A photo essay featuring North Carolina wildlife alongside their polluted habitats, in the hope it will inspire positive change.
Bolin Creek at Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC
Jordan Lake, Apex, NC
Haw River at Bynum, NC
Little Creek at Meadowmont, Chapel Hill, NC
Bolin Creek at Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC
Bolin Creek Trail, Chapel Hill, NC
Outer Banks, NC
Not in the Triangle nor the best images due to distance and lighting, but I thought this was a dramatic illustration of how wildlife incorporated our waste into their lives. This particular osprey nest had a surprising amount of construction plastic wrap, foam ‘swim noodle’ and general plastic built into the nest.
Groundhog Day–that oddest of holidays in which we look to a rodent to predict the duration of winter. On February 2, if a groundhog sees its shadow, gets spooked and runs back in the burrow, it will be six more weeks of winter. Cloudy day and no shadow? Hey, it’s an early spring. Punxsutawney Phil may be the most famous groundhog, but did you know we have our own groundhog right here in Chapel Hill?
I’ve photographed a family of groundhogs living in an underground burrow quite literally under Franklin Street. (I won’t give the exact spot to protect them.) Chapel Hill is at the southernmost extent of their range east of the Appalachian mountains.
Groundhogs are also called woodchucks, but they don’t eat wood. They are herbivorous and prefer the more tender parts of plants and grasses.
Groundhogs are accomplished critters…they can swim, climb, and dig.
If you want to see a groundhog, keep a look out in early morning or late afternoon–they are diurnal animals. A common place to see groundhogs is along the shoulder of a roadway, where they like to feed on the vegetation. Unfortunately, this desire to eat near the street leads to the potential for being hit by a car. Life expectancy in the wild is only about 2-3 years. In captivity, they’ve been known to live 14 years.
Will Chapel Hill’s groundhog see its shadow on February 2nd? Well, that may depend if they are even awake. Groundhogs hibernate from roughly November until February or March.
There’s a side to the quiet Town of Chapel Hill most folks don’t know about….and it’s a wild one.
Do you have to go ‘into the wild’ to see wildlife? No! Even urban areas can have a surprising diversity of wildlife. Case in point: Chapel Hill, North Carolina is a university town of around 60,000 residents, making it the 15th largest community in the state. It is one corner of the high-tech hub known as the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill).
Don’t let the ‘town’ in the official name fool you, Chapel Hill is a fairly densely populated area, with a greater number of persons living per square mile (2,687) than large cities such as that of Atlanta, GA (630) or Nashville, TN (1,300). Only 7 percent of land remains undeveloped.
I toss out these statistics to establish that Chapel Hill is truly an urban environment, with high population density and built-up environment. Yet, it is home to a rich diversity of wildlife.
What’s around town?
I am a wildlife photographer living in Chapel Hill, so when I’m around town I usually have a camera with me.
Over the past year, I’ve been documenting the wildlife I’ve encountered which I’d like to share because it is truly outstanding. Among the animals I’ve photographed:
Great blue heron
Three species of hawks
And far too many birds, insects, and reptiles to list.
I set up some camera traps in my tiny backyard (I live on a quarter acre within in the city limits). The animals which have been documented in my yard: gray fox, raccoon, opossum, white-tailed deer, flying squirrel and a host of birds. Some mornings, I hear the hoot of an owl and the call of a coyote.
Increasingly residents are living and working in close proximity to wild animals whose native habitats have been lost or fragmented by development.
I’ve lived either in or near Chapel Hill for around 30 years. The area has changed dramatically, with the region booming with new development. Clear cutting is more commonplace than ever before. Native wildlife habitats have been lost or fragmented. Increasingly residents are living and working in close proximity to wild animals, who have adapted to city life and are attracted to man-made food sources.
Is living with wildlife safe?
When people and wildlife live in close proximity to each other, it can lead to conflict. However, much of the issues are of our own making. Leaving garbage or food out and getting too close to wildlife can lead to problem behaviors.
