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  • Writer's pictureJohn Patota

Photo Friday - Some Things are Harder Than Others

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

A Trip to Pungo

"Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward" - John C. Maxwell

Travel on Highway 64 eastbound from Raleigh through Rocky Mount, Tarboro and Jamesville, population 491, until you get to Plymouth on the Roanoke River before it empties into Albemarle Sound. At this point, ditch the GPS for fear of getting hopelessly lost, follow NC Highway 45 south, take a left at the Hyde County Egg Farm sign and soon leave paved roads behind.

Welcome to the Interbanks. You have just entered the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Pungo Unit. It's been and easy two and a half easy from Raleigh. Looking over the vast and expansive landscape makes one appreciate quiet places.

A whopping 110,000 acres in eastern North Carolina have been set aside as prime wintering grounds for migratory birds like the Tundra Swan and Snow Geese. The land is flat, baron and removed from human development.

Each year, more than 70,000 Tundra Swans migrate to the coastal plains of North Carolina for the winter. They come to Hyde County along the Atlantic Flyway from the Arctic tundra regions of northern Alaska and western Canada in large flocks, finding food in plowed fields and protected areas such as Lake Mattamuskeet, Pea Island and Pungo Lake, where I found them in January of 2020.

To me, bird photography, particular birds in flight, are the hardest thing to shoot, with a camera that is. Unless they are standing still, in the open and relativity close by. Birds must know where they’re going, but they don’t tell photographers.

About the only thing I was able to figure out is that they land and take off into the wind. Yes, I've been told that some birds signal when the're about to take off. The Bald Eagle, it's been written, poops before taking to the sky. Maybe it makes them lighter? Tundra Swans apparently don't want to signal there intentions, preferring to suddenly and vigorously flap their wings, propelling themselves forward. Next, they seem to run on the water before building up enough momentum to take them into the air. Something to witness.

When it is time to return to the water, they bank in from one direction, turn into the wind losing altitude the entire time, then use their wings like a speed brake. Webbed feet acting like landing gear, they splashing down somehow avoiding fellow swans already in the pond.

One other observation that will help. Tundra Swans take off and land in pairs and many times with their offspring. After all, Tundra Swans are beveled to mate for life, so it would be natural for them to travel together.

A mother Tundra Swan and her offspring.
A mother Tundra Swan and her offspring. You can tell the first-year juveniles by the light brown color, which will turn to all white in the spring. The pink colored bills of Tundra juveniles turn black by the end of the first year.

As I took hundred’s of out-of-focus images of magnificent, graceful Tundra Swans leaving the safety of the pond that flows into Pungo Lake, I thought about how this was so much different than my work at high school baseball games. See, there I can camp out in the home dugout, my camera trained at first base, and listen for the crack of the bat. I know the action will be coming into my frame.

Even with the aid of my camera's focus tracking and continuous auto focus, both extraordinary marvels of the modern cameras, it's not easy.

Much easier than my first attempt on Pungo.

I did manage to get some decent images of Tundra Swans as I tracked them in the air, but they were as rare as a Dukie on the UNC campus. Looking, drooling really, at the other photographers that day, I concluded that it helps if you have deep pockets if you are a bird photographer. After all, a light, but sturdy tripod, 500 mm lens and a fancy gimble are minimum requirement to join this exclusive club. Not to mention, the latest and greatest camera, and yes, begrudgingly, many hours of trial and error. Practice, practice, practice.

So graceful in the air. Wingspans can reach 5 to 6 feet.

Fail forward and always have a backup plan.

Sensing the trip may be total disaster, I devised a backup plan. Get the swans as they gently waded on the water. It didn’t take long before realizing I was taking boring shots, so why not get up the next day in the pre-dawn hours and return to the same place to capture them as the sun was rising? Yes!

Tundra Swans are not to only migratory birds to winter in eastern North Carolina. Here, thousands of Snow Geese arrive to claim their spot among the Tundra Swans. As part of an agreement with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, farmers leave half of the crop on the ground as food for these magnificent birds.

Apart from the stark, but beautiful landscape and magnificent display of nature all around us, one memory stands out. Our group arrived in pitch dark to await the sunrise at a pond filled with swan. The only sound was that of hundreds of them just a few feet away, randomly honking as if the brass section of a large symphony orchestra was warming up.

Then, a distant 'boom'. A hunter's shotgun had instantly turn to complete silence. Moments of stillness, as I imaged the swans to be respecting their dead, followed by the slow and steady return to normal.

See all my photos taken at Pungo Lake at

Photo Friday is part of Manteo 2 Murphy, a Photographer's Journey Across North Carolina. Each week, I will be documenting my travels to meet the people, visit the places and tell the stories of this great state. #Manteo2Murphy

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