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If you go down to the woods today you're in for a big surprise...


lmSA84

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I've been meaning to write this trip report since June - but still better late then never! So here goes. 

 

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The title is inspired by my three year old who joined us on one our two game drives and celebrated seeing her first bear by trying to sing to it. 

 

There are some excellent reports on Safaritalk and elsewhere detailing how you can see Bears – Polar Bears in Churchill or Svalbard - Brown Bears in Alaska, Canada, Finland and elsewhere - Sloth Bears in India and Sri Lanka and even Spectacled Bears in Ecuador. But there isn’t really much on the world’s most numerous bear - the North American Black Bear.

 

Certainly, it seems that Yellowstone is a good option to see them with great sightings in several trip reports but I would suggest that maybe the most reliable destination for Black Bears  - is the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

 

Alligator River is a ~153,000 acre reserve near North Carolina’s Outer Banks coastline, which is itself famous with numerous attractions including the site of the Wright Brothers first flight, the Lost Colony, Pea Island National Refuge and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The 153,000 acres of the refuge are comprised of a mix of thick forest habitats, swamps and marshland with Pond Pine Shrub Pocosin being the most prominent habitat covering nearly a third of the reserve. Interspersed into these natural habitats are blocks of nearly 3,500 acres of cropland and it’s these croplands which are so useful from a wildlife viewing perspective.  

 

It seems odd to single out the cropland as being critical but they are the only open expanses in which one would have any hope of possibly being able to see a bear or really any animals.

My understanding is that the cropland was originally cleared by a farm called Prulean Farms, but their use of the land was challenged and today the land is actively maintained by the US FWS to provide food for resident and migratory wildlife. I share this last sentence with a bit of trepidation as like many US reserves hunting is permitted so whilst they claim it’s primarily to provide food it could also serve the hunters needs. :blink:

 

Still putting this aside what really makes Alligator River special is it’s wildlife including 145 species of birds and 40 species of mammal of which the two most prominent are the Black Bears and Red Wolves. The Red Wolves are a highly endangered species which the FWS are trying to re-establish in North Carolina. To date they have had mixed success and the probability of seeing them is very low.

 

The bears are another matter though! In total there are an estimated 230 bears on the reserve or one for ever ~650 acres and it’s not unusual to see 5 or more on a single game drive. I’ve even seen several trip reports with 12 or more!

 

The map on the below link does a great job of laying out the reserve. All of the roads marked with a solid line are accessible but the ones in red, particularly the Sawyer Lake Road are the hotspots. We saw 5 bears along this road in two short game drives.

 

https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pubs/All_river_tearsheet.pdf#a

 

The roads marked with a dashed lines are also accessible but only on special Ranger guided tours which leave every Wednesday evening. We didn’t have the chance to do one of these but I got the impression it would really helpful as many of the Bears which we saw were located near the Twiford Road which you can see marked on the map.

 

Drive 1

 

To be continued....

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Kitsafari

Love the title!!

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Atravelynn

Bears and gators.  What more can you ask for!

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 11/19/2019 at 3:24 AM, Atravelynn said:

Bears and gators.  What more can you ask for!

 @Atravelynn - I couldn't agree more! Although, funny enough Aligators are not easily seen on the reserve.

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Drive 1

 

Our first of two drives was in the afternoon of June 7th. I couldn't find many trip reports focused on Alligator River but those that I could find suggested that the normal rules apply - late afternoon and dawn are best. 

 

I didn't take many landscape shots on the afternoon drive so I'm going to borrow some from the following morning to illustrate the scene. Much of the reserve, is as below, with impenetrable swamp and forest closely hugging each one of the roads that traverse the park.

 

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The roads are then often flanked by small canals....

 

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...which contain wonderful collections of aquatic plants, insects and frogs.

 

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The reserve is a playground for snakes and the occasional alligator but we had no luck with those.

 

The only open areas of the reserves are created by the land cleared for crops and it was in this exact spot below that we saw our first bear!

