Fourth of July Bearworks

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

~Mike McIntosh

Hope you had a good holiday weekend. Mine was special in many ways – good food, good friends, and a memorable trip to my favorite place in the East, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It was a long day trip on July 4th. What better way to celebrate our country than to spend time out in it, enjoying some of the spectacular wild places that we have set aside for ourselves and for wildlife. And so we hit the road, arriving at the refuge about 11 a.m. (pretty relaxed timing for one of my trips down that way). Much like the amazing victory of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team last night, things happened fast and furious as we drove onto the refuge, and within the first five minutes we had spotted nine bears!

first bear

First bear of the day (click photos to enlarge)

I photographed the first bear of the morning feeding in a soybean field on the refuge. The other eight bears in that first few minutes were farther out in this same large expanse of soybeans. I am always amazed that these large black animals are active in the middle of the day when it is 90+ degrees. We drove through the refuge roads and spotted a few more mid-day bears before leaving our air-conditioned car and walking down one of the many dirt roads that bears frequent. It was hot (no, correction, very hot), and humid, typical summertime conditions on the refuge. The bears didn’t seem to mind the heat as much as we did, because the day turned out to be the best day of bear spotting I have ever had. We walked several trails and roadsides, drove the refuge roads twice, and were chased back to the car on two occasions by intense rain storms, but it was an incredible day. Throughout the day we also saw hundreds of Zebra Swallowtail Butterflies, countless dragonflies, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkeys, White-tailed Deer, a Great Horned Owl, and a Bald Eagle. But, the bears stole the show and made this a most memorable holiday weekend.

Here are a few images from the day…

first cub looking shy

As we walked down one of the refuge roads, a large bear suddenly came scrambling down a tree next to the road. We looked up to see one of her cubs shyly looking our way.

first cub looking up

The cub looked up at its sibling high above.

second cub

Second cub higher up in tree.

second cub yawning

Second cub yawning.

bear in bean field 1

While watching the cubs in the tree, another bear came through the field behind us.

young bear in corn

We had to retreat back to the car to avoid a heavy downpour. On our second walk, a young bear swam across the canal and sized us up from the safety of the corn.

large bear standing in corn

In another field, we saw a large boar bear standing in the corn.

bear coming down tree

While watching bears in a different field, we were again startled by a bear scrambling down a nearby tree (note to self, look up in all nearby trees).

tiny cub in tree

A tiny cub was in a nearby tree.

bear watching other bear

A bear walked toward us and then became distracted by something down in the canal.

bear cooling off

The source of the distraction – a very large boar bear cooling off in the canal.

bears everywhere

More bears near the canal…they just kept coming out of the woods and fields.

huge bear

The final bear of the day – a very large boar feeding on corn.

A Good Way to End a Day

I like to remember that it is wild country that gives rise to wild animals; and that the marvelous specificity of wild animals reminds us to wake up, to let our senses be inflamed by every scent and sound and sight and taste and touch of the world. I like to remember that we are not here forever, and not here alone, and that the respect with which we behold the wild world matters, if anything does.

~Rick Bass

By the time I got over to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes, it was mid-afternoon. I did a quick drive through, checking an area where my museum friends said they saw a bobcat the day before. Unfortunately, no bobcat for me, so I drove on, looking for bears. I parked and walked down the gated dirt road to an area where bears have been active. With overcast skies and a long walk, I took only my tripod, 300mm lens, a 1.4x teleconverter, and my Kwik Camo photography blind. This is a handy camouflaged cover with slots for your hands, lens, and flash units. It comes in a camo fanny pack and is very light, so it is no problem on a long walk. I wanted to try standing for awhile along the tree line under the blind, just to see what I could see, even if there were no photo ops.

Camo blind selfie

Kwik Camo blind selfie – in case you weren’t already worried about me:)… (click to enlarge photos)

I picked a spot near where bears were obviously crossing the dirt road from the woods to the bounty of the corn field.

bear crossing

Bear crossing

There were three such bear highways along the path – easily noticed by the trail of wet soil that could be seen from quite a distance.

track highway

Track highway…can you see tracks of at least three mammal species?

