Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Black Bear

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is not what you’d think. Alligators are rare and black bears are common.  The biggest black bears in the world, in fact.  It’s on an old military bombing range, parts of which are still closed to the public formed to preserve a unique wetland habitat called the pocosin. These bogs occur in broad, low-lying shallow basins with no drainage and have sandy peat soil and woody shrubs throughout.  Essentially they are nutrient-deficient, mucky wetlands.  Not exactly what we think of as bear habitat.

Last year, I’d heard about the black bears in the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula on the coast of North Carolina.  “How is it that I’m just learning this now?” I mused.  I researched and found that these bears don’t hibernate because there is ample food year-round. That’s how they get so enormous.  I immediately planned a trip.

The Refuge

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is also home to river otters and the last remaining population of critically endangered red wolves in the world.  The refuge encompasses 152,000 acres of cropland, marshes, bogs, and swamps.  Many of the agricultural fields are flooded through a canal system each spring and fall to provide habitat for migrating waterfowl.

First Look

We arrived on a Thursday evening in mid-April (2019), got settled into our Air BnB in Mateo, and took an evening drive through the refuge. Water-filled roadside ditches (canals) provide habitat for all sorts of wildlife; wood ducks, shy great blue herons, white egrets, water snakes, muskrat, and turtles.  Driving slowly, looking out both sides of the car, we were able to see a lot of wildlife in our slow-moving blind.  Most of the animals seem used to the traffic.  A stopped vehicle, however, is cause for concern.

We drove the mazes of hard-packed gravel main roads and soft, sandy backroads looking and listening.  In an open field, a tom turkey strutted in full display in front of three hens who couldn’t be less interested. Turkeys Deep into the refuge, I spotted an adolescent black bear grazing on the short grasses lining a defunct soft, sandy lane.  She stood up twice to get a better look. With the wind at her back, her nose was no help in making sense of us.  We froze in silence. She went back to grazing her way around the bend and was gone.

Back near the heart of the refuge in the fallow fields, an enormous black bear was lying carelessly in the grass eating.  We watched him for a while before he stood up, revealing his true size.  Shockingly large.  He was several hundred yards from our car and wandering further away.  The light was fading, and we headed back to town.

Wildlife Trails and Pea Island

Friday, we were at the refuge at sunrise.  We passed a dilapidated, wooden hunting cabin sitting slightly askew at the edge of the marsh on our way to the Sandy Ridge Wildlife Trail that follows part of a canoe trail into the swamp.

We’re here hoping to find river otters since the bears seem to be sleeping in this morning.  Palamedes Swallowtail Butterflies are everywhere.  More of the usual birds. No otters.  We drove over to Nags Head for breakfast.  Two coffees, an omelette with hash browns and toast, and two eggs with a biscuit with gravy for $13.  On Nags Head Island!  It was wonderfully good.

After breakfast, we drove down the barrier island chain to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.  Come May, it will be bustling with migrating birds and people.  It’s a huge bird migration hotspot.  A stiff wind is blowing off the ocean, pushing sand across the road in an effort to reclaim it.  Birds fight to remain aloft in the gusts.  There are few other visitors here today.  A diversity of turtles fills the first small pool I see. A Florida Cooter, Spiny Softshell, Yellow-bellied Slider, and Common Snapping Turtle are basking or floating in the still, shallow water.  The trail passes through a tight tunnel of multi-trunked, branching, bushy, propped-up trees before popping us out into the open expanse of the north pond.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Tunnel of Trees

Blue-wing Teal, Canada Geese, Gulls, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a muskrat are paddling, dabbling, or calling nearby.  Coots are bobbing and pulling up seagrass en masse moving along in a synchronized ballet of feeding. I’m so entertained.  They joyously bounce forward and then spring back upright as if over-buoyed for the task.  A racer snake basks just off the path.  The spring breeze is cool, but the heat of the sun promises the change of season.

In the evening, back out in the refuge, we watched two more black bears foraging in the distance. Easily seen in detail through binoculars, they were too far for any decent photography.  We enjoyed them for a while and then drifted on.  A red-cockaded woodpecker darts around in the trees hardly sitting still for a moment. I’ve never seen one before.  A chicken-sized pileated woodpecker startles us as he shoots past.  Vivid yellow prothonotary warblers, those denizens of swamps all over the US, flit around the forest.

