what we do.


The older I get, the more I find beauty in the dazzling displays of light and clouds that form the sunrises and sunsets of my life. They remind me of the passing of time, of things seen and to be seen. They can form the book ends of a memorable experience in a wild place, or in a day simply looking out the window here in the woods. And, true to form for me, I prefer the skies (and temperatures) of winter to those of summer. This past weekend, I had a group of photographers with me on a trip to Pungo and Mattamuskeet, and we were keenly aware of the majesty in the skies as we chased the light each morning and evening, and enjoyed the subtleties of color that paint our surroundings and the life that calls this big sky country home. Later this week I will post about some of the extraordinary wildlife we observed, but, today, I just want to share some of the simple artistry we experienced at sunrise and sunset, surely the best times of day.

Sunset Friday night at Pungo…

Swans at sunset 1

Tundra swans flying back to the refuge at sunset (click photos to enlarge)

Sunrise Saturday at Pungo…

canal reflections

Canal reflections at sunrise

Swans at sunrise

Morning light tinting the feathers of flying swans

Sunset Saturday at Mattamuskeet…

Ibis in golden light

A golden hour spotlight falls on roosting white ibis

ibis silhouette at sunset

Juvenile white ibis in bald cypress tree

Great egret preening in golden light

Great egret preening at last light

Great egret flying at sunset 2

Sunlight bathes the underside of a great egret coming to roost


Great egret flying at sunset 1

A different angle to the sun creates very different lighting on another egret

broomsedge highlighted by setting sun

Broomsedge seeds glow in the setting sun

Cypress tree at Lake Mattamuskeet 1

“The tree” at sunset at Lake Mattamuskeet

pink cloud at sunset

Pink clouds and tree silhouettes

Sunrise Sunday at Lake Mattamuskeet…


cypress island at sunrise

Sunrise at the cypress island at Lake Mattamuskeet

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise

Telephoto shot of clouds on the horizon

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise 1

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise

Sunset Sunday at Pungo…

swans at sunset

Swans flying in against a thickening cloud cover

Fiery sunset

A surprise fiery sky as we drove back to Plymouth

These ephemeral glimpses of beauty help remind us what an amazing world we live in and how we should pause to enjoy it, to make it what we do, and to live in the moment.

Here is a moment of extravagant beauty: I drink it liquid from the shells of my hands and almost all of it runs sparkling through my fingers: but beauty is like that, it is a fraction of a second, quickness of a flash and then immediately it escapes.

~ Clarice Lispector

Quiet Beauty

Intimate knowledge can make a place beautiful.

~Melissa Dowland

I had a one day refuge tour with a wonderful couple on Monday. I went down Sunday evening, just to make sure I could get down there, given the wild weather we had over the weekend. Turns out, once I got out of the neighborhood, the roads were fine. I arrived at Pungo just in time for sunset.

deer in fields

White-tailed deer in fields (click photos to enlarge)

A large flock of swans was feeding close to the road. I drove by to turn around so I could have my side of the car close to the flock. When I stopped to turn, I noticed a large number of deer out in the corn stubble. When I scanned the field, I counted twenty four deer. As the evening progressed, I saw the most deer in one spot that I have seen in a number of years, upward of fifty.

swans at last light

Tundra swans feeding in field next to road

As I pulled up next to the flock, the swans scurried several feet away from the road, necks outstretched in their typical alert pose. It only took a couple of minute for the swans to return to the edge of the field where the last of the corn was most abundant. The late afternoon light was beautiful on their white feathers, giving them a golden cast.

flying swan at sunset

Tundra swan with hints of gold from the setting sun

The light quickly faded to grays and birds began to fly back toward the lake, singly, and in small groups.

swans in fields b & w

A few thousand swans feeding in a field

The flock was in constant motion and the sounds were mesmerizing. I was the only person watching and it was magical. But, something was missing…the loud sounds of tens of thousands of snow geese. They had been here the previous week, feeding with the swans. Tonight, there were only a handful.


