They’re Baaaaack

The homing instinct in birds and animals is one of their most remarkable traits: their strong local attachments and their skill in finding their way back…It seems at times as if they possessed some extra sense—the home sense—which operates unerringly. 

~John Burroughs, 1905

Last weekend we managed to escape for a couple of days and head down to our favorite spot, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. My friend, Michael, had been sharing images of the many bears he was seeing feeding in the cornfields on the refuge, and it finally got to me, I had to get down there! We were met at the refuge by some new friends that understand the power and beauty of wild places and the creatures that call them home. Though seeing bears was the goal, we were all open to whatever the refuge cared to share, so we were delighted to find the first swans of the season already on the lake.

Swans in Marsh A

Tundra swans have returned from their Arctic breeding grounds to spend the winter in NC (click photos to enlarge)

When we drove up to the impoundment known as Marsh A, there they were, hundreds of graceful white forms, filling the crisp air with their mellow sounds. We stopped, watched them for several minutes, quietly taking it all in and appreciating the fact that these birds had just completed an amazing journey of 3000 miles or more to spend the winter here. It is reassuring that these natural rhythms continue, that the natural world has some order to it, even when much of what we hear on the news does not.

Black bear tracks

Large bear tracks (plus another creature…do you see it?)

On to “Bear Road” where we saw several people parked at the gate and sitting along the road waiting for an appearance by one of the area’s many resident bruins. The tracks in the hardened mud tell the story…frequent comings and goings from the dense woods to the local feed store, the cornfield across the road and canal.

Bear Rd tracks

A busy bear crossing

With a small crowd of photographers hanging out near one of the main bear crossings, we decided to walk on down the road, away from the chatter, and experience a little quieter part of the scene. Quiet, except for the sounds of swans and Canada geese coming from the lake a short distance through the woods. We soon saw our first of many bears across the open field at the edge of a patch of woods.

black bear

Most of our views were distant

This would be our fate for this day of woods-walking and refuge road exploration – a total of 19 bears, all seen at a considerable distance. We did find three in a large tree, two resting and one playfully climbing up and down. But most were headed to or from a cornfield, stocking up before the bitter cold of winter might cause them to go into hibernation (perhaps an abbreviated one that is more typical of bears in the Coastal Plain). We also witnessed some bad human behavior of people trying to get just the right photo and causing a bear to alter its choice of pathways (it is always best for the human to give way and let the bear go where it wants). The day ended with a great horned owl calling against a flame orange sunset through the black branches of tree silhouettes…another beautiful Pungo day coming to a close.

sunrise Pungo

One of my favorite things in the flat lands of Eastern NC – a large-scale sunrise

Our friends departed for home and we drove to our campsite at “nearby” Pettigrew State Park. We could hear swans flying over us to the lake all night indicating they are just arriving from their long journey. We spoke with people that had seen almost no swans two days before so it seems we were lucky enough to be there with the first wave of winter arrivals. We were awakened by some noisy campers at a ridiculously early hour, so we were out at sunrise, headed back to Pungo. The big sky of these flat lands is always a highlight at sunrise and sunset, especially in the crisp air of cold weather.

injured wood duck

Injured wood duck along a canal bank

A few flocks of ducks were mixed in with the swans, whose numbers grew to a few thousand by Monday morning. It is not unusual to see wood ducks in the canals along refuge roads as they flush in front of your car and zip through the trees. It is unusual to see one stay put after you spot it. I caught a glimpse of a stunning drake as I drove past it, so I stopped and backed up, fully expecting it to dart away (it seems no creature will tolerate a car that is backing up). One glance at its awkward posture and you could tell something was wrong. It shuffled up the bank a little when I stopped for a photo, so we drove on, sorry to see this beautiful bird in such a state, but knowing that some predator will probably get a meal.

Eastern phoebe on sign

Eastern phoebe on sign

Driving over to Bear Road, we encountered another group of photographers hanging out, waiting for bears. There was also a phoebe debating the true meaning of a road sign…surely this doesn’t apply to me (I have seen many human visitors debating that same thing, unfortunately). So, we drove back over to Marsh A to fix our breakfast and to spend time watching the swans greet the day.

