Millpond Meander

This is everybody’s dream swamp…

~A.B. Coleman (the man who donated Merchants Millpond to the state for a park)

Over a week ago, Melissa and I managed a two night get-away to one of our favorite state parks, Merchants Millpond. I think Mr. Coleman was right, this may be everybody’s “dream swamp”. It combines an open millpond dominated by Tupelo Gum and Bald Cypress, with a beautiful swamp and surrounding hardwood forest. It is a paddler’s paradise and a naturalist’s delight with an incredible variety of plants and animals to observe. We reserved one of the canoe-in campsites and arrived at the millpond late in the afternoon after stopping to see our friends, Floyd and Signa, long-time residents of the area, former park employees, and two of the best naturalists we know. We also met a good friend of theirs that has been paddling the millpond for a couple of decades and returns each year to take it all in.

View of the millpond from our campsite (click photos to enlarge)

We set up camp and headed out to look for wildlife as the sun slowly made its way to the horizon. We heard lots of new spring arrivals – especially Yellow-throated and Northern Parula Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Picking some of these small neo-tropical migrants out can be tricky, especially when they are mixed in with the large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting through the trees and stump island vegetation. But, one warbler was very cooperative, and we followed it around for several minutes as it sang and snagged a few insects.

Our cooperative Yellow-throated Warbler came down low enough for some good looks and pics

We also followed a few gnatcatchers as they gleaned some of the hundreds of tiny midges flying around the stump island vegetative communities common out on the millpond.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with that high-energy look they always seem to have

We headed back to camp and had a relaxing evening around a campfire listening to the swamp sounds we love – Barred Owls hooting, and the beginnings of the many frog calls that will soon flood the swamp. And we were amazed at the abundance of fireflies that kept us company until we headed into our tent.

The next morning we headed up toward Lassiter Swamp at the upper end of the millpond. Along the way, we enjoyed some of the many sights that make springtime in the swamp so special.

Red Maple seeds add a splash of color to the swamp
The showy blossoms of Horse Sugar (Symplocos tinctoria) along the shore of the millpond
Some sliders taking in the warm temperatures
One of several large Beaver lodges we passed on our way to Lassiter Swamp

Entering Lassiter Swamp is like crossing a bridge into another world. There are usually fewer paddlers (we only saw one other canoe up there all day) and the enchanted shapes of the Tupelo Gum (transformed by their interaction with Mistletoe) heighten the magic and mystery of the place. Plus, there are usually some interesting wildlife species to see or hear.

Mistletoe creates unusual growth forms in the branches of the Tupelo Gum trees in the swamp, lending a ghostly appearance to the scene
Another oddly-shaped tree greets paddlers in the swamp
Splashes of spring green stand out in the grays of the swamp
A huge Beaver lodge in the swamp yielded a surprise as we paddled to the other side…
A Nutria (an exotic mammal species introduced from South America into NC in the 1940’s for their fur) resting on the lodge. Nutria are larger than a Muskrat but smaller than a Beaver. They can be identified by their size and white whiskers on both sides of their nose. Sadly, we saw more Nutria on this trip than I have ever seen in the park.

Melissa spotted movement in the water and we heard the distinctive snort of a River Otter. Then another snort and another and we saw six otters swimming ahead, bobbing up and down as they expressed their displeasure (or curiosity). The otter split with two going downstream and the others upstream, but not before a couple swam over to check us out.

A couple of River Otter come over to investigate this strange visitor to their swamp

Along the stream channel we saw an occupied hollow tree base with three Nutria inside. The smallest one had just pulled its tail back into the hollow when I snapped this pic. A little farther along, we saw movement – our otters were lounging and playing on a moss-covered log up ahead…

Nutria hang-out

The otters hit the water and swam upstream, snorting at us as they went (I think it was definitely disapproval this time).

An otter peers over a cypress knee before gracefully sliding into the water

We saw them again a little upstream and all four (one is just off camera) raised up in the dark water to get a better look.

We came across this group of otter several times during our paddle up the swamp

Water levels were a bit low so we encountered several log jams and small Beaver dams across the creek that needed to be “scooched” over as we paddled upstream. We had our rubber boots on and had to get out once to pull the canoe over a log. Then we hit a larger barrier – a log across the channel with a pile of debris caught in the low spot. A couple of feet to one side was a small Cottonmouth attempting to blend in with the stick pile (you always need to check blockages like this for Cottonmouths before getting out up in the swamp). After failing to find a passage around it, Melissa decided to get out and try to pull us over. Let’s just say that didn’t go well (the debris pile turned out to be less sturdy than she thought). After helping pull her back up we decided to let the far reaches of the swamp remain unchallenged for this day. By the way, the Cottonmouth remained calm throughout the process and never even showed us the classic warning pose with mouth agape. I guess it figured we weren’t much of a threat.

Cottonmouth eyeing the paddlers at a channel blockage

We spent the rest of the afternoon paddling back to the millpond and enjoying the scenery and the wildlife.

Reflections on the millpond on a windless day can be stunning

There have been a few changes on the millpond since my days as a state parks district naturalist oh-so-many-years ago. There are a lot of noisy Canada Geese now nesting on the millpond; Nutria have expanded their range into the millpond area; and the first American Alligators have appeared. As we paddled the lower end of the millpond, Melissa saw a large ‘gator lying up against a swollen tree base. North Carolina is at the northern limit of the range of American Alligators, so they are not common in this part of the state. Our friends say there are probably three ‘gators on the millpond, but no babies have been reported in the years since they first appeared. We circled around it, admiring its size and taking some photos with our telephoto lenses. Looking at this guy, we certainly didn’t feel like getting too close (and you shouldn’t either). They don’t pose a danger to paddlers, but you should treat them with respect and not harass them. This individual was a large one, perhaps 9 feet in length and weighing in at about 200+ pounds.

An American Alligator
Such an amazing creature
…and so wide!

After the alligator, we paddled slowly back to camp, and I thought of what a truly great gift this was to the state of North Carolina, this dream of a swamp. There really is no other place quite like it. Thanks to all who have helped preserve it and make it available to the public for all these years and into the future.

Millpond reflections
The last light of the day highlights a Great Blue Heron in a cypress grove
Our final sunset on the millpond…but we will be back

Day-tripping

I just take it one day at a time, and it always leads you to the right place.

