Refuge Renewal

In such surroundings – occasional as our visits may be – we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.

~Laurence Rockefeller

It is the season of renewal for me, the season of experiencing some of the wild spectacles of this place I call home. I had a trip this past week to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges and, though we ended up leaving a bit early due to the predicted winter storm, it was still a refreshing reminder of why these places are so important – important to the amazing wildlife that can be found there, and important to those of us lucky enough to spend time in them.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron walking in shallows along causeway (click photos to enlarge)

I stopped by the Pungo Unit on my way down Wednesday. Very quiet and the roads were pretty muddy. We started our tour at sunrise the next morning at Lake Mattamuskeet. There are relatively few birds out along the causeway this year, due to the wet year and resulting high lake levels, and the decline in the submerged aquatic vegetation (see recent Wildlife in North Carolina magazine article). You can still usually find a couple of birds near the south end of the causeway, especially some waders like the great blue heron above. I love the textures of their feathers, which seem even more prominent in cold weather.

black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron adult

I always look for a heron or black-crowned night heron on the pilings in the marsh pool just inside the gate to the refuge, but they were empty. But, at the next pool, an adult night heron was out in plain view, and was hunting. I have never seen a night heron at this particular pool in all the years I have been going to the refuge (and haven’t seen much else here the past couple of years since the Phragmites grass has taken over the edge of the pool).

black-crowned night heron strikig at prey

Night heron strikes and catches a small fish (note nictitating membrane to protect eye)

black-crowned night heron scratching

Nothing like a good scratch after a meal

black-crowned night heron close up

The red eye of an adult black-crowned night heron is spectacular

Their red eye is stunning in sunlight. Young black-crowned night herons have yellow eyes, that gradually change to orange, and then red as they mature. Though many species of birds show a change in eye color from young to adult, no one seems sure what the evolutionary significance of this may be.

Bald eagle immature

Immature bald eagle

Among the many birds we saw, there were the usual bald eagles perched along the edges of the lake and marshes scanning the areas for weakened waterfowl that make an easy meal. At one point, we had two immature eagles and a red-tailed hawk all soar out over us.

eagles tangling in mid-air

The eagles engaged in aerial combat

eagles tangling in mid-air 1

One eagle rolled over, extending its talons

Suddenly, the two eagles started to chase one another and were soon performing some serious acrobatics. This may be a territorial battle, or simply their form of play, I’m not sure. Almost as quickly as it had started, it was over. We saw some more of this over at Pungo the next day involving three eagles, two adults chasing one juvenile through the woods.

Anhinga sunning

An anhinga sunning itself

I had seen an anhinga in the Mattamuskeet canals on a visit in December, so I was looking for it again. We found it sunning itself in a tree across the canal from the lodge. Interestingly, this spot used to be the best place on the refuge to see black-crowned night herons (especially juveniles), but the past two winters they have been scarce.

Anhinga swimming

Anhinga, often called the snakebird, for its swimming style

As we admired the anhinga through my scope, another one came swimming down the canal. I think this is the first time I have ever seen two at once on the refuge.

white ibis

White ibis landing in marsh

We continued looking for wildlife throughout much of the day, with many of the usual suspects being observed. We found almost 100 white ibis feeding in a field at Lake Landing, and felt lucky to see a group of American white pelicans soaring over us. We also had a couple of good warbler sightings – a cooperative common yellowthroat male and an orange-crowned warbler. Overall waterfowl numbers seemed low, but there is still enough diversity to get some good looks and decent photos.

Photo blind

New photo blind at Mattamuskeet

It wasn’t until late in the day we discovered the new photo blind on the refuge. It is located along Hwy 94, between the entrance and exit points of Wildlife Drive. Kudos to those responsible – it is a great design with good viewing ports covered by camouflage netting. When we drove up, there were several species of waterfowl just off the front of the blind. They swam off as we walked in, but I think if you spend some time in this spot, you could get some good results once the birds return (you can’t really sneak in without nearby birds seeing you; bring a seat or bucket if you plan to spend time in it). I look forward to returning on a future trip. I hope other public land managers will consider putting up similar structures. This one was funded, at least in part, by a grant from the North American Nature Photography Association.

Swan taking off in Marsh A

Tundra swan taking off

That afternoon, we headed over to the Pungo Unit to hopefully enjoy the evening show of swans and snow geese returning to Pungo Lake. As I mentioned in my last post, the swans have been amazing this winter, and they did not disappoint.

