Summer is Bear Time

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.

A good start to my trip, a large male bear coming out of a corn field within two minutes of my arrival at the refuge (click photos to enlarge)

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.

Young bear finally looks my way as it wandered down Bear Road

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 notices something in the field across the canal

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!

Sow with one of her three cubs on top of a dirt pile

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.

A cub paws at mom’s face as she tolerates its antics

The piles of dirt had a lot of mounds and swales and I soon saw two other cubs frolicking in the dirt.

Two cubs wrestling

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.

The sow checks on me as she grazed the vegetation along the canal

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.

As mom strolled over to the trees, the cubs were following close behind her
The straggler

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.

Another bear comes out of the forest

And I was pleased to then see two more tiny cubs trailing behind her.

Two more cubs following their mom out of the woods (note another bear coming out of the woods on the left side of the road way beyond the cubs)

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.

Where did she go?

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.

The bear finally turned around to see what was following him, and then continued on down the road, grazing as it went

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.

A mother bear teaching her two cubs the fine art of soybean cuisine

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.

They’re Back and All is Right with the World

Birds have always had the ability to bring me out of a dark space and provide relief in bad times.

~Jason Ward

You may have noticed I have fallen way behind in my musings on the natural world this past month. I still haven’t even finished posting about our last road trip back in October! I guess there have been a lot of distractions lately (for all of us) – some good, some stressful. We are lucky to live in a place where we can connect on a daily basis with the beauty of nature so that has helped. But here lately, it has been too easy to get involved in some chore outdoors or a minor repair on the house, so it was good to have an excuse earlier this week to help travel back to my favorite wild place in North Carolina…Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Melissa needed to test the feasibility of doing a remote broadcast for a museum program being planned for early December on some of the wonders of winter wildlife found on our coastal wildlife refuges. Limited cell phone service throughout the region would be the challenge and it requires a lot of gear and coordination with her co-workers, so she asked me to help. The plan was to hit both the Pungo Unit and Lake Mattamuskeet and try to broadcast live images and sound back to folks in Raleigh via Zoom. We would camp overnight in our trusty truck at Pettigrew State Park, to enable us to get both a sunset and sunrise to maximize our chances for seeing wildlife.

Canid tracks (most likely a Red Wolf based on their size) at the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

We arrived at Pungo mid-morning and drove toward the observation platform to check on the swans and the cell signal (not my usual combo on these trips). Melissa soon spotted some tracks in the sandy road and they turned out to be those of a large canid, most likely a Red Wolf, one of only one or two believed to still roam the refuge. Unfortunately, there was no service at the platform, but we could see swans far across the lake.

Tundra Swans have returned to Eastern North Carolina for another winter

The next stop was Marsh A, a managed impoundment that has been a hot spot for swans for many years and so it is again this winter. The signal here was weak and it kept dropping during the test, which is unfortunate because the birds were putting on a great show of both sights and sounds.

Black Bear sow and cubs far across the field

Our next stop was “Bear Road” which had a couple of other groups with cameras and long lenses out looking for bruins. They reported seeing a few that morning, and we soon spotted one, and then several, all far across the field. We did have a weak signal here and could send images, but the lack of swans and the great distances and unpredictability of seeing bears may make this location less than ideal for the broadcast. Of course, while we were focused on the bears off in the distance, I forgot one of the main lessons you learn about the bears at Pungo….always look behind you. Sure enough, a bear had come out of the woods behind us (quite close according to other people on the road) and walked away from us toward a path that leads over to the adjacent cornfield. When I turned and saw it, I managed a few seconds of video before it disappeared into the canal and up into the tall cornstalks of its dining room.

A bear heads for the corn across the canal (this is a screen capture from a video clip); note the photographer down the road looking back at the bear and us

We headed back to Marsh A hoping for a better signal since that spot provided the best bet for a sure wildlife moment for the broadcast. We drove along, checking our phone signal strength at various spots, but it was still weak and somewhat variable. Toward one end, I suddenly heard the distinctive bugling call of a Trumpeter Swan (it reminds me of a clown car horn from the cartoons) mixed in with the cacophony of Tundra Swan oo-oo-oo’s and hoots. For the past several winters, we have seen a few of these magnificent birds, the largest of our native waterfowl, at either Mattamuskeet or Pungo. I started scanning the seemingly endless sea of white necks and heads looking for the less discernible bill traits of a Trumpeter Swan (larger and straighter than that of a Tundra Swan and their eye is usually not distinctly separate from the bill as those of a Tundra Swan). I finally found one swimming and honking in the mix. I kept trying to make others nearby into trumpeters, but can’t say for sure, even after looking at my images. Trumpeters are larger than Tundra Swans (as much as a foot more wing span and up to 10 pounds heavier on average), but that is tough to tell in the field. Plus, to make matters more difficult, Tundra Swans can vary quite a bit in bill size, eye position, and whether they do or don’t have the usually diagnostic yellow patch on the bill near the eye. For more details on distinguishing between the two species, see this link.