Wildlife should not be feared, but we should have a respect that these are wild animals. I have encountered residents who, for example when I point out a barred owl roosting in a tree, are simply terrified. They find it difficult to understand that unless they are the size and weight of a mouse, the owl has little interest in them! Fear stems from a lack of knowledge and interaction with the natural world.
Yet, I have also encountered residents (and photographers!) who don’t have enough fear and get entirely too close to a wild animal. I have a long zoom lens so I can stay a good distance away from my subjects. But many (far too many) times while I’m photographing a subject, a passerby will get way too close in an effort to snap a picture with their cell phone. I’ve even seen naturalists with binoculars and photographers with zooms get too near an animal’s personal space proclaiming ‘oh, this one is used to people’.
Such harassing interactions always cause the animal to flee, creating a hazard for both the animal (who may be flushed from a safe spot into the open where it may face predators) and people—a frightened animal may perceive you as a threat and lash out towards you in self-defense. Observe. Appreciate. Be respectful. Don’t harass.
If you leave wildlife alone, they will leave you alone. One exception…a sick or injured animal.
With most wild animals, if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone. The exception being a sick or injured animal. Rabies is an issue in the region; yet it seems far too many people mistakenly think ‘it must have rabies’ at the first sight of a fox, raccoon or bat. Just because an animal can be a carrier of rabies does not mean every single animal is rabid.
How do you know when an animal is sick? A good rule of thumb: wild animals should act wild, having a healthy fear of humans. As a wildlife photographer, I take great care to not be seen by my subjects because the moment I’m spotted, they will retreat. Even among urban animals who have been acclimated to people, they may tolerate your presence but they will never approach you. If a wild animal chooses to approach you, that’s not normal behavior and a sign that you should keep your distance.
Where to see wildlife
Look where you already go every day, close to home or work. We are often so focused on where we are going that we don’t take time to truly look around us. You might be surprised what’s in plain view! I’ve seen owls at UNC, bald eagles over 15-501, fox off Weaver Dairy Road and a woodchuck raising a family in a burrow right under busy Franklin Street!
National Geographic Channel presents footage published 3 years ago as being from animals they filmed this week during the broadcast, Yellowstone Live.
As a wildlife photographer, I abide by a few simple rules:
1) Respect the wildlife.
2) Get the shot honestly and ethically.
3) Present an image in the post-edit as close to how you actually experienced it.
In the era of photoshop and fake news banter, authentic photography is a fundamental ethic which National Geographic Magazine has historically promoted. Editorial polices express the belief that what the reader sees, should be what the photographer saw naturally…no baiting of wildlife, no over-manipulation of images during post-processing, etc.
Unfortunately, this ethic apparently does not extend to National Geographic Channel with videography because it is purposefully and with shocking intent presenting stock footage filmed 3 years ago as being from animals they are following this week during a live TV and internet broadcast.
Yellowstone Live, is a four-night multi-platform production presenting the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. It premiered on the National Geographic Channel August 5, 2018 and is hosted by former CBS reporter Josh Elliott with co-hosting by animal expert Chris Packham and FS1 reporter Jenna Wolfe. In the series press release, it says the production will use
“a complex network of 34 live cameras, 200 crew, cutting-edge, first-ever cell-phone bundling technology to broadcast in the most remote locations, live-audience interaction; digital coverage on multiple platforms and innovative technologies including the following:
A “Magma Cam,” a thermal imaging camera, which will reveal Yellowstone’s thermal features
Aerial views of essential wildfires
Aerial filming of a wolf pack in remote wilderness area
Footage from inside a beaver lodge”
Let’s examine that last bullet point…footage from inside a beaver lodge. The co-hosts in both Episode 1 and 2, present multiple clips of beaver lodge footage as either ‘happening right now’ or with the introduction “these are pictures we got a little while ago”. Yet, these are the exact samevideo images which appeared in Wild Yellowstone, a documentary published by National Geographic in 2015. Not ‘sort of similar’ but exact frame for frame identical. These animals were not filmed “a little while ago” as the host states, unless you count 3-4 years ago as fitting that criteria. See the comparison for yourself:
Host Josh Elliott introduces the Episode 2 clip by saying “Another family intensively studied is a family of beavers who we’ve been with all week long following this family out at Schwabacher’s Landing. We want to check back in and see what they’ve been up to.” In fact, the animal family in the footage was first published in a 2015 documentary Wild Yellowstone-Grizzly Summer.
