I guess it isn’t enough to be a mere observer. It’s turning to the person on your right, or left, and stating with an undiluted sense of joy and inquisitiveness, “Did you just see that?”
I had my first post-retirement outing yesterday with a great group of folks from the Bass Lake Photo Club. I gave a talk to their group in March and they saw an image of a bear on my desktop and asked where it was taken. Pungo, of course, and they said they wanted to go. While I have great luck getting good wildlife images on my own, and I have led several nature photography workshops over the years, there is a bit more pressure when folks are particularly interested in getting something like bear photos. I stressed there are no guarantees but that they would come away with some good information and a knowledge of the refuge and that seemed fine, so we set it up. I went down Friday afternoon to scout things out (even though I have been down twice in the past two weeks – hey, it is my favorite place in NC after all:).
The wind was howling Friday with lots of cloud cover, so not ideal for photography. In the week since I had been down the local farmers that tend the crop fields on the refuge had moved in their equipment and started plowing for this year. Not sure if that or maybe the cold windy conditions were to blame, but the few bears I did see were very skittish, and uncharacteristically sprinted for cover as soon as they saw my vehicle, even at great distance. Hmmm, not a good omen. And the bitterns from last week were nowhere to be found. Bummer, looking like it could be a tough weekend for a group outing.
The one cool thing I did see was a small bird scurrying at the edge of one of the freshly plowed fields – a Horned Lark. This is the only native species of lark to nest in North America. I have seen Horned Larks before in winter in this region, but never this time of year, although the Birds of North Carolina (http://www.carolinabirdclub.org/ncbirds/view.php?sort_order=2870) reports them as a permanent resident in parts of the Coastal Plain of NC. It is always exciting to see one, and especially to be able to watch one forage (it was gulping down moth pupae that the plowing had exposed).
The next morning dawned windy, chilly, and completely overcast playing into my concerns for our group experience later that day. I drove over early to check things out and did see a Bald Eagle and lots of other birds, but no bears.
One thing I did see that intrigued me was a number of Yellow Thistle (Cirsium horridulum) plants that had been eaten (just the stalks). After looking around it was obvious that bears had been feeding on the stalks.
I photographed this plant last week on a warm day with butterflies on it, but here was evidence of use by another animal. I probably saw 30 or more plants that had the stalk completely missing with the flowers and seed heads laying on the ground next to the rest of the extremely spiny basal leaves. According to one resource, bears love the stalks of thistle, especially the newly elongated stalks. They can avoid the spiny-ness of the plant in several ways. Based on what I saw, they probably took off the top of the plant (they have been observed swatting it off with a paw) and then stripped the spiny leaves before consuming the tasty stalk (hope to witness that behavior some day).
I drove back into Plymouth to meet the group and escort them out to the refuge. There were four: Rick, Steve, Petra, and Rosa, and they were all up for the day in spite of the weather conditions. Steve even mentioned he had rented a telephoto lens for the day to try to get some decent bear pics (Uh-oh, no pressure there). I gave the other car a walkie-talkie so we could communicate and off we went. I decided to stop and photograph other subjects of interest in case the bears were skittish again today. We got out to look at Spatterdock flowers and pads in the canals and Woolly Ragwort flowers that were blooming in abundance along the roadsides. The upward-pointing silky-haired leaves of Woolly Ragwort are adaptations to reduce water loss in the hot sun by reflecting sunlight (hairs) and reducing the surface area exposed directly to the sun (vertical orientation).
Shortly after arrival at the refuge I was amazed to see a snake out in the chilly weather as it crossed the road. Jumping out of the car I cut off its escape and everyone got great shots of a beautiful Corn Snake. Later in the day we had a similar encounter with a cooperative Black Racer.
Driving along the south side of the lake you pass through a beautiful swamp forest with huge stands of ferns. The colors and patterns are gorgeous so we got out and spent some time looking around and got lucky with a few breaks in the clouds The large stands back off the road are Virgina Chain Fern (Woodwardia virginica), but close to the road were some easily accessible Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea).
