Pungo Reflections – Forest

Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares that will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering…observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.

~Maya Angelou

Looking up through the trees at Pungo

Looking up through the trees at Pungo (click photos to enlarge)

It was certainly too cold for ants on my last trip, but not for enjoying the treetops. On my trips with clients I often feel the pressure to keep moving, to cover as much of the refuge as possible to increase our chances of seeing wildlife. When I have my own Pungo Time, I tend to wander and linger in an area for longer, just observing. I enjoy being a woods-watcher, looking closely at the details of a place, listening, sitting quietly and letting nature come to me. The forests of Pungo are challenging – there are relatively few places you can walk in them during the winter waterfowl season as many areas are closed to minimize human disturbance to wildlife. Other areas are so dense or so wet as to make walking next to impossible. But, there are a few paths where you can stroll along a dirt road next to the woods and peek in and see what is, or has been, going on in the forest.

Bald Eagle in dead tree at sunrise

Bald Eagle in dead tree at swan impoundment at sunrise

Of course, I also survey the edges of the forest as I am driving the refuge roads, and these trees, especially dead snags, are often quite productive. Bald Eagles like to perch in large trees at the edges of impoundments or fields where waterfowl congregate. Here, they can survey the scene in the hopes of spotting a weakling in the flock that might make an easy meal.

Turkey Vulture on dead tree

Turkey Vulture in early morning light

One section of forest edge has also been good for vultures early and late in the day, so I assume they have been roosting in this spot this winter. Even at some distance, their silhouettes can be distinguished from those of eagles because of their somewhat hunched appearance and the way they tend to hold their heads at a downward angle. If you can get a beak profile in your binoculars you can definitely discern the difference between the two species since an eagles’ beak appears much stronger and more massive.

Bears must love the sap and cambium of Sweet Gum trees

Bears must love the sap and cambium of Sweet Gum trees

After an early morning drive through the refuge, I decided to head down one of my favorite paths and spend some time along the edge of the forest. This area is well known for the population of Black Bears that frequent the corn fields and associated woodland borders. There is so much bear sign here – almost every large tree has claw marks from scratching or climbing. Large Sweet Gum trees are particularly susceptible to bear activity and many show scars where bears have torn off sections of bark near the base. There are usually vertical teeth marks and often some horizontal claw marks. I think the bears must be going after the sweet sap and perhaps the cambium layer of these trees. It looks like this past year (I assume it happens mainly in spring when the sap is rising) has been a particularly busy one for bears with a sweet tooth. Surprisingly, I see most of these trees surviving years after this happens.

Bear puling at Cross Vine

Young Black Bear standing next to tree

On a recent trip, I encountered a young bear as he was standing up against a large tree near the forest edge. I have seen this same young Black Bear several times this season in this same general area. But here he was apparently hugging a tree as if he wanted to climb it but was hesitant. He really paid me little mind but rather seemed more interested in something on the tree.

Bear puling at Cross Vine 1

Bear puling at vine on tree

As I watched, I could see him sniff, then start mouthing something just out of my view around the trunk of the tree. It really wasn’t until I put down the camera and looked with binoculars that I could tell what it was – he was pulling at a Crossvine, a common semi-evergreen native vine of this area, and one I blogged about in 2013.

Bear puling at Cross Vine 3

Bear puling at Crossvine

The bear walked part-way around the tree trunk, yanking and pulling the vine.

Bear puling at Cross Vine close up

Bear eating Crossvine leaf

Once he got some of it down, he pulled it back around and stood up and appeared to eat a few of the leaves. Seems like a lot of effort for little reward to me, and, while I have heard deer will eat the leaves, I had not heard of bears eating them. But, young bears are particularly curious, so, even though there was a field of corn less than 200 feet away, this was perhaps a more pleasant way to spend some time while trying new things. On my next visit, I took my clients to this area, hoping to see the young bear again. Instead, we were privileged to spend some quality time quietly observing a mother bear with her two young cubs. The next day I went back to this area with high hopes for bears.