~ Kyle Massey

My two recent trips to Pungo were two day trips, leaving home before dawn and leaving the refuge after sunset. While not the ideal way to do this, even a day trip ca yield some great wildlife moments. I shared some images and stories about the dominant winter birds (Tundra Swans and Snow Geese) in my last post. This one covers some of the other interesting wildlife I (we, on the second trip) encountered.

The first thing I saw was an adult Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree in someone’s yard on the way in to the refuge. The hawk seemed to be surveying the hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding in the corn field across the road. (click photos to enlarge)
A flooded portion of a cornfield across the canal on private land had this Greater Yellowlegs patrolling the shallows.
Just beyond the shorebird was an immature Bald Eagle out in the field. There may have been a small carcass of some sort as there were also a couple of crows just out of camera view.
Another car pulled up and the eagle took to the skies.
Farther down the road was an immature Red-shouldered Hawk surveying the roadside canal. They feed on amphibians, small reptiles, birds, and small mammals, as well as invertebrates like earthworms. Why is it the hawks that don’t fly away as I approach are always surrounded by a thousand sticks in the background (or right in front of their head)?
I watched this hawk for about 10 minutes before yet another car pulled in and it flew to a perch a little farther back from the road
A few deer were out grazing along some grassy roadways
February is the month when large flocks of blackbirds (mostly Red-winged Blackbirds) flood the fields with their undulating swarms and noisy antics. This field was near one with a few hundred Tundra Swans feeding on the waste corn (the swans can be seen in the background as a white line)
Zoom in to see the red epaulets of the male birds. Females are all brown (streaked). There are also several Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in with this flock (can you find any?)
Turtles were out basking in the sun in many of the canals. One log in a swamp forest along the road had this beautiful Spotted Turtle.
I stepped out of the car to receive a phone call (much to my surprise since most of the refuge has no cell phone service) and was surprised by a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds foraging in the swamp next to the road.

On my first trip, I saw 4 River Otter, a family grouping (I think) that I have seen on other trips to Pungo this winter. The next week we had a 9 otter day, with three groupings of 2, 3, and 4 otters seen at different times and locations. I didn’t try to get close to any but did get to spend quite a while watching a group of 4 where one had a very large fish that it didn’t want to share.

This otter was swimming with two others and decided to climb out on the back across the canal from where i was standing

–A group of River Otters on a canal bank, and one of them apparently doesn’t want to share any of its huge fish meal

A pair of otters came up out of the canal and started running down the road toward me. They eventually thought better of it and returned to the canal.

We stopped the car to look at an American Bittern, one of two we saw in Marsh A, when I heard squalls across the canal. It turned out to be the otters arguing over the large fish one had captured. For the next hour, we had this beautiful bird on one side of the road and the four otter on the other. Melissa stayed with the otter while I went back and forth trying to observe and photograph both wildlife events. There were a few other cars nearby but they were mainly concentrating on the thousands of swans in the shallow water of Marsh A just down the road.

An American Bittern slowly moves through the grasses looking for prey. I watched it catch three items but could never clearly see what it caught because it was behind a clump of grass each time.
When the bittern was among the grasses, it was very difficult to spot due to its streaked camouflage. Here it creeps across an opening and you can see that intense look they always seem to show.
Another bird that is a master of disguise is the Wilson’s Snipe. Their streaked plumage blends in perfectly with their primary habitat – edges of wet marshy areas or muddy fields of patchy grass. You can drive by and never see one, and then stop, look around, still nothing. But if you make a noise or get out of your car, they can explode into the air right in front of you and then zigzag to a landing spot only to vanish once more. This one has its back toward me.
I took dozens of photos of a group of snipe right next to the road and managed only two shots where they are out in the open enough to see the entire bird.
One of the snipe finally walked across a small area of open water and gave me a chance for a reflection photo

On one trip, I introduced myself to a woman I follow on social media that I recognized walking along the road. She is an excellent photographer and visits Pungo way more than I do. She was trying to get a photo of a screech owl she had found in a hollow next to the road. She was gracious enough to show me the tree, though the bird wasn’t visible at the time (she said it would slide down into the hole when a car drove by and it had been a very busy day on the refuge). I thanked her and checked on the tree later that day, but still no owl. On my second trip, I spotted the owl the first time I drove by, but the light was terrible. I decided to wait until late that afternoon when the low angle sunlight would flood into this group of trees.

Eastern Screech Owl (red color morph) resting in a hollow tree opening. There are a lot of branches in front of this tree, so it is difficult to find a spot for a clear view.

We were trying to not disturb the owl and be discreet in our attempts to get a photo so as to not attract a crowd that might disrupt the little guy’s napping. The owl didn’t seem to mind our vehicle slowly driving by and stopping for a few seconds, so we did a couple of back-and-forths, hoping to get a clear look. After admiring this beauty on several drive-bys, we decided to move on and let it rest comfortably. I wonder how many times I have driven by this bird (and others) without seeing it? I guess that is one reason to keep going back…there is always something new to observe, even if only on a day trip. Here’s looking forward to many more in the future.

Our final look at the resting owl as it was facing into the setting sun. The golden light actually makes it even more difficult to see this color owl since the surrounding trees all take on a reddish-golden hue in the low angle light. I have seen both red (generally called rufous) and gray color morphs on the refuge. No one is quite certain what advantage, if any, a bird derives from being one color or the other.

Refuge Ramble, Part 2 – Pea Island and Alligator River

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

~John Muir

This is the last in a series on my wanderings last week in eastern North Carolina and is about the middle of my trip when I visited the coast. After my brief visit with the pool birds at Bodie Island, I drove down to Pea island National Wildlife Refuge. At the Visitor Center, I got out to look for birds in the pool at the start of the walkway and found just a few sparrows, Several people were down on the dike and most birds were pretty far out in the ponds on both sides. Walking back toward the center, I saw a couple of ducks along the marsh edge a bit closer than the rest of the birds in sight. I sat down and waited and soon a Blue-winged Teal swam by followed by a couple of Gadwall. A Common Moorhen made brief appearances at the edge of the marsh but never long enough for a photo.

Blue-winged Teal drake at Pea Island (click photos to enlarge)

A Tricolored Heron flew in and chased off an egret back in the grasses. A few other folks came over to photograph the birds and I soon headed back to the car.