“Another family intensively studied is a family of beavers who we’ve been with all week long following this family out at Schwabacher’s Landing. We want to check back in and see what they’ve been up to.” In fact, the animal family in the footage was first published in a 2015 documentary.
Color footage of a beaver with a branch is shown while Christ Packham narrates. Then as the color footage transitions to a black-and-white infrared scene, Packham says “Now these are some pictures we got a little while ago showing….” The footage airing during Packham’s narration is from the 2015 documentary. Packham continues, “Let’s listen..remember this is in pitch blackness.” Both Packham and Elliott chat back and forth about how cute the images and sounds of the baby beaver chewing a stick are. (See the full clip below).
A second clip is then played showing a beaver on a the bank felling a tree. The image is of a single beaver first running towards then direction of where the tree will fall and then, changing direction and running away. Eliiott wraps up the segment by saying “so that’s what we were capturing remotely”. This is the exact same beaver footage from 2015. Judge the comparison:
Emmy Award winning wildlife cinema-photographer Jeff Hogan was on the production crew of the 2015 Wild Yellowstone footage and is also featured prominently in Yellowstone Live photographing a beaver dam.
Hogan provides live commentary, indicating that he can ‘hear the young beavers squawking’. He does not verbally present his footage from the 2015 production, rather it is co-hosts Elliott and Packham who pass the footage off as ‘a family of beavers they’ve been following this week’.
Anyone who has ever tried to photograph wildlife knows that wild creatures are unpredictable…they don’t perform on demand. I personally think attempting a live show with wildlife is asking for disappointment…truly wild animals cannot be located on que, let alone photographed doing captivating things which might keep an audience’s attention for one or two hours.
Therefore, it is understandable that the production company would need to have some stock footage on hand for those moments when their 34 live cameras and 200 crew (if that is indeed true) fail to capture anything at all worth sharing. If they’ve done their homework, then those moments should be rare AND they should say so…the audience will understand. The show would have been just as good without the false statements. But to present it as either happening right now or even within the past few days is dishonest. And this is the impression the audience clearly received.
In an era where the term ‘fake news’ proliferates and science is routinely questioned, educational programming should be beyond reproach. Shame on National Geographic and the production company (Plimsoll Productions in association with Berman Productions) for not being more forthcoming in their presentation of wildlife. If we can’t trust what we see on a nature presentation from esteemed National Geographic, then it’s a sad commentary on where we are culturally–that the desire to entertain and fool the audience outweighs the desire for truth and transparency. How is the public to trust anything else presented?
Watch a 2 minute clip from Yellowstone Live Episode 2 and judge for yourself if you get the impression the footage presented is live/recent from the week or from 3 years ago, links to exact same images from 2015’s Wild Yellowstone follows below:
I recently went to the Haw River near Bynum, North Carolina to try out a new lens and unexpectedly encountered two bald eagles. Unexpected because not a single pair of bald eagles were nesting in North Carolina in 1983 when State biologists first released juveniles into the wild as part of a recovery effort. Now there is a thriving eagle population with an estimated 300 eagle territories statewide and 125 nesting pairs. The Haw River feeds into Jordan Lake, where around 20 eagle pairs nest and many more visit.