 

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It seemed to be a young bear, hiding and munching the long grass in the field below the road. We never got a true clear view of him but my daughter loved seeing him and that's all that really counts.

 

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We carried on, going further down Sawyer Lake Road and in total saw another three bears. These bears appeared to be far bigger then the first bear but in each case they were far off near the Twiford Road - which is only accessible on the game ranger led drives.

 

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Our fourth bear would run right across the road in front of us but the moment it crossed the road it melted into the swamp.

 

As great as this day was, tomorrow would bring so much more.

 

Drive 2....

 

Edited by lmSA84
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  • 2 months later...

I apologize to all for the lack of progress on this report. I had hoped that when I started it I would be compelled to complete it quickly but life just keeps coming fast and hard. Still I hate the idea of leaving an incomplete report - even if it only needs a couple more entries.  

 

Drive 2

 

Drive 2 was really the highlight of our trip. The afternoon had served as a good appetizer but it was time for the main course. 

 

We arrived at the park at about 5.30 just as the sun was rising on a heavily overcast day. The light was subtle and a low mist clung to the ground. We entered the park via the Milltail Road and headed down Sawyer Road where all the action had been the day before.

 

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At first there was little on either side of the road but as we neared the third large field we saw two black shapes in the distant. As we neared them they took the shape of a big mom and her adolescent.

 

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As we approached the adolescent would soon cross the road in front of us and slip down into the field below.

 

Mom on the other hand was clearly a seasoned pro and let us approach quite close....

 

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...before she too decided to cross over and down to the fields

 

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Having crossed the road, mom and cub slowly continued to traverse the field beside us maybe 50-70m from the road

 

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As you can see in the above shot mom is making a b-line to the wooded grove beside the field. At the time we didn't know why but it some become clear. 

 

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She was headed to a clearly well used tree to get the type of relief that only a good back scratch will give you!

 

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"Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forgot about your worries and your strife...."

 

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Surely there can't be anything better for a bear! Or human for that matter

 

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Whilst mom was enjoying herself the cub carried along the field and popped out just in front of us

 

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Giving us wonderful close up views in the thick grass

 

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All in all it was a wonderful 30mins or so spent with these two beauties!

 

  

Edited by lmSA84
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It was now about 6.15 and the sun was starting to break through

 

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We reached the end of the Sawyer road and turned back to go explore the backside of the reserve in the hope of maybe...just maybe...finding the incredibly rare Red Wolf. I won't pretend though - we didn't!

 

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What we did find though was still worth it. First it started with a series of birding firsts for me including Ceder Waxwings, Red-headed Woodpecker and Blue Grosbeak

 

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As we carried on down through the backwaters of the reserve we came across another bear. This one appeared to be another adolescent - although more of a teenager then the one which we saw with it's mother.

 

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We slowly followed this bear for 20 or so minutes as it calmly walked down the road

 

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If we got too close it would turn around and let us know

 

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After a while it merged into the thick bush at the side of the road and it was time for us to head home to Grandma and Grandpa who were kindly looking after the kids. All in all the drive only lasted 2-3hrs but we saw three bears really well and a host of new birds. If anyone is in the Carolina's I would highly recommend a trip to Alligator River

 

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Kitsafari

Lovely little woods and big bears! I'm unlikely to be anywhere near alligator river in person. so thanks for taking me along on your trip.

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Thanks for this report. We have gone by there many times but I've never been able to convince my wife to take the time to drive into the refuge. Perhaps this will change her mind :D. And my brother-in-law believes he saw a bobcat in the refuge, but from the picture he took I think the identification is doubtful.

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@jeffb - you absolutely should! I was really surprised how easy it was to see the bears. If you went in the early morning and late afternoon you would only need a few hours and it would absolutely be worth it

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5 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

Lovely little woods and big bears! I'm unlikely to be anywhere near alligator river in person. so thanks for taking me along on your trip.

 @Kitsafari - it's the least I can do after your brilliant 2019BY

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Zubbie15

Thanks for sharing this, definitely somewhere to keep in mind the next time we're in the area. The density and ease of seeing the bears is really appealing. 

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