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Outer Banks Guide > Outer Banks Blogs > Eve Turek's Natural Outer Banks Blog

Thursday, July 30, 2009
Red wolves

Many years ago, I don’t recall how long, some early marketer (Aycock Brown, maybe) came up with the slogan “Land of Beginnings” to describe Dare County. The name is catchy and apt: here is the site of the first powered manned flight and the first English colony in what would later become America. We have superlatives, too, like Tallest—tallest lighthouse in the country (Hatteras) and tallest natural dune system east of the Mississippi (Jockey’s Ridge).  The Dare County mainland is a locus for another, incredible natural history first: the first reintroduction into the wild of a canine species that was functionally extinct in the wild, existing only in captive breeding facilities around the country. More than 20 years ago, red wolves, Canis rufus, were released onto the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the Dare mainland, and since that time, their range has expanded through a combination of refuge and private lands to encompass portions of five mainland counties: Dare, Tyrrell, Hyde, Washington, and Beaufort, and their population has swelled to more than 100 wild wolves.  These wolves are the only wild red wolves in the world.

 The red wolf restoration project is a masterful combination of science and heart.  The science side depends, in part, on biological testing, including DNA sampling, to determine species identity so that hybrid wolves, born from wolves that have bred with coyotes, were never released back in the wild. Red wolf pups born in captivity at one of the 40 breeding facilities in the nation become candidates for being fostered on the refuge by wild-born wolf mothers, if the timing of their births coincides with the birth of the wild mother’s own pups. There is about a two week window where the pups can be removed from their captive mother and placed with a wild mother, before their eyes open. In that period, the wild mother—and father—wolves will accept new pups, as will the foster-siblings, and all will be raised together as one family and one pack. Fostering wolves bred from around the country helps preserve the genetic integrity in the wolves on the refuge. That is just part of the science. The heart is exemplified in the actions of the staff and trained volunteers and just-folks, like me, that care about the natural world, that see humans and critters as connected. 

 The refuge maintains a captive facility here, too, but it is not accessible to the public. Instead, the facility serves as a treatment center for injured or ill wolves as well as a breeding facility; adult captive wolves are no longer released into the wild as part of the project, so a wolf that requires extensive medical attention may never be re-released. Instead, it is cared for in one of the captive facilities, and may be a candidate for breeding as well.  Pups that are born to captive wolves who cannot be successfully fostered—they are born too soon or too late to be eligible for placement into a wild wolf den—spend their adulthood in nature centers or zoos on public exhibit, or in captive breeding facilities that may have open public exhibits.

Several years ago, I had the chance to volunteer as both summer program leader and writer/photographer for Pea Island and Alligator River refuge. I contacted one of the refuge staff I had met then and asked if I and a fellow photographer—Karen Watras—could learn more about the red wolf program and take some photographs for our and the refuge’s use. We had a rare chance to visit the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge facility with Diane Hendry, FWS Red Wolf Recovery Program Outreach Coordinator and Kim Wheeler, Executive Director of the Red Wolf Coalition last week in what quickly became one of my “lifetime nature experiences.”  I received permission from Diane and Kim to share all of this with you, so you can see Dare County’s own red wolves and learn a little about the reintroduction program.  I could write a bunch—and probably will, at some point—about red wolf biology and history and the nuances of reintroduction of a formerly extinct critter back into a portion of its former range, but what I want to share with you now, after this brief background, is all sensory.

 The first thing I notice is how dark and quiet the area is. Dense growth provides shade that helps the wolves keep cool in summer. The incredibly large black flies that are so prevalent on some days near the marsh are absent. There is no barking or howling; all I hear is birdsong. I smell poop—wolf poop from wolves that are fed dog food smells like, well, dog poop. (Looks like dog poop, too; there seems no point in calling it the more scientific “scat.”)  In the heat, my nose registers a strong, pungent smell that either fades, or I adjust to quickly.

