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…


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.


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

Sunset Friday night at Pungo…

Swans at sunset 1

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

Sunrise Saturday at Pungo…

canal reflections

Canal reflections at sunrise

Swans at sunrise

Morning light tinting the feathers of flying swans

Sunset Saturday at Mattamuskeet…

Ibis in golden light

A golden hour spotlight falls on roosting white ibis

ibis silhouette at sunset

Juvenile white ibis in bald cypress tree

Great egret preening in golden light

Great egret preening at last light

Great egret flying at sunset 2

Sunlight bathes the underside of a great egret coming to roost


Great egret flying at sunset 1

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

broomsedge highlighted by setting sun

Broomsedge seeds glow in the setting sun

Cypress tree at Lake Mattamuskeet 1

“The tree” at sunset at Lake Mattamuskeet

pink cloud at sunset

Pink clouds and tree silhouettes

Sunrise Sunday at Lake Mattamuskeet…


cypress island at sunrise

Sunrise at the cypress island at Lake Mattamuskeet

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise

Telephoto shot of clouds on the horizon

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise 1

Golden lining to clouds at sunrise

Sunset Sunday at Pungo…

swans at sunset

Swans flying in against a thickening cloud cover

Fiery sunset

A surprise fiery sky as we drove back to Plymouth

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

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

~ Clarice Lispector

Quiet Beauty

Intimate knowledge can make a place beautiful.

~Melissa Dowland

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

deer in fields

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

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

swans at last light

Tundra swans feeding in field next to road

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

flying swan at sunset

Tundra swan with hints of gold from the setting sun

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

swans in fields b & w

A few thousand swans feeding in a field

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


Sunrise from the observation platform

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

heavy frost

Heavy frost decorated every fallen leaf…

feather frost

…and even a fallen feather

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

ruddy duck

Ruddy duck and reflection

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

northern shoveler male

Northern shoveler male

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

raccoon blob

Fur ball in a hollow tree

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

raccoon in hollow tree

A sleepy raccoon gives us the eye

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

raccoon in hollow tree 1

Another ball of fur

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

american bittern

American bittern

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

deer face

Deer were common at Mattamuskeet as well

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

Searching for Snows

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

~Henry J. Haskins

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

Snow Geese hunkered down in cold

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

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

snow geese on sound beach

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

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

snow goose carrying gass clump

Snow Goose juvenile with a high fiber snack

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

snow goose rusty head

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

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

snow goose bloody

Bloodied Snow Goose

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

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

Tundra Swans in field

Tundra Swans crowd a recently cut corn field at Pungo

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

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

snow geese and moon 1

A beautiful moon added to the scene

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

snow goose landing in crowd 2

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

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

Snow geese landing 1

A blue morph Snow Goose landing with white morphs

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

Ross' Goose

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

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

blast off

A blast off of white and black

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

snow goose pair landing

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

snow geese banking

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

snow goose landing 4

Some birds looks like they are thinking ahead about foot placement

snow goose landing in crowd 2

It must be tough to find the right spot

blue geese landing

A trio of blue morphs landing

collared snow goose

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

best snow goose landing

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

snow goose landing 1

The light turns golden in the last part of the day

Snow geese landing

The two color morphs together

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

snow geese and moon crop

Snow Geese against a rising moon

Birds Galore

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

~Rachel Carson

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

snow geese overhead 2

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

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

certificate for collar

Certificate from collared Snow Goose report

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

snow geese over field

Snow Geese circling over corn field in early morning light

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

snow geese over field 2

Snow Geese just after blast off

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

Immature Bald Eagle

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

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

snow and ross' goose

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

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

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

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

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

Trumpeter Swan close up

Trumpeter Swan at Mattamuskeet

Tundra Swan close up

Tundra Swan head for comparison

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

Swan juvenile

Juvenile swan

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

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

bears in rod

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

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret along the causeway at Mattamuskeet

bald eagle with rabbit

Bald Eagle flying across a roadside field with a small rabbit

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern at Mattamuskeet

Pungo sunset 3

Beautiful sunset at Pungo

Snakes on a Plain (Coastal Plain, that is)

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

~Edwin Way Teale

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

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

Canebrake Rattlesnake on tree trunk

Canebrake Rattlesnake on tree trunk (click photos to enlarge)

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

Banded Watersnake?

