Searching for Snows

Don’t refuse to go on an occasional wild goose chase – that’s what wild geese are for.

~Henry J. Haskins

I am lucky in retirement to have more time to seek out places that provide a wildlife spectacle. There is something transformative about witnessing masses of animals in a wild place. This time of year, one of the true spectacles at many of our wildlife refuges in the East, is the concentration of waterfowl of various species on their wintering grounds. One of my favorite sights and sounds of winter is a huge flock of Snow Geese flying overhead. So, about a week ago, I went north to Chincoteague looking for waterfowl. It snowed on my second day, and the next morning I went out one last time looking for large flocks, hoping the cold and wind might concentrate them.

Snow Geese hunkered down in cold

Snow Geese hunkered down against the cold and wind (click photos to enlarge)

The flock was there but easy to miss as they were hunkered down on an over-wash fan on the sound side of the beach parking area. There were maybe a little more than a hundred Snow Geese in this group. I pulled up to watch and not a goose moved for several minutes. With temperatures in the teens and a strong wind, I didn’t blame them.

snow geese on sound beach

Snow Geese on edge of marsh at Tom’s Cove in Chincoteague NWR

Finally, a few got up and walked toward the marsh to feed when another hundred or so flew in.

snow goose carrying gass clump

Snow Goose juvenile with a high fiber snack

In areas with extensive marshes, Snow Geese tend to grub up the marsh grasses, consuming almost any part of the plant from roots to stems, to leaves.

snow goose rusty head

Many of the Snow Geese at Chincoteague have rust-colored heads

This grubbing behavior often leads to the white head, neck, and breast feathers having a rust-colored stained appearance due to the mineral content of the mud. I rarely see this on the Snow Geese at Pungo, as they tend to feed more on waste grain in agricultural fields.

snow goose bloody

Bloodied Snow Goose

Before leaving, I did see a goose with a different color – blood red. This goose had been injured (shot perhaps?) and had been bleeding somewhere on the head or neck. After watching the bird for several minutes, it seemed to be doing well, moving normally and feeding with the others in the marsh.

With relatively few birds at Chincoteague, and one more day to look for large flocks, I headed back to my favorite place, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, to spend my last day on the road searching for snows.

Tundra Swans in field

Tundra Swans crowd a recently cut corn field at Pungo

I arrived at Pungo late in the afternoon. The light was gorgeous coming into a recently cut corn field adjacent to one of the main roads on the refuge. There were a few thousand Tundra Swans feeding on the corn and many more flying in. This was a good sign, as large flocks of swans often attract the Snow Geese as they search for a late day feeding. I pulled off the road, along with a couple of other cars, to take it all in. I didn’t have to wait long. At first, about 50 Snow Geese flew in, circled, and landed among their taller cousins. Then I saw them coming, a huge flock flying in from the lake. I jumped out and quickly put the camera on a tripod and started recording…

The flock did its usual thing, noisily circling the field, breaking up into a couple of white clouds, and started landing. A lot of the swans decided it was time to head back to the lake with all the commotion starting, so the scene was chaotic with birds circling, others leaving, and everyone making a lot of noise. It is tough to take it all in. I certainly can see how flocks can confuse predators, as I found myself not knowing which way to look or point the camera, since there was something happening in all directions. This was all repeated the next evening, so these photos are from two afternoon shows.

snow geese and moon 1

A beautiful moon added to the scene

This is what I wanted to see, the large swirls of birds in the sky, the late afternoon light tinging their bodies and wings with hints of gold. An almost full moon overhead added a touch of elegance to the scene, as did the graceful swans.

snow goose landing in crowd 2

A Snow Goose hangs in the air looking for room to land

Both evenings, the sea of white moved closer to the edge of the road where I stood, getting access to the corn that remained uneaten. The geese kept coming in, streaming down among the swans, who seemed disturbed by the interlopers in their field.

Snow geese landing 1

A blue morph Snow Goose landing with white morphs

Noticeable among the white birds are several of the darker color morphs. Long believed to be a separate species, the Blue Goose, these are now known to be a color morph of the race of Lesser Snow Geese. This color variation is controlled by a single gene. The two color morphs can mate with each other and produce young of either or both colors.

