A Festival for Bears

May this intelligent animal always have a place. We need to better understand bears.

~Mike McIntosh

Last weekend was the third annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC. I have missed the previous ones due to trips to Yellowstone, but I finally managed to visit this year. I was curious how the festival was organized and what messages might be going out to the public about one of my favorite mammal species. My old workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, had been asked to provide guided tours of nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Luckily, I was able to join as a volunteer guide for the tours on Saturday – three 3-hours tours starting at 5:30 a.m., 1:45 p.m., and 6 p.m. A full day! Between tours on Saturday we visited some of the festivities that ranged from the usual festival goofiness to interesting information about local wildlife.

Bear festival entrance

Entrance to the NC Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)

Bearicade

Lots of plays on words at the festival

Bronco bear

Festival mascot taking a turn on the bronco bear. As the guy in charge of this ride said, you will not see this anywhere else.

Kiddie bear ride

The coolest kiddie ride I have ever seen – the bear train

The tours themselves turned out to be a great learning experience for all involved. During the three tours on Saturday we had 34 bear sightings, only a few of which were the same bear on different tours. I didn’t take many photos during the tours, but highlights included 3 cubs of the year in a tree, and, on a later tour, an adult lounging in a tree.

Black bear in tree

Black bear lounging in willow tree

Sunday morning, I decided to head over to the refuge by myself and then head home early. I spent a few hours cruising the roads looking for bears and whatever else the refuge might offer, and I was not disappointed. I ended the day with 14 bear sightings for a personal total of 48 for the two days I was down there. The 7 tours by the museum over the three festival days yielded an impressive 71 bear sightings, including several very close to the bus.

Below are some of the highlights of my time on the refuge:

Large black bear at sunrise

Sunrise bear

Large black bear at sunrise in soybeans

Sunrise bear in soybeans

Large black bear at sunrise on new bear rd

Sunrise bear checking me out before heading into woods

large bear on canal bank

Surprise bear

I was photographing a king rail (more on that in a later post) along a canal bank. A truck pulled up and stopped next to me to see what I was seeing. When they realized it was “just a bird”, they drove off. I glanced at their truck as they drove away. When I turned back to the rail, this huge bear had popped over the canal bank less than 30 feet away and was looking at me. The people in the truck never saw it.

large bear on canal bank 1

I have seen this big fellow before

I quickly switched lenses and managed a few photos of the “surprise bear” before it lumbered off.

tundra swans in summer

Tundra swans still hanging out at Pungo

This is the largest number of “lost swans” I have ever seen on the refuge after the migration season. Would love to know their story of why they are still here.

northern bobwhite in tree

Northern bobwhite quail

bear along road

Roadside bear

My last bear of the day was a small guy feeding along the roadside. It had a slight limp caused by a crooked left hind leg. I sat in the car and watched this bear for about 30 minutes as it grazed on vegetation and pulled at a few downed logs looking for a snack. It didn’t seem too hampered by its limp. I saw a couple of other bears on this trip with leg injuries – my sunrise bear had what looked like a swollen knee (see photo early in post); I saw another large male that had probably been in a fight with another male for breeding rights and had a severe limp and gash on a hind leg. But most of the bears we saw looked quite healthy. It is always a treat to be able to watch wildlife doing what they do – living their lives, feeding, resting in the shade high up in a tree, cooling off in a canal to beat the heat, or caring for their young. I think this is the real value of the festival, giving people a chance to see wild bears as beautiful creatures that have lives and struggles in some ways not all that different from ours. I hope it helps us all learn to share our habitats with these magnificent animals. And, once again, the Pungo Unit has proven itself to be one of the best places I know to share the magic of wildlife with others. I look forward to my next visit.

Another Winter Season

We are not the only species who lives and dreams on our planet. There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Snow geese flying high

Snow geese flying high (click photos to enlarge)

I ended my winter tour season last weekend, a little earlier than usual, but it finished on a spectacular note. I had two groups of wonderful people; one all day Saturday, and one Sunday. It was beautiful weather, and both mornings started out cold, just the way it is supposed to feel in winter at Pungo and Mattamuskeet. There continued to be a couple of things this season that baffle me. I am still seeing the fewest number of bears of any winter since I started visiting this wildlife-rich region. And the snow geese are still acting strange, coming and going at a very high altitude, and I never saw them feeding in any of the refuge fields all winter. If the few remaining stands of corn are knocked down before they head back north, perhaps the snow geese will make a late appearance.