A Trumpeter Swan (the bird on the right facing left)

Mid-day on our second day, we drove over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge to scout for birds (and cell service). The problem with Mattamuskeet (as far as video or photography is concerned) is the lighting is very bad (harsh back-lighting) on the impoundment along Wildlife Drive for most of the day. There certainly are a variety of birds that are easily seen, but finding a good spot for the broadcast was a challenge, although in general, there is a better signal for sending images over most of the accessible parts of the refuge. We found a nice variety of birds and other wildlife and are now thinking that this may be the best spot for the program. The next few images show some of the highlights of the couple of hours spent at Mattamuskeet. One nice surprise we found that I didn’t have a chance to photograph was an American Bittern that flushed from the side of the boardwalk in the cypress swamp.

A juvenile Anhinga bobbed its head as we drove across the canal bridge
A huge Golden Orb Weaver along the boardwalk
A vertical pano of the cypress swamp along the boardwalk lends a strange curvature to the trees
Bald Cypress needles carpet the water surface

Our last stop was a return to Pungo, hoping to get some more bear footage. When we arrived at the spot, there were already 4 cars parked at the gate, so we decided to skip the bears and spend the rest of the day at Marsh A enjoying the sights and sounds of the elegant swans. Late in the day on both of our afternoons, the swans starting taking off in large numbers from Marsh A, presumably heading out to nearby fields for their last feeding of the day. With so many birds head bobbing (they usually do this as a prelude to take-off) and slapping their feet across the water to get airborne, I can’t resist the urge to capture some lift-off moments. The answer to Melissa’s question of How many pictures of swans taking off do you need? is…there’s never enough.

Looking forward to returning in a couple of weeks for the program (and hoping technology and weather will cooperate). Information and registration for the upcoming NC Museum of Natural Sciences virtual program on winter waterfowl in this region (which targets a family audience, including young children) is on their web site here.

The energetic take-off of a swan trailing behind one that left splashes in its wake
A pair of swans seem coordinated in their take-off
After a long run and much flapping, a successful lift-off in the golden light of sunset

Return to Pungo

There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.

~Bill Waterson

This past Thursday evening, Melissa participated in a Science Cafe hosted by her workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. She joined a couple of other staff that had been authors of chapters in a book released this spring entitled, 30 Great North Carolina Science Adventures, edited by April C. Smith. Melissa had written a chapter on one of her favorite places, the Lower Roanoke River. I enjoyed watching the Cafe and learning more about the book from April. I had also written a chapter for the book on two of my favorite outdoor areas in our incredibly diverse state – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges (no surprise there to any of you that read this blog regularly). For a great overview of some fabulous natural areas to visit across North Carolina, I highly recommend this book (and we don’t receive anything for plugging it as it was all done on a volunteer basis).

As it turns out, I decided a couple of days before the Science Cafe that it was high time I visited my favorite place in North Carolina again. So, I headed east to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). My last trip was in late January so I was way overdue for a day in the wilds of eastern North Carolina. Summer is a great time to see bears, so I was hoping to spend some time observing them as they feed in the crop fields and as new mamas teach their rambunctious cubs the ways of the world. Melissa had to work, so it was just me, with no agenda other than to hang out and enjoy the beauty of this special place.

I didn’t get as early a start as I had hoped, so it was almost 10 a.m. when i drove into the refuge. But, it was only 5 minutes down a dirt road that I had my first bear encounter. I didn’t get a photo (unfortunate, because it was a beautiful bruin) because it was a bear that stood up across the canal as I drove by, then retreated back into the corn when I stopped.

Soon, I was seeing clouds (or maybe cloudlets) of butterflies – primarily two species, Sleepy Oranges and Zebra Swallowtails. As I have mentioned before, this refuge, and nearby Pettigrew State Park, are two of the best places in North Carolina to see one of my favorite butterflies, the Zebra Swallowtail. They are abundant here because of the large stands of their host plant, Pawpaw, in the understory.

Zebra Swallowtail on scat (click photos to enlarge)
Zebra Swallowtails on scat gathering minerals. They were also puddling in muddy spots along many of the dirt roads.

My next bear was one I spotted down the road ambling toward me when I turned a corner. It was a few hundred yards away, so I pulled over under an overhanging limb as far off the road as I could (which wasn’t that far) and got out and sat in front of the car. This was a large bear, most likely a male, and he sniffed the ground and nearby vegetation as he slowly made his way toward me.

A large bear walking down West Lake Road

When he was about 100 yards out, he suddenly realized that something was in his path (my car) and he stood up to get a better look. Impressive! The heat waves made for a slightly soft image with my telephoto lens, but I always love to see these magnificent animals stand to check things out. He did this two more times as he walked and then decided that, yeah, that is something up there, and headed into the vegetation. When viewing the images at home, I saw something I had not noticed in the field. Another bear crossed the road far behind the one I was watching, and I was so intent on photographing this big guy, that I missed it.

