Special Place, Special Season

Yellowstone in the summer changed my life and teaching direction.  Revisiting in the winter was like going back to an old friend’s house when all the ‘guests’ have gone home and you get to sit in the den and have long quiet conversations with the residents.

~Mike Leonard, an educator that attended both a summer and a winter field experience in Yellowstone with the museum

I had hoped to go to Pungo yesterday, but the weather had other plans for me. A day trip with all day rain just didn’t seem the thing to do. So, I sat home, did chores, and wished I was someplace else – with Melissa. She is leading a museum trip to our other special place – Yellowstone. Winter is probably my favorite season out there – so quiet, a living Christmas card, and the wildlife spotting is much easier against the snow.  And so few people, relative to summer, it’s like having your own private park at times. She has sent a few notes about what they are seeing, and, today, the group heads to my favorite place – Lamar Valley. She said it has snowed every day. Not ideal conditions, since the landscape can seem so vast and sparkling when the sun is out, but not a bad way to spend your days – the softened sounds, the way the world seems to embrace you when it snows, everything (you, the wildlife, the scenery) all draped in a cloak of ever-changing white. And, she has discovered a new favorite thing – cross-country skiing. Guess I had better start getting in shape and practicing my balance for our next visit. As I sat reminiscing of past trips, I decided to share some images from our previous winter adventures to this special place in its special season.

Ice-covered tree in thermal basin

Sunlight catches a lone, ice-covered snag at Mammoth Terraces (click photos to enlarge)

sunrise through mist at Canary spring

Sunrise at Canary Springs at Mammoth Terraces

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Lodgepole struggles

Struggling to stay above the snow

Patterns 2

A weathered tree trunk

Patterns 1

Edge of ice on the Yellowstone River

Melissa in deep snow at Canyon

Melissa in deep snow at Canyon on a previous trip

Hayden Valley scenic

Hayden Valley on a gray, snowy day

Hayden Valley

The majestic landscape of Hayden Valley

Coyote along Madison River

A coyote and shadow along the Madison River

Bison repetition

Bison patterns

Bull elk

Bull elk in Lamar Valley

Pine Marten in tree trunk

Pine Martin in Silver Gate

Moose valley

Moose in Silver Gate

Wolf pack in snow

The once-dominant Druid Peak pack in Lamar Valley

Bison plow

Bison snow plow

Magic mist YNP

A low fog hangs in Lamar Valley, highlighting a lone Cottonwood tree along the Lamar River.

Sunset

The incredible winter sky in Lamar Valley

 

Haw-inspiring Hike

One of the reasons there are so many terms for conditions of ice is that the mariners observing it were often trapped in it, and had nothing to do except look at it.

― Alec Wilkinson

I must give credit to our friend, Bill, for the title of this post (hope he doesn’t mind). He is a poet and a wordsmith and used this phrase in an email about a hike along the Haw River we took this past Sunday with his godsons, Turner and Charlie. We hiked along the Lower Haw State Natural Area from the Hwy 64 bridge over the Haw up to our neighborhood, a distance of a little over 2 miles. Temperatures were in the 20’s when we started, but mostly sunny, and the air was still. The river, always special, was especially beautiful, with a fringe of ice along her shores that often extended far across her rocky breadth.  From the outset, the river provided visual delights and mysteries.

Mystery trails on ice

Unusual “trail” on the river ice (click photos to enlarge)

Just a short way upriver from the bridge, we started seeing some winding “trails” on the ice, looking as if someone had pulled a tiny sled in an erratic route across semi-frozen ice.

Beaver trail through ice

An open channel helped solve the mystery

Just beyond those first mysterious ice trails, we saw a partially open channel that had a similar irregular path. This one led over to an island in the river where we could see evidence of beaver chewed sticks piled along the bank. Mystery solved! The initial trails were frozen over beaver channels.

