December 3, 2018
Sam’s Field Notes: Wildlife Festivals Ahead
By SAM BLAND
COASTAL REVIEW ONLINE
“Hear the music, the thunder of the wings. Love the wild swan” — Robinson Jeffers, American poet
The warm, long golden days of summer are behind us, blown aside by the
windy cold fronts bellowing out of the Arctic. Hitching a ride on these
southbound frigid blasts of air are tundra swans. The silent hands on
nature’s clock have activated the alarm. Urged on by instincts for
eons, the swans have followed an invisible highway etched in the sky by
These large white birds with a long elegant neck will sometimes cruise
along at 50 miles per hour and as high as 5 miles up to reach their
destination. Many things in nature are constant, yet, they represent a
As reliable as the sun rising out of the darkness and into a new day,
each autumn the tundra swans return to the lakes and fields of
northeastern North Carolina.
Also known as the whistling swan, explorer Meriwether Lewis designated
them as such due to the sound its wings make while flying. The more
formal name, tundra, indicates the location of its breeding grounds
high in this Arctic habitat. Here, the swans nest and raise their young
during the short warm summer before migrating close to 2,500 miles to
the east coast.
From high in the sky, their destination stands out like the bull’s eye
on a target. Lake Mattamuskeet, at close to 18 miles long and 5 miles
wide, is an important way station for migratory waterfowl along the
As the swans begin to trickle in during November, the lake provides the
perfect habitat for the birds to survive the winter and fatten up
before the return trip in the spring. The 40,000-acre lake is shallow
with an average depth of about two and a half feet. This is ideal for
the swans to reach submerged vegetation with their long necks.
Managed as a National Wildlife Refuge, it also includes 2,600 acres of
marsh impoundments that provide food and cover for the birds.
The expansive agricultural fields surrounding the refuge are also
loaded with kernels of golden corn, littered by the harvester, which
the swans will quickly scavenge.
As thousands of the swans converge on Lake Mattamuskeet, the National
Wildlife Refuge and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
organize a daylong festival of activities to celebrate their arrival.
Known as Swan Days, the event is held annually on the second Saturday
in December, this year set for Dec. 8.
Events for the festival are staged out of the Mattamuskeet High School
on U.S. 264 starting at 10 a.m. All parking for the event is at the
high school and shuttles will transport participants for the activities
conducted in the refuge, including the popular guided birding tram
tours. Some activities will be in the refuge and some will take place
at the school.
Free activities include birding tram tours, a lecture on the history of
Lake Mattamuskeet, Sylvan Heights Bird Park display with live birds
including a black swan, kids programs, decoy carving, “Lunch with the
Guides” storytelling with tour guides and nature photography workshop.
Additionally, there will be presentations offered on several topics
such as the diversity of bird life around the lake, the Mattamuskeet
Lodge renovation and Native American history as well as an exhibit by
the North Carolina Estuarium on local plants and animals and vendors
with arts, crafts and food.
are a fixture in cultural lore throughout the world and have come to
represent love, beauty, purity and grace. As they feed in the fields,
marshes and on the lake, the chorus of their calling can be heard from
It is an enjoyable sound to hear, so much so that E.B. White wrote in
his children’s book “Trumpet of the Swan,” that “There is nothing in
all the world I like better than the trumpet of the swan.”
Swan Days isn’t the only wildlife-related festival going on during the second weekend in December.
Nearby, the encore edition of the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival
will be offering birding field trips at the Alligator River, Pea Island
and Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges and Cape Hatteras
National Seashore. The event was started in 1997 to inspire the public
to visit and learn about the diversity of wildlife and their habitat
within our National Wildlife Refuges.
Sponsored by the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society as an annual
fundraiser, the bulk of this event occurs in mid-October with more than
80 field trips venturing into six refuges.
Since many migratory bird species aren’t present during the October
session, an encore session of 13 field trips is offered Dec. 7-9.
The field trips, led by expert trip leaders, will venture into the
refuges to look for a variety of migratory waterfowl, song birds,
shorebirds and birds of prey species.
Participants might see the American avocet, purple sandpiper, American
white pelican, piping plover, peregrine falcon, snow geese, tundra
swans and a variety of ducks.
Birds aren’t the only game in town though; the refuges are also home to
black bear, red wolves, river otters, foxes and bobcats. Each year
these animals are routinely sighted during the outings. Registration
and a fee are required to attend these field trips.
These two events offer an extraordinary opportunity to get outdoors and
connect, reconnect or continue your love affair with nature by
observing some magnificent wildlife. It’s waiting for you, just go!