Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Pungo Unit

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

To avoid a distracting bright background, I cropped the image to only show the bear’s head.

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in northeast North Carolina covers 110,000 acres. Years ago, about a third of the wildlife refuge had been heavily ditched, drained, and cleared for farming. Today one of the refuge goals is to reestablish more natural hydrologic conditions using dikes and water control structures to regulate the drainage of water from the soil. To benefit wildlife, the refuge includes impoundments, lakes, marshes, forested wetlands, and agricultural units. Through a cooperative agreement, local farmers plant fields of soybeans, corn, and winter wheat on the refuge. In exchange for use of the land, they leave behind a percentage of their crops as food for wildlife.

Wild turkey feeding in a soybean field.

I first visited the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge for a few days in late May 2021. This area covers 12,350 acres with a lake and 1100 acres of agricultural fields. Many roads crisscross the refuge. All are dirt and can get quite slippery and nearly impassable during wet periods. When dry, they are dusty and coat your car with a fine powder. At times, management closes roads to vehicle access due to their condition or the potential of disturbing wildlife. However, others are open to vehicles, hiking, and bicycling. The area is reported to have one of the highest densities of black bear in the southeastern U.S.  Besides bear, the refuge has more than 200 species of birds and 40 mammals. These include raccoons, deer, coyotes, otters, wading birds, shorebirds, neo-tropic migrant songbirds, etc.  It is also home to breeding birds such as prothonotary warblers and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Bears & Other Wildlife

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

The maps of the refuge on the internet and brochures were a bit confusing and the refuge roads were poorly marked. Even the entrance sign at Pat’s Rd off of Rt 45 S was hard to spot.  Luckily on my first day, I met folks familiar with the area. They helped me understand the road system and suggested areas best for seeing bears.  The bears being omnivores often frequent the soybean, corn, and wheat fields where they dig for tubers, roots, and insects. 

Tip: To spot them from the car, drive slowly past the fields and tree line looking for movement and dark shapes. Some people reported having seen more than 15 bears in a field at one time. Don’t forget to look up in the trees since bears are excellent climbers. 

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

Bears are not the only animals on the refuge. Don’t forget to take advantage of other wildlife photo opportunities.

These photographers were frequent visitors to the refuge. They found they could cover more territory biking rather than walking.

Since this was my first visit to the refuge, I was hesitant to walk the roads or trails alone. But after speaking with other photographers, I realized that I was relatively safe as long as I was careful. I kept my distance from any bears, using my longer telephoto lenses (200-500 mm and 600 mm) to photograph them. I avoided approaching a sow with cubs.  I move slowly and examined my surroundings to avoid startling a bear or standing in its way. 

Note: The bears have an extremely keen sense of smell. Make sure any food or trash in your car is stored in air-tight containers in your trunk. Take your trash with you when you leave the refuge. Don’t feed the bears so they don’t associate food with humans. 

Waterfowl Season

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

A Tundra Swan above landing. Swans wintering on the refuge can exceed 25,000.

Starting in October wintering waterfowl begin to arrive, reaching peak numbers in December and January. During these months, more than 100,000 are present on the refuge. This includes large numbers of Snow Geese and 20 species of ducks. During waterfowl season, you can photograph the birds from several observation points and roads on the refuge. Typically, the birds gather on Pungo Lake when loafing or roosting and fly off during the day to forage for food in the fields and wetlands.  

Red Wolf

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

As I was exiting the refuge, I saw this Red Wolf and took several photos as it moved across a field hunting.

In eastern North Carolina, red wolves were on the brink of extinction, but in recent years with help, the population has slowly grown. In the case of Pocosin, NWR, Red Wolves bred in captivity were released on the refuge to assist in their recovery. With this photo, I did not hide the red tracking collar because it is part of the story about efforts to restore the wolf population in North Carolina.

Photo Issues

With this curious bear cub, I abandoned using the camera’s autofocus system since the sensor repeatedly locked focus on the tree & leaves. Instead, I opted to manually focus on the bear’s eyes making sure they were sharp.

Although most of the black bears are black, this sow had a distinctive cinnamon stripe on her side.

When trying to photograph this mother bear with her cub, I had trouble capturing the desired image since junior was either behind mom or in her shadow. To complicate matters, the female’s face was often covered by a shadow since she had her head down and turned in the wrong direction as she dug for grubs or other food in the soil. After patiently observing the family for a long time, they finally left the field and slowly walked into the woods where it was cooler.

For more details on the refuge, see: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/pocosin_lakes/


Next year I hope to visit other parts of the Pocosin NWR plus Alligator River NWR where black bears are also found in high concentrations.

About Irene:

For more than 35 years, Irene has shared her photographic experiences and love of nature with thousands of individuals through more than 300 photo classes, photo workshops, lectures, and tours in both the U.S. and abroad including Kenya, Iceland, Newfoundland, the Falkland Islands, the Brazilian Pantanal, South Dakota Badlands, Bosque del Apache, Chincoteague NWR, Tangier Island, etc.  Program sponsors have included zoos, nature centers, and conservation organizations such as National Wildlife Federation and the Assateague Island Alliance.  For many years, she has taught photography classes at Johns Hopkins University and other educational institutions and has written “How To” articles on nature photography for national publications such as Outdoor Photographer and Birding.  Images have appeared in magazines, calendars, and books published by National Wildlife Federation, Natural History Society, Audubon, and Sierra Club.  Credits include the book, “Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, an Ecological Treasure.” She is a popular speaker for camera clubs having delivered more than 45 zoom programs on Wildlife Photography to club members.

By Irene Hinke-Sacilotto

[email protected]


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