When you are where wild bears live you learn to pay attention to the rhythm of the land and yourself.
~Linda Jo Hunter
This summer seems to be racing by and it hit me last week that I have not made a pilgrimage to our coastal wildlife refuges for my fix of summer bears. So, Sunday I loaded up the truck and headed east, arriving at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge about mid-afternoon. Storm clouds were moving in and, sure enough, just as I stopped to get my camera gear out, it started sprinkling. As I shuffled through my gear, I looked down the road and there was my first bear of the day and it was a big one.
You can tell this a huge bear by the obvious belly and how small its ears look in relation to the head. I am guessing it is in the 400 – 500 pound range, but am willing to hear other opinions. This seems a pretty typical size in this region for mature males, with some exceeding 700 and even 800 pounds occasionally. We do, in fact, have the largest Black Bears in the world here in coastal North Carolina due to the mild climate (they don’t hibernate long, if at all, and continue feeding through much of the winter) plus the ready availability of both natural foods and crops.
It rained for about 15 minutes, and I ducked back into the truck and watched as this behemoth sat next to the corn and soaked in the cooling rain drops (it was brutally hot on Sunday, and humid). Just before the rain eased up the bear got up, shook off, and walked back into the corn for another round of feeding. I suppose this is how you maintain that desired ursine figure.
As I drove along the refuge roads (many of which had large swaths of standing water in them from previous rains), I spotted several more bears that quickly disappeared into the brush with the approach of my vehicle. I had hoped to walk on some gated refuge “roads” (actually they are not much more than grassy paths with tire tracks) but some of my favorites have new signage that ask visitors to not enter due to sensitive wildlife habitat. I am assuming this is to protect areas from human disturbance that are being used by recently reintroduced endangered Red Wolves. Of course, that does mean more human pressure on the one main area where people go to see bears, the area I have always called Bear Road. In recent years, that gravel road has become so crowded (this is a relative term, with there often being 4 or 5 carloads of people walking on this road) that I have avoided going there. I was spoiled in my early years of visiting the refuge when I often would see only 1or 2 people the entire day (some days, no one else) on the refuge and usually had Bear Road to myself. Sunday was a pleasant surprise and I guess the rain kept some people away as I saw only a couple of other cars all afternoon. And there were no other cars parked at the entrance to Bear Road when I arrived, so I got out, grabbed my gear and headed down the road toward the corn at the far end.
I walked just a short distance down the road when a bear came out of the woods and started walking toward the corn ahead of me. The sun was out now and it was hot, no, very hot. I am still amazed that these large black fur-covered animals are active in the hot parts of the day as I was already sweating like crazy and had just been out of the truck for a few minutes. This looked like a young bear, maybe two or three years old, and it wasn’t paying any attention to me following some distance behind. It stopped and grazed on some vegetation every now and then, meandered from side to side along the road, but kept heading toward the corn. It finally sat down and groomed itself a bit and then turned and looked my way.
I squatted down as it started to turn so as to reduce my human form and the bear didn’t seem to notice, got up, and started walking toward the corn again.
The bear suddenly turned toward the canal and trotted into the thick vegetation. Four deer bounded away through the soybeans on the other side. The bear came back out after a few seconds and continued on to the corn, finally crossing the canal and disappearing into the tall corn stalks. The vegetation along the canals and roads is so tall that I couldn’t get a clear view of its crossing, so I continued on up the road now that the bruin leading the way had crossed over.
There are a few giant piles of rich black soil at the edge of these managed crop fields now. They don’t look like dredge spoil from cleaning out the canals as they are not full of debris and vegetation, so I guess they trucked it in and it will be spread over the fields once the crops are harvested this Fall. As I walked I wondered whether the bears were using these big dirt piles as playgrounds. Bears are so much like us in so many ways – curious, playful, always inspecting something new in their environment. About then, I looked up at the last dirt pile and there was a bear looking back at me!
I immediately sat down and swung my camera around and started snapping photos. It was a strange backdrop for these beautiful animals – a big dark pile of dirt with corn towering skyward behind them.
The piles of dirt had a lot of mounds and swales and I soon saw two other cubs frolicking in the dirt.
The problem was the cubs would run and disappear down in a swale and, in my seated position, the tall vegetation blocked my view of some areas of the giant dirt pile. But, I didn’t want to disturb them, so I continued to sit and watch, happy to share this special moment with these bears. I used my 500 mm telephoto plus a 1.4X teleconverter and these images are heavily cropped, and I was glad I was far enough away that she seemingly felt okay about my presence. The sow finally got up and ambled down to the ground, the cubs right behind her.
She started eating various plants along the top edge of the canal as she slowly walked away. I stood up to get a better view (they were down in the thick stuff and I could hardly see the cubs at all) and she paused and looked my way, then turned and started grazing again. Just checking, I guess, to make sure I stayed put (which I did). She moved to where there is a land bridge from Bear Road to the corn field and walked across to the woods, her cubs following closely behind. I had stopped before that land bridge to allow them to pass undisturbed if they came out that way. It is important to not block potential pathways of these (or any other) animals so they have freedom to move without getting stressed.
