Wednesday, January 10, 2018 •

Colder night (30 degrees) than expected, but all of us slept well. I was out on the boat launch dock by about 6:45A and the others came around 7:15 or so. There were lots of swans in more-or-less the same configurations as the day before, and as the sun came up, their noise levels increased. We noticed many, many more different kinds of birds today compared to yesterday AM. Gulls, many differing types of ducks, herons, and, far far away near the eastern shore, two bald eagles fighting—one stayed put and, noting by his body language and movements, was eating a catch I couldn’t see even through binoculars. The other came and went, harassing the lucky eater to no avail. I heard their cries at one another several times when the interloper would come calling and get rebuffed.

It was well past 8 with the sun shining brightly (and warming things on the dock) when the swans began moving off the water. After a while, we all decided to get warm at the campers, have breakfast or coffee/tea. It was colder in the parking lot closer to the still-deep snow than it had been out on the dock.

After breakfast, we readied ourselves to head to Mattamuskeet Lake Wildlife Refuge, and over Alligator sound to another refuge. Jack drove the gang today, and we left around 11.

The bridge over the Alligator sound/river is closed for repairs starting today through about January 19. The detour is not quite 100 miles—awfully glad I don’t live around here (or need to deliver packages to those who live around here) because that’s an enormous distance to add to a commute or delivery.

In our meanderings we took some side roads, and discovered a lovely small inlet called Frying Pan. Mike and Barbara got all excited about this find because it looks quite good for kayaking, and even has a parking area and a boat launch to access the bigger water. Oddly enough, the parking area is off Frying Pan Road.

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In our search for the road, we passed a juvenile bald eagle at the edge of a cultivated (but currently fallow) field. We missed our turn and by the time we passed the eagle again, an adult had landed next to it. We didn’t see any kill or other items of interest, but the two were just standing there, apparently in some sort of face-off. So that sighting amounted to 4 eagles for the day.

We got to Mattamuskeet and hopped out of the truck along the roads to see the small ponds/wetlands around the visitor center, and saw many and varied species of water birds, including tundra swans. We did not spot any snow geese but saw Canadas, and among the ducks and other waterbirds, we noted pintails, goldeneyes, teals, scaups, coots, and more. Not many mallards, no egrets, but many great blue herons.

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En route, we saw a mammal, long and slick, with a long-ish tail. We thought, before it disappeared into the water along the road, that it might be a river otter. We also postulated nutria, as we know they are here as invasives and pests. Jack suggested it was bigger than that, but smaller than a beaver.

As we drove closer toward the visitor center, we saw two nutria, which are significantly large, but not as big as what we’d seen earlier. One of the critters was right beside the road, nibbling on the stalks and roots of the water grasses that grew close to the edges of the water.

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Inside the VC, we confirmed that what we’d seen earlier was a river otter.

Outside the window of the VC, we also saw a woodcock, merrily foraging in the lawn! One of the rangers invited us to her office to see more clearly, and I took a couple of pix there, then went around to the front porch and had the opportunity to take an even better photo.

A group of elderly folks on an airport-style bus were there, too, and they crowded the poor woodcock (all the time calling it a wood duck) and finally chased it away. Stupid, ugly Americans.

There were a few picnic tables under the trees, but one was getting a bit of sun, so we had our lunch there. The average temp at the warmest part of the day was upper 50s, so we still needed a jacket, but it was a very nice picnic.

We spent a lot of time on the back side of the marshy area (called, oddly, Wildlife Drive) taking pictures of some great blues (one of which had caught a small snake, but carried it away into the wetland before we could capture a photo of it) and collections of diverse groups of species. The cacophony was higher-pitched, less volume, and more varied than we’ve heard with the masses of swans and geese we’ve encountered so far. Lots of small duck vocalizations.

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Nearly at the end of Wildlife Drive, we saw another adult bald eagle, sitting on a low snag. None of us had enough lens-power to photo it, but we all were able to see it through binocs. Without going back into the main drive to the VC, where there is hardly any passing space, let alone turn-around space, we would not be able to get closer to it.

Needing fuel, we mapped our way to a small burgh called Englehard, which (happily) was en route to our next destination: the enormous “void” on all our maps called the Alligator Wildlife Refuge, encircled by a “scenic drive.”

Refueled (they are very very proud of their fuel down here and price it accordingly) we found the scenic drive and it was long, flat, straight, and boring. Once we passed a couple of open fields that did not hold any snow geese or tundra swans, we were enclosed by pine forest, much of which had been burnt (intentional or accident?) and signs saying the area was a bombing range for a nearby military base.

Still hopeful to see something new or special on our drive, we did spot a gang of maybe 4 egrets sitting in a snag—big blobs of white in a drowned tree in the middle of a wetland. Passed by too fast to grab a photo, but it reminded me of the “hairy” egrets we saw while we were cycling around Assateague Wildlife Refuge last April.

Mike spotted another juvenile baldie sitting in one of the burnt snags near the road, sunning himself. So that made 6 bald eagles for the day. Later, Barbara spotted a mature redtailed hawk with a lovely white breast, just a little rust color up near its shoulders and throat, solemnly watching us stare at it.