 The first wolves we see are a pair of brothers. One is nearly blind, and runs in a tight circle corresponding to his vision.  Diane says the wolves will typically run to the back fence of their enclosure, and pace or trot back and forth there whenever humans approach. The one exception to that routine is the seeing brother of this first duo. He comes much closer to the fence, having lived a long time in captivity. He is curious—today is feeding day, but there are more of us than usual. Different voices, different smells. I deliberately did not wear anything heavily perfumed, even bug spray, but I realize he is probably smelling both my dog and my two cats, all of whom I patted and who rubbed up against my pant legs before I left the house at dawn. A quick aside for your amusement: See how I said I did not use bug spray? Well, the truth is, I’ve spent years learning how to talk to mosquitoes and flies and ants and the like, so I asked all of those, plus ticks, to please let us be and not bite me. And they didn’t. Not at all. I was very specific. (Maybe too specific.) I forgot all about chiggers. So, of course, I didn’t talk to them. And so, they found me. Boy, did they find me—lots of them! And they liked me!  I’m glad I didn’t realize that at the time, as I would have been greatly distracted. 

Kim invites us into the enclosure with her. Really? Inside the fence? She tells us to crouch low and to either kneel or squat or sit once we are inside, to put the wolves at ease. I opt to sit or kneel rather than squat; I am a fairly unsteady squatter. The seeing brother does retreat to the back fence as we enter, but he trots quickly up the left hand side fence too, to check us out more closely. He pauses often to look at us once he reaches the left side fence, nearer where I am kneeling. Kim stands and claps her hands—hey, she says. We see you. That is what I am saying, too—hey, I see you. I’m taking pictures and trying to take in all the details. What Big Ears You Have, I’m thinking. The ears impress me much more than the teeth—and in fact, I am correct. Red wolves have much larger ears, proportionately, than grey wolves do. The first eye contact is amazing—I am looking into the golden eyes of a wolf, with no fence or glass between us. I remember the first Wolf Howling I attended on the refuge, probably six or seven years ago, hearing those voices in the darkness, and wondering what it must have been like when humans and wolves shared the wilderness here.  Time freezes and races; we are in the enclosure just under five minutes. I take more pictures—42 in all—since we can’t stay inside long—there are other wolves to check on.

We also entered the enclosure where four sisters live, repeating our crouching and sitting. We stay almost twice as long here. Three of the sisters were born in the same litter, and one was born in a different year to the same parents. They all run back and forth, back and forth, along the back fence.  These seem much more restless in our presence than the male wolf did. Again, one seems a little bolder and comes a little closer. Kim says she always talks to the wolves the whole time she is in the enclosure, to help them know where she is, and to let them know she is there—and that she knows where they all are. She says, if you are uncomfortable, we can leave anytime. I am not uncomfortable. I am feeling honored and humbled and excited and quiet all at once. The sisters are harder to photograph than the one brother was, as the light is low in so many places, and they are moving so fast. After about 10 minutes inside, which seems more like two minutes while we are there, we leave to allow the wolves to stop their running and cool down once we are out of their immediate presence.

 We peek at a pair through the fence that did not mate this year (the female was uppity, Kim says). The facility is also treating a wild wolf with mange who Kim predicted we would not see at all, as the wolf hunkers down in a hole rather than expose itself to being seen. Red wolves are by nature shy and elusive. Most of what the biologists know about the wild wolves and their whereabouts is by radio collar tracking, not by direct observation of behavior.

 Finally we come to the last enclosure, with a father, mother, and pups that were born at the end of March. Unfortunately, they were born too soon to be fostered into a wild den—all that planning and preparation for release, and it could not happen. The wild pups were not born until later in April, and the captive pups’ eyes were already open by then. These pups will be candidates for zoos or other breeding facilities. We saw the father, mother, and one pup whose ears seemed super-sized through the fence; we did not enter, as that would have too greatly agitated the young family.  We crouched low even though we were outside the enclosure to put the wolves at ease.  The father and mother both stayed watchful at the back of the enclosure, while the pup trotted from one side to the other, then paused to peek at us. I thought it showed a mixture of curiosity and caution; it did not run back and forth, but its eyes were wary. 

As we walked back to the vehicle, I had a final look from outside the enclosure at the two brothers; the one brother walked forward from the back fence, then stopped and looked straight at me.  We had a several-seconds-long moment of eye contact. I took one last photograph and thanked the wolf for its pictures and for sharing, even for brief moments, its life with me, and nodded my head in a sort of native benediction. I realize as I am typing that in true native fashion I both gave thanks and asked wolf for its blessing with that brief nod. Those few seconds are what I see most, when I shut my eyes, and remember the morning.

