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Breakfast with the Bears

May 14, 2014

Wednesday, May 14

Today we woke up before early, before the sun’s rays could turn even Dr. Butler into a strawberry Starburst. If you drove through these fields and swamps at a normal hour you would never know that there are an average of 4.5 black bears per acre, the highest density of bears in North Carolina. We, however, saw three. The first two stood up out of a wheat field to peer at the excited bipeds in vans. The third one couldn’t be bothered. It was a massive beast. Our estimates ranged from 400 to 650 pounds. It was standing in the path we had intended to walk down. The presence of the vans barely seemed to register with it as it walked slowly away. We waited another twenty minutes before walking down the trail ourselves and checked the bushes frequently as we did so.


An apt gate keeper, a bear greets us at the entrance to “bear road”. The chainlink barrier this bear was standing behind is about three feet off the ground.

If you had asked James on Monday whether he would watch an enormous bear amble down a road and then walk down that road himself without knowing where the bear was he would have said, “Call the bear now and tell him I won’t be around.” Now he says it was a great experience. Nobody hesitated when the time came to walk down Bear Road.

Knowing that a large bear had walked down the trail, we expected to see tracks, but not in the numbers that we found — and not just bears but coyotes (perhaps red wolves, it’s very hard to tell from tracks), raccoons, deer, and opossums. The tracks showed us the size of the bears (very large to small cubs) and their direction. We walked down the road and down part of a bear trail. The trees at the side of the trail were marked with deep scratches showing other bears how large the bear who made them was (way larger than Mera, even according to Mera). However, no bears were around to be seen. It was hot, and they were likely resting somewhere deep in the shade.

We used plaster to cast some of the tracks, a technique that allows tracks to be recorded and examined later. Everyone was walking down the trail searching for the largest bear track to cast. The largest front foot tracks were larger than James’ self-described sizable hand. (“My hand is pretty big,” James says. “No it’s not,” Mera replies, rolling her eyes in a master-class expression of disdain. “Bigger than your face!” James replies.)


A bear footprint. The fine sand and mud along the roads at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge makes the perfect medium for preserving tracks!

After lunch we visited the Red Wolf Recovery Center and talked with Dr. Becky Harrison of the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). Red wolves are a species of wolf separate from the gray wolf most people are familiar with. Red wolves are also extremely endangered, having actually gone extinct in the wild at one point. Captive-bred red wolves from zoos were first reintroduced into the wilds of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and have expanded in number and range. We learned about the wolves and the recovery effort from the project’s assistant director who talked with us while standing in front of an enclosure containing a pair of red wolves. One of the issues facing the red wolf recovery is interbreeding with coyotes. When a wolf and a coyote pair up, the project sterilizes the coyote so that no hybrids will be produced but the wolf’s territory will still be defended. We also saw furs from both coyotes and wolves to show us the difference in size and color. Red wolves are larger than coyotes and frequently, but not always, redder. The live wolves in the enclosure were cautious at first but eventually came over to the fence to look us over.


Dr. Becky Harrison, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, talks to us about her ongoing work with the Red Wolf Recovery Program

Red wolf camouflaged in the woods.

Can you find the red wolf?

We arrived back at the camping site earlier than yesterday and James, Mera, Shaliek, Megan, and Dr. Butler went for a short walk to cast more tracks. On the walk we found (and Megan caught for us) the same juvenile rat snake we saw yesterday. This time, we took the opportunity to more closely examine (and practice safely handling) this tiny snake.

James got to not only touch, but hold his very first snake — this tiny juvenile rat snake. Its small scales were so smooth!

(Megan caught, ascertained behavior, and gauged safety), and then James got to not only touch, but hold his very first snake — this tiny juvenile rat snake. Its small scales were so smooth!


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