Pettigrew State Park, North Carolina

January 3, 2020, Friday: It was a warm night so we slept with the ceiling fan/vent exhausting and awoke to 65 degrees outside and in the low 60s inside.

One final note about Carolina Beach SP that I forgot to mention in the prior post: They close and lock the gate at 6PM. When Jack was checking in, this was mentioned, and when he asked what we might do if we arrive back and find the gate locked, some general arm-waving and vague references to a “driveway” were made, but we never followed up.

When we returned from Michael’s Seafood on our last night at Carolina Beach, it was 6:45. So we wandered around some of the turn-offs from the main road in front of the gate, and at one point ended up turning around in some poor soul’s driveway. 

For the record, if you go past the park entry off Dow Rd. The first right past the Park Road is, indeed, a gravel driveway, but it goes past a house and becomes the cut-through to get behind the gate and into (as well as out of) the park after hours. Sheesh!

Anyway, we left Carolina Beach SP, and en route, we encountered 75 degrees at 10AM, and clear driving the whole way to Pettigrew State Park. The temps were cooling by the time we arrived around 3PM.

Site 13 is in the sun (for solar gain as there is no electric or water at the sites) and nearest to the bathroom (the loop bathhouse remains closed in the winter, but there’s a heated toilet at the ranger’s office). By the way, the folks at the office are incredibly nice). You can get ice when the office is open, and firewood is on the honor system right at the camping loop.

Hal and Dawn (fellow Alto owners) were already there, as were the mosquitoes, which were pretty bad with the wet, warm weather. We put up the screen house and pulled out the Deep Woods Off to save my ankles, still bumpy from bites sustained at Hunting Island. David, Holli, and their dog Digby joined us shortly after we arrived (another Alto-owner family).

First thing, I took the dogs for a walk, and we ended up at the boat launch, where the sun was setting.

In nearby (relatively speaking) Edenton, NC, were additional Alto owners, Karen and Steve, who wanted to come for the birds but didn’t want to de-winterize their camper. Instead, they stayed at a BnB in Edenton, about 35-40 minutes’ drive away. We’d made a reservation in Edenton for us all to gather for dinner at the Edenton Bay Oyster Bar—one of the past registration sites of the Bike NC Spring Ride.

Needing fuel to even make it to Edenton, we googled nearby stations and found the one highlighted didn’t exist. So we had to go farther away from Edenton en route to dinner to get fuel, resulting in our late arrival to the party. Moral: Don’t trust solely on Google in this part of the state.

Very nice dinner—got some excellent seared scallops on risotto, and returned to the camper for a much-needed sleep.

January 4, Saturday: Overnight the rain began and it really pelted down. We were not looking forward to trying to spot migrating birds in the wet, but we all dressed for it and headed out in separate cars, once Karen and Steve got to Pettigrew and joined us around 9:30AM. Despite the rain, the temperature was quite warm. Got away, headed to Mattamuskeet around 10 after deciding that we’d try to find a cafe for lunch rather than packing our lunches along.

During the long drive to the Visitor Center (it’s actually called the “Refuge Headquarters”) on Lake Mattamuskeet, we saw a bunch of American kestrels and kingfishers, and I spotted one perched bald eagle—very wet and unhappy-looking—along the way. We stopped at the informational kiosk at the top of the VC drive to see loads of water birds (mostly ducks) in the wetlands (mergansers, “redheads,” mallards, pintails, herons, egrets, etc.). But in the area pretty far from the road (needed binoculars to see them) were a gang or three of tundra swans—but no snow geese that we could see. And where we’d seen several bald eagles in the wetland on prior trips, we didn’t see any this time.

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Strangely, the VC was closed so we not only were unable to speak to any rangers or biologists to get tips on where to find the big flocks of birds, but also couldn’t get the general introduction to what we might see and experience while there—this VC has a great display and lots of information about not only birds but also mammals, fish, trees, etc. Too bad those who hadn’t been there before couldn’t experience that.

So we drove around the opposite (far) side of the primary wetland (slightly closer to the tundra swans) and then headed to lunch. Found Martelle’s Feedhouse in Englehard and had a quite nice and filling (and warm/dry) lunch. Many of the local hunters and residents were there, so we knew it was going to be good. They served all kinds of seafood, Eastern NC BBQ, sandwiches and burgers galore, plates and smalls, and everything you might imagine at a “feedhouse.” I got a pork tenderloin salad that was superb.

