The Wonders of Wintering Waterfowl

One of the things I enjoy most about living in North Carolina is the vast diversity of wildlife that can be found within a few hours of leaving my home.   No matter which direction I travel, there are public lands to explore, teeming with wildlife. Be it deer, bear, elk, birds, butterflies, turtles – every season yields new treasures to be discovered and seen. But I especially love all the wonderful waterfowl that visit NC in the winter. 

With thoughts of Snow Geese, Tundra Swan, and hundreds of wintering ducks, I packed my gear and bags, loaded up my car and headed east for the coast.  The excitement built the closer I got.  To me, winter birding at the coast is much like going to Disneyland as a child.  Before I knew it, I was pulling into the parking lot of the Visitors’ Center at Pea Island NWR, just south of Nags Head.   As soon as I parked my car, I was greeted by the sounds of hundreds of Tundra Swan calling!  I grabbed my camera, headed for the trail, and soon I was gazing out over North Pond with a view of hundreds of Tundra Swan, White Pelicans, and a variety of ducks…Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, to name a few!  If you have never experienced wintering waterfowl along our Outer Banks, I highly recommend it. 

I continued my walk along the wildlife trail between North Pond and New Field Pond stopping at the observation decks along the way and snapping photos.  It was fun to sit and observe.  One interesting behavior to observe is the various feeding techniques used by the variety of waterfowl.  Swans are mainly herbivores eating aquatic plants and roots, but they will also eat arthropods and worms.  On water, they will tip their bodies over, plunging their heads underwater to forage.  Sometimes they use their webbed feet to stamp in the muck and dig up underwater food, like tubers.  It’s fun to watch the smaller ducks gather round and go after what the swans dig up. 

Another fun thing to experience is the sound of feet slapping the water as swan and ducks start to take flight.  Diving ducks, ducks that propel themselves underwater for food – like Canvasbacks, American Wigeon, and Ruddy Ducks – have small wings relative to their body weight and fly faster. Because of this, they need open water that provides a runway of sorts for their take-offs and landings.  Dabbling ducks are ducks that skim the surface of the water for food or feed in the shallows by tipping forward to submerge their necks and heads to find food. Some examples of these are Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, and Northern Pintails. These ducks can take off vertically – they just pop right out of the water!  

The next morning, I set out before sunrise, hoping to catch a few shots of the rising sun before spending the day photographing waterfowl.   I decided to stop at a favorite spot of mine on my way down to Pea Island in the hopes of seeing some Snow Geese.  I am glad I did!  I got to spend a few hours sitting, observing, and photographing them.  The weather was cooperating with sun, warmth, and no wind! After another car pulled up and flushed the Snow Geese from the area, I decided it was time to head to Pea Island.  Again, I was greeted by the calling Tundra Swan and the nasally calls of American Wigeon as I walked slowly along the pond taking it all in and snapping photos.  There was so much going on everywhere I looked, it was hard to know where to point my camera.  Every time I aimed in one direction something was happening in another direction!

After my time with the waterfowl, I had made arrangements to meet Katerina Ramos, from NC Wildlife Federation, at the Red Wolf Center in Columbia.  I thought learning about the red wolves of North Carolina was a great way to break up my long drive home. This was something I had been wanting to do for a quite a while, especially after seeing one of only eight red wolves left in the wild back in May, one that my husband was lucky enough to photograph (below).  That encounter had sparked a desire to learn about them in the hopes of somehow helping in their recovery, even if only by teaching people about them and their plight.  I spent an hour listening to Katerina and asking questions.  She was so interesting to listen to, like everyone when they are passionate about their subject!  You could tell she really loves the wolves.  I even got to see the 2 resident wolves, Manny and Sage!    I heard about some of the successes of the recovery program as well as some the setbacks/losses. I left this visit feeling determined to not let another species become extinct!

After I had finished up at the Red Wolf Center, I drove down to Lake Mattamuskeet and made the tour along Wildlife Drive, happy to be greeted by the sounds of Tundra Swan once again.   I had planned on spending time at Pocosin Lakes NWR on my way home, exploring it late that afternoon, photographing the sunset and spending the next morning photographing the waterfowl. After hearing about how the drought was affecting the water levels on the impounds and causing the number of waterfowl to drop this year, I decided to just drive through the refuge and head home instead.  Pocosin Lakes is a great place to see hundreds, if not thousands, of wintering waterfowl and, as a bonus, Sandhill Cranes have been wintering here for the past few years!  I had seen reports that they were here again this year.  I was shocked by the low numbers of waterfowl and lack of water, saddened actually.  One bright spot on my way in was spotting the 7 Sandhill Cranes, even if they were too far away for any decent shots.  No waterfowl were in any of the usual spots, so I turned my car around and headed out.  

As I was leaving the refuge, I heard a familiar call – that of hundreds if not thousands of Snow Geese.  I pulled my car over, turned off my engine, and stared up at the darkening sky…sunset was almost upon me.  In the distance I could make out a “cloud” of Snow Geese.  The cloud was growing closer, and the calls were getting louder.  They circled the field several times, landing, settling down for a while and then taking flight again.  They did this a few times all while feasting on the spent corn crop as I sat and watched until the sun went down. It was dark now and I could barely make them out in the field as they finally took flight one last time and headed to the lake for the night.

I am lucky to live in a state with such a variety of habitats that can support all the wildlife that call North Carolina home, even if just for the winter.  I can’t wait to see what spring brings.

Thousands of Snow Geese flying from the lake to the corn fields to forage.

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