Black bear clawed pawpaw

A pawpaw tree that has been climbed and clawed by bears

We did finally see six bears on Sunday, five of them the first thing as we drove in past one of the few remaining fields with standing corn. The last was seen after sunset on another field along D-Canal Road at Pungo. Still, no bears the past few weeks along the one-time sure spot, North Lakeshore Drive, aka Bear Road. There is still plenty of sign in the woods, but some of it may be from a month or two ago, before the bear hunting season on adjacent private lands. Almost every pawpaw tree in the woods along that road has been climbed, clawed, or snapped in half by the bears. They must really like pawpaws, and, who knows, maybe there is something in the bark they like as well, because many of the mid-sized trees have had their bark pulled off in strips.

Great egret coming to roost

Great egret coming to roost in the trees near the lodge at Mattamuskeet NWR

On Saturday, we saw plenty of birds at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR, in spite of the closure of the entire road along the south shore of Pungo Lake. The past few weeks have had heavy rains and some vehicles apparently got stuck in the mud, causing the closure. My advice to visitors is, if the roads look too bad to go through in your minivan or sedan, then don’t attempt it (you may be right). The refuge tries to repair the really bad spots if and when they dry out enough to allow their heavy equipment to get in to do the work. Mid-day we ran over to Mattamuskeet NWR where we found high water again limiting the number of birds in the usual spots. But, there was a good diversity of ducks that cooperated with our efforts to view them through a scope, and we were rewarded late in the day with the first wave of great egrets coming to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. That is quite a sight to see them sailing in on cupped wings, squawking as they juggle for space in the soon-to-be-crowded branches.

Pied-biled grebe in brush

Pied-billed grebe peeking out from under some low branches along a canal

Both days were full of interesting sightings ranging from bald eagles near a swan carcass, to pied-billed grebes hiding in the brush along the canals. We had a nutria with 3 young in one canal, plus a very unusual blonde-colored nutria at sunset. Finally, back at Pungo late in the day, we witnessed an incredible sunset show of tundra swans flying in and out of the lake. The strange thing was that as we drove in about 4:30 p.m., there were thousands of swans leaving the lake, which seemed late for so many to be headed out. But, they all returned (plus thousands more it seems) as the sky turned orange-red at sunset…spectacular.

Swans before surise

Pungo Lake covered in birds in the pre-dawn light

Swans at sunrise

After the sun rose above the horizon, the lake looked like a sea of white

Amazing what a difference a day makes…Saturday morning was windy, causing the birds (numerous ducks, snow geese, and tundra swans) to seek shelter on the lee side of the west shore, which left the area in front of the observation platform a void, without any waterfowl readily visible. Sunday morning was calm, and our arrival at the platform before sunrise was greeted by thousands of birds just beyond the lake shore in front of us, seemingly filling almost every square foot of the lake’s surface. As the sun climbed higher, the dark shapes became a sea of brilliant white objects that filled the air with their sounds.

River otter with fish

River otter crunching a small fish

After the sunrise show at the platform, we headed over to “Bear Road” for a walk. Along the way, I spotted a pair of river otter in the roadside canal. They tend to raise up and snort a time or two when they first spot you, and then often disappear beneath the waters with a distinct kerplunk, only to reappear near or far, depending on how much they feel like tolerating your presence. These two were busy searching for fish in the thick mats of vegetation in the canals, and by the looks (and sounds) of things, they were quite successful. One guy caught several small fish while we watched, tossing his head back and crunching them in his jaws, the hapless fish seemingly gazing at us asking for help. But each fish disappeared rather quickly, with the otter then glancing our way before disappearing into the floating green mat.

