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Blog » Shaw Students Go Camping

Dr. Eric Butler, assistant professor of Biology and Ebony Johnson, director of student activities and Greek life accompanied nine students from Shaw's Wildlife Biology Club on a trip to eastern North Carolina. The group visited several areas in eastern NC, including the Pocosins, Devil's Gut, and the Outer Banks but spent most of their time at the Pettigrew State Park Campgrounds in Creswell, NC. While there, they learned about field biology methods and wildlife indigenous to North Carolina.

The following Shaw students attended the trip: Brittany Ballentine, Shaliek Morgan, D'Tavious Harris, Mera Hailemariam, Mariam Janneh, Artya Loatman, Michaela Simmins, James Thigpen, and Tamira Bickems.

The trip was paid for through the NSF Targeted Infusion Grant - PI Dr.Dusenbury and CoPI Dr. Butler, #94F and was co-sponsored by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

What does it take to make a journey?
May 18, 2014

"What does it take to make a journey? A place to start from, something to leave behind. A road, a trail, or a river. Companions, and something like a destination: a camp, an inn, or another shore. We might imagine a journey with no destination, nothing but the act of going, and with never an arrival. But I think we would always hope to find something or someone, however unexpected and unprepared for. Seen from a distance or taken part in, all journeys may be the same, and we arrive exactly where we are." - John Haines, Moments and Journeys

This group of Shaw bears will forever remember their coastal exploration. From Left to right: Dr. Eric Butler, Mera, Mariam, Brittany (sitting in front), James, Michaela, Shaliek, Tamira.
This group of Shaw bears will forever remember their coastal exploration. From Left to right: Dr. Eric Butler, Mera, Mariam, Brittany (sitting in front), James, Michaela, Shaliek, Tamira.

Our Coastal Exploration journey has taken us from Shaw University in the bustling city of Raleigh, NC, through several of our natural areas in the coastal plain of North Carolina.

We left behind our dorm rooms and families, and our assumptions and misperceptions about the unknown world of camping and long days outside. We've traveled by roads, by trails (both man-made, and bear-made), and by rivers. Our new companions and working groups became our teammates that we depended upon this past week. Our destination might have been a platform above the water, the distant dock and shore of the Roanoke, a path through the maritime forest, or a tent we set up ourselves. While we searched for plants and animals in new habitats (floodplain swamps, pocosins, barrier islands), we found we learned things about ourselves as well. We traded in our assumptions for experiences and first-hand knowledge.

We observed the world around us with our eyes (seeing the Big Dipper for the first time!), our nose (smelling the scent markings of a red wolf telling you the boundaries of his territory), our ears (hearing the melodious trills of prothonotary warblers or raucous hoots of barred owls above our tents), our fingers (touching a crab or a snake for the very first time), and our stomachs (eating delicious food we cooked ourselves each night over an open stove or fire). We challenged ourselves to try new activities and to break stereotypes, to rise to the occasion of re-defining who we are allowed to be. We embraced our curiosity and questioned the way things were in the world around us. We dared to dream of our future careers as something different than we had imagined before. We discovered new people and sometimes the unexpected happened. But everything was part of our journey. We have arrived back home, safe and sound, but not the same people as when we left. As the days and weeks pass, our memories and reflections of our coastal adventure will continue to shape the paths we choose for our future.

You Can Run but You Can't Hide If You Leave Tracks Like That
May 15, 2014

sand dune
Looking up at the main dune on Jockey's Ridge- sand, sand, and more sand, as far as you can see…

Thursday morning we went east until we ran out of land. We ended up at Jockey's Ridge, the largest active sand dune on the east coast (It is currently estimated to be 85 feet tall, but over the years it has ranged as high as 140 feet — tall enough that it was used as a navigation landmark for early explorers). After a short talk with ranger Jenny Cox we headed out to see what animals had walked the sand overnight. The soft sand recorded the tracks of even small birds and toads (lots and lots of toads).

Hiking with Ranger Jenny from Jockey's Ridge State Park. The tracks we saw included: box turtle, snake, Southern or Fowler's Toads, fox, birds, lizards, and more!
Hiking with Ranger Jenny from Jockey's Ridge State Park. The tracks we saw included: box turtles, snakes, Southern or Fowler's Toads, foxes, birds, lizards, and more!

Walking up the dune was extremely difficult because the soft sand slid backwards under our feet. When we reached the top we could see a large part of the island because the dune is so much higher than all the land around it. The dune's peak resembled the Sahara desert — rolling hills of sand and nothing else. In the few areas where a bit of vegetation poked through the sand (the top of a buried tree perhaps), small animal tracks marked it out as an oasis of life.

