Northbound

The story of bird migration is the story of promise – a promise to return.

~the movie, Winged Migration

A week ago, we had a snow storm that crippled much of the south. Today, the temperatures soared into the 70’s. Less than two weeks ago, I stood in awe as thousands of Snow Geese swirled overhead and then landed amongst thousands of Tundra Swans feeding in a field at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Two days ago, I could only find 8 Snow Geese amidst a flock of a few hundred swans. And even more telling was the view from the observation platform when we arrived.

Pungo Lake with no birds

Pungo Lake after the birds have gone (click to enlarge photos)

Where thousands of white specks had dotted the lake only a couple of weeks ago, there was now not a single one. No duck, goose, or swan could be seen anywhere on the lake. We altered our plans to hike and drove through the refuge looking for birds. A few swans flew overhead, but we only saw two eagles – on my last visit there had been over twenty. The eagles follow the flocks of large birds when they are on the refuge…no eagles, no flocks.

We drove to Mattamuskeet to see if that refuge was more to their liking. Crossing the lake, we could see a few Canada Geese, but no swans. But the impoundment along Wildlife Drive was full of ducks, more than I had seen in there all winter.

Pintails in impoundment

Large flock of ducks in impoundment at Mattamuskeet

Most were Northern Pintails, although there were also large numbers of American Wigeon, Northern Shovelers and Blue-winged Teal. A few Tundra Swans were mixed in, but it appears as though most have headed out from here as well.

Swans at Mattamuskeet

A few remaining swans at Mattamuskeet

Driving through Mattamuskeet, we spotted several Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, more ducks, a few more swans, and a sizable flock of White Ibis.

Immature and adult White Ibis

Immature and adult White Ibis

Most were actively feeding, probing the soft mud and shallow waters with their long bills, looking for small fish, or crayfish, worms, and other invertebrates.

White Ibis and reflection 1

White Ibis feeding

A few were off by themselves and were busy bathing and preening.

White Ibis bathing

White Ibis bathing

White Ibis bathing 1

White Ibis splashing and bathing

Ibis scratching

White Ibis scratching

White Ibis preening

White Ibis preening

White Ibis in flight

After preening, a White Ibis flies off to feed

Driving back to Pungo on the way home, we saw a few flocks of swans returning to the lake for the night, but no Snow Geese. Looking back at my notes from the past few months, I found that I had seen the first of the Snow Geese back on November 23. That was a lone bird mixed in with a flock of Tundra Swans, who had started arriving a few weeks earlier. Thousands more arrived soon after, providing myself, and many other visitors, with incredible sights and sounds all winter. Now, in mid-February, most were gone. They are returning to their nesting grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, a few thousand miles from here.

Another amazing season of wildlife spectacles at Pungo and Mattamuskeet has drawn to a close. And a new season begins. This morning I heard a loud dawn chorus of birds in the woods outside my house. Last night, the calls of Upland Chorus Frogs filled the night air. It is one of the things I love most about this region, the progression of the seasons and the accompanying ebb and flow of life. I’m sure I will find something to keep me occupied until next winter when the first Snow Goose wings its way south and lands at Pungo Lake. Just as the waterfowl are flying north, our spring is moving north and will be here soon, bringing a new burst of life to my woods. Be sure to make some time to get outside in the next few weeks and enjoy its return.

A Most Aptly Named Bird

Red-winged Blackbird male on marsh grass

Red-winged Blackbird male on marsh grass (click to enlarge)

I think Delaware got it wrong. The Blue Hen is the official state bird of this fine state, but in both color and species they have missed the boat. My vote would be for the Red-winged Blackbird. Displaying males are the most common species seen at Prime Hook and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuges. They are much easier to approach and identify than the other most common birds, a couple of species of shorebirds, which number in the thousands for the next couple of weeks.

Red-winged Blackbird displaying

Male Red-winged Blackbird displaying (click to enlarge)

Male Red-winged Blackbirds have jet-black bodies with a bright red shoulder patch (epaulet) bordered by a yellow stripe at the bottom. And to make it even easier to find them, the males are almost always displaying this time of year.  The most noticeable display is the so-called song spread where a perched male arches forward, spreads its wings to the side and exposes his red epaulets while letting out his distinctive song (usually described by a variation on the phrase konk-a-ree!). This display is meant to defend his territory from rival males and attract a female.

Red-winged Blackbird male on tree sapling

Red-winged Blackbird male displaying (click to enlarge)

I was also able to watch some other interesting behaviors: the sexual chase where a female flies erratically while being pursued by one or more males – this serves to bond the female with her mate; and the song flight – a slow, stalling flight by the male with epaulets exposed, tail spread, accompanied by his song.

Red-winged Blackbird female

Red-winged Blackbird female (click to enlarge)

While displaying males were everywhere along the refuge roadsides, the females were much harder to find. They could be seen briefly darting across the roads pursued by males as described above. And occasionally you could spot one skulking about in the reeds beneath the watchful eyes of the resident male.  Once they start feeding young in a few weeks, they will become much more visible as they tend to be the primary caregivers of the nestlings and will be coming and going to the nest with beaks full of bugs.

