Kayaking in Columbia

I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place…far away from human society.

~Henry David Thoreau, on swamps

sunset on Columbia town dock

Sunset from the town dock in Columbia, NC (click photos to enlarge)

Columbia, North Carolina, that is. We spent several days in this beautiful little town last week, part vacation, part getting out to see some of the region for the trails project I am working on with NCLOW. It didn’t help that it was one of the hottest weeks of the summer, but it did help that we spent much of it on the water. And this region has lots of water, from Lake Phelps, the second largest natural lake in North Carolina, to the Scuppernong River, to the numerous creeks and sloughs that beckon paddlers to explore. So, we decided to take our kayaks, throw them in where we could, and see what we could see in a few days on the water. First stop, was the NW Alligator River.

NW Alligator wide view

NW Alligator meanders up into Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge from Hwy 94

I had scouted out some potential put-in points (they are few, unfortunately) so we decided to put in at what looks like an old boat ramp near where Hwy 94 crosses this section of river, about 14 miles south of Columbia. The access is now flooded, but there is a substantial old dock at the site, indicating its past use, perhaps in logging or fishery operations.

NW Alligator put-in

We launched on the east side of Hwy 94 at an old boat ramp area

The lands surrounding this waterway have scattered trees, low pocosin vegetation, and a border of marsh grasses, including pockets of wild rice. Shortly after we passed under the Hwy 94 bridge, we spotted a bald eagle, who managed to stay with us much of the morning. The other wildlife highlight were several red-headed woodpeckers, flying between the many standing dead trees along the route.

NW Alligator River 1

A perfect day for paddling

Eastern Pondhawk male

Dragonflies were our constant companions

NW Alligator River 2

Calm winds made for great reflections

An abundance of clouds made for beautiful reflections and a respite from the heat. After paddling about 1.5 miles, we came to the juncture of the SW and NW branches of the Alligator, and headed north. The path narrows after this, and we found ourselves going through patches of alligator weed and a grass of some sort, most likely maiden cane. Patches of the alligator weed looked as though they had been treated (this is an invasive species that can clog small waterways and is often treated chemically by local agencies).

Maidencane blockage

Large patches of maiden cane finally blocked our path

After paddling another couple of miles, we finally reached a patch of the maiden cane that seemed too large to easily push through, so we turned around and headed back. Our total paddle was about 5 to 6 miles. The only sounds, other than fish jumping, dragonflies buzzing, and woodpeckers drumming, was the distant hum of some crop dusters spraying some of the huge farm fields down the road. I want to go back in colder weather , once some of the vegetation dies back, and see if I can make it all the way up to the refuge road system.

Wide view Riders Creek

Friends recommended we try Riders Creek, near Columbia. It enters the Scuppernong River on the far left.

The next day we hit Riders Creek, a small tributary to the Scuppernong River about 2 miles south of Columbia. Finding a suitable launch site was again the challenge. The two road bridges didn’t offer much so we drove down a side road after looking at Google Earth and Melissa tested a large log on the bank of a roadside canal as a potential launch site. Nothing fancy, but it worked. This day, we had help, and another paddler, and were dropped off (there is no place to park at this makeshift put-in) and planned to paddle back to the canoe/kayak launch behind the Pocosin Lakes Visitor Center in town, a total paddle distance of a little over 5 miles.

 

Rider's Creek

The narrow creek is a beautiful paddle

The upper portion of the creek was my favorite as it is narrow and intimate, allowing us to see and hear the many bird species (prothonotary warblers, woodpeckers, and a great horned owl) and appreciate the small things along the way (an owl feather floating on the black water, the distinctive webs of the many black and yellow argiope spiders, and a clump of blooming cardinal flower adding a splash of brilliant red to the sea of green around us).

Rider's Creek 1

Large bald cypress trees are scattered along the creek

Scuppernoing River

Riders Creek joins the Scuppernong River about 1.5 miles south of Columbia

It was another great paddle, only a couple of hours long, but through a beautiful swamp forest, into the wide waters of the lower Scuppernong, and ending back in the picturesque town of Columbia. And, we were the only ones on the water, probably not unusual in this underutilized area of rich scenery and wildlife.

