Refuge Magic

I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.

~Marjorie Kinnan Rawling

For me, that place of enchantment in my home state is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge…more specifically, the Pungo Unit of that refuge. I had a trip this past week with a couple of friends and it never fails to deliver. It is not always the same thing, but it is a wild enough area that there is always something to provide a memorable moment. It was a day trip, leaving Raleigh at 7 a.m. That makes for a long day, especially when you start by going to my other favorite wildlife spot, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.

Immature Black-crowned Night Heron

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

Lake Mattamuskeet is the largest natural lake in North Carolina and attracts thousands of waterfowl in the winter. But most of those birds are hidden from view, spending much of their time in the east end of the lake or in impoundments that are closed to the public. However, a drive along Wildlife Drive will allow you glimpses of that wildlife richness. There are a couple of small pools near the gate that reliably produce good bird sightings (although the invasive plant, Phragmites, is beginning to block much of the view in this area). One species you are likely to see there is the Black-crowned Night Heron. This trip provided a good view of an immature bird, while the nearby adult was hidden in thick vegetation.

Great Blue Heron gets a drink

Great Blue Heron gets a drink

There is almost always a sentinel of the marsh, a Great Blue Heron, present in this area when you first drive in. Unlike Great Blues in many other areas, these are fairly tolerant of our presence and thus are probably amongst the most photographed of their species in North Carolina.

Great Egret striking at prey

Great Egret striking at prey

Another almost sure bet near the entrance is a Great Egret. These elegant white birds forage throughout the area, most often taking small fish, with the occasional larger specimen caught for the luckier viewers. I have hundreds of images of these marsh stalkers from this location over the years, but I can’t seem to resist trying to get a few more on each trip. I particularly enjoy trying to capture the moment of the strike – their white head splashing in the water as they snag a meal.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Another reliable species near the entrance is the diminuitive Pied-billed Grebe (PBG for short). These chunky little divers scoot about the pools, diving for fish, and generally going less appreciated than the long-legged marsh dwellers. But, I like these little guys, and they often swim close enough to shore to allow a nice reflection shot when waters are calm.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

A surprise sighting in the pools this trip was a Horned Grebe. I have seen them out on the lake in some winters, but never in one of the canal areas where you can appreciate their winter plumage and bright red eyes.

Fish eye lens in swamp

Fish eye lens view of swamp

One of my favorite stops at Mattamuskeet is the short boardwalk through a cypress swamp just off Wildlife Drive. I borrowed my friend’s fish eye lens for some unusual perspectives and then learned of a simple trick with my iPhone that produces some interesting results as well.

iPhone pano in swamp

iPhone vertical pano shot in swamp

I have used the pano feature on my phone’s camera many times in this area, but never vertically. Simply turn the camera sideways in pano mode and start overhead and bring it down. By starting overhead, you get the proper exposure for the sky. You can then lighten the darker areas near the base of the image with some shadow reduction features in post processing. Not nearly as nice or sharp as the fish eye, but it doesn’t require the outlay of thousands of dollars that the high quality lens does.

Tundra swans flying out of Pungo Lake

As the afternoon shadows lengthened, we drove over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes for the sunset show. Tundra Swans were flying to and from the lake, providing some beautiful views in the afternoon light. But what I wanted was the return of the Snow Geese to the fields or lake itself. The large flocks have been leaving the refuge in the morning, apparently feeding in fields far to the east. I was hoping they would fly back into some of the refuge fields before heading into the lake to roost for the night.

We positioned ourselves near one of the fields containing several hundred swans and enough bear tracks along the road to make you think you would certainly see a bruin as it came out to feed.  Finally, I spotted them – several thousand Snow Geese flying in from the east in undulating waves of wings. They began to circle and land, joining the hundreds of Tundra Swans already in the field. Right at sunset, a Black Bear came out and wandered over, setting the flock into the air where they circled a few times before heading out to the lake to spend the night. Refuge magic at its best.