Water Snake along the boardwalk at Goose Creek

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

Banded Water Snake close up

Water Snake close up

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

Spotted Turtle

Someone spotted a Spotted Turtle

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

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

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

Rough Green Snake on tree trunk

Rough Green Snake climbing a tree

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

Rough Green Snake

Rough Green Snake, flicking its tongue

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

Raccoon in hollow tree

I woke this little guy up from his nap

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

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

Canebrake Rattlesnake in tree trunk

Canebrake Rattlesnake curled up deep in tree trunk

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


One Wet Bird, Two Wet Birds…Four Wet Birders

The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Unlike most years, I was dreading this year’s annual Christmas Bird Count. The weather forecast had been calling for more rain, 80% most of the day. We have already had so much rain and I anticipated the roads at Pungo would be nasty. And to make matters worse, it was forecast to be incredibly warm, way too warm for a Christmas Bird Count…almost 75 degrees! But, I suppose there is no such thing as a bad day at Pungo, so off we went. We arrived at the platform about 6:30 a.m. to a very gray landscape. The swans were scattered across the surface of Pungo Lake and were calling softly (a sound I never tire of hearing)…but, it wasn’t raining.

sunrise pungo lake

Surprise sunrise at Pungo Lake (click photos to enlarge)

The eastern sky showed signs of a gray beginning, but soon surprised us with yet another beautiful sunrise.

misty sunrise pungo lake

Mist hanging above the pocosin at sunrise

A thin layer of mist hung above the pocosin surrounding us. Our fellow bird counters arrived (making a total of 4 of us for this portion of the 15-mile diameter circle we have counted every year since 1985). As we surveyed the lake estimating the number of Tundra Swans, Lucas spied something unusual – a White-tailed Deer was swimming out in the middle of the 2700-acre lake (unfortunately, way too far out for a photo in the dawn light). As we watched (and wondered what the heck this deer was doing out there so far from shore) the doe was seemingly being escorted by a squadron of swimming swans. She finally turned and headed north toward the closest shoreline. We became distracted by some flying birds (after all, it is a bird count) and we assume the deer made it safely to shore….but, this is a first in my thirty years of visiting this refuge. Lots of birds, a swimming deer, and a beautiful sunrise – maybe this wasn’t going to be such a bad day after all.

birds in winter wheat

White birds in green wheat on a gray day

The Pungo weather machine had a different idea. It soon turned totally overcast and the sky took on a lead gray appearance. By 9:30 a.m. it was raining, softy at first, and then much harder.

muddy pungo road

Muddy Pungo road

The legendary Pungo roads, which had been quite manageable at first, soon became waterlogged. Luckily, they were still largely passable, with a solid base hiding beneath the ominous-looking standing water, and only a few deep ruts to give you pause. But, if this wet weather continues much longer, the roads could face some issues with flooding as the water in the canals and adjacent swamps is only inches away in places.

snow geese near car

Snow Geese feeding in cornfield near our car

That is how the day progressed – rain, not rain, more rain, brief break, more rain. We managed to get out and walk down “Bear Road” a little ways and pick up some woodland birds and sparrows (and see three bears), but we also spent more time watching birds from the car than usual. After lunch we were treated to a close view of a flock of Snow Geese in a field next to the paved road.

Collared Snow Goose 1

Snow Goose with neck collar

Collared Snow Goose

Another neck collar in the flock

We parked and they noisily munched their way right up next to the car, making it easier to find the few Ross’s Geese in the flock, and a couple of collared Snow Geese.

lone tundra swan

Lone Tundra Swan on the impoundment

After a particularly hard rain, we drove down along the south shore of Pungo Lake to where the road is closed due to flooding. There we spotted a very wet Wild Turkey far down the road. On the way back, we passed a lone Tundra Swan that slowly swam away from the edge of the road. Probably not a good sign – a swan by itself, and unwilling (or unable) to fly away usually means an illness or injury, and that usually means a short life in this predator-rich environment.

rainy day at pungo

Heavy rains late in the day had us heading out

By late afternoon, the cycle of rain and clearing skies gave way to just rain….heavy rain. No traditional late afternoon walk down Bear Road, no sunset with swans flying overhead, no listening for owls as we walked toward the car, and no watching Woodcock zip by into the fields for their nightly feeding forays (luckily we got both of these crepuscular species at sunrise). In spite of the warm temperatures and wet conditions, it had been a surprisingly good day with some good birders. The overall numbers (over 60,000 individuals) for our section of the count are down from previous years (especially for Snow Geese), but we did okay in terms of species (73), thanks, in part, to Lucas’ keen birding ears. The crazy temperatures also gave us 6 species of butterflies, 3 species of frogs calling, and numerous biting flies (and even a few mosquitoes)! Certainly not your typical Christmas Bird Count in North Carolina. I look forward to seeing what other surprises the refuge has for me in the next few weeks as I lead some trips to observe winter wildlife. If interested in scheduling a trip, please email me.

