Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Big birds from the tundra

The first time I saw these huge birds that migrate from the high tundra to winter in North Carolina was about 15 years ago, when we were driving across the causeway that splits Lake Mattamuskeet on a frigid winter day. We weren't close enough to hear them, but what we could see was dramatic. It looked like nothing so much as hundreds, maybe thousands, of bales of bright white cotton bobbing on the water way over yonder.

Tundra swan on the edge of a drainage ditch in the Pocosins

In 2002, I heard them for the first time when Joe Albea, producer of Carolina Outdoor Journal and Tom Earnhardt, international fishing guide and with Joe the prime mover behind the PBS series Exploring North Carolina, had me squatting in the dark on the banks of Pungo Lake in the federal Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  We couldn't see them clearly but it sounded like a drunken cocktail party or a national political convention out there -- gabbling and hollering and arguing and hooting at one another.  It was a magnificient site when the sun was up enough to make out the many thousands of tundra swans bobbing out there on the dark waters of these ancient lakes in Eastern North Carolina.

Over the MLK holiday weekend we went back out east on an oyster-eating and bird-watching expedition, staying at Lucia Peel's Haughton Hall B&B in historic Williamston and driving out to Mattamuskeet, Phelps and Pungo lakes to see the swans and the snow geese. Haughton Hall is a great place to stay because of its fine breakfasts, good company with the proprietor and her dog, Brown Sugar, and its location near my favorite oyster joint of all time: The Sunnyside Oyster Bar.

But first we drove out to Lone Goose Lodge, an early 20th-century house owned by the Swindell family for, oh, about 100 years.  A.B. Swindell, a former state legislator (as was his father, the late Russell Swindell) loves to show off the historic photos from the days when such luminaries as Gov. W. Kerr Scott of Hawfields visited the lodge.  The day was fast ending but A.B. and Mike Mann -- whom I have known only for the past 40 years of so since our days on Capitol Hill in Washington, where he was a key staffer for Sen. Robert Morgan -- had a roaring fire in a great big barrel and where friends were boiling shrimp and steaming oysters just in from Kent Narrows, Md.  We watched the birds flying back to the lakes from the grain fields where they had fed all day, then gorged ourselves on oysters and various libations which seemed to appear with astonishing frequency.

Saturday we followed the same excellent program -- chasing birds all day and oysters in the evening at the Sunnyside, where old hands like Floyd and Jesse were entertaining customers and shucking the bivalves with the same degree of commotion. The oysters were from the Texas coast this time, but I'll have to say they were fine as well. We were too busy knocking back the sliders to take pictures, so these shots of swans feeding in the fields and looking for landing spots will have to do.
Feeding a field near Pungo Lake

Waiting for clearance from Traffic Control
A few redwing blackbirds were baksing in the early afternoon moonshine


  1. Great weekend, Jack! You need to let folks know about this blog!

  2. Nice piece other than the utter nonsense that Texas oysters could possibly rival those from the Maryland waters! Patterson