Learning by Experience

The feeling of respect for all species will help us recognize the noblest nature in ourselves.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of sharing two of my favorite places with an enthusiastic group of NC State students in the Leopold Wildlife Club. I was asked if I would accompany them on a field experience by the group’s president, who had been on trips with me when I was at the museum and he was in the youth group at the museum called The Junior Curators. I was happy to participate in a field experience for these students, almost none of whom had been to this wildlife-rich region of the state before. The plan was to go to Mattamuskeet NWR first, then cruise back to Pocosin Lakes NWR for sunset. But, when I asked my van what they wanted to see the most, the answer was a resounding, “bears”. So, to increase our chances, I decided to visit the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR on the way to Mattamuskeet, then come back at sunset, if we had time.

Sure enough, we spotted five bears on our quick drive through the refuge, along with some nice views of a feeding Nutria, several shorebird species (Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, and an abundance of Wilson’s Snipe) , and my first Tundra Swans of the season flying to and from the lake.

Leopold Wildlife Club and roadkill bear

Students observing young roadkill bear (click photos to enlarge)

As we continued on toward Mattamuskeet, we saw a car sitting along the road, flashers blinking. As we pulled up, we could see why – a roadkill Black Bear. It was a small bear, less than 100 pounds I guessed, probably dead less than a day. The students all piled out of the vans to take a closer look – sad for the bear, but a learning opportunity to see one of these animals up close. The other car had stopped for the same reason, just to look.

Roadkill Black Bear

Roadkill bears are becoming a more common sight in eastern NC

When I returned home, I looked for data on bear roadkills in NC and  came cross a comprehensive overview of bears in NC put out by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission entitled, North Carolina Black Bear Management Plan 2012-2022. It included a graph showing the increase in reported bear roadkills in eastern NC from the 1970’s until 2010. The data showed a steady increase rising from less than 20/year in 1980 to over 150/year in 2010. Another chart showed a similar trend in population estimates of Black Bears in the state. Wildlife biologists believe there are now close to 10,000 bears living in the Coastal Plain compared to about 6,000 in the Mountains. So, Black Bears are, indeed, increasing in numbers and the Commission is looking at ways to better manage this growing population. Use of wildlife passageways across major roads in good bear habitat is just one of many things being considered. I recommend this report and its appendices for anyone interested in what the future holds for our states’ bears. I also found a recommendation for contacting local officials when a roadkill is found. So, I left a message for the district biologist giving the approximate location of our bear. Data collected from dead bears on age, sex, and general condition provide important information for wildlife management agencies.

We proceeded on to Lake Mattamuskeet and spent a couple of hours looking at waterfowl and other wildlife (including great views of three Gray Foxes). But the group really wanted to finish our day at the Pungo Unit, so off we went. And we were not disappointed. Driving in with the sun getting low in the west, we soon encountered a young bear out foraging along the edge of a winter wheat field.

young Black Bear

Sub-adult bear at edge of field

We stopped the vans and got out to listen and look as the day shift wound down and the late shift began. Groups of Tundra Swans were flying back toward the lake as sunset approached and small flocks of Wood Ducks were flying out of the swamps to feed in the fields and impoundments. A Great Horned Owl cruised by as we walked back to the vans. Woodcock twisted and turned in their dizzying flight out to the fields for their evening meal of earthworms. And we were treated to several more bear sightings as they went from forest to cornfield to feed. It is such a privilege to help people experience the thrill of seeing bears in the wild and having the feeling that you are the only ones around to appreciate it. Our total for the day was 20 bears. Definitely not a bad way to spend a Saturday…observing wildlife in some of my favorite places with some enthusiastic learners and future decision-makers on the fate of our wild lands and their inhabitants. I never tire of sharing such special moments in special places.

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