Trumpeteer swan

Trumpeter swan honking as it comes in for a landing

It wasn’t long until we heard a sound very different from the coos, whistles, and hoots of the tundra swans – the distinctive horn sound of a trumpeter swan. This is the swan species we see in Yellowstone (although less frequently in recent years) and are seeing now more regularly each winter here in NC. The past few years have brought a few of the larger trumpeters to Pungo and Mattamuskeet. The characteristic calls are by far the easiest way to locate a trumpeter in a sea of look-alike tundra swans. If they are standing next to each other, you can tell a trumpeter is larger, and, in this case, the call was coming from a flying bird, and we soon spotted it flying with a group of tundras. In flight, it is possible to see a size difference, but I don’t think I would really notice it unless I heard the call and was looking for it. Another clue to separate them is the head – look closely at the two photos of swans in flight. Trumpeter swans have a long, straight bill. The inner edge of the bill forms a rather straight line up to the eye, encompassing the eye so that it is difficult to separate from the black bill. The eye of tundra swans is more distinct as a circle separated from the bill. Plus, the inner bill line comes off the eye, and then drops downward. Most tundras also have a yellow spot on the bill below the eye, trumpeters do not. And a trumpeter has “red lipstick” along the inner edge of its black bill. After looking at the birds circling us and then comparing images, I think there were at least three trumpeter swans in the group, two immatures and the adult shown here. I hope we can spot them on the Christmas Bird Count next month! To learn more, check out this link for some of the ways to distinguish these species.

Tundra swans flying out of Pungo Lake

Pair of tundra swans – compare the outline of their bills to photo above

We ended our trip just after lunch, with only 3 bear sightings for Monday, but plenty of memories to last until we get back in a few weeks. I really do love this time of year!

Hot Holiday

It’s summer and time for wandering…

~Kellie Elmore

After I retired (you remember back when I was retired) I loved the fact that I could go to some of my favorite places on a week day when fewer people would be out and about in the wild places I love. I certainly didn’t want to go on a holiday weekend when even more people created crowded campgrounds and busy highways en route to my favorite destinations. Well, that was then and this is now, so off we went last weekend on a camping excursion. It was prompted, in part, by a visit from Melissa’s cousin, Kevin, from New York. He had not traveled much in these parts so she had given him tips on where to camp and hike in the mountains on the first part of his visit and now we were going to share a couple of our favorite things with him down east – paddling in a swamp and looking for bears.

The first day we drove to Pettigrew State Park where we had reserved a site, set up camp, and then headed to the nearby boat launch on the Scuppernong River just outside Creswell. We had debated whether to try the entire 12 miles to Columbia (something we both have always wanted to do) but we decided to go ahead, despite the threat of thunderstorms.

IMG_5917

Upper reaches of the Scuppernong River (click photos to enlarge)

We put in about 1:30 p.m. and headed toward Columbia (we shuttled one car down there at the take out point). Melissa and I have paddled portions of this river several times and have seen a bear each time, so we had high hopes. No sightings this trip, but we think we heard a couple splashing through the swamp as we paddled. We also saw many pileated woodpeckers, wood ducks, a barred owl, a bald eagle, and had a constant escort of dragonflies.

Paddling the Scuppernong

Paddling the tranquil Scuppernong. We saw lots of pileated woodpeckers and heard a couple of bears splashing in the swamp.

Scuppernong lower reaches

We were alone along the entire 12 miles of river until we got to Columbia

Scuppernong near Columbia at sunset

A tranquil ending to a beautiful day on the river

We managed to dodge the thunderstorms and ended the day with a slick-as-glass water surface at sunset.  After a delicious dinner in Columbia we headed back to camp where another storm stopped just short of the campground. The next morning we headed over to the Pungo Unit hoping to show Kevin a few bears and other critters in our favorite area of the state.

Young Eastern box turtle in road

Our first wildlife of the day – a young Eastern box turtle

We started kind of slow but did see 5 bears by mid-day. My favorite was one sacked out in a tree right next to the road.

Young black bear in tree

Melissa spotted this sleepy bear lounging head down in a tree right next to the road

Young black bear chillin' in tree alongside road

This is one sleepy bear

We took a break from Pungo and drove over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. After observing some waders (including a nice little blue heron and a tri-colored heron), a tour of the visitor center, and a short hike along one of the boardwalks, we headed back to Pungo. Kevin was driving to Richmond that evening so we wanted to try to find as many bears as possible and maybe have a few opportunities for photos before he headed out. Pungo did not disappoint…

Black bear and cub

Momma bear and cub on “Bear Road”

We saw a couple more as we drove the refuge roads and then decided to head to one of my favorite places, “Bear Road”. It wasn’t long before we saw the first of 14 bears! The sow above had two cubs of the year hanging out with her (only one is visible in the pic above), and we saw several other individuals and another sow with cubs. But one bear provided the highlight of the day…

Black bear walking toward us

This young bear was hurrying toward dinner in the cornfield near where we sat

Black bear realizing something is not right

The moment when you realize – wait, what are those things?

A young, beautiful bear (probably a 2 or 3-year old) came out of the woods and headed down the road towards its evening meal of corn. We were sitting in the road near the corn field and the bear strolled along until, suddenly, it realized something was amiss. It did what we all have probably done at one time or another…trying to decide which course of action is the best…go back, continue on to where I was headed, but what about…then a hesitation, a look back and forth, and finally, what the heck, I’m going. So, the bear scurried into the canal and over into the corn and disappeared.