We were headed to Pungo Lake, where we’d seen the most of the arctic birds in the past when we saw a white patch on the muddy landscape alongside the road. There seemed to be an access road to get closer, so we took it and got our first close-up look (and listen) of tundra swans.

Unfortunately, we spooked them as we peeked around the tree line, but it was quite breathtaking to see these enormous birds fly and sound the alarm. 

It was still rainy: When the actual rain abated, a fine mist fell steadily. So we retreated back to the cars after watching the enormous birds a while and resumed our trek to Pungo.

In another 40 minutes of driving along state rt. 45, we got to the Pungo Lake preserve, driving in at the south entrance, where the main road takes a sharp turn and the “straight” roadway turns into Pat Road. The pavement turned to mud and the pools and puddles on the road were quite deep and numerous. But at least the rain had stopped.

We saw a huge flock of tundras in a cornfield at the far side of a thin, raised bank of trees and bushes. We pulled the cars onto the verge and all piled out to cross the stubble field and use the line of vegetation as a “blind” to get closer to the swans. We saw several piles of bear poop in the stubble field, just as is the case back home.

As we approached the line of trees, however, we found that there was a deep, moderately wide canal between us and our “blind.” But a couple of us jumped the ditch and were able to take some photos of the swan gang. We stood there in the relative dry watching the birds landing, taking off, and just hanging out.

We thought that, logically speaking, Pat Road should somehow link to Phelps Lake from Pungo as the two are relatively near one another. But bouncing along the mud lane simply landed us in front of a “No Trespassing—Private Property” sign, so we turned around and bounced back to Route 45 North and drove around our elbows (it seemed) to get back to camp.

I took some shots of the sunset as the sky cleared and the rain clouds dispersed.

Everyone elected to eat dinner separately, and although Hal suggested a campfire, he reported that the mosquitoes were ravenous so we all nixed that idea. In our camper, at least, we turned in early.

January 5, Sunday: At 6AM it was 42 both in and outside the camper, so we cranked the furnace and crawled back under the Rumpl blanket. Didn’t get up until late, and Hal and Dawn headed back to NOVA around 9:30 because Hal had to be at work on Monday.

As they were pulling out, Karen and Steve arrived to see what the pulse of the group was. It wasn’t until about 11 that Jack and I decided to pass up the opportunity for more bird-finding in favor of taking more time to hike around with the dogs. Everyone else elected to drive around some more, although the two cars-full went on separate adventures. Karen later reported seeing a bald eagle. David and Holli headed back to Pungo and later reported good sightings of swans, but also snow geese (which I was sorry to miss).

At the end of the campground along the walk to the Plantation is an interesting hollowed-out tree that Jack can stand inside. He held the dogs with him and they were both intent on some sound or smell within (probably a squirrel). Jack himself was unmoved by squirrel scent.

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We took the pups along the boardwalk from the Plantation to the ranger’s office, and then along the 2.8-mile trail to Moccasin Overlook. Along the grassy trail, however, we encountered a lot of pooled water, and some dogs we were worried had no invisible fence restraints, so we turned around early. In all, it ended up being about a 2 mile trek.

The wind came up and there was significant chop out on Phelps Lake. But it dried things out a bit as the temperatures began to drop.

Around 2 Alison and Andy showed up from Raleigh, just to see what all the bird-fuss was about, and after chatting a while, they headed off to Pungo also. I loaned them my binoculars and when we saw them again, they reported lots of arctic bird sightings and a very satisfactory trip.

I threw the ball for Mischief for a bit and Holli and David discussed sharing a bonfire and some adult beverages, and we set up for that and had a lovely evening with them and Alison and Andy. We set up behind the trailer on the slight rise where Jack had taken down the screen house, so we were high and dry.

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At about 7 the party broke up and Jack and I ate chili and “take and bake” rolls for dinner.

January 6, Monday: Holli and David rolled out of camp around 8:30 and we decided to delay breakfast until we were on the road. Jack had a special mission: to find the butcher who had made the sausages we ate when Edenton was the host site of the Bike NC Spring Ride a few years ago. He had done his research and thought we might have it pegged with directions to get there and an opening time of 10AM.

Tragically, Grandma’s Sausages was out of business. An elderly gent taking the sun in a carport next door to the shop kept trying to sell Jack the business or the building, even though Jack kept insisting that all we wanted were some of Grandma’s sausages. He said his wife used to run the business but had to stop, and now they were trying to sell it.

