Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.
It’s been too long since I have visited my other favorite place, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. So, with Melissa in Yellowstone leading a museum youth group, I decided to make a day-trip this past weekend to look for bears and whatever else summer on the Pungo might bring. It was about 9 a.m. by the time I pulled onto the refuge dirt roads. Things started surprisingly slow…no bears at all (n fact, not much of anything) for my first complete circuit through the refuge. That is pretty unusual for a Pungo summer – no bears! The greenhead flies and deer flies were pecking on my windows whenever I stopped the car, but I decided to get out anyway and spend some time along the edges of a wetland to see what I could see.
The vegetation seemed even thicker than normal as I scanned the marsh, but darting movements quickly caught my eye…dragonflies, and lots of them.
This male golden-winged skimmer was close to the edge of the canal and patrolling frequently, returning to the same stem each time. Suddenly, he made a quick move into a thicket of stems and stopped. I leaned in and could see he had found a mate and had assumed the position – the so-called wheel position.
Males transfer sperm to a specialized pouch in their second abdominal segment. They then grab a female by the head (or “neck”) and she curls the tip of her abdomen up to where he has stored his sperm. It lasted several seconds and then they briefly flew in tandem before she broke off and started laying eggs. She does a quick splash into the water with the tip of her abdomen, laying an egg with each dip. He stayed nearby guarding her from any other males that might be in the vicinity.
While sitting there in a cloud of dragonflies, I began to see and hear a lot of songbird activity. I didn’t make much effort to photograph them until this male indigo bunting perched nearby singing his heart out. Some other species of note included a blue grosbeak, great blue herons, wood ducks, yellow-billed cuckoos, prothonotary warblers, great-crested flycatchers, several northern bobwhite, some wild turkey, killdeer, and lots of red-winged blackbirds and common grackles. But, as hoped, this day turned out to be about something else…
Though skunked by bears for the first hour, I quickly made up for it. Driving along Pat’s Road I found a field with six bears, (including a sow with 3 tiny cubs) scattered out in the open feeding on the sparse vegetation and maybe some leftover corn on the ground from last winter. I went around to the back edge of the field and watched. Soon, another sow with 2 cubs of the year came out closer to me. The heat of the day made for less than ideal atmospheric conditions for photos (especially with my bigger lenses) with many soft images the result. But it was great being able to watch these bears do their thing, the youngsters sticking close to mom, and her having to often lift a leg over one of them as it would get underfoot. I thought back a few weeks ago to seeing black bears with cubs in Yellowstone, along with 75 or more people along the road each time. It made me really appreciate the quiet and solitude of Pungo.
The mother bear finally headed off to the woods and, as she traveled, the young ones struggled a bit to keep up. At one point, she passed downwind of me and must have picked up my scent. She stopped, raised up, looking around to see where that human smell was coming from. One cub joined her and seemed to mirror every move she made as she looked this way and that.
She finally dropped down and quickly got her youngsters to the safety of the woods. In the next thirty minutes my bear count went up to 14, all in the two fields on either side of where i stood.
I decided to drive around a bit more as more of these bears starting heading for the shade of the forest. Less than a half-mile away I encountered my first really big bear of the day – a big boar courting a much smaller female. June and early July are the prime mating season for black bears at Pungo, so you tend to see more of the big males this time of year as they search for females that are receptive to mating. This female was limping as she walked and I finally realized she either had a deformity or was missing her entire left hind foot (look closely at the photo above).
The male following her was a bruiser – a big boy with plenty of battle scars.
They crossed a canal into a field and munched away at things I could not see from my vantage point. Both bruins just ambled along, nibbling as they walked, with the male keeping close to the limping female. I was shooting a lot of images and suddenly remembered I had loaned all of my compact flash memory cards to Melissa for her Yellowstone trip. My camera has two card slots, one for each type of memory card. That is a great feature because you can just keep shooting if you run through one of your cards. And, if you are like me (with my old camera), I always ran out of memory right when something amazing was happening. But, today, I only had the one card in the camera. The male was getting closer and closer to the female and I thought they might mate at any time, so I decided to run back the 50 yards or so to the car and get another card. The bears were far enough away (and headed in the opposite direction), so I left my camera and telephoto lens there on the tripod as I ran back. I had my camera bag open at the car and was trying to find one of my other cards when I glanced back toward the bears and saw another huge bear come out of the woods not far from my camera. I think I actually yelled, Noooooo, and took off back toward my camera gear. The last thing I wanted was for a curious bear to knock it over into the canal or decide to test the toughness of my lens. By the way, I should remind everyone that I am taking these photos with a telephoto lens and I am attentive to what the bears are doing and how they are behaving. I don’t want to stress them (or myself) by getting too close.
The new bear walked over to the edge of the canal, looked out at the other bears, and slowly turned and went back into the woods. But not before glancing at the panting human who was now standing next to his camera gear. This was another large male, but one that was much more handsome, lacking the many scars of the bigger fella out in the field. I am pretty sure he was trailing the female (he came out on the same pathway as they did), saw the bigger male, and thought better of it.
I drove through the refuge one more time and returned to the same spot where I had earlier seen so many bears. The fields did not disappoint and i soon had another 7 bears in view. Another large male cruised across the field and headed toward a small pond I had found while walking around earlier. I walked back to where I could cross a small canal and slowly headed that way, hoping to catch the bear cooling off in the water. When I got near, I could not see him or any ripple in the water, so I thought he had gone on by. I started to walk past the pond when he suddenly rose up out of the water from behind some tall vegetation and climbed out.
He shook off, walked a few steps and then realized I was standing there watching. He gave me a glance that reassured me that I didn’t want to get any closer, and then ambled away.
He looked like another warrior and had a big scar on his rump from a fairly recent fight. The other thing I noticed when I looked at most of the bear images back home was that almost every bear had an escort of several biting flies of one sort or another (you can see a big horsefly near the scar in the photo above). Life can be tough for bears (and humans) out here.
My last bears of the day was a family of four, including 3 large cubs from a previous year (cubs are usually “kicked out” in their second year). The mother is the one facing the camera in the photo above. The group strolled back and forth across the field, munching on sprouting soybeans, and causing a few of the solo young bears nearby to abandon their feeding and head back into the woods. I ended the day with 21 different bears, including 5 cubs of the year (with two different sows) and 4 large boars. It was a hot, sweaty day, but one well worth it. Ah, summer at Pungo…can’t wait to go back!