Pungo Lake Tundra Swans Migration

After a 4.5 hour drive to our Outer Banks vacation, the Bakers were itching to see some wildlife, so we headed straight over to Pungo Lake, in the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina to see if the migrating Tundra Swans had arrived.  We arrived late afternoon at Pungo Lake and were greeted by a robust symphony of honking Tundra Swans.

Frequent followers of the black and white migration of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese confirmed the Tundra Swans had just arrived that week. Tundra Swans breed in the Arctic Coastal Plain in Canada then migrate during the winter to the West and East coasts of the United States, where they live in wetlands and salt marshes. In prior years, the Snow Geese and the Tundra Swans were often together in the same area, but they seem to go their separate ways this year. We found the Snow Geese at Pea Island Wildlife Refuge and Lake Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge. The timing seems to be mid to late January when they arrive in North Carolina, and they stay approximately a month. At the end of our trip, over 30,000 Tundra Swans were reported on Pungo Lake alone.

The Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge is 110,000 acres in Hyde, Tyrrell, and Washington Counties. It is located six miles south of Columbia, NC off Highway 94 on the east and 18 miles south of Plymouth, NC on Highway 45 on the west. This The 12,350 acre Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge winters a large numbers of waterfowl with peak numbers of well over 100,000 in December and/or January each year. Waterfowl species that winter on Pungo Lake include Tundra Swan, Snow Goose, and over 20 species of ducks including wood duck, teal, mallard, and pintail.


We noticed early on, these rather large Tundra Swans, which grow up to 52" tall with a 5' wing span, were a kind of nervous bunch.  As you got close to Pungo Lake, they would quickly swim away to increase the distance between you and them. To help the Tundra Swans relax, we stayed quiet and relatively still for long periods of time.  This seemed to put them at ease, and they didn't stay quite as far away.  On another visit to Pungo Lake, we caught a whole lake full of Tundra Swans as far as the eye can see snoozing, but there was a select troop on guard that seemed to patrol the general area we were in so they could warn the others when we made one false move.  Should they get spooked, look out! The massive fearful flight will take your breath away.  Watching these beautiful ivory birds "walk" across the water and soar into the sky is simply amazing.

The best times to see the Tundra Swan on Pungo Lake is reported to be before the sun comes up and late afternoon on the lakes as they leave to feed as the sun comes up in the morning. But during our visit, we were fortunate to find them throughout the day. There was a field right next Pungo Lake that they were feeding on, and they would switch back and forth between Pungo Lake and the field. The Tundra Swans flock together in huge groups on the ponds and in the fields and seem to be a relatively harmonious bunch, but if you spend some time watching them you are sure spot them squabbling and chasing each other across Pungo Lake from time to time.

Many of the roads around Pungo Lake are impassible when muddy and will be closed. So it is best to have a four wheel drive vehicle or be willing to take a hike to take a closer look.  Along one such impassible muddy road, we saw a sleepy Barred Owl, perched on a nearby tree at the edge of the road.  It is hard to believe this gentle stuffed animal like creature is a raptor. He patiently endured our intrusive photographing because he was more determined to get some zzz's than fearful of our advances. 

Tundra Swans and owls weren't the only birds that were found at Pungo Lake. The wildlife refuge is teeming with Kingfishers, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Great Blue Herons around the secluded canals along with Mallard and Pintail Ducks and Pied Billed Grebes.  The Pied Billed Grebes were a challenge to photograph because they would swim underwater for a pretty good distance and would never pop up where we predicted.  Colorfully arrayed American Kestrel and stealthy Northern Harrier Hawk were soaring about on the prowl for their next meal as we drove around the wildlife refuge. There were also a small group of American Coots that liked to hang out with the Tundra Swans and a fair size flock of Red Winged Black Birds that were flitting back and forth feeding in the fields not far from the swans.

Wildlife at Pungo Lake of the unfeathered kind abounded throughout the wildlife refuge as well.  A furry wildlife family of 10 of Nutria, also known as a river rat, seemed unbothered at our presence as they frolicked and wrestled and swam in the water a few feet away from us.  When we decided to walk to Pungo Lake down a recently closed muddy road, we stumbled on a racoon perched on the side of the canal in a lazy potty belly stance getting a bite to eat.  Soon after he disappeared but caught up with him further down the road, and followed from a distance as he carefully crept and sifted through murky waters for his next morsel. A few otters were swimming down the canals as well.

A visit to Pungo Lake to see these majestic Tundra Swans certainly is worth a trip for birding photographers and wildlife lovers alike.  Going on a week day or early morning to try avoid the crowds is recommended. Be sure to have a full tank of gas as there aren't many gas stations nearby.  Birding photography tours are available, but to get the best photographs, be prepared to go it alone and spend some time after the crowds leave. One early foggy morning, we stood around with a several photographers waiting to get a photograph.  Frustrated the fog wasn't lifting, everyone else left.  Soon after, the fog lifted and the sun shown through, and the photography shoot was on.

Go for the Tundra Swans, but be sure to take time to explore the entire wildlife refuge, the quieter side away from the Tundra Swans, to catch a glimpse of all the critters that live there. You won't be disappointed!  See tabs below to find the exact locations we visited.