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One of my first photos of the seeing brother. Notice the ears and color of fur. Full-grown red wolves are smaller than grey wolves and larger than coyotes.

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Here's the brother again. He kept running to the corner of the fence, then pausing to stare at us.

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One of the sisters, running, running, running. They barely stood still, and would quickly look at us, then look away again, over and over and over.

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This sister actually paused to stare at us.

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Red wolf family. Father-wolf is hunkered down, behind the sand pile; you can see only his dark head. Red wolves do show variety in their coloring. That's Mama, standing beside him and the pup to the right.

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Here's the pup, curious and cautious, as befits a red wolf. The pup will grow into those big ears eventually; it is only 3 1/2 months old here. Over time, the pups will reveal traits of submission or dominance within the family unit, or pack.

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Another view of the pup.

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The Last Goodbye...

posted by eturek at 9:53 PM

Comments [2]

Sunday, July 19, 2009
OB Osprey Updates

We’ve continued our run of cooler-than-typical July days, and less humidity, with one exception within the past week or so: last Sunday, when the maximum temperature hit 90, compared with 82 the day before and 81 the day after. That afternoon, I saw gulls and Osprey sitting, standing, and flying with their mouths hanging open, looking for all the world like my Westie when he gets overheated. They weren’t calling—no noise whatsoever. Sure enough, panting is exactly what these birds were doing; birds have no sweat glands, so they cannot perspire to lower their body temperature when the thermometer rises. Instead, they pant. Other strategies include minimizing their activity, standing in cool water (or taking a dip) and drinking more—which sounds like the sort of advice we’d all do well to follow on a hot, humid July day, especially here at the beach! The Osprey babies, all around the ‘Banks, aren’t really babies anymore. Most, if not all, have fledged by now, but unlike the young eaglets, they return to their nest and are still fed by their parents. They are huge, too—easily the size of the adults at this point. To put all of this in perspective, I can also share with you one of Karen Watras’ (shellgirl) photographs, taken just a month ago, in mid-June, showing one mother Osprey and her then 2-week-old triplets.  One way to tell whether you are looking at one of this year’s babies, or an adult, is by the color of their eyes. The young Osprey have eyes that are much more orange, especially when compared to the adults’ paler, yellow eyes. Also, the younger birds’ feathers appear outlined in white, while the older Osprey are much darker, overall.  You can see what I mean from my photograph below, taken this week from that same nest, on Bay Drive. 

This particular Bay Drive nest is the one located closest to the public gazebo, and is home to Ellen and Fred—at least, Ellen and Fred to Karen, whose summer schedule has allowed her to keep close tabs on all the Bay Drive nests on nearly a daily basis. There is nothing like regular observation to help us learn about nature, and notice what to notice. What Karen has noticed is that each couple has its own routines and rhythms with one another, much like people. Ellen and Fred are among her favorites because, in her words, “they’re so funny.” From the get-go, when the pair arrived, it seemed as if Ellen was doing most of the work, and Fred was doing most of the fishing. Now that’s fairly typical, but Fred takes his fishing—and eating—mighty seriously. On any given day, you could find Ellen, rearranging the nest, or bringing fishy snacks to her young Osprey, and, likely as not, scolding Fred. Fred, on the other hand, has his favorite perch, over by a private boat dock, where he eats his fish. Leisurely. No matter how hungry Ellen said she was, while sitting on eggs. No matter how much she needed Fred to help bring more sticks, back when they were setting up housekeeping. Nope, Fred was going fishing. When I had the chance to visit the site the other morning, Ellen and one young Osprey—presumably the last one born—were standing in the nest. The youngster was tearing at small pieces of fish at its feet, and Ellen was also feeding it. According to an online field guide to the Chesapeake Bay, young Osprey will learn to feed themselves over these next few weeks, before they all fly south for the winter, which in our area, happens in September. At one point, she flew away and I thought she’d come back with another fish. Instead, she returned a couple of minutes later with a stick. We have had some heavy winds with our recent thunderstorms, so maybe she was concerned about keeping the nest stable. And guess where Fred was? On his favorite perch. Eating a fish. Need I say more?