River otter

One last glace at us before disappearing under the surface

After the otter, we walked down Bear Road, but didn’t see much other than lots of bear sign, and a couple of groups of red-winged blackbirds. Once back at the car, we were starting to grab a bite to eat when a car pulled up with folks I knew from Christmas Bird Counts at Goose Creek State Park years ago. They said they had just seen a wood stork feeding in a canal around the corner. I must admit, a thought raced through my mind…I responded, a wood stork?, as if questioning their ID of this somewhat unmistakable bird…but a bird I have never seen anywhere near this part of the state in over 30 years of birding.  Wait, I told myself, these are people that used to come to the Christmas Bird Count, and they should know a wood stork if they see one. Yes, they said, a wood stork, and they had stayed with it so long that they got tired of taking pictures. They drove off, and I interrupted our lunch break and said, Sorry, but we have to check this out.

wood stork profile

Juvenile wood stork, a first for me at Pungo

We quickly loaded up and drove around the corner and could see a car stopped down the road. As we approached, I saw it, and indeed, it was a wood stork! It was a juvenile, distinguished by its straw-colored beak (instead of black of an adult) and it fuzzy feathers on the head and upper neck. It totally ignored us as it went about its business of feeding along the canal edge.

wood stork bill close up

Tactile feeding strategy involved shuffling of feet near the open bill

I have watched storks feeding in a group in Florida and South Carolina, but this one was doing something I had not seen – slowly walking, shuffling one foot, then the other, beak agape. The strategy is to startle a prey item by kicking the substrate with your feet, and if a fish, crayfish, or whatever hits the beak, it snaps shut.

wood stork wing outstretched while feeding

The bird would occasionally spread one wing out, and then turn, bill still in the water

The really odd thing it did was once a minute or so, it would extend one wing (almost always the right wing) and pivot, without pulling its beak out of the water. Some waders will spread a wing to supposedly startle prey, so maybe that is what was happening, or maybe it was to help balance the bird as it did a tight spin.

Here is a quick video clip showing this behavior, although the extended wing here is not as prominent as in most of the spins we witnessed. And my friends were right, we stayed with this bird until we got tired of taking photos…what a treat.

Another trip over to Mattamuskeet with similar results to the day before, although there was one highlight that made me think this trip might go into the record books for unusual sightings. As we drove in the back entrance of the refuge, a mink ran across the road in front of us. Wow, a mink, one of the most elusive mammals in our state, out in the middle of the day.

We headed back to Pungo later than usual and, once again, thousands of swans were flying out of the lake around 5 p.m., much later than in past winters. But this time, some were landing in a cut-over corn field right next to the refuge road. We stopped, got out, and stood in awe of the sights and sounds.

This short video gives you some idea of the spectacle, but imagine this going on all around you, the sky full of birds. As it grew darker, thousands of ducks came out of the swamps and circled a field of standing corn next to the swan field in what one young guest the evening before had called a “ducknado”. Birds everywhere in the sky…amazing.

sunset

A spectacular sunset

To top it all off, the sunset was painting the sky with broad brush strokes of orange, gray, and pink, with long lines of the black silhouettes of wings, most still heading west, away from the lake.

sunset and tree silhouette

A beautiful end to another winter season

As the fire in the sky smoldered, preparing for darkness, we looked out on the horizon with our binoculars and could see the lines of swans returning. Who knows why they flew out so late, only to turn back a short while later, filling the sky with their wing beats and whoops. Whatever the reason, it made for an amazing finish to another winter season at my favorite place, and I was so glad to be able to share the experience with others. Until next year…

Here is a species list total for our weekend outings:

Birds (56 species):

Double-crested Cormorant, Canada Goose, Snow Goose, Tundra Swan, Mallard, Black Duck, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Wood Stork, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Merlin, Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, American Woodcock, Wilson’s Snipe, Wild Turkey, American Crow, Eastern Phoebe, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Wren, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Common Grackle, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-rumped Warbler

Mammals:

Black Bear, Gray Squirrel, White-tailed Deer, Nutria, Mink, River Otter, Gray Fox

Reptiles:

Yellow-bellied Slider

Standing with Swans

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.

~John Muir

Swans on Marsh A

Tundra swans at sunset on Marsh A on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

I’ll just say it…I love being around the swans at Pungo. There is something magical about these birds and every winter I find myself drawn to them and wanting to spend time in their elegant presence. While the snow geese tend to provide more of a spectacle with their huge noisy flocks swirling overhead, the swans of Pungo are a constant in winter, providing the musical score for a play I have seen hundreds of times and yet continue to find fascinating.

