Pungo Reflections – Sky

The sky is that beautiful old parchment in which the sun and moon keep their diary.

~ Alfred Kreymborg

Sunrise at Pungo Lake

Sunrise at Pungo Lake (click photos to enlarge)

One of my favorite things about eastern North Carolina is the big sky (maybe that’s why I like Montana so much as well). And I have seen some wonderful big skies at Pungo this year, especially at sunrise…

Snow Geese against moon

Snow Geese in front of the moon in the golden light of sunset

…and sunset. And so it was on my last trip. The morning had been spectacular at the swan impoundment. I wasn’t paying much attention at first to the goings on in the sky as I was so focused on the swan silhouettes on the water in the orange-gold glow of sunrise.

Tundra Swan in early morning light

Tundra Swan in early morning light

After photographing the swans swimming and preening, I finally turned my attention to those starting to fly out of an adjacent area. The last bits of golden light soon faded, but not before I caught an image or two with it bathing the undersides of a passing swan.

Swans coming in for a landing

Swans coming in for a landing

High clouds soon moved in and the light changed dramatically. Now a few small groups of swans were starting to land in the impoundment to join the hundreds of others already enjoying the swan spa. I love to watch them as they prepare for a graceful touch down.

Snow Geese circling the field

Snow Geese circling the field

I left to head towards a favorite area and was surprised to see no cars in spite of it being a beautiful (albeit cold) Saturday morning. The Snow Geese had already flown off the lake by the time I arrived and were circling the fields in their usual erratic attempt at settling down. I took a few shots as they circled far across the corn and then started walking down the road.

Snow Geese blasting off from corn field

Snow Geese blasting off from corn field

Suddenly, they all blasted off with the distinctive whoosh sound of thousands of wings. I stopped, hoping to see what might have spooked them. It can be anything, or seemingly nothing at all. I scanned the field edge for bears and the sky for any sign of a predator.

Bald Eagle flushes Snow Geese

It was hard to tell what had flushed the flock at first

Bald Eagle flushes Snow Geese 1

The Bald Eagle finally came out into clear view

One thing that will always flush the flock is an eagle. Finally, from behind the cloud of flapping white and black, a flapping black and white appeared – a Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle lowering its landing gear

Bald Eagle lowering its landing gear

The eagle cruised past the scattering Snow Geese and seemed intent on a particular spot on the ground in between the rows of standing corn. I had seen a few vultures in that area when I had walked by, and the eagle dropped down in the same area and disappeared behind the corn. Undoubtedly, the vultures and eagle had found a carcass of some sort.

Red-winged Blackbirds in dense flock

Red-winged Blackbirds in dense flock

Snow Geese and Red-winged Blackbirds

Snow Geese and Red-winged Blackbirds

Now a new flock was added to the aerial commotion – Red-winged Blackbirds. The sky was soon a swirl of tiny black spots and noisy white blobs.

Blackbird flock 2

Red-winged Blackbirds showing their flashy side

Red-winged tornado

Red-winged tornado

These huge flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds (and usually some other species mixed in) are one of my favorite things about Pungo in winter. There were probably close to ten thousand birds sweeping across the corn, and flying to and from the trees. The sound was incredible. And every now and then a tornado of red wings erupted from the field. As with the Snow Geese, this was usually caused by an aerial predator.

Northern Harrier and potential prey

Northern Harrier and potential prey

In the case of the blackbirds, it is often a Northern Harrier cruising the fields looking for a meal. I could see two of them canvassing the corn so I set up my tripod and waited, hoping for a passing shot, especially of the male I could see on the far side. I have tried to get an image of one of the ghostly gray adult males for several years but they have always eluded me.

Male Northern Harrier criusing for a meal

Male Northern Harrier looking for a meal

The male Northern Harrier finally sailed by my side of the field, gliding on his large wings, head down, looking for a bird or small mammal.

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier

A close pass by a male Northern Harrier

He swung by close enough for a few good shots, the sunlight catching his contrasting feathers and highlighting his bright yellow eyes.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle

I soon encountered the Black Bear and Raccoon from my previous post and spent a couple of hours watching things in the trees instead of the sky. But I finally I headed back out to the fields to see what was going on. There were several eagles perched in trees around the field edges. A couple of people were now walking on the road, and they spooked a couple of the eagles, one of which flew close by me for a nice look. It was an immature Bald Eagle, recognized by the mottled whitish “arm pits” as it flew over my head.