I will be leading trips to this area for the next several weeks to observe the wintering waterfowl and other wildlife. Most weekends in January are already booked, but I have many week days left as well as some single weekend dates. I’ll also soon be posting details on my blog Trips page for my June trips to Yellowstone and my July trip to Trinidad and Tobago (the latter in conjunction with EcoQuest Travel and the NC Zoo Society). If you are looking for that last gift for someone special (or yourself), consider giving the gift of nature – a field experience with the Roads End Naturalist. Contact me at my email address – – for more information, rates, and availability.



Otter Outing

It swims and dives with great readiness and with peculiar ease and elegance of movement…

Thomas Bell on otters, 1874

I recently spent a couple of days with a great group of guys in my favorite winter haunts – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges.

Sunrise, Pocosin Lakes NWR

Sunrise, Pocosin Lakes NWR (click photos to enlarge)

The first day started out beautifully with a rich sunrise…and that was about the end of the nice weather. The next day and a half, we experienced very little sunshine, and a lot of wind, cold, drizzle, and clouds (did I mention wind?!!). And much of the wildlife thought we were crazy being out there, so they stayed home.

Tundra swan flock on impoundment

Tundra Swans on impoundment

Tundra Swan flyover

Tundra Swan flyover

The Snow Geese have arrived, but they continue the trend of the past few years and are a bit unpredictable. Instead of flying out to the refuge fields in the morning, they took off far to the east for points unknown. The Tundra Swans were a bit more obliging as they flew out of Pungo Lake in small groups, giving us some nice views. A few hundred landed in one of the impoundments and graced us with their mesmerizing calls, one of my favorite natural sounds.

Bald eagle adult

Bald Eagle flying behind treetops on a gray morning

And where there are waterfowl, there are eagles. We saw several Bald Eagles as they flew over the flocks looking for possible weak birds that would make an easy target.

Otter dive

What you often capture when trying to photograph a swimming River Otter

But the highlight of the day was seeing several River Otters. A friend had said he had seen a bunch on a recent trip so I was looking. Finally, I caught some motion out of the corner of my eye through the thick vegetation lining the canals – an otter! We drove up a bit and got out waiting on the otter to swim our way. It turned out to be three River Otters cruising the canal. They were very aware of our presence and barked and snorted their disapproval. At first, they proved to be difficult subjects for photography – just about the time I focused on an otter head, it would disappear with a ker-plunk.

River Otter 3

River Otter bobbing up and down in the canal

Finally, one raised up to get a better look and I got a shot. It soon became a whole lot of images, as we walked along the banks of the canal trying to figure out where they would pop up next.

River Otter 2

River Otter checking us out

The first siting had three otters. They disappeared through a culvert under the road and then we found five lounging on the bank. When they swam off, we came across three of them on another canal and began watching them. Two suddenly came up across the canal while one seemingly disappeared.

Otter catches fish

River Otter catches a fish

The two began swimming very close together and one had its head down relative to the other. I soon saw why – it had a fish it was dragging beneath the surface of the water. At first, I couldn’t make much out, but then the otter reached the shore opposite me and began to drag its prize up on the canal bank.

River Otter with fish

River Otter with fish

River Otter with fish 2

Trying to subdue the meal

The fish looked huge compared to the size off the otter. I think it was a Carp, or perhaps a Bowfin. One otter had its paws full tying to lug the fish up on the bank while keeping the other otter at bay. This made for a lot of commotion and splashing, and not a very good view of the fish from where I stood.

Pair of otter with fish

The otters quickly stripped off chunks of the huge fish

The finest chefs have nothing on the skill of these otters as they quickly stripped off chunks of the fish and gulped them down, essentially fileting it, all while swimming and tussling with each other in the water.

River Otter 1

River Otter giving us “the look”

We finally decided we had disturbed their meal long enough (in between bouts of fish eating one or both would occasionally give us “the look”). So, when they turned and swam off with the remains of their lunch, we let them be, amazed at what we had just witnessed.