Decline and recovery
We know bald eagles were part of the historic environment in North Carolina because they were mentioned in a 1709 publication (A New Voyage to Carolina) by explorer John Lawson. The Cherokee Indians also have stories passed down about golden and bald eagles. So we know eagles were in the state, but why did they disappear? The NC Wildlife Resources Commission cites several reasons for the eagle population’s decline:
Poor water quality
The most dramatic of these threats came in the 1960’s & 70’s when fish and other animals were exposed to pesticides such as DDT and PCBs which washed into streams and lakes. When the bald eagles ate fish and prey animals containing the chemicals, they too ingested the toxic substances. Female eagles laid eggs with much softer shells which crushed under the weight of the nesting mother. In 1972, Congress passed a series of bills banning these chemicals and creating protections for eagles and other raptors.
The NC Bald Eagle Project was launched in 1982 to re-establish an eagle population in the state. At first, eagles were raised in captivity and released into the wild around Lake Mattamuskeet in eastern NC. Many of young eagles died due to avian malaria carried by the local mosquitoes (which the young eagles had no natural immunity to). Attempts at further reintroduction ended but in 1984, the first post-DDT wild bald eagle nest was documented just 7 miles from the lake.
State activities evolved to include the identification and monitoring of new nests and providing technical assistance to landowners and timber companies on how to help identified eagle populations by protecting nesting sites.
In 1990, wildlife habitat management practices were implemented at man-made reservoirs Jordan Lake and Falls Lake in central NC to provide roosting and nesting habitats for bald eagles. Now there is a thriving eagle population at the lakes with around 20 nesting pairs at Jordan Lake in the area where the photographs posted here were taken. Statewide there is an estimated 300 eagle territories and 125 nesting pairs. Isn’t this is a lovely chart showing how humans can have impact when we change practices to help save species decimated by our own actions?
Track an eagle!
Today’s technology allows for even more advanced study and management of the NC eagle population. NC State University professors Ted Simmons and Roland Kays lead a project using state-of-the-art GPS transmitters to study bald eagle movements in North Carolina. In January 2015, an immature bald eagle who had been successfully treated by rehabilitation experts for an injury was able to be released back into the wild with a solar-powered GPS transmitter affixed. Since her release, the eagle, named Yangchen, has made extensive use of reclaimed phosphate pits and catfish ponds near the Albermarle Sound. Recent maps of the bird’s movements are available to the public online and updated four times a day by the Movebank animal tracker site. The scientists are hoping to track the immature bird to follow migratory movements, pair formation, and nesting behavior over the next several years.
The bald eagle population has made a remarkable comeback in North Carolina. It will take continued effort to ensure we never again are without them.
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”
When the world begins to feel scary (and lately, that seems far too often), I step away from the internet and the constant barrage of sensory overload to go for a walk. I find peace in communion with nature. The trees are my cathedral, the birds my choir and the sunlight a reminder that there is always another daybreak after even the darkest of nights.
Don’t think you have to live in the country to find a quiet moment with nature. I live within city limits and the following photos I took whilst on walks within a short distance of home in easily accessible public parks..just in the past week!
Serenity and wonder is all around….if you take time to look for it. If you enjoy these, try visiting a new site I’m working on, Nature NC and share what you see on your walks.
We tend to think of health care as complicated. Here’s a little secret: it’s not. It’s only evolved to be a complex system because we’ve made it that way. When a physician sees a Medicare patient, an estimated 130,000 pages of rules and regulations influence that relationship. The Affordable Care Act and it’s supporting regulations are defined in over 20,000 pages. Private insurance policies are as varied as the millions of firms offering employee health plans. Add to the mix that these coverage rules are in a state of constant revision.
Any interaction that is managed with volumes of legal-ease is bound to be one the ‘average American patient’ will not understand and with new health care proposals coming from Congress with little notice in rapid succession, it is next to impossible to comprehend how provisions buried in tens of thousands of pages may impact us far down the road. It need not be this way.
At its core, our complex health system governs one very simple fact of life: we get sick and need help to get better. The devil in the details comes in how government chooses to manage this basic need of its populace. It’s disheartening that the current health policy mentality doesn’t seem to appreciate this basic fact.