Ross' Goose

A Ross’s Goose feeds at the edge of the flock

Near the edge of the churning flock, I spot a diminutive Ross’s Goose. roughly half the size of a Snow Goose, but otherwise very similar. Their bill is shorter and lacks the black “grin line” of a Snow Goose, but that feature is not always easy to discern as their heads bob up and down while feeding.

blast off

A blast off of white and black

A car pulls up, and people jump out, and the birds close to them blast off with a deafening sound of squawks and wings. With a telephoto lens, I just capture a tiny window of the scene….imagine it one thousand fold for a sense of the immensity of the upward moving snow storm. They circle and land again. The wind is coming from my back, as is the sun, causing the beautifully lit birds to land facing my camera, just what you want for capturing images of winged snowflakes.

snow goose pair landing

A pair of Snow Geese early in the afternoon, before the “golden hour”

snow geese banking

A slight turn as it lands reveals the entire underside of this bird

snow goose landing 4

Some birds looks like they are thinking ahead about foot placement

snow goose landing in crowd 2

It must be tough to find the right spot

blue geese landing

A trio of blue morphs landing

collared snow goose

I caught this collared Snow Goose as it came in to the field

best snow goose landing

I love it when the shadow of the head can be seen on the wings

snow goose landing 1

The light turns golden in the last part of the day

Snow geese landing

The two color morphs together

Populations of Snow Geese have increased dramatically since the early 1900’s, when hunting was stopped due to low numbers. It resumed again in 1975 after populations had recovered. The numbers have continued to grow, causing some scientists and managers to think that the tundra nesting habitat of Snow Geese is beginning to suffer from such high concentrations of feeding birds in summer. They are now probably one of the most abundant waterfowl species in North America, and concentrate in huge flocks during migration. A friend recently told me that our refuges can’t justify planting corn for Snow Geese because their numbers are so high. But, we both agreed, from a refuge visitor standpoint, the Snow Geese offer a spectacle that few other species of wildlife can match.

snow geese and moon crop

Snow Geese against a rising moon

Birds Galore

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.

~Rachel Carson

I had two groups scheduled for trips over the last week, one a group of photographers, and one some friends from my museum world. The weather for the first group did not look great, but they all decided to roll the dice and give it a try.  And I am glad they did, as there were some beautiful photographs taken and some wild scenes observed. The second group had much better weather, but it turned windy and much colder, which is often a good thing in terms of wildlife activity. Birds were abundant, with an estimated 40,000+ Snow Geese now on the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR.

snow geese overhead 2

Snow Geese against a gray sky (click on photos to enlarge)

The flocks are still being a little antsy, with the main flock circling the fields for quite some time before settling, and various groups breaking up and peeling off from the main aggregation. When they do swarm as a flock, they are truly magnificent to see, and hear. On the first morning with a group, we were treated to a bear wandering through the flock of Snow Geese in the field, causing a commotion as the birds parted to allow the bruin to pass (unfortunately, I had not carried my camera due to impending rain). I answered  a question from one of the group about where these birds had migrated from by showing them an image on my phone of a certificate I just received from my report of a Snow Goose collar (as related in an earlier post). The two collared birds both had been caught and tagged in Nunavut, Canada, above the Arctic Circle. That is almost due north of their wintering grounds at Pungo Lake, and a distance of about 2600 miles.

certificate for collar

Certificate from collared Snow Goose report

One thing that really surprised me was the age of one of the birds (MXO7) who was at least 11 years old. Assuming this Snow Goose has made this same trip, back and forth each year, it has flown at least 52,000 miles in its 11 years…that’s a lot of wing beats.

snow geese over field

Snow Geese circling over corn field in early morning light

Over the next few days, we saw the flocks in the same fields, coming out in the morning early, feeding for a couple of hours, returning to the lake to rest, and repeating the pattern late in the afternoon.

snow geese over field 2

Snow Geese just after blast off

As we walked along the path, the entire flock would occasionally blast off with a loud cacophony of calls and circle noisily before returning to feed.

