My second consecutive weekend camping on the coast included a black bear-filled day at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR on the mainland and a bird-filled day at Pea Island NWR on the OBX.
Part 1: Bears (Friday 10/12)
The primary goal of this weekend outing was to observe black bears on the Pamlico-Albemarle peninsula. I’ve been to Alligator River NWR and Pocosin Lakes NWR (Pungo Unit) 5 or 10 times over the last few years, but have never seen any bears, much to my disappointment. Believe it or not, I have actually never seen a single black bear anywhere in my life. So, when Mike Dunn (roadsendnaturalist.com) recommended I visit North Lake Road at Pungo, and suggested that any time other than winter (the time of year I typically head east) was best for bears, I took his advice and began my trip planning.
I arrived at Pungo mid-afternoon, and saw my first black bear almost immediately upon arriving at the North Lake Road gate—so far, so good! I spent the rest of the afternoon on a leisurely hike down the road (foot traffic only), encountering many more bears and a respectable number of birds and butterflies along the way. It’s a hair-raising experience to find a mother bear with a cub walking down a one-lane road straight at you, with a pocosin swamp on one side and a dense forest on the other (i.e., nowhere to run/hide). Fortunately, these bears were wary, and disappeared off the road before either of us got too close for comfort. Two exceptions: one inquisitive mother bear standing between me and my car (pictured below) and another bear on the road, which scurried up a tree as I slowly approached from the safety of my car (also pictured). All in all, I saw 18 black bears that afternoon, including 3 mama bears with 6 cubs, plus 41 species of birds (including a mid-afternoon Eastern Screech Owl, a state bird for me) and 7 species of butterflies (including a Southern Pearly-eye, a lifer for me).
First, a gallery of bear photos:
And here are some non-bear photos:
Part 2: Birds (Saturday 10/13)
I had originally planned to spend Saturday kayaking Lake Mattamuskeet and Sunday birding Pea Island. However, a rare bird alert received late Friday afternoon via listserv email caused me to modify my course and head straight to the OBX after my bear adventure concluded. This worked out well, as my campsite at the Oregon Inlet Campground was undoubtedly better than sleeping in my car somewhere near Mattamuskeet. And compared to last weekend’s camping at Shackleford Banks—which involved trying to sleep in the 87 degree heat index—camping this weekend in the mid-60s was considerably more comfortable.
So, the birds: My main target was a Common Ringed Plover reported Friday afternoon at Pea Island NWR. Of course, the word “common” in its name is relative: it is indeed common in Western Europe (it’s basically the Semipalmated Plover of Europe), while it is exceptionally uncommon in the Americas (this is only the second recorded sighting in North Carolina). Here’s a related fun fact: of approximately 21 birds with the word “common” in their name that might be found in North America, only 9 or so can reliably be seen in North Carolina, and a few of those are undoubtedly uncommon.
I’d like to note that I am not the type of birder who drops what he is doing to go chase a rarity across the state. Although there is nothing wrong with this approach, I find that avoiding chasing is better for my mental health and my long-term enjoyment of the hobby. However, when an exceptionally good bird is close by, and when I’m already out on a coastal birding adventure, I will micro-chase without reservation.
Anyway, back to the story: Arriving at Pea Island around dawn, I joined a group of very experienced birders, who got on the bird without hesitation. Mediocre looks and photos at the break of dawn were followed by decent looks and photos mid-morning, which were followed by exceptional looks and photos later in the morning. It was quite an event, with a rotating cast of characters (many serious birders that I’d never met before, as well as some familiar faces).
Birding Pea Island all morning was really productive, with 63 species, including lots of good ones like Peregrine Falcon (state bird), Merlin, American Avocet, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Dowitcher (technically a lifer, as I finally felt confident about a species-level ID when these birds vocalized), American White Pelican, an enormous group of Caspian Terns, and a solid mix dabbling ducks, waders, and migrant passerines, including an adult White-crowned Sparrow.
After a few generally unremarkable afternoon stops, myself and two other piedmont-based birders tried Alligator River NWR. It was pretty quiet, but we found some interesting birds, including an American Kestrel (falcon #3 for the day!) and at least two swallows that were either CAVE or perhaps cliff swallows (I didn’t get good enough looks or photos to confidently call them Caves, as much as I’d like to), which may have been brought from the Caribbean by the recent Hurricane Michael.
Part 3: Conclusion
I decided to sleep another night at the Oregon Inlet Campground, and birded the Bodie Island Lighthouse area in the early morning. Interestingly, compared to the thousands of ducks on the Pea Island impoundments, the Bodie Island pond had a total of zero ducks or other birds. I largely struck out on migrant warblers, but nonetheless had a decent morning with 38 species, including a Merlin, a Wilson’s Snipe, a (sort of) photo-cooperative Clapper Rail, lots of Marsh Wrens, >18 Northern Flickers, and a young White-crowned Sparrow.
All in all, it was a great two-night camping trip, with lots of bears (only one species) and thousands of birds (across 113 species, including 4 state birds and 2 lifers). I didn’t end up using the kayak that I had lugged all the way to the coast, but that’s okay. I’ll make a dedicated kayaking trip to Mattamuskeet next fall, and hopefully I won’t get pulled away to the OBX by another European vagrant!