Snow Geese in golden light

Snow Geese in golden light

The light was getting beautiful, a golden glow from the low angle of the sun. I soon heard the loud, low whoosh made by the wings of the Snow Geese lifting off the lake. The show was about to begin. I could hear them coming and then the first of the birds flew over the tree tops, headed out to the corn. The light was gorgeous, turning the flock into a gilded swarm. The people on the road stopped to watch the birds fly overhead and then headed back down the path once the flock was across the field. I knew there were a couple of more eagles ahead of them and I figured these birds would soon fly, so I stepped up against a tree trunk to help hide my outline and waited, hoping one of the adult birds would fly by me.

Bald Eagle in golden light

Bald Eagle in late afternoon light

Sure enough, I saw the remaining two eagles head out over the field and one banked and headed my way. Then I heard more Snow Geese flying in from the lake. If only….

Bald Eagle and potentil prey

Bald Eagle and Snow Geese sharing the golden light

As luck would have it, the eagle circled back just in time for the Snow Geese to fly behind it, giving me a rare opportunity to see and photograph this spectacle three times in one day, predator and prey sharing the sky. But this light was by far the best of the day. The eagle spotted me and flew out over the tree tops, leaving me to watch in awe as thousands of Snow Geese flew into the field for one last feeding before nightfall.

Snow Geese returning to lake

Snow Geese returning to lake

Thirty minutes passed with the flock in a feeding frenzy on the far side of the field. Another eagle flew out near the restless birds and they once again exploded into the now pinkish-purple sky. Thousands of birds circled and then headed back to the lake for the night. It had been an amazing day of colors and sounds, with my focus on the water, forest, and sky of Pungo. While this is not a wilderness, it is a very special wild place to me. And I think it is important for us all that these wild places exist. Spending time in them helps us understand ourselves, and gives us insights into the workings of the world and our place in it. I found this quote by former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas that does a good job of putting into words what a day like this means to me…

Wilderness helps us preserve our capacity for wonder

the power to feel, if not so see,

the miracles of life, of beauty,

and of harmony around us.

I will carry this sense of harmony for a long time to come.

Trip Report Part 2: Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes

I just returned from the second recent guided trip to these incredible wildlife refuges. My client was particularly interested in bird photography, so that was high on the agenda. But he made a point of saying he was open to anything, since he was fully aware of the vagaries of wildlife photography – sometimes wildlife cooperates, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Due to heavy rains the previous day, I decided to visit Matamuskeet first to hopefully give the roads at Pungo a chance to dry out at least a little. We left Raleigh a little before 6 a.m. and arrived at Mattamuskeet by about 9:30.

Black-crowned Night Heron adult

Black-crowned Night Heron adult (click photos to enlarge)

Just inside the entrance to Wildlife Drive, we were greeted by a stunning Black-crowned Night Heron adult. I usually see more of the immature night herons here (brown colors with light speckles in their plumage), with just an occasional adult. The most reliable place to see them is in a grove of trees across the canal from the lodge, often partially obscured by branches. But this one was in a much better spot for photographs, and its scarlet red eye seemed to glow in the morning light. As I walked a few steps off the road for a clear photo, I accidentally flushed the first of several bitterns we would see.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron with one head feather amiss

The next open pool held the usual Great Blue Heron, along with a Great Egret. You can almost always count on one or both of these species in this spot.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing feeding on Privet berries

As we watched the herons, small flocks of Cedar Waxwings flitted by in their usual jerky flight pattern. Later in the day, we finally tracked some down as they swarmed the all-too-numerous fruit of the invasive Privet shrubs that line sections of the refuge’s roads. Always one of my favorite songbirds to observe, waxwings are often tough to photograph without a mishmash of twigs in the background.

American Bittern in the open

American Bittern

Another American Bittern soon revealed itself in a narrow strip of grasses along a canal and we used the car as a blind to photograph the bird for several minutes before it disappeared in a thick patch of vegetation. This year seems to be an especially good one for bitterns at Mattamuskeet.