Immature Bald Eagle

A Bald Eagle fly-by will almost always cause the flock to blast off

If you look closely, the usual cause for these nervous lift-offs is a passing Bald Eagle, like the immature eagle in the photo above.. I imagine the eagles are testing the flock as they cruise over, looking for weak birds, or something that might cue them in on an easy meal.

snow and ross' goose

Snow Goose (left) and Ross’s Goose, flying next to each other

My new game when the birds fly over is to try to pick out a smaller Ross’s Goose out of the flock of Snow Geese as they pass overhead. It is obviously much easier once the flock has stretched out in lines, rather than when they are tightly packed together.

The spectacle of the Snow Geese flying overhead is one of the reasons I love this place. While my groups were able to experience it in various ways, I had an absolutely amazing experience Sunday evening between leading trips. It was a beautiful evening and I was walking back toward the gate. My friend, Rick, was at the gate, along with a first-time visitor to Pungo, Sydney. The birds came into the field as I walked, so I stopped, then turned and walked back some distance to where I thought they might fly over on their way back to the lake. And I waited…

They did as I had hoped, taking off in one giant swoop, and spreading out over the pink-tinged sky, making an incredible sound as they winged their way to the safety of the dark waters just beyond the trees. Sydney had walked out toward me just before the bird’s departure. It was an a truly spectacular introduction to the wonders of Pungo on her first visit.

There were many other bird highlights in my 6 days at the two refuges, many not recorded by my camera, but indelibly etched in my memory. Of the latter, there was a Peregrine Falcon streaking by the corn field; a Merlin accelerating across s the tops of the corn resulting in an explosion of Red-winged Blackbirds, but no kill this time; and the high-pitched shriek of a Wood Duck as it dipped and ripped through the treetops with a raptor of some sort (probably a Peregrine or a Cooper’s Hawk) in hot pursuit.

Trumpeter Swan close up

Trumpeter Swan at Mattamuskeet

Tundra Swan close up

Tundra Swan head for comparison

At Mattamuskeet, there have been reports of a few Trumpeter Swans hanging out along Wildlife Drive. On my scouting trip the first day, I came across a group that I think were the Trumpeters – slightly larger, no yellow on the bill (although that can vary on Tundra Swans), and a longer, and more sloping bill. They also apparently curl their necks into more of an S-shape and rest it on their body when in a sitting or resting position.

Swan juvenile

Juvenile swan

There were a couple of juvenile swans nearby that I think were also Trumpeters as they had darker heads than most of the immature Tundra Swans I see.

A few other highlights of a great trip to two of my favorite places…I can’t wait to go back.

bears in rod

A good way to end a trip – 5 Black Bears between you and your car

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret along the causeway at Mattamuskeet

bald eagle with rabbit

Bald Eagle flying across a roadside field with a small rabbit

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern at Mattamuskeet

Pungo sunset 3

Beautiful sunset at Pungo

Until Next Winter

Bird migration is the one truly unifying phenomenon in the world…

~Scott Weidensaul

_-2

Snow Geese landing in a corn field on their wintering ground at Pocosin Lakes NWR (click photos to enlarge)

Having been stuck in the Piedmont the last two weeks with other priorities, I imagine the Snow Geese have left their winter home at Pocosin Lakes NWR and started their long journey north. The Tundra Swans have probably started as well, but my guess is that some are still hanging around with all this cold weather we have had lately. But, soon, they will all be gone, not to return until next winter. On a recent trip, some of the local weather experts, the trees, were telling me it was almost time for the birds to leave.

Red Maple flowers

Red Maple flowers

And when the Red Maple flowers start to bloom, it won’t be long until the frogs are calling (actually, we heard some back in January) and the winter waterfowl start winging their way to the breeding grounds. So, as I sit here in the Piedmont on a snowy day when others are wishing for the sixty degree days of early Spring, I am thinking of the first cold blasts of air in November and December next year that will bring with them the amazing birds of winter.

Here is a short video of the last flock of Snow Geese I saw this winter, shot on my last trip two weeks ago, They remind me of animated snow flakes falling into the corn field…I hope those of you that are sick of the cold, ice, and snow can forgive me, but I can’t wait until next winter.

