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.


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.


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

The Black and White of Pungo

To see in color is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul. ~Andri Cauldwell

Last Wednesday, I headed to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge to scout the area for an outing later that week. I’ll report on the outing in the next post, but wanted to share a few highlights of the scouting trip. If only the critters would realize they need to show up when I schedule them so I don’t have to tell people…”well, yesterday…”

There seemed to be a somewhat monochromatic theme to the critters last week, so here are a few of my favorite shots:

Blackbirds in trees

Red-winged Blackbirds in trees at Pungo – note male Northern Harrier streaking by the treetop (click photos to enlarge)

Tundra Swan flyover

Tundra Swan flyover

American Coot

American Coot feeding on submerged aquatic vegetation

Black Bear sow 1

Black Bear sow

When my participants arrived, we again saw all of this wildlife, and more. Unfortunately, I was treated to one spectacle that afternoon that eluded my group during their stay…but such are the vagaries of wildlife watching. They never behave on cue.

Blackbird flock in front of snow goose flock

Blackbird flock in front of Snow Goose flock

I was waiting at a favorite location for bears when thousands of Snow Geese came out of the lake and started circling the field as if wanting to land. In the foreground, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds drifted across the corn stubble in dark clouds. The geese landed about a mile away and I started walking in their direction.

Bear with snow geese

Snow Geese circling field where bear was feeding

A young Black Bear had been out in the field when the flock started to circle, and many of the loud birds started landing near the bear. The young bear retreated into cover and the then reappeared a short while later. It fed for a few minutes and then retreated once more, while the flock on the ground grew larger and was moving toward both me and the bear.

Bear with snow geese 1

Young bear approaching flock of Snow Geese

On its next appearance in the field with the geese, the bear must have decided to try to reclaim the corn supply. The next few images show the bear running toward the flock.

Bear with snow geese 3

Young bear running at flock

Bear with snow geese 4

They just won’t leave…

Bear standing looking st snow geese

Bear standing, looking at Snow Geese as they circle and land nearby

A few birds spooked and flew, but more were landing all the time. The bear stood up as more Snow Geese began to circle and land nearby. If only I could read a bear’s mind…The bear then walked off the field, leaving the corn to the growing, noisy flock.

White cloud at sunset

As the sun neared the horizon, the Snow Geese all decided it was time to return to the safety of the lake for the evening. The flock was white against the dark tree line and then appeared black as it crossed the open sky.

Snow Geese at sunset

Snow Geese at sunset

Snow Geese flying over field at sunset

Snow Geese flying over field at sunset

I wish they had waited for my group, but knowing that there is always a chance to witness such a spectacle is what keeps me going back. If interested in scheduling a guided trip to this amazing area, please contact me at roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com.

Light Geese

The Snow Goose need not bathe to make itself white. Neither need you do anything but be yourself.

~Lao Tzu

On one of my first Christmas Bird Counts over 25 years ago, at what was then Pungo National Wildlife Refuge (now the expanded Pocosin Lakes NWR),  I ran into a well-known birder who was scoping a huge flock of Snow Geese. He asked if I had seen the Ross’s Geese mixed in with the thousands of Snow Geese. I had heard of Ross’s Geese, but never seen one. The flock suddenly erupted, and as the mass of birds circled us, he exclaimed, “There…there they are, three of them”.

Pocosin Arts images-117

Blast off at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

I looked, but really couldn’t see a different bird in the flapping sea of white and black wings. That was my introduction to the subtleties of goose identification. Together, Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese are often referred to as light geese. Light goose populations are increasing nationwide and Snow Geese are now believed to be one of the most abundant waterfowl in the continental U.S. My recent trip to Bosque del Apache in New Mexico provided great opportunities for observation and comparison. In NC, if you see even a single Ross’s Goose mixed with thousands of Snow Geese, it is a good day (most Ross’s Geese overwinter in California and other western states). At Bosque, the Ross’s Geese are much more common, with small flocks easily spotted along the edges of the large flocks of Snow Geese.

Landing blue goose

Intermediate dark-morph Snow Goose landing amongst light-morphs

Snow Geese are dimorphic, meaning they occur in two color morphs – one light, and one dark. Until 1973, the two were considered separate species. The field guide I learned to bird with listed the dark-morph as the Blue Goose. The dark-morph is estimated to make up less than 5% of the Snow Goose population that winters here in NC.

Landing Snow Goose blue sky

Landing light-morph Snow Goose

Adult light-morphs are white with black primaries, which appear as black wing tips when seen from below.

