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  • Writer's pictureJohn Patota

In Pursuit of Photographic Holy Grail

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

My favorite trip of the year is always in the Winter. The 3 hour drive to the Pungo Unit of the Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge is something I think about all year. Gone are the long, tiring days of photographing golf tournaments in Pinehurst, Gone too is the heat and sweltering humidity of Summers in the South.

As soon as the weather turns mercifully cooler in September, I start wondering when the Tundra Swans will start their migration from the Arctic to coastal North Carolina. When November rolls around I start asking friends “When are we going to Pungo?” Then, December arrives and I can finally start my countdown.

Charlotte, my best friend, life-partner and newbie photographer, has agreed to make the trip with me this year. Her first visit ever to this part of North Carolina, which I find odd for a native of the Old North State. I move on, especially considering that she has shown a real interest in photography. So I get my spare camera ready for her use and we go over a few of the basics - focus, zoom and shutter button. She’s got this!

For weeks we have been preparing. What to wear - pink scarf, camo and cute boots. What to bring to eat - trail mix and homemade coffee cake, yum!. And very carefully planning our bathroom breaks once we hit the refuge. So important. One bit of advice if you find yourself in this part of the world - never pass up a gas station or a restroom.

The day has finally arrived. After a year, the camera gear is packed and the GPS is set. Home base for our weekend adventure is Plymouth, North Carolina, in Washington County on the Roanoke River where it meets the Albemarle Sound. This part of the state is called the Inner Banks. A name mostly likely dreamed up by a visitors bureau so as to imply its proximity to the much better known Outer Banks.

Barns like this are common sights in Washington County, North Carolina. Photo Credit: Charlotte Murray

Plymouth, these days, is best known for paper mills you can see, and sometimes smell, in the distance. But in 1864, it was the site of a Civil War battle that drove the Yankees out of the town and gave the Confederacy a much needed, but short-lived victory. Today, when I think about Plymouth, the local Piggly Wiggly comes to mind. I just love that supermarket chain, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Then there is the Golden Skillet. Since 1937, this restaurant, visited most often by locals, has been serving liver dinners, gizzard plates and fried seafood boxes. I go for the safe bet and choose the chicken sandwich and nothing to drink. Charlotte has the BBQ. After all, we are about to head into an area without bathrooms for miles.

After lunch, we make our way south. Next stop, Pungo.

We drive on long, straight roads through flat farmland that extends to the horizon. The only thing to break up the landscape is an occasional tree line, an isolated farmhouse and drainage canals cut into the dark, fertile soil. We remark on how the vivid green winter rye contrasts against the few trees, bare without leaves.

The sun is setting, and soon the full moon will rise. As we drive slowly into the wildlife refuge, daylight begins to fade behind broken clouds. Suddenly, we hear the sound of thousands of Red-winged blackbirds moving across the landscape. They seem to move in unison, as if controlled by some unknown force. Charlotte later tells me this is called a Murmuration. What would we do before Google?

Red-winged Blackbirds move as one across the landscape at the Pungo Unit of the Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Credit: John Patota

It's the largest flock of birds I’ve ever seen in my life. Breathtaking. I take a moment to watch, but then realize that I should get my camera ready to capture the scene, carefully composing the shot to include a tree as a visual anchor. For that I give myself a virtual pat on the back.

We have broken the ice by witnessing our first glimpse of magnificent natural beauty. But there are more things to see so we move on looking for the real prize, Tundra Swan flying across the full moon.

Our trip is planned to capture the full moon as it breaks the horizon. If we are really lucky, we will capture the Holy Grail - Tundra Swans crossing the moon.

I learned a few years ago that the full moon rises at about the same time as the sun sets. As long as you have a good line-of-sight to the horizon and clear skies to the east, there is still enough light to capture the full moon rising and something in the foreground - like Tundra Swans. This perfect light condition only happens on the day of the month when the moon is full.

By now, Charlotte has heard all that from me several times. She uses the binoculars, packed especially for the trip, to scan the horizon for the moon minutes after sunset. Then, there it is. Exactly where the App said it should be. This is her first time witnessing a moonrise, and I’m very happy to share the moment with her.

Charlotte Murray, newbie photographer, scans the skies near Pungo Lake looking for Tundra Swans. Photo Credit: John Patota

Next, it's time for her to get the camera ready and look for Tundra Swans as they fly across the sky. Then it happens. Is it beginner's luck or hidden photographic talent?

Tundra Swan fly back to the safety to Pungo Lake to spend the night as the full December moon rises. Photo Credit: Charlotte Murray.

We got what we came for. Tomorrow, Lake Mattamuskeet.

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