When I got to the last crossing, it looked as though every animal on the refuge had walked through the mud that day. I am always impressed by the amount of wildlife sign I see here…certainly one of the best places I have ever been to learn about wildlife tracks and signs. So, as if often the case on such outings, once I was situated, I waited. And waited. One thing about the use of the blind is that it is a little tough to see behind you, so I found myself turning my head frequently to scan for wildlife (something I do more often in bear country:)

Bears coming out of woods

Bears coming out of woods

There is usually plenty to observe while waiting in a blind. To my right, I watched a hawk hunting over the field and when I turned back to my left, this is what I saw – an adult female and a young bear coming out of the woods, headed toward the field. There was almost no wind, so I don’t think she sensed me, as she cautiously came out and went down into the canal for a drink. I swung the lens around and pointed it toward where the pair had disappeared along the canal bank when a slight motion to my left caught my eye…another young bear was walking down the tree line I was in and suddenly realized that the bush next to the treeĀ (that’s me) moved .

This one knew I was there

Young Black Bear keeping an eye on the moving bush (me)

It stared at me for a second and then ambled off toward its mother and sibling, glancing back from time to time to see if the bush moved again (I didn’t). I always try to not disturb the wildlife I am watching. But this young bear had seen me (and perhaps heard the camera shutter – boy, it seems so loud at times like this).

Mother and cub

Mother and young bear

When the other two bears came up out of the ditch, the sibling ambled off toward the dinner table (corn field), while the mother looked at her other youngster staring at me and then looked around, before finally fixing her gaze in my direction. I shot two images and then remained silent. She continued to look around, sniffed a few times, and apparently did not sense anything to worry about, so they both headed off toward the corn. I watched them for another thirty minutes as they fed far down the field from me, and then I headed out toward the car about a mile away. It is always a special feeling when I am able to observe wildlife doing what they do without them becoming alarmed at my presence.

The day had been a great one, although strangely warm for early December. I saw two species of butterflies out earlier in the day, and as I walked back, a few bats came out for an early hunt. Five other bears came out of the woods as I walked, most a great distance from me. A Great Horned Owl started hooting as the sun was reaching the horizon. A Corn Snake crossed the road. And then I heard them coming…the birds returning to the lake for the evening. I paused as the first wave of Snow Geese flew overhead. Smaller groupings of Tundra Swans were flying in long V’s underneath. I was alone in this magical place and I felt incredibly lucky. I shot a short video with my phone hoping to capture a little of that magic. But, there is no substitute for being out there and taking it all in, realizing that these special places are essential for both the wildlife and the human spirit.

Listen for the differences in the calls of the returning flocks – the high-pitched, somewhat nasal quality of the Snow Geese honks, and the lower-pitched hooting of the Tundra Swans.

NOTE: I am offering trips in this extraordinary region the first two weekends in January and possibly another in February. Contact me at roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com for details.

When the North Wind Blows

I went camping last weekend with some friends at Pettigrew State Park and the weather decided to change dramatically during our stay. Saturday was relatively warm and overcast and we just missed the last of the rain when we arrived at the park around noon.

water drops on poplar leaf on ground

Water drops on fallen leaf (click photos to enlarge)

Everything was slightly wet as we set up camp, and there were insects and spiders moving about. That would all change by nightfall.

Gulls at the bar

Gallery of gulls in winter attire – Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Ring-billed Gull

After setting up tents we did a quick check of the boat ramp and found some Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks out on Lake Phelps and a gallery of gulls hanging out on the railing. The rest of the afternoon was spent over at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge looking for anything that might be out and about. We spotted a few bears at a distance and then saw what at first looked like a sleeping bear near the refuge maintenance area.

Roadkill bear

Dead young bear

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a dead young bear and it had not been dead long.

Rear foot of dead bear

Hind foot of dead bear

While sad, it did offer a rare opportunity to closely observe a bear. It probably weighed about 75 pounds, meaning it was probably born a year ago. One foot was turned so we could examine the soft texture of the pad. We were puzzled by what might have happened, but after talking with refuge staff on my return, they thought it was probably hit by a car. Regrettably, we had seen another, much larger, roadkill bear on our way down alongside Hwy 64…a cautionary note for drivers in bear country, especially after dark, when a large black animal is very difficult to see.

As sunset approached we headed out and were greeted by a flyover of thousands of Tundra Swans and the first Snow Geese of the season. The arrival of the strong cold front may have been the push needed by the birds to complete their migration to their wintering grounds here in North Carolina. In one of the long V-shaped formations of swans, there was one lone Snow Goose flying in line along with his much larger cousins from the far north – the first time any of us had ever seen a mixture of these two birds in formation.

During the night, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped precipitously. By daybreak it was bone-chilling cold with a stiff persistent wind out of the northwest – the perfect Pungo wildlife day.