Looking up at the bear

A young Black Bear sleeping in a tree

After walking a short distance I caught something out of the corner of my eye up in a large Tulip Poplar tree along the edge. Sure enough, it was the same young Black Bear I had seen on a few previous trips. This time, he seemed to be sound asleep high in a tree.

Looking back at me

Looking back at me

When I walked around the tree for a closer look, the bear gave me one as well, peering down to see what was rustling leaves beneath its bed.

Sleeping bear

The young bear finally turned around and was in the sun

Not wanting to disturb its sleep, I went back around to the sunny side of the tree and waited. After about twenty minutes, the bear moved a bit, stood up, turned so its head was on my side of the tree, and laid back down.

Waking up

Waking up

Another ten minutes went by as I watched the bear doze off and then open one eye to glance around. Finally, it raised up, checked on my whereabouts, and began to groom.

Time to groom

Time to groom

It apparently doesn’t take too long to ready yourself for an afternoon out in the forest (about 8 minutes for this bear after waking up). The short video below shows a few of the bear’s primping techniques.

During that time, the bear raised up, laid down, chewed its paws and belly, scratched a few times, and looked pretty relaxed while accomplishing all of this about 40 feet off the ground. The screechy sounds you hear in the video are from thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds that were sitting in nearby treetops. How did that bear sleep through all that?

Coming down

Coming down

Finally, about 40 minutes after I first spotted the bear sleeping in a tree, it decided to climb down to spend time foraging on the forest floor below. That was my signal for me to move on and let the bear go about its business. I don’t want this young bear to become too comfortable around people, so I thought it better to let it be.

Napping Raccoon

Another tree napper

I walked less than a hundred yards and noticed a well-camouflaged blob in a tree- this time a young Raccoon. I frequently advise clients to keep an eye out for sleeping Raccoons on our winter walks. I have found two others this winter, but they were both crammed into what seemed like uncomfortable positions in cracks and crevices of hollow trees. This one was out in the open, resting in the fork of a large tree trunk. I have noticed over the years that Raccoons like to sleep out in the open more on cold days with lots of sunshine and little wind.

Looking down at me

Looking down at me

Like the bear, this little guy also had its best side toward me, so I walked around to look up and, once again, the tree-napper looked down the trunk at me.

Turning around

The Raccoon turns around and faces the sun after being awakened

The young Raccoon slowly turned around and then began the same pattern of afternoon preparations that the nearby bear had done – a sequence of grooming. But, apparently, it takes a Raccoon a lot longer than a bear to get ready to head out.

Raccoon scratching 1

This little guy had a lot of itches

Twist and turn

You sometimes really have to reach to get that itch

I sat and watched the Raccoon take care of business for 45 minutes.

Yawning

The big yawn

After all that, we were both a little tired, so I decided to continue on. I could hear the Tundra Swans and Snow Geese out on the lake starting to stir, so I headed back out into the open where I could more clearly view another component of this amazing habitat – the sky.

Sunset sky and lone pine

And the sky did not disappoint (more on that in the next post). The pink sky directed me to my car after what had been an incredible day at Pungo. A lone pine provided a stark silhouette to guide me back. It reminded me of a quote I found some time ago by an unknown author…

The young pine knows the secrets of the ground, the old pine knows the stars.

The old trees also know the habits of many of the forests’ wild creatures, and at least one woods-watcher on this day, one who is very grateful for the presence of these stately trees, and for the company they keep.

 

 

Scrambled Eggs

The name “raccoon” is drawn from the Algonquian term “arakun” and roughly translates to “he who scratches with his hands”.