That afternoon, we drove through portions of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and saw a few bears (no surprise) as well as some smaller wildlife.

Palomedes swallowtails on scat

A group of palamedes swallowtails gathering nutrients from a somewhat unsavory source – scat

Canebrake rattlesnake

A large canebrake rattlesnake along a back road

The palamedes swallowtails were out and about everywhere, and we managed to find a large canebrake rattlesnake crossing one of the refuge roads. I never tire of seeing this magnificent reptiles, and the refuge seems to have a healthy population.

Lake Phelps from Pocosin overlook

The south shore of Lake Phelps

Our last stop was at the pocosin overlook at Pettigrew State Park, along the south shore of Lake Phelps. The clear water at Lake Phelps is such a surprise after spending a couple of days in the dark, tannin-colored waters of the region. It made for a refreshing dip on a hot afternoon.

NCLOW is looking at how we might help bring more tourists into this region to explore and enjoy its rich natural and cultural heritage. The waterways here offer scenic beauty, abundant wildlife, and the chance for quiet and uncrowded paddling. And Columbia is a beautiful town with a rich history and great potential. It is also home to Pocosin Arts, a real treasure of eastern North Carolina, whose mission is to connect culture to the environment through the arts. They offer a range of classes year-round, and are looking at ways to incorporate even more of their unique natural surroundings into their offerings.

One area that does seem to be getting a lot of attention from tourists is nearby Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Situated only about 15 minutes from the Outer Banks certainly helps fuel the busy summer tourist season on this refuge. It is known for its large population of black bears and for paddling opportunities along Milltail Creek. Several OBX outfitters provide canoe/kayak rentals and guided trips on the refuge. We decided to spend our last paddle day checking out this area. We drove to the main launch site at Buffalo City and were surprised to see 10+ vehicles, a crowd of people, and probably 20+ kayaks and canoes. Most people probably go downstream along Milltail Creek, so we decided to drive to another, lesser-known launch site upstream to seek some solitude.

Milltail Crk

Milltail Creek is obviously a popular paddle destination (Alligator River is on the far left of image)

Upper Milltail Crk launch

We launched upstream where Milltail Road crosses the creek

floating dock - jet doc

Floating dock at the launch site

Besides the advantage of proximity to a large tourist population on the Outer Banks, the refuge also has two well-maintained launch sites on Milltail Creek. Ours had a neat floating dock that makes for a very easy launch. As we put in, a trailer with 6 boats pulled up, so I guess this site is not as unknown as I had thought. We quickly got out ahead of the group and for a few hours felt like we were the only people anywhere near this beautiful swamp.

Upper Milltail Creek

Milltail Creek starts out narrow at this launch

 

Iris on upper Milltail Creek

Swamp iris occur in many places along the creek

Upper Milltail Creek 8

Another beautiful day for paddling

We paddled for a few hours, traveling a total of about 7 miles out and back. The creek is rich in bird life and we saw lots of wood ducks, herons, and a few anhinga. My highlights were seeing a large alligator and a black bear along the route. The scenery is beautiful, it is incredibly quiet (if the jets are not buzzing overhead), and it is a great combination of solitude, ease of access, and abundant wildlife. I can see why it is such a popular destination.

Cypress tree on Upper Milltail Creek

A large bald cypress beckoned us over for a closer look

At one point along the way, I noticed a large bald cypress tree hugging the shoreline. Its large limbs draped down, seemingly embracing the dark water, making it look like a perfect place to pull in and escape the sun.

Cypress tree trunk on Upper Milltail Creek

The giant trunk looked inviting

Melissa in tree

A great place to relax in the shade

Sure enough, it offered a chance to climb out of our boats, relax for a lunch break, and it provided a Swiss Family Robinson moment for a couple of thankful paddlers.