Red-winged blackbird flock

Red-winged blackbird flock at Pocosin Lakes in winter (click to enlarge)

I now have an even greater appreciation of one of my highlight birds at my favorite North Carolina refuge, Pocosin Lakes, Each winter, Red-winged Blackbirds congregate on the refuge fields by the tens of thousands and put on an amazing display of synchronized take-offs and flights as they forage and elude the many raptors hunting the refuge. Now I know where at least some of those magnificent flyers get their training.

Another Great Day at Pungo

I guess it isn’t enough to be a mere observer. It’s turning to the person on your right, or left, and stating with an undiluted sense of joy and inquisitiveness, “Did you just see that?”

Mike McDowell

Bass Lake Photo Club members capturing a bear

Bass Lake Photo Club members, Rosa, Steve, and Petra, capturing a bear (click to enlarge)

I had my first post-retirement outing yesterday with a great group of folks from the Bass Lake Photo Club. I gave a talk to their group in March and they saw an image of a bear on my desktop and asked where it was taken. Pungo, of course, and they said they wanted to go. While I have great luck getting good wildlife images on my own, and I have led several nature photography workshops over the years, there is a bit more pressure when folks are particularly interested in getting something like bear photos. I stressed there are no guarantees but that they would come away with some good information and a knowledge of the refuge and that seemed fine, so we set it up. I went down Friday afternoon to scout things out (even though I have been down twice in the past two weeks – hey, it is my favorite place in NC after all:).

The wind was howling Friday with lots of cloud cover, so not ideal for photography. In the week since I had been down the local farmers that tend the crop fields on the refuge had moved in their equipment and started plowing for this year. Not sure if that or maybe the cold windy conditions were to blame, but the few bears I did see were very skittish, and uncharacteristically sprinted for cover as soon as they saw my vehicle, even at great distance. Hmmm, not a good omen. And the bitterns from last week were nowhere to be found. Bummer, looking like it could be a tough weekend for a group outing.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark (click to enlarge)

The one cool thing I did see was a small bird scurrying at the edge of one of the freshly plowed fields – a Horned Lark. This is the only native species of lark to nest in North America. I have seen Horned Larks before in winter in this region, but never this time of year, although the Birds of North Carolina (http://www.carolinabirdclub.org/ncbirds/view.php?sort_order=2870) reports them as a permanent resident in parts of the Coastal Plain of NC. It is always exciting to see one, and especially to be able to watch one forage (it was gulping down moth pupae that the plowing had exposed).

The next morning dawned windy, chilly, and completely overcast playing into my concerns for our group experience later that day. I drove over early to check things out and did see a Bald Eagle and lots of other birds, but no bears.

Thistle with stalk eaten by bear

Yellow Thistle stalk eaten by bear (click to enlarge)

One thing I did see that intrigued me was a number of Yellow Thistle (Cirsium horridulum) plants that had been eaten (just the stalks). After looking around it was obvious that bears had been feeding on the stalks.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on thistle

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Yellow Thistle (click to enlarge)

I photographed this plant last week on a warm day with butterflies on it, but here was evidence of use by another animal. I probably saw 30 or more plants that had the stalk completely missing with the flowers and seed heads laying on the ground next to the rest of the extremely spiny basal leaves. According to one resource, bears love the stalks of thistle, especially the newly elongated stalks. They can avoid the spiny-ness of the plant in several ways. Based on what I saw, they probably took off the top of the plant (they have been observed swatting it off with a paw) and then stripped the spiny leaves before consuming the tasty stalk (hope to witness that behavior some day).

Ragwort flowers

Woolly Ragwort flowers (click to enlarge)

I drove back into Plymouth to meet the group and escort them out to the refuge. There were four: Rick, Steve, Petra, and Rosa, and they were all up for the day in spite of the weather conditions. Steve even mentioned he had rented a telephoto lens for the day to try to get some decent bear pics (Uh-oh, no pressure there). I gave the other car a walkie-talkie so we could communicate and off we went. I decided to stop and photograph other subjects of interest in case the bears were skittish again today. We got out to look at Spatterdock flowers and pads in the canals and Woolly Ragwort flowers that were blooming in abundance along the roadsides. The upward-pointing silky-haired leaves of Woolly Ragwort are adaptations to reduce water loss in the hot sun by reflecting sunlight (hairs) and reducing the surface area exposed directly to the sun (vertical orientation).

Corn Snake

Corn Snake in defensive posture (click to enlarge)

Shortly after arrival at the refuge I was amazed to see a snake out in the chilly weather as it crossed the road. Jumping out of the car I cut off its escape and everyone got great shots of a beautiful Corn Snake. Later in the day we had a similar encounter with a cooperative Black Racer.

