Trip Report – Pungo

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.

Bear and Blackbirds

Black Bear ventures out into corn field surrounded by hundreds of hungry Red-winged Blackbirds (click photos to enlarge)

Snow Geese flying against western sky at sunset

Snow Geese flying at sunset

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.

Red-winged Blackbirds at dawn at platform

Red-winged Blackbirds at dawn

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.

Canal reflections 1

Canal reflections

Canal reflections

Grasses bordering the canals make for interesting reflections

Tundra Swan in flight

Tundra Swan in flight

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.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes at Pungo

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.

Bald Eagle digiscoped

Digiscoped image of adult Bald Eagle

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.

Snow Geese swirling

Snow Geese swirling as they get ready to land

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.

Snow Geese and Moon

Snow Geese flying across the moon at Pungo

Bosque

Wherever there are birds, there is hope.

~Mehmet Murat ildan

Snow Geese at Crane Pond

Snow Geese taking flight at Bosque del Apache (click on photos to enlarge)

Bosque – say that to any birder or wildlife photographer, and they immediately know of what you speak. There is only one place that comes to mind – Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. It has been on my bucket list since I first saw images of the birds there more than 20 years ago. And just before Christmas I was there…and it did not disappoint.

Bosque del Apache is Spanish for “woods of the Apache”, referring to a time when Spanish explorers would be surprised by Apaches coming out of the forests of Cottonwood trees growing along the Rio Grande River. The refuge was created in 1939 to preserve important wintering habitats along the river for waterfowl and a dwindling Sandhill Crane population. Today, it is widely considered one of the finest wildlife viewing areas in the world, especially for the thousands of waterfowl and cranes that winter here.

High desert

High desert habitat in the area near Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

The drive down from Albuquerque yielded no clue to the abundance to come – it is high desert covered in shrubs with odd-sounding names like Creosote Bush and Screwbean Mesquite.  As you near the refuge, trees begin to appear –  beautiful, majestic trunks of Cottonwoods. The flat landscape changes dramatically as you near the river, the true lifeblood of the 57,000+ acre refuge.

Northern Pintail on morning ice

Northern Pintail on morning ice

But there were birds to see, so after a quick stop at the visitor center (staffed by a cadre of helpful volunteers) time was spent watching a large flock of Northern Pintails (probably the most abundant duck seen) in a pool bordered by ice.

The sky was soon full of birds, mainly Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, flying in from the fields to roost for the evening. Staff told me the cranes were coming into some pools along the main road known as the Crane Ponds, so that is where I wanted to be as the sun set.

Crane Pond at sunset

Crane Ponds at sunset the first evening in Bosque

The sky was clear, not a cloud in sight. Cranes drifted into the ponds for about an hour as the sun set behind the Chupadera Mountains. Their ancient calls filled the air and a group of us stood in silence (except for the camera shutters:) as the pond filled with the stately forms. Quite an introduction to Bosque.

Sunrise at the Flight Deck vertical

Sunrise at the Flight Deck

Cranes dropping into pond at sunset

Cranes dropping into pond at sunset

The next few days were a sequence of incredible sunrises and sunsets, with the sights and sounds of thousands of flying and calling birds filling the skies.

Sunrise from Flight Deck with Snow Geese in air

Sunrise from Flight Deck with Snow Geese in flight

Last sunset

Last sunset at Bosque

The final day brought this sky painting sequence to a glorious finale – a lingering sunrise at the area known as The Flight Deck and a slow starting sunset at the Crane Ponds that turned into one of the most intense fire-laden skies I have ever seen.

Sandhill Crane over marsh

Sandhill Crane lifting off over marsh

Early morning on Crane Pond

Early morning on Crane Ponds

I learned I have a compulsion to photograph birds in flight and ended up with a total of over 8000 images over the five days of shooting. On the return flight I deleted over 1000 and quickly trashed another few hundred once I started reviewing at home. How many images of flying cranes and crowded scenes of birds on the water do you need?

Snow Geese flock on Crane Pondpg

Snow Geese flock on Crane Ponds

Snow geese are raucous, always busy and noisy, kind of a rough crowd in the bird world, or so it seems at first glance (I actually got hit 6 times by snow goose “bombs” as they blasted off over my head one afternoon).

Cranes tend to be more elegant with a call that is one of the most memorable utterances in the bird world. They stand an impressive 4.5-5 feet in height and are stately in their flight, dances, and strides. To offset that noble air, they sometimes do border on the comical with some of their jumps and in a behavior appropriately labeled the intend-to-fly. I called it “the lean”.