Our three days of paddling showed me the great potential for the Scuppernong region, truly one of the jewels of wildness in our state. I hope we can help foster an awareness and appreciation of the incredible resources of this unique area, provide some economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs, and maintain the incredible natural heritage and beauty of this wild landscape. On our way home, we decided to check out an area that is making a strong effort to do just that.

treehouse in Windsor

Recently completed tree houses along the Cashie River in Windsor

The town of Windsor is located along the Cashie River, between Williamston and Edenton. The town is making a commitment to ecotourism along its waterways (see Destination Windsor) with kayak and canoe rentals, pontoon boat tours, a wetlands walk, and the recently completed tree houses. These two tree houses, funded in part by grants, are to be the start of a village along the river including a few more tree houses and a renovated campground. They hope to have these available for rent starting this fall. It looks like a great start to getting visitors to come to appreciate their natural surroundings. Let’s hope they prove successful and can pave the way for more such ventures in the wilds of eastern North Carolina.

A Beary Hot Summer Day

The month of August had turned into a griddle where days just lay there and sizzled.

~Sue Monk Kidd

Last week, we spent 5 days in the wilds of eastern NC, a combination mini-vacation and working trip to further investigate the area around the Scuppernong River for the project I am working on with NCLOW. As you might expect, it was a tad warm (especially for the guy that loves cold weather), but we planned to be on or near water most of the week. Turns out, we are not the only ones that think that way. Returning to Columbia after a short excursion to the Outer Banks, we drove through Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, in the hopes of seeing some wildlife. Temperatures had been hot all week with high humidity adding to the discomfort. We entered the refuge about 5:30 p.m., that time of day when wildlife begins to come out of the forest in search of an evening meal. Driving down one of the main gravel roadways, Melissa spotted something off to the side in the canal…a bear cooling off in the water, a bear bathtub.

bear in canal

Black bear cooling off in a canal on a hot August afternoon (click photos to enlarge)

It was a big bear, and it was just chillin’. When we pulled up, it glanced our way and then quickly went back into that chillin’ mode, eyes closed, almost a grin of cool relief on its face.

bear in canal wider view

We could almost hear a sigh of relief in that look

The afternoon temperatures reached into the low 90’s that day, so I am sure this water, in spite of its less than desirable look, was quite satisfying. A black bear’s normal body temperature isn’t far from our own, around 98 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (it is less during hibernation). The thick black fur is a good insulator, but can present problems in the heat of summer. And, like dogs, bears lack sweat glands, so they must use other means to cool off – panting, lying in the shade, digging day beds to lie on the cool ground, or taking a nice plunge in the water. I have seen bears cooling off before in canals at Pocosin Lakes NWR, but have never been this close to one seemingly so relaxed in the cool water.

bear in canal wider view 1

The bear relaxed onto all fours when another car pulled up

Another vehicle soon pulled up, but the large bear did not seem concerned. It did shift its posture and sat down in the water with all four paws presumably on the muddy bottom.

bear in canal scrunching up face

The bear began to scrunch up its nose

After remaining almost motionless for a few minutes, the bear began to scrunch up its nose, revealing more of its teeth and tongue. We wondered what it was up to…trying to smell us (a third car had driven up at that point)? When I got home and looked at the images, I think I now know what was happening.

bear in canal scrunching up face close up

Was this face in response to biting flies?

The photos taken when the bear was scrunching up its nose show a couple of biting flies on its snout. Pictures prior to that (like the first three photos above) show none of the irritating insects.

bear with biting flies on face

A trickle of blood from a fly bite on his nose

The last few photos showed a tiny trickle of blood running off his nose. Look carefully at the previous image and you can see there was a fly in that spot. Guess I, too, would scrunch up my face under those conditions.

bear leaving canal

The big fella finally departs for the corn fields

After spending nine minutes with this big guy (no telling how long he was chillin’ in the canal before we arrived), he finally decided to head back up into the fields. I suppose he was headed for a nice corn dinner, and maybe some dense vegetation where those pesky flies couldn’t get to his sensitive nose.

 

 

Definitely Not a Baby Rattle

Venomous snakes are among the most maligned and misunderstood animals on earth.