Results for the Pungo Unit of the Pettigrew 2015 Audubon Christmas Bird Count:
Snow Goose  9250
Ross’s Goose  6
Canada Goose  40
Tundra Swan  33060
Wood Duck  5
Gadwall  80
American Wigeon  2300
American Black Duck  18
Mallard  6
Northern Shoveler  60
Northern Pintail  190
Green-winged Teal  750
Ring-necked Duck  68
Ruddy Duck  13
Wild Turkey  1
Pied-billed Grebe  2
Double-crested Cormorant  3
Great Blue Heron  6
Turkey Vulture  14
Northern Harrier  15
Sharp-shinned Hawk  2
Cooper’s Hawk  3
Bald Eagle  8
Red-shouldered Hawk  2
Red-tailed Hawk   4
American Coot  107
Laughing Gull  2
Ring-billed Gull  298
Herring Gull  1
Mourning Dove   73
Great Horned Owl  1
Belted Kingfisher  2
Red-bellied Woodpecker  7
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1
Downy Woodpecker  8
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker   5
Pileated Woodpecker  2
American Kestrel  3
Merlin  1
Eastern Phoebe  8
Blue Jay   3
American Crow  2
Fish Crow  98
Horned Lark  4
Carolina Chickadee  10
Tufted Titmouse  1
Marsh Wren  3
Carolina Wren  17
Golden-crowned Kinglet  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet   6
American Robin  259
Gray Catbird  2
Northern Mockingbird   4
European Starling  8
American Pipit  9
Cedar Waxwing  27
Pine Warbler  2
Yellow-rumped Warbler   83
Chipping Sparrow  6
Field Sparrow  2
Fox Sparrow  1
White-throated Sparrow  40
Savannah Sparrow  8
Song Sparrow  32
Swamp Sparrow  14
Eastern Towhee  10
Northern Cardinal  19
Red-winged Blackbird  13400
Eastern Meadowlark  15
Common Grackle  10
American Goldfinch  12
Non-bird species:
Black Bear  3
River Otter   2
White-tailed Deer  1
Gray Squirrel   2
Yellow-bellied Slider  ~15
Eastern Musk Turtle   1
Carpenter Frog (calling)
Southern Leopard Frog (calling)
Spring Peeper (calling)
Unidentified toad species in road after dark
Palomedes Swallowtail
Cloudless Sulphur
Unidentified Sulphur
Unidentified Blue
Unidentified small brown skipper


Appreciating a Place

Sense of place…it is a combination of characteristics that makes a place special and unique.

~the Art of Geography

I am lucky. I have several wild places that give me that feeling of a sense of place, of completeness, of peace. I think almost any location can become such a place given time to experience its moods and inhabitants. As readers of this blog know, one of the places I turn to for this feeling, time and again, is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (PLNWR) in Eastern North Carolina. I am particularly fond of the Pungo Unit of the refuge, as I have been enjoying this area since that unit was the only part of the refuge, then known as Pungo National Wildlife Refuge. In the early 1990’s, an almost additional 100,000 acres were added and the combined lands renamed Pocosin Lakes NWR. The winter waterfowl still concentrate in the original refuge area surrounding Pungo Lake, and that is where I find myself 20 or more times each year, especially in winter.

sunrise Pungo at platform

Sunrise from the observation platform on Pungo Lake (click photos to enlarge)

The sky in Eastren North Carolina is special, it reminds me of the big sky of another place I love, Yellowstone. In fact, I have often referred to Pocosin Lakes as the Yellowstone of the East. But, the reason has more to do with the feeling of being connected to a place than specific physical similarities of the landscape. Perhaps it is the abundance of wildlife, the silence when I am there alone, the joy in sharing it with others, or the feeling of spaciousness created by the incredible sunrises and sunsets. Maybe it has something to do with the type of wildlife and the spectacle they create. Thousands of birds flying around you or the glimpse of a family of Black Bears help me realize things about scale and about my place in the world.

black bear track and hand for scale

Large bear track at PLNWR

Walking in the footsteps of animals larger than us puts some things in perspective.

