Last week I had another group going to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. They had been scheduled for the prior week, but the rare coastal snow storm had made it impossible for them to get to Pungo. I headed down the day before to scout the roads that had been so difficult to navigate the weekend before. It is amazing what a dry day can do for road conditions and I was pleased they had improved greatly, although there were still a few pretty difficult mud holes to navigate. A quick drive through in late afternoon and I had the usual thousands of Tundra Swans, Red-winged Blackbirds, 15+ Bald Eagles, and a few bears. The Snow Geese were not in the fields with the swans as they had been last week, but, instead, flew over and back several times, but refused to settle down. They ended up landing briefly in some fields on private land a couple of miles to the north, but as I drove toward them, hunters opened fire, sending the flock scurrying back to the lake for the evening.
We met at 6:15 the next morning and headed to the refuge. Leaving one car at the maintenance area, we drove to the observation platform on the south shore of Pungo Lake. A chilly north wind greeted us, but relatively few birds compared to previous sunrises. But the Red-winged Blackbirds did not disappoint. Right on schedule, they streamed over us by the thousands, flying in from the east, and continuing on to the fields to our west to feed.
The morning was relatively quiet. The Snow Geese flew out of the lake at 7:30 a.m., right on schedule, but headed north to places unknown. Swans continued flying out most of the morning as we drove the refuge looking for bears and other wildlife. The reflections in the canals were beautiful, so we stopped a few times for photo ops, but mainly kept looking for some place where wildlife was abundant and active.
While observing a large group of swans in a flooded corn field, I suddenly spotted some unusual visitors – Sandhill Cranes! Two small groups, totaling five cranes, flew by us out toward private farm fields to the west. While they were a considerable distance from us, there is no mistaking the distinctive flight pattern. I managed a few quick shots of one group before they disappeared. I have only seen Sandhill Cranes here one other time in all the years I have been coming to the refuge.
The Sandhills were the first of two surprises our group encountered. Later in the afternoon we heard and spotted another Trumpeter Swan as it (or perhaps two) flew by us, mixed in with a few Tundra Swans. I had heard the distinctive call of a Trumpeter while leading another group a week ago, and here was another flying by. When I contacted a friend and USFWS biologist about it after hearing the first Trumpeter last week, she told me they had observed a few last winter while conducting a waterfowl survey in the area and she reminded me they had captured a few several years ago while banding Tundra Swans. She suggested they may be part of the group that was released a few years ago as part of a reintroduction effort in Ohio.
Part of the afternoon was spent hiking the woods along “Bear Road” and observing the abundant bear sign. We did see a Great Horned Owl and later heard a Screech Owl, but overall, the woods were very quiet and even the lake lacked the usual background sounds of hundreds of swans. They all seemed to be out in the fields feeding, so that’s where we headed for the end of the day.
After looking at several Bald Eagles overlooking fields full of swans and blackbirds, we finally saw a couple of bears emerge from the trees. But soon, they rushed back in and, to my dismay, I soon saw the reason why – two dogs were patrolling the field and running at everything in sight. I had seen these same two dogs the day before on a road miles from here on the other side of the refuge, and, later, in this same field. I think they belong to one of the houses along the paved portion of road, but it is unfortunate that they are running loose on the refuge, spooking the few animals that were out on this day.
With the dogs being in this field, I decided to move up the road to where a few thousand swans were feeding. As we watched and listened, a few hundred Snow Geese flew in…a good sign. Shortly afterward, several thousand Snow Geese came flying in very high up and then began to swirl around the wheat field in their classic group landing.
Once again, we stood in awe as the sky was filled with thousands of beating wings slowly descending to the fields. Here is a brief video of thousands of Snow Geese settling into the wheat fields, where hundreds of Tundra Swans are already feeding.
The prime season at Pungo is beginning to wind down, and one day soon, in a week or two, or three, the Snow Geese will all lift off and head north. For days following that, the Tundra Swans will drift off to the north in smaller flocks until, in a few weeks, the lake will be silent once more. Many of the eagles will disperse, with just a few remaining behind all summer. The giant flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds will break up and move to breeding territories to the north. But new species of song birds will arrive, and the bears will start being more active, new cubs will appear, a diversity of reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates will be out and about, and the cycle of life at the refuge will continue. I plan to be there through it all, and hope you can join me.