 

 

 

 

 

Pungo Reflections – Sky

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

~ Alfred Kreymborg

Sunrise at Pungo Lake

Sunrise at Pungo Lake (click photos to enlarge)

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

Snow Geese against moon

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

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

Tundra Swan in early morning light

Tundra Swan in early morning light

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

Swans coming in for a landing

Swans coming in for a landing

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

Snow Geese circling the field

Snow Geese circling the field

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

Snow Geese blasting off from corn field

Snow Geese blasting off from corn field

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

Bald Eagle flushes Snow Geese

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

Bald Eagle flushes Snow Geese 1

The Bald Eagle finally came out into clear view

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

Bald Eagle lowering its landing gear

Bald Eagle lowering its landing gear

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

Red-winged Blackbirds in dense flock

Red-winged Blackbirds in dense flock

Snow Geese and Red-winged Blackbirds

Snow Geese and Red-winged Blackbirds

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

Blackbird flock 2

Red-winged Blackbirds showing their flashy side

Red-winged tornado

Red-winged tornado

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

Northern Harrier and potential prey

Northern Harrier and potential prey

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

Male Northern Harrier criusing for a meal

Male Northern Harrier looking for a meal

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

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier

A close pass by a male Northern Harrier

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

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle

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

Snow Geese in golden light

Snow Geese in golden light

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

Bald Eagle in golden light

Bald Eagle in late afternoon light

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

Bald Eagle and potentil prey

Bald Eagle and Snow Geese sharing the golden light

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

Snow Geese returning to lake

Snow Geese returning to lake

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

Wilderness helps us preserve our capacity for wonder

the power to feel, if not so see,

the miracles of life, of beauty,

and of harmony around us.

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

The Show

Watching huge flocks of Snow Geese swirl down from the sky, amid a cacophony of honking, is a little like standing inside a snow globe.

~Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/snow_goose/lifehistory

When I saw this quote, I said, yup, they nailed it. On almost any day from mid-December through early February, you have a good chance of seeing large flocks of Snow Geese as they fly to and from various roosting areas (usually Pungo Lake) and the fields where they feed. But what you want is to be standing next to the field they choose to land in, especially after sunrise or close to sunset. Then you have a chance to experience what I call, The Show.

Snow Geese high overhead

Snow Geese flying high overhead (click photos to enlarge)

Last weekend I had two groups, one in the rain and clouds on Saturday, and one on a beautiful sunny day on Sunday. It truly was weather fit for ducks on Saturday, and, true to its name, the birds were very active all day. Based on the number of gunshots heard just off the refuge, the local hunters were having a good day as well. The Snow Geese came in to a field later than usual that morning and stayed a long time before heading back to the lake. Sunday was very different – after an early morning departure, the Snow Geese returned after about an hour and spent much of the day on the lake.

Tundra Swans in field

Tundra Swans in corn field

The swans, meanwhile, took their time getting out to the fields to feed, and by late afternoon when we returned from Mattamuskeet, there were a few thousand Tundra Swans in some corn fields near one of the refuge roads. This is always a good sign. Snow Geese seem to like to land in fields where there are a lot of swans feeding, but this was not the field they had been in the evening before. It has been a little harder this year to predict where The Show will be as the fickle Snow Geese have been splitting up in smaller flocks and moving around a lot more than in years past. But, as we watched the swans, I saw the thin, wavy lines of Snow Geese on the horizon. So, we waited. After circling a bit over the lake, it looked as though they were headed our way.

Snow Geese coming into field at sunset 1

Snow Geese coming into field at sunset

As we watched, the leading edge of the flock streamed our way and started to circle the field, the late afternoon light casting a golden glow on the underside of the birds. Looking back at the horizon, I could see thousands of Snow Geese headed our way, and we seemed to be in just the right place….let The Show begin.

Flock flying into field 1

The sights and sounds change as the birds swirl down into the field

Snow Geese coming into field at sunset 2

The flock continued to swirl around us in the golden light

For the next 30 minutes, we stood there, mesmerized by thousands of birds flying around us and feeding in the field right next to the road. Every now and then a car would drive by, pushing the birds farther back into the field or causing large numbers to lift off and circle over us again before settling back down to their dinner of corn kernels.

Snow Geese coming into field at sunset

Can you spot the Ross’s Goose in the flock?