Crane probing dirt mound

Crane jumping on and probing dirt mound

The lean

Cranes often lean in the direction of flight prior to take-off

Two Cranes taking off

Cranes running for take-off

Prior to take-off, cranes tend to lean in the direction of their impending flight. It gets funny when several adjacent birds all start to lean, and then hold that position for what seems like an unnecessary length of time before one bird will finally start the run-and-flap sequence that leads to lift-off.

Snow Geese with mountains

Snow Geese flying between feeding areas mid-day

Sandhill Crne portrait

Sandhill Crane portrait

The middle of the day has notoriously harsh light, but is still a great time to search the refuge for other species or to watch interesting behaviors of the stars, the Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes.

When you take time to look elsewhere there is even more to see at Bosque. One of the biggest surprises was one morning when three large bull Elk came out from the shrub thickets, paused, and turned back and disappeared while my mouth fell open and my camera lay untouched on the seat.

Mule Deer

Mule Deer

Other mammals spotted during the stay included Coyotes, Desert Cottontails, Collared Peccaries, a Rock Squirrel, and the very common Mule Deer.

Mountain Lion signage

Mountain Lion signage – there have been sightings at Bosque

Unfortunately, I once again failed to add one particularly elusive mammal to my life list but did get some hope from these scattered signs.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

Once you get past the masses of geese and cranes, there are plenty of other birds to see. My last post covered one of the several Great Horned Owls seen, but several other raptor species patrolled the skies including Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks (many of which are various dark color morphs), Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, and American Kestrels.

Greater Roadruner

Greater Roadrunner

Other species of note included a few lifers for me – Gambel’s Quail, Say’s Phoebe, Lesser Goldfinch, and a much sought-after species observed late in the trip – a couple of Greater Roadrunners. The first Roadrunner was a real skulker alongside a roadway and the second was noticed because of an unusual behavior. Roadrunners fluff up their feathers as they turn their back toward the sun to soak up warmth – they look like a dark gray puffball with a brown neck as they sit in the open for up to several minutes.

Crane Pond morning

Snow Geese at Crane Ponds with mountains as a backdrop

But Bosque is about the spectacle of thousands of birds in a stunning setting. There’s a feeling I get when I have these experiences that I have trouble putting into words. It’s a connection to the larger world, to something much bigger than me. A calmness comes over me. It is powerful, peaceful, and it gives me hope…hope for better things, hope for a world more in tune with natural cycles and events. It also always makes me thankful for those people that had the foresight to set these areas aside as protected lands, and to the people that have been, and are now, the caretakers of these public treasures.

A trip to Bosque is a dream come true for any naturalist or photographer. But while the numbers of the different species on the refuge are impressive (that week according to volunteers – 92,000 ducks, 46,000 Snow Geese, 8,900 Sandhill Cranes, 9 eagles), it did remind me of some special places back home – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. And I think I will appreciate them even more now – while a Sandhill Crane is a rare sighting in NC, we do have more Snow Geese (estimated 85,000 last year at Pocosin Lakes alone), tens of thousands of ducks and Tundra Swans, many more eagles, and all those Black Bears I find so fascinating. I hope that one day the funding may exist to allow some additional development of visitor services facilities at our refuges, but for now, I am looking forward to my next trip down east in the next few days. I’ll be sure to pause and reflect how lucky we are to have these special places here in NC where we can be inspired by the spectacle of abundant wildlife.

A national wildlife restoration program is based on the premise that wildlife is not only worth our efforts to restore it, but that its restoration is absolutely and vitally essential to the welfare of our citizens.
~Jay Norwood (“Ding”) Darling, former Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey

I’ll leave you with some more images of the abundance and beauty at Bosque…

Crane calling 1

Sandhill Crane calling as it takes off

Cranes flying across moon

Cranes flying across rising full moon

Cranes flying in fiery sunset

Cranes flying into Crane Ponds in fiery sunset

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Moon on crane pond

Crane silhouettes in setting full moon at dawn

People watching Snow Geese

Photographers at Crane Ponds

Sandhill Crane takes flight 1

Sandhill Crane takes flight

Say's Phoebe 1

Say’s Phoebe

Crane group

Sandhill Cranes at sunset

Three cranes in flight

Sandhill Cranes flying out to feed in nearby fields

Two Cranes wading in fiery light

Sandhill Cranes settling in for the night

No Mere Bird

When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men. Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.

~Aldo Leopold

Cranes in horizontal line at sunset

Sandhill Cranes landing at sunset in Crane Ponds at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, NM (click photo to enlarge)

A short video clip with cranes calling at sunset at Bosque del Apache.