Landing blue goose against sky

Landing dark-morph Snow Goose

Adult dark-morph Snow Geese have dark gray-brown bodies with white heads and upper necks. A range of intermediate color forms occurs between the light and dark morphs.

Landing immature blue goose

Immature Snow Goose

Immature birds of both morphs are grayer overall.

Adult Snow Goose

Adult light-morph Snow Goose showing black “lips” and pink feet

Both color morphs have a distinctive black “grin patch”, or “lip line” on their bills. They also have pink legs and feet.

Ross's Goose

Ross’s Goose

An adult Ross’s Goose looks like a miniature Snow Goose (a little more than half the size of an adult Snow Goose). Other distinguishing features to separate them from Snow Geese are the lack of the prominent black “lip line” on the shorter, stubbier bill, and a more rounded head. They also have a grayish/bluish base on their upper mandible with caruncles (warty bumps) developing with age. The back edge of the bill-feather line on a Ross’s Goose is straight, whereas that on a Snow Goose, is curved. They also have a more rapid wing beat and a higher pitched call than Snow Geese. Dark-morphs are rare in Ross’s Geese. Immature Ross’s Geese are grayish. Hybrids do occur, with the best distinguishing features being an intermediate size, bill length, and a slight curvature to the back of the bill line.

Light goose comparison

Comparison of Ross’s Goose (right foreground) and Snow Goose

Snow Goose and Ross's Goose

Snow Goose (foreground) compared to Ross’s Goose

The comparison is best seen when the two species are next to one another. They are also easy to tell apart if they occur in the same line of a flying group of light geese, with the noticeable size difference being easy to spot with practice.

Goose observation pond along South Loop

Pond along South Loop

On the last afternoon, a drive along the south loop at Bosque put me in close proximity to several hundred light geese lounging, bathing, and conversing. The birds settled into a routine and, for about an hour, a small group of us sat and watched as the geese went about their business.

Sleeping goose 1

Snow Goose napping with one eye on me

Sleeping snow goose 1

Snow Goose slowly spinning in a circle as it naps

Many of the birds rested, head tucked into their back feathers. They seemed to keep tabs on me with one open eye even as they “slept”. Interestingly, several of the napping birds would slowly rotate in a tight circle, perhaps as a way to survey the scene as they rested.

snow goose bathing  2

Snow Goose bathing sequence

snow goose bathing 1

Snow Goose bathing

snow goose bathing  3

Snow Goose bathing

When not resting, the birds in this flock were preening, stretching, bathing, and discussing unknown subjects with their neighbors. Several bathing styles were evident varying between awkward splashing to vigorous head dipping. One additional method was new to me – the bathing flip. It involves a head dunk that turns into a complete body flip in the water accompanied by some vigorous splashing. The short video below includes a few examples (see if you can distinguish the Snow Geese from the Ross’s Geese swimming about)…

snow goose wing flap start

snow goose wing flap 4

Often, the bathing sequence concludes with a prominent wing flap where the bird rises up on the water surface and flaps its wings a couple of times before settling back down to resume preening or simply rest.

More geese joined our group from time to time in flocks varying in size from a five or ten to larger flocks of fifty or more. And, since it was a small pond, we observers all had front row seats to some beautiful landings.

Landing blue gooe 1

Dark-morph Snow Goose

landing pair of Snow Geese

Pair of Snow Geese

Landing Snow Goose from below

Snow Goose coming in from straight above

Landing Snow Goose head-on 2

Head-on view of Snow Goose

Landing Ross's Goose 1

Ross’s Goose

Landing Snow Goose splash-down side view

Snow Goose splash-down

After about an hour, something changed and the flock’s behavior and calling became more fidgety.

Mixed flock of light geese taking flight

Mixed flock of light geese taking flight

Soon, a few birds took off – at first groups of ten to twenty, then a few more, until, finally, about half the remaining flock lifted off and flew directly over our heads. That was followed shortly by the lift-off of the remaining geese and the once noisy pond was empty. Most of the birds flew out into an adjoining cornfield and started to feed.  Less than an hour later, most will have flown off to their evening roost in some shallow water found throughout this section of the refuge, safe from most predators.

Sunrise at the Flight Deck

Such is the daily routine of the light goose brigade: rise before sun up and dazzle the onlookers; move out to another shallow roosting spot for perhaps an hour, then gradually fly off to fields for awhile; fly back to a pond, then back to a field, and so on, until late in the day when they return to roost together in huge flocks to squabble and jostle the night away; start the whole thing all over again the next morning. I marvel at how these birds manage their energy budget since they never seem to truly rest (perhaps at night?) and are always on edge, waiting for some unseen cue to send them skyward.

