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

Trip Report – a Frozen Mattamuskeet and Pungo

To me, the beautiful and ever-changing patterns formed in lake ice – and in snowflakes, the ice of the sky – are winter’s “bloom,” corresponding to the flowering plants of summer.

~Stephen Hatch

I had another trip to North Carolina’s winter wonderland this past weekend. And a wonderland it was…Lake Mattamuskeet was largely frozen, a most unusual sight. The last time this happened was 1986, and, ironically, I was there that winter as well. I met my group on the causeway at sunrise and we marveled at the expanse of grayness before us. A few cold Canada Geese walked on the ice, probably wondering what had happened to their once watery haven.

Lake Msattamuskeet frozen at sunrise

A frozen Lake Mattamuskeet at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

The marsh impoundments along Wildlife Drive were also frozen, but we soon spotted a Bald Eagle standing on the ice, surveying the scene for a weakened duck or goose that might make an easy kill. A few other eagles patrolled the area, sending hundred of ducks skyward with every pass. Small birds such as kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers were busy in the shrub thickets, and American Coot grazed on the vegetation along the banks of the road. But it was a much more quiet drive than normal, save for the loud crunching of my tires on the ice-covered road. Our wildlife highlight for the morning was an otter trying to move across some thin ice, but forced to do a combination of loping and swimming as it frequently broke through the ice on its way to the marsh.

Bald Eagle on ice 1

Bald Eagle on ice

After lunch, we ventured out on the swamp boardwalk across the canal from the lodge. I always take folks on this walk as it is beautiful, quiet, and gives you a view of a habitat that is hidden from most people.

Swamp boardwalk

Swamp boardwalk

I have photographed this area many times and love the reflections you get in the dark waters beneath the cypress trees, but I have never seen it like this.

swamp pano

Panorama of frozen swamp

Frozen swamp 1

Ice and reflections in cypress swamp

Frozen swamp with cypress knees

Bald Cypress knees in the deep freeze along the boardwalk

Frozen swamp with ice circle

Patterns in ice create circles around each tree trunk

Frozen swamp

Blue-gray cast to ice in swamp

As we walked into the swamp, one of the participants excitedly asked about a bird she spotted. I looked out on the ice and was surprised when I saw movement just beneath my feet under the boardwalk. It was a Sora Rail, and only a few feet from us!

Sora Rail on ice 1

Sora Rail emerged from under the boardwalk and walked out onto the ice

The Sora is a quail-sized rail that is more often heard than seen due to its secretive habits. As the small bird strutted out on the ice, I was amazed at its huge feet. We watched it for a few minutes as it foraged amongst the debris surrounding tree trunks and cypress knees protruding from the ice.

Sora Rail on ice 2

Sora Rail on ice

The weather started to take a downward turn with heavy clouds and periodic drizzle. Driving along Wildlife Drive, we came across a large flock of Cedar Waxwings feeding on the berries of the invasive Privet shrubs that unfortunately cover the roadsides and thickets on the refuge.

Cedar Waxwing eating privet berry vertical 1

Cedar Waxwing eating Privet fruit

Waxwings are one of our most beautiful birds. They have an air-brushed, silky-smooth appearance, with a bold black mask and yellow (sometimes orange) tail tip. Adults have red, waxy-looking tips to the feathers on their wings.

Cedar Waxwing eating privet berry

Cedar Waxwings have a silky appearance

Weather conditions worsened and the drive back to the hotel was in dense fog. We were on the observation platform at Pungo Lake at “sunrise” the next morning, but it might as well have been a deck in the clouds. It was magical to hear the sounds of thousands of swans and Snow Geese on the lake while not being able to see a single one.

Fog at Pungo Lake

Dense fog at Pungo Lake

I was worried about road conditions at the Pungo Unit after the unusual heavy snow and it was a worry with merit. Thankfully, refuge staff had repaired two of the large holes in the road I had encountered on my last trip a couple of weeks ago, but the snow melt had worsened other portions of the roads, giving us a few anxious moments as we plowed through the mud and occasional deep ruts. As the fog started to lift, we could see swans flying out to the surrounding fields to feed. Anywhere the birds congregated, they did so under the watchful eyes of predators such as this immature Bald Eagle. We saw over 20 eagles, along with an assortment of other avian predators such as Northern Harriers, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, and a Merlin that nabbed one of the thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding in the cornfields.

Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle watching swans feed in the field below

At one point, we were watching a flock of swans feeding while more swans continually landed to join the flock. We all heard a strange call, which reminded me of a specialty car horn on a clown car in a parade. I had never heard anything quite like it, but it seemed to come from a swan that was landing in the midst of the hundreds of others feeding on the corn. The only thing I could think of was it might have been the call of a Trumpeter Swan. After playing the calls on our phone birding apps that, indeed, was what it sounded like. Even though we desperately searched the flock, looking for the subtle differences in bill shape that distinguish the western species of swan from our Tundra Swan, I could not find it amongst the hundreds of feeding birds. I have written a few experts to see what they think, but it certainly seems we heard a North Carolina rarity. Listen to the call on the web site of The Trumpeter Swan Society here –

Mid-afternoon, we walked through the woods along my favorite spot for locating bears (“Bear Road”). While we saw plenty of bear sign, we did not see any bears, and, to my surprise, no fresh bear tracks in the muddy road. So, I altered my normal routine of ending the day in this usually productive section of the refuge, in favor of heading toward some recently cut over corn fields near the refuge maintenance area. When we arrived at the paved road, we could see thousands of Tundra Swans feeding in the fields. Suddenly, they started filling the skies, much like a slow-motion blast off of a dense flock of Snow Geese. I have never seen this many swans take off at once.

Tundra Swans taking off from field 1

Tundra Swans taking off from field

The sun popped out, flooding the field with light, and the source of the swan’s concern soon appeared…a large Black Bear coming into the field from the adjoining woods.

Bear and swans

Black Bear moving into field and flushing thousands of swans

The bear moved quickly into the field, picked up what I thought was an ear of corn, and retreated back to the woods. A closer look at my images (the bear was over a hundred yards from us) showed that it had picked up either a leg bone or wing bone, probably from one of several swan carcasses in the fields.

Bear with food and swans

Bear picks up a bone in the field and heads back to the woods

We saw seven other bears move into the edges of the field over the next thirty minutes as we watched this unbelievable scene of wildlife abundance unfold in the beautiful light of a gorgeous winter sky. Shortly after the large bear disappeared, I looked up and saw what must have been the entire Snow Goose population on the refuge headed our way.

Snow Geese arriving

Waves of Snow Geese arrive to join the Tundra Swans feeding in the cornfield

The light continued to get better, turning the geese into golden-winged fliers at times, then bright white ones as they banked. The sky in front of us was soon swirling with thousands of geese noisily making their approach.

Snow Goose swirl

A swirl of descending Snow Geese

We watched as wave after wave started to land. How they manage to pick a spot amongst the hundreds of feeding and squawking geese on the ground is beyond me.

Snow Gees landing 1

Snow Geese landing – note the blue color morphs that appear as darker geese

I always try to spot a few Ross’ Geese whenever there are this many Snow Geese close by. We had seen a couple at the edge of feeding flocks, but I enjoy the challenge of identifying them in the sky amongst thousands of their larger cousins.

Ross' Goose landing

Ross’ Goose landing – it is the smaller goose in the lower left – you can see the smaller size, more rounded head, and the lack of a black “lip line” on the bill (when zoomed in)

The grand finale of this unbelievable wildlife spectacle was when, on some unknown cue, the entire flock of 30,000+ Snow Geese lifted off in the classic blast off. The whoosh of their wings as their collectively rise from the fields or lake can be heard for over a mile.

Snow Geese blast off

Snow Geese blast off

The geese all headed back to the lake for the night, leaving the swans alone to feed (I always imagine they let out a swan sigh when their noisy neighbors depart). It had been an incredible finish to a great weekend, in spite of the challenging weather and roads. I was glad to have shared it with such great folks and happy to introduce the magic of Pungo to another group.