~In Snakes of the Southeast by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas

In a recent post, I mentioned my first ever encounter with a juvenile Canebrake Rattlesnake while at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to drive through the refuge again, and this time was rewarded with an encounter with a much larger specimen of Crotalus horridus.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult defensive posture 1

Canebrake Rattlesnake drawing back into defensive posture when I stopped the car (click photos to enlarge)

This one was a beauty, and big…I am guessing maybe 4 feet or so in length and several inches in girth.. It looked like a tree limb in the road as I approached, but I knew from previous encounters this limb would move when I pulled up in the car and got out.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult

Don’t tread on me

It immediately made a tight coil and started to rattle – that distinctive sound that would undoubtedly stop me cold if I did not see the snake beforehand. It was a magnificent animal, one of the largest I have ever seen. I think it is a male, based on the length of the tail (the area of the body behind the vent on a snake). The tail of a male rattlesnake is longer and less sharply tapered from the body than that of a female. But, I am no snake sexing expert, so if someone out there knows better, please drop me a note.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult 2

The rattlesnake made a tight coil and rattled every time I moved

I walked around the snake, admiring its robust body, the length of its rattle, the powerful head, and the strongly keeled scales. The snake initially had its head tilted downward with some of the coil raised off the ground, but then dropped its body and tightened the coil, presenting a large, rough-textured lump with penetrating eyes. I quickly put on my 300 mm telephoto lens (no macro shots on this one) and remained at a respectful distance while trying to get a few angles for photographs. Every time I moved, the snake would raise its tail tip and vibrate it, producing that characteristic percussive rattle. When I stopped, the tail would drop, and all was quiet.

I set the camera on a tripod for a quick video hoping to capture the sound, but in my haste to set up and to not keep the snake in the road too long, I didn’t do such a great job, but you can still see it in action. Unfortunately, it was windy, and the snake was several feet from the camera microphone, so the rattling sound is a bit faint. The loud crunching noise is a boot on the gravel each time I took a step.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult head

Canebrake Rattlesnake stretching out its head and neck when I walked away

I wanted the snake to get out of the road (this one was a couple of hundred feet from where I found a roadkill Canebrake Rattlesnake earlier this summer), so I grabbed the camera and backed away. The large rattler slowly stretched its head and neck out toward the roadside vegetation and began to deliberately crawl toward safety. The look of power and striking angles on the head of these big rattlesnakes is just so impressive.

Canebrake Rattlesnake adult rattle

Impressive rattle

I noticed as it crawled that it carried its tail tip high off the ground, unlike most snakes. This is probably an adaptation to preserving the delicate segments that form the rattle. The tissue making up the rattle is akin to a thin brittle fingernail. And, just like we can break our nails, a rattlesnake can break off segments of its rattle. A newborn rattlesnake has a rounded button at the tail tip. Each time the rattlesnake sheds its skin (probably one to three times per year on average depending on food availability and health of the snake) it adds a new segment to its rattle. If the rattle ends in a smooth button, it is complete, and has not been broken off. If it ends in a squarish or tiered piece (like this one where you see what look like pointy projections off to each side), it has been broken and some segments are missing. This, coupled with the fact they produce a segment each time they shed, is why you cannot accurately age a rattlesnake by the number of rattles. Their trademark sound is made by the segments knocking against one another as the snake rapidly vibrates its tail. The many interlocking connections of the segments, plus the hollow spaces between them, help amplify the sound. But, whenever you are in rattlesnake habitat, be sure to keep both your eyes and ears open, as not every rattler will rattle if you accidentally get too close too quickly. Luckily, they are usually just trying to get out of harms way if given a chance. Populations of these impressive creatures are dwindling almost everywhere they occur, so please watch out for them, and educate yourself and others about the important role they play in our environment.

 

Baby Rattle

…a wonderful creature, when we consider his form, nature and disposition…he is never known to strike until he is first assaulted or fears himself in danger, and even then always gives the earliest warning by the rattles at the extremity of his tail.