Black bear trying to decide what to do

Do I stay or do I go?

Black bear indecision

But the corn is just over there…

We ended the day with 25 bears, including a few with cubs of the year (always fun to observe), a couple of bears standing up to check their surroundings, and a bear in a tree. It turns out, if you pick your destination carefully, you can still go somewhere even on a holiday, and not experience the hassle of crowds (unless you count the bears). A great outing on a hot holiday weekend. Can’t wait for our next visit.

Pungo Summer

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.

~Russell Baker

It’s been too long since I have visited my other favorite place, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. So, with Melissa in Yellowstone leading a museum youth group, I decided to make a day-trip this past weekend to look for bears and whatever else summer on the Pungo might bring. It was about 9 a.m. by the time I pulled onto the refuge dirt roads. Things started surprisingly slow…no bears at all (n fact, not much of anything) for my first complete circuit through the refuge. That is pretty unusual for a Pungo summer – no bears! The greenhead flies and deer flies were pecking on my windows whenever I stopped the car, but I decided to get out anyway and spend some time along the edges of a wetland to see what I could see.

cattail flower

Cattail flower spike – female part below, male part is the brown spike above (click photos to enlarge)

Lizard's tail flower

Lizard’s tail, Saururus cernuus

The vegetation seemed even thicker than normal as I scanned the marsh, but darting movements quickly caught my eye…dragonflies, and lots of them.

Halloween pennant

Halloween pennant balancing on a stem

Blue dasher

Blue dasher in obelesk position – a handstand-like posture used frequently by males of this species when guarding territory. It may also reduce their temperature on sunny days by minimizing their surface area exposed to direct sun rays.

Golden-winged skimmer, male

Golden-winged skimmer, male

This male golden-winged skimmer was close to the edge of the canal and patrolling frequently, returning to the same stem each time.  Suddenly, he made a quick move into a thicket of stems and stopped. I leaned in and could see he had found a mate and had assumed the position – the so-called wheel position.

Golden-winged skimmers in wheel position

Golden-winged skimmer in wheel position

Males transfer sperm to a specialized pouch in their second abdominal segment. They then grab a female by the head (or “neck”) and she curls the tip of her abdomen up to where he has stored his sperm. It lasted several seconds and then they briefly flew in tandem before she broke off and started laying eggs. She does a quick splash into the water with the tip of her abdomen, laying an egg with each dip. He stayed nearby guarding her from any other males that might be in the vicinity.

indigo bunting male singing

Indigo bunting singing

While sitting there in a cloud of dragonflies, I began to see and hear a lot of songbird activity. I didn’t make much effort to photograph them until this male indigo bunting perched nearby singing his heart out. Some other species of note included a blue grosbeak, great blue herons, wood ducks, yellow-billed cuckoos, prothonotary warblers, great-crested flycatchers, several northern bobwhite, some wild turkey, killdeer, and lots of red-winged blackbirds and common grackles. But, as hoped, this day turned out to be about something else…

black bear sow with two cubs

Bear sow with two cubs of the year (so-called COYs)

Though skunked by bears for the first hour, I quickly made up for it. Driving along Pat’s Road I found a field with six bears, (including a sow with 3 tiny cubs) scattered out in the open feeding on the sparse vegetation and maybe some leftover corn on the ground from last winter. I went around to the back edge of the field and watched. Soon, another sow with 2 cubs of the year came out closer to me. The heat of the day made for less than ideal atmospheric conditions for photos (especially with my bigger lenses) with many soft images the result. But it was great being able to watch these bears do their thing, the youngsters sticking close to mom, and her having to often lift a leg over one of them as it would get underfoot. I thought back a few weeks ago to seeing black bears with cubs in Yellowstone, along with 75 or more people along the road each time. It made me really appreciate the quiet and solitude of Pungo.

Bl;ack bear sow with cubs standing

She caught my scent and stood up. So did the first little one.

The mother bear finally headed off to the woods and, as she traveled, the young ones struggled a bit to keep up. At one point, she passed downwind of me and must have picked up my scent. She stopped, raised up, looking around to see where that human smell was coming from. One cub joined her and seemed to mirror every move she made as she looked this way and that.