Snow geese overhead

Snow geese flying high overhead

In our almost two days on the Pungo Unit, we did see the elusive snow geese flying far off the refuge to feed, returning a relatively short time later. A few thousand (of the estimated 15-20,000 birds) flew over us as walked down North lake Drive on our second day out, coming in at a very high altitude as they approached the lake. They continue to be unpredictable in their movements, although I think they will be closer to the refuge roads once some of remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down (I expect that to happen very soon).

bear jumping ditch

A young bear jumps over a drainage ditch

This has been a strange winter for the black bears at Pungo. We saw what seemed the usual number on our trip in mid-December (8, as I recall). But since then, sightings have been few and far between, including being skunked in bear sightings on our Christmas Bird Count the last week of December (maybe the only time that has happened in over 30 years of doing that count). On this trip, I saw three (a sow and two yearlings) my first afternoon, and then we saw only three others in two days – one in the front fields coming out of the corn at sunrise, one feeding in corn and one cruising across the corn fields along North Lake Road.

bear play area

What looks like a bear play area in the woods

Pawpaw with stripped bark

Bark stripped from a pawpaw tree by a bear

There seems to be plenty of fresh bear sign in the woods and along the edges of the fields (although not as much scat in the roads as usual), so I am not quite sure what is going on. I think there may be increased hunting pressure on local bears at the edge of the refuge and this may be altering their behavior and making them more secretive, as well as reducing their numbers with greater numbers of bears that venture off the refuge being taken.

sunset and swans

Sunset with swans returning to the refuge

It is still a magical place, especially at sunrise and sunset. The swans fill the evening sky with magical sounds and the graceful lines of returning birds. I’ll leave you with a video clip from our sunrise at Pungo and the swans that make this refuge such a place of renewal for myself and so many others that spend any time in it.

Now, More Than Ever

A poem for the new year, accompanied by a short video clip of a sunrise with tundra swans at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge last week. May we all find peace in the coming year.

The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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)

 

 

 

Trip Report Part 2: Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes

I just returned from the second recent guided trip to these incredible wildlife refuges. My client was particularly interested in bird photography, so that was high on the agenda. But he made a point of saying he was open to anything, since he was fully aware of the vagaries of wildlife photography – sometimes wildlife cooperates, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Due to heavy rains the previous day, I decided to visit Matamuskeet first to hopefully give the roads at Pungo a chance to dry out at least a little. We left Raleigh a little before 6 a.m. and arrived at Mattamuskeet by about 9:30.

Black-crowned Night Heron adult

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

Just inside the entrance to Wildlife Drive, we were greeted by a stunning Black-crowned Night Heron adult. I usually see more of the immature night herons here (brown colors with light speckles in their plumage), with just an occasional adult. The most reliable place to see them is in a grove of trees across the canal from the lodge, often partially obscured by branches. But this one was in a much better spot for photographs, and its scarlet red eye seemed to glow in the morning light. As I walked a few steps off the road for a clear photo, I accidentally flushed the first of several bitterns we would see.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron with one head feather amiss

The next open pool held the usual Great Blue Heron, along with a Great Egret. You can almost always count on one or both of these species in this spot.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing feeding on Privet berries

As we watched the herons, small flocks of Cedar Waxwings flitted by in their usual jerky flight pattern. Later in the day, we finally tracked some down as they swarmed the all-too-numerous fruit of the invasive Privet shrubs that line sections of the refuge’s roads. Always one of my favorite songbirds to observe, waxwings are often tough to photograph without a mishmash of twigs in the background.

American Bittern in the open

American Bittern

Another American Bittern soon revealed itself in a narrow strip of grasses along a canal and we used the car as a blind to photograph the bird for several minutes before it disappeared in a thick patch of vegetation. This year seems to be an especially good one for bitterns at Mattamuskeet.

Immature White Ibis

Immature White Ibis

It is so interesting what a difference a couple of days makes in what you see in a location. Last week there had been about 50 adult White Ibis along with one immature (distinguished by its brown coloration) feeding in an impoudment along Wildlife Drive. Things were different today and on our second pass through the area, we finally saw our one and only ibis of the day, an immature. It was vigorously probing the mud with its unusual bill. Looking more closely at a few images last night I could finally see that it was primarily eating worms.

Adult Bald Eagle 1

Adult Bald Eagle

We had seen several Bald Eagles at both Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet, but failed to get close enough for any nice images. At the end of Wildlife Drive we saw a flash of white through the trees, which turned out to be the head and tail of an adult Bald Eagle landing in a large pine alongside a side road. I was able to position the car so that my participant could get some good shots with his 600mm lens (yes, I did have lens envy the entire trip). The eagle was surprisingly cooperative, so I was able to back out, turn the car around, and back in along the road so I could get a few shots as well. The eagle was still perched, surveying the scene, when we decided to move on.

