One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin.
I spent a couple of days late last week with some clients from the Netherlands and a Dutch friend of theirs that now lives in North Carolina. They had been with me for a couple of days last Fall, but arrived a day before the Federal Government shutdown and had to totally reschedule their plans which had been to visit many of our national wildlife refuges, parks, and seashores. They really wanted to experience some of the wildlife of eastern North Carolina, so decided to come back for a short visit to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges this past week. And I think they are glad they did.
I arrived at our meeting place a little before they did, and out in the field was a young Black Bear foraging for food. My group had just texted that they were close, but the bear, of course, started to meander toward the nearby woods. Luckily, it found enough of something to keep it interested in the field until they arrived for a look. Not an especially close look, but a good way to start our trip.
We encountered several deer over the course of our stay along with a variety of birds from Wild Turkey displaying along the roadsides, to American Coot and Pied-billed Grebes feeding in the impoundments. While watching the latter that first afternoon, we spotted some dark objects in a tree on the far side.
It was a mother bear and her new cub. I am so accustomed to seeing bears with two and three cubs here at Pocosin Lakes, that it was unusual to just see just a single cub up in the tree. This little guy seemed to be hanging on for dear life, while mom was moving around, apparently feeding on some of the newly emerging leaves. I suppose there might have been a less adventurous sibling or two down below out of our sight.
After driving through the refuge until sunset, we spotted another bear, making four for our first afternoon, along with more deer, an eagle, and some of the usual small bird life.
The next morning was overcast, windy, and much colder than it normally is for mid-April. I must admit, I was a bit worried that we might not see much wildlife under those conditions, especially the abundant frogs, warblers, and butterflies I had seen a few days earlier. After a slow start, I decided we should go for a walk down one of the dirt roads and explore the nearby patch of woods. If nothing else, they could see lots of wildlife tracks and sign, especially of the bears that use this area. The wind was blowing steady from the north making for a cold hike, more like some of my mid-winter outings. At least everyone would appreciate the car after this. After a few minutes, we headed into the woods to get out of the wind. The first thing that struck me was the refuge had done a controlled burn in the woods since I had visited in February – I’m not sure I have ever been in these woods after a burn.
The second thing I noticed was the incredible abundance of Poison Ivy. The new growth was thick with it – on some of the paths we walked, covering large patches of ground along the roadsides and in the woods, climbing tree trunks – everywhere. I warned the group to watch out for it, but getting it on our shoes and pant legs was inevitable. A recent study in Duke Forest, where researchers pumped increased levels of carbon dioxide into forest enclosures to mimic increased greenhouse gases in the environment, showed that Poison Ivy rwas one of the species that esponded with vigorous growth. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come (or perhaps it is in response to the burn, or it has always been this way and I just have not been in these woods this time of year). Whatever the cause, it makes you think twice about every move you make. As usual, there was abundant bear sign, and as I was showing some to my guests, one spotted a bear (Marja turned out to be an excellent wildlife spotter). We watched it slowly amble away into the thickets bordering the lake. Shortly afterwards, she spotted another bear nearby. A quick look showed it to be a different one, slightly larger and much blacker than the first. This is what I always hope will happen – to be able to observe bears in the woods, doing what most wild bears do, rather than out along a road or in a crop field.
We had walked only a few feet when I heard something and stopped. Then I saw a bear coming down out of a small tree. After being on the ground a short time, it climbed back up, using a couple of small trees and vines to work its way about 20 feet off the ground. Then it began feeding. After looking at it through the scope, I could see it was eating the emerging leaves of a vine common to these woods – Supplejack (Berchemia scandens). We watched as the bear pulled vines toward it and munched the leaves. It repositioned itself and turned its attention to other nearby leaves, balancing on small limbs and the tangle of vines as if it were a circus performer on a high wire. The bear fed this way for 15 minutes or more as we watched. I think it had an idea we were there, but, since we were quiet and still, it seemed unconcerned. Finally, it started to climb down and I whispered to the group that it looked like the most likely path out of the tangle of vines was towards us. Indeed, the bear turned and ambled out in our direction. It glanced our way, and started walking off away from us.
The sun had come out after we got into the woods, but I had left my camera in the car in order to carry a scope, so the images and short video clip of this incredible encounter are from my phone. The bear still seemed oddly unconcerned about us but I decided to have everyone walk in the opposite direction. The bear climbed out on a suspended tree trunk, then dropped off and glanced in our direction. There is something magical about being able to watch an animal like this as it goes about its daily routine. It helps me understand some of what they face, how we share some similarities in what we do, and yet how amazingly adapted to their surroundings they are. I think we were all on a “bear high” the rest of the afternoon.
As we headed out of the Pungo Unit toward Lake Mattamuskeet, we came across a small Eastern Hognose Snalke crossing the road.
I got close, hoping it would display some of this species’ unusual behavior of playing dead, but, after it spread its neck, hissed, and sprayed some musk without feigning death, we left it alone.
The day ended with another incredible wildlife moment which I, unfortunately, have no record of, as my camera was buried under some gear in the back of the car. A Gray Fox came out alongside our vehicle far down Wildlife Drive at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. It hunted alongside the road for several minutes as we watched, passing only a few feet from our car, catching many small insects or perhaps frogs, and licking it lips several times in apparent satisfaction. Another incredible moment with wildlife.
It was an amazing day and a half with up-close and personal time spent with some interesting wildlife. The bear and fox were behaving as if we were not around, a rare treat when out in the woods with a group of people. And while I did not get any great images of the experience, I am so happy to have shared it with such a great group of folks.
We had a lot of fun. They are all excellent wildlife spotters and appreciate learning about our North Carolina wildlife, both large and small. It is a privilege to be able to share the places I love with people like this group of folks I now call friends.