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier hunting in a stiff wind

One advantage of a steady breeze is that it slows down the flight speed of many birds (at least those heading into the wind) and gives you a chance to watch and photograph them. Such was the case with a ghostly male Northern Harrier battling the stiff wind as he hunted the roadside ditches. If only another car had not come along, we might have stayed with this soaring hunter and grabbed some memorable images.

Bear tooth marks on sweet gum

Bear tooth marks on Sweetgum

Hiking down one of the dirt roads on the refuge we began seeing lots of bear sign. Many of the trees in the area have claw marks from bears climbing them. But many of the larger Sweetgum trees have another distinctive mark – sections of bark ripped off near the base of the trunk with teeth marks left behind as the bears scrape away the sugar-rich cambium layer.

Fungus on bear scat

Fungus on bear scat

There was also an abundance of another bear sign – piles of scat. And much of the scat was odd-looking because of a hairy fungus growing on top. Although I have seen this before, I don’t remember seeing so many scat piles covered in the Chia Pet-type growth. A quick search on the web revealed the fungus is probably one in the genus Phycomyces. This fungus is related to bread mold and is one of the first to grow on substrates that are high in sugar. The hairs are the sporangiophores and each is tipped with a tiny sphere full of spores.

Bear on Bear Rd

Female Black Bear on “bear road”

It wasn’t long until we encountered something with hair of a different color – a Black Bear. It was a medium-sized adult bear who came out of the woods between myself and my friends a hundred yards or so down the road. She came out cautiously, frequently glancing back in the woods. We all thought she was probably not alone, and, sure enough, a young bear soon followed. I thought they were going to cross over into the nearby corn field, but she slowly meandered my way.

Bear standing on bear rd 1

Female bear stands up to sniff and look around

The stiff wind may hamper a bear’s ability to use its keenest environmental sensor, its nose. The young bear disappeared back into the woods and the adult soon stood up to look around and probably try to ascertain if the coast was clear. She probably could sense us, but maybe could not get a direction on the scent. She soon dropped down and ambled off to join her young one.

Log with stripped bark

This log had a bear on it stripping the bark

Cold, windy weather often offers good wildlife watching opportunities on the refuge as animals tend to get hungrier and more active during the day. After walking a few miles on various dirt roads, we encountered two bears off in the woods atop a leaning tree that had broken near the base. We sat and watched for about 20 minutes while the female gingerly pulled off chunks of bark and appeared to lick or bite at something underneath. After they ambled off into the thick undergrowth, we went over to check out the tree.

Grubs being eaten by bear

Beetle grubs under the bark

We quickly found what the large bear was so gently picking off the log – a variety of beetle grubs hidden under the bark. Grubs must be a bruin delicacy as evidenced by the amount of log rolling and stripping of bark that can be found on almost any downed tree in these woods.

Bear sitting in corn field

Large Black Bear feeding in corn field

After several more bear sightings we finished our beary good day with a large bear coming out of the woods and feeding in the corn field as we sat and watched nearby. It walked in and sat down, grabbing an ear of corn and feeding on it while sitting and looking around.

Bear carrying ear of corn

Bear carrying ear of corn

Occasionally, the bear would pick up an ear off the ground and carry it a ways before sitting and eating. We finally got up to leave and were greeted by another bear with two young, and then three more on the way back to the car. An amazing day in an amazing place. The final amazement came in the form of a beautiful sky with literally thousands of swans calling and filing by overhead as they made their way back to their critical resting spot on the lake. This short video gives you a sense of what it is like in this magical place.

I will be leading several trips this winter to this area both on weekends and during week days to observe wildlife and learn abut the importance of this and other refuges as critical wildlife habitat. If interested in attending one of these trips, please contact me at my roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com email address or via my Facebook page. While there are no guarantees on seeing so much wildlife, it is a place that never disappoints me.

Another Great Day at Pungo

I guess it isn’t enough to be a mere observer. It’s turning to the person on your right, or left, and stating with an undiluted sense of joy and inquisitiveness, “Did you just see that?”

Mike McDowell

Bass Lake Photo Club members capturing a bear

Bass Lake Photo Club members, Rosa, Steve, and Petra, capturing a bear (click to enlarge)

I had my first post-retirement outing yesterday with a great group of folks from the Bass Lake Photo Club. I gave a talk to their group in March and they saw an image of a bear on my desktop and asked where it was taken. Pungo, of course, and they said they wanted to go. While I have great luck getting good wildlife images on my own, and I have led several nature photography workshops over the years, there is a bit more pressure when folks are particularly interested in getting something like bear photos. I stressed there are no guarantees but that they would come away with some good information and a knowledge of the refuge and that seemed fine, so we set it up. I went down Friday afternoon to scout things out (even though I have been down twice in the past two weeks – hey, it is my favorite place in NC after all:).