Bl;ack bear sow with cubs standing 1

Looking where mom is looking

She finally dropped down and quickly got her youngsters to the safety of the woods. In the next thirty minutes my bear count went up to 14, all in the two fields on either side of where i stood.

female black bear with missing foot

Female bear , with company…

I decided to drive around a bit more as more of these bears starting heading for the shade of the forest. Less than a half-mile away I encountered my first really big bear of the day – a big boar courting a much smaller female. June and early July are the prime mating season for black bears at Pungo, so you tend to see more of the big males this time of year as they search for females that are receptive to mating. This female was limping as she walked and I finally realized she either had a deformity or was missing her entire left hind foot (look closely at the photo above).

large black bear boar

This huge boar was courting her all day, and he has the scars to prove he is worthy

The male following her was a bruiser – a big boy with plenty of battle scars.

_-3

Wherever she went, he followed

They crossed a canal into a field and munched away at things I could not see from my vantage point. Both bruins just ambled along, nibbling as they walked, with the male keeping close to the limping female. I was shooting a lot of images and suddenly remembered I had loaned all of my compact flash memory cards to Melissa for her Yellowstone trip. My camera has two card slots, one for each type of memory card. That is a great feature because you can just keep shooting if you run through one of your cards. And, if you are like me (with my old camera), I always ran out of memory right when something amazing was happening. But, today, I only had the one card in the camera. The male was getting closer and closer to the female and I thought they might mate at any time, so I decided to run back the 50 yards or so to the car and get another card. The bears were far enough away (and headed in the opposite direction), so I left my camera and telephoto lens there on the tripod as I ran back. I had my camera bag open at the car and was trying to find one of my other cards when I glanced back toward the bears and saw another huge bear come out of the woods not far from my camera. I think I actually yelled, Noooooo, and took off back toward my camera gear. The last thing I wanted was for a curious bear to knock it over into the canal or decide to test the toughness of my lens. By the way, I should remind everyone that I am taking these photos with a telephoto lens and I am attentive to what the bears are doing and how they are behaving. I don’t want to stress them (or myself) by getting too close.

Large male black bear close up

A handsome admirer soon showed up, trailing the female and her suitor

The new bear walked over to the edge of the canal, looked out at the other bears, and slowly turned and went back into the woods. But not before glancing at the panting human who was now standing next to his camera gear. This was another large male, but one that was much more handsome, lacking the many scars of the bigger fella out in the field. I am pretty sure he was trailing the female (he came out on the same pathway as they did), saw the bigger male, and thought better of it.

I drove through the refuge one more time and returned to the same spot where I had earlier seen so many bears. The fields did not disappoint and i soon had another 7 bears in view. Another large male cruised across the field and headed toward a small pond I had found while walking around earlier. I walked back to where I could cross a small canal and slowly headed that way, hoping to catch the bear cooling off in the water. When I got near, I could not see him or any ripple in the water, so I thought he had gone on by.  I started to walk past the pond when he suddenly rose up out of the water from behind some tall vegetation and climbed out.

Huge black bear boar after a dip

You looking at me?

He shook off, walked a few steps and then realized I was standing there watching. He gave me a glance that reassured me that I didn’t want to get any closer, and then ambled away.

huge male black bear

This big guy had a fresh battle scar on his rear

He looked like another warrior and had a big scar on his rump from a fairly recent fight. The other thing I noticed when I looked at most of the bear images back home was that almost every bear had an escort of several biting flies of one sort or another (you can see a big horsefly near the scar in the photo above). Life can be tough for bears (and humans) out here.

black bear family of 4

My last bears of the day, a family of four

My last bears of the day was a family of four, including 3 large cubs from a previous year (cubs are usually “kicked out” in their second year). The mother is the one facing the camera in the photo above. The group strolled back and forth across the field, munching on sprouting soybeans, and causing a few of the solo young bears nearby to abandon their feeding and head back into the woods. I ended the day with 21 different bears, including 5 cubs of the year (with two different sows) and 4 large boars. It was a hot, sweaty day, but one well worth it. Ah, summer at Pungo…can’t wait to go back!

 

 

Bears and Butterflies

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do…  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.

~Mark Twain

I think that sentiment is one of Melissa’s primary views of how to live a life. But, even she was a bit reluctant to head out early Saturday morning for a day trip to Pungo. We have both had full schedules at work these past few months with no let up in sight. We had planned this trip as a weekend get-away to meet our friend, Petra, and a couple from the Netherlands that had been clients a few years ago. Plans changed, and we decided not to camp and just do a day trip. We left about 7 a.m., arriving a little after 10 a.m., and found our friends alongside the road after having seen one large bear out in a field. But, they anticipated more now that the ‘bear whisperers” were here (no pressure there). So, off we went, and, luckily, there they were – a family of four bears just down the road.

bears in field

Family of black bears in one of the fields at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

It turned out to be a rather slow day at Pungo, but we had a great time in absolutely beautiful weather – walking, talking, laughing with friends, discussing the state of the world from another country’s perspective, and getting glimpses of nature. Butterflies were very active, especially the palamedes swallowtails and zebra swallowtails.