I wanted the group to see some of the smaller Ross’s Geese and we soon found several on the front edge of the flock in the field next to us. We also tried to spot their smaller size in the birds flying low over our heads. Look at the photo above (best to click on it and enlarge) and see if you can find at least one Ross’s Goose – it is smaller in size, lacking the “black grin lines” found on a Snow Goose bill, and has a shorter, stubbier bill.

Blurred Snow Geese 1

The flock finally blasted off to fly back to the lake for the night

As darkness approached, small groups of Snow Geese began to head back to the lake along with an increasingly steady stream of swans. Finally, a car came by with its headlights on, and the rest of the Snow Geese blasted off in a blur of wings. It had been a phenomenal afternoon and The Show had been superb, with thousands of birds right on top of us. There really is nothing else like it anywhere in our region. The Snow Geese should be around a couple of more weeks before they start their long migration back to their breeding areas. One Snow Goose we reported this year had a neck collar with the code TC84. We heard back from a USFWS biologist that it was banded on its breeding area on 8/15/2011 at the South Plain of Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada…a long way from this corn field in eastern North Carolina.

I have tours this weekend and have some availability next weekend. Contact me if you are interested in trying to get seats to The Show before the curtain closes for this year. As Chris Early writes in his excellent field guide, Waterfowl of Eastern North America

Hundreds of these geese flying together really convey why their name is so appropriate – they look like a flurry of snowflakes. But they’re very noisy snowflakes; the sound that these flocks make is an experience in itself. A huge flight of Snow Geese is something that everyone should see (and hear) at least once in their lifetime.

Well said, Chris. I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

Spectacle

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

~John Burroughs

It has been a great winter of experiences in nature. I have had the pleasure of sharing many special sights and sounds with a number of special people, as well as having moments of solitude in the presence of incredible beauty and awe. Friday evening was one of those special moments, with two of us going to the refuge a day early to prepare for a trip with a wonderful group of educators the next day. The birds continue their elusive and somewhat unpredictable ways but we found them and managed to place ourselves in their path back to the safety of Pungo Lake as the sunlight faded. I only had the iPhone out, and it did an adequate job of trying to share the moment, in spite of my crooked horizon:)

I just let it run while my senses tried to take it all in as they were put in order.

Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife, are, in fact, plans to protect man.

~Stewart Udall

Sunset Sky

The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Snow Geese above Pungo Lake

Snow Geese above Pungo Lake (click photos to enlarge)

I had a group tour the first few days of 2015, so I went down to Pungo on New Year’s Day to scout things out. It was a cold and beautiful afternoon. The usual groups of Tundra Swans dotted the fields and there were a few small flocks of the increasingly elusive Snow Geese flying to and fro. As the sun started getting low in the sky, I drove over to the south shore of Pungo Lake, hoping to catch the geese coming back in to roost for the evening. Instead, I spotted their characteristic undulating waves of birds flying high over the lake,  as if headed out to the fields to feed. I jumped in the car and drove out toward the refuge entrance in case they were headed to the corn fields for a late snack.

Snow Geese at sunset across field

Sunset view of Snow Geese flying over fields

When I arrived, most of the geese were feeding in a wheat field several hundred yards from my position. I could see a half dozen cars of folks close to the birds, but I wanted the geese against the orange sky, so I stayed put, on the far side of all the action.

Snow Geese againt sunset sky

Snow Geese against sunset sky

As the sun sank low in the sky, the geese continued to circle and land on the far side of the fields, giving me those silhouette images that I sought. Suddenly, the entire flock blasted off, presumably headed to the lake for the night. Instead, the mass of birds headed across the fields and swirled all around me, filling the sky with sound and the dark shadows of beating wings. Then, the entire flock landed in a corn field near the car.

Snow Geese flying closer at sunset

The entire flock flew to the corn field adjacent to my car

The sound of that many birds feeding in a field next to you is unbelievable. It sounds like a giant machine of some sort, perhaps a huge industrial furnace. The flock, perhaps numbering 10,000 birds, moved through the corn like a feathered combine. I just sat and watched, in awe, at the spectacle of so many living things acting as one unified eating machine. Suddenly, as if one of the birds had realized it was getting late, the flock erupted from the field, turned, and headed toward the lake for the night. I stood there for a moment as the sound faded to the north. What a magical way to start a new year.