Tricolored Heron flying into the marsh

On the drive in I noticed a bunch of birds close to the highway visible in a break in the dunes. I drove up and parked and started taking some photos while balancing the telephoto lens on a bean bag on the car door. Whenever possible, I try to stay in my vehicle when photographing wildlife as most species are more tolerant of a vehicle than a human form. Soon, another car pulled up and people got out and walked over toward the birds. The mixed flock of shorebirds and waterfowl surprisingly didn’t seem to care, so I got out and moved a little closer, steadying the camera on a tripod while sitting in the sand. Below are some of the subjects I sat with for over an hour with dump trucks loaded with sand whizzing by twenty feet away on a busy Hwy 12.

Marbled Godwit using that long bill to probe for food
A small flock of Dunlin (note the slightly down-curved bill tip) foraged along the shoreline
A Tundra Swan preens with amazing flexibility in that long neck
There was a flock of 30+ American Avocet resting and feeding in the shallows
Avocets typically feed by swinging their unusual bill back and forth through the water (called scything) but that day they seemed to be picking and plunging after their prey (small aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, occasionally small fish)
Avocet doing a head dunk
The impressive bills of a group of Marbled Godwits

I overheard a group of birders (you know, those people with binoculars and scopes standing out in the cold) nearby say they spotted a Peregrine Falcon on the far side of North Pond. I scanned the area and finally saw it far away in the top of a dead tree snag. Soon, there was an eruption of shorebirds (mainly the Dunlin) and some of the smaller ducks as the swift predator streaked by overhead. The falcon circled the area high in the sky and then disappeared. I soon spotted it again perched in the same snag. The shorebirds and ducks would alert me every time the falcon took to the air by making high-pitched squeaks and a general ruckus of sounds. If you’re a potential meal, it pays to keep an eye on a bird that regularly takes birds as prey at speeds of up to 200 mph. When I finally left this spot, I stopped closer to the falcon’s perch. As I was watching, it took off and flew by me allowing me to swing the big lens and attempt a few shots on the wing…lucky for me, a couple turned out okay.

Immature Peregrine Falcon in flight

I decided to head over to Alligator River NWR for the afternoon in hopes of seeing some bear, a Red Wolf, or whatever the refuge might offer. First up was one of the most elusive birds I have tried to photograph over the years – a Belted Kingfisher. I spotted it perched in a jumble of branches in a tree along one of the canals. Shocked that it didn’t fly as I slowed down, I fired off a few pics with plenty of sticks in the way. I backed the car up a bit for a clearer view (the kiss of death usually when trying to get closer to wildlife – they really don’t seem to like a car backing up) and found a tiny opening in the twigs. It was still a pretty busy background but the bird was amazingly calm and not paying much attention to me.

Belted Kingfisher posing for a portrait

I studied the tree and decided to back up further and angled the car for a better view. Again, the kingfisher remained in place! I finally got about as good a photo of a kingfisher as I have ever taken. Not sure why this particular male (males lack the rusty belly-band found on female Belted Kingfishers) was so cooperative, but I’ll take it.

Male belted Kingfisher studying the canal for a possible meal

I moved on and found another favorable subject, a Great Egret, patiently stalking small fish in another canal. I just love watching them strike the water with their stiletto beaks, rise up out of the water with a squirming prey, and toss it up in the air to gulp it down that elongate neck.

The intense concentration of a Great Egret can be seen in its eyes
Strike!

Clouds moved in during the afternoon so when I first found this little raptor, it was hard to see any details, but the relative length of the tail and somewhat stocky body made me think – Merlin! Indeed, it was one of our second largest falcons found in NC, although still rather small as raptors go. Though somewhat similar in appearance to Accipiters like Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks, Merlins are a bit stockier, have a shorter tail relative to overall body length, and have brown eyes (Accipiters have yellow eyes as juveniles and reddish eyes as adults).

A Merlin surveys the area for bird prey
Shades of red hug the horizon in a refuge sunset

I was a bit worried at the increasing clouds that night and what it meant for the next day, but, Friday dawned bright and beautiful and very windy. So windy that when I stepped out of the car at the Pea Island Visitor Center, my hat blew off and went halfway across the parking lot. I just got back in the car and drove up to the break in the roadside dunes where I had been yesterday and decided to observe from the vehicle. It turned out to be another productive morning.

Snow Goose adult in the morning sun
It’s tough to look your best when you turn your back in a strong wind (Marbled Godwit with ruffled feathers – and that incredibly long bill)
An American Wigeon male. Depending on the angle of the sun, the swoosh of color covering the eye can appear blackish, bronze, …
…or green. Males also have the distinctive white stripe across the top of their head, giving them their other common name, Baldpate.
A Green-winged Teal, showing its dark green eye stripe and its namesake wing patch
A drake Gadwall with its distinctive black rump. Enlarge the pic to appreciate the intricate details of the feathering on the sides
A flock of American Avocets was a constant at this spot both days I visited
Shorebirds in flight – Marbled Godwits, Dunlin, and an American Avocet (some very nice bill variety)
A female Northern Harrier cruised by and flushed many of the small shorebirds

When it came time to head back to Pungo, I couldn’t help but drive through Alligator River NWR one last time. I did see one bear, but the highlight was a trio of otters (three singles in different canals). With the gang of four I saw later that afternoon at Pungo, it became a 7-otter day.

A River Otter pops up from underneath a mat of aquatic vegetation

It’s always a good day when you see an otter, but what a day when you see seven! The trip was a huge success with birds, a few bears, lots of otter, and good friends. Hoping I can get back down that way again this winter before the birds head back north. We are truly fortunate to have such extraordinary wild places in our state.

This otter had just swam and crawled through a huge patch of vegetation blocking the canal and probably wasn’t thrilled that I was waiting on the other side. After watching me for a few seconds, it dove and swam by me leaving only a trail of bubbles. I left it to its otterly important tasks after that.

Refuge Ramble – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Last week was another of those times I really appreciate our public lands. I spent four days on the road in eastern North Carolina doing what I love to do – watching and photographing wildlife and sharing it with others. I started out Wednesday morning at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR. It was sunny when I arrived and one of the impoundments finally had some standing water in it so there were some swans hanging out close enough to observe and photograph.

Tundra Swans milling about in Marsh A on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

The day started to take a turn as mid-day approached with light rain showers developing and a rainbow out across the fields.

Distant swans in a rainbow

The rest of the day was the kind of weather where my camera stayed in the car. Unfortunately, I didn’t, and before the day was done I was soaked along with a couple of folks hanging out with me. It wasn’t a total loss (it never is) as we did see a nice young bear and a wild canid. I am pretty sure it was a Red Wolf (that would be the 15th I have seen at Pungo over the years) but I can’t be 100% sure as it was about a hundred yards away when it dashed across a grassy road giving us about a 5 second view. In all my trips to Pungo, I have never seen a coyote but I know they do occur. This canid looked large and leggy, so I am pretty sure it was one of the few remaining Red Wolves in the wild.