Humans are frail living creatures. We don’t live forever. We each die of something biological that causes our bodies to stop functioning. None of us will live our entire lives without having a single illness or accident. Cut us and we bleed. If we fall, our bones break. Our vision and hearing decline over time. Our teeth rot. And if we live enough years our hearts will eventually tire and fail. Our cells easily mutate and multiply…cancer. If you think of it, our bodies are so subject to ailments that it’s a wonder in ancient times we lived long enough to advance civilization at all!
Yet, this natural propensity towards illness is now given the ominous regulatory label of ‘pre-existing condition’, which has come to carry a negative connotation with penalize-the-patient policy proposals. Don’t think illness is the natural order? Health and Human Services analysis shows up to half of Americans under age 55 have a pre-existing condition and that number rises to 86 percent for those over age 55. Fact is, most of us have already experiences some form of major illness in our lives and for those who haven’t, live long enough and your time is surely coming!
But alas, all is not lost! Here comes science and medicine as the saviors of humanity. Modern health care compensates for our physical frailties. Until this century, life was nasty, brutish and short. We now have the mind-blowing ability to have our vision corrected, repair our dental cavities, remove cancerous cells, mend a broken bone, treat a failing heart and stop a serious bleed. Science and medicine extend not just our life, but improve the quality of that life. That’s huge.
The rub is that life-extending scientific achievement comes with a price tag. Our entire, complex health system is set up for no other reason than to sort out who in society can easily access these scientific accomplishments, when and how much they should pay for it. That’s it. There is no other reason for private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid to exist…they are the more palatable modern version of ancient gladiatorial fights, with the winners (those who can access and afford care) being able to live another day.
The larger question is whether government’s rules for the fight should be applied equally to all persons regardless of age, gender, geography or any other criteria. If we truly believe in equality, it must. To create layers of complex code which creates conditions in which only seniors, only the disabled, only the poor, only those without pre-existing conditions can access government facilitated care is contrary to ensuring the general Welfare as defined as an essential role in the Preamble of the US Constitution.
To create layers of complex code which creates conditions in which only seniors, only the disabled, only the poor, only those without pre-existing conditions can access government facilitated care is contrary to ensuring the general Welfare as defined as an essential role in the Preamble of the US Constitution.
There’s a fundamental inequity when government intervention results in a playing field in which a 68 year old cancer patient, retired with Medicare can access life-saving treatment, potentially, without paying a single dollar out of pocket but a 38 years old cancer patient, working full-time with employer sponsored insurance, cannot. And, if the younger patient is lucky enough to survive, go back to work and pay off medical debt, they are penalized by not ever being able to get insurance again due to now having a ‘pre-existing condition’. Such inequality created and endorsed by the federal Government via thousands of pages of regulation unintelligible to the ‘average American’ runs counter to its purpose of promoting the general Welfare.
If we accept as a fundamental starting place that we are all equal then why would this equality not apply to everything the government does, including insurance? Otherwise, the federal Government is favoring one segment of people over another…the well over the sick, seniors over the middle aged and the young, the poor over the middle class, those who have lived long enough that the natural frailty of the human body has manifested in a “pre-existing condition” and those who have not.
To draw a line and say ‘this group is worthy of easily accessible and affordable medical care and this group does not’ is truly rather arbitrary. It is not the federal Government’s role to divide us into segments, but rather to treat us all equally in its exercise of power. If one segment deserves medical care, then we all do. Few of us will escape this life without encountering an illness, accident or frailty. Any policy which does not reflect this undeniable fact is doomed to eventual failure.
Call it ‘Medicare for all’, call it ‘single payer’, call such a health system by any name you wish….but call our only fair option what it should be, an equal right to enjoy government’s promotion of the general Welfare. That’s not socialism, it’s equality and that’s about as democratic as it gets.
We love penguins. We make blockbuster movies about them–Happy Feet, March of the Penguins, Madagascar Penguins, Mr Popper’s Penguins. And the penguin related merchandise…wow. But vultures? Not so much. When a vulture makes an appearance in a movie, they add a sense of foreboding…something bad’s looming about.