River Otter

A River Otter pauses to look one last time before swimming off down the canal

I never tire of watching these energetic mammalian masters of the aquatic realm. I will certainly keep my eyes open for them on my next trips down this way in the coming weeks.




Finch Findings, Part 2

Here are the long overdue results of the winter finch quiz from my last post, Finch Findings.

Purple Finch female

Purple Finch female – note the bold eye stripe and heavy streaking (click photos to enlarge)

House Finch male

House Finch male – note the red color is confined mainly to the head and breast area, with brownish streaking on sides

Purple Finch male on pine branch

Purple Finch male – note the raspberry juice color, and hint of a whitish belly. There is also a darkish stripe behind the eye. I also think the bill looks “heavier” than that of a House Finch.

House Finch male 2

House Finch male – note the streaking on the breast

Pine Siskin 1

Pine Siskin – from this angle, it is mainly the streaking and very pointed bill that gives it away

On a less pleasing visual note…while photographing the finches last month, I noticed something I see every few years in the House Finches I encounter.

male house finch - good eye

Male House Finch shows his “good” right eye

One finch landed and looked over his shoulder. After I snapped a quick photo, he turned his head to reveal a problem.

Male House Finch with finch eye disease

Male House Finch with House Finch disease

His left eye was swollen and red, an indicator of an eye disease known as House Finch Disease, or Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. The disease is caused by a strain of bacteria that previously was known to infect only poultry and pigeons. It was first noticed in House Finches in the Washington, D.C. area in 1994. It spread rapidly through the House Finch population in the East and then was discovered in finches in their native western U.S. range in 2004.

Female House Finch with finch eye disease

Female House Finch with House Finch Disease

Birds can apparently recover from the disease if they don’t starve or get killed by predators (it certainly impacts their vision and thus their feeding efficiency and predator avoidance) but they are still carriers of the disease. It is transferred by direct contact with other birds, especially when flocking together in winter and congregating at feeders. Researchers say that the disease has cut the booming population of House Finches in the East by as much as half, but that now appears to have stabilized. While it is mainly found in House Finches, the disease has occasionally been seen in other finch species like American Goldfinches and Purple Finches. One source recommends periodically cleaning your feeders with soapy water and a mild bleach solution to help reduce this and other bird diseases.


Finch Findings

This winter’s theme is a “mixed bag” of finch movements.

~Ron Pittaway, Ontario Field Ornithologists

Purple Finch male at feeder 1

Male Purple Finch at feeder (click photos to enlarge)

After seeing the first Purple Finches at my feeder a few weeks ago, I started searching online for some information. I ran across one of those interesting combinations of technology and old-fashioned field observations that seems so common in the birding world – Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast 2014-2015. Winter finches are birds of far northern forests and include Purple Finches, Grosbeaks (Pine and Evening), Redpolls (Common and Hoary), Crossbills (Red and White-winged), and Pine Siskins. What all of these birds have in common is that they are primarily seed eaters, and in the northern forests, the key tree species for them are spruces, birches, and mountain ashes. Ron and his collaborators do extensive surveys every year and assess the status of the seed crop of these tree species and use that to predict southward movements of the various finches. And they are usually spot on…2012-2013 was predicted to be a great finch year down south (and it was), and last year he predicted a poor one due to abundant seed crops. And, indeed, last year, I did not see a single Purple Finch or Pine Siskin.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins are small, streaky, finches with a very pointed bill, and hints of yellow on their wings.

So, this year Ron predicts Purple Finches will move south in decent numbers, along with scattered Pine Siskins, but many of the other species will show limited southward movements due to good crops of certain tree seeds. As I write this, there are about a dozen Purple Finches on the feeder outside my window. I have seen one (an odd number as they usually come in small flocks) Pine Siskin thus far this winter. One non-finch species Ron suggests will move south in moderate numbers this year is the Red-breasted Nuthatch, another seed eater.