The next couple of days were spent further east and I’ll share those highlights in the next post. Friday I was back at Pungo and enjoying the gang of four otters that have been a mainstay of the Pungo wildlife show this winter. One had caught a Bowfin and was munching away in a tangle of brush.

River Otter chewing on the head of a Bowfin

Two other cars had stopped and were out photographing the otter, so I moved on. Later that afternoon, I encountered the otter again and this time they climbed out on the bank and I was able to grab a portrait of one before they all disappeared into the canal.

Otter portrait

At sunset, we were out in the fields near the maintenance area where several thousand Snow Geese were already landing for their evening snack of corn. It is such a privilege to witness this gathering of birds and to share it with others.

I have been lucky to have seen this sunset show well over a hundred times in the almost 40 years I have been going to Pungo and it never gets old. And I love the reactions of people witnessing it for the first time. It is something they never forget.

The next morning was very cold, but sunny. Birds were flying, we had glimpses of the otter again, and a friend spotted a bird I don’t see very often – a King Rail. It was feeding along the bank of D-Canal and allowed us to sit and watch it for several minutes before disappearing into the tangle of vines and debris in what looked like a Muskrat or Nutria burrow entrance.

A King Rail was a highlight for me at Pungo

Mid-day found us driving over to Mattamuskeet where there were many more visitors and tons of waterfowl in the impoundment. Many of the visitors looked like duck hunters and I always wonder what’s going through their minds as they stare out at thousands of ducks. Northern Pintails are particularly abundant this time of year. The whistle calls of the males can be heard everywhere along Wildlife Drive. Anytime an eagle flies over, hundreds of ducks take flight and circle until the threat is gone.

A Great Egret stalking small fish in the shallows

The water level was high in the impoundment, so the ducks had free range over most of it and the waders tended to feed along the edges or at grassy islands. Great Egrets and White Ibis stood out in their white outfits against the dried grasses and blue water.

A pair of White Ibis crisscrossing their bills for the photo

Back at Pungo, we looked for and found the King Rail not far from its morning feeding area. It continued to skulk up under the overhanging tangle of vines and grasses along the canal edge…no wonder I rarely see them.

The King Rail was only a few yards from its morning spot when we returned from Mattamuskeet
The golden glow of late afternoon light on a pair of Tundra Swans in Marsh A

We walked down “Bear Road” seeing a couple of bears across the field and enjoying the beautiful crisp winter day. A few swans flew over, serenading us with their mournful whoo-whoo calls. I ran into several folks I know (I guess I am partly responsible for all these refuge visitors) and then headed out to the front fields, hoping for a show of several thousand Snow Geese. I stopped at the observation platform and did not see the birds out on the lake, so we rushed to the front fields where we found several hundred geese mixed in with feeding swans in the field. Where were the others?

Snow Geese swarming over the fields after a pair of Bald Eagles made the scene

We had not been there very long when I saw waves of birds flying in from the north. They had either been off refuge or around the bend in the lake, invisible from the platform. This was a huge flock of several thousand, flying in with their noisy nasal calls, swirling around the field with the late day sun reflecting on their bodies in a soft rainbow of colors. We were on the west side of the fields this time (I had been on the east side the night before) so the light was very different. The flock was landing about midway in the field, but when they would swirl around, hundreds of birds flew near us, squawking as they tried to settle down to feed. A couple of Bald Eagles flew across, chasing one another, and the geese exploded into the air (the swans stay put when eagles appear).

The magic of Pungo…

I believe there were more cars that night than I have seen at the sunset show (at least twenty scattered on both sides of the field), but, quite frankly, I’m amazed there aren’t a hundred cars every night. But, the birds are not always predictable and the weather can greatly affect their behavior. When conditions are right, like this past week, there is nothing like this anywhere else in North Carolina. Thank you, public lands managers.

1 Bird, 2 Birds, …and some cool other stuff

Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own.

~Charles Dickens

This past Thursday was our annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. As usual, Melissa and I covered our part of the count circle, much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We had planned to camp at Pettigrew State Park the night before, but predicted rain convinced us to just get up early and head down and start close to sunrise. The day dawned cloudy with the potential for rain and conditions on the refuge were not ideal for seeing birds (the dark gray skies make seeing any color or patterns difficult). We started with two bears ambling along the edge of a cornfield as we entered the refuge (I know it is supposed to be a bird count, but we can’t help ourselves). A little farther along, we were seeing a bunch of sparrows and other songbirds in the thick vegetation along one of the canals when I spotted a bunny sitting quietly on the bank.

A rabbit sitting quietly along a roadside canal (click photos to enlarge)

The weather wasn’t the only thing making our observations difficult. The drought and some much needed road construction that impacted one of the feeder canals has left the managed waterfowl impoundments dry this year. This makes it much more difficult to observe the waterfowl up close and it looks like it has caused some of the birds to move elsewhere this winter as swan numbers seemed quite low compared to previous years.

Marsh A is almost totally dry this year (iPhone photo)

The roadside canals were also very low with many having dry spots or mounds of vegetation. Those with water had hunting herons, kingfishers, and a group of otters taking advantage of the concentration of potential prey. We stopped at one spot to look for songbirds and Melissa spotted a wake in the canal, most of which was obscured by overhanging vegetation. She then saw the wake maker – an otter, then 2, 3, and 4 otters appeared. We followed them for awhile and they eventually piled onto a ledge in a tangle of brush and brambles and started rolling around and grooming, occasionally glancing our way. Certainly not the ideal photo, but cool to watch.

The gang of four otters lounging in a tangle and of branches on the bank

Oh, yeah, back to the birds. I look forward to spending time up close to the swans every winter on Marsh A (the usually flooded impoundment with easy road access and plenty of space so people can space themselves out). But the drought and road construction this winter (which hindered the re-flooding of Marsh A) has left it high and dry with only a few puddles scattered over the vast area that typically has a couple of thousand swans in it every day from December through February. It is interesting to finally see how very shallow it is, making it ideal for puddle ducks and the swans. There are a couple of species that have taken advantage of the new giant mud flats – Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe were scattered about. It is amazing how well both species (especially the snipe) blend in to this type of habitat. We started glassing the area after finding the first few snipe and eventually counted over 50 strewn across the rumpled terrain.