palamedes swallowtail on thistle

Palamedes swallowtail feeding on a roadside thistle

palamedes swallowtail mating dance

Palamedes swallowtail mating dance

monarch on vetch

Monarch foraging on vetch

We even had two monarchs nectaring on small wildflowers along Bear Road. Birds were abundant as well – a pair of adult bald eagles, wild turkeys, a green heron, and lots of warblers (prairie, black-throated blue, black and white, prothonotary).

bear in thicket

Our last bear of the day

But the day belonged to the bears, 14 in all. The last one was the closest, just across a roadside canal, low in the brush, nibbling on various leaves. It was a glorious day that ended with a wonderful dinner in Belhaven, and a late night return for us. But it was all worth it – seeing our Dutch friends, being outside on a beautiful day, watching those bears – and I’m glad we did it. Next….

Feeling Alive

Go where you feel most alive.

~Author unknown

I have been missing my usual winter routine of several trips down east. Schedules have been busy, and this thing called work has a way of occupying a lot of your time! So, last week we decided to make a day-trip to my favorite spots in North Carolina – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I wrote about one of the highlights in a previous blog – the epic battle between heron and fish. This post covers the rest of that amazing day, starting with a rendezvous with our friend in Raleigh at 6:45 a.m. (admittedly, a rather leisurely hour for such a trip).

Swans on ice

Tundra swans on ice (click photos to enlarge)

We arrived at the Pungo Unit a little after 9. The skies were gray, the wind whipping, temperatures below freezing – a Pungo kind of day. This is the reason I often tell people to dress as if “you will be the coldest you have ever been”. To our surprise, the only birds in the fields behind the maintenance compound were a ton of American robins. Friends had reported that large flock of snow geese had been feeding there in recent days, and it was the time of day when they are usually in the fields for breakfast. We drove on, spotting a couple of uncooperative river otter in a canal. Try as we might, we only managed quick glimpses before they totally disappeared. A quick stop at the blustery observation platform confirmed that the waterfowl know not to be out in the open on such a windy day. All we could see were some thin white lines of swans on the far shore where the forested shoreline provides them with some protection from the north wind.

sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes on the refuge!

On to Marsh A, one of the managed wetland areas for waterfowl, and a favorite place of both swans and swan-watchers. Indeed, there were a few thousand tundra swans milling about, some, on the fringes of the flock, walking on ice. A quick glass of the area revealed a bonus – three sandhill cranes! They were reported earlier in the season, but we had missed them on the Christmas Bird Count. I have seen this species here sporadically over the years, usually just as a fly-over. but these three were hunkered down in the marsh, no doubt wondering why they had not opted for a warmer habitat. We then saw a giant flock of snow geese flying into the lake from the north. Had they been feeding in the fields along “Bear Road”? We drove over, hoping to see some stragglers and were greeted by a few hundred snow geese out in the corn. We encountered some other friends from Raleigh, shared a few stories, and then headed over to Mattamuskeet for the middle part of the day. We spent a lot of the time with the aforementioned heron, but also saw thousands of ducks (especially northern pintails), another disappearing otter, and a dancing night heron.

Black-crowned night heron shimmy

Night heron shimmy

Black-crowned night heron shimmy 1

Shaking it

An adult black-crowned night heron was on one of the usual pilings in the pool near the entrance to Mattamuskeet, so we stopped and walked over to admire. It was striking their usual stoic pose, when, all of a sudden, it went through a series of gyrations that would make any dance contestant proud. When it settled back down, it did a quick poop (lighten the load) and flew off.

After spending a couple of hours at Mattamuskeet, we headed back to Pungo for what we hoped would be a grand evening show. The walk down Bear Road quickly showed why I dubbed it thus years ago, before real road name signs went up – five bears came out across the field to feed. After watching them mill about and horse around (a couple of young ones were wrestling), we headed into the woods. Melissa and I both commented that there isn’t as much fresh bear sign in these woods this winter – there is some, but not the totally worn down “bear living rooms” we have seen in the past. Suddenly, our friend said, “Look, a tiny owl”!

Eastern screech owl out on branch

Eastern screech owl out on a limb

I had been checking out every snag as we walked, so I naturally looked at the dead top of the tree where she was pointing. I couldn’t see it. “Right there”, she exclaimed. I followed her outstretched hand, and, to my surprise, there is a screech owl sitting out in the open on a branch several feet away from the trunk. The little guy barely moved its head to watch us as we slowly maneuvered, trying not to scare it. The fading sunlight would move on and off the owl, highlighting its beautiful rufous plumage.