Most ferns carry their reproductive spores on the undersides of the fronds; cinnamon fern (and other species of Osmunda) have separate and distinctive fertile fronds in addition to the typical sterile fronds. A close look reveals the tiny round brownish sori that release the spores.
Folks seemed happy, but, we had come for bears. So, off we went again in search of them. Finally, I spotted one in one of the marsh management areas that had been drained for the summer. We drove as close as possible and got out and could now see two bears through the trees.
Not everyone was able to get a clear shot through the dense line of vegetation, but, we had seen bears! My self-imposed pressure was lifted. The two bears eventually wandered off into the woods and we continued down the road about one hundred yards and there was another one!
This one was a bit far off so I briefed the group on the finer points of stalking bears (crouch down and move quietly when the bear has its head down foraging and then stop when it looks up). Of course, having the wind in our favor (blowing from the bear toward us) was the only reason we could think about getting close enough for a picture. We moved forward stopping whenever the bear raised its head. Everyone was able to get several good shots until the bear ambled off into thicker cover. We were on a roll!
We then went over to the place I call New Bear Road due to its abundance of bear sign. It did not disappoint. As we walked down the grassy path, first one, then two, then three bears walked out of the woods and started heading towards us. I had everyone crouch off to the side of the path and we watched and waited.
The bears went back into the woods at one point and we moved a bit closer. They all three came back out and were grazing as they again walked our way. The wind was still in our favor but a group of five people is not an easy thing to hide and it started to look as though the female could sense something was not quite right.
She stood up a few times to look around and threw her nose in the air several times trying to catch a scent. But I don’t think she ever smelled us, so the group of bears continued to hang out and allow us to watch them feed, play, and just be bears. It was an extraordinary several minutes. She finally rounded up her yearling cubs and they headed back into the woods leaving our group with awesome memories.
One of our folks had to leave a bit early so we drove back to the entrance to his car. We then drove through the refuge toward our final hiking spot, seeing more bears along the way. In fact, what I had feared would be a tough day for spotting bears turned out to be a great one – 19 bear sightings!
Our last hike was along a dike out toward a wheat field where I had seen bears last week. I like this walk because you pass along a wetland management area that often has abundant wildlife. We saw plenty of shorebirds, egrets, herons, and one large raccoon. Then we saw three bears walking in the opposite direction from us on a parallel dike across the wetland area. We watched for awhile until they passed and then continued toward the woods where we had just seen three other bears. As w neared the trees I heard some low noises, and then what we assumed was the sound of suckling bears. Then we spotted them – a sow with two yearling cubs in dense vegetation below us. She looked our way, walked a few feet and the sounds continued. Black Bears nurse their young for about a year so I am guessing the two yearlings were still nursing and that is what we could hear. Amazing. The sounds stopped and we assume the bears wandered back into the woods. Satisfied it could not get any better we headed back to the cars, scolded along the way by several Greater Yellowlegs feeding in the wetland area. Then we heard the snorts/barks of two River Otter swimming in the canal below us. What a way to finish an incredible day.
I experienced some amazing things at Pungo the last couple of weeks, mostly by myself. But, as the quote at the start of this blog states, there is something magical about sharing an experience with others, especially others that appreciate nature and are willing to learn and to take whatever is dealt to us in terms of weather and wildlife. We were incredibly lucky to have been able, as a group of five, to experience our time with the bears just doing what bears do. I am so grateful that places like Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo) exist and are managed by dedicated staff so that visitors like us are able to have these experiences. I encourage everyone to support your local parks and refuges and volunteer to help them meet their needs (and make legislators aware of their needs) in these increasingly difficult budget times. It is important not only for the wildlife, but for us all to have such places.
Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man. Stewart Udall
Species list for Pocosin Lakes NWR May 3/4, 2013:
Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Nutria, River Otter, Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, Hispid Cotton Rat (in talons of Northern Harrier)
Double-crested Cormorant, Mallard, Canada Goose, Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Wild Turkey, Northern Bobwhite, American Crow, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, Orchard Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Horned Lark
Painted Turtle, Yellow-bellied Slider, Corn Snake, Black Racer, Pickerel frog, Southern Cricket Frog, Southern Leopard Frog