Immature White Ibis

Immature White Ibis

It is so interesting what a difference a couple of days makes in what you see in a location. Last week there had been about 50 adult White Ibis along with one immature (distinguished by its brown coloration) feeding in an impoudment along Wildlife Drive. Things were different today and on our second pass through the area, we finally saw our one and only ibis of the day, an immature. It was vigorously probing the mud with its unusual bill. Looking more closely at a few images last night I could finally see that it was primarily eating worms.

Adult Bald Eagle 1

Adult Bald Eagle

We had seen several Bald Eagles at both Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet, but failed to get close enough for any nice images. At the end of Wildlife Drive we saw a flash of white through the trees, which turned out to be the head and tail of an adult Bald Eagle landing in a large pine alongside a side road. I was able to position the car so that my participant could get some good shots with his 600mm lens (yes, I did have lens envy the entire trip). The eagle was surprisingly cooperative, so I was able to back out, turn the car around, and back in along the road so I could get a few shots as well. The eagle was still perched, surveying the scene, when we decided to move on.

Moonrise at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

Moon above cypress island at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

As the light faded, we stopped at the observation platform along the road crossing the lake. I wanted to enjoy the scene in the fading light at what must be the most photographed island of trees in the state. I always try to stop and view the sunrise from here if I am in the area, but sunset is equally compelling. As we stood watching the sky turn shades of pink and purple, I reflected on how lucky I am to share this incredible place with people interested in the beauties of nature.

Sunrise the next morning found us on the platform on the south shore of Pungo Lake. The lake was full of swans and the air was sweet with their peaceful calls. But the pocosin shrubs near the platform were full of the harsher notes of another species – Red-winged Blackbirds. Their loud chatter began to increase with the approach of sunrise and then the first birds started flying up and heading west over the trees. Then more birds joined in from further east, and soon it was a continuous stream of blackbirds that flew by us for the next 10-15 minutes. On the recent Christmas Bird Count, we had a similar experience, and estimated that 160,000 blackbirds flew by us on that morning.

Mud hole in road at Pungo

Mud hole in road at Pungo

My usual routine at Pungo is to watch sunrise at the platform and then cruise the refuge looking for wildlife until the Snow Geese fly off the lake and out to some nearby fields to feed. The Snow Geese were running late in their usual departure, so we decided to move on. Hopefully, we can find which fields they fly out to and spend some time observing the huge flock (they are less predictable this year for some reason). As we headed out, I could see the recent heavy rains had taken a toll on the often cantankerous roads on the refuge. The odd soil type makes road maintenance difficult, so visitors need to be cautious when the roads are muddy.

Tundra Swan pair 1

Tundra Swan pair from Duck Pen Observation Blind

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake 2

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake

Swan pulling head out of water close up

Tundra Swan feeding in lake

One of the newer visitor services additions on the refuge is the Duck Pen Observation Blind farther down the road on the south shore of Pungo Lake. A short hike from the parking area leads to a large wooden enclosure with a great view out on the lake (although I hope to volunteer once the waterfowl are gone to cut a few more observation ports and make some of the existing ones larger to accommodate telephoto lenses). Since the winds were out of the south, the waterfowl were in close to the south shore, making for some great views. Swans were feeding in the shallows, something I see all the time at Mattamuskeet with its abundant aquatic vegetation, but rarely here at Pungo Lake, due to the peat lake bottom and relative lack of plants and aquatic life.

Snow Goose blast off on Pungo Lake

Snow Geese blast off on Pungo Lake from Duck Pen Observation Blind

Far out on the lake was a huge raft of Snow Geese packed into a solid white line on the water. They blasted off two or three times while we were in the blind, but simply circled and settled noisily back on the lake, instead of flying out to feed. Mixed in with the swans and geese were hundreds of other waterfowl, mostly Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Pintails.

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

The middle of the day, as is often the case, was a bit slow for wildlife viewing. There were coots and some other waterfowl on various impoundments, a few eagles, and the ubiquitous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds swirling in the corn stubble. Rather than continuing to cruise the muddy roads, we decided to walk through the woods looking for wildlife and hoping to see a bear. We spotted lots of bear sign, including one tree trunk that looked like the bear tic-tac-toe championship had been played on it, but no bears. We could hear the calls of thousands of swans on the lake and the thunderous whoosh every time the Snow Geese would blast off, but they never seemed to fly off to feed the entire day, which is a bit unusual. So, late in the afternoon, we headed to a spot where bear activity has been good and settled in to watch and wait, and wait some more.