Screech owl in wood duck box close up

Gray morph Eastern screech owl from 2016

In a post from a very “owly” day a couple of years ago, I shared photos of another Eastern screech owl from the Pungo Unit. That one was a gray morph using a wood duck box as a nest site. Eastern screech owls come in two primary color morphs in our state – red (or rufous) and gray (there is a third, a brown morph, in the far south). That doesn’t mean they can change color (they remain whichever color they are their entire life), it simply means there are two primary colors seen in this species. It turns out that the red color morph is more common in southern parts of the range, while the gray is predominant in colder regions. Plumage color appears to be correlated with thermal adaptation. One ornithologist writing about the color morphs summarized findings that showed that gray birds survive colder temperatures better than red birds, which may account for their differential distribution.

Eastern Screech owl

That look that only a screech owl can give

After observing the owl (and it, half open-eyed, observing us) for several minutes, we walked on, hoping it would not fall prey to any of the numerous winged predators that hunt these woods (great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, etc.). About that time, flocks of snow geese started to fly overhead and began circling the fields along Bear Road. We  headed out into the open, hoping they would land. As we watched (and wondered about the energy budget of snow goose behavior), something else caught my eye down the road.

Black bear standing

This town isn’t big enough for the two of us

A medium-sized black bear came out into the road and started ambling our way. When I alerted the others, we undoubtedly moved a bit, and the bear stopped in its tracks. He looked our way, then stood up to check us out. A standing bear always reminds me of how much we have in common with bruins. This one also looked as if he was trying out for a role in Gunfight at the Pungo Corral. He dropped and cautiously went back into the woods.

Snow geese swirling above the field at sunset

Snow geese swirling over the corn at sunset

Our attention shifted back to the birds, which were now circling near us in dense, squawking clouds. I never tire of this visual spectacle and the incredible sounds that accompany it.

Buddy Bear

I just want to cross at my usual spot

For the next several minutes, we stood in awe of the scene before us – countless birds swirling nearby, swans flying over our heads back to the lake, and our bear friend tentatively trying to reach his canal crossover spot. The bear may be one I have seen over the past couple of years that we dubbed “buddy bear” (for his tolerance of humans). He kept coming out to the road, looking our way, then retreating back into the woods. He would then ease closer to us, come back out into the road, and repeat the sequence. All the while, thousands of birds circled out in front of us…which way to look? The bear ended up catching our attention again when he came out on the crossover path and headed down the canal bank. We all watched as he swam across, shook off, and scurried into the standing corn. What a privilege to be able to witness all this.

More snow geese arriving

Huge flock of snow geese flying into the field

We started to head back to the car and then saw wave after wave of snow geese flying in from the northeast to join the thousands already landing in the corn. This was like the scenes of a few years ago – thousands of snow geese in the fields along Bear Road at sunset, hundreds of ducks swooping in to join them, bears coming out from several directions, swans calling as they fly in from the north, deer coming out of the woods, and woodcock streaking out into the fields to feed. Then we heard the final actor in this grand play – the haunting call of a great horned owl.

Great horned owl at sunset

A great horned owl at sunset

Melissa soon spotted it in a tree not far from us. It flew to a branch out over Bear Road, silhouetted against the fading orange sky. What a great ending to an amazing day! This place is truly magical. It really is somewhere you go to feel alive, to recharge your spirit, and to rediscover a sense of awe and wonder about our world,  Thank you, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for making this possible. We all need to support these public lands, especially now, so they remain available for us and these amazing natural spectacles.

Species observed at Pocosin Lakes (Pungo Unit) and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges 1/15/18:

Birds (61 species):

Double-crested Cormorant; Canada Goose; Snow Goose; Ross’s Goose; Tundra Swan; Mallard; Black Duck; Northern Shoveler; Northern Pintail; Ring-necked Duck; Wood Duck; Gadwall; Bufflehead; Ruddy Duck; Hooded Merganser; American Coot; Pied-billed Grebe; Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; Sandhill Crane; Black-crowned Night Heron; Turkey Vulture; Red-tailed Hawk; Bald Eagle; Northern Harrier; American Kestrel; Eastern Screech Owl; Great Horned Owl; Ring-billed Gull; Mourning Dove; Belted Kingfisher; Northern Flicker; Pileated Woodpecker; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; American Woodcock; Killdeer; American Crow; Eastern Phoebe; American Robin; Eastern Bluebird; Northern Mockingbird; Carolina Wren; Winter Wren; White-throated Sparrow; Swamp Sparrow; Savannah Sparrow; Song Sparrow; Tree Swallow; Red-winged Blackbird; Common Grackle; Brown-headed Cowbird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; European Starling; Orange-crowned Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Golden-crowned Kinglet

Mammals (7 species):

River Otter; Black Bear; Gray Squirrel; White-tailed Deer; Hispid Cotton Rat; Raccoon; Nutria

Long Distance Traveler

I liked the name, snow goose, and I liked the sight of them.