~Samuel I. Zevelof, in Raccoons: A Natural History

Between the Bobcat and the Black Bear cubs the other day, I had another interesting wildlife encounter. Most of the dusty miles of gravel roads at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge are accompanied on at least one side, by many miles of canals. These dark waterways are home to a diversity of wildlife including substantial populations of aquatic turtles (mainly Yellow-bellied Sliders and Painted Turtles). Driving along on a sunny day reveals many turtles basking on the canal banks or lined up on any partially submerged log. Last Monday, there were plenty of turtles basking, plus two crossing the road, and one was even laying eggs in a shallow nest in the gravel road. I thought that was a poor choice for a nest location, but, shortly thereafter, I saw that choosing a good nest site is probably not easy in this predator-rich environment.

Raccoon crossing road

Raccoon crossing road (click photos to enlarge)

Driving around a curve, I spotted a female Raccoon scurrying across the road. She ended up in a grassy area near the junction of two roads and their neighboring canals. I quickly pulled over, expecting her to just disappear into the brush, but she had other things on her mind.

Raccoon sniffing in grass

Raccoon sniffing in grass

She moved quickly along the back edge of the opening, swinging her head and sniffing, pausing every now and then when she smelled something interesting.

Raccoon digging

Raccoon digging

Suddenly, she stopped, spun around a couple of times with her nose to the ground, and began digging with those incredibly dexterous front paws. If you have ever seen their distinctive tracks in the mud, you know their front paws resemble tiny human hands, without an opposable thumb. One reference stated that the front paws contain four times the touch receptors as there are in their hind feet. Plus, a Raccoon’s brain supposedly has a major portion of the cerebral cortex devoted to these paws and the sense of touch.

Raccoon eating turtle egg 1

Raccoon removing something from the hole she has just dug

After digging for about a minute, she hunched over a bit more and then gingerly lifted something out of the hole – an egg, a turtle egg. She held it between her paws, not grabbing it with the “fingers” as I expected, but holding it cupped in her paws like we would hold a tennis ball if our fingers were taped together. She gently roiled it into her mouth and began to chew.

Raccoon eating turtle egg lifting its head

She lifted her head as she manipulated each egg in her mouth

As she chewed, she lifted her head, and it looked as if she was moving the egg around inside her mouth to get the contents out, perhaps without swallowing the egg shell (which, in a turtle, is somewhat leathery instead of brittle like a bird egg). This routine was followed for each egg dug out of the hole.

Raccoon eating turtle egg 1

Holding an egg to get the last drop of goodness out

She manipulated each egg for 15 to 30 seconds, then her head would drop back down,  and she would pick up another egg and move it to her mouth. Her head was always low when she first got the egg, and then she would always raise it as she extracted the yolk.

Raccoon eating turtle egg

Raccoon pulling out the last egg from the turtle nest

She finally ate the last egg, looked over at me, and started walking back across the road. It was as if she knew she might get a meal in that spot and had made a quick run to the store to pick up a few things and was now heading home. And I’m betting she has had success in that location the past. Favorable turtle nesting sites are hard to come by in a swamp, which is what most of the land is around that road juncture. This wide grassy patch has probably served as a turtle nesting area for years, and the local Raccoon population has learned to periodically check it for the possibility of an egg breakfast.

Raccoon face with deer fly

The Raccoon was not the only one getting a meal

When I later looked at the image of her after she ate the last egg, I saw that she was not the only one getting a meal at that moment. In fact, in almost every image I took that day, I could see one or more biting flies somewhere in the image. She has one above her left eye in the photo above. And a close look at one of the earlier photos will show a tick in her left ear. Everything needs to eat I suppose.

Raccoon-raided turtle nest

Raccoon-raided turtle nest

After she departed, I walked over to inspect the nest. I have seen this crime scene many times after the fact, but this was the first time I have witnessed the egg thief in action. There were 8 egg shells scattered about the hole. Sliders may lay two or three clutches per year of up to 15 or more eggs, so there are plenty of chances for a little one to at least hatch, although there are still a lot of predators to get past before becoming a fairly well-protected adult turtle in one of these canals. Meanwhile, that female Raccoon is probably returning to a tree to gather her family of babies after a good breakfast. As always, I am thankful to have been there to witness part of the cycle.