~William Bartram, 1791

I made some time last week to do a day trip down to eastern North Carolina for some wildlife viewing. Spent the morning at the Pungo Unit at Pocosin Lakes NWR, but saw only a few butterflies and birds, along with a friend from the area. We chatted for awhile and exchanged notes on our lack of wildlife encounters that morning. After that, I decided to head over to Alligator River NWR and see what might be moving around over there. I did eventually spot a couple of bears and some cool insects (more on the bugs in a later post). I also came across a roadkill Cottonmouth. It saddens me anytime I see animals hit by cars, but especially on these wildlife refuges, where the gravel roads, and the purpose of the place, should slow people down enough that they can avoid most animals before making them a casualty. I was headed out for the long trip home when I came across what looked like another roadkill snake. As I opened the door, I thought I saw a flicker of movement, so I got out and took a closer look.

Canebrake Rattlesnake juvenile

Young rattlesnake in road (click photos to enlarge)

I could see it was a small rattlesnake, about 13 or 14 inches total length. It had flattened its body but was not moving. I grabbed a twig from the roadside and gently touched its tail…the head jerked toward the twig. The little guy was alive after all. The grayish color and small size at first made me think this could be a Pygmy Rattlesnake, a species of small rattler found primarily in this part of the state. But the pattern didn’t seem right from what I remembered seeing before. It took comparing the images with some field guides and consulting a herper friend when I got back, to confirm that it was, instead, a very young Canebrake Rattlesnake, (Crotalus horridus). Canebrakes are what most people call the Timber Rattlesnakes that are found in the Coastal Plain. Those in the Coastal Plain tend to be lighter in color than those in the mountains and usually have an orange or brown stripe running down the middle of the back.

Canebrake Rattlesnake juvenile 1

A young Canebrake Rattlesnake

After reading more about this species, I think this one could have been a very young Canebrake. Females typically give birth in August or September, to anywhere from 4 to 20 young, that average about 13 or 14 inches in length.

Canebrake Rattlesnake juvenile 3

Closeup of head and button of young Canebrake Rattlesnake

Young snakes usually have very conspicuous body patterns and an enlarged button at the end of their tails instead of the segmented rattle of larger specimens.

Canebrake Rattlesnake juvenile 2

The snake was very docile as I tried to help it get out of the road

As I gently nudged the snake back toward the woods with the twig, it occasionally curled up in a defensive posture, but never struck. When it finally reached the vegetation, it picked up speed and disappeared into the thicket. It was a privilege to see this, my first young rattlesnake, and to ensure that it made it at least one more day in what could be a long life. Studies have shown that female Timber Rattlesnakes may not reach sexual maturity for 5-10 years and then may only have young every 3 or 4 years. Populations are believed to be declining throughout much of their range due to habitat destruction and human-related activities, so I’m glad this one is in a relatively safe habitat…maybe I’ll see it again on a future visit.

 

 

 

Scrambled Eggs

The name “raccoon” is drawn from the Algonquian term “arakun” and roughly translates to “he who scratches with his hands”.

~Samuel I. Zevelof, in Raccoons: A Natural History

Between the Bobcat and the Black Bear cubs the other day, I had another interesting wildlife encounter. Most of the dusty miles of gravel roads at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge are accompanied on at least one side, by many miles of canals. These dark waterways are home to a diversity of wildlife including substantial populations of aquatic turtles (mainly Yellow-bellied Sliders and Painted Turtles). Driving along on a sunny day reveals many turtles basking on the canal banks or lined up on any partially submerged log. Last Monday, there were plenty of turtles basking, plus two crossing the road, and one was even laying eggs in a shallow nest in the gravel road. I thought that was a poor choice for a nest location, but, shortly thereafter, I saw that choosing a good nest site is probably not easy in this predator-rich environment.

Raccoon crossing road

Raccoon crossing road (click photos to enlarge)

Driving around a curve, I spotted a female Raccoon scurrying across the road. She ended up in a grassy area near the junction of two roads and their neighboring canals. I quickly pulled over, expecting her to just disappear into the brush, but she had other things on her mind.

Raccoon sniffing in grass

Raccoon sniffing in grass

She moved quickly along the back edge of the opening, swinging her head and sniffing, pausing every now and then when she smelled something interesting.