The big bear shows just how big it is when it stands to check me out

Each winter, I spend hours at a particular marsh impoundment on the southwest corner of Pungo Lake observing the thousands of Tundra Swans and other waterfowl that rest and feed in its shallow waters. This time of year, that area is packed with water lilies, frogs, and wading birds like egrets and herons.

Great Egret stalking its prey
There were several Immature Little Blue Herons in the wetland. They are noticeably smaller then the Great Egrets and have a dark tip to their bill. They will attain their grayish-blue adult plumage next year

The marsh and roadside canals are also home to thousands of dragonflies. I noted 6 species while driving along – Halloween Pennant, Needham’s Skimmer, Blue Dasher, Great Blue Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, and Slaty Skimmer.

The colorful Halloween Pennant typically perches atop a tall grass or stick
A female (or immature male) Needham’s Skimmer
One of the most abundant dragonflies at Pungo, a Blue Dasher

Around 3 p.m., I headed to North Lake Road. A fawn grazed along the roadside until I got too close, then vanished in the tall grasses. I parked and started strolling down the path that I have walked hundreds of times in the past 35 years. I was lucky, there were no other cars at the gate, so I had the walk to myself (an increasingly rare event). One of the things I like most about Pungo is the quiet, the almost total lack of human sounds (most days).

Large fawn grazing roadside grasses

The soybeans and corn are at their peak now, so a bear can easily disappear in the crops or the tall roadside vegetation. It was hard to keep an eye out for the large critters when there were so many small ones all around me on the path. Butterflies, lizards, songbirds, and even a Bald Eagle accompanied me as I walked.

Sleepy Orange butterfly
Common Checkered Skipper

After taking a few butterfly pictures using a telephoto, I looked up the road and saw a bear headed my way. I sat down as the bear stopped to scratch and look around. It was visibly panting from the heat and definitely had an itch as it would walk a few steps, then stop and scratch. It walked from side to side in the road, sniffing, scratching, and occasionally nibbling at vegetation. Finally, it wandered off the path and into the woods. I waited, hoping it would return, but, after a few minutes, I continued my stroll.

The itchy bear

I stopped to look at some tracks in a mud puddle, and when I stood back up, I saw a bear coming out of the woods behind me. I got down on my knees and the bear caught my movement and stood up. I thought it might be the itchy bear, but it stared for a few seconds, then slowly lowered itself and went back into the trees. Again, I waited…

A bear stands to investigate that thing that just moved (me)

The wind was in my favor so I was hopeful. About a minute passed, and I saw the dark head of a bear coming back out. But now, she had two little ones trailing her.

The mother bear brought her two little ones out

She sniffed, looked in my direction, and headed down the road away from me, the cubs tightly on her heels. Twice, she stood and looked back, presumably making sure that blob in the road was not a threat to her little ones. She finally led her cubs into the canal and across to the corn field and disappeared for her evening meal. Again, after looking at the sequence of images, I saw a bear I had missed seeing (the dark blob in the photo below) cross the road way beyond the mother and cubs.

Mother bear checking the scene. Notice the dark blob way down the road behind her

After that encounter, I continued down the road until I was a little over a mile from my car. I sat for about 30 minutes and watched and listened. No bears, but a satisfying peacefulness that comes from being in a wild place by yourself. On my way back, frogs started calling, and the phenomenal big sky of the flat lands of eastern North Carolina put on a colorful show as developing thunderheads were tinted pink and orange by the setting sun.

A bear pokes its head up out of the soybeans as I walked by

A couple of hundred yards from the car, I noticed something dark in the soybeans. It was the top of a bear’s head. The bear swung its head around, nose pointed up, mouth open, sniffing the air. I stood still, hoping it would stand. But, it just sat there, panting and sniffing, occasionally turning more towards me, but seemingly unaware of my presence. The air was still and I was at least partially hidden behind some tall goldenrod. After several minutes, I was surprised when another bear stood up behind the one I was watching.

Suddenly, another bear stands up

After a few looks around, it dropped and disappeared in the soybeans. Finally, the first bear stood up, glanced back and forth, and sat back down. That one moment in good light was a great way to end the day. I shouldered the tripod and camera and headed back to the car for the long drive home.

This beautiful bear finally stood up to give my last photo of the day

The standing bears and seeing the cubs were definitely highlights of the day. I ended up seeing 6 cubs for the day, 21 bears in total (I’m not counting those two I did not see until I reviewed images at home). Along with the birds, butterflies, and serenity, it was a pretty good return to Pungo. It felt good to be back.

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 tree (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 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 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 ( 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:


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


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


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