Also along the way we saw many kestrels along roads with open fields beside them; and even a couple of merlins doing their hard-pumping thing over the fallow fields. I really lost count of the non-eagle raptors, because I was trying to see kestrels soon enough to point them out to Barbara, but we were in the back seat of the Honda (which is surprisingly roomy and comfortable) and I never saw them soon enough. We also saw a few red shouldered hawks, possibly 2 other redtails, and at least one Cooper’s hawk. Many, many great blue herons were spotted along the roads and near by in fields and along ditches.

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This great blue was captured at the Mattamuskeet Visitor’s Center, but it’s emblematic of all the many that we saw along ditches and in fields next to the road.

Disappointed at not being able to find all the “scenic” or the “wildlife” around the refuge’s scenic drive, we headed homeward about 4:30, and with only spotty cell service, tried to find a place to eat that was different from where we’d eaten last time, in Columbia.

We thought Englehard had a marina seafood place, but were unable to find it by the time we reached there (about 5:30) so headed on to Columbia to the place we’d eaten before, in the Columbia Crossings Center (at the intersection of 64 and another major road, 94). While the food is as good as we remembered, it is a bit grody and the people are not very friendly. They were offering a fried chicken and “country steak” buffet, and a couple of specials, but we ordered off the menu, getting a variety of seafood. Tasty, but a strange atmosphere. Barbara overheard a conversation when some young folks came in as we were headed out, obviously looking for a place to have a beer (there’s a “tavern” next door and affiliated with this “family” place). The waitress evidently asked her manager, “Can I tell them we’re closing at in a half hour?” When the hostess demurred, she said, “What if they stay here drinking and chatting until after closing?”

That was the extent of the overheard conversation, but we were not impressed with the staff’s capacity (or willingness) to serve their customers.

Finally got home about 8P, after a 250-mile day. Jack and I cracked out the whisky for a wee dram before bed, and we read until about 9:30. Set the thermostat again for 50 and hit the hay. Forecast has changed from rain all day tomorrow to rain only in the afternoon/evening. We called Lacey (housesitter) to let her know we’re planning to hit North Bend for Thursday night en route home, and not arrive back until Friday. All’s well with the world (and with the tundra swans).

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Mattamuskeet Journey v. 2018

Mattamuskeet Journey to see migrating waterfowl v. 2018

In January of 2016, we headed out with a newly-acquired Alto camper trailer (we named Roomba) to accompany tent-camping friends to Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge, camping at Pettigrew State Park in North Carolina, just on Lake Phelps.

That was so fun we decided on a reprise of that trip with the same friends, who are now also Alto trailer owners (they named theirs Moon Shadow). Last time, the temps were quite chill, and Mike and Barbara were tenting, although we shared our camper’s propane heat on a couple of occasions. But it was bitter cold.

This time was not as gray and frosty, but still cold overnights, and — well, I’ll let you read all about it in several posts.

Sunday, January 7

Left MoD when the temp was about 10 degrees. We began prep around 8:30 – 9:00 AM and had said goodbye to the doggies and were driving down Rt. 59 by about 11.

The weird thing about the whole stowing and prepping during this type of winter camping is that nothing that would be damaged by freezing could be out in Roomba nor in the back of the truck overnight. So we could not pre-pack as we so often do to assure an early departure. We removed our bathroom kits from our clothes bags, and put all the  food (including the ‘fridge food, as nothing was going in from our home freezer) and other things that would be damaged by freezing into the truck very last before hitting the road. We put the refrigerator food into the ‘fridge without turning it on, figuring that it would not freeze solid in the 3 hours it was going to take us to get to North Bend (halfway point overnight spot). Measuring by past experience, the interior of the camper gets really cold on cold traveling days, so we couldn’t even put the dishwashing liquid into Roomba where it usually stays.

So the whole packing up thing was a challenge. We’d left our bed topper rolled and in Roomba for the entirety of this deep freeze (started about New Year’s Eve and overnight temps were in the low single digits — one AM we had zero degrees F — steadily for the whole of 2018). So the topper was stiff as a board and we probably could not have unrolled it even if we’d wanted to. Our hope was that it could ride in the back seat of the truck and thaw a bit, but it was too wide/stiff to fit into the cab, so we had to leave it in Roomba.

Once we arrived at North Bend Federal Campground (around 3P, after a stop for lunch and another for fuel) we plugged up (site 51–with between 2 and 3 bars of LTE and/or 3G cell service) and cranked the propane heater which solved the problem of the frozen bed topper nicely.

North Bend was 28 degrees, and there was still significant amounts of snow along the roads, especially at the edges. The guard said that there had been about 5 campsites used last night, but everyone had left.

They had sites 51 – 77 open, with one heated bathhouse that has maybe 8 private toilet/bath rooms. Site 51 is far from the lakefront, but pretty close to the bathhouse.

We did not unhitch, only leveled and set up, again pondering what would go where when we take off for Pettigrew State Park in NC tomorrow. We’re about 3 hours away from our next stop and, happily—although tonight will be lows in the teens again—the temps will be trending upwards for our whole stay at Pettigrew.

We have brought yeast rolls rising in Omnia, plus a lovely (but untried) chicken stew in the Billy Boil. After set up and a quick walk down to the lake (water levels are waaaaaay low—the “beach” I walked along was really the lake bottom) we are now happily ensconced in the warmth, and getting ready to continue our listen to another of the “Department Q” crime/mystery series (by Jussi Adler-Olsen) with Carl Merk: The Hanging Girl.

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.