House Finch male 1

House Finch male

I think many backyard bird-watchers have some difficulty in identifying our finches, especially in separating the more urban-dwelling, year-round resident, House Finch, from the irregular winter visitor, the Purple Finch. House Finches are a common feeder bird in the East after having been released in New York City in 1940 from a stock brought from their native range of the West Coast for the pet trade. They nest and feed in areas near human habitation, but I see more out along the power line some winters, which indicates, they too, probably undergo winter migrations in especially cold weather. Male House Finches have varying amounts of red on their head and back, a red eyebrow, throat, and upper breast, brownish streaks on their sides and belly, and a square or slightly notched tail. The amount of red is variable because it depends on the individual bird’s diet (red pigments in bird feathers come from a class of compounds called carotenoids, found in plants).

Purple Finch male on branch

Purple Finch male

Male Purple Finches are more wine-red on their head, breast, sides, and rump, and have a white belly and strongly notched tail. The famed ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson, described the male Purple Finch as looking like a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.

House Finch female 1

House Finch female

Females of the two species are a bit more difficult to distinguish. House Finch females have brown upperparts with some streaking, and brownish white underparts with faint brown streaks.

Purple Finch female 3

Purple Finch female

Purple Finch females have brown upperparts, and white underparts that are more boldly streaked with brown. But to me, the most distinctive difference is the bold, white eyebrow stripe on the female Purple Finch (lacking in the female House Finch).

So, here is a little quiz to help you identify those birds you may be seeing at your feeders this winter. Answers will be posted later in the week.

Purple Finch female House Finch male Purple Finch male on pine branch House Finch male 2 Pine Siskin 1

Good luck!









First Snow

When I no longer thrill to the first snow of the season, I’ll know I’m growing old.

~Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson

I have to admit, that describes me. I love snow and winter – I know, I am outside the norm on this one, but I do. And my first snow of the season happened over Thanksgiving, in the mountains of Virgina, at my parent’s home near Damascus. Actually, it happened on the way up the day before Thanksgiving. It had been raining when I left Pittsboro, then turned sunny, and then I started to hit snow near Boone as I climbed in elevation. Somehow, driving in it is a bit less thrilling, mainly because of concern about the other drivers out there. But when you have the chance to walk in it, to watch it fall from the sky, to see it start to turn the world white – that is a thrill.

Sycamore in river

Sycamore trunk with a light dusting of snow (click photos to enlarge)

There was little snow when I first arrived in Damascus. But it snowed overnight, and was lightly snowing on Thanksgiving morning, so I headed down to the river after breakfast to just be in it. Unfortunately, the big flakes that had been falling as we sat at the table and ate, turned to tiny specks of ice, and then disappeared altogether, about the time I headed out. But a quiet walk in fresh snow, even a light snow, is rewarding.

Sycamore over river

Tree leaning out over the river below my parents’ house

The next night it snowed again, replenishing the light covering on the ground that had melted the afternoon before.

Dad's barn

Dad’s barn surrounded by a light dusting of snow and an incredible sky

Every morning when I am there, I grab a cup of coffee and head up the long driveway to get the newspaper. A nice ritual that allows me time to appreciate the early morning light, the birds, and the sky. There is an old barn near the road that, although my folks think is perhaps due for repair or replacement, has always appealed to me. It seems to fit the landscape so well and speaks of hard work and the passage of time. I frequently stop and take a picture or two with my phone because it is such a quintessential rural scene. The first morning there was patchy snow on the ground, but the second morning added some high, thin clouds, and that made all the difference when viewed in black and white.

The snow melted quickly Friday with the bright sunshine but I could see nearby mountains still covered in white, especially the aptly named Whitetop Mountain, the second highest peak in Virgina. So, the next morning as I was heading hone, I took the longer route through the mountains, hoping to see a bit more of a winter wonderland. The winter mood was certainly in evidence as I drove because of the workers busily harvesting Christmas trees to be shipped to market. There must be thousands of acres of tree farms in these mountains, a phenomenon of the past few decades that has significantly altered the landscape and local economy. When I reached the gravel road up to Whitetop, I could see that it was much less white than the day before, with most of the snow and ice that had been coating the trees now gone. Plus, the steep winding road was very icy, so I opted for another location, nearby Grayson Highlands State Park.

snow in woods

Snowy woods at Grayson Highlands State Park

The road up into the park had been scraped and temperatures had reached the mid-forties by late morning, so travel was easy . But there was still a good amount of snow on the ground – at last, real snow.