~Mary Burns, In The Private Eye: Observing Snow Geese

Here is a brief update on my post about this year’s Christmas Bird Count on the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge…as I mentioned yesterday, we spent some time observing a large flock of snow geese when they landed in one of the fields near the refuge entrance. I finally got out of the car, went around back, and stood out of the rain under the open hatch to scope the flock. I was looking for Ross’s geese, and for collared birds. As I scanned the far edge of the flock, I finally spotted a yellow neck collar on one snow goose. As is often the case, the bird was partially obscured by a layer of bobbing necks and heads of other birds, making it difficult to read the collar code. I managed to get T as the first letter, and then 08 as the last two digits. I finally had Melissa get out and take a look and she nailed it…TJ08. We recorded that to report when we got home. Yesterday morning, I submitted our observation online at the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory site for so-called auxiliary markers.

Collared Snow Goose 1

A collared snow goose from a previous winter shows how difficult it can be to read (click photos to enlarge)

Many researchers use markers that allow observers to identify an individual bird at a distance. The most common one for large waterfowl, like geese and swans, is a plastic neck collar. I have helped put this type of marker on tundra swans on many earlier visits to the Pungo Unit when the refuge was participating in migration studies of this species. That study was concluded many years ago, so it is now rare to find a collared swan, but I have observed and reported collared snow geese on several occasions over the past few years. I was surprised to receive an email last night with the certificate for our bird…

Snow goose TJ08 certificate

Certificate from the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory

This bird was banded by the same researcher that banded some of my previous records. The location is above the Arctic Circle in Canada, a distance of about 2600 miles from where TJ08 is spending this winter.

Snow goos TJ08 migration map 1

The migration distance of TJ08

Seeing this record of one bird’s remarkable journey reminds me of how much I have missed the huge flocks of snow geese the past couple of years. Their behavior has been less predictable, their numbers lower, but there are signs that this year may be a good one for observing snow geese at Pungo. There really is something magical about the huge flocks of noisy birds. Mary Burns puts it well in her book about snow geeseI was surprised, then stopped breathless for a moment, by the sudden rising of tens of thousands of snow geese at once, the airy tumult of the madly beating black-tipped wings, the high soprano bark of their calls. I described them to someone as poetic, the way they stretch out across the sky like the broken lines of verse. I thank TJ08 for helping make the winter wonderland of Pungo another memorable line of poetic verse.

Counting Our Blessings

There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.

~Walt Streightiff

We had a wonderful holiday break this past week, spending time with and enjoying both families. The past few days we discussed some of the varied rituals of the holidays – specific foods for the season, making cookies with family, watching certain shows, listening to Christmas music, and Christmas Eve Mass. I guess I have a few rituals myself, although they are quite different from most.

Tundra swans in field

The weather for much of our Christmas Bird Count was cold, gray, and wet (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday was one of my favorites – the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pungo. The count has been going on since I started it with my friend, Paris Trail, back in the mid 1980’s, and I have only missed a few in all those years. The count center is based at Pettigrew State Park and the standard 15-mile diameter circle encompasses all of the park (including 16,000+ acre Lake Phelps), acres of the surrounding farmland, and much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  The weather turned out to be less than ideal with cloudy skies, various forms of precipitation, and temperatures hovering around 37 degrees most of the day. We drove the refuge roads for much of the morning as we were starting to question the sanity of our 4:30 a.m. departure from a warm bed back home. Though we ended up with fewer species than usual, we did share a few special moments with some of the usual suspects.

Tundra swans in field 1

A flock of tundra swans in a field along Pat’s Road at Pungo

Tundra swans in field crop

Apparently, there was a lot to discuss at the swan holiday gathering

On one of our circuits, we noticed several thousand tundra swans had gathered in the front fields to feed on waste corn and a nearby field of winter wheat sprouts. We pulled up, lowered the windows with rain sprinkling in, and took in the scene. Watching and listening to the swans somehow made it all worthwhile and reminded me of how much I love this place.

Snow geese landing on gray day

A large flock of snow geese landing to feed

Soon, scattered flocks of snow geese began to gather and circle the feeding swans. As the flocks coalesced into a huge swirl of black and white, we discussed the seeming inefficiency of snow goose behavior – circling a field for many minutes, using up precious energy, before finally settling down to feed. All the while, I was glassing the passing flock for the smaller cousins of snow geese, the Ross’s geese.

Injured snow goose

Snow goose profile showing longer beak with black “lip” line

It is fairly easy to spot a Ross’s goose on the edge of a flock of snow geese in a field – Ross’s geese are about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of all the other white birds and have a stubby bill that lacks the black “lips” of a snow goose. But I like to try to spot them in flight, which can be a bit more challenging. If the the two species are adjacent to one another, you can see the differences (even though Melissa thinks I am making all this up).