Sunrise from the observation platform

The next morning we were at the platform for sunrise. Pungo Lake was partially frozen and the birds were far off on the north side. Snow geese lifted off, circled, and resettled onto the lake surface. There were only a few thousand, not the 40,000+ of a week ago. Are they already departing?

heavy frost

Heavy frost decorated every fallen leaf…

feather frost

…and even a fallen feather

The cold morning air had left the leaf litter and standing weed stalks heavy with frost, a beautiful coating of crystals on everything near the ground.

ruddy duck

Ruddy duck and reflection

The impoundment was partially frozen and we watched swans trying to push their way through the skim of ice as we slowly drove past. A cooperative ruddy duck allowed us to get out of the car and create portraits with detailed reflections. Continuing down the road we started seeing lots of ducks – gadwall, northern shovelers, mallards, and wood ducks – flush out of the swamp along the roadside canal. Suddenly, something streaked across the road in pursuit of one of the ducks. It was a Cooper’s Hawk, tying to catch a northern shoveler hen. The pair bobbed and weaved in the air down the canal and then the duck dove into the water with a huge splash in a last ditch effort to escape. The hawk swooped up to an overhanging limb. The duck surfaced and swam around nervously. We drove slowly toward them and the hawk flew back across the road. More ducks flushed out ahead of us and the hawk swooped back, and the whole scene was repeated again, and again a duck (this time a wood duck) barely escaped. Finally, the hawk gave up and moved elsewhere to find a meal. It is always amazing to witness such an event.

northern shoveler male

Northern shoveler male

Not far down the canal, we encountered another pair of northern shovelers. The stunning drake swam out into the open and the morning light made his colors pop in intensity. And that eye…that  striking yellow eye.

raccoon blob

Fur ball in a hollow tree

We continued on, hoping for snow geese. They flew out of the lake but headed beyond the refuge. Instead of waiting for the missing geese to come into the fields, I opted for a leisurely stroll through the woods. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds danced over the corn, flying back and forth to the safety of the tree tops as we headed down the edge of the field. Tiny helicopters, pine seeds, rained down on us as the hungry birds picked at pine cones high over our heads. Temperatures were warming, it was sunny, a perfect day for finding a bear napping against a tree trunk or a sleeping raccoon in a tree. A pair of pileated woodpeckers sounded the alarm as we entered the forest. Flocks of American robins were feeding on the ground in openings in the trees, probably finding worms forced to the surface by the wet conditions. I am always scanning the trees looking for anything out of place – a lump on a limb, a pair of eyes peering out of a knot hole, or a patch of fur in a hollow trunk. And then, there it was, a blob of gray fur barely visible in an open hollow in a tree trunk.

raccoon in hollow tree

A sleepy raccoon gives us the eye

We walked closer, briefly waking the raccoon. It gave us a couple of glances like the ones you get when you awaken a sleeping spouse or child. You know, the “hey, can’t you see I’m sleeping here” sort of look, half disgust, half “I’m just too tired to do anything about it”. We apologized and walked on.

raccoon in hollow tree 1

Another ball of fur

Before heading back to the car, I wanted to check the hollow tree where I had found a sleeping raccoon on a previous trip. There was no raccoon in the tree trunk this time, but it was obvious that a bear had clawed at the opening since my last visit. I suppose the raccoon had to find another bedroom after that. But, it looks like it might not have moved very far. I looked up at a hole in a nearby tree and there was another ball of raccoon fur. This time, the raccoon barely moved as we walked by. At least we weren’t scratching at his door.

american bittern

American bittern

We spent the afternoon at Lake Mattamuskeet, getting great looks at a variety of waterfowl and waders. Large flocks of northern pintails jumped into the sky along Wildlife Drive anytime an eagle flew across the wetlands. And we managed to find a cooperative bittern snagging small fish along the edge of the marsh (if only they would come out into the open for their picture).

deer face

Deer were common at Mattamuskeet as well

We ended the day back at Pungo, hoping to see a show of snow geese, but they were nowhere to be found. Even the swans had largely moved onto private lands as corn supplies have apparently been picked over in most of the refuge fields. The evening ended with a spectacular sunset (and me with no camera) as we walked along a quiet roadside, soaking it all in. Great horned owls were calling. A few American woodcock zigzagged out of the swamps into the fields to feed. Then we heard something that I have never heard here – first, one howl, then another. And they were close to us, just out of sight in a thicket of river cane in the woods. The sky was on fire with a pink and red sunset, and here we are listening to two animals welcoming the approaching darkness. I must admit, the sound sent chills through me. The howls continued for a minute or so. We walked back to the car, admiring the spectacular show in the sky and wondering what we had just heard. Listening to some audio files online when I got home that night, I guess they could have been red wolves. I like to think so. Even in a place where you have intimate knowledge of its beauties, there are always new mysteries to be solved. I can’t wait to see what we find on my next trip.