Wilson’s Snipe blend in very well to the mud and dried vegetation covered landscape of the dry Marsh A

The unusually warm temperatures gave us the odd combination of winter birds and spring time reptiles and amphibians – lots of turtles out basking, spring peepers calling, along with numerous flying insects (even one Sleepy Orange butterfly).

A male (right) and female Yellow-bellied Slider chilling on a log. Note the long claws on the front feet of the male that he uses to stroke the neck of a female during courtship.

One of the day’s highlights was spotting a group of nine Sandhill Cranes far out in a field feeding alongside swans. The cranes have been regular winter visitors at Pungo for several years now, starting with a group of three for a few winters, then up to five last winter. Nine is a new high for us on the Christmas Count. I guess they’re telling their friends about the wonders of NC.

Seven of the nine Sandhill Cranes we observed

The unseasonably warm day wore on without a lot of bird activity. Luckily, we were given a Special Use Permit for access to a viewing area on Pungo Lake where we spent quite awhile scanning the water for ducks (without that permit, our grand total for ducks observed would have been two mallards since everything was in the lake due to the dry conditions). Satisfied we had seen most of the waterfowl on the lake, we headed back to look for species we thought should be on the refuge that we had not yet seen. But we were soon distracted again by our gang of otters.

The otter gang (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove up alongside the group as they were swimming in one of the canals. They were on Melissa’s side of the vehicle and she managed a rare shot where all four heads are visible at once. I drove ahead and we waited as they approached us and a large mat of vegetation in the canal.

One otter coming toward me

As is often the case, when they reached the vegetation-clogged area in the canal, they disappeared for a few seconds. Then, one by one, they popped their heads up and looked at us, occasionally snorting their disapproval. This went on for about a minute, and then they were off again swimming out ahead of us.

Two of the otter popping up from the vegetation to check me out

Up ahead was a juncture of several canals where otter frequently cross the road, so we drove beyond them and waited just beyond that spot. They kept coming toward us and then one otter came up out of the canal and ran across the dike, carrying a large prey. On our first sighting that morning, one otter had caught a large fish and carried it into the brush on the bank to eat. This one had something long and skinny. I thought it might be an amphiuma, a type of large aquatic salamander common in these habitats, but the otter moved out of sight quickly, followed by the other three, all heading into a canal on the other side.

Otter moving across the canal dike with fresh prey (photo by Melissa Dowland)

I had stepped out of the truck to move to the front to hopefully get a photo, but Melissa had the better angle (again!) and managed several photos as the otter carried its prey across the open ground. Indeed, looking at it on her camera, we could see it was a large salamander! There are a couple of species of large aquatic salamanders that live in these coastal plain ditches and swamps – the Greater Siren and the Two-toed Amphiuma. Both species can grow to over 3 feet in length and both resemble large eels when seen at a distance. Sirens have external gills (we can’t readily distinguish any in the few photos we have) and have only a front pair of legs. The back of the salamander was dragging on the ground so I can’t tell if there are hind legs or not. Looking at images online, it seems that the front legs of a Greater Siren are more substantial than those of an amphiuma, so I am now leaning toward this otter snack being a Greater Siren, but I will happily listen to any opinions from salamanderologists out there.

A close crop reveals the prey is a large aquatic salamander, probably a Greater Siren! (photo by Melissa Dowland)

The otter incident revived our spirits and we moved into high gear, looking for species likely to occur here but that we were still missing. Wild Turkeys are often seen in a field at the edge of the refuge, so we headed in that direction, stopping at a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds to scan for cowbirds and grackles. The turkeys were out in their field, so that added another species.

A gathering of Red-winged Blackbirds

Back near the lake, groups of Snow Geese flew off for their late day feeding in nearby crop fields. We scanned the long lines of birds overhead, looking for a smaller bird mixed in with the flock, a Ross’s Goose. They look like a diminutive Snow Goose, being just over half the size of their bigger cousin. I can find them when they are in a field feeding if the smaller bird is on the outside edge of the flock. Or, I have learned to spot them by scanning a line of flying geese and seeing the obviously smaller one. Thursday, we only managed one Ross’s Goose despite scanning a few hundred flying birds.

Snow Geese flying out of Pungo Lake for their late day feeding (iPhone photo)

We ended the day walking down my long-time favorite spot – “Bear Road”. As rain showers were looming, the now usual crowd at Bear Road had headed home so we had it all to ourselves. Solitude here is now a rare privilege that makes me appreciate even more all the times I experienced this in years past. We picked up an Eastern Screech Owl and another Great Horned Owl, along with bunches of White-throated Sparrows and a few other songbirds (oh, and a mama bear with two cubs). Though not one of our more productive bird species days, a day in the field, especially at Pungo, is always a good day.

Species observed on our part of the count:

10000 Snow Goose
1 Ross’s Goose
280 Canada Goose
3140 Tundra Swan
1 Wood Duck
48 Northern Shoveler
300 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
75 Mallard
12 American Black Duck
26 Northern Pintail
428 Ring-necked Duck
2 Ruddy Duck
5 Wild Turkey
33 Mourning Dove
9 Sandhill Crane
89 Killdeer
55 Wilson’s Snipe
230 Ring-billed Gull
7 Great Blue Heron
3 Black Vulture
36 Turkey Vulture
2 Northern Harrier
3 Bald Eagle
2 Red-shouldered Hawk
4 Red-tailed Hawk
1 Eastern Screech-Owl
4 Great Horned Owl
1 Belted Kingfisher
2 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
4 Red-bellied Woodpecker
1 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
2 Pileated Woodpecker
4 Northern Flicker
4 American Kestrel
8 Eastern Phoebe
4 Blue Jay
25 American Crow
8 Carolina Chickadee
2 Tufted Titmouse
2 Tree Swallow
2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
1 Brown-headed Nuthatch
1 Winter Wren
10 Carolina Wren
3 Gray Catbird
2 Brown Thrasher
3 Northern Mockingbird
2 Eastern Bluebird
2 Hermit Thrush
548 American Robin
2 American Goldfinch
103 White-throated Sparrow
1 Savannah Sparrow
49 Song Sparrow
18 Swamp Sparrow
1 Eastern Towhee
7 Eastern Meadowlark
430 Red-winged Blackbird
1 Common Grackle
50 Yellow-rumped Warbler
35 Northern Cardinal

Return to Merchants Millpond

Paradise is just a paddle away.