Virginia Chain Ferns in swamp

Virginia Chain Ferns in swamp (click to enlarge)

Driving along the south side of the lake you pass through a beautiful swamp forest with huge stands of ferns. The colors and patterns are gorgeous so we got out and spent some time looking around and got lucky with a few breaks in the clouds The large stands back off the road are Virgina Chain Fern (Woodwardia virginica), but close to the road were some easily accessible Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea).

Cinnamon Fern

Cinnamon Fern (click to enlarge)

Most ferns carry their reproductive spores on the undersides of the fronds; cinnamon fern (and other species of Osmunda) have separate and distinctive fertile fronds in addition to the typical sterile fronds. A close look reveals the tiny round brownish sori that release the spores.

Cinnamon Fern fertile frond tip

Cinnamon Fern fertile frond tip (click to enlarge)

Folks seemed happy, but, we had come for bears. So, off we went again in search of them. Finally, I spotted one in one of the marsh management areas that had been drained for the summer. We drove as close as possible and got out and could now see two bears through the trees.

Black Bears in marsh

Black Bears in marsh (click to enlarge)

Not everyone was able to get a clear shot through the dense line of vegetation, but, we had seen bears! My self-imposed pressure was lifted. The two bears eventually wandered off into the woods and we continued down the road about one hundred yards and there was another one!

Black Bear foraging on mud flat

Black Bear foraging on mud flat (click to enlarge)

This one was a bit far off so I briefed the group on the finer points of stalking bears (crouch down and move quietly when the bear has its head down foraging and then stop when it looks up). Of course, having the wind in our favor (blowing from the bear toward us) was the only reason we could think about getting close enough for a picture. We moved forward stopping whenever the bear raised its head. Everyone was able to get several good shots until the bear ambled off into thicker cover. We were on a roll!

We then went over to the place I call New Bear Road due to its abundance of bear sign. It did not disappoint. As we walked down the grassy path, first one, then two, then three bears walked out of the woods and started heading towards us. I had everyone crouch off to the side of the path and we watched and waited.

Black Bear sow and two yearlings

Black Bear sow and two yearlings (click to enlarge)

The bears went back into the woods at one point and we moved a bit closer. They all three came back out and were grazing as they again walked our way. The wind was still in our favor but a group of five people is not an easy thing to hide and it started to look as though the female could sense something was not quite right.

Black Bear sow checking out the surroundings

Black Bear sow checking out the surroundings (click to enlarge)

She stood up a few times to look around and threw her nose in the air several times trying to catch a scent. But I don’t think she ever smelled us, so the group of bears continued to hang out and allow us to watch them feed, play, and just be bears. It was an extraordinary several minutes. She finally rounded up her yearling cubs and they headed back into the woods leaving our group with awesome memories.

One of our folks had to leave a bit early so we drove back to the entrance to his car. We then drove through the refuge toward our final hiking spot, seeing more bears along the way. In fact, what I had feared would be a tough day for spotting bears turned out to be a great one – 19 bear sightings!

Our last hike was along a dike out toward a wheat field where I had seen bears last week. I like this walk because you pass along a wetland management area that often has abundant wildlife. We saw plenty of shorebirds, egrets, herons, and one large raccoon. Then we saw three bears walking in the opposite direction from us on a parallel dike across the wetland area. We watched for awhile until they passed and then continued toward the woods where we had just seen three other bears. As w neared the trees I heard some low noises, and then what we assumed was the sound of suckling bears. Then we spotted them – a sow with two yearling cubs in dense vegetation below us. She looked our way, walked a few feet and the sounds continued. Black Bears nurse their young for about a year so I am guessing the two yearlings were still nursing and that is what we could hear. Amazing. The sounds stopped and we assume the bears wandered back into the woods. Satisfied it could not get any better we headed back to the cars, scolded along the way by several Greater Yellowlegs feeding in the wetland area. Then we heard the snorts/barks of two River Otter swimming in the canal below us. What a way to finish an incredible day.

River Otter

River Otter (click to enlarge)

I experienced some amazing things at Pungo the last couple of weeks, mostly by myself. But, as the quote at the start of this blog states, there is something magical about sharing an experience with others, especially others that appreciate nature and are willing to learn and to take whatever is dealt to us in terms of weather and wildlife. We were incredibly lucky to have been able, as a group of five, to experience our time with the bears just doing what bears do. I am so grateful that places like Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo) exist and are managed by dedicated staff so that visitors like us are able to have these experiences. I encourage everyone to support your local parks and refuges and volunteer to help them meet their needs (and make legislators aware of their needs) in these increasingly difficult budget times. It is important not only for the wildlife, but for us all to have such places.

Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man. Stewart Udall

Species list for Pocosin Lakes NWR May 3/4, 2013:

Mammals:

Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Nutria, River Otter, Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, Hispid Cotton Rat (in talons of Northern Harrier)

Birds:

Double-crested Cormorant, Mallard, Canada Goose, Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Wild Turkey, Northern Bobwhite, American Crow, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, Orchard Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Horned Lark

Herps:

Painted Turtle, Yellow-bellied Slider, Corn Snake, Black Racer, Pickerel frog, Southern Cricket Frog, Southern Leopard Frog