Picnic table with snow

Picnic table at Massie Gap

Arriving at the end of the open section of road at Massie Gap, I found a half dozen other cars and bout 6 inches of snow on the ground. This is my favorite Virgina state park and one of my favorite areas in the eastern U.S.

Haw Orchard Mtn

View of Wilburn Ridge

The trail up from Massie Gap reminds me more of Montana than an eastern mountain trail. There are large rock outcrops, open grasslands, and scattered patches of Red Spruce. The shrub layer is almost entirely huckleberry, and is a favorite hiking spot in August when the tasty fruit ripen.

Red Spruce

Even though temperatures were rising and the sun was bright, it still felt like winter as I hiked up the trail. The wind was blowing and had that unmistakable bite to it as is so often the case in these highlands. As I walked my eyes turned to the ground and those intricate details that only wind and snow can create, ephemeral sculptures and miniature landscapes that often go unnoticed unless you happen to be walking in a stiff wind, head down to protect your face from the stinging cold. Below are a few photos of the patterns created by wind and snow.

Snow at Massey's Gap 1 Snow at Massey's Gap Patterns in snow patterns in snow 3 Patterns in snow 1

The walk was a great way to gain perspective, to think, to appreciate sensations. The writer and naturalist Edwin Way Teale summed up my strange love of winter nicely…

Of the four seasons, spring entices, summer makes you welcome, autumn gives you a lingering farewell, but winter remains aloof. We think of it as harsh and uncompromising. We speak of the dead months, the night of the year, the return of the ice age, the winter of our discontent. Yet, paradoxically, in its own way, winter is a time of superlative life. Frosty air sets our blood to racing. The nip of the wind quickens our step.

Here’s to many more walks with quick steps and racing blood…


A Well-named Bird

…he wears a coat of the purest, richest, and most gorgeous blue on back, wings, and tail; he carries on his back the blue of heaven and the rich brown of the freshly turned earth on his breast…

~Arthur Cleveland Bent, in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, 1949.

male bluebird head

Eastern Bluebird, male (click photos to enlarge)

I finally had a chance to sit out along the power line the other morning to watch and photograph some of the comings and goings of the local birds. It wasn’t long until I heard the familiar “tur-a-wee” call of the Eastern Bluebird. A small flock gathered in a treetop along the edge of the clearing and softly voiced their opinion to whomever would listen. This distinctive call is believed to be a location note between birds – sort of a “here I am, where are you” phrase.

I waited patiently, and they finally dropped down to drink some water in the flower pot base I have on the ground (surrounded by rocks and sticks to make it look a little more natural), and to feed on the suet at the feeding station.

Male bluebird in water garden

Bluebird getting a drink

This time of year, bluebirds gather in small flocks and move through their territory feeding on insects (on warm days) and fruit like Red Cedar and American Holly berries. Males and females call to one another and I often see pairs checking out some of the nest boxes as if they are planning ahead for next season.

female bluebird on branch 1

Eastern Bluebird, female

They normally seem to get along just fine but the other day there was some squabbling going on between two pairs of the birds with one female being particularly aggressive. She would fly at one of the others in the flock and they would tangle mid-air, land a few feet apart, and do it again.

female blubird after a scuffle

Female Eastern Bluebird having a bad hair day

She seemed to be getting the worst of it as some feathers atop her head were misplaced as though she had taken a beak to the skull in one of the scuffles. This went one for about ten minutes until whatever seemed to be bothering them was settled, and they flew off together and starting giving call notes again. I guess we all have our cranky moments.