Sausage-less, we headed along back roads to Ahoskie, NC, where we ate lunch at a Golden Skillet. It was quite the place for “regulars” to gather, and Jack really enjoyed his chicken livers.

We kept to the back roads to NC Rt. 4, which is the Kerr Lake/North Bend Federal Campground road, and we crossed the dam and entered one of our most happy places. While our favorite peninsula was not open in the dead of winter, the loop available to us had a warm shower house sporting private toilet/shower rooms. Site #78 was relatively level so we could leave the truck hitched as we anticipated leaving for home the following morning.

Set up was minimal, so we grilled some bratwursts and re-heated leftover roasted veggies and potatoes for dinner. Then we walked down to the lakeside and watched the sun set as the evening star appeared.

The forecast for back home was for up to an inch or two of snow/sleet/icy mix early Tuesday, so we kept up with John via text and delayed deciding whether to head home the next day (as scheduled) or not.

January 7, Tuesday: The rains came in the night and the deluge continued most of Tuesday. We had only paid for one day as they would not refund if we decided to leave after spending just one night. But the gate attendant said as long as we paid by about 3PM, it was okay to delay our decision. We saw a total of 2 other campers, so there wasn’t any chance someone would come in and kick us out of our site.

At about noon, John texted that they’d gotten a slushy mix that was making driving on the mountain less than ideal. He said if we were to encounter trouble, it would be getting in our driveway.

While it was still pouring down with rain at North Bend, we decided to stay another night, and I walked with the dogs in the deluge to the front gate to give them another $10. The furnace was on when we got back, so my jeans and the dogs were able to dry out in comfort.

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We listened to our audiobook, took nice warm showers (knowing that the water at home was turned off) and simply chilled out for the day. The rain stopped around 3PM when the wind whipped up to blow away all the clouds. We fought the wind down to the beach where a previous camper had created some rock-balanced towers that were pretty neat in the back-lit dusk.

January 8, Wednesday: The temperatures dropped like a rock overnight and we quickly broke camp at 34 degrees under a clear, bright sky, as we were surrounded by frosted leaves carpeting the woods. Initiated the 3-ish hour drive home at about 9-9:30, and were able to begin the long process of re-heating our 48-degree home in the mountains by about 2PM on January 8, 2020.

Birdwatching Bonanza

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

We got significant unexpected rain in the night, with colder than predicted temps. With our mummy sleeping bags and the propane furnace set on 50 we slept fine. When we got up, it was 32 and the dawn was red and fire-like, but the clouds rolled in, and then rolled away again.

We all walked down to our hoped-for boat launch camping spot, to watch the tundra swans get up off the ice and fly overhead, on their way to the feeding grounds. For the most part, these thousands of swans in a couple of groups were the only birds out there. Some were merely standing on the ice and others were floating in small patches of thawed water. There were also some small, short-necked, dark-colored ducks in patches of water.

Our plan was made while we watched and took pix—we’d use Mike and Barbara’s vehicle that had on-demand four-wheel drive, because we thought we’d be headed out into muddy tracks trying to get to Pungo Lake, and to a spot across Phelps Lake that was recommended to us by the ranger: Cypress Point.

After breakfast and unhitching, we all piled into their car and headed out for the day. Our first stop was Moccasin Point Overlook, which extends into Phelps Lake only a few miles away from Pettigrew. To access the dock, we took a lovely raised walkway through a cypress swamp—where Mike, Barbara, and I had hiked the last time we were here. We did not see the many, many ducks we’d seen last time, but we did see a pair of woodcock, a very bold squirrel, and just enjoyed the walk and the scenery, even though there was quite a lot of snow. In that snow we saw tracks of all sorts of critters, including the deer we later saw in the woods (but I was unable to capture on film).

Next, we drove to Cypress Point (another Phelps Lake overlook), which had a small boat (kayak, canoe) launch area beside the dock. It was a lovely overlook, with benches to enjoy the view—but contrary to what the ranger said, there wasn’t a migratory bird anywhere in sight. We did, however, see two bald eagles. That was special.

By this time, it was about 1PM and Mike was pretty hungry, so we fetched our lunches from the car and sat on the dock to eat. We were all pretty stiff by the time we’d finished, and several of us had sat too close to the melting snow on the step, and got our bums wet. It was a very nice temp, however—maybe in the high 40s—and with little wind we were quite comfortable and relaxed. It was also quite sunny, those AM clouds having dispersed, so by the end of the day, both Barbara and I felt a bit sunburned.