The wind was howling Friday with lots of cloud cover, so not ideal for photography. In the week since I had been down the local farmers that tend the crop fields on the refuge had moved in their equipment and started plowing for this year. Not sure if that or maybe the cold windy conditions were to blame, but the few bears I did see were very skittish, and uncharacteristically sprinted for cover as soon as they saw my vehicle, even at great distance. Hmmm, not a good omen. And the bitterns from last week were nowhere to be found. Bummer, looking like it could be a tough weekend for a group outing.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark (click to enlarge)

The one cool thing I did see was a small bird scurrying at the edge of one of the freshly plowed fields – a Horned Lark. This is the only native species of lark to nest in North America. I have seen Horned Larks before in winter in this region, but never this time of year, although the Birds of North Carolina (http://www.carolinabirdclub.org/ncbirds/view.php?sort_order=2870) reports them as a permanent resident in parts of the Coastal Plain of NC. It is always exciting to see one, and especially to be able to watch one forage (it was gulping down moth pupae that the plowing had exposed).

The next morning dawned windy, chilly, and completely overcast playing into my concerns for our group experience later that day. I drove over early to check things out and did see a Bald Eagle and lots of other birds, but no bears.

Thistle with stalk eaten by bear

Yellow Thistle stalk eaten by bear (click to enlarge)

One thing I did see that intrigued me was a number of Yellow Thistle (Cirsium horridulum) plants that had been eaten (just the stalks). After looking around it was obvious that bears had been feeding on the stalks.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on thistle

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Yellow Thistle (click to enlarge)

I photographed this plant last week on a warm day with butterflies on it, but here was evidence of use by another animal. I probably saw 30 or more plants that had the stalk completely missing with the flowers and seed heads laying on the ground next to the rest of the extremely spiny basal leaves. According to one resource, bears love the stalks of thistle, especially the newly elongated stalks. They can avoid the spiny-ness of the plant in several ways. Based on what I saw, they probably took off the top of the plant (they have been observed swatting it off with a paw) and then stripped the spiny leaves before consuming the tasty stalk (hope to witness that behavior some day).

Ragwort flowers

Woolly Ragwort flowers (click to enlarge)

I drove back into Plymouth to meet the group and escort them out to the refuge. There were four: Rick, Steve, Petra, and Rosa, and they were all up for the day in spite of the weather conditions. Steve even mentioned he had rented a telephoto lens for the day to try to get some decent bear pics (Uh-oh, no pressure there). I gave the other car a walkie-talkie so we could communicate and off we went. I decided to stop and photograph other subjects of interest in case the bears were skittish again today. We got out to look at Spatterdock flowers and pads in the canals and Woolly Ragwort flowers that were blooming in abundance along the roadsides. The upward-pointing silky-haired leaves of Woolly Ragwort are adaptations to reduce water loss in the hot sun by reflecting sunlight (hairs) and reducing the surface area exposed directly to the sun (vertical orientation).

Corn Snake

Corn Snake in defensive posture (click to enlarge)

Shortly after arrival at the refuge I was amazed to see a snake out in the chilly weather as it crossed the road. Jumping out of the car I cut off its escape and everyone got great shots of a beautiful Corn Snake. Later in the day we had a similar encounter with a cooperative Black Racer.

Virginia Chain Ferns in swamp

Virginia Chain Ferns in swamp (click to enlarge)

Driving along the south side of the lake you pass through a beautiful swamp forest with huge stands of ferns. The colors and patterns are gorgeous so we got out and spent some time looking around and got lucky with a few breaks in the clouds The large stands back off the road are Virgina Chain Fern (Woodwardia virginica), but close to the road were some easily accessible Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea).

Cinnamon Fern

Cinnamon Fern (click to enlarge)

Most ferns carry their reproductive spores on the undersides of the fronds; cinnamon fern (and other species of Osmunda) have separate and distinctive fertile fronds in addition to the typical sterile fronds. A close look reveals the tiny round brownish sori that release the spores.