Female bluebird on branch

Eastern Bluebird female in early morning light

Bluebirds in this area tend to stay around all winter as we usually have enough warm days to cause some insects to stir, and in suitable habitat, there are a lot of shrubs and trees that have berries. I see them moving through the woods more in winter (in warmer months they tend to be just out along the power line corridor), but it may be partly due to the fact that they tend to be in small flocks this time of year and are therefore more visible.

Male bluebird on brsnch

Eastern Bluebird, male

I am just glad they are here, adding a cheery note and a brilliant splash of color to the increasingly gray and brown world of my woods.



Learning by Experience

The feeling of respect for all species will help us recognize the noblest nature in ourselves.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of sharing two of my favorite places with an enthusiastic group of NC State students in the Leopold Wildlife Club. I was asked if I would accompany them on a field experience by the group’s president, who had been on trips with me when I was at the museum and he was in the youth group at the museum called The Junior Curators. I was happy to participate in a field experience for these students, almost none of whom had been to this wildlife-rich region of the state before. The plan was to go to Mattamuskeet NWR first, then cruise back to Pocosin Lakes NWR for sunset. But, when I asked my van what they wanted to see the most, the answer was a resounding, “bears”. So, to increase our chances, I decided to visit the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR on the way to Mattamuskeet, then come back at sunset, if we had time.

Sure enough, we spotted five bears on our quick drive through the refuge, along with some nice views of a feeding Nutria, several shorebird species (Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, and an abundance of Wilson’s Snipe) , and my first Tundra Swans of the season flying to and from the lake.

Leopold Wildlife Club and roadkill bear

Students observing young roadkill bear (click photos to enlarge)

As we continued on toward Mattamuskeet, we saw a car sitting along the road, flashers blinking. As we pulled up, we could see why – a roadkill Black Bear. It was a small bear, less than 100 pounds I guessed, probably dead less than a day. The students all piled out of the vans to take a closer look – sad for the bear, but a learning opportunity to see one of these animals up close. The other car had stopped for the same reason, just to look.

Roadkill Black Bear

Roadkill bears are becoming a more common sight in eastern NC

When I returned home, I looked for data on bear roadkills in NC and  came cross a comprehensive overview of bears in NC put out by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission entitled, North Carolina Black Bear Management Plan 2012-2022. It included a graph showing the increase in reported bear roadkills in eastern NC from the 1970’s until 2010. The data showed a steady increase rising from less than 20/year in 1980 to over 150/year in 2010. Another chart showed a similar trend in population estimates of Black Bears in the state. Wildlife biologists believe there are now close to 10,000 bears living in the Coastal Plain compared to about 6,000 in the Mountains. So, Black Bears are, indeed, increasing in numbers and the Commission is looking at ways to better manage this growing population. Use of wildlife passageways across major roads in good bear habitat is just one of many things being considered. I recommend this report and its appendices for anyone interested in what the future holds for our states’ bears. I also found a recommendation for contacting local officials when a roadkill is found. So, I left a message for the district biologist giving the approximate location of our bear. Data collected from dead bears on age, sex, and general condition provide important information for wildlife management agencies.

We proceeded on to Lake Mattamuskeet and spent a couple of hours looking at waterfowl and other wildlife (including great views of three Gray Foxes). But the group really wanted to finish our day at the Pungo Unit, so off we went. And we were not disappointed. Driving in with the sun getting low in the west, we soon encountered a young bear out foraging along the edge of a winter wheat field.

young Black Bear

Sub-adult bear at edge of field

We stopped the vans and got out to listen and look as the day shift wound down and the late shift began. Groups of Tundra Swans were flying back toward the lake as sunset approached and small flocks of Wood Ducks were flying out of the swamps to feed in the fields and impoundments. A Great Horned Owl cruised by as we walked back to the vans. Woodcock twisted and turned in their dizzying flight out to the fields for their evening meal of earthworms. And we were treated to several more bear sightings as they went from forest to cornfield to feed. It is such a privilege to help people experience the thrill of seeing bears in the wild and having the feeling that you are the only ones around to appreciate it. Our total for the day was 20 bears. Definitely not a bad way to spend a Saturday…observing wildlife in some of my favorite places with some enthusiastic learners and future decision-makers on the fate of our wild lands and their inhabitants. I never tire of sharing such special moments in special places.