This afternoon, I spotted what turned out to be three Osprey—one adult, two youngsters—sitting on an old nest site which has been turned in more recent years into a restaurant, beside the basketball court in Colington Harbour. No one has nested here for the past couple of years, which makes me worry about the former inhabitants, but some Osprey are using the platform for feeding. The adult clutched a flounder in one of its talons, but did not eat while I was watching; one youngster kept busy eating a small fish—perhaps one it had caught for itself. The other youngster had no fish and made no attempt to take any fish from either its parent or its sibling. I wish I had been present when they arrived, so I would have known the whole sequence of events. 

And speaking of spotting Osprey, I have seen an Osprey sitting near what I have been calling a Bald Eagle nest, on Colington Road, several times this week. Only time will tell whose nest it really is, come next spring.

Last Wednesday’s sunset featured a mackerel sky, stretching from  ocean to sound. Named for the high cirrocumulus clouds’ resemblance to fish scales, mackerel skies are said to forecast wet weather to come. While we didn’t have rain the next day, the State Climate Office, based out of NC State University, reports nearly ¾ inch of rainfall for Friday. (Elizabeth City, by contrast, got the most—over 2 ½ inches—and I believe I drove through most of that rain coming back to the Outer Banks, late Friday afternoon, from a quick trip to Chesapeake, Virginia, in a whale of a storm, all puns intended.) The sunset colors over the ocean were soft, and increasingly bright in the west, silhouetting our now fully-bloomed sea oats. By about twenty minutes later, the sun had disappeared below the horizon, but the sunset’s magnificence only increased over the sound. A perfect end to a beautiful day—and a perfect ending to this entry, as well. Enjoy.   





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This Osprey, just outside the Gate of Colington Harbour, presents a graphic image of summer, panting away to lower its body temperature. Man, it's hot!

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This is Ellen with her triplets, in mid-June. Baby Osprey are actually born asynchronously; they don't all hatch on the same day. The one closest to the mother is the last one born, Karen said. (Photo courtesy Karen Watras)

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And here is Ellen and a last "baby," taken almost exactly one month later, on July 14. Notice the orange eyes and white-outlined feathers of the youngster.

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Ellen bringing home more furniture. Maybe it's time to redecorate the teenager's room?

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Osprey trio on Colington Drive. Check out those fish!

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Mackerel Sunset over the ocean...

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Sea Oats silhouetted against a darkening, mackerel sky in the west...

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Mackerel Sunset over the Sound...360 degrees of beauty.

posted by eturek at 10:20 PM

Comments [4]

Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The Three H's

This time of year, the dominant Outer Banks Nature Story is the three H’s. Heat, Humidity, Haze. Every once in a while, we get a humdinger of a thunderstorm that results in a day that is cooler, breezier and clearer (read, less humidity). Those are bluebird days in summer, and we had the storm Sunday night, with lingering cloudiness and some drizzle on Monday, and were treated to a bluebird day Tuesday. Bluebird days put on their own cloud shows, too. We had classic mare’s tails late yesterday afternoon: high, icy cirrus clouds, with upper level winds tugging at their edges, like a fiber artist felting fabric. Pelicans and Laughing Gulls seemed to be enjoying the wind. This week, I’ve seen them mostly overflying the dune line rather than riding the swells. When they fly over the beach accesses, we get the rare treat of seeing them flying right toward us.

The Outer Banks enjoys (or doesn’t, depending on your perspective) a “moist subtropical climate.”  Introducing Physical Geography, a college text by Alan & Arthur Strahler, includes a nifty World Climates graphic that reveals that our climate, which begins at the Virginia line and stretches south to include Florida and west to include the eastern part of Texas, is shared by only three other places: the area around Uruguay in South America, the southeastern part of China, and a narrow ribbon of land on the east coast of Australia.  Although our latitude is close to that of the Mediterranean, that region has a much greater swing between dry and wet seasons than we do here. So far for July, www.weatherunderground.com reports that we’ve swung from a humidity high of about 75% down to 63% yesterday—not bad at all for this time of year. Compare that with the average humidity of last summer—100% for July, August, and September—and our summer’s beginning doesn’t feel quite so sticky.