Cinnamon Fern fertile frond tip

Cinnamon Fern fertile frond tip (click to enlarge)

Folks seemed happy, but, we had come for bears. So, off we went again in search of them. Finally, I spotted one in one of the marsh management areas that had been drained for the summer. We drove as close as possible and got out and could now see two bears through the trees.

Black Bears in marsh

Black Bears in marsh (click to enlarge)

Not everyone was able to get a clear shot through the dense line of vegetation, but, we had seen bears! My self-imposed pressure was lifted. The two bears eventually wandered off into the woods and we continued down the road about one hundred yards and there was another one!

Black Bear foraging on mud flat

Black Bear foraging on mud flat (click to enlarge)

This one was a bit far off so I briefed the group on the finer points of stalking bears (crouch down and move quietly when the bear has its head down foraging and then stop when it looks up). Of course, having the wind in our favor (blowing from the bear toward us) was the only reason we could think about getting close enough for a picture. We moved forward stopping whenever the bear raised its head. Everyone was able to get several good shots until the bear ambled off into thicker cover. We were on a roll!

We then went over to the place I call New Bear Road due to its abundance of bear sign. It did not disappoint. As we walked down the grassy path, first one, then two, then three bears walked out of the woods and started heading towards us. I had everyone crouch off to the side of the path and we watched and waited.

Black Bear sow and two yearlings

Black Bear sow and two yearlings (click to enlarge)

The bears went back into the woods at one point and we moved a bit closer. They all three came back out and were grazing as they again walked our way. The wind was still in our favor but a group of five people is not an easy thing to hide and it started to look as though the female could sense something was not quite right.

Black Bear sow checking out the surroundings

Black Bear sow checking out the surroundings (click to enlarge)

She stood up a few times to look around and threw her nose in the air several times trying to catch a scent. But I don’t think she ever smelled us, so the group of bears continued to hang out and allow us to watch them feed, play, and just be bears. It was an extraordinary several minutes. She finally rounded up her yearling cubs and they headed back into the woods leaving our group with awesome memories.

One of our folks had to leave a bit early so we drove back to the entrance to his car. We then drove through the refuge toward our final hiking spot, seeing more bears along the way. In fact, what I had feared would be a tough day for spotting bears turned out to be a great one – 19 bear sightings!

Our last hike was along a dike out toward a wheat field where I had seen bears last week. I like this walk because you pass along a wetland management area that often has abundant wildlife. We saw plenty of shorebirds, egrets, herons, and one large raccoon. Then we saw three bears walking in the opposite direction from us on a parallel dike across the wetland area. We watched for awhile until they passed and then continued toward the woods where we had just seen three other bears. As w neared the trees I heard some low noises, and then what we assumed was the sound of suckling bears. Then we spotted them – a sow with two yearling cubs in dense vegetation below us. She looked our way, walked a few feet and the sounds continued. Black Bears nurse their young for about a year so I am guessing the two yearlings were still nursing and that is what we could hear. Amazing. The sounds stopped and we assume the bears wandered back into the woods. Satisfied it could not get any better we headed back to the cars, scolded along the way by several Greater Yellowlegs feeding in the wetland area. Then we heard the snorts/barks of two River Otter swimming in the canal below us. What a way to finish an incredible day.

River Otter

River Otter (click to enlarge)

I experienced some amazing things at Pungo the last couple of weeks, mostly by myself. But, as the quote at the start of this blog states, there is something magical about sharing an experience with others, especially others that appreciate nature and are willing to learn and to take whatever is dealt to us in terms of weather and wildlife. We were incredibly lucky to have been able, as a group of five, to experience our time with the bears just doing what bears do. I am so grateful that places like Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo) exist and are managed by dedicated staff so that visitors like us are able to have these experiences. I encourage everyone to support your local parks and refuges and volunteer to help them meet their needs (and make legislators aware of their needs) in these increasingly difficult budget times. It is important not only for the wildlife, but for us all to have such places.

Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man. Stewart Udall

Species list for Pocosin Lakes NWR May 3/4, 2013:

Mammals:

Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Nutria, River Otter, Eastern Cottontail Rabbit, Hispid Cotton Rat (in talons of Northern Harrier)

Birds:

Double-crested Cormorant, Mallard, Canada Goose, Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Greater Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Wild Turkey, Northern Bobwhite, American Crow, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, Orchard Oriole, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Horned Lark

Herps:

Painted Turtle, Yellow-bellied Slider, Corn Snake, Black Racer, Pickerel frog, Southern Cricket Frog, Southern Leopard Frog