Butterflies, Blooms, and Bears

Summer is a promissory note signed in June, its long days spent and gone before you know it, and due to be repaid next January.

~Hal Borland

I headed down to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge last week for an “end of summer” day trip (actually more of a “before hunting season begins” road trip). The refuge allows deer and small game hunting and archery season for deer begins next week. I was hoping for a post holiday weekend lull in visitation so I packed up and drove into the rising sun Tuesday morning. My goal was to spend some time with bears, but, as always, I knew there would be some natural highlights to observe, along with the joy of simply spending time in a wild place that I love.

There was a hint of crispness in the air, that sure-fire sign that summer is winding down. Nearing the refuge, I drove past fields where the corn had recently been harvested, which tells me the bears will be busy in the refuge fields harvesting their own share of the crop. The roadsides were showing signs of fall in other ways too, with swaths of autumn flowers growing along the canal edges. Yellows and purples seem to dominate the flower colors this time of year, a nice visual combination and another sign of the changing season.

The most abundant refuge roadside flower right now, Bitterweed or Sneezeweed (Helenium sp.) (click photos to enlarge)
Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum

I got out and walked along some of the grassy roads, looking for bears and observing the many wildflowers and butterflies. I saw several fresh-looking Monarchs, no doubt on their long journey to Mexico. The beautiful Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed was a favorite nectar stop for many species. I wonder if that species of Joe-Pye would do well in our yard? It blooms later, is shorter than the one we have by a couple of feet, and is a darker pink in color.

Monarch Butterfly on Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed (Eutrochium dubium)
Black Swallowtail on Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed

Along the now closed South Lake Road (I see they are working on it, so I hope it will be open by winter), I saw several butterflies stopping to sun in the open sandy spots, and a few were stopping at the local roadside diner to partake of the daily special – bear scat.

A Red Admiral that has probably had an encounter with a bird’s beak
A Buckeye with its bold eyespot wing pattern
A fresh Zebra Swallowtail imbibing on some mineral-rich bear scat
A Viceroy checking out the menu selection on another pile of bear poo
A Viceroy caterpillar feeding on willow leaves

With my eyes trained on finding the small things hidden in the roadside vegetation, I spotted an otter trail going into the canal through some tall weeds, so I set my camera and telephoto lens down and walked a few feet to peer over the canal bank and photograph some of the goldenrod’s intense yellow flowers with my phone.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) flowers stand in bold contrast to the dark canal waters and green pocosin shrubs

When I stepped through the vegetation, my eye caught movement on the opposite side of the canal. There were two of us surprised by this encounter…me (sans camera) and a very large boar Black Bear. I slowly moved back to retrieve my camera, and he grudgingly left the water and ambled back into the vegetation, giving me one glance before slinking off and disappearing into the thick greenery. That was bear #3 of the morning, but the closest by far.

This large bear was in shallow water at the edge of a canal when I accidentally surprised him (and me)

After the bruin hello, I continued on toward the north shore of Pungo Lake. This time of year I always stop the vehicle and scope far down the road ahead of me to see if I see any sticks moving in the road – snakes. As soon as I headed down West Lake Rd., I saw a skinny twig move. I rushed up to it and was pleased to see an Eastern Ribbon Snake. This species is usually found near water (this one was crossing from a canal to a large marshy area) and feed on small fish and amphibians.

Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus)

I hiked in to a small pond on the back side of a refuge crop field in hopes of seeing a bear cooling off, but there were none. However, I was rewarded with a couple of unusual robber flies flitting about in the tall grass. I could see they had very long, dangling legs. As I walked, they would fly off a few feet and land again in the grasses, hanging by one or two of their legs in the tangle of linear blades. One in particular caught my eye as it was carrying a prey item (I think some type of Digger Wasp). I had my telephoto lens so it was a challenge to get down and find a spot that wasn’t entirely blocked by crisscrossed grass blades.

One of the so-called Hanging-Thieves Robber Flies (probably Diogmites salutans), showing its typical posture when consuming prey – dangling by one or two legs and clinging to the prey with the others

When I looked it up back home, this group goes by the apt name of Hanging-Thieves. They usually prey on wasps and bees but are known to also take dragonflies and other robber flies.