Swans at sunset 1

A flock of swans returning to Pungo Lake at sunset

There are an estimated 100,000 tundra swans in the Eastern population. Most breed in northern Alaska and then migrate 3000 or so miles to spend the winter along the East Coast, with about 70% spending much of their time in North Carolina. And one of the best places to observe them is the area around the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Swan landing at sunset

A swan with landing gear down

The birds start arriving in November and will stay through much of February, roosting at night on large bodies of water like Pungo Lake and Lake Phelps, and flying out to surrounding agricultural fields during the day to feed on waste corn and winter wheat. Adult swans weigh 15-20 lbs and have a wingspan of over 5 ft, so they are easy to spot as they go about their daily routine. For the past several years they have found the managed impoundment along West Lake Road at the Pungo Unit to be to their liking and it has provided a great spot for swan watching. So that is how I spent almost a full day last week, standing next to a dead snag  and observing swans (it helps to try to blend in with your vehicle or something like a tree to reduce your human form and put the birds a bit more at ease – they tend to swim away or take flight if you are out of your car walking around near them). Below are just a few of the hundreds of photos I took of a day in the life of these majestic waterfowl.

Juvenile swans

Juvenile swans have gray heads and necks and varying amounts of pink on their bills

It looks like it was a good year on the breeding grounds as there seem to be more juvenile swans this year. Juveniles follow their parents to the wintering grounds and can be distinguished from the adults by the gray plumage on their head and neck, and patches of pink on their bills.

Immature swan feeding

Immature swan feeding on aquatic vegetation

Juvenile swans tend to stick pretty close to their parents on the wintering grounds, but you occasionally see one off by itself, like this one that was picking at some aquatic vegetation. There is so much commotion on the water that I wonder how they all manage to find and stay with each other.

Swans trumpeting

Swans calling

While the swans give the initial impression of being regal and serene compared to the huge flocks of boisterous snow geese, at times they can actually be quite aggressive towards one another. These agnostic interactions often start with adult swans giving a distinctive trumpeting three-syllable call – oo-ou-oo.  This is usually accompanied by a forward-leaning outstretched neck.

Swans trumpeting 1

A pair moving in to challenge another pair of swans

It can then escalate to a wing-quivering display.

Swan trumpeting 2

A classic wing-quiver display

These threatening displays probably help avoid actual physical interactions that could lead to injuries. It seems more often than not, that one of the interacting groups often backs down in the face of these threats.

Swans fighting

Fights and bites do occur

But fights do occur…and when they do, it can be quite impressive as the huge birds flail with their wings and bite each other until one group has been vanquished.

Swans fighting 4

Swans fighting

Swans fighting 3

Fights involve a lot of wing beating and splashing

Swans fighting 6

Combatants can even become airborne

Swans biting

Sometimes all it takes is a quick bite to defeat an opponent

Most fights are over quickly with no apparent harm done. It’s hard to tell what all the fuss is about…most likely territory or personal space. I often saw a preening swan get chased off of a small clump of underwater vegetation that seemed to provide a platform on which to stand. I guess a place to stand in water world is something of a premium. Studies have shown what you might expect from these aggressive encounters – larger groups tend to dominate in fights; larger swans (most often males) tend to dominate smaller ones; and juveniles almost never win (I rarely saw them even get involved in fights except some nips with other juveniles).

Swans flapping in unison

A wing flap often follows an aggressive encounter

Following an aggressive encounter, group members often engage in another bout of wing-quivering and calling, which is sometimes called the triumph ceremony. This is similar to the display given when family members reunite. After a successful bout, there is often a wing flap by one or more of the group members (usually the victors, but occasionally even by the defeated swans). The wing flap is certainly one of the more striking behaviors these magnificent birds can perform, as they tend to rise up and flap 3 or 4 times, exposing amazing “sculptural details” in their wings.

Swan bathing

Swans bathe by dunking their head and body under the surface

Swan bathing 1

They often preen and do a wing flap after bathing

Swans often also do a wing flap after a nice long bout of preening and bathing.