Next, we headed around to another overlook on Phelps Lake: Pocosin Overlook, in the Pocosin Natural Area. There was a strange elevated platform that you accessed via steep, narrow (icy) steps, and when we all climbed up there, far away across the pond, we saw an enormous cloud of white birds lift off and swirl around — it was similar to a murmuration of starlings, but low over the ice/water, no higher than what could be backed by the trees on the far side. It was truly extraordinary.

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Trying to get to Pungo Lake is a challenge—many roads are closed seasonally, and there’s simply no easy way to get there. We all though that if Phelps was mostly frozen, then for sure, Pungo would be a sheet of ice (it’s smaller than Phelps) but surrounding Pungo are many open fields, some left unharvested for the birds. So we drove around, trying to get to where we might see the sea of birds we’d captured last year.

One final turn that happened to be along Pat’s Road, where we had ventured last time, and LO! We saw millions and millions of birds, covering the partially-harvested corn fields on either side of a muddy road, out of which another vehicle full of bird watchers emerged as we arrived. So we turned right and met the mud.

Wow. We were breathless. The birds appeared to be in nearly-overlapping but separate groupings of tundra swans at one end and snow geese at the other. While they sometimes seemed to mingle (at least in the air) there seemed to be an agreement among them about whose end was whose. The geese had youngsters with them—we were able to distinguish them because they were gray.

Mike and I walked into the field (followed a bit later by Barbara) but our only photographic options to capture the snow geese were to the west as the sun was setting, and too bright for photos. We took a lot of pix of the swans. Far to the north, we heard hunters, presumably hunting geese or ducks.

We watched and listened for a long time. Jack stayed back by the vehicle, and at one point an enormous gaggle of snow geese flew right over his head, and settled near the road, in another partly-harvested cornfield toward the north (but not near the hunters, rather, still within walking distance of us).

As the sun set and our hopes for a mass fly-off dimmed, we re-gathered at the vehicle. Barbara’s feet were cold, Mike had stepped into a water-filled, snow-covered ditch and his feet were wet, and we were all getting tired and hungry. We had parked with the nose of the vehicle pointing north, along a small, muddy side road, along which lay the field where the geese had settled. So we thought we’d get closer by driving straight along. We were not actually able to see the geese better from that vantage, after all.

A couple of trucks met us, and there was absolutely no where to ease to the side without going into the cultivated field, frozen below with a skim of mud on top. So we backed nearly the whole way out, until a wide grass verge allowed us to pull off for the trucks to get by. The first one passed and waved, and the second one stopped and informed us that this and the other mud road were seasonally closed, even though there were no signs indicating such. So we apologized, wondering if he was a ranger or a hunter, and (since we were on our way out anyway) promised we’d exit post haste.

Then we stopped on the paved road (not closed seasonally) and took some more pix of the geese that were packed right next to the road, madly feeding. I was in the back and the photos I took of the snow geese and their gray youngsters came out blurry since I had to take them through a fixed window. Too bad, because we were very close.

Managed to work our way back toward Pettigrew by “going around our elbows to get to our thumbs” as Jack characterized our route, and since dinner was on our minds, we navigated into Edenton, where we were sure to find a restaurant. A place J&I had gone on one of our NC bicycle rides was the Waterman’s Grille, so we aimed for the downtown/waterfront section and parked. That place was closed for their winter break and clean, so we tried something called Bistro 309. Lovely little place, that it seemed everyone in town was patronizing that night (on a Tuesday?) but we didn’t wait long for a seat or service and had an excellent meal. Drum fish was one of the specials, and everyone got that except yours truly, and I got fried flounder. Everyone’s meals disappeared with a nice glass of wine (except Mike, who was driving) and then we endured the long drive home, tired and well-fed, satisfied, and imagining flocks and flocks of large, raucous, white birds.

Last Day

Jack and I awoke at 5A to do the stargazing we’d postponed — actually, Jack had arisen early over the past few days to go outside to see what could be seen. Me? I stayed in bed.

But on Wednesday, we got up and the morning was considerably more mild than on the previous pre-dawns. We both had our binoculars, and it was going to be a trifecta: the Quadrantids Meteors, the Catalina Comet, and a pass of the International Space Station.