Pungo Sunrise

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

~Mike McDowell

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

bald eagle silhouette

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

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

snow geese out at sunrise

Snow Geese began flying off Pungo Lake just after sunrise

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

Bald eagle silhouette taking off

An eagle takes flight at first light

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

Tundra swans before sunrise 1

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

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

double-crested cormorant

Double-crested cormorant perched on a post in the impoundment

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

cormorant eye

The eye of a cormorant is a beautiful green

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

norhern harrier

Northern harrier cruising the corn, looking for a meal

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

norhern harrier 1

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

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

Northern Harrier adult male

Northern harrier adult male

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

norhern harrier with potential prey in corn

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

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




Searching for Snows

Don’t refuse to go on an occasional wild goose chase – that’s what wild geese are for.

~Henry J. Haskins

I am lucky in retirement to have more time to seek out places that provide a wildlife spectacle. There is something transformative about witnessing masses of animals in a wild place. This time of year, one of the true spectacles at many of our wildlife refuges in the East, is the concentration of waterfowl of various species on their wintering grounds. One of my favorite sights and sounds of winter is a huge flock of Snow Geese flying overhead. So, about a week ago, I went north to Chincoteague looking for waterfowl. It snowed on my second day, and the next morning I went out one last time looking for large flocks, hoping the cold and wind might concentrate them.

Snow Geese hunkered down in cold

Snow Geese hunkered down against the cold and wind (click photos to enlarge)

The flock was there but easy to miss as they were hunkered down on an over-wash fan on the sound side of the beach parking area. There were maybe a little more than a hundred Snow Geese in this group. I pulled up to watch and not a goose moved for several minutes. With temperatures in the teens and a strong wind, I didn’t blame them.

snow geese on sound beach

Snow Geese on edge of marsh at Tom’s Cove in Chincoteague NWR

Finally, a few got up and walked toward the marsh to feed when another hundred or so flew in.

snow goose carrying gass clump

Snow Goose juvenile with a high fiber snack

In areas with extensive marshes, Snow Geese tend to grub up the marsh grasses, consuming almost any part of the plant from roots to stems, to leaves.

snow goose rusty head

Many of the Snow Geese at Chincoteague have rust-colored heads

This grubbing behavior often leads to the white head, neck, and breast feathers having a rust-colored stained appearance due to the mineral content of the mud. I rarely see this on the Snow Geese at Pungo, as they tend to feed more on waste grain in agricultural fields.

snow goose bloody

Bloodied Snow Goose

Before leaving, I did see a goose with a different color – blood red. This goose had been injured (shot perhaps?) and had been bleeding somewhere on the head or neck. After watching the bird for several minutes, it seemed to be doing well, moving normally and feeding with the others in the marsh.

With relatively few birds at Chincoteague, and one more day to look for large flocks, I headed back to my favorite place, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, to spend my last day on the road searching for snows.

Tundra Swans in field

Tundra Swans crowd a recently cut corn field at Pungo

I arrived at Pungo late in the afternoon. The light was gorgeous coming into a recently cut corn field adjacent to one of the main roads on the refuge. There were a few thousand Tundra Swans feeding on the corn and many more flying in. This was a good sign, as large flocks of swans often attract the Snow Geese as they search for a late day feeding. I pulled off the road, along with a couple of other cars, to take it all in. I didn’t have to wait long. At first, about 50 Snow Geese flew in, circled, and landed among their taller cousins. Then I saw them coming, a huge flock flying in from the lake. I jumped out and quickly put the camera on a tripod and started recording…

The flock did its usual thing, noisily circling the field, breaking up into a couple of white clouds, and started landing. A lot of the swans decided it was time to head back to the lake with all the commotion starting, so the scene was chaotic with birds circling, others leaving, and everyone making a lot of noise. It is tough to take it all in. I certainly can see how flocks can confuse predators, as I found myself not knowing which way to look or point the camera, since there was something happening in all directions. This was all repeated the next evening, so these photos are from two afternoon shows.

snow geese and moon 1

A beautiful moon added to the scene

This is what I wanted to see, the large swirls of birds in the sky, the late afternoon light tinging their bodies and wings with hints of gold. An almost full moon overhead added a touch of elegance to the scene, as did the graceful swans.

snow goose landing in crowd 2

A Snow Goose hangs in the air looking for room to land

Both evenings, the sea of white moved closer to the edge of the road where I stood, getting access to the corn that remained uneaten. The geese kept coming in, streaming down among the swans, who seemed disturbed by the interlopers in their field.