beaver chew marks

Beaver teeth marks on a sycamore log

beaver chew

There is abundant beaver sign all along the trail

From that point on, we encountered many active beaver chewed trees, some quite large. Years ago, when I was doing programs for state parks, I remember reading some facts about beavers – the largest one ever trapped weighed about 105 pounds (although my current reference on mammals says the largest on record was 86 pounds – still a huge rodent).  Average weight for an adult beaver is around 50-60 pounds. I once saw a photo of the purported record tree felled by a beaver – a tulip polar a little over 5 feet in diameter! None of the trees along the trail approached that, although the busy beavers have been gnawing on some pretty large specimens. Beavers are somewhat generalist vegetative feeders in warm months, but this time of year they feed almost exclusively on the inner bark of tree trunks and branches. Other wildlife we saw included a variety of birds – great blue herons looking for open water along the river, and a variety of songbirds trying to find something to eat along the trail. American holly berries seemed a favorite and we saw several hermit thrushes and American robins feeding in some of the large trees. Mixed feeding flocks of other species including Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, woodpeckers (red-bellied, downy, and pileated and a yellow-bellied sapsucker), some feisty yellow-rumped warblers, and a few ruby-crowned kinglets. A beautiful red-shouldered hawk, a blue jay, and some of its cousin American crows, rounded out our bird sightings.

river rock surrounded by ice

An exposed rock in a sea of ice

As I have said before, ice fascinates me. Life as we know it depends on the unusual characteristics of water and one of these is that, unlike most other chemical compounds, when it gets cold enough to turn into a solid, the solid floats (the solids sink in most cases).

 

crystals in ice

Needles of ice in a patch along the shoreline

I remember a discussion I had about ice with a museum co-worker back in 2006.  I was lucky enough to get chosen as part of an international science and education team to spend a month in the Arctic aboard a Russian ice-breaker (no collusion, I swear). She asked me if I thought I would get bored spending a whole month out on the ice, with nothing but an expanse of white to view. I had said no, and was justified when I realized the incredible variety of forms that ice can take – all beautiful. The ice along the Haw was no different, and showed us its many faces as we gazed upon it from the bank – all magical.

beech leaf on ice

Beech leaf frozen in the surface of thick ice

ice shelf

A small ice shelf next to a riffle area

ice shelf 1

Ice lace edging along the rocky shore next to flowing water

ice waves

Intricate patterns of ice on the surface of an eddy in the river

Frozen haw

The mix of ice and open water along the river

The weather is warming, and ice is melting, but memories of a cold hike along the Haw, with good companions, will stay with us for quite some time. I spoke to our group of my appreciation for those that fought to set this corridor aside, and to the dedicated folks, like those of the Haw River Assembly, that continue to work toward its preservation. Haw-inspiring indeed.

 

Another Winter Season

We are not the only species who lives and dreams on our planet. There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Snow geese flying high

Snow geese flying high (click photos to enlarge)

I ended my winter tour season last weekend, a little earlier than usual, but it finished on a spectacular note. I had two groups of wonderful people; one all day Saturday, and one Sunday. It was beautiful weather, and both mornings started out cold, just the way it is supposed to feel in winter at Pungo and Mattamuskeet. There continued to be a couple of things this season that baffle me. I am still seeing the fewest number of bears of any winter since I started visiting this wildlife-rich region. And the snow geese are still acting strange, coming and going at a very high altitude, and I never saw them feeding in any of the refuge fields all winter. If the few remaining stands of corn are knocked down before they head back north, perhaps the snow geese will make a late appearance.

Black bear clawed pawpaw

A pawpaw tree that has been climbed and clawed by bears

We did finally see six bears on Sunday, five of them the first thing as we drove in past one of the few remaining fields with standing corn. The last was seen after sunset on another field along D-Canal Road at Pungo. Still, no bears the past few weeks along the one-time sure spot, North Lakeshore Drive, aka Bear Road. There is still plenty of sign in the woods, but some of it may be from a month or two ago, before the bear hunting season on adjacent private lands. Almost every pawpaw tree in the woods along that road has been climbed, clawed, or snapped in half by the bears. They must really like pawpaws, and, who knows, maybe there is something in the bark they like as well, because many of the mid-sized trees have had their bark pulled off in strips.

Great egret coming to roost

Great egret coming to roost in the trees near the lodge at Mattamuskeet NWR

On Saturday, we saw plenty of birds at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR, in spite of the closure of the entire road along the south shore of Pungo Lake. The past few weeks have had heavy rains and some vehicles apparently got stuck in the mud, causing the closure. My advice to visitors is, if the roads look too bad to go through in your minivan or sedan, then don’t attempt it (you may be right). The refuge tries to repair the really bad spots if and when they dry out enough to allow their heavy equipment to get in to do the work. Mid-day we ran over to Mattamuskeet NWR where we found high water again limiting the number of birds in the usual spots. But, there was a good diversity of ducks that cooperated with our efforts to view them through a scope, and we were rewarded late in the day with the first wave of great egrets coming to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. That is quite a sight to see them sailing in on cupped wings, squawking as they juggle for space in the soon-to-be-crowded branches.