Looking head-on as it shows its strength by hanging on with one leg

I soon headed over to my favorite location, “Bear Road”, to see if it had the usual array of parked cars at the gate. To my pleasant surprise, their was only one vehicle and I could see one person walking back toward his car. I decided this was my lucky day and I parked and headed down the road for the first time this season. My knee has been bothering me a lot lately so, instead of my usual habit of walking down the road and into the woods, I carried a camp chair and sat toward the far end of the corn field that lies across the canal from the grassy road. I have seen many photographers and bear watchers do this over the years (especially in the recent past) but I always hesitated. I especially don’t care for people sitting adjacent to major bear paths that run from the woods, across “Bear Road” and into the canals for access to the corn. I just think it may cause too much stress if the bears encounter a person up close as they emerge from the woods. If I am walking, the bears can usually see me at a distance, take action to avoid me by going into the woods until I pass, and then come back out to resume their trek to the food bank. After spending a couple of hours sitting along the road with no one else around, I decided I was correct in my concerns.

I spotted three bears crossing into or out of the field within 15 minutes of being there. Things settled down and I waited another half hour before a young sow and lone cub of the year (COY) appeared far down the road, walking my way. She was steadily moving toward me with the cub stopping, then scrambling to catch up. At one point she stood up briefly, looking my way, but probably unsure of what I was. I was sitting along the edge of the road but not in the tall grasses due to the abundance of poison ivy, so i wasn’t particularly hidden. I expected her to do what most bears (especially those with cubs) do, and head into the safety of the woods and either attempt to wait me out or go beyond me before coming back out into the road. But, she didn’t, she just kept coming.

Sow and cub of the year headed toward the corn field

I started talking to her, advising that she shouldn’t get any closer and hoping she would head off. She paused, the cub stood up, and she continued on. The cub then decided it wanted none of this strange thing and headed into the woods. Mom just walked past me, never even giving me a glance as she did. I will admit, that is the first time I have ever pulled my bear spray out of the holster, but I now think she is just so used to people being on that road and sitting just like I was, that she wasn’t spooked. And that gives me pause, as that probably is not in the best interest of her (or the people).

The cub gives me a wary side eye (cropped image with telephoto)

Once she was 100 feet or so beyond my location, the cub came racing out of the woods near her and they both continued to a crossing point, swam across the canal and headed into the corn.

A few minutes later, another sow and two cubs came walking down the road. This time, however, she noticed me from far down the road and began to stand up trying to ascertain what was ahead.

Another young female with two COYs (one is hidden behind mama in this pic)
Black Bear and cubs walking down the road and she takes note of the strange object ahead (me)
She stands up again and decides she wants no part of whatever that is ahead and takes her cubs into the woods

After getting within about 50 yards or so, she stands up one more time and then takes her young ones into the woods. A few minutes later, she and the cubs emerge far beyond where i am sitting. She looks back my way, and walks on toward a spot to cross the canal.

One of the cubs mimics its mama and looks back at the strange object that had been in their path

Some other bear watchers showed up and I soon found myself exchanging pleasantries with three people on E-bikes (the apparent new rage for wildlife photographers on the eastern refuges). Four other people hung back at the gate and watched. I decided it was time to move on, but another bear appeared far down the road before I could get packed up. It did something strange and came out of the woods, and walked around several times, sniffing, and then laid down in the road. It remained there for several minutes, yawned a few times, then got back up and moved across into the tall vegetation to swim the canal. As it disappeared into the tall grasses, two COYs came streaking out of the woods to join her.

A bear decides to chill in the middle of “Bear Road”

So, I left the refuge that day with a total of 18 different bear sightings (plus a couple of repeats of bears that crossed into and then back out of the corn field). A magical day to be sure, but one that left me wondering about my impact on the bears and how having so many people now on that road may be habituating some bears to humans With bear hunting season approaching in December, I worry that bears that become too used to us will not be as wary as needed to survive. Plus, it is never a good idea to have bears and humans become too complacent about each other. I probably won’t be sitting on that road in prime bear season in the future, but will continue with my former mode of slowly walking, letting the bears know way ahead of time that there is a human nearby. Not sure if it makes much difference, but it will make me feel better. I suppose the best approach is to watch bears from afar and photograph them from your vehicle whenever possible. Here’s hoping bears and humans continue to coexist on this and other refuges because there really is something special about seeing bears in the wild.

6 thoughts on “Butterflies, Blooms, and Bears

  1. What is an incredible photographic treat, Mike. Medical issues have prevented me for making it down this year so I’m overjoyed to see the results of your day. Many thanks and keep these mini adventures coming!

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