Snow geese landing 1

A blue morph Snow Goose landing with white morphs

Noticeable among the white birds are several of the darker color morphs. Long believed to be a separate species, the Blue Goose, these are now known to be a color morph of the race of Lesser Snow Geese. This color variation is controlled by a single gene. The two color morphs can mate with each other and produce young of either or both colors.

Ross' Goose

A Ross’s Goose feeds at the edge of the flock

Near the edge of the churning flock, I spot a diminutive Ross’s Goose. roughly half the size of a Snow Goose, but otherwise very similar. Their bill is shorter and lacks the black “grin line” of a Snow Goose, but that feature is not always easy to discern as their heads bob up and down while feeding.

blast off

A blast off of white and black

A car pulls up, and people jump out, and the birds close to them blast off with a deafening sound of squawks and wings. With a telephoto lens, I just capture a tiny window of the scene….imagine it one thousand fold for a sense of the immensity of the upward moving snow storm. They circle and land again. The wind is coming from my back, as is the sun, causing the beautifully lit birds to land facing my camera, just what you want for capturing images of winged snowflakes.

snow goose pair landing

A pair of Snow Geese early in the afternoon, before the “golden hour”

snow geese banking

A slight turn as it lands reveals the entire underside of this bird

snow goose landing 4

Some birds looks like they are thinking ahead about foot placement

snow goose landing in crowd 2

It must be tough to find the right spot

blue geese landing

A trio of blue morphs landing

collared snow goose

I caught this collared Snow Goose as it came in to the field

best snow goose landing

I love it when the shadow of the head can be seen on the wings

snow goose landing 1

The light turns golden in the last part of the day

Snow geese landing

The two color morphs together

Populations of Snow Geese have increased dramatically since the early 1900’s, when hunting was stopped due to low numbers. It resumed again in 1975 after populations had recovered. The numbers have continued to grow, causing some scientists and managers to think that the tundra nesting habitat of Snow Geese is beginning to suffer from such high concentrations of feeding birds in summer. They are now probably one of the most abundant waterfowl species in North America, and concentrate in huge flocks during migration. A friend recently told me that our refuges can’t justify planting corn for Snow Geese because their numbers are so high. But, we both agreed, from a refuge visitor standpoint, the Snow Geese offer a spectacle that few other species of wildlife can match.

snow geese and moon crop

Snow Geese against a rising moon

Birds Galore

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.

~Rachel Carson

I had two groups scheduled for trips over the last week, one a group of photographers, and one some friends from my museum world. The weather for the first group did not look great, but they all decided to roll the dice and give it a try.  And I am glad they did, as there were some beautiful photographs taken and some wild scenes observed. The second group had much better weather, but it turned windy and much colder, which is often a good thing in terms of wildlife activity. Birds were abundant, with an estimated 40,000+ Snow Geese now on the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR.

snow geese overhead 2

Snow Geese against a gray sky (click on photos to enlarge)

The flocks are still being a little antsy, with the main flock circling the fields for quite some time before settling, and various groups breaking up and peeling off from the main aggregation. When they do swarm as a flock, they are truly magnificent to see, and hear. On the first morning with a group, we were treated to a bear wandering through the flock of Snow Geese in the field, causing a commotion as the birds parted to allow the bruin to pass (unfortunately, I had not carried my camera due to impending rain). I answered  a question from one of the group about where these birds had migrated from by showing them an image on my phone of a certificate I just received from my report of a Snow Goose collar (as related in an earlier post). The two collared birds both had been caught and tagged in Nunavut, Canada, above the Arctic Circle. That is almost due north of their wintering grounds at Pungo Lake, and a distance of about 2600 miles.

certificate for collar

Certificate from collared Snow Goose report

One thing that really surprised me was the age of one of the birds (MXO7) who was at least 11 years old. Assuming this Snow Goose has made this same trip, back and forth each year, it has flown at least 52,000 miles in its 11 years…that’s a lot of wing beats.

snow geese over field

Snow Geese circling over corn field in early morning light

Over the next few days, we saw the flocks in the same fields, coming out in the morning early, feeding for a couple of hours, returning to the lake to rest, and repeating the pattern late in the afternoon.

snow geese over field 2

Snow Geese just after blast off

As we walked along the path, the entire flock would occasionally blast off with a loud cacophony of calls and circle noisily before returning to feed.