Moonrise at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

Moon above cypress island at sunset on Lake Mattamuskeet

As the light faded, we stopped at the observation platform along the road crossing the lake. I wanted to enjoy the scene in the fading light at what must be the most photographed island of trees in the state. I always try to stop and view the sunrise from here if I am in the area, but sunset is equally compelling. As we stood watching the sky turn shades of pink and purple, I reflected on how lucky I am to share this incredible place with people interested in the beauties of nature.

Sunrise the next morning found us on the platform on the south shore of Pungo Lake. The lake was full of swans and the air was sweet with their peaceful calls. But the pocosin shrubs near the platform were full of the harsher notes of another species – Red-winged Blackbirds. Their loud chatter began to increase with the approach of sunrise and then the first birds started flying up and heading west over the trees. Then more birds joined in from further east, and soon it was a continuous stream of blackbirds that flew by us for the next 10-15 minutes. On the recent Christmas Bird Count, we had a similar experience, and estimated that 160,000 blackbirds flew by us on that morning.

Mud hole in road at Pungo

Mud hole in road at Pungo

My usual routine at Pungo is to watch sunrise at the platform and then cruise the refuge looking for wildlife until the Snow Geese fly off the lake and out to some nearby fields to feed. The Snow Geese were running late in their usual departure, so we decided to move on. Hopefully, we can find which fields they fly out to and spend some time observing the huge flock (they are less predictable this year for some reason). As we headed out, I could see the recent heavy rains had taken a toll on the often cantankerous roads on the refuge. The odd soil type makes road maintenance difficult, so visitors need to be cautious when the roads are muddy.

Tundra Swan pair 1

Tundra Swan pair from Duck Pen Observation Blind

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake 2

Swans feeding on Pungo Lake

Swan pulling head out of water close up

Tundra Swan feeding in lake

One of the newer visitor services additions on the refuge is the Duck Pen Observation Blind farther down the road on the south shore of Pungo Lake. A short hike from the parking area leads to a large wooden enclosure with a great view out on the lake (although I hope to volunteer once the waterfowl are gone to cut a few more observation ports and make some of the existing ones larger to accommodate telephoto lenses). Since the winds were out of the south, the waterfowl were in close to the south shore, making for some great views. Swans were feeding in the shallows, something I see all the time at Mattamuskeet with its abundant aquatic vegetation, but rarely here at Pungo Lake, due to the peat lake bottom and relative lack of plants and aquatic life.

Snow Goose blast off on Pungo Lake

Snow Geese blast off on Pungo Lake from Duck Pen Observation Blind

Far out on the lake was a huge raft of Snow Geese packed into a solid white line on the water. They blasted off two or three times while we were in the blind, but simply circled and settled noisily back on the lake, instead of flying out to feed. Mixed in with the swans and geese were hundreds of other waterfowl, mostly Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Northern Pintails.

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

Tree trunk with bear claw marks

The middle of the day, as is often the case, was a bit slow for wildlife viewing. There were coots and some other waterfowl on various impoundments, a few eagles, and the ubiquitous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds swirling in the corn stubble. Rather than continuing to cruise the muddy roads, we decided to walk through the woods looking for wildlife and hoping to see a bear. We spotted lots of bear sign, including one tree trunk that looked like the bear tic-tac-toe championship had been played on it, but no bears. We could hear the calls of thousands of swans on the lake and the thunderous whoosh every time the Snow Geese would blast off, but they never seemed to fly off to feed the entire day, which is a bit unusual. So, late in the afternoon, we headed to a spot where bear activity has been good and settled in to watch and wait, and wait some more.

Bear cub

Black Bear cub

As sunset approached I was afraid this might be the first tine this season I would be skunked in bear sightings, but, right as we started to head out, a sow and her two cubs materialized out of the woods. The adult and one cub headed out into the corn field, but the other cub seemed nervous, and stayed near the tree line. My goal was to not disturb the bears, so we remained still, hoping the cub would go on by us to feed in the corn. After pacing back and forth, sitting on its rear end, moaning and groaning a bit, and then laying down for a few minutes, the cautious cub finally did join the rest of the family. We then headed back to the car. Our two day excursion ended with a setting sun in an immense sky, punctuated by the melodious sounds of small flocks of swans flying overhead, accompanied by the hoots of the resident Great Horned Owls as they started their evening conversations. A great way to end it, indeed.

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.

Pungo Pictorial

Yesterday I posted some of the details of my recent trip to Pettigrew State Park and the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Here are a few more images from that experience:

Forster's tern landing

Forster’s Tern coming in for a landing (click photos to enlarge)

vines

Vines on tree trunk

Carolina Mantis on building

Mantis on building before the deep freeze

Bear between two of us

Large Black Bear coming out of woods

Fall leaves in Pungo canal 1

Autumn leaves in roadside canal

Cypress with fall color

Bald Cypress with fall color

And a short video of Tundra Swans resting on Pungo Lake…