Bear trail through the woods

Bear trail through the woods

Seeing well worn wildlife trails helps me appreciate the lives of other creatures and somehow makes their lives seem more like ours. They have routines like us, they care for their young like we do, they are seeking many of the things we seek – food, comfort, safety, and, who knows, maybe even some sense of happiness. It is hard to watch bear cubs playing or otters doing anything, and not think they are having some fun.

bear family in field

I watched a large bear start across the field, and she was soon joined by two yearling cubs.

On my last trip, watching a bear across the field, I saw her pause and lay down for a few minutes before heading to a corner of the field where I have seen many bears over the years. She kept glancing back towards the woods, and was soon joined by one, then another, of her one year old cubs. As I continued walking down the road, they noticed me, and would stop and look, perhaps gauging the level of threat I might pose.

bear family

The bears and I met at a juncture of field and forest

They continued to walk, as did I, and we converged near a juncture of field and woods, a place I have had many encounters with bears in years past, a small patch of the planet where the bears and I can coexist. My group had departed earlier that day so it was just me and a family of bears sharing a moment. The mother bear soon led her young into the safety of the woods, a prudent decision when faced with the unknown creature watching them. And that is as it should be, both if us tolerating the presence of another species, both wary and respectful.

bears between cars and meAn hour or so later, as I walked the mile back toward my car, a family of bears came out into the road, and eventually crossed over into the adjacent corn field for a meal. It was probably the same family as before. Once again, they were tolerant, and I was respectful of their space, a situation that I realize is a necessity for us to be together in this place.

Tundra Swan family

Tundra Swan family – two adults, two juveniles (on either end)

When I have time to observe the wildlife at Pungo, I marvel at the struggles that some species endure. I see a family of Tundra Swans – two white adults and their two gray-headed young, and wonder what it must be like to fly over 3000 miles from their nesting grounds above the Arctic Circle to their winter resting and feeding grounds here in North Carolina.

Family squabble

A Tundra Swan bites another for reasons only they know

And while they are elegant birds with a peaceful air about them, you can see squabbles and hear quarrels aplenty if you pay attention. What does it all mean?

Tundra Swan lift off

Tundra Swan lifting off

One of the best things about being with the swans is the sounds they add to the landscape – their soft ou call, the whirring of the wind through their wing feathers when they fly low overhead, and the slapping of the feet against the water as they take to the air.  I wonder about the meanings of their calls and I strain to hear differences between individual birds. They are all magical sounds I never tire of hearing.

Mute Swan

Mute Swan hanging out with Tundra Swan flock. Mute Swans have a knobbed, pinkish bill, thicker neck, and are larger than Tundra Swans.

Occasionally you see something different among the giant flocks of swans. I found a Mute Swan last week hanging out with the Tundra Swans on one of the refuge impoundmemts. There was one there last year as well. Is it the same bird? Did it migrate the entire distance with the flock, or did it join them at some point along the way? Hybridization, although quite rare, apparently can occur, but this bird seems to stay slightly apart from its smaller cousins. What types of interactions does it have with the rest of the flock? I will also be looking and listening for some Trumpeter Swans again this winter. I have seen this somewhat rare species many times in Yellowstone over the years and am now starting to find a few mixed in each winter with the thousands of Tundra Swans on the refuge. My friend, Keith, at Mattamuskeet, photographed one at his refuge this past week. I’ll keep looking.

Bufflehead drake

Bufflehead male swimming in a refuge canal

After my group departed I spent a few hours on the refuge and a little more time behind the camera. I find the camera often causes me to stop and watch things more closely, hoping to capture some behavior. I notice little details I might otherwise miss…how long a Bufflehead stays underwater as it feeds, how the water droplets bead up on its back when it resurfaces, and how slight changes in position cause the purple and green hues on its head to appear and disappear.

Bald Eagle immature taking off

Immature Bald Eagle taking off

Near sunset, I watched a Bald Eagle, perched on a snag, surveying some flooded woodlands for an easy meal. When nothing seemed to satisfy it, it lifted off with a few strong wing beats and cruised toward the lake, where perhaps the hunting would be more productive.

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans add beauty and serenity to any scene

As the day came to a close, I was surrounded by the sights and sounds of this place I love. There really is something special about certain places in our lives, places we can recall in detail even when we are far away. This sense of place is a true gift. I hope you all find such a gift in your lives this holiday season.