Mattamuskeet Blind Assignments

Spring always starts slowly, but in the south, it soon starts stumbling over its own feet in it's rush to get every living thing moving.  The first sign of spring was way back in late January, when the swamp maples bloomed.  Their tiny red blooms are barely noticeable until they fall on the ground.  But now the swamp maples are a blaze of red color, as their seed pods are ripening and all of them area beautiful shade of bright red.

Swamp maples seed pods

Several days ago, I heard a rustling at my window.  This lovely Polyphemus moth was at the window, trying to get out. I opened the window and then it decided that it was happy there.  So I took its picture before pushing it out to resume its short life.  Today there were several species of butterflies fluttering around, but I didn't try to photograph them until it was so hot, they would barely settle, before flying off again. But there are at least two species of sulfur butterflies as well as a couple of other species I don't know. 

Yesterday, I went to Crooked River and rode my bike around while birding.  I also went out of the park and through a neighborhood where I found many signs of spring. 

Plum tree?

Saucer magnolias
And the robins are leaving.  Today I was only able to count six where I  usually count 50 -200.  I caught this guy sprucing up before his trip north while at Crooked River State Park.

I'm keeping a patch list while I'm here, so decided to check out part of it this morning. The first thing to catch my eye was this glorious Caroline jasmine, just at the edge of my "yard".  It was attracting bees and butterflies, but all were way too high for me to photograph them.

Carolina jasmine

A closer view
 Then everywhere I went, I saw more spring activity.  Tree buds were busting out all over.  Many also had blooms.

Baby leaves

Leaves and blooms

More buds bursting out

And we may have had the first of our spring warblers visit. The only thing I can match this terrible picture to is a young female northern parula, because it looks like its throat will be yellow.  Hopefully Judy Bell, Bruce, or another birder can help me out here.  The turkey vultures have been moving through for the last ten days or so and we are also seeing some black vultures, which I hadn't seen all winter. And two mockingbirds seemed to be courting.

On my walk this morning, I also found this redbud tree.

Redbud blooms

Bladderwort have been blooming for several days in one of the bar ditches along the auto tour road.  I went down this afternoon to capture it.

Swollen bladderwort, Utricularia inflata, flower

I had to stop to take a picture of these strange little flowers.  They have  a unique kind of star-haped leaf cluster and the leaves are a little like succulent leaves.

And these little buds were on a scrawny sub-shrub, only about eighteen inches high.

If you know what that last two plants are, please let me know. I'll try to research them while I'm not so busy - that's when I'm waiting for customers in the Visitor Center.

So, what's new in your neighborhood?

For the past several days I have been photographing exclusively at lake Mattamsukeet National Wildlife Refuge. As the swans have begun to return in mass, the action has picked up to a fever pitch out there. One problem that any photographer who attempts to photograph the waterfowl in this area is faced with however, is that these birds are hunted to no end and therefore very wary of people and anything out of the ordinary. From thier nesting grounds to North Carolina, these birds probably move through three seperate hunting seasons. Even here on Mattamuskeet there are schedualed hunts. All of this combines to create a potentially challenging situation for photographers.

Now dont get me wrong, there really are so many birds here that you cannot come to Mattamuskeet and not walk away with photographs of swans – as well as deer and even bald eagles for that matter. But in order to take your photographs up to the next notch, you have to get close, and you in my opinion, you have to get low.

My entry in this photojournal today can be compared to my last entry as I was photographing from the same spot but from a different perspective and weahter conditions. With my last entry, the photographs were all made from sitting down inside of an Ameristep chair blind. This put my lens just a few feet above the water level and really brought out the bordering swamp as a  background to the phtographs. In this current entry however, I was moved back about 30 feet to a higher elevation – my lense probably being 7 feet above the water. In these photographs, I lose the forest as a background and instead have only the water itself to work with.

The reason that I made this change though was due to the skittishness of the birds. Even with my blind pushed back up into the edge of the dead phragmites and zipped up with only my lens hood (which is camoflauged) sticking outside of the blind, the birds were still very wary of my presence. I watched as flock after flock began to fly in, only to notice my blind and flair back out to open water and move around me. I have always had great success with this blind and so at first I couldnt understand what was going on and even if it was really the blind that was spooking them. Then, a great egret started to fly and and land about 10 feet in front of me. When the bird looked right at me and started squaking as it flew off, I knew what the problem was.

That evening I spoke with a couple old school duck hunters from the area about birds being blind shy. They told me that quite often people speak of ducks near the end of the season as being decoy shy, but from their experience its really blind shyness and that if you remove the blind, often the birds will come back into the same spread of decoys they were seemingly flairing from to begin with.

When it comes to photographing wild waterfowl, duck hunters should be your mentor and your best friend. They are the onese who have mastered the art of luring in these wary birds for centuries if not melinia. When people talk of hunters, waterfowl hunters carry a certain mistique – even more so I think than the big game hunters. People use words like obssession to describe thier past time. Food bases, what birds are eatingwhen the first arrive and what they are eating before the leave, migration routes, lunar impact upon migrations, drought conditions of areas thousand of miles away, breeding cycles,  etc. . .  What other sport hunter goes so in depth with their understanding  of ecology, biology, and natural history of thier querry now a days? So like hunting these birds, if you want to photograph them you have to know as much as there is to know about the birds, and you cannot simply walk up to the side of the road and expect to make award winning photographs of them. There is a good reason that waterfowl hunters have decoys, calls, waders, camoflauge, and spend days working to perfect thier hunting blinds before the birds begin to arrive.

What all of these means then, is that even though I was concealed in a blind, it just wasnt good enough. The blind was far to conspicous to these waterfowl. After learning of birds becoming blind shy like this, I set mine up and studied it. First off, it has a slight sheen to the fabric. This means of the light hits it right the blind will be illuminated. Second, its too dark for the phragmites. I have photographed waterfowl from this blind many times before, but not with such a uniformly light tan background as these phragmites. I probably looked like a giant glistening bear with knife and fork in hand to these birds. Or maybe I just looked like the last thing that killed a few of thier friends. Eitherway, these birds were spooking.

So the solution? I will be picking up a couple mats of shadow grass and a thing of burlap this week. The burlap is light and can be spray painted with cattails and phragmites used as stencils to create the perception of depth. The shadow grass on the other hand will make me completely disappear into the dead phragmites, but is really heavy and a burden to tote around. Where I photograph in Mattamuskeet, I can simply cart my gear (with one of those fishing gear carts you see people using on piers) to the area and then just stash the cart. Elsewhere, when I need to done waders and trudge belly deep through the water, I can float the burlap along with the rest of my gear in a large mortar mixing tub with a rope attached to it. This actually works great because it keeps your stuff dry even if you take a fall in the water.

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Tags: eatern north carolina, mattamuskeet, migration, national wildlife refuge, North Carolina, swans, tundra swans, waterfowl, wetlands, whistling swans, wildfowl, wintering grounds


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