Swan readying a wing flap 1

The start of a wing flap

It begins with a slight raising of their breast, and then a full extension of the body and neck.

Swan readying a wing flap 1 continued

The wing extension is dramatic

Swan readying a wing flap 1 continued 1

Every feather on the wings looks extended during a wing flap

Swan wing flap

I like to capture the shadow of the wings on the swan’s body

Swan wing flap 1

My favorite photo is one where the swan is facing the camera during a wing flap

Needless to say, I tend to snap way too many images of swans flapping their wings. Most of my pics have another swan partially obscuring the flapping bird, or the wing-flapper is facing the wrong way. But, I apparently can never get enough of these images as I keep trying every year to get that “perfect” wing flap.

Swan taking off 2

Swan running across the water to get airborne

Another swan sound I love hearing is the slap, slap, slap of their huge feet hitting the water surface as they run and flap to take off. It is tough to get a decent photo of one as they are invariably in a crowd of other birds, but they do usually give you a “heads-up” so you can prepare yourself for the shot. Swans typically will swim a short distance with the direction of the wind, and then turn into the wind before taking off (for greater lift). They also do a series of head-bobs (or quick head-pumps) that intensify and get more frequent right before they raise their wings and start running across the water. Many of the swans I was watching in Marsh A took off less than an hour before sunset, presumably to feed in the fields for a little while before returning to the safety of open water for the night.

Swans preening

Swans preening

Swans, like most birds, preen extensively to help keep their feathers in good shape. If they weren’t squabbling with their neighbors, they were preening or resting during much of the time I spent with the flock.

Swan preening

With so many feathers, it takes a lot of time to keep them looking good

It seems that tundra swans have a lot of feathers to keep up, more than most birds, in fact. The number I keep seeing in various sources is about 25,000 feathers on a swan, compared to 14,000 for a Northern pintail, 7,000 for a bald eagle, and around 3,000 for an American robin. No wonder that preening seems to be the primary thing the swans are doing during the middle of the day.

Swan preening curved neck

The elegance of a tundra swan

A swan’s long neck, white feathers, and jet black facial markings give it an air of elegance. To watch and listen to tundra swans for a day is a privilege and is a certain way to help you feel connected to the natural world, and realize that there are things in this world more beautiful, wonderful, and important than anything you see on a screen or read in the news. I am always thankful for the opportunity to renew my optimism and recharge my batteries by spending time with these majestic creatures.

swan closeup

Keeping an eye on me

Now, More Than Ever

A poem for the new year, accompanied by a short video clip of a sunrise with tundra swans at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge last week. May we all find peace in the coming year.

The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Christmas Bird Count

It’s never been easier to be a citizen scientist and it’s never been more important to be one.

~David Yarnold, President and CEO, National Audubon Society

Earlier this week, we participated in one of my favorite holiday traditions, the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. I helped start this particular count over 30 years ago when I was East District Naturalist for the NC State Parks System. My good friend, and naturalist extraordinaire, Paris Trail, was the count coordinator. The Pettigrew Count is centered on Lake Phelps and the standard 15-mile diameter count circle includes surrounding farmlands and forests as well as a portion of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It is that latter portion that I have counted in for all these many years. This year, it was officially just Melissa and I, although we did run into some of her museum co-workers and another excellent young birder that helped us with a couple of species we missed seeing (most notably the merlin and American bittern).

 

Swans on Marsh A 1

Tundra swans are very abundant again this year on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Swans on Marsh A 2

Swans on the marsh impoundment on the Pungo Unit

The day began with clouds and warm temperatures, but the skies soon cleared, and we had another of those crazy “Christmas” counts with temperatures soaring to the low 70’s. Tundra swans were the bird of the day and we estimated about 14,000 on the lake, although I am guessing this may be an underestimate based on the tremendous flyovers at sunset.

