A Hot Day at the Refuges

All that is beautiful is difficult.

~Plato

That sort of sums up my last trip to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. It was beautiful, but difficult. Made so by the intense heat and humidity on the day of my tour last week. The heat was stifling, but, my clients and I managed to survive, and see some interesting wildlife as well. My friend, Petra, had once again helped arrange a tour for some folks from the Netherlands (this is the fourth trip I have guided for wonderful guests from the Netherlands). And, like the others, they wanted to see bears, so I met them in Plymouth early Thursday morning for a trip over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR. After driving through the refuge and seeing mainly butterflies and a few birds, we parked and walked down one of my favorite dirt roads, hoping for bears. Tracks in the mud showed they were around, but none showed themselves as we strolled and sweated a mile down the road. We did have a couple of Bald Eagles, some woodpeckers, toads, lizards, and more butterflies, but no bears for the first part of the walk. After reminding folks that you should always look behind you, one of my clients did just that, and spotted a bear. Of course, it was only a hundred yards or so from our parked car and here we were about a mile away. The grasses and weeds had grown up in most of the side paths, so we skipped those and headed back, spotting a couple of more distant bears along the way. Closer to the car, a large bear was ambling along the edge of the crop field on the other side of the canal, headed in the same direction we were walking. As we got closer, I saw it suddenly turn around and start walking in our direction, so we stopped.

Big Boy Bear

Large Black Bear passes by across the canal (click photos to enlarge)

He passed by on the other side of the canal, partially obscured by the tall weeds. He was a big guy, maybe 300+ pounds, I am guessing. And it looked as though he has seen his share of scuffles with other bears, from the look of his ears and coat.

Big Boy Bear 1

The bear swam across the canal after moving past us

The wind was in our favor but I think he heard our loud camera shutters and picked up the pace, running down the far side of the canal about one hundred yards, where he swam across and stood in the road looking back at us. Needless to say, that was quite a thrill for us all. The morning turned out pretty good for bears with twelve sightings for most of us (one person saw one more run across a road that the rest of us missed). The highlights were the big guy across the canal and two sightings of bears in trees – a mother with two cubs in one tree, and a lone cub lounging in the shade of another tall tree. We all agreed that cub had the right idea for such a hot day – get in the shade up where there was some breeze, drape your legs over a large limb, and chill out. A good spotting scope really helps you appreciate the behaviors of wildlife in these types of situations.

Photographing a spider in the swamp

The short boardwalk loop through the swamp is one of my favorite stops

We decided to run over to nearby Mattamuskeet NWR to see what else we could see. There were the usual waders, Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons, plus lots of turtles in the canals. People were catching Blue Crabs in several places (a very popular summer activity at this refuge). But, after driving the length of Wildlife Drive, no foxes or other wildlife were seen. We stopped to walk the short boardwalk through the swamp as it is one of my favorite hikes at Mattamuskeet. It was made more appealing on this afternoon due to the shade. As is often the case when I am leading a group, I left my camera in the car. My goal is to find things for the clients to observe and photograph, plus I always joke that by leaving my camera behind, it increases our chances of seeing something interesting. Well, it did not disappoint.

Golden Orb Weaver

Golden Orb Weaver (photo by Petra Glorie)

I spotted a huge web of a Golden Silk Orbweaver, Nephila clavipes (also called the Golden Silk Spider and the Banana Spider) . This female provided a great photo opportunity in the late day sun, and I thank Petra for the use of one of her excellent images. This is one of our largest spiders, the female being up to 1.5 to 2 inches in body length, with a leg span of up to 4 inches. Males are tiny, averaging only a little over one-quarter of an inch in body length. The spider is named for the unusual gold-colored silk in its web. And the web is huge, spanning a few feet across the swamp. I don’t remember seeing them at Mattamuskeet before, but I am not down there as often in the summer. Records have shown a range expansion for this species, especially in the past two decades. I remember seeing them in the Wilmington area fifteen or twenty years ago, and then seeing them gradually move northward and inland. They are now found from North Carolina (primarily the Coastal Plain) south to Texas. And for those of you cringing at the thought of this huge spider moving into your neighborhood in the near future as range expansion continues with climate change, at least we can be thankful it is such a beautiful species.

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