Otters and Turtles

Strong storms spinning out tornadoes affected most of the state overnight but dissipated before reaching the coast.  The refuge is transformed by all of the rainfall.  Roadside ditches are flooding into the wetland forests covering the bushy green undergrowth with a silky smooth, shimmering darkness. With the higher water levels, it’s easier to see the water’s surface from the road. A volunteer at the visitor’s center had told us about an otter family that had recently been seen in these ditches.  “Look for bubbles,” she advised.

We inched along.  Each intensely focused on the water.  There! Further down the ditch just coming around the bend are three otters swimming towards us!  We slowly and quietly got out of the car and found a spot along the side of the ditch that provided an unobstructed view and knelt to watch.

The otters continued to close the distance between us.  They have poor eyesight, and although they’ve looked directly at me a couple of times, they don’t seem to see me.  Until they do.  They dive and scatter.

River OtterThe parents took a culvert to the other side, leaving the full-grown pup alone downstream on our side. He is swimming back and forth, calling for them in high-pitched chirps.  We immediately retreated.  It was a stressful, tense couple of minutes before they reunited swimming in circles around one another. Otters Later, we would see one lope across the road in front of us.  I’d never had the opportunity to watch wild river otters before. What other surprises can this refuge have in store?Otter

With the night’s deluge, the turtles are in heaven. A petite Yellow Spotted turtle warms itself on the sunny, sandy road.  Yellow-bellied Sliders cross from one ditch to another with surprising speed whenever I stop to try to photograph them.Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

A pair of snapping turtles in the water tumble and roll in slow-motion in a tangle of feet, noses, and carapace edges.  It took me a moment to make sense of what I was looking at.  Their thick, outstretched muscular legs are immense.  Then they’d stop with just a nose above the water to rest for a while before starting up again.  Cold-blooded animals aren’t known for their stamina.

Mid-day, we walked the Creff Cut Trail, hoping to find some snakes basking in the sun. This asphalt trail winds between a cattail marsh to the north and the barren fields to the south.  Two racers in the grass quickly slither off at our approach. Masters of concealing themselves, the snakes disappear right before our eyes.  Past where the asphalt ends and an old, unused gravel road begins, an alligator is hauled out resting at the cattails in the middle of the marsh.  That’s an unexpected sight.  Alligators are notoriously difficult to count or census, so their numbers are unknown.  They do know that there are far fewer than there used to be, and sightings are rare.Alligator

In the evening, we saw a couple more black bears off in the fields and listened to two or three owls calling back and forth from the woods.Black bear

A Final Surprise – Wolves!

Sunday morning, our last day, we’re up and out at the refuge early again.  I’ve seen (or heard in the case of the owls) everything that I thought I had a reasonable chance to find here.  I’ve secretly been thinking that we’ll see a wolf on our last day, but I haven’t dared utter the thought aloud.  This refuge is home to the critically endangered red wolf.  Only 15-20 individuals remain in the wild.  A reintroduction effort began in the 1990s and then stalled.  There are problems with poaching, interbreeding with coyotes, insufficient habitat, and the vociferous, ever-present Little Red Riding Hood anti-wolf contingent.

Our first stop was along Bear Road to watch a little black bear far off moving along the treeline. We lingered along a field while I inspected and marveled at the architecture of insect galls on last year’s stems.

As we meandered toward the main road, we slowed to peer down a mowed levee.  Three (!!!) wolves are trotting away from us on the path with the rising, golden sun highlighting their thick coats.  One is radio-collared. They are far away. I watched them through my binoculars, grinning from ear to ear until they became hazy in the distance and disappeared from sight.  I can’t believe my luck.

It was a full weekend. I’m so glad that I made the trip. And that I saw so much.  I want to come back again a little bit later in the spring when the year’s cubs will be out, but before the throngs of summer vacationers crowd the area.  The peace of wandering through this thick, lonely wilderness is part of its charm.

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4 Replies to “Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge”

  1. As always, I enjoy your wonderful excursions and find myself so happy for your excitement as you manage to see pretty much every single living thing you dared hoped for. Thanks for another trip teaching me about and showing me so many living things.

  2. Hi there,

    These are great photos of the Alligator River Refuge. I am working on a story on the rising sea water encroaching on this beautiful land. When were there photos taken? And would I be able to use on CNBC for our story… with credit to you of course?

    I appreciate you considering!


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