Pied-biled grebe in brush

Pied-billed grebe peeking out from under some low branches along a canal

Both days were full of interesting sightings ranging from bald eagles near a swan carcass, to pied-billed grebes hiding in the brush along the canals. We had a nutria with 3 young in one canal, plus a very unusual blonde-colored nutria at sunset. Finally, back at Pungo late in the day, we witnessed an incredible sunset show of tundra swans flying in and out of the lake. The strange thing was that as we drove in about 4:30 p.m., there were thousands of swans leaving the lake, which seemed late for so many to be headed out. But, they all returned (plus thousands more it seems) as the sky turned orange-red at sunset…spectacular.

Swans before surise

Pungo Lake covered in birds in the pre-dawn light

Swans at sunrise

After the sun rose above the horizon, the lake looked like a sea of white

Amazing what a difference a day makes…Saturday morning was windy, causing the birds (numerous ducks, snow geese, and tundra swans) to seek shelter on the lee side of the west shore, which left the area in front of the observation platform a void, without any waterfowl readily visible. Sunday morning was calm, and our arrival at the platform before sunrise was greeted by thousands of birds just beyond the lake shore in front of us, seemingly filling almost every square foot of the lake’s surface. As the sun climbed higher, the dark shapes became a sea of brilliant white objects that filled the air with their sounds.

River otter with fish

River otter crunching a small fish

After the sunrise show at the platform, we headed over to “Bear Road” for a walk. Along the way, I spotted a pair of river otter in the roadside canal. They tend to raise up and snort a time or two when they first spot you, and then often disappear beneath the waters with a distinct kerplunk, only to reappear near or far, depending on how much they feel like tolerating your presence. These two were busy searching for fish in the thick mats of vegetation in the canals, and by the looks (and sounds) of things, they were quite successful. One guy caught several small fish while we watched, tossing his head back and crunching them in his jaws, the hapless fish seemingly gazing at us asking for help. But each fish disappeared rather quickly, with the otter then glancing our way before disappearing into the floating green mat.

River otter

One last glace at us before disappearing under the surface

After the otter, we walked down Bear Road, but didn’t see much other than lots of bear sign, and a couple of groups of red-winged blackbirds. Once back at the car, we were starting to grab a bite to eat when a car pulled up with folks I knew from Christmas Bird Counts at Goose Creek State Park years ago. They said they had just seen a wood stork feeding in a canal around the corner. I must admit, a thought raced through my mind…I responded, a wood stork?, as if questioning their ID of this somewhat unmistakable bird…but a bird I have never seen anywhere near this part of the state in over 30 years of birding.  Wait, I told myself, these are people that used to come to the Christmas Bird Count, and they should know a wood stork if they see one. Yes, they said, a wood stork, and they had stayed with it so long that they got tired of taking pictures. They drove off, and I interrupted our lunch break and said, Sorry, but we have to check this out.

wood stork profile

Juvenile wood stork, a first for me at Pungo

We quickly loaded up and drove around the corner and could see a car stopped down the road. As we approached, I saw it, and indeed, it was a wood stork! It was a juvenile, distinguished by its straw-colored beak (instead of black of an adult) and it fuzzy feathers on the head and upper neck. It totally ignored us as it went about its business of feeding along the canal edge.

wood stork bill close up

Tactile feeding strategy involved shuffling of feet near the open bill

I have watched storks feeding in a group in Florida and South Carolina, but this one was doing something I had not seen – slowly walking, shuffling one foot, then the other, beak agape. The strategy is to startle a prey item by kicking the substrate with your feet, and if a fish, crayfish, or whatever hits the beak, it snaps shut.

wood stork wing outstretched while feeding

The bird would occasionally spread one wing out, and then turn, bill still in the water

The really odd thing it did was once a minute or so, it would extend one wing (almost always the right wing) and pivot, without pulling its beak out of the water. Some waders will spread a wing to supposedly startle prey, so maybe that is what was happening, or maybe it was to help balance the bird as it did a tight spin.

Here is a quick video clip showing this behavior, although the extended wing here is not as prominent as in most of the spins we witnessed. And my friends were right, we stayed with this bird until we got tired of taking photos…what a treat.