But having spent some quality time with them, I now have a better appreciation of their beauty, and of how to more easily distinguish between the species. Raucous or not, they are still magical to see and hear as they fill the sky at Bosque or here at home in North Carolina.

Snow geese landing silhouettes

Snow Geese landing in dawn’s light


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

A Good Way to End a Day

I like to remember that it is wild country that gives rise to wild animals; and that the marvelous specificity of wild animals reminds us to wake up, to let our senses be inflamed by every scent and sound and sight and taste and touch of the world. I like to remember that we are not here forever, and not here alone, and that the respect with which we behold the wild world matters, if anything does.

~Rick Bass

By the time I got over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes, it was mid-afternoon. I did a quick drive through, checking an area where my museum friends said they saw a bobcat the day before. Unfortunately, no bobcat for me, so I drove on, looking for bears. I parked and walked down the gated dirt road to an area where bears have been active. With overcast skies and a long walk, I took only my tripod, 300mm lens, a 1.4x teleconverter, and my Kwik Camo photography blind. This is a handy camouflaged cover with slots for your hands, lens, and flash units. It comes in a camo fanny pack and is very light, so it is no problem on a long walk. I wanted to try standing for awhile along the tree line under the blind, just to see what I could see, even if there were no photo ops.

Camo blind selfie

Kwik Camo blind selfie – in case you weren’t already worried about me:)… (click to enlarge photos)

I picked a spot near where bears were obviously crossing the dirt road from the woods to the bounty of the corn field.

bear crossing

Bear crossing

There were three such bear highways along the path – easily noticed by the trail of wet soil that could be seen from quite a distance.

track highway

Track highway…can you see tracks of at least three mammal species?

When I got to the last crossing, it looked as though every animal on the refuge had walked through the mud that day. I am always impressed by the amount of wildlife sign I see here…certainly one of the best places I have ever been to learn about wildlife tracks and signs. So, as if often the case on such outings, once I was situated, I waited. And waited. One thing about the use of the blind is that it is a little tough to see behind you, so I found myself turning my head frequently to scan for wildlife (something I do more often in bear country:)

Bears coming out of woods

Bears coming out of woods

There is usually plenty to observe while waiting in a blind. To my right, I watched a hawk hunting over the field and when I turned back to my left, this is what I saw – an adult female and a young bear coming out of the woods, headed toward the field. There was almost no wind, so I don’t think she sensed me, as she cautiously came out and went down into the canal for a drink. I swung the lens around and pointed it toward where the pair had disappeared along the canal bank when a slight motion to my left caught my eye…another young bear was walking down the tree line I was in and suddenly realized that the bush next to the tree (that’s me) moved .

This one knew I was there

Young Black Bear keeping an eye on the moving bush (me)

It stared at me for a second and then ambled off toward its mother and sibling, glancing back from time to time to see if the bush moved again (I didn’t). I always try to not disturb the wildlife I am watching. But this young bear had seen me (and perhaps heard the camera shutter – boy, it seems so loud at times like this).

Mother and cub

Mother and young bear

When the other two bears came up out of the ditch, the sibling ambled off toward the dinner table (corn field), while the mother looked at her other youngster staring at me and then looked around, before finally fixing her gaze in my direction. I shot two images and then remained silent. She continued to look around, sniffed a few times, and apparently did not sense anything to worry about, so they both headed off toward the corn. I watched them for another thirty minutes as they fed far down the field from me, and then I headed out toward the car about a mile away. It is always a special feeling when I am able to observe wildlife doing what they do without them becoming alarmed at my presence.

The day had been a great one, although strangely warm for early December. I saw two species of butterflies out earlier in the day, and as I walked back, a few bats came out for an early hunt. Five other bears came out of the woods as I walked, most a great distance from me. A Great Horned Owl started hooting as the sun was reaching the horizon. A Corn Snake crossed the road. And then I heard them coming…the birds returning to the lake for the evening. I paused as the first wave of Snow Geese flew overhead. Smaller groupings of Tundra Swans were flying in long V’s underneath. I was alone in this magical place and I felt incredibly lucky. I shot a short video with my phone hoping to capture a little of that magic. But, there is no substitute for being out there and taking it all in, realizing that these special places are essential for both the wildlife and the human spirit.

Listen for the differences in the calls of the returning flocks – the high-pitched, somewhat nasal quality of the Snow Geese honks, and the lower-pitched hooting of the Tundra Swans.

NOTE: I am offering trips in this extraordinary region the first two weekends in January and possibly another in February. Contact me at roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com for details.