Immature Bald Eagle

A Bald Eagle fly-by will almost always cause the flock to blast off

If you look closely, the usual cause for these nervous lift-offs is a passing Bald Eagle, like the immature eagle in the photo above.. I imagine the eagles are testing the flock as they cruise over, looking for weak birds, or something that might cue them in on an easy meal.

snow and ross' goose

Snow Goose (left) and Ross’s Goose, flying next to each other

My new game when the birds fly over is to try to pick out a smaller Ross’s Goose out of the flock of Snow Geese as they pass overhead. It is obviously much easier once the flock has stretched out in lines, rather than when they are tightly packed together.

The spectacle of the Snow Geese flying overhead is one of the reasons I love this place. While my groups were able to experience it in various ways, I had an absolutely amazing experience Sunday evening between leading trips. It was a beautiful evening and I was walking back toward the gate. My friend, Rick, was at the gate, along with a first-time visitor to Pungo, Sydney. The birds came into the field as I walked, so I stopped, then turned and walked back some distance to where I thought they might fly over on their way back to the lake. And I waited…

They did as I had hoped, taking off in one giant swoop, and spreading out over the pink-tinged sky, making an incredible sound as they winged their way to the safety of the dark waters just beyond the trees. Sydney had walked out toward me just before the bird’s departure. It was an a truly spectacular introduction to the wonders of Pungo on her first visit.

There were many other bird highlights in my 6 days at the two refuges, many not recorded by my camera, but indelibly etched in my memory. Of the latter, there was a Peregrine Falcon streaking by the corn field; a Merlin accelerating across s the tops of the corn resulting in an explosion of Red-winged Blackbirds, but no kill this time; and the high-pitched shriek of a Wood Duck as it dipped and ripped through the treetops with a raptor of some sort (probably a Peregrine or a Cooper’s Hawk) in hot pursuit.

Trumpeter Swan close up

Trumpeter Swan at Mattamuskeet

Tundra Swan close up

Tundra Swan head for comparison

At Mattamuskeet, there have been reports of a few Trumpeter Swans hanging out along Wildlife Drive. On my scouting trip the first day, I came across a group that I think were the Trumpeters – slightly larger, no yellow on the bill (although that can vary on Tundra Swans), and a longer, and more sloping bill. They also apparently curl their necks into more of an S-shape and rest it on their body when in a sitting or resting position.

Swan juvenile

Juvenile swan

There were a couple of juvenile swans nearby that I think were also Trumpeters as they had darker heads than most of the immature Tundra Swans I see.

A few other highlights of a great trip to two of my favorite places…I can’t wait to go back.

bears in rod

A good way to end a trip – 5 Black Bears between you and your car

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret along the causeway at Mattamuskeet

bald eagle with rabbit

Bald Eagle flying across a roadside field with a small rabbit

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern at Mattamuskeet

Pungo sunset 3

Beautiful sunset at Pungo

Snakes on a Plain (Coastal Plain, that is)

For hibernating rodent and hidden turtle, what dreams, I wonder, come on such a day of spring in January?

~Edwin Way Teale

I just returned from several days down at Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. The weather started off beautiful, then wet and warm, then cold and windy – quite a variety of conditions in a 6-day span. The trend thus far this winter has been for unusually warm conditions which has lead to some strange wildlife sightings. I reported in an earlier blog on the butterflies we saw on the Christmas Bird Count, and the still active mosquitoes and biting flies. This past Sunday set a new personal record for strange winter wildlife sightings in North Carolina – a 4 species-of-snake-day in January. I have seen a few snakes out in December and January over the years (mostly Rough Green Snakes at Pungo), but never 4 species in one day.

Snakes generally seek sheltered locations when cold weather strikes, but can be seen out, even in winter, when temperatures warm to around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or more. Last week had a string of warm days, with daytime highs reaching the mid-60’s on Saturday and Sunday. I had a group of photographers and we heard a few frogs calling as we walked around on Saturday, which was rainy and mild. Melissa was down at Pungo with a group of teachers and texted me about an amazing observation. She had walked up to a tree with a hollow base to investigate what looked like some digging at the entrance to the hole. When she looked inside, she saw what appeared to be a large snake, perhaps a Canebrake Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. I called her that evening and quizzed her on its location. The next day, I walked my group down the trail to where Melissa had described the tree. As I approached what I thought was the tree, I was at first disappointed, as I did not see a snake.