December Scenes

If we can somehow retain places where we can always sense the mystery of the unknown, our lives will be richer.

~Sigurd F. Olson

Wildlife refuges, parks, open spaces – these are the special places I love. And we are lucky here in North Carolina to have an incredible variety of public lands to enjoy. Last week, I took a few days to do a quick tour of some of my favorite places – five national wildlife refuges (Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, Alligator River, Currituck, and Pea Island), and a national seashore, Bodie Island at Cape Hatteras National Seashore).

Snow Geese on foggy morning

Snow Geese on foggy morning at Pocosin Lakes NWR (click photos to enlarge)

A light fog hung over the fields at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR at sunrise and soon, they could be heard coming from the lake – Snow Geese. Not the tens of thousands I had hoped for, but still enough to delight the eyes and ears.

The flock probably numbered a couple of thousand. They did the usual Snow Goose act of noisily settling into a field, moving as a large white mass feeding in the field, and then erupting into the sky with a loud roar – then repeat – and repeat. One blast off was triggered by a Bald Eagle flyover, but I have no idea what caused the other take-offs. While I don’t understand why they behave this erratically (or how it isn’t a total drain on their energy reserves), I never tire of seeing and hearing it.

Merlin

A Merlin sitting on a bird-friendly sign on the beach

The next morning I took my inaugural drive on the beach in my new 4wd Honda up at Corolla. I had never been to this part of the Outer Banks, and I was amazed at the super highway out on the beach. But, there was also a welcome bird sighting – a Merlin, appropriately sitting on a refuge sign along the dunes at Currituck NWR. Merlins are slightly larger and generally darker in plumage than our smallest falcon, the American Kestrel. They are voracious predators on various species of small birds, but this one was quietly surveying the scene as cars and trucks whizzed by on the beach.

Female Bufflehead

Female or immature male Bufflehead at Pea Island

Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Duck

That afternoon included stops at two other waterfowl hot spots. There were plenty of birds at Pea Island, but most were far out on North or South Ponds. A walk along the trail did produce some nice views of two species – a few Buffleheads and a group of Ruddy Ducks. Ruddy Ducks always seem to have a startled look when swimming, their stiff tail feathers held up at an angle.

Bodie Island pond

Bodie Island pond (iPhone photo)

As the afternoon light started getting that golden glow, I walked out onto the observation platform at Bodie Island. Ducks were calling and flying – a quintessential coastal Carolina December scene.

Northern Pintails

Northern Pintails

Female Northern Pintail dabbling

Female Northern Pintail dabbling

Several Northern Pintails and a few Tundra Swans were feeding in the shallow water near the observation platform, dabbling on submerged aquatic vegetation, with their rear ends up in the air.

Avocets

American Avocets

A few American Avocets were scattered across the pond, picking at some unseen morsels in the water. I always enjoy seeing these elegant shorebirds with their unusual upturned stiletto bills.

The fading light bathed a pair of Tundra Swans near the platform in rich golden hues as the adult bird preened itself one last time before sunset. Immature (first year) swans have grayish heads and necks and are usually seen accompanying their parents and siblings on the wintering grounds.

The trip, while brief, turned out to be memorable – beautiful scenes, abundant and diverse wildlife, peaceful soundscapes, and the vast sky characteristic of eastern North Carolina. As the year winds down, I want to wish everyone a happy holiday season and a joyous new year. I hope you are all able to spend more time outside this coming year.

Wild parks are places of recreation…

Nature’s cathedrals…

Where all may gain inspiration and strength…

~John Muir

Bodie Island Lighthouse at sunset

Bodie Island Lighthouse at sunset (iPhone photo)

 

 

 

Refuge Magic

I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.

~Marjorie Kinnan Rawling

For me, that place of enchantment in my home state is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge…more specifically, the Pungo Unit of that refuge. I had a trip this past week with a couple of friends and it never fails to deliver. It is not always the same thing, but it is a wild enough area that there is always something to provide a memorable moment. It was a day trip, leaving Raleigh at 7 a.m. That makes for a long day, especially when you start by going to my other favorite wildlife spot, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.