Swans flying

Tundra swan flyover

Swans were literally everywhere  – in the fields, on the lake, in the impoundments, and in the sky. And I must admit, I could watch and listen to them all day. In fact, I did on the day after the count (more on that in a future post).

box turtle on bird count

Eastern box turtle out for  stroll on the Christmas Bird Count

The warm temperatures made for some unusual companions for a Christmas Bird Count. There were plenty of aquatic turtles sunning themselves in the canals (which is not really all that unusual on sunny days in winter) plus an Eastern box turtle we helped off the road. There were also several buckeye butterflies, a Carolina anole, and Melissa spotted a very active bee hive high up in a tree.

Bee hive in tree

Bee hive in a knothole

If you look closely, you can see where bears have clawed around the hole trying to get at the tasty treat inside. Not sure what these bees were foraging on, although I did see a few henbit weeds in bloom along the edge of the road.

Snow geese leaving Pungo Lake

Snow geese flying out of Pungo Lake

The snow geese continue their pattern of erratic and unpredictable behavior of the past few years, with a much reduced flock splitting up and flying off the refuge in different directions to feed. Perhaps when the remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down, they will provide a brief display of massive flocks coming into feed as in past years.

Black and white warbler

A black-and-white warbler was one of our highlights for the day

We managed to spot quite a few species (76 in our portion of the count circle – see our complete list below) with a few that are not regularly seen, including a black-and-white warbler, an orange-crowned warbler, a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers, and a peregrine falcon chasing a duck.

sandhill cranes at Pungo

A trio of sandhill cranes closed out our day

My favorite species of the day came just as the sun was setting. I looked up and saw what I first thought were three great blue herons flying in tight formation. That unusual pattern caused me to take a second look and I could see the outstretched necks that indicated something other than herons – three sandhill cranes! This is the second Christmas count over the years where we have spotted these magnificent birds. A great way to close out another wonderful day spent in our favorite place.

Swans at sunset

Pair of tundra swans against an orange sky at sunset

December 27, 2016 dataPungo Unit portion of annual Pettigrew State Park Christmas Bird Count (76 species for our team; 109 species for the total count circle with one team report still out):

Snow Goose – 12,000
Ross’s Goose – 5
Canada Goose – 54
Tundra Swan – 14,107
Wood Duck – 8
Gadwall – 22
American Wigeon – 3
American Black Duck – 45
Mallard – 98
Northern Shoveler – 52
Northern Pintail – 3
Ring-necked Duck –1
Lesser Scaup – 1
Hooded Merganser – 20
Bufflehead – 4
Pied-billed Grebe – 4
American Bittern – 1
Great Blue Heron – 3
Sandhill Crane – 3
Turkey Vulture – 47
Black vulture – 2
Bald Eagle – 7
Northern Harrier – 11
Cooper’s Hawk – 1
Sharp-shinned hawk – 2
Red-shouldered Hawk – 1
Red-tailed Hawk – 4
American Kestrel – 4
Merlin – 1
Peregrine Falcon – 1
American Coot – 45
Killdeer – 48
American Woodcock – 3
Wilson’s Snipe – 3
Ring-billed Gull – 73
Mourning Dove – 21
Red-bellied Woodpecker – 8
Downy Woodpecker – 2
Hairy Woodpecker – 1
Northern Flicker – 12
Pileated Woodpecker – 6
Eastern Phoebe – 7
Blue Jay – 5
American Crow – 9
Fish Crow – 18
Tree swallow – 2
Carolina Chickadee – 10
Tufted Titmouse – 2
Brown-headed Nuthatch – 1
Carolina Wren – 15
House Wren – 2
Marsh Wren – 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – 2
Golden-crowned Kinglet – 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 7
Eastern Bluebird – 13
American Robin – 768
Gray Catbird – 2
Brown Thrasher – 1
Northern Mockingbird – 5
European Starling – 22
Black-and-white Warbler – 1
Orange-crowned Warbler – 1
Common Yellowthroat – 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler – 300
Eastern Towhee – 5
Savannah Sparrow – 9
Chipping Sparrow – 15
Song Sparrow – 35
Swamp Sparrow – 6
White-throated Sparrow – 30
Northern Cardinal – 25
Red-winged Blackbird – 855
Eastern Meadowlark – 13
Common Grackle – 5
American Goldfinch – 14

 

 

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…

muskrat

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, Sunset

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

~Rumi

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

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.

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