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

Otter Outing

It swims and dives with great readiness and with peculiar ease and elegance of movement…

Thomas Bell on otters, 1874

I recently spent a couple of days with a great group of guys in my favorite winter haunts – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges.

Sunrise, Pocosin Lakes NWR

Sunrise, Pocosin Lakes NWR (click photos to enlarge)

The first day started out beautifully with a rich sunrise…and that was about the end of the nice weather. The next day and a half, we experienced very little sunshine, and a lot of wind, cold, drizzle, and clouds (did I mention wind?!!). And much of the wildlife thought we were crazy being out there, so they stayed home.

Tundra swan flock on impoundment

Tundra Swans on impoundment

Tundra Swan flyover

Tundra Swan flyover

The Snow Geese have arrived, but they continue the trend of the past few years and are a bit unpredictable. Instead of flying out to the refuge fields in the morning, they took off far to the east for points unknown. The Tundra Swans were a bit more obliging as they flew out of Pungo Lake in small groups, giving us some nice views. A few hundred landed in one of the impoundments and graced us with their mesmerizing calls, one of my favorite natural sounds.

Bald eagle adult

Bald Eagle flying behind treetops on a gray morning

And where there are waterfowl, there are eagles. We saw several Bald Eagles as they flew over the flocks looking for possible weak birds that would make an easy target.

Otter dive

What you often capture when trying to photograph a swimming River Otter

But the highlight of the day was seeing several River Otters. A friend had said he had seen a bunch on a recent trip so I was looking. Finally, I caught some motion out of the corner of my eye through the thick vegetation lining the canals – an otter! We drove up a bit and got out waiting on the otter to swim our way. It turned out to be three River Otters cruising the canal. They were very aware of our presence and barked and snorted their disapproval. At first, they proved to be difficult subjects for photography – just about the time I focused on an otter head, it would disappear with a ker-plunk.

River Otter 3

River Otter bobbing up and down in the canal

Finally, one raised up to get a better look and I got a shot. It soon became a whole lot of images, as we walked along the banks of the canal trying to figure out where they would pop up next.

River Otter 2

River Otter checking us out

The first siting had three otters. They disappeared through a culvert under the road and then we found five lounging on the bank. When they swam off, we came across three of them on another canal and began watching them. Two suddenly came up across the canal while one seemingly disappeared.

Otter catches fish

River Otter catches a fish

The two began swimming very close together and one had its head down relative to the other. I soon saw why – it had a fish it was dragging beneath the surface of the water. At first, I couldn’t make much out, but then the otter reached the shore opposite me and began to drag its prize up on the canal bank.

River Otter with fish

River Otter with fish

River Otter with fish 2

Trying to subdue the meal

The fish looked huge compared to the size off the otter. I think it was a Carp, or perhaps a Bowfin. One otter had its paws full tying to lug the fish up on the bank while keeping the other otter at bay. This made for a lot of commotion and splashing, and not a very good view of the fish from where I stood.

Pair of otter with fish

The otters quickly stripped off chunks of the huge fish

The finest chefs have nothing on the skill of these otters as they quickly stripped off chunks of the fish and gulped them down, essentially fileting it, all while swimming and tussling with each other in the water.

River Otter 1

River Otter giving us “the look”

We finally decided we had disturbed their meal long enough (in between bouts of fish eating one or both would occasionally give us “the look”). So, when they turned and swam off with the remains of their lunch, we let them be, amazed at what we had just witnessed.

River Otter

A River Otter pauses to look one last time before swimming off down the canal

I never tire of watching these energetic mammalian masters of the aquatic realm. I will certainly keep my eyes open for them on my next trips down this way in the coming weeks.

 

 

 

That Makes Scents

…neither fish nor beast is the otter.

~Ted Hughes

Driving down a dirt road last week on the Pungo Unit, I spotted something up ahead. It wasn’t a critter, but rather a distinctive sign made by an animal.

River Otter wallow

River Otter scent-marking and rolling area (click photos to enlarge)

As I got closer, I could see it was a very large area that had been marked by a River Otter, although by the looks of it, undoubtedly more than one animal. River Otters are common in the canals at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and have regular spots they use to cross the roads from one canal to another. I had seen tracks and scat in this general location before, but never this large of an area with this much sign. There were a bunch of squiggles in the sandy substrate indicting the otters had rolled around in a patch of road measuring about 6 or 7 feet across. River Otters roll to maintain their fur. Rolling fluffs it up, cleans and dries the fur, and helps distribute the oils that are critical to maintaining its insulating and waterproofing qualities.

River Otter sign

River Otter scat and urine at the rolling location – notice the tracks on the lower edge of wet area

Rolling also serves as a means of communication amongst otters by scent-marking as they roll. They frequently defecate and urinate in or adjacent to these areas (and regularly used haul-outs) as a means of scent-marking. To make sure other otters know they have been in the neighborhood, River Otters have scent glands on their hind feet as well as highly developed anal scent glands (the latter is typical of all members of the weasel family).

River Otter scat with fish scales

River Otter scat usually is full of fish scales

A common indicator of their presence are small mounds of vegetation and debris scraped into a pile by an otter and topped with scat in locations where they regularly haul out or have pathways to water.Their scat is usually composed of fish scales and is tubular in shape, although you often see it simply in a small pile.

River Otter scat with crayfish parts

River Otter scat with crayfish parts

Another common component are bits and pieces of crayfish, which usually have a reddish-pinkish tint. There is usually a distinctive musky-fishy smell associated with these locations, especially if recently used. With so many ways to scent mark, River Otters must be constantly checking on the comings and goings of friends, relatives, and potential competitors in their neighborhood.

While I did not see an otter on that day, they left ample evidence of their presence. It was fun to imagine three or four of them laying and rolling in the road, leaving their calling card for the next otter to come by. And they probably did it in that playful manner we so often associate with these beautiful animals. I have seen otter here several times and had the privilege of watching them hunt and go about their business in many other areas around the country. Whenever I see them, it always brings a smile to my face…they just seem to have that affect on people.

River Otter at Lake Mattamuskeet

River Otter catching a quick nap at Lake Mattamuskeet

River Otter pair

Pair of River Otter at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge