Bearly Awake

Each day holds a surprise.

~Henry Nouwen

Melissa and I have been with Mom this week helping take care of the many things that require attention when a family member passes. It has been a busy few days, though I managed to take Mom to Damascus last night for a little relaxation at their annual fireworks display (Melissa left last night to join a friend in the mountains of NC for some much-deserved down time). But, I’m sorry she missed this morning’s surprise.

A little before 6 a.m., I heard a loud thud. I was lying there, listening, worried that Mom had gotten out of bed and had dropped something, or worse. I soon heard another, louder noise, but it reassuringly sounded like it was coming from the deck. I assumed it was the raccoon that occasionally raids the bird feeders, so I got up and looked out the window…it was not a raccoon! There was about a 200-pound black bear walking around on the deck. I grabbed my phone and went into the living room, hoping to document this event, when he decided to stroll down the steps. I ran back into where we sleep and took this fuzzy, out of focus iPhone picture out the window.

bear in yard

Bear strolling away from the deck steps into the back yard (click photos to enlarge)

What impressed me was how natural the bear looked going down the steps and eventually crawling over the fence. He has certainly done this sort of thing before. It seemed to disappear down toward the river, a nice travel corridor if you are trying to avoid humans this time of day.

bird feeder

A “gentle” touch left only minor damage to the feeders

We have been filling feeders only in the morning, which means they are always empty by the time evening rolls around, figuring that is less enticement for the roving raccoons. But, the bear had not gotten the memo. Still, he checked out all the possibilities, but leaving relatively minor carnage at the feeding stations. A suet feeder had been ripped off one side, but the hot pepper suet remained untouched. After lifting the hinged lid to one feeder, the bear snapped out the plex panel. I think I got to the living room window about the time he realized this restaurant must be closed, and so he wandered off the deck, climbed the fence, and headed down to the river.

suet feeder

Hot suet, not to the bear’s liking

Had he only wandered around front, he might have been able to join the other critters feasting on the spoils of several fruit trees that line the driveway.

critters

Meanwhile, out front…the usual 4-point buck and a bunny

fruit tree

A future meal perhaps?

Every morning, while sipping my coffee, I see several deer, rabbits, birds, the occasional fox squirrel, and some ground hogs out along the field edges, especially under the many fruit trees that are starting to drop some of their heavy load of apples, pears, or peaches…a bear banquet in the making.

logo

I think I chose the right logo

When I went back inside, I noticed I had thrown on an appropriate t-shirt for the occasion. Happy Fourth of July everyone!

 

 

 

Getting Back To It

It’s always good to get back to the places you love…

Life has been way too busy these past many weeks and my blog entries have suffered, but I finally have a break this morning while I wait on some overdue car maintenance. With the busyness has been less time exploring outside, but this weekend saw a return to one of my favorite places, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The occasion was the 5th annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC.

Black Bear Festival

The entryway to the Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences was again assisting with the popular “bear tours” on the Pungo Unit of the refuge and I volunteered to help out. We did six 3-hour tours from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, so it was busy schedule, but a good time nonetheless. It included severe weather before and during Friday’s tour that saw hail, lightning, strong winds, and heavy rains. In spite of all that, we managed two bears on that first tour.

Black Bear tracks

Fresh bear  and deer tracks

The next morning, we headed out at 6 a.m. with a dense layer of fog limiting our viewing across the fields, but we managed a few bears once the fog started to lift. The plus side of the heavy rain was that we knew any tracks we saw were fresh!

Black-bellied whistling duck

Black-bellied whistling duck

A rare find was a black-bellied whistling duck perched along one of the canals in the refuge. I have seen this species a few times in NC and FL, but never on the Pungo Unit. I was told by a friend that this one has been hanging around this area for a couple of weeks. They are a beautiful duck, more typically found in marshes from Texas to Florida, but seem to be slowly expanding their range northward.

Dugoutr canoe in museum

Dugout canoe in the Roanoke River Maritime Museum in Plymouth

Between tours on Saturday, we visited the festival in downtown Plymouth. Lots of local food vendors, exhibits and talks about bears, and the usual crowd of knick-knack vendors and local organization booths that show up at such events. We visited the Roanoke River Maritime Museum to see some displays of wildlife photography and local boating history. Imagine my surprise when I came across something from my past – the section of dugout canoe I found years ago in Lake Phelps when I was working as the East District Naturalist for NC State Parks. I had no idea it was on display and was even more surprised to see what is probably the original exhibit text label made when this section of canoe sat on display in a make-shift exhibit shed at Pettigrew State Park.  When I started working at the NC Botanical Garden and was designing a program on uses of native pants (for example, bald cypress for dugout canoes), I tracked down the NY Times article from my 15 minutes of fame for being the guy that first stumbled upon this treasure trove of ancient canoes. The large canoe mentioned in the text is now on display at the NC Museum of History in Raleigh.

Exhibit sign about dugout canoes

A blast from the past

Each tour yielded some wildlife surprises (king rails running down the road ahead of the bus, turtles being helped across the road, nutria in the canals, etc.), improving muddy roads, and visitors delighted to see their first bears in the wild. In between tours, we had a few moments to take in the sights and sounds of the town –  grab a bite to eat, check out the noisy southern toads and squirrel treefrogs in the retention pond at the hotel, and get ready for the next busload of people. With two buses running each tour, we shared the wonders of Pungo with over 180 visitors from all around NC (and a few other states).

Southern toad calling

Southern toad calling

While every tour had its moments of adventure, one tour stood out for all of us, the Sunday morning 6 a.m. trip. We had just turned onto the refuge road when a bear went across the road, immediately starting us off with a bear encounter. Just down the road was standing bear…a medium-sized back bear with a propensity for standing up in the corn field to check us out.

Black bear standing in field

Black bear – “outstanding” in his field

Once we hit the dirt of D-Canal Road, we spotted another bear feeding in a wheat field on private lands adjacent to the refuge. Bears love wheat and we saw them in this field on several of the tours. The golden color of the wheat provided a beautiful backdrop for the jet black fur of the bears.

Black bear in wheat field

Bear surrounded by delicious wheat, the breakfast of champions

While we were all watching that bear, a young bear came out into another field on the refuge next to us and walked right in front of the bus and group of excited onlookers.

Young black bear crossing road

Young bear walking near our group

Then, another young bear (these are probably last year’s cubs) strolled out behind the buses and disappeared into the woods.

Young black bear crossing road 2

Another young bear on the other side of our group

Most of the people continued to watch the first young bear that was still wandering around in front of the buses, while a few of us were standing at the edge of the canal watching the bear in the wheat. Suddenly, I see a bear head pop up from the bank of the canal just a few feet from us. I whispered to the few people between me and the bear to move back and give it some room. It looked like the young bear that had crossed behind us and gone into the woods just a few minutes before. Apparently, it had gone to the canal and walked down the bank, climbing up in front of us.

Black bear comes up next to group

This one popped up right next to us

The confused bear walked up, moved across in front of us, and passed in front of the buses and the rest of the group. Minutes later, another head popped up and followed the same path. It seemed like bears were everywhere around us. These young bears probably aren’t sure what they should do in these situations so you need to give them space to move freely. The second one started to climb a tree when it saw the large group gathered in front of the bus, but when they stepped back and remained quiet, it came down and hustled across the road.

Black bear entering canal

The wheat field bear entering the canal

Meanwhile, the wheat field bear finished breakfast and angled toward us to cross the steep-banked canal. I positioned myself to get a good view, and as she slowly entered the water, I expected to get a nice shot of her swimming across.

Black bear starts across canal 1

Why swim when you can walk across?

Instead, she surprised me and slowly stood up, holding her front paws above the water, In all my years of watching bears, I have never seen one cross a canal like this.

Black bear walking across canal

Keeping those front paws dry

Just one more reason I love the Pungo Unit and love observing bears. They are a constant source of amazement, curiosity, and wonder.

They’re Baaaaack

The homing instinct in birds and animals is one of their most remarkable traits: their strong local attachments and their skill in finding their way back…It seems at times as if they possessed some extra sense—the home sense—which operates unerringly. 

~John Burroughs, 1905

Last weekend we managed to escape for a couple of days and head down to our favorite spot, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. My friend, Michael, had been sharing images of the many bears he was seeing feeding in the cornfields on the refuge, and it finally got to me, I had to get down there! We were met at the refuge by some new friends that understand the power and beauty of wild places and the creatures that call them home. Though seeing bears was the goal, we were all open to whatever the refuge cared to share, so we were delighted to find the first swans of the season already on the lake.

Swans in Marsh A

Tundra swans have returned from their Arctic breeding grounds to spend the winter in NC (click photos to enlarge)

When we drove up to the impoundment known as Marsh A, there they were, hundreds of graceful white forms, filling the crisp air with their mellow sounds. We stopped, watched them for several minutes, quietly taking it all in and appreciating the fact that these birds had just completed an amazing journey of 3000 miles or more to spend the winter here. It is reassuring that these natural rhythms continue, that the natural world has some order to it, even when much of what we hear on the news does not.

Black bear tracks

Large bear tracks (plus another creature…do you see it?)

On to “Bear Road” where we saw several people parked at the gate and sitting along the road waiting for an appearance by one of the area’s many resident bruins. The tracks in the hardened mud tell the story…frequent comings and goings from the dense woods to the local feed store, the cornfield across the road and canal.

Bear Rd tracks

A busy bear crossing

With a small crowd of photographers hanging out near one of the main bear crossings, we decided to walk on down the road, away from the chatter, and experience a little quieter part of the scene. Quiet, except for the sounds of swans and Canada geese coming from the lake a short distance through the woods. We soon saw our first of many bears across the open field at the edge of a patch of woods.

black bear

Most of our views were distant

This would be our fate for this day of woods-walking and refuge road exploration – a total of 19 bears, all seen at a considerable distance. We did find three in a large tree, two resting and one playfully climbing up and down. But most were headed to or from a cornfield, stocking up before the bitter cold of winter might cause them to go into hibernation (perhaps an abbreviated one that is more typical of bears in the Coastal Plain). We also witnessed some bad human behavior of people trying to get just the right photo and causing a bear to alter its choice of pathways (it is always best for the human to give way and let the bear go where it wants). The day ended with a great horned owl calling against a flame orange sunset through the black branches of tree silhouettes…another beautiful Pungo day coming to a close.

sunrise Pungo

One of my favorite things in the flat lands of Eastern NC – a large-scale sunrise

Our friends departed for home and we drove to our campsite at “nearby” Pettigrew State Park. We could hear swans flying over us to the lake all night indicating they are just arriving from their long journey. We spoke with people that had seen almost no swans two days before so it seems we were lucky enough to be there with the first wave of winter arrivals. We were awakened by some noisy campers at a ridiculously early hour, so we were out at sunrise, headed back to Pungo. The big sky of these flat lands is always a highlight at sunrise and sunset, especially in the crisp air of cold weather.

injured wood duck

Injured wood duck along a canal bank

A few flocks of ducks were mixed in with the swans, whose numbers grew to a few thousand by Monday morning. It is not unusual to see wood ducks in the canals along refuge roads as they flush in front of your car and zip through the trees. It is unusual to see one stay put after you spot it. I caught a glimpse of a stunning drake as I drove past it, so I stopped and backed up, fully expecting it to dart away (it seems no creature will tolerate a car that is backing up). One glance at its awkward posture and you could tell something was wrong. It shuffled up the bank a little when I stopped for a photo, so we drove on, sorry to see this beautiful bird in such a state, but knowing that some predator will probably get a meal.

Eastern phoebe on sign

Eastern phoebe on sign

Driving over to Bear Road, we encountered another group of photographers hanging out, waiting for bears. There was also a phoebe debating the true meaning of a road sign…surely this doesn’t apply to me (I have seen many human visitors debating that same thing, unfortunately). So, we drove back over to Marsh A to fix our breakfast and to spend time watching the swans greet the day.

Trumpeteer swan

Trumpeter swan honking as it comes in for a landing

It wasn’t long until we heard a sound very different from the coos, whistles, and hoots of the tundra swans – the distinctive horn sound of a trumpeter swan. This is the swan species we see in Yellowstone (although less frequently in recent years) and are seeing now more regularly each winter here in NC. The past few years have brought a few of the larger trumpeters to Pungo and Mattamuskeet. The characteristic calls are by far the easiest way to locate a trumpeter in a sea of look-alike tundra swans. If they are standing next to each other, you can tell a trumpeter is larger, and, in this case, the call was coming from a flying bird, and we soon spotted it flying with a group of tundras. In flight, it is possible to see a size difference, but I don’t think I would really notice it unless I heard the call and was looking for it. Another clue to separate them is the head – look closely at the two photos of swans in flight. Trumpeter swans have a long, straight bill. The inner edge of the bill forms a rather straight line up to the eye, encompassing the eye so that it is difficult to separate from the black bill. The eye of tundra swans is more distinct as a circle separated from the bill. Plus, the inner bill line comes off the eye, and then drops downward. Most tundras also have a yellow spot on the bill below the eye, trumpeters do not. And a trumpeter has “red lipstick” along the inner edge of its black bill. After looking at the birds circling us and then comparing images, I think there were at least three trumpeter swans in the group, two immatures and the adult shown here. I hope we can spot them on the Christmas Bird Count next month! To learn more, check out this link for some of the ways to distinguish these species.

Tundra swans flying out of Pungo Lake

Pair of tundra swans – compare the outline of their bills to photo above

We ended our trip just after lunch, with only 3 bear sightings for Monday, but plenty of memories to last until we get back in a few weeks. I really do love this time of year!

Hot Holiday

It’s summer and time for wandering…

~Kellie Elmore

After I retired (you remember back when I was retired) I loved the fact that I could go to some of my favorite places on a week day when fewer people would be out and about in the wild places I love. I certainly didn’t want to go on a holiday weekend when even more people created crowded campgrounds and busy highways en route to my favorite destinations. Well, that was then and this is now, so off we went last weekend on a camping excursion. It was prompted, in part, by a visit from Melissa’s cousin, Kevin, from New York. He had not traveled much in these parts so she had given him tips on where to camp and hike in the mountains on the first part of his visit and now we were going to share a couple of our favorite things with him down east – paddling in a swamp and looking for bears.

The first day we drove to Pettigrew State Park where we had reserved a site, set up camp, and then headed to the nearby boat launch on the Scuppernong River just outside Creswell. We had debated whether to try the entire 12 miles to Columbia (something we both have always wanted to do) but we decided to go ahead, despite the threat of thunderstorms.

IMG_5917

Upper reaches of the Scuppernong River (click photos to enlarge)

We put in about 1:30 p.m. and headed toward Columbia (we shuttled one car down there at the take out point). Melissa and I have paddled portions of this river several times and have seen a bear each time, so we had high hopes. No sightings this trip, but we think we heard a couple splashing through the swamp as we paddled. We also saw many pileated woodpeckers, wood ducks, a barred owl, a bald eagle, and had a constant escort of dragonflies.

Paddling the Scuppernong

Paddling the tranquil Scuppernong. We saw lots of pileated woodpeckers and heard a couple of bears splashing in the swamp.

Scuppernong lower reaches

We were alone along the entire 12 miles of river until we got to Columbia

Scuppernong near Columbia at sunset

A tranquil ending to a beautiful day on the river

We managed to dodge the thunderstorms and ended the day with a slick-as-glass water surface at sunset.  After a delicious dinner in Columbia we headed back to camp where another storm stopped just short of the campground. The next morning we headed over to the Pungo Unit hoping to show Kevin a few bears and other critters in our favorite area of the state.

Young Eastern box turtle in road

Our first wildlife of the day – a young Eastern box turtle

We started kind of slow but did see 5 bears by mid-day. My favorite was one sacked out in a tree right next to the road.

Young black bear in tree

Melissa spotted this sleepy bear lounging head down in a tree right next to the road

Young black bear chillin' in tree alongside road

This is one sleepy bear

We took a break from Pungo and drove over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. After observing some waders (including a nice little blue heron and a tri-colored heron), a tour of the visitor center, and a short hike along one of the boardwalks, we headed back to Pungo. Kevin was driving to Richmond that evening so we wanted to try to find as many bears as possible and maybe have a few opportunities for photos before he headed out. Pungo did not disappoint…

Black bear and cub

Momma bear and cub on “Bear Road”

We saw a couple more as we drove the refuge roads and then decided to head to one of my favorite places, “Bear Road”. It wasn’t long before we saw the first of 14 bears! The sow above had two cubs of the year hanging out with her (only one is visible in the pic above), and we saw several other individuals and another sow with cubs. But one bear provided the highlight of the day…

Black bear walking toward us

This young bear was hurrying toward dinner in the cornfield near where we sat

Black bear realizing something is not right

The moment when you realize – wait, what are those things?

A young, beautiful bear (probably a 2 or 3-year old) came out of the woods and headed down the road towards its evening meal of corn. We were sitting in the road near the corn field and the bear strolled along until, suddenly, it realized something was amiss. It did what we all have probably done at one time or another…trying to decide which course of action is the best…go back, continue on to where I was headed, but what about…then a hesitation, a look back and forth, and finally, what the heck, I’m going. So, the bear scurried into the canal and over into the corn and disappeared.

Black bear trying to decide what to do

Do I stay or do I go?

Black bear indecision

But the corn is just over there…

We ended the day with 25 bears, including a few with cubs of the year (always fun to observe), a couple of bears standing up to check their surroundings, and a bear in a tree. It turns out, if you pick your destination carefully, you can still go somewhere even on a holiday, and not experience the hassle of crowds (unless you count the bears). A great outing on a hot holiday weekend. Can’t wait for our next visit.

Pungo Summer

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.

~Russell Baker

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.

cattail flower

Cattail flower spike – female part below, male part is the brown spike above (click photos to enlarge)

Lizard's tail flower

Lizard’s tail, Saururus cernuus

The vegetation seemed even thicker than normal as I scanned the marsh, but darting movements quickly caught my eye…dragonflies, and lots of them.

Halloween pennant

Halloween pennant balancing on a stem

Blue dasher

Blue dasher in obelesk position – a handstand-like posture used frequently by males of this species when guarding territory. It may also reduce their temperature on sunny days by minimizing their surface area exposed to direct sun rays.

Golden-winged skimmer, male

Golden-winged skimmer, male

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.

Golden-winged skimmers in wheel position

Golden-winged skimmer in 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.

indigo bunting male singing

Indigo bunting singing

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…

black bear sow with two cubs

Bear sow with two cubs of the year (so-called COYs)

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.

Bl;ack bear sow with cubs standing

She caught my scent and stood up. So did the first little one.

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.

Bl;ack bear sow with cubs standing 1

Looking where mom is looking

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.

female black bear with missing foot

Female bear , with company…

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).

large black bear boar

This huge boar was courting her all day, and he has the scars to prove he is worthy

The male following her was a bruiser – a big boy with plenty of battle scars.

_-3

Wherever she went, he followed

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.

Large male black bear close up

A handsome admirer soon showed up, trailing the female and her suitor

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.

Huge black bear boar after a dip

You looking at me?

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.

huge male black bear

This big guy had a fresh battle scar on his rear

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.

black bear family of 4

My last bears of the day, a family of four

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!

 

 

Bears and Butterflies

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do…  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.

~Mark Twain

I think that sentiment is one of Melissa’s primary views of how to live a life. But, even she was a bit reluctant to head out early Saturday morning for a day trip to Pungo. We have both had full schedules at work these past few months with no let up in sight. We had planned this trip as a weekend get-away to meet our friend, Petra, and a couple from the Netherlands that had been clients a few years ago. Plans changed, and we decided not to camp and just do a day trip. We left about 7 a.m., arriving a little after 10 a.m., and found our friends alongside the road after having seen one large bear out in a field. But, they anticipated more now that the ‘bear whisperers” were here (no pressure there). So, off we went, and, luckily, there they were – a family of four bears just down the road.

bears in field

Family of black bears in one of the fields at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

It turned out to be a rather slow day at Pungo, but we had a great time in absolutely beautiful weather – walking, talking, laughing with friends, discussing the state of the world from another country’s perspective, and getting glimpses of nature. Butterflies were very active, especially the palamedes swallowtails and zebra swallowtails.

palamedes swallowtail on thistle

Palamedes swallowtail feeding on a roadside thistle

palamedes swallowtail mating dance

Palamedes swallowtail mating dance

monarch on vetch

Monarch foraging on vetch

We even had two monarchs nectaring on small wildflowers along Bear Road. Birds were abundant as well – a pair of adult bald eagles, wild turkeys, a green heron, and lots of warblers (prairie, black-throated blue, black and white, prothonotary).

bear in thicket

Our last bear of the day

But the day belonged to the bears, 14 in all. The last one was the closest, just across a roadside canal, low in the brush, nibbling on various leaves. It was a glorious day that ended with a wonderful dinner in Belhaven, and a late night return for us. But it was all worth it – seeing our Dutch friends, being outside on a beautiful day, watching those bears – and I’m glad we did it. Next….

Feeling Alive

Go where you feel most alive.

~Author unknown

I have been missing my usual winter routine of several trips down east. Schedules have been busy, and this thing called work has a way of occupying a lot of your time! So, last week we decided to make a day-trip to my favorite spots in North Carolina – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I wrote about one of the highlights in a previous blog – the epic battle between heron and fish. This post covers the rest of that amazing day, starting with a rendezvous with our friend in Raleigh at 6:45 a.m. (admittedly, a rather leisurely hour for such a trip).

Swans on ice

Tundra swans on ice (click photos to enlarge)

We arrived at the Pungo Unit a little after 9. The skies were gray, the wind whipping, temperatures below freezing – a Pungo kind of day. This is the reason I often tell people to dress as if “you will be the coldest you have ever been”. To our surprise, the only birds in the fields behind the maintenance compound were a ton of American robins. Friends had reported that large flock of snow geese had been feeding there in recent days, and it was the time of day when they are usually in the fields for breakfast. We drove on, spotting a couple of uncooperative river otter in a canal. Try as we might, we only managed quick glimpses before they totally disappeared. A quick stop at the blustery observation platform confirmed that the waterfowl know not to be out in the open on such a windy day. All we could see were some thin white lines of swans on the far shore where the forested shoreline provides them with some protection from the north wind.

sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes on the refuge!

On to Marsh A, one of the managed wetland areas for waterfowl, and a favorite place of both swans and swan-watchers. Indeed, there were a few thousand tundra swans milling about, some, on the fringes of the flock, walking on ice. A quick glass of the area revealed a bonus – three sandhill cranes! They were reported earlier in the season, but we had missed them on the Christmas Bird Count. I have seen this species here sporadically over the years, usually just as a fly-over. but these three were hunkered down in the marsh, no doubt wondering why they had not opted for a warmer habitat. We then saw a giant flock of snow geese flying into the lake from the north. Had they been feeding in the fields along “Bear Road”? We drove over, hoping to see some stragglers and were greeted by a few hundred snow geese out in the corn. We encountered some other friends from Raleigh, shared a few stories, and then headed over to Mattamuskeet for the middle part of the day. We spent a lot of the time with the aforementioned heron, but also saw thousands of ducks (especially northern pintails), another disappearing otter, and a dancing night heron.

Black-crowned night heron shimmy

Night heron shimmy

Black-crowned night heron shimmy 1

Shaking it

An adult black-crowned night heron was on one of the usual pilings in the pool near the entrance to Mattamuskeet, so we stopped and walked over to admire. It was striking their usual stoic pose, when, all of a sudden, it went through a series of gyrations that would make any dance contestant proud. When it settled back down, it did a quick poop (lighten the load) and flew off.

After spending a couple of hours at Mattamuskeet, we headed back to Pungo for what we hoped would be a grand evening show. The walk down Bear Road quickly showed why I dubbed it thus years ago, before real road name signs went up – five bears came out across the field to feed. After watching them mill about and horse around (a couple of young ones were wrestling), we headed into the woods. Melissa and I both commented that there isn’t as much fresh bear sign in these woods this winter – there is some, but not the totally worn down “bear living rooms” we have seen in the past. Suddenly, our friend said, “Look, a tiny owl”!

Eastern screech owl out on branch

Eastern screech owl out on a limb

I had been checking out every snag as we walked, so I naturally looked at the dead top of the tree where she was pointing. I couldn’t see it. “Right there”, she exclaimed. I followed her outstretched hand, and, to my surprise, there is a screech owl sitting out in the open on a branch several feet away from the trunk. The little guy barely moved its head to watch us as we slowly maneuvered, trying not to scare it. The fading sunlight would move on and off the owl, highlighting its beautiful rufous plumage.

Screech owl in wood duck box close up

Gray morph Eastern screech owl from 2016

In a post from a very “owly” day a couple of years ago, I shared photos of another Eastern screech owl from the Pungo Unit. That one was a gray morph using a wood duck box as a nest site. Eastern screech owls come in two primary color morphs in our state – red (or rufous) and gray (there is a third, a brown morph, in the far south). That doesn’t mean they can change color (they remain whichever color they are their entire life), it simply means there are two primary colors seen in this species. It turns out that the red color morph is more common in southern parts of the range, while the gray is predominant in colder regions. Plumage color appears to be correlated with thermal adaptation. One ornithologist writing about the color morphs summarized findings that showed that gray birds survive colder temperatures better than red birds, which may account for their differential distribution.

Eastern Screech owl

That look that only a screech owl can give

After observing the owl (and it, half open-eyed, observing us) for several minutes, we walked on, hoping it would not fall prey to any of the numerous winged predators that hunt these woods (great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, etc.). About that time, flocks of snow geese started to fly overhead and began circling the fields along Bear Road. We  headed out into the open, hoping they would land. As we watched (and wondered about the energy budget of snow goose behavior), something else caught my eye down the road.

Black bear standing

This town isn’t big enough for the two of us

A medium-sized black bear came out into the road and started ambling our way. When I alerted the others, we undoubtedly moved a bit, and the bear stopped in its tracks. He looked our way, then stood up to check us out. A standing bear always reminds me of how much we have in common with bruins. This one also looked as if he was trying out for a role in Gunfight at the Pungo Corral. He dropped and cautiously went back into the woods.

Snow geese swirling above the field at sunset

Snow geese swirling over the corn at sunset

Our attention shifted back to the birds, which were now circling near us in dense, squawking clouds. I never tire of this visual spectacle and the incredible sounds that accompany it.

Buddy Bear

I just want to cross at my usual spot

For the next several minutes, we stood in awe of the scene before us – countless birds swirling nearby, swans flying over our heads back to the lake, and our bear friend tentatively trying to reach his canal crossover spot. The bear may be one I have seen over the past couple of years that we dubbed “buddy bear” (for his tolerance of humans). He kept coming out to the road, looking our way, then retreating back into the woods. He would then ease closer to us, come back out into the road, and repeat the sequence. All the while, thousands of birds circled out in front of us…which way to look? The bear ended up catching our attention again when he came out on the crossover path and headed down the canal bank. We all watched as he swam across, shook off, and scurried into the standing corn. What a privilege to be able to witness all this.

More snow geese arriving

Huge flock of snow geese flying into the field

We started to head back to the car and then saw wave after wave of snow geese flying in from the northeast to join the thousands already landing in the corn. This was like the scenes of a few years ago – thousands of snow geese in the fields along Bear Road at sunset, hundreds of ducks swooping in to join them, bears coming out from several directions, swans calling as they fly in from the north, deer coming out of the woods, and woodcock streaking out into the fields to feed. Then we heard the final actor in this grand play – the haunting call of a great horned owl.

Great horned owl at sunset

A great horned owl at sunset

Melissa soon spotted it in a tree not far from us. It flew to a branch out over Bear Road, silhouetted against the fading orange sky. What a great ending to an amazing day! This place is truly magical. It really is somewhere you go to feel alive, to recharge your spirit, and to rediscover a sense of awe and wonder about our world,  Thank you, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for making this possible. We all need to support these public lands, especially now, so they remain available for us and these amazing natural spectacles.

Species observed at Pocosin Lakes (Pungo Unit) and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges 1/15/18:

Birds (61 species):

Double-crested Cormorant; Canada Goose; Snow Goose; Ross’s Goose; Tundra Swan; Mallard; Black Duck; Northern Shoveler; Northern Pintail; Ring-necked Duck; Wood Duck; Gadwall; Bufflehead; Ruddy Duck; Hooded Merganser; American Coot; Pied-billed Grebe; Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; Sandhill Crane; Black-crowned Night Heron; Turkey Vulture; Red-tailed Hawk; Bald Eagle; Northern Harrier; American Kestrel; Eastern Screech Owl; Great Horned Owl; Ring-billed Gull; Mourning Dove; Belted Kingfisher; Northern Flicker; Pileated Woodpecker; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; American Woodcock; Killdeer; American Crow; Eastern Phoebe; American Robin; Eastern Bluebird; Northern Mockingbird; Carolina Wren; Winter Wren; White-throated Sparrow; Swamp Sparrow; Savannah Sparrow; Song Sparrow; Tree Swallow; Red-winged Blackbird; Common Grackle; Brown-headed Cowbird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; European Starling; Orange-crowned Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Golden-crowned Kinglet

Mammals (7 species):

River Otter; Black Bear; Gray Squirrel; White-tailed Deer; Hispid Cotton Rat; Raccoon; Nutria

A Festival for Bears

May this intelligent animal always have a place. We need to better understand bears.

~Mike McIntosh

Last weekend was the third annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC. I have missed the previous ones due to trips to Yellowstone, but I finally managed to visit this year. I was curious how the festival was organized and what messages might be going out to the public about one of my favorite mammal species. My old workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, had been asked to provide guided tours of nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Luckily, I was able to join as a volunteer guide for the tours on Saturday – three 3-hours tours starting at 5:30 a.m., 1:45 p.m., and 6 p.m. A full day! Between tours on Saturday we visited some of the festivities that ranged from the usual festival goofiness to interesting information about local wildlife.

Bear festival entrance

Entrance to the NC Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)

Bearicade

Lots of plays on words at the festival

Bronco bear

Festival mascot taking a turn on the bronco bear. As the guy in charge of this ride said, you will not see this anywhere else.

Kiddie bear ride

The coolest kiddie ride I have ever seen – the bear train

The tours themselves turned out to be a great learning experience for all involved. During the three tours on Saturday we had 34 bear sightings, only a few of which were the same bear on different tours. I didn’t take many photos during the tours, but highlights included 3 cubs of the year in a tree, and, on a later tour, an adult lounging in a tree.

Black bear in tree

Black bear lounging in willow tree

Sunday morning, I decided to head over to the refuge by myself and then head home early. I spent a few hours cruising the roads looking for bears and whatever else the refuge might offer, and I was not disappointed. I ended the day with 14 bear sightings for a personal total of 48 for the two days I was down there. The 7 tours by the museum over the three festival days yielded an impressive 71 bear sightings, including several very close to the bus.

Below are some of the highlights of my time on the refuge:

Large black bear at sunrise

Sunrise bear

Large black bear at sunrise in soybeans

Sunrise bear in soybeans

Large black bear at sunrise on new bear rd

Sunrise bear checking me out before heading into woods

large bear on canal bank

Surprise bear

I was photographing a king rail (more on that in a later post) along a canal bank. A truck pulled up and stopped next to me to see what I was seeing. When they realized it was “just a bird”, they drove off. I glanced at their truck as they drove away. When I turned back to the rail, this huge bear had popped over the canal bank less than 30 feet away and was looking at me. The people in the truck never saw it.

large bear on canal bank 1

I have seen this big fellow before

I quickly switched lenses and managed a few photos of the “surprise bear” before it lumbered off.

tundra swans in summer

Tundra swans still hanging out at Pungo

This is the largest number of “lost swans” I have ever seen on the refuge after the migration season. Would love to know their story of why they are still here.

northern bobwhite in tree

Northern bobwhite quail

bear along road

Roadside bear

My last bear of the day was a small guy feeding along the roadside. It had a slight limp caused by a crooked left hind leg. I sat in the car and watched this bear for about 30 minutes as it grazed on vegetation and pulled at a few downed logs looking for a snack. It didn’t seem too hampered by its limp. I saw a couple of other bears on this trip with leg injuries – my sunrise bear had what looked like a swollen knee (see photo early in post); I saw another large male that had probably been in a fight with another male for breeding rights and had a severe limp and gash on a hind leg. But most of the bears we saw looked quite healthy. It is always a treat to be able to watch wildlife doing what they do – living their lives, feeding, resting in the shade high up in a tree, cooling off in a canal to beat the heat, or caring for their young. I think this is the real value of the festival, giving people a chance to see wild bears as beautiful creatures that have lives and struggles in some ways not all that different from ours. I hope it helps us all learn to share our habitats with these magnificent animals. And, once again, the Pungo Unit has proven itself to be one of the best places I know to share the magic of wildlife with others. I look forward to my next visit.

Refuge Renewal

In such surroundings – occasional as our visits may be – we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.

~Laurence Rockefeller

It is the season of renewal for me, the season of experiencing some of the wild spectacles of this place I call home. I had a trip this past week to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges and, though we ended up leaving a bit early due to the predicted winter storm, it was still a refreshing reminder of why these places are so important – important to the amazing wildlife that can be found there, and important to those of us lucky enough to spend time in them.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron walking in shallows along causeway (click photos to enlarge)

I stopped by the Pungo Unit on my way down Wednesday. Very quiet and the roads were pretty muddy. We started our tour at sunrise the next morning at Lake Mattamuskeet. There are relatively few birds out along the causeway this year, due to the wet year and resulting high lake levels, and the decline in the submerged aquatic vegetation (see recent Wildlife in North Carolina magazine article). You can still usually find a couple of birds near the south end of the causeway, especially some waders like the great blue heron above. I love the textures of their feathers, which seem even more prominent in cold weather.

black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron adult

I always look for a heron or black-crowned night heron on the pilings in the marsh pool just inside the gate to the refuge, but they were empty. But, at the next pool, an adult night heron was out in plain view, and was hunting. I have never seen a night heron at this particular pool in all the years I have been going to the refuge (and haven’t seen much else here the past couple of years since the Phragmites grass has taken over the edge of the pool).

black-crowned night heron strikig at prey

Night heron strikes and catches a small fish (note nictitating membrane to protect eye)

black-crowned night heron scratching

Nothing like a good scratch after a meal

black-crowned night heron close up

The red eye of an adult black-crowned night heron is spectacular

Their red eye is stunning in sunlight. Young black-crowned night herons have yellow eyes, that gradually change to orange, and then red as they mature. Though many species of birds show a change in eye color from young to adult, no one seems sure what the evolutionary significance of this may be.

Bald eagle immature

Immature bald eagle

Among the many birds we saw, there were the usual bald eagles perched along the edges of the lake and marshes scanning the areas for weakened waterfowl that make an easy meal. At one point, we had two immature eagles and a red-tailed hawk all soar out over us.

eagles tangling in mid-air

The eagles engaged in aerial combat

eagles tangling in mid-air 1

One eagle rolled over, extending its talons

Suddenly, the two eagles started to chase one another and were soon performing some serious acrobatics. This may be a territorial battle, or simply their form of play, I’m not sure. Almost as quickly as it had started, it was over. We saw some more of this over at Pungo the next day involving three eagles, two adults chasing one juvenile through the woods.

Anhinga sunning

An anhinga sunning itself

I had seen an anhinga in the Mattamuskeet canals on a visit in December, so I was looking for it again. We found it sunning itself in a tree across the canal from the lodge. Interestingly, this spot used to be the best place on the refuge to see black-crowned night herons (especially juveniles), but the past two winters they have been scarce.

Anhinga swimming

Anhinga, often called the snakebird, for its swimming style

As we admired the anhinga through my scope, another one came swimming down the canal. I think this is the first time I have ever seen two at once on the refuge.

white ibis

White ibis landing in marsh

We continued looking for wildlife throughout much of the day, with many of the usual suspects being observed. We found almost 100 white ibis feeding in a field at Lake Landing, and felt lucky to see a group of American white pelicans soaring over us. We also had a couple of good warbler sightings – a cooperative common yellowthroat male and an orange-crowned warbler. Overall waterfowl numbers seemed low, but there is still enough diversity to get some good looks and decent photos.

Photo blind

New photo blind at Mattamuskeet

It wasn’t until late in the day we discovered the new photo blind on the refuge. It is located along Hwy 94, between the entrance and exit points of Wildlife Drive. Kudos to those responsible – it is a great design with good viewing ports covered by camouflage netting. When we drove up, there were several species of waterfowl just off the front of the blind. They swam off as we walked in, but I think if you spend some time in this spot, you could get some good results once the birds return (you can’t really sneak in without nearby birds seeing you; bring a seat or bucket if you plan to spend time in it). I look forward to returning on a future trip. I hope other public land managers will consider putting up similar structures. This one was funded, at least in part, by a grant from the North American Nature Photography Association.

Swan taking off in Marsh A

Tundra swan taking off

That afternoon, we headed over to the Pungo Unit to hopefully enjoy the evening show of swans and snow geese returning to Pungo Lake. As I mentioned in my last post, the swans have been amazing this winter, and they did not disappoint.

Snow geese overhead

Snow geese flying high overhead

In our almost two days on the Pungo Unit, we did see the elusive snow geese flying far off the refuge to feed, returning a relatively short time later. A few thousand (of the estimated 15-20,000 birds) flew over us as walked down North lake Drive on our second day out, coming in at a very high altitude as they approached the lake. They continue to be unpredictable in their movements, although I think they will be closer to the refuge roads once some of remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down (I expect that to happen very soon).

bear jumping ditch

A young bear jumps over a drainage ditch

This has been a strange winter for the black bears at Pungo. We saw what seemed the usual number on our trip in mid-December (8, as I recall). But since then, sightings have been few and far between, including being skunked in bear sightings on our Christmas Bird Count the last week of December (maybe the only time that has happened in over 30 years of doing that count). On this trip, I saw three (a sow and two yearlings) my first afternoon, and then we saw only three others in two days – one in the front fields coming out of the corn at sunrise, one feeding in corn and one cruising across the corn fields along North Lake Road.

bear play area

What looks like a bear play area in the woods

Pawpaw with stripped bark

Bark stripped from a pawpaw tree by a bear

There seems to be plenty of fresh bear sign in the woods and along the edges of the fields (although not as much scat in the roads as usual), so I am not quite sure what is going on. I think there may be increased hunting pressure on local bears at the edge of the refuge and this may be altering their behavior and making them more secretive, as well as reducing their numbers with greater numbers of bears that venture off the refuge being taken.

sunset and swans

Sunset with swans returning to the refuge

It is still a magical place, especially at sunrise and sunset. The swans fill the evening sky with magical sounds and the graceful lines of returning birds. I’ll leave you with a video clip from our sunrise at Pungo and the swans that make this refuge such a place of renewal for myself and so many others that spend any time in it.

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.