Grant it, vultures might not have the cutest face among the birds of the world–put a turkey vulture up beside a barn owl and it’s not a fair match—but I suggest that like so many things in life, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Today is International Vulture Awareness Day (oh yes, there IS such a thing!) So indulge me and let me hit you with a few tidbits about these often misunderstood creatures who are an essential part of our ecosystem.
Vultures prevent the spread of disease.
Vultures eat dead stuff. It’s one reason they get a bad reputation–people find disgusting the notion of eating rotten flesh. Yet, this act provides a valuable service. Nature is full of dead animals who succumb to sickness, diseases, accidents, cars, starvation or are the leftover remains of predators. Vultures are great at sniffing out these dead animals. And, they get rid of these health hazards for us!
I will not get into a stomach-turning detail of how carcasses rot and attract nasty bacteria and how that makes it way to human populations–just trust me that if you leave enough dead flesh outside long enough, it becomes a catalyst for disease spread.
Vultures excel at gobbling up putrid flesh that would kill any other creature. Their stomach acid is incredibly corrosive which allows them to safely consume some truly deadly disease-causing organisms like botulism, anthrax, and cholera.
Endangered and essential: a lesson in what happens without them
Consider a real-life example of what happens when vultures disappear from an ecosystem. Among the Hindu culture of India, cattle are considered sacred. Of an estimated 500 million cows in India, only 4% are consumed by people.(Ref 1) That means there’s a whole lot of cow carcasses to deal with, around 12 million tons annually. When cow dies, it is not consumed by people, but rather by the vultures. They are the waste-disposal system.
The problem for vultures began in the 1990’s when cattle in India began to be widely treated with an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac. (This drug is an NSAID and is also used in humans to treat inflammation such as with arthritis) The drug effectively poisoned the vultures who ate the cow’s flesh, causing them to die of kidney failure within hours (Ref 2). Between 1992 and 2007, the population of one vulture species–the oriental white-rumped vulture–is estimated to have declined by 99.9%. (Ref 3). Where there were once over 80 million of these vultures, the numbers are now only several thousand–the fastest population collapse of any wild bird in history, including the Dodo.(Ref 4)
What happened when the vultures disappeared and were no longer consuming dead cattle?
There was a build-up of carcasses which both contaminated water supplies and harbored diseases like anthrax (3)
The disappearance of vultures allowed other scavenger animals to take their place–namely rats and feral dogs. which carried pathogens and therefore spread diseases throughout human populations such as rabies, anthrax and plague.(1)
Today in India, there are an estimated 18 million feral dogs, the largest population in the world. 30,000 people die from rabies each year, more than half the world’s total.(1) 70% are children under age 15.
In response to the ‘vulture crisis’, India officially removed the drug diclofenac from market in 2006, but it continues to be available illegally in some areas. Unfortunately, the damage has been done and it will take some time for the vulture population to rebound, if at all, to levels which will improve public health.
Note that diclofenac continues to be available in the EU and US, however it has not been linked to significant declines in vulture populations in these areas.
Take-away: we are interconnected
While the lessons of what happened in India with the vulture population has many implications for other countries, the biggest is that it illustrates just how interconnected our ecosystems truly are. What on first glance appears to be an ugly, disgusting, ‘useless’ bird turned out to be an absolutely essential element in public health..and in ways no one would have ever predicted. So next time you see a vulture by the side of the road enjoying some roadkill, don’t be repulsed. Rather, rejoice in the great service nature has provided–that ugly, bald bird is actually in a very real way out there improving your health!
There are 23 species of vultures worldwide (14 are considered endangered or threatened). They are found on every continent except Australia & Antarctica.
Vultures are among the longest living birds in the wild–around 30 years.
Vultures mate for life.
They reproduce very slowly–they don’t reach sexual maturity until 5-7 years old and produce 1 chick every 1-2 years.
What’s a group of vultures called? A committee, venue or volt. In flight, a flock of vultures is a kettle, and when the birds are feeding together at a carcass, the group is called a wake. So many names!