Speaking of summer’s beginning, I have a leftover image to share with you, from a couple of days after the official solstice, when, give or take a few seconds, our daily amount of sunlight was at its maximum. I went to Avalon Pier, set up on top of one of the pilings at the parking lot bulkhead, set my camera’s focal length to 35mm (at a nearly 1.5 crop factor on my Nikon digital, this approximates a 50mm lens in the old days of film, which in turn approximates an average, human range of vision), in order to document precisely where the sun’s position was. I’ll repeat the exercise at the autumn equinox and again at the winter solstice, and we will see together how the sun’s position changes with the seasons. The sun didn’t break through the cloud cover until about 15 minutes after official sunrise, but at least it wasn’t raining!

I arose early one morning last week (and the sun once again didn’t, artistically-speaking, as a cloud band obscured its dawn appearance) and drove down to Pea Island, hoping for a glimpse through my long lens of that pair of Roseate Spoonbills hanging out with the egrets and herons and ibis. I didn’t see them at first, but they came out along the western edge of south pond and joined the rest of the birds there, raising their wings in flashes of pink I have never seen before here. I’ll include for your enjoyment a photograph I took of the spoonbills down in Florida. They are beautiful birds. I’m hoping for a closer look while they are still here. They, along with a reported Woodstork pair, are way out of their normal range. They are not migratory, and sightings in NC are rare. The other pink mixed with white on Pea Island is swamp rose mallow, now in full bloom. My black and white wildflower guide identifies the plant in Latin as Hibiscus moscheutos. The name explains why it looks exactly like the hibiscus flowers that grow in my stepdaughter MaryAnn’s Elizabeth City garden; there is an especially large stand behind the Pea Island Visitor Center. The wildflower guide says that marshmallow was first made from the roots of a similar plant, also a mallow, and that mallow also cured sore throat, toothache, and provided an ointment for chapped hands. I just thought it was pretty.

Speaking of sightings,  Pete’s daughter Faith and I spotted a Bald Eagle sitting in a pine tree alongside Colington Road a month or so ago; she saw it again near the Colington crabbing dock at the first bridge, going out. Two days ago, I spotted a nest near the cemetery and stopped yesterday morning to get a closer look and a photograph. From one angle, you’d never know the nest was there. No birds around, but I intend to add this to my daily observances and will keep you posted. Meanwhile, the baby mockingbirds I have been hearing but had not seen until the other day, near Yellowhouse, are close to fledging; I heard at least one baby tonight high in the trees when I arrived home, so everyone seems to be growing on schedule in the neighborhood songbird department. Baby squirrels are getting bigger and running around on the ground, and Mama Raccoon has brought at least one youngster up to our deck at dusk over the past couple of weeks.

Finally, I have made contact with one of the osprey banding and satellite tracking programs, and hope to have a report soon to follow up on Wilton Wescott’s (obxshooter) photograph of a banded osprey sitting on a nest near Oregon Inlet. Maybe this is the same bird that a Lone Cedar employee reported getting a call about, from an osprey banding program based up north somewhere. As Uncle Jack likes to write, stay tuned.    


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Mares Tails and Pelicans...an unbeatable combination, especially in July!

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Flying over the dunes, up close and personable. Well, I think they are personable. They frequently turn their heads to make eye contact when I am photographing them in flight.

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Summer Solstice Sunrise at Avalon Pier.

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I don't think I would have known the Roseate Spoonbills were there, if not for a long lens...or a good spotting scope, or powerful binoculars. But the flash of pink wings gave them away.

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Not From Here. These are Roseate Spoonbills at the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, on Sanibel, in Florida. Taken January 2008. They are not at all spooky in FL, so I am hoping they will influence our herons and egrets & not the other way 'round.

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Here's that Red-Winged Blackbird with the odd coloring (leucistic) and the beautiful mallows...pink and white hibiscus, about as tall as I am, growing wild on Pea Island.

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Colington Eagle Nest. I'm thrilled to think perhaps we will have an urban nesting pair close by.

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I think this means "Hey, Mom, what's for lunch?" in mockingbird.

posted by eturek at 10:55 PM

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(c) 2009-2010 Eve Turek & OBX Connection, all rights reserved - read 561330 times

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