When the North Wind Blows

I went camping last weekend with some friends at Pettigrew State Park and the weather decided to change dramatically during our stay. Saturday was relatively warm and overcast and we just missed the last of the rain when we arrived at the park around noon.

water drops on poplar leaf on ground

Water drops on fallen leaf (click photos to enlarge)

Everything was slightly wet as we set up camp, and there were insects and spiders moving about. That would all change by nightfall.

Gulls at the bar

Gallery of gulls in winter attire – Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Ring-billed Gull

After setting up tents we did a quick check of the boat ramp and found some Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks out on Lake Phelps and a gallery of gulls hanging out on the railing. The rest of the afternoon was spent over at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge looking for anything that might be out and about. We spotted a few bears at a distance and then saw what at first looked like a sleeping bear near the refuge maintenance area.

Roadkill bear

Dead young bear

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a dead young bear and it had not been dead long.

Rear foot of dead bear

Hind foot of dead bear

While sad, it did offer a rare opportunity to closely observe a bear. It probably weighed about 75 pounds, meaning it was probably born a year ago. One foot was turned so we could examine the soft texture of the pad. We were puzzled by what might have happened, but after talking with refuge staff on my return, they thought it was probably hit by a car. Regrettably, we had seen another, much larger, roadkill bear on our way down alongside Hwy 64…a cautionary note for drivers in bear country, especially after dark, when a large black animal is very difficult to see.

As sunset approached we headed out and were greeted by a flyover of thousands of Tundra Swans and the first Snow Geese of the season. The arrival of the strong cold front may have been the push needed by the birds to complete their migration to their wintering grounds here in North Carolina. In one of the long V-shaped formations of swans, there was one lone Snow Goose flying in line along with his much larger cousins from the far north – the first time any of us had ever seen a mixture of these two birds in formation.

During the night, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped precipitously. By daybreak it was bone-chilling cold with a stiff persistent wind out of the northwest – the perfect Pungo wildlife day.

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier hunting in a stiff wind

One advantage of a steady breeze is that it slows down the flight speed of many birds (at least those heading into the wind) and gives you a chance to watch and photograph them. Such was the case with a ghostly male Northern Harrier battling the stiff wind as he hunted the roadside ditches. If only another car had not come along, we might have stayed with this soaring hunter and grabbed some memorable images.

Bear tooth marks on sweet gum

Bear tooth marks on Sweetgum

Hiking down one of the dirt roads on the refuge we began seeing lots of bear sign. Many of the trees in the area have claw marks from bears climbing them. But many of the larger Sweetgum trees have another distinctive mark – sections of bark ripped off near the base of the trunk with teeth marks left behind as the bears scrape away the sugar-rich cambium layer.

Fungus on bear scat

Fungus on bear scat

There was also an abundance of another bear sign – piles of scat. And much of the scat was odd-looking because of a hairy fungus growing on top. Although I have seen this before, I don’t remember seeing so many scat piles covered in the Chia Pet-type growth. A quick search on the web revealed the fungus is probably one in the genus Phycomyces. This fungus is related to bread mold and is one of the first to grow on substrates that are high in sugar. The hairs are the sporangiophores and each is tipped with a tiny sphere full of spores.

Bear on Bear Rd

Female Black Bear on “bear road”

It wasn’t long until we encountered something with hair of a different color – a Black Bear. It was a medium-sized adult bear who came out of the woods between myself and my friends a hundred yards or so down the road. She came out cautiously, frequently glancing back in the woods. We all thought she was probably not alone, and, sure enough, a young bear soon followed. I thought they were going to cross over into the nearby corn field, but she slowly meandered my way.

Bear standing on bear rd 1

Female bear stands up to sniff and look around

The stiff wind may hamper a bear’s ability to use its keenest environmental sensor, its nose. The young bear disappeared back into the woods and the adult soon stood up to look around and probably try to ascertain if the coast was clear. She probably could sense us, but maybe could not get a direction on the scent. She soon dropped down and ambled off to join her young one.

Log with stripped bark

This log had a bear on it stripping the bark

Cold, windy weather often offers good wildlife watching opportunities on the refuge as animals tend to get hungrier and more active during the day. After walking a few miles on various dirt roads, we encountered two bears off in the woods atop a leaning tree that had broken near the base. We sat and watched for about 20 minutes while the female gingerly pulled off chunks of bark and appeared to lick or bite at something underneath. After they ambled off into the thick undergrowth, we went over to check out the tree.

Grubs being eaten by bear

Beetle grubs under the bark

We quickly found what the large bear was so gently picking off the log – a variety of beetle grubs hidden under the bark. Grubs must be a bruin delicacy as evidenced by the amount of log rolling and stripping of bark that can be found on almost any downed tree in these woods.

Bear sitting in corn field

Large Black Bear feeding in corn field

After several more bear sightings we finished our beary good day with a large bear coming out of the woods and feeding in the corn field as we sat and watched nearby. It walked in and sat down, grabbing an ear of corn and feeding on it while sitting and looking around.

Bear carrying ear of corn

Bear carrying ear of corn

Occasionally, the bear would pick up an ear off the ground and carry it a ways before sitting and eating. We finally got up to leave and were greeted by another bear with two young, and then three more on the way back to the car. An amazing day in an amazing place. The final amazement came in the form of a beautiful sky with literally thousands of swans calling and filing by overhead as they made their way back to their critical resting spot on the lake. This short video gives you a sense of what it is like in this magical place.

I will be leading several trips this winter to this area both on weekends and during week days to observe wildlife and learn abut the importance of this and other refuges as critical wildlife habitat. If interested in attending one of these trips, please contact me at my roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com email address or via my Facebook page. While there are no guarantees on seeing so much wildlife, it is a place that never disappoints me.

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