~Author unknown

When I worked as a District Naturalist for the state park system oh-so-many years ago, one of my favorite parks was Merchants Millpond State Park in northeastern North Carolina. It is a true natural gem of our state and remains one of my favorite spots to spend some time in the solitude of a beautiful swamp. The millpond was created in 1811 by damming Bennetts Creek to construct a grist mill, sawmill, and other commercial enterprises that gave rise to the name Merchants Millpond. Today, the park encompasses over 3200 acres of cypress-tupelo swamp and beech-mixed hardwood uplands. Melissa has a workshop on the millpond in a few weeks, so she wanted to do a scouting trip and introduce some of her co-leaders to the place. She decided to take a day off for exploring before her staff arrived, so we packed up the truck and threw our kayaks on top for a mid-week adventure in this perfect springtime weather.

Truck camping with some new accessories on top (click photos to enlarge)

I contacted our friends, Floyd and Signa, that live just outside the park, to see if they wanted to paddle with us on Wednesday. They are some of the best naturalists I know and certainly know the millpond better than anyone (Floyd was a ranger there for many years). They offered to take us up Lassiter Swamp to “the big trees”, a scattered group of Bald Cypress trees that are hundreds of years old and tower above the rest of the swamp forest – heck yeah!

The dominant trees on the millpond – Bald Cypress (left) and Tupelo Gum (right)

The 760-acre millpond is dominated by two tree species – Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum. Stumps of ancient cypress cut in the 1800’s form islands of vegetation with Swamp Rose, Wax Myrtle and a host of other plant species. Spanish Moss is draped off most of the tree branches and Yellow Cow Lily (Spatterdock) is just starting to poke its leaves out of the water surface.

Spanish Moss adorns many of the trees on the millpond

Paddle to the far end and you enter an entirely different world – Lassiter Swamp. The channel narrows and winds through a maze of gnarled Tupelo Gum that have been transformed into gargoyle-like shapes by Mistletoe (a semi-parasitic plant that causes the gum trees to create odd growths as they forms “scar tissue” in reaction to the Mistletoe’s intrusion). So many trees have been disfigured by the Mistletoe that the entrance to the swamp is known as “the enchanted forest” by locals.

Paddling up Lassiter Swamp with our friends
The Tupelo Gum take on new forms under the influence of Mistletoe

I have always loved Lassiter Swamp for its solitude and abundance of wildlife. And this trip provided both. As we paddled around one bend, Melissa said, There’s a Raccoon in that tree. I looked, but didn’t see it at first. It was curled up inside a giant gnarl on a gum tree. We were all impressed she spotted it.

The Raccoon tree
A closer look reveals the sleepy Raccoon
Swamp cuteness

After a few hours of paddling, we started seeing some of the really big Bald Cypress scattered about the upper end of Lassiter Swamp. One of the big ones I remembered climbing inside years ago (9 people could stand inside the hollow base of the giant) had fallen victim to Hurricane Isabelle and lay covered in moss along the creek bank. But the matriarch of the swamp is still standing. This cypress was aged by the team that designated those well-known cypress along the Black River as the oldest known trees in the Eastern United States (one has been dated to be at least 2,624 years old). This tree is much larger than those on the Black River due to the nutrient-rich waters of this swamp and is estimated to be at least 1000 years old. It is humbling to stand next to one of these giants.

Standing next to an ancient sentinel of the swamp
This Bald Cypress is estimated to be over 1000 years old
Golden light in the swamp

As we paddled back to the launch area, Melissa spotted a large Alligator basking in the late day sun. Floyd told us about the first confirmed Alligator sighting on the millpond back in 1996. Rumors of gators in the park had been around a couple of years, but, in 1996, a fisherman told Floyd he had seen one. In fact, he had caught it while fishing and had it in his boat (he didn’t know what to do with it and had brought it to shore hoping a ranger could help). After unhooking the ~3-foot gator, keeping it in an unused dog pen with a kiddie pool, and contacting wildlife officials, the decision was made to release it back into the millpond. There are now a few Alligators that call the millpond home, including one larger than the ~7-footer we observed.

Alligator sunning on the bank

A highlight of the trip was one that did not occur on the millpond but on the uplands. Our friends shared the location of an Eastern Screech Owl roosting in a hollow tree, something I have been hoping to find for several years now (I have seen them, but only when I didn’t have a camera in hand). The owl did not disappoint. It is a gray phase (they can also be reddish in color) and has a perfect perch in the hollow of a tree. We checked the tree each time we drove in and out of the campground and it has a habit of disappearing down into the hollow and then reappearing so you never know when it will be visible. What a treat!

The screech owl tree
A closer view of a sleepy Eastern Screech Owl

Another wonderful wildlife encounter was the Bald Eagle nest in a tall pine out on the millpond. The eagle is easily seen with binoculars and must be sitting on eggs still as she didn’t move much on either day we paddled.

The nest tree
Bald Eagle on nest (heavy crop of telephoto image)

On my last trip by the nest tree, the male eagle flew in and perched nearby, giving me the side eye from behind a tree trunk. I paddled on not wanting to disturb them.

The male flew in and perched nearby as I was paddling back out of the millpond
Turtles were basking on almost every log on Thursday (note the very long front claws on the male turtle on the left – used during courtship to stroke the necks of females)

Thursday was even warmer and turtles were everywhere on the millpond. Pickerel Frogs and the occasional Southern Leopard Frog were calling as I paddled solo up the pond to spend the day in the swamp (Melissa was with her co-workers planning the workshop). There is something magical about being in a swamp by yourself. The quiet, the sense of isolation, and yet a feeling of being wrapped in the arms of a living forest. You tend to become a part of the swamp and more in tune to your surroundings.

A large Beaver lodge in Lassiter Swamp

I passed the Raccoon tree and found it empty, but there were plenty of birds and signs of animals (otter scat, beaver lodges and cut trees, raccoon tracks in the mud) as I paddled. Finally, I saw a swirl in the water along one side of the creek and then some movement – otter! I stopped paddling and slowly drifted with camera in hand as the four River Otter realized there was something in their creek and swam out to get a better view. They bobbed up and down, snuffing and snorting as they tried to figure me out. I never got all four in the same field of view at once, but it was great spending a few minutes with these aquatic acrobats. They finally had enough of me and headed upstream.