I was in the restroom when Jack saw the space station, but together we saw the Catalina Comet near Arcturus, and as we were looking at it, through the binos, a Quadrantids meteor shot past and it was incredibly bright and startling with the magnification. We saw 3-4 other meteors while we were out there, leaned against Roomba for steadying support, and enjoying the quiet. 

But it actually wasn’t so quiet. We heard an owl and some dogs or (more likely) coyotes in the night, too.

After breakfast, we realized we might not have enough propone to heat another night, so Jack resolved to take the bottle and get it refilled. Mike, Barbara and I wanted to take a walk to another end of Phelps Lake to see what birds we could see. The path, that Mike & Barbara had ridden on their bikes about 10 years ago, started right near the ranger’s station and was a 2.8 mile, one-way trek. One of the hurricanes that had passed through the area in the intervening years, however, had likely obliterated the trail they’d ridden. The Park Service had changed it into a straighter, easier-to-access “fire road” type of path running along a canal and a small road that devolved into sand/gravel after about a mile.

They were kind of disappointed that we were not right in the woods, as they had remembered. But it was still an excellent walk, through arbor-like tunnels in two places, and with lovely “front yard” areas, presumably maintained by the homeowners across the road (in cooperation with the Park Service, we suspect). 

 

  
 
At one of those mown areas, we saw our first hooded mergansers, floating out on the lake. After enjoying some blue sky in the morning, the clouds came roaring back, lending a gray cast to everything, but actually adding an interesting light element to the photos.

  
Anyway, along the path we saw many overturned trees: assumed victims of hurricanes or too much wet weather or whatever. We were interested to see the “insides” of a cypress tree by looking at its upturned base. And we saw a small live oak trying to live in the embrace of a cypress. We thought, given the ages of the cypress trees we saw, that the oak’s acorn had made a faulty decision to sprout just there.

 

  
 
We arrived at Moccosin Point and the boardwalk over the cypress knees and thin water to the “dock” which Mike and Barbara remembered from before. It was an excellent respite and there were hundreds of duck-like creatures out on the water. In fact, we popped out of the trees onto the viewing platform so quickly, we chased a bunch of them away. Which made identification so much more difficult. Next time, be cautious about arrival on the platform and see what you can see.

 

  

  

  
 

But we were able to identify additional birds we had been told to expect, but had not specifically identified yet: canvas back ducks and buffleheads, in addition to more mergansers. I think the majority of those black fellas out there in the line were American coots, but we were unable to get a solid ID on them. There were also cormorants, seagulls, and mallards out there, likely in addition to other less-identify-able critters.

With the Spanis moss hanging everywhere, and the low cloud cover, being on the point was a bit like experiencing another country. The wind began to come up, but for about a half hour while we enjoyed a small nosh and some water (and birdwatching, of course) it was lovely.

 

  

  

  

  

    
 

It was definitely time for lunch, the wind was rising and the clouds were lowering, and we figured Jack would be back from his adventure, so we sort of beat a retreat.

Once back at the campsites, we had a lunch and Jack wanted to walk a different path closer to the campsites, but still along the water, heading toward the nearby plantation, closed for the season. I took a quick nap.

The after-lunch time for both camps was partially devoted to departure prep. Then, Mike and Barbara took the same walk Jack had explored, while Jack and I set up for building and enjoying a campfire. We moved our activities toward the end of the campground, where we hoped for a bit of a wind break and to keep the smoke farther away from our living spaces. We had a roaring fire bu the time full dusk set in and M&B returned from their walk. Our activities disturbed many songbirds who were scolding us — and then we heard a strange, strangled bark in the trees — a cross between a goose honk and a deer snort. It got a little closer, and then we saw the silhouette of an owl flying away. Our conclusion was that it was a barred owl, whom we had disturbed from its roosting or hunting ground.

Earlier, while up close to the ranger station and restrooms, I’d heard a great horned owl expressing itself in typical hooty great horned style. 

We ate our dinners around the campfire and listened to music over the bluetooth speaker, and just enjoyed our final evening together for this adventure. Additional departure preps for us preceded tucking into bed, as we planned to try to be rolling by 7A.

As I write this, we’re rolling, and it’s 8:11AM — with goodbyes and final pack-up and stowing (plus a cup or two of tea/coffee) we didn’t actually leave the site until 7:30. Close enough.

The drive is revealing thick overcast and a heavy dampness in the air — not quite fog, and not quite misty rain. We’re stopping for breakfast in about an hour and trying to get home in time to hit Dogtown Happy Hour in Floyd. But we might not make it this time.

We’ll see.