Canebrake Rattlesnake on tree trunk

Canebrake Rattlesnake on tree trunk (click photos to enlarge)

But, then, I noticed something on the side of the trunk – a snake’s tail! I glanced around the trunk and there it was, a huge, beautiful rattlesnake, wedged between some vines about two feet off the ground. Needless to say, I was excited, and members of my group that had stayed on that morning were provided with a rare opportunity to photograph a winter snake. Little did I realize then that the day held many more reptile surprises.

Banded Watersnake?

Water Snake along the boardwalk at Goose Creek

After our walk at Pungo, we headed over to Goose Creek State Park for our final outing of the weekend. As we walked the long boardwalk behind the Visitor Center, one of the folks in the group called out…”snake”. Lying on a clump at the base of a larger tree was a water snake. At first glance, I thought it might be a Red-bellied Water Snake, Nerodia erythrogaster, due to the colors on its head and general lack of dorsal markings.

Banded Water Snake close up

Water Snake close up

The more I looked, I thought maybe it was a Banded Water Snake, Nerodia fasciata, which can be rather dark on its dorsal surface, but can retain faint bands, like this one appeared to have. They usually have a diagnostic dark stripe from the eye to the back of the jaw line, and this one might have that, although it is hard to see. So, not quite sure, but snake species #2 for the day, nonetheless.

Spotted Turtle

Someone spotted a Spotted Turtle

A few feet beyond the snake, someone glimpsed a Spotted Turtle, Clemmys guttata, basking on a log. These beautiful turtles are more active in the spring, although it is not uncommon to see them on warm winter days.

The wind started picking up and the temperature seemed to be dropping as we drove out of the park.Not far beyond the park entrance, I saw a car stopped in the oncoming lane, flashers on. The driver was out of the car and I noticed a large, orange-ish snake right in front of the stopped vehicle. It was a Corn Snake, Elaphe guttata. The driver picked up a flat piece of wood along the road and was undoubtedly headed back to shoo the snake out of harm’s way. A good deed, indeed. But for the Sheriff’s car behind us, I would have stopped for a closer look and a photo. Species #3!

After everyone headed for home, I went back over to the Pungo Unit in hopes of getting some better photos of the rattlesnake, and seeing the Snow Geese in sunlight instead of gray skies like the previous couple of days. When I reached the tree with the hollow base, the snake was nowhere to be seen. That causes you to be extra cautious I might add….where did it go?

Rough Green Snake on tree trunk

Rough Green Snake climbing a tree

I walked a little farther, and saw a slight movement – snake species #4 for the day, a Rough Green Snake, Opheodrys aestivus. It was on the ground when I first saw it, but quickly moved to a tree trunk and began to climb.

Rough Green Snake

Rough Green Snake, flicking its tongue

I soon walked on, carefully scanning the dried leaves ahead of me for signs of a snake, while still trying to look ahead for wildlife, such as bears, and overhead for eagles and other birds. It was, needless to say, a slow pace. I found myself shining my small flashlight (I always carry one) into every tree hollow and open base, looking for more snakes.

Raccoon in hollow tree

I woke this little guy up from his nap

One of the last trees I checked had a narrow opening just above the ground. When I leaned over and turned on my light, I was surprised (as was he) to see a sleepy Racoon roll over and look up at me. I guess I’ll be checking more hollow trees in the future. I’ll share more of what happened later that afternoon in another post (it was spectacular).

The next morning I returned to Pungo while waiting on my next group to arrive from Raleigh. Overnight temperatures had dropped to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, much colder than the previous couple of days. I walked down and entered the woods again, hoping to see bears or other animals that might be active on a chilly morning. As I walked by the rattlesnake tree, I couldn’t help but check it one last time…

Canebrake Rattlesnake in tree trunk

Canebrake Rattlesnake curled up deep in tree trunk

First glance, nothing. But shining my light into the back of the recess, I saw the snake curled up, probably close to where Melissa had first seen it two days before. Amazing! I figured it would stay put since it was so cold, so I brought my group back several hours later. After having built up the fact that we would see an amazing winter surprise, I was, indeed, surprised when I looked back into the hollow – no snake. Lesson learned…you can’t get cocky when dealing with nature’s critters and their behavior. They are on their own schedule, and do things that constantly mystify and amaze me. Where had it gone? I thought I could see most of the area inside the hollow, but maybe there is a hole in there that the snake crawls into, which would be a much better insulator that lying up on the ground. Maybe that is where it had gone the afternoon before when I came back looking for it and couldn’t find it. But, whatever the case, the entire experience was incredible, and I am happy I could share at least parts of it with others. Pungo never disappoints.