Two River Otter swimming across the creek
Three of the four otter pause to check me out

Two gorgeous male Wood Ducks graced me with their presence as I sat on a beech slope adjacent to the creek eating my lunch. Of course, the camera was in the kayak and as soon as I slowly tried to reach for it, one of the ducks spotted me and the game was over, off they went. On the way out, I paddled along the edge of Lassiter Swamp seeing plenty of Beaver sign and scaring up flocks of Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks, along with a bunch of noisy pairs of Canada Geese.

A Spatterdock root jam swept by the wind into a cove in the upper end of the millpond

My last wildlife highlight of the day was an Anhinga, a symbol of swamps and black waters in the south. I now see them much more frequently than when I first started paddling the swamps of the Coastal Plain some 40 years ago, but it is always a treat.

An Anhinga flies overhead displaying its distinctive silhouette

Merchants Millpond remains one of my favorites places to spend time on the water. It has a rich history, amazing wildlife, beautiful scenery, great facilities and staff, and can provide you with a sense of being one with a wild place like few other places so close to home. And seeing our friends and knowing all they know and do for the park, it reminds me how much I truly appreciate people like Floyd and Signa that have given (and continue to give) so much to help conserve and make one special wild place available to plants, wildlife, and people. That is one of the things that makes North Carolina State Parks so special, the dedicated people that love and protect them.

The sunset on our first day’s paddle

Refuges as refuge

For every day of loneliness we endure, we’ll spend a day in communion with the life around us until the loneliness passes away.

~Richard Louv

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you know that we are lucky to live in a beautiful wooded setting with abundant wildlife from insects to birds. But one of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic has been spending time with other wildlife, things we typically don’t see here at home. Yesterday, Melissa had to work (in one of her first in-person workshops in quite some time) so I decided to hit the road and visit some of my favorite spots – the wildlife refuges of Eastern North Carolina.

First stop, Pocosin Lakes (aka Pungo). I was surprised to see a few Snow Geese still around along with the usual late Tundra Swans. Several ducks (mainly Northern Shovelers) and four Bald Eagles were a good way to start. All were a bit too far off for photos, so I just watched though binoculars. Some roads are still closed due to the very wet weather and there were already 3 carloads of people at “Bear Road”, so I headed over to Lake Mattamuskeet to try my luck there.

I saw a post last week on Facebook about a Great Horned Owl nest out on the lake, and from the photo, I knew exactly which tree it was in – a small Bald Cypress out on the lake that had an old Osprey nest in it. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nest, but often use broken snags or nests of other large birds. I had to look from the top of the car in order to get a clear view over the tall Phragmites that lines the lake, but you can clearly see the owls in the nest with binoculars or a spotting scope. My 500mm telephoto (plus 1.4x teleconverter) brings it all in a bit closer, but due to the great distance over water, there is a bit of atmospheric interference, which makes a sharp photo difficult. I saw two young plus an adult at one point but have heard there may be three young in the nest.

Great Horned Owls have taken over an old Osprey nest on Lake Mattamuseet (click photos to enlarge)
An adult owl plus two (I think) young can be seen in this photo

Since many of the waterfowl have headed north, I was hoping to see some other critters as I started down Wildlife Drive. A small, dark rabbit greeted me near the entrance and seemed unconcerned as I slowly pulled over across the road. My first thought was this was a Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris. One of three species of rabbits found in NC (Eastern Cottontail and Appalachian Cottontail being the others), Marsh Rabbits are usually found in coastal regions near marshes and swamps. They tend to be slightly darker brown in color, have shorter ears, smaller eyes, and, most distinctly, lack the fluffy white underside to the tail that gives the more common and widespread cottontail its name (their tails are brownish underneath). Unfortunately, this little guy never showed me that part of its anatomy, but I’m still pretty sure its a Marsh Rabbit.

A rabbit out in the open along Wildlife Drive
The rabbit with a mouthful

I enjoyed watching it for several minutes and managed a quick video clip of its constant munching.

This is me with a plate of cookies or chips

I always enjoy the short hike along the New Holland Trail with its beautiful cypress swamp setting. The water levels are very high everywhere in our state right now and, for the first time I can remember, the walk to get to the boardwalk was slightly underwater. But that made for beautiful reflections in the swamp.

The boardwalk on the New Holland Trail at Mattamuskeet NWR
Red Maple flowers signaling the arrival of spring
Playing with post=processing settings on a phone photo of the cypress reflections along the boardwalk

The far end of Wildlife Drive was closed due to high water and the back side of the loop around the impoundment had the most water I have ever seen. That meant fewer wading birds although I did spy a couple of egrets squabbling over feeding territory.

A Great Egret flies to chase off another in its territory

It was still fairly early when I finished my lunch, so I decided to head over to the last refuge for the day, Alligator River NWR. As soon as I drove in off Hwy 264, I spotted an otter in a roadside canal. I stopped to watch and it disappeared into the high water in the trees off the canal. It was the first of five River Otter I spotted in my couple of hours on the refuge. I ended up spending some time with one otter as it swam down a long canal. I would drive ahead and park on the opposite side of the road, then get out and use the vehicle as a blind and a support for my camera and snap a few photos as the otter swam by. Once it was down the canal a bit, I got back in and drove another hundred yards or so beyond the otter to watch it pass again. At one spot, there was an opportunity to get closer due to some trees and brush on my side of the canal. I sat and waited for quite some time and suddenly the otter was alongside me. I managed a couple of quick shots as it passed and then it slowed and turned to look back at me. I imagine the otter might not have been thinking the peaceful thoughts I was having, but it quickly continued on its way.

I spent some time with this River Otter traveling a canal at Alligator River NWR
My favorite photo of a day filled with much needed wildlife encounters

The opening quote above is from a wonderful book (Our Wild Calling) by Richard Louv on the value of human – wildlife interactions. It is the last line in part of a closing paragraph on something he says we should try to adopt in our relations with animal life – what he calls the reciprocity principle. Th other parts of that principle are equally worthy of our attention:

For every moment of healing that humans receive from another creature, humans will provide an equal moment of healing for that animal and its kin. For every acre of wild habitat we take, we will preserve or create at least another acre for wildness. For every dollar we spend on classroom technology, we will spend at least another dollar creating chances for children to connect deeply with another animal plant, or person.