Immature Black-crowned Night Heron

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

Lake Mattamuskeet is the largest natural lake in North Carolina and attracts thousands of waterfowl in the winter. But most of those birds are hidden from view, spending much of their time in the east end of the lake or in impoundments that are closed to the public. However, a drive along Wildlife Drive will allow you glimpses of that wildlife richness. There are a couple of small pools near the gate that reliably produce good bird sightings (although the invasive plant, Phragmites, is beginning to block much of the view in this area). One species you are likely to see there is the Black-crowned Night Heron. This trip provided a good view of an immature bird, while the nearby adult was hidden in thick vegetation.

Great Blue Heron gets a drink

Great Blue Heron gets a drink

There is almost always a sentinel of the marsh, a Great Blue Heron, present in this area when you first drive in. Unlike Great Blues in many other areas, these are fairly tolerant of our presence and thus are probably amongst the most photographed of their species in North Carolina.

Great Egret striking at prey

Great Egret striking at prey

Another almost sure bet near the entrance is a Great Egret. These elegant white birds forage throughout the area, most often taking small fish, with the occasional larger specimen caught for the luckier viewers. I have hundreds of images of these marsh stalkers from this location over the years, but I can’t seem to resist trying to get a few more on each trip. I particularly enjoy trying to capture the moment of the strike – their white head splashing in the water as they snag a meal.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Another reliable species near the entrance is the diminuitive Pied-billed Grebe (PBG for short). These chunky little divers scoot about the pools, diving for fish, and generally going less appreciated than the long-legged marsh dwellers. But, I like these little guys, and they often swim close enough to shore to allow a nice reflection shot when waters are calm.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

A surprise sighting in the pools this trip was a Horned Grebe. I have seen them out on the lake in some winters, but never in one of the canal areas where you can appreciate their winter plumage and bright red eyes.

Fish eye lens in swamp

Fish eye lens view of swamp

One of my favorite stops at Mattamuskeet is the short boardwalk through a cypress swamp just off Wildlife Drive. I borrowed my friend’s fish eye lens for some unusual perspectives and then learned of a simple trick with my iPhone that produces some interesting results as well.

iPhone pano in swamp

iPhone vertical pano shot in swamp

I have used the pano feature on my phone’s camera many times in this area, but never vertically. Simply turn the camera sideways in pano mode and start overhead and bring it down. By starting overhead, you get the proper exposure for the sky. You can then lighten the darker areas near the base of the image with some shadow reduction features in post processing. Not nearly as nice or sharp as the fish eye, but it doesn’t require the outlay of thousands of dollars that the high quality lens does.

Tundra swans flying out of Pungo Lake

As the afternoon shadows lengthened, we drove over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes for the sunset show. Tundra Swans were flying to and from the lake, providing some beautiful views in the afternoon light. But what I wanted was the return of the Snow Geese to the fields or lake itself. The large flocks have been leaving the refuge in the morning, apparently feeding in fields far to the east. I was hoping they would fly back into some of the refuge fields before heading into the lake to roost for the night.

We positioned ourselves near one of the fields containing several hundred swans and enough bear tracks along the road to make you think you would certainly see a bruin as it came out to feed.  Finally, I spotted them – several thousand Snow Geese flying in from the east in undulating waves of wings. They began to circle and land, joining the hundreds of Tundra Swans already in the field. Right at sunset, a Black Bear came out and wandered over, setting the flock into the air where they circled a few times before heading out to the lake to spend the night. Refuge magic at its best.

I will be leading trips to this area for the next several weeks to observe the wintering waterfowl and other wildlife. Most weekends in January are already booked, but I have many week days left as well as some single weekend dates. I’ll also soon be posting details on my blog Trips page for my June trips to Yellowstone and my July trip to Trinidad and Tobago (the latter in conjunction with EcoQuest Travel and the NC Zoo Society). If you are looking for that last gift for someone special (or yourself), consider giving the gift of nature – a field experience with the Roads End Naturalist. Contact me at my email address – roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com – for more information, rates, and availability.

 

 

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