After the bear family passed, I continued on down the road toward the distant corn field and almost immediately had another bear come out of the woods, so back down on the ground I went. By the way, I soon noticed that I was squatting and laying in grass that had poison ivy scattered throughout so I will undoubtedly pay the price for that any day now.
And I was pleased to then see two more tiny cubs trailing behind her.
These guys were a little smaller than the ones playing on the dirt pile and seemed a bit more cautious. They would come out, turn, and then go back in the woods, and then come out again. Mom had gone on across to the field occasionally giving a glance back to see where her cubs were. They came out again and made it almost across the road, then paused, looking intently for their mother.
They finally scurried into the field and disappeared in the tall corn although I could hear their grunts from across the canal. The mosquitoes started to get annoying and I was drenched in sweat, so I decided to head back to the car. I jumped a rabbit and almost stepped on a Bobwhite Quail on the way back, both things causing my heart to jump up in my throat. I finally saw another person walking my way and realized I had been lucky enough to have Bear Road to myself for over two hours! I saw a couple more bears on the drive out of the refuge and ended the day with 18 sightings, not a bad way to spend a day in spite of the heat.
After spending the night truck camping at Pettigrew State Park, I headed to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge early the next morning. Right away, I saw a few bears out in the soybean fields (the fields on this refuge are mainly soybean this year it seems, making it much easier to spot feeding bears than in tall corn). I also wanted to check out the fields where I thought people have been seeing the Red Wolf family. I drove to the east side of the refuge near the landfill and spotted a few cars pulled over with people standing around, a good sign. When I got out and asked, sure enough, they had a Red Wolf far out in the soybean field. It was sitting, backlit by the rising sun, its ears flopped to either side. The people said it had been hunting, jumping on unseen prey every now and then. I believe there are four pups with the pair of adult wolves, making this a very important part of the reintroduction efforts for this critically endangered species. The wolf eventually got up, wandered down the field and disappeared in a low spot. We waited around, swapping stories of wolves and bears, but the wolf did not reappear, so I eventually wandered off in search of more bears. I spotted one a ways down one of the dirt roads and turned to get a closer look. The bear was strolling down the road away from me, casually stopping to graze on plants, never looking back as I slowly drove toward it. I took my foot off the accelerator and very slowly drifted toward the bear until it finally turned, gave me a glance, and then continued on.
I held back at that point and it continued on another 50 yards or so before turning and walking into the thick pocosin vegetation. I always try to stay at a distance to where the bears are not changing their behavior. If they stop, I stop. If they look my way for very long, I sit and let them continue without following. Using a big telephoto allows me to photograph and observe them without stressing them out, which is especially important in this kind of weather.
After lunch, I went back to the fields where we had seen the wolf, and there were the same folks, plus another car, gathered a few hundred yards away from the first sighting. This appeared to be a different wolf, but it was way out (too far for a photo) in a soybean field hunting. When it stopped moving, it was really tough to see even wth binoculars. Even though it was so far away (several hundred yards), I took a few photos and when i enlarged them on the back of the camera, I could just make out the orange collar biologists have placed on the adult wolves. Black collars have been put on some resident coyotes that have been sterilized and left on the refuge to be placeholders and help prevent other coyotes from entering the range of the wolves. This helps reduce the chances of the wolves and coyotes breeding.
It was easy to spot bears out in the soybean fields and I soon spotted another sow with two tiny cubs. I parked along the main road and waited as she gradually walked toward my end of the field, teaching her cubs about the delicacies of these refuge croplands. She finally stopped and sat down and was feeding when she seemed to notice my vehicle. She looked my way and raised her head to sniff and see what was up. She apparently sensed no danger and continued feeding and eventually sauntered back the other direction. I drove off, happy to have seen 12 bears on this refuge, for a total of 30 bears in the one and a half days down east. Before leaving this refuge I also had encounters with Wild Turkey, two river Otter, and a young Barred Owl screeching constantly to be fed. It was right next to the road but in thick vegetation so I could not see it. I finally got a glimpse when one of the adults flew in with something and the youngster took flight to follow it for a meal.
Alligator River NWR is an easier place to view wildlife as the roads are in better shape than at Pungo (a different soil type I suppose, and they are mostly well-graveled). You have longer vistas to spot wildlife (plus the roadsides look like they are more frequently mowed). Being closer to the tourist hot spot of the Outer Banks no doubt helps justify more staff and expense for the education side of the refuge mission. The small group that gathered to watch the wolf hailed from 4 states – Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. All had been to this refuge in years past, and all had recently been over to the Pungo Unit as well (some for their first time). Obviously, word has gotten out about the wildlife here in our state. I hope we can continue to improve the visitor services on the refuges to make it easier for tourists to appreciate our pubic lands. This will also provide additional incentives for land managers and public officials to prioritize the protection of the incredible diversity of wildlife that people care about and are willing to spend their money to come see. This benefits the wildlife, the habitats, the people, and the local businesses, a definite win-win.