Raccoon digging

Raccoon digging

Suddenly, she stopped, spun around a couple of times with her nose to the ground, and began digging with those incredibly dexterous front paws. If you have ever seen their distinctive tracks in the mud, you know their front paws resemble tiny human hands, without an opposable thumb. One reference stated that the front paws contain four times the touch receptors as there are in their hind feet. Plus, a Raccoon’s brain supposedly has a major portion of the cerebral cortex devoted to these paws and the sense of touch.

Raccoon eating turtle egg 1

Raccoon removing something from the hole she has just dug

After digging for about a minute, she hunched over a bit more and then gingerly lifted something out of the hole – an egg, a turtle egg. She held it between her paws, not grabbing it with the “fingers” as I expected, but holding it cupped in her paws like we would hold a tennis ball if our fingers were taped together. She gently roiled it into her mouth and began to chew.

Raccoon eating turtle egg lifting its head

She lifted her head as she manipulated each egg in her mouth

As she chewed, she lifted her head, and it looked as if she was moving the egg around inside her mouth to get the contents out, perhaps without swallowing the egg shell (which, in a turtle, is somewhat leathery instead of brittle like a bird egg). This routine was followed for each egg dug out of the hole.

Raccoon eating turtle egg 1

Holding an egg to get the last drop of goodness out

She manipulated each egg for 15 to 30 seconds, then her head would drop back down,  and she would pick up another egg and move it to her mouth. Her head was always low when she first got the egg, and then she would always raise it as she extracted the yolk.

Raccoon eating turtle egg

Raccoon pulling out the last egg from the turtle nest

She finally ate the last egg, looked over at me, and started walking back across the road. It was as if she knew she might get a meal in that spot and had made a quick run to the store to pick up a few things and was now heading home. And I’m betting she has had success in that location the past. Favorable turtle nesting sites are hard to come by in a swamp, which is what most of the land is around that road juncture. This wide grassy patch has probably served as a turtle nesting area for years, and the local Raccoon population has learned to periodically check it for the possibility of an egg breakfast.

Raccoon face with deer fly

The Raccoon was not the only one getting a meal

When I later looked at the image of her after she ate the last egg, I saw that she was not the only one getting a meal at that moment. In fact, in almost every image I took that day, I could see one or more biting flies somewhere in the image. She has one above her left eye in the photo above. And a close look at one of the earlier photos will show a tick in her left ear. Everything needs to eat I suppose.

Raccoon-raided turtle nest

Raccoon-raided turtle nest

After she departed, I walked over to inspect the nest. I have seen this crime scene many times after the fact, but this was the first time I have witnessed the egg thief in action. There were 8 egg shells scattered about the hole. Sliders may lay two or three clutches per year of up to 15 or more eggs, so there are plenty of chances for a little one to at least hatch, although there are still a lot of predators to get past before becoming a fairly well-protected adult turtle in one of these canals. Meanwhile, that female Raccoon is probably returning to a tree to gather her family of babies after a good breakfast. As always, I am thankful to have been there to witness part of the cycle.

 

 

A Rare Day

…a very secretive animal; you rarely see them.

~Paul Rezendes, in Tracking and the Art of Seeing

Secretive indeed. I have been lucky over the years to have seen several (about twenty five or so), mainly at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. A few others at Alligator River and Mattamuskeet, one in Chapel Hill at Mason Farm, one in our mountains, and one in a swamp in South Carolina. Many have been brief glimpses. One that I wrote about last September, was a long, privileged view of one casually walking toward me, and snagging a quick snack along the way. All have been special to me. So, Monday was a very good day when I saw two of them. I have had only one other day where I was lucky enough to see two. One was chasing another one when they ran out into the road in front of a friend and I at Pocosin Lakes several years ago. We saw them for less than 20 seconds but it left a lasting impression.

Bear in reeds 1

If it had not been for this guy, I would have probably missed a rare sighting (click photos to enlarge)

The first sighting on Monday was one of those lucky moments where things just work out. I was driving on a road south of Pungo Lake when I passed a bear in a patch of reeds across the canal. It stood up as I drove by, so I kept going and turned around to pass by again, so it would be on my side of the car for a photo. The bear stayed put for a few clicks of the shutter, but was actually a bit too close for the lens I had. It slowly turned away and walked off. I started to do another three-point turn to resume my drive through the refuge, and when I glanced in the rear view mirror, something stepped out of the brush alongside the road about 75 feet behind me.