Our wildlife refuges go a long way toward meeting the goals of that principle. And I have been lucky to have a small chunk of woodlands to care-take and to have spent a career trying to provide outdoor experiences for a wide range of people. Now I guess I need to figure out how to repay that otter…

Otterly Fantastic (and more)

The heron and the otter are my friends

And we are all connected to each other

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends!

~Carl Binder

A few days after our virtual program outing, I decided to make a day trip to the refuges for some quiet time watching wildlife. I headed out last Friday about 6 a.m. and pulled into the Pungo Unit on what started as an overcast, drizzly morning. A refuge worker was just beginning to grade D-Canal road and there was a long row of debris in what would be the right lane of the dirt road. I veered over to the left, which turned out to be fortunate, as it gave me a better view down into the canal. As I passed what I call “New Bear Road”, I spotted movement in the canal. It was three River Otters, my second group of these amazing animals that week. They did their typical otter thing of undulating motions in the water while glancing up at me as I was trying to ease the truck into position for a photo. One otter suddenly emerged on the far bank with a decent-sized fish in its mouth. It moved quickly to subdue it while tossing its head back and forth and chomping down on the fish (it looked like a young Bowfin). The low light, their quick movements, and my excitement at seeing the otters, made for less than ideal images, so many of the shots are blurred. But, I enjoyed watching the one otter claim its catch and turn away when others came too close.

River Otter chowing down on a Bowfin caught in a canal on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Here’s a brief clip showing the otter enjoying its breakfast (and not wanting to share with another otter)…

The otters eventually swam to my side of the canal, making them difficult to see from he truck, so I slipped out to look where I last saw their ripples. They were gone! There is a large culvert under the road right there so I guessed they had swam under the road and disappeared into the much smaller canal leading away from the road. I looked, but didn’t see them…were they still under the road? I went back and forth a couple of times looking and finally saw them about a hundred feet away looking back at me. Nice move on their part!

I continued driving down towards “Bear Road”, but saw several cars already there, so I decided to forego scratching my bear itch for the time being. I headed over to spend some time with the swans at Marsh A and saw a car stopped in the middle of the road with a photographer out looking into the flooded swamp along the canal. I didn’t want to disturb whatever she was seeing, so I stopped and looked down the road with my binoculars. Otter again! And again, three of them. I seriously doubt it was the same three otter because I was now a couple of miles from where they were last seen. The photographer finally walked back to her car and I drove on, seeing the wake of the otters as they swam down the canal and in and out of the trees. They kept diving and swimming great distances, their pathway marked by a trail of air bubbles at the surface.

An otter cruising the canal

Then one would suddenly pop up, scan around, snort, and then take off underwater once again. I took a few photos and then drove on, leaving them to their otter doings

Two otters keeping a wary eye on me as they swim the forested edge of the canal

The gray skies and almost no wind made for some nice views of swans at Marsh A. I have found that if I park near the edges of the flock I have more time to view the swans by myself (most photographers go to where the flock is most dense), which causes them to relax more and just do what they do. I also stay in the vehicle, which causes less concern for any nearby birds. A group of three swans were close to the road and after I stopped, they settled back down and started napping again, with an occasional stretch for good measure.

Tundra Swan resting in soft light
Elegance
Not so elegant

As usual, I could have stayed all day with the swans, but the sun started to pop out making the light much less appealing for images, and I wanted to head to Mattamuskeet to see what I might find over there. I’m always amazed at how different the wildlife can be in a place at different times. At Mattamuskeet, the waterfowl were further out in the marsh now compared to our virtual program day, and things were much quieter – no eagles scaring up the ducks, no kingfisher in its usual spot, but there was a nice Great Blue Heron standing quietly on a log.

A Great Blue Heron looking serene at Mattamuskeet

A large flock of American Coot were crowded in the canal along Wildlife Drive, feeding on submerged aquatic vegetation. I sat with them a few minutes, listening and watching their antics. Here is a brief clip…

On my way back out, I spotted an Anhinga on a log in the canal. I drove by and parked, and, next thing I know, it comes swimming by me, with only half its neck and head above water. Snake bird is an apt moniker as that skinny neck bobs back and forth just above the water as they swim.

Anhinga swimming with just its neck above water. Like Pied-billed Grebes, Anhingas can submerge without diving, much like a submarine, by regulating their buoyancy. As I watched, the long neck and dagger-like bill seemed to just slide under the water as it swam.

After another trip around Wildlife Drive, I came back to that downed log, hoping for another chance at one of two Anhingas I had seen. I got lucky and had what I think was an adult female on the log along with a few Double-crested Cormorants. It was busy sunning as I pulled up. Like the cormorants, Anhingas frequently display this wing-spreading behavior. Cormorants have a dense insulating layer of waterproof feathers against their skin, so wing-spreading is believed to be primarily for drying out their wing feathers. Anhingas, on the other hand, lack that insulating layer and have a different micro-structure to their feathers which allows water to penetrate through and decrease their buoyancy. This allows them to swim and hunt with most of their body submerged. And, in Anhingas, the wing-spreading is believed to be more for thermoregulation.

Anhinga with wings spread and a Double-crested Cormorant in the background

The sunning log was partially hidden from view by some tall vegetation between the edge of the canal and where I was parked. By slowly opening the truck door and standing on the running board with the camera resting on top of the open door, I was able to get some nice shots of this beautifully patterned bird as it preened.

The large fan-shaped tail resembles that of a Wild Turkey, giving rise to another common name for this unusual bird – Water Turkey
Close up of Anhinga preening

As is common with me, I took way to many photos of the Anhinga, so the sun was starting its downward trajectory when I headed back to Pungo for the last couple of hours of my trip. Though I really wanted to see bears, there were once again just too many cars and people at Bear Road, so I opted for some more quality time with the swans. The lighting was very different in the afternoon but I always enjoy the sights and sounds of these wonderful waterfowl.

The elegant wing flap

The scene created some beautiful swan watching…

All of the corn in the fields near the refuge entrance had been knocked down for the birds since our trip earlier in the week, so I headed up there for sunset, hoping some Tundra Swans or Snow Geese would fly in for a late feeding (and hoping to see a bear). It wasn’t long until I heard them and then saw the sky filling with the silhouettes of a few thousand Snow Geese headed my way. As is common early in the season, they seemed very wary, and flew circles around the corn field a few times before starting to drop in to feed.

Snow Geese headed for the corn field for a late snack

After feeding for about 20 minutes, something startled them and they took to the sky, flying around a few times before heading back to the lake for the night. Here is a brief clip of one of the sights and sounds that make this place so special.

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.