Another trip over to Mattamuskeet with similar results to the day before, although there was one highlight that made me think this trip might go into the record books for unusual sightings. As we drove in the back entrance of the refuge, a mink ran across the road in front of us. Wow, a mink, one of the most elusive mammals in our state, out in the middle of the day.

We headed back to Pungo later than usual and, once again, thousands of swans were flying out of the lake around 5 p.m., much later than in past winters. But this time, some were landing in a cut-over corn field right next to the refuge road. We stopped, got out, and stood in awe of the sights and sounds.

This short video gives you some idea of the spectacle, but imagine this going on all around you, the sky full of birds. As it grew darker, thousands of ducks came out of the swamps and circled a field of standing corn next to the swan field in what one young guest the evening before had called a “ducknado”. Birds everywhere in the sky…amazing.

sunset

A spectacular sunset

To top it all off, the sunset was painting the sky with broad brush strokes of orange, gray, and pink, with long lines of the black silhouettes of wings, most still heading west, away from the lake.

sunset and tree silhouette

A beautiful end to another winter season

As the fire in the sky smoldered, preparing for darkness, we looked out on the horizon with our binoculars and could see the lines of swans returning. Who knows why they flew out so late, only to turn back a short while later, filling the sky with their wing beats and whoops. Whatever the reason, it made for an amazing finish to another winter season at my favorite place, and I was so glad to be able to share the experience with others. Until next year…

Here is a species list total for our weekend outings:

Birds (56 species):

Double-crested Cormorant, Canada Goose, Snow Goose, Tundra Swan, Mallard, Black Duck, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Wood Stork, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Merlin, Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, American Woodcock, Wilson’s Snipe, Wild Turkey, American Crow, Eastern Phoebe, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Wren, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Common Grackle, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-rumped Warbler

Mammals:

Black Bear, Gray Squirrel, White-tailed Deer, Nutria, Mink, River Otter, Gray Fox

Reptiles:

Yellow-bellied Slider

The Last Snow?

What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

~John Steinbeck

Over the weekend I made a quick trip to my parents’ home in southwest Virginia . Like many regions in the East, their area has had a long cold winter. But, I am one of those strange few that likes cold weather. And this was the first year in several that I did not get my snow fix by spending time in Yellowstone, so I was happy to see a few flakes start to fall on Monday. This might be my last snow for this winter (although as I write this, I am hearing about chances for a wintry mix in portions of the state later tonight). It began slowly, about mid-day, then picked up in intensity.

The snow starts to fall

The snow starts to fall (click photos to enlarge)

I did not have my camera on this trip so I grabbed my iPhone and walked down the hill toward the river below the house. This is the South Fork of the Holston River. One of three major branches of the Holston River, the South Fork flows over 100 miles through the hills and valleys of southwest Virginia before joining the North Fork near Kingsport, Tennessee. This serene waterway forms the back boundary of my parents’ property and provides a glimpse into the former wildness of these mountains amidst the current patchwork landscape of pastures and wood lots.

Looking downriver

A large tree leaning out over the river

I love the quiet and the starkness of a snow, especially along a river. Black and white images appeal to me in these settings, helping to define the world into its basic shapes and patterns.

Leaning tree along South Fork of Holston River

A closer view of that same tree

Geometric shapes in the trees above the river

Geometric shapes in the trees above the river

Snow also helps bring things into focus. A beaver-chewed tree trunk that might blend into the scene under normal conditions now jumps out of the landscape like a monument to the work of a master builder.

Tree cut by Beaver

Tree cut by Beaver

And the edges of a fallen leaf suddenly make your eyes notice the detail in their pattern.

Leaf in snow

A closer look reveals many beauties in the snow

Walking upriver beyond the riffles, the river gets quiet and silky. The snow is falling harder, a burst of larger flakes that are eaten by the river, but gather on the dark branches and the sleeve of my coat, causing me to pause and admire their delicate beauty.

Above the riffles

The river is smooth and draped in trees above the riffle

I stood quietly on the bank of the river…It was so peaceful watching the snow fall as the river rushed toward a destination far beyond this tranquil scene. The early naturalist and writer, John Burroughs, described what it is like to have a small river flowing near where you live…One can make a companion of it; he can walk with it and sit with it, or lounge on its banks, and feel that it is all his own. This snowy river gave me a glimpse of that feeling, and it reminded me of the powerful connection we all have to water and the landscapes that embrace it.