Bobcat behind my car

Bobcat came out behind my car

I couldn’t believe it…a Black Bear in front of me, and a Bobcat behind me. I had to complete the turn in order to get an image, and when I started to, the Bobcat slipped back into the brush alongside the road. Having seen this before, I knew there was a good chance that, if I waited, it would come back out. I drove a little closer, pulled at an angle so I could get a shot, cut the car engine, and waited.

Bobcat looking straight

After waiting a few minutes, the Bobcat came back out to the road

Sure enough, the graceful cat came back out in almost the exact same spot after only a couple of minutes of waiting.

Bobcat close up

A mesmerizing gaze

It looked around, glancing my way a time or two, and then walked out into the road.

Bobcat looking at me in road

The Bobcat kept an eye on me as it walked down the road

The harsh shadows made for tough exposures, but, hey, it was a Bobcat!

Bobcat walking away from me in road

Out for a morning stroll

It started walking slowly down the road, weaving from side to side. I cranked the car and started to follow at a snail’s pace. The Bobcat wandered over to the edge of the canal on the opposite side of the road twice and paused, seemingly trying to decide whether to cross. I was ready to leap out of the car if it did, as I really wanted to see it swim across the canal and get out on the other side.

Bobcat walking away from me in road 1

It decided not to swim the canal, and then headed back toward the thick brush

But, it never did. And then it gave me an up close look at one of the signs you usually see instead of seeing the animal itself…it hunched its back and deposited an unmistakable Bobcat scat at the edge of the road. It’s not often you get to witness animal sign being made, or that you get to share such a thing with readers:).

Bobcat scat and boot

The scat seemed large for the size of the cat

Bobcat scat

Bobcat scat is tapered and often blunt at the tip

The cat then walked off into the brush. I waited, and waited, but it didn’t return. I got out and checked the scat and was surprised at how large it was given the size of the Bobcat (the cat I photographed last Fall was much taller than this one). Bobcat scat can be distinguished from similar-sized canine scat by being fairly segmented and often blunt at the tips. This scat contained hair, and lacked the larger chunks of bone often seen in Coyote or Red Wolf scat. And while we think of cats as always covering their scat, one of my track references (Tracking and the Art of Seeing) says that Bobcat cover their scat about half the time. I figured I would have to show pretty pictures of the animal to get yo to read this far and learn about poop:).

Later that afternoon, while watching a deer along a road at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, another Bobcat came out of the brush and walked toward me. It was over 300 yards away, but both the deer and I intently watched it as it walked closer. It then disappeared back into the brush before I ever took a photo. But to have two of these secretive animals in one day….I’ll take it, and be thankful for it, photo or not.

Bobcat looking straight crop

A two Bobcat day…one to remember

 

 

The Wilds Close to Home

What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which the bounty is received.

~Richard Nelson

You all know by now how I feel about Yellowstone and its extraordinary wildlife. But, I have learned that every place can be special if you take the time to look closely and appreciate what the place can give you. My last post was about the wilds of my garden, a place with much in the way to offer in terms of interesting creatures, although most are admittedly a bit on the small side. So, when I want a wildlife fix back in North Carolina, I usually head to that other place you have seen me blog so much about – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Brownish bear

A bear greeted me shortly after my arrival at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

So, when I woke up a bit too early Monday, I decided, what the heck, I think I’ll drive down to Pungo and see what I can see. I arrived about 8:30 a.m. and spotted my first bear within a few minutes. It was a bit unusual-looking in that it was distinctly brownish in color. While brown-colored Back Bears are common in Yellowstone, they are not in the East. I have seen this coloration a couple of times at Pungo on bears in their summer coat, which is probably much thinner than the winter one, so some of the color may actually be due to their skin showing through.