Comparison of Ross' and Snow Goose in flight

Can you spot the Ross’s geese in this photo?

Check out the photo above. There are two Ross’s geese mixed with 4.5 snow geese – remember, look for the smaller size and a short, stubby bill on the Ross’ geese. We ended the day with 7 Ross’s geese and about 30,000 snow geese (I’m sure there are a many more Ross’s geese on the refuge, but it can be tough to pick them out of the large flocks).

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warblers were our constant companions in forested areas of the refuge

A few other species were quite abundant this year – American robins by the hundreds, mallards, killdeer, and yellow-rumped warblers. These winter warblers are tiny balls of energy and they boldly surrounded us every time we pished along the forest edges.

Pipits

Searching for American pipits in corn stubble can test your vision (how many do you see?)

I enjoy the challenge of finding certain species on these bird counts – a Ross’s goose hidden in a flock of thousands of snow geese, an elusive fox sparrow (no luck this year), an owl (we did flush a single great horned owl while walking in the woods), and the dirt-colored American pipits hidden in plain sight out in the plowed or cut fields (we found a nice flock in one field).

Four bald eagles

It was a good day for bald eagles (here are 4 of the 10 seen at this one point on the lake)

And there are always surprises. This year, the bald eagles put on quite a show. We started the morning with four in the fields as we entered the refuge. Later, in our one spot to view Pungo Lake, we had ten eagles in view, often taking turns knocking one another off of perches along the lake shore.

Red wolf track in mud

Fresh red wolf tracks

Our biggest surprise came with a quick sighting of a red wolf as it dashed across a dirt road and into a corn field, quickly disappearing into the dense stand. It turned out to be a very good day for mammals – white-tailed deer, river otter, nutria, a gray squirrel, and six bears rounded out our observations (along with plenty of huge bear scat as well as scat from bobcat and fox).

Resting swans

The sun finally made an appearance lat in the afternoon, warming these resting swans

Late in the day, the cold rains stopped, the dense clouds moved out, and the sun broke through, but the steady wind reminded us that this can be a very cold place. Walking on “Bear Road” at the end of the day reminded me of so many trips from my past – a sense of wildness and wide open spaces in this place that continues to provide natural wonders with each visit. The bad weather had driven most other visitors away, so we had the place to ourselves – again, a reminder of the the early years when, if I saw one other car on the refuge, it was a busy day.

Flying swans

Tundra swan flyover with sunset approaching

The golden glow of an approaching sunset illuminated the woods and caught the feathers of swans returning to the safety of the lake for another night. The only sounds were those of nature – swans calling, the deep drumming of a distant pileated woodpecker, the faint low hoot of a great horned owl.

sunset at Pungo

A fiery end to a chilly day

As we walked back toward our car, the western sky exploded in fire like it so often does here in winter. There are so many reasons I love this place. A big one is that it allows me the time and space to look around and appreciate the many wonders this world has to offer, if only we give it the chance. Help support our public lands – they are medicine for our souls.

half moom

There are many wonders in our world, just waiting for us to pause and enjoy

2017 Christmas Bird Count results (Pungo Unit only)

30,000 Snow Goose
7 Ross’s Goose
198 Canada Goose
22724 Tundra Swan
2 Wood Duck
20 Northern Shoveler
222 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
229 Mallard
40 American Black Duck
10 Northern Pintail
3 Green-winged Teal
23 Ring-necked Duck
1 Bufflehead
12 Hooded Merganser
5 Great Blue Heron
9 Turkey Vulture
8 Northern Harrier
15 Bald Eagle
2 Red-tailed Hawk
1 American Coot
170 Killdeer
3 American Woodcock
26 Wilson’s Snipe
26 Ring-billed Gull
180 Mourning Dove
1 Great Horned Owl
2 Red-bellied Woodpecker
8 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
5 Northern Flicker
3 Pileated Woodpecker
2 American Kestrel
6 Eastern Phoebe
1 Blue Jay
10 American Crow
5 Fish Crow
0 crow sp.
5 Carolina Chickadee
4 Tufted Titmouse
2 White-breasted Nuthatch
8 Carolina Wren
5 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
5 Eastern Bluebird
800 American Robin
1 Brown Thrasher
7 Northern Mockingbird
60 American Pipit
3 Palm Warbler
489 Yellow-rumped Warbler
357 White-throated Sparrow
28 Savannah Sparrow
18 Song Sparrow
9 Swamp Sparrow
6 Eastern Towhee
15 Northern Cardinal
900 Red-winged Blackbird

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