Bear cub

Black Bear cub

As sunset approached I was afraid this might be the first tine this season I would be skunked in bear sightings, but, right as we started to head out, a sow and her two cubs materialized out of the woods. The adult and one cub headed out into the corn field, but the other cub seemed nervous, and stayed near the tree line. My goal was to not disturb the bears, so we remained still, hoping the cub would go on by us to feed in the corn. After pacing back and forth, sitting on its rear end, moaning and groaning a bit, and then laying down for a few minutes, the cautious cub finally did join the rest of the family. We then headed back to the car. Our two day excursion ended with a setting sun in an immense sky, punctuated by the melodious sounds of small flocks of swans flying overhead, accompanied by the hoots of the resident Great Horned Owls as they started their evening conversations. A great way to end it, indeed.

Trip Report, Part 1: Pocosin Lakes-Mattamuskeet

I am in the middle of leading two  trips to my favorite places in NC РPocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. This is a brief visual report on the first. Last week, I had four great folks from the Raleigh area join me for a wildlife viewing trip. We started at Pocosin Lakes last Thursday and spent some time with some of the stars of the refuge this time of year РRed-winged Blackbirds, Tundra Swans, and my perennial favorites, the Black Bears.

Red-winged Blackbird flock over filed

Red-winged Blackbird flock over field (click photos to enlarge)

We started and ended our day with Red-winged Backbirds. There are huge flocks of these beautiful birds at the refuge in winter which provide a visual and audible delight to observers (and meals to a variety of predators). They roll across the fields as dark clouds, often fashioned into swirls by the movements of raptors such as Northern Harriers.

Red-winged Blackbird flock

Flashes of red from the shoulder patches of males in the Red-winged Blackbird flock

They change from twisting masses of dark feathers to spiraling flashes of red depending on the light and whether you have huge numbers of male Red-winged Blackbirds in the flock (the males have bright red shoulder patches that flash in the sunlight as they twist and turn in flight). The flocks also usually contain smaller numbers of other species of black-colored birds such as Common Grackles and Brown-headed Blackbirds.

Swan feather

Swan feather

Swan feather close up

Swan feather close up

We spent time photographing Tundra Swans flying out of Pungo Lake and watching Bald Eagles patrol the area for injured or weak waterfowl. But I am always looking for the small beauties on the landscape as well….a lone swan feather in a puddle caught my eye and deserved a closer look.

Black Bear sow and young

Black Bear sow and young

The day ended walking through the woods and listening to sounds of thousands of swans and Snow Geese on the lake. As we waited for the Snow Geese to hopefully come into the field (unfortunately, they only flew over) we were kept company by a few bears, coming out for their evening saunter.

Sunrise near Intracoastal Waterway bridge

Sunrise near Fairfield, NC

The next day was a full day spent at Mattamuskeet. Sunrise was over marshes near the Intracoastal Waterway on Hwy 94.

This is camouflage

American Bittern in its element

We were greeted at the entrance to Wildlife Drive with an expert in camouflage, an American Bittern.

Bittern close up6

American Bittern close up

Then another allowed some close viewing a few minutes later. These birds are a delight to watch and this refuge is one of the best places I know to find them.

Looking up in cy6press swamp

Looking up in a cypress swamp

Looking down in cypress swamp

Looking down in cypress swamp

Mattamuskeet provided great looks at a variety of waterfowl and scenery throughout the day. Clouds started to move in mid-day, providing a different perspective to the landscape.

Cypress in Lake Mattamuskeet

Bald Cypress in Lake Mattamuskeet

Back and white of impoundment

Clouds moved in and provided some interesting highlights to the scenery

Reed in ice along noardwalk

Reed in ice along boardwalk

There was still a lot of ice in the canals and swamp even as the temperatures warmed throughout the day. As the skies darkened with the promise of an upcoming storm front, we drove through the refuge one last time.

White Ibis fly-by 1

White Ibis fly-by

A large group of White Ibis kept our attention until one participant spotted something moving on the ground.

Green Treefrog 1

Green Treefrog

An unexpected January amphibian, a Green treefrog! It must have looked odd to passing cars as a group of five people squatted on the ground intently taking pictures of an unseen subject, but it was a great way to finish our experience – from birds to bears to frogs, it had been a great trip.