Autumn’s Palette

Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus

hickory tree 1

Hickory tree canopy highlighted by late afternoon sun (click photos to enlarge)

Years ago I had a school grounds workshop scheduled for a week day in October near Asheville. I didn’t get a hotel room ahead of time since I figured it would not be a problem during the week. After checking various places with no vacancy, one clerk told me I would probably need to drive 30 minutes or more east before I could find a room…“After all, hon, it is leaf season”. Leaf season, of course. The annual display of leaf colors in autumn is one of the most magical aspects of living in a region dominated by temperate deciduous forests. While our mountains are highlighted as the place to see the most dramatic colors, I find beautiful hues across much of our state, and I love to take in the show, especially late in the day when the low angle of the sun makes the colors even more vibrant.

Chalk maple leaf

Chalk Maple leaf

These past few weeks when the colors have peaked in this area I have been very busy, and have not been out as much as I would have liked to capture the beauty. So, I went back in time to the files of previous Fall photos to bring out a few taken in the woods of Chatham County. Most are taken late in the afternoon on windless days. I especially like to shoot leaves that are back lit by the setting sun, as it really highlights their textures and imperfections. I only wish the show lasted a little longer…the strong winds and rain coming in the next few days will surely cause the few remaining colorful leaves to drop, leaving only the reddish browns of the oaks out front to hang on into winter. And we will all have to wait until the next leaf season to marvel at the dazzling beauty in the trees around us.

tulip poplar leaf

Tulip Poplar leaf

maple leaves

Red Maple leaves

hickory leaf

Hickory leaf

maple leaf 1

Red Maple leaves

maple leaf 2

Red Maple leaf edge

fall color

Chalk Maple leaf

Autumn, the year’s last, loveliest smile.

~William Cullen Bryant

maple leaf backlit 1

Red Maple leaf




Boneyard and Butterflies

Discovering this idyllic place, we find ourselves filled with a yearning to linger here, where time stands still and beauty overwhelms.


Salt marsh at sunset

Salt marsh at sunset (click photos to enlarge)

Another report on my recent trip to the South Carolina Lowcountry…after looking for dolphins on the boat charter and enjoying some of the fine dining to be found in Charleston, it was off to Edisto Beach State Park for a couple of days of exploring and relaxing.

Palmetto leaves and shadows

Cabbage Palmetto leaves make interesting patterns as the sun sets

Edisto Beach State Park has a great interpretive center and nice hiking trails. The campground and cabin area are located adjacent to a salt marsh with beautiful woods along the shoreline. Sitting on the screen porch and watching the sun slowly sink over the marsh was a great way to relax. Two Great Horned Owls called in the distance.

Palm leaf patterns

Cabbage Palm leaf patterns

The low angle golden light cast beams and shadows on the vegetation making the woods seem like a gallery showcasing an artist that specialized in abstracts of green stained glass.

Botany Bay roadway

The tree-lined road into Botany Bay

One of the places I wanted to visit was one friends simply called Botany Bay. I had thought it was part of Edisto Beach Sate Park. But, it turns out its more official name is Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve/Wildlife Management Area and it lies a few miles down the road from the state park. And, as I found out, you need to do a little homework before visiting as it is regularly closed to the public on many days in the Fall for scheduled gun deer hunts. Luckily, one of the days I was in the area was a Sunday, and there are no hunts scheduled for Sundays. The two mile dirt road into Botany Bay is gorgeous, with huge Live Oaks draped with Spanish Moss forming a sun-dappled tunnel.

Spanish Moss on Live Oak

Live Oak festooned with Spanish Moss

Live Oak branches at Botany Bay

The trees are so beautiful you want to stop and just stare up toward the sky

I found myself driving very slow and stopping periodically just to look up and try to take it all in. This is quintessential Lowcountry – dark twisting branches of Live Oaks, some heavily cloaked with the gray clumps of Spanish Moss. Volunteers greet you on busy days and provide a map to the self-guided auto tour route. But I headed straight for a place I had heard about that can be a photographers delight, under the right conditions – the beach at Botany Bay.