Bear in reeds

Black Bear in reeds along canal bank

After passing two more bears, I drove by a bear that stood up in a patch of reeds along a canal when it saw me. Not wanting to spook it, I kept driving past and then did a three-point turn, before heading back for a photo attempt. The bear had dropped back to a sitting position and stared at me when I pulled to a stop across the canal. I snapped a couple of quick images before the bear slowly turned away and walked back into the forest. I started to make another turn as it walked away to resume my drive when I noticed something in my rear view window. But I’m going to make you wait until the next post to find out what I saw,

After driving around the refuge for a couple of more hours (and chatting with a friend that frequents Pungo even more than me), I decided to head over to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to check things out. The heat and the abundance oi Deer Flies had convinced me this might be a good day for a driving tour instead of a lot of hiking. So, off I went, making a detour to get access to roads leading through another section of Pocosin Lakes (budget cuts have hampered the road maintenance on the refuge so some roads are closed requiring a long drive around outside of the refuge). That part of the refuge produced another couple of bear sightings, plus two White-tailed Deer and a Raccoon.

Bear in soybean field 2

Black Bear grazing in soybean field at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

As soon as I drove onto one of the dirt roads at Alligator River, I spotted a bear. It was a young one (2 or 3 year old most likely) and it was slowly walking through one of the refuge soybean fields, chowing down on the leaves as it went.

Bear with three bears behind

As I watched, another group of black blobs moved in to the field from the adjoining woods and walked through my view finder behind my bear. It was a sow and two young from a previous year. They slowly moved across, grazing on soybean leaves, until they reached the tree line. One stayed out in the field eating, but, it too, finally headed into the coolness of the shade. My bear count for the day was growing,

Needham's Skimmer most likely 1

Dragonflies were constant companions on the refuge

In addition to the abundant Deer Flies, I saw plenty of other insects on both refuges. Dragonflies were everywhere, hopefully catching some of the biting flies that streamed into the car every time I opened a window or door. A particularly common species was the one shown above – I think it is a Needham’s Skimmer, since I have photographed the bright red adult males in this location in previous summers.

Roadkill rattlesnake

Roadkill rattlesnake

I was hoping to see some snakes out and about on this hot day, but, surprisingly (and sadly), the only snake I saw was a roadkill Canebrake Rattlesnake at Alligator River NWR.

Fawn running away

Fawn running

As I came around a curve I spotted a fawn, which immediately took off running, foiling any attempt at a decent photo.

Fawn standing at edge of road crop

Fawn starting to come back across the road

Suddenly, the fawn stopped and walked across the road. It turned and paused, allowing a few quick pictures.

Fawn running 1

Fawn jumping

Fawn running

Missed opportunities

I had the 500 mm lens plus a 1.4 teleconverter to get a close image. That was fine until the fawn took off across the road, managing to jump out of my frame every single time. Less can be more I suppose.

Sow with cubs hidden

The low angle sun was reminding me of the 3+ hour drive home, but it was soooo nice after the heat and noticeable atmospheric interference of most of the day. On the way out, I stopped where I had seen the first bears on this refuge a few hours earlier. It did not disappoint. There was a bear in one field that had bright yellow ear tags. I have seen a couple of bears on the refuge with ear tags from someone’s research in past years. When I stopped, she looked up and quickly walked over to the edge of the field into the taller vegetation. I moved on and when I came back a few minutes later, she was back in the field eating. But this time, I saw something I had missed in the first sighting.

Sow and three cubs

Tagged bear with her three cubs

She had three tiny cubs in tow. They were small enough that they were pretty well hidden in the soybeans until they lifted their heads or stood up.

Sow and one cub standing

They stuck close to their mom as she maneuvered through the field. Finally, she gathered them and headed back toward the edge, perhaps a bit frustrated with the guy in the car across the canal.

One cub standing crop

Bear cub getting one last look at me

The day ended on a high note with the last cub in line standing “tall” and looking my way. It finally dropped and left a wake of soybean tops waving in its path as it rejoined the rest of the family. For what started as a spur of the moment trip, it had turned out to be an incredible day for wildlife – the final mammal count for both refuges was 24 Black Bears, 4 White-tailed Deer, 2 Raccoons, and…something else I will tell you about in a future blog. A good day, indeed, in the wilds of North Carolina.