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.
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!
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 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!
The modern marker of disenfranchisement has become…littering by nature lovers?
I take wildlife photos, so I do quite a bit of hiking around local rivers and lakes. I’ve always packed a trash bag in my photo bag to wrap gear in case of rain. At some point, I found myself starting to use the bag to pick up litter along the way. Nothing spoils a great shot of a natural vista or potentially harms the wildlife living there more than garbage.
Time was, I gathered a half-bag of trash on my photo walks. Then, a full bag. Now, I pack two bags–the most weight I can carry with my gear–and fill both to overflowing, leaving behind many, MANY, bags worth more of trash. I don’t have hard data to show that littering has become worse, just personal observation that at least in my neck of the woods, littering is habitual.
The photos posted here are what I found on just one day visiting 4 locations in the Haw River and Jordan Lake area of North Carolina. Notable is that this particular watershed (which supplies drinking water to ~300,000 people) is located in the heart of what is known as the Research Triangle–dubbed so for it’s high-tech companies and higher-education research universities.
It is an affluent area–with a median income 25% higher than the rest of North Carolina and a significantly higher percentage of persons with advance education. (Census data source) The quality of life gained from our many natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities figures prominently in the economic development recruitment pitches for the Triangle region, which leads among the mid-Atlantic states in population growth. It is also an area with strong environment awareness markers–there’s a robust local market for hybrid vehicles, organic food, farm-to-table, and the state is home to a nearly 100 environmental groups
Why are the demographics relevant?
Let’s consider why someone would litter a natural area. These litterers are obviously people who appreciate the recreational benefits of nature enough that they chose to go out into it to enjoy what it has to offer…fishing, hiking, swimming, boating, etc. So if you like being in nature, why then trash it? People don’t go to sit by a lake to view the garbage…if you trash it, it destroys the very thing you went there to enjoy…so why do it?
Researchers of litter (yes there is such a thing) postulate that people litter because they feel disenfranchised and powerless. In other words, they don’t feel connected to society or the land, and hence why it is considered acceptable behavior to trash the landscape. Yet, does the high-income, high-education Triangle fit that resident profile? No really. So what else could be going on.
Sense of personal responsibility lacking?
Another theory of why people litter is that they lack a sense of personal responsibility. These folks litter because they believe others will pick up after them. That theory might have some traction if you couple it with a dose of down-right laziness. Think of it: Do we have a population of people motivated and intelligent enough to plan an outing, go buy beverages, drive to a lovely natural setting to enjoy what the outdoors offers, yet also lazy and stupid enough to then throw the empty containers on the ground rather than make the effort to take it with them? If so, that’s pretty darn lazy as it takes less physical effort to take an empty bottle out of the woods than it does to acquire and bring the full bottle into the woods to begin with.
Failure of anti-litter messages?
“Ugliness is so grim. A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony, which will lessen tensions.” Lady Bird Johnson
Where do people learn that when you are done with something, you simply throw it down? Well, it wasn’t because we don’t hear the ‘littering is bad’ public messages.
While there had been anti-litter campaigns before, it was in the 1960’s that Lady Bird Johnson made anti-littering mainstream by making highway beautification her cause as First Lady. The ‘don’t be a litterbug’ message took off, sparking a societal stigmatization of littering. Take a look at the ads from that time and you’ll notice peer pressure and shame were key motivators to not litter. Children were even encouraged to call down their parents when they saw them litter!
The ‘Keep America Beautiful’ campaign was born out of this new mindset. Who can forget in the 1970’s their iconic public service announcement featuring Iron Eyes Cody, with a single tear falling down his cheek at the sight of litter. We’ve had generations now growing up exposed to not only the anti-littering message but also the environmental movements educational emphasize on the importance of clean air and water along with preserving wildlife habitat.
Yet the educational plea hasn’t worked and neither has the threat of legal action. In the places, I go ‘litter is against the law’ signs are everywhere, so when someone litters, they clearly know that it is against the law. Legal action isn’t a deterrent because state and local municipalities impose fines for littering when a law enforcement officer spots a litterer in action…and therein is the rub, it must be witnessed which is very hard to do as most of these areas are, understandably, not patrolled. In the bigger picture, littering isn’t considered a serious offence especially when there is violent crime to target with limited funding and staff.
So really, people litter because they can. Even when told it’s illegal and it’s bad for the environment, people still do it.
Just shut up & pick it up?
Because the prevention and enforcement sides are lacking, volunteers try to meet the need by picking up litter. Nonprofit organized Adopt-a-highway and Adopt-a-stream/shoreline programs exist. Yet the volume of trash is so high, not even these noble efforts can keep pace. In the Triangle area, formal lake and river clean-ups are typically organized 2-3 times per year, depending on the program, location and sponsor. A shocking amount of trash is collected during these organized clean-ups.
Unfortunately, the accumulation of trash is continual and happens on far more miles of waterways than these events can possibly cover. The Clean Jordan Lake nonprofit over the past 8 years has organized removal of over 128 tons of trash along 15 miles of shore…that’s nearly 13,000 bags worth of trash!! The lake boast 180 miles of shoreline…so simple math shows 1) the potential volume of uncollected trash which may be out there along the waterways and 2) how being able to pick it all up is logistically and economically impractical. Keep in mind, this data is just from one of the regions many lakes and rivers.
What to do?
While I don’t have a magic answer, I also don’t like to present a problem without offering possible solutions. Volunteers can’t possibility pick up all the trash…there must also be deterrence to prevent the litter in the first place. It’s not realistic to expect increased funding for anti-litter efforts. And, it’s not realistic to change the mindset of a ‘don’t give a damn’ litterer overnight. The quickest short term fix is to bring back the shame associated with littering to get people to modify their behavior.
Here’s my brainstorm idea: While there the many miles of lake shores and rivers banks can’t all be monitored, there are certain ‘hot spots’ of dense litter activity centered near recreation areas. Mount some trail cameras in these areas and post the photos of litterers on the internet. Invite the public to tag people they recognize. In our social media image conscious society, the negative peer-pressure of public shaming is greater punishment than the threat of a $250 fine IF a law enforcement officer actually sees you in the act. A basic wildlife camera, like the ones used by hunters, costs less than $100 each…as good of an investment for volunteers, donors and nonprofits as the cost of buying trash bags and ‘adopt’ signs.
Additionally, I highly encourage all visitors to our parks, lakes and rivers to bring a trash bag…for your own garbage but also, be kind and pick up what you see around you too.
What ideas do you have? Why do you think that here in the Research Triangle, a community in which we are supposed to be well-educated and know better than to litter, it’s still done to such a degree? Is there so little pride in our home area that we don’t think twice about trashing it? Surely in a region like ours, we can do better…we at least should try. Let’s discuss below.
We’re not the only ones depending on these waterways: I took this photo of a fishing bald eagle from the same spot where I took photos of computer electronics, beer cans/bottles, fast food containers, dirty diapers, discarded fishing lines & hooks, a grill, two shoes (not matching), a cell phone and oh yes…a scratch-off lottery ticket.