Dead tree at Botany Bay 1

Dead trees provide stark subjects for photography along the beach at Botany Bay

I have seen images from many wonderful photographers taken along the so-called Boneyard Beach of Botany Bay at sunrise. Unfortunately, the tide gods did not cooperate on this, my first visit to this area, as it was a time of extremely high tides at, you guessed it, sunrise. Park staff had said it was unlikely that the beach would even exist at high tide, and, from the looks of things, they had been right. So, waiting for the tide to start dropping also meant the sun was rising higher in the sky, making for some harsh lighting.

Dead tree at Botany Bay

Dead trees reach to the ocean at Botany Bay

Dead tree at Botany Bay 2

Boneyard Beach as the tide is dropping

I will definitely make a return trip to this unique beach for a sunrise visit at mid-tide, hopefully with a few clouds to liven things up.

Buckeye butterfly on grass stem

A butterfly caught my eye walking back through the salt marsh at Botany Bay

The trail out to the beach passes through a salt marsh and some maritime forest and can be a great place to see birds, reptiles, crabs, and other coastal critters. I had hoped to see migrating Monarch Butterflies, as this is usually a great time of year to see them along the North Carolina coast. But, nary a Monarch in sight, although some other butterflies did their best to make up for that.

Buckeye butterfly on grass stem wings open

Buckeye basking on a marsh grass stem

What looked like a freshly emerged Buckeye caught my eye as it rested on a swaying Spartina stem along the path. It finally opened its wings to catch some of the warm sun, displaying its boldly patterned wings for a quick image.

Gulf Frittilary

Gulf Frittilary

But the star of the insect world on this trip were hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Gulf Frittilary butterflies flying everywhere along the coast.

Gulf frittilaries

The undersides of the wings are covered in silvery spots

I think some people may mistake these orange and black beauties for Monarch Butterflies in the fall, as they, too, undergo mass migrations, especially on the coast. But Gulf Frittilaries are a bit more elongate in their wing shape, and have distinctive silvery spots on the underside of their wings. In North Carolina, this species is resident mainly along the southeastern coast, and then exhibits some inland and southward migration in late summer. Larval food plants are various species of Passionflowers. This must have been a very good year for this species as everywhere I went along the coast, they were abundant.

Shadows on duckweed-filled pond

Shadows on duckweed-filled pond

Those few days spent in the Lowcountry will be remembered for the slow pace, the wildlife, and the play of light on the water and through the vegetation…there is a serenity to the place, something that will call me back.




Join me in Yellowstone this January

Yellowstone in the summer changed my life. 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, a teacher that experienced Yellowstone in both summer and winter

Hayden Valley

Hayden Valley in winter (click photos to enlarge)

Join me from January 15-21, 2015, for an unforgettable trip to Yellowstone National Park. Winter is my favorite season in the park – the snow-draped landscape is gorgeous, the wildlife is abundant and easier to see than in summer, and with fewer visitors, it is like having your on personal park. Don’t let the thought of the cold temperatures and snow deter you – participants will get detailed information on what to bring, and it really isn’t anything that special, just layers of what you might wear outdoors in winter in North Carolina. Time is short and space is limited. More details can be found on the trip page.

If you have any questions, please contact me at

Here are a few images from previous winter trips.

Bison in snow

Bison after plowing in snow for grasses

Firehole River remains ice free

Firehole River remains ice free all winter due to thermal runoff

Coyote along Madison River

Coyote along Madison River

Hikers in a geyser basin

Hikers in a geyser basin

Wolf pack in snow

Wolf pack in snow in Lamar Valley

Magic mist

Mist in Lamar Valley on an icy morning

Moose valley

Moose valley

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ram

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep ram

Icy trees at Mud Volcano

Icy trees at Mud Volcano