From the top of the dune we could see a cross section of a barrier island — the beach on the ocean side of the island, then the dunes (foredunes and back dunes), the maritime forest (a forest adapted for high winds and lots of salt spray), and the estuarine marshes on the sound side of the island. As we walked back (or, in the case of Shaliek and James, jumped down the dune and rolled through the sand back) we noticed a number of toads jumping around at the edge of the forest. We were excited to see so many toads until we noticed a hognose snake (presumably the cause of the toads' activity), an event that was exciting to some of us and frightening to others. (Hognose snakes are not venomous but love to eat toads and even posses special teeth for puncturing the inflated body of a toad). While hognose snakes are famous for their habit of playing dead when threatened,  this one did not even after Megan caught it to let several of us touch it (including Mera who did so in a small victory over her fear of snakes! Congratulations Mera!).

Hiking up the dune face was hard work!
Hiking up the dune face was hard work!

'S-H-A-W' bears spelling out their school in appreciation for this amazing adventure!
"S-H-A-W" bears spelling out their school in appreciation for this amazing adventure!

Eastern hognose snakes are non-venomous and specialize in eating toads!
Eastern hognose snakes are non-venomous and specialize in eating toads!

After lunch we visited Nag's Head Woods, a maritime forest. We saw wax myrtle, live oak, and bay trees, all of which have waxy coatings on their leaves as protection from wind and salt. The ponds in the woods were covered with green duckweed, which camouflaged the many bullfrogs. Michaela took the opportunity to hone her observation skills by finding as many frogs as possible (under the guidance of Tamara who shared her wildlife observation tips). We also saw two broad head skinks, a type of lizard with small scales that give them a smooth, glossy appearance.

After the woods we went to the beach. The students were given half an hour to collect or observe as many different species as possible — birds, plants, macroinvertebrates, shells, and so on, a practice known as a BioBlitz. We found gulls, sandpipers, mole crabs, moon snails, mermaid's purses (the egg cases of skates), and lots of different kinds of shells. The species that generated the most excitement were the ghost crabs, two of them, which Mera and James dug out of three-foot burrows by hand.

Life at the end of the tunnel-- Mera learned how to hold a crab for the first time! These ghost crabs are responsible for the countless half-dollar-sized holes we found on the beach.
Life at the end of the tunnel– Mera learned how to hold a crab for the first time! These ghost crabs are responsible for the countless half-dollar-sized holes we found on the beach.

The most numerous species we collected were the mole crabs, which do not look very crab-like at all but are instead more like rounded shrimp or beetles (Megan suggests tiny footballs with legs). These small crabs dig backwards in the sand and use their feathery antennae to collect food particles from the water. Not only did we find moon snails but also the evidence of their feeding — round holes bored into mollusk shells. The plants at the edge of the beach shared some of the same adaptations against water loss as we had seen in the maritime forest — very thick, waxy leaves.

The beach sand was also much coarser than the sand at the dune at Jockey's Ridge. This was Mariam's first time at the beach and she was very excited and collected a large number of shells.

Since this will be our last post, here are some of our highlights:

  • Ninety three species of animals observed during the trip, including barred owls, black bears, bald eagles, cottontail rabbits, laughing gulls, and longnose gar.

    Who is this creature we found? Michaela and Tamira use the field guide to find out!
    Who is this creature we found? Michaela and Tamira use the field guide to find out!

  • Canoeing! We did a lot of it and learned a lot, both those of us new to canoeing and those of us with some experience. I, Tamira-marie, thought that canoeing was a very humbling experience because the time spent on the water gave me time to reflect on perseverance and how I had demonstrated that when canoeing on the still waters of The Devil's Gut. Also when learning about the Algonquian people, I appreciate the canoeing experience even more because of their level of difficulty in their techniques when traveling across water (standing up in a long canoe and using poles to push themselves along).
  • Mariam comments that we did a lot of things at the camp grounds that she had thought of as indoor activities – we cooked, we showered, we kept food cold without a refrigerator, and we slept.
  • Several students commented that hearing the rangers describe their jobs and how they ended up doing those jobs made them think more about the possibility of having a job that was really enjoyable (and maybe even one that takes place outside!).

    Making our first campfire — log cabin style!
    Making our first campfire — log cabin style!

  • James says that he did a lot of challenging things he didn't want to do but now he's glad he did them.

Breakfast with the Bears
May 14, 2014

Today we woke up before early, before the sun's rays could turn even Dr. Butler into a strawberry Starburst. If you drove through these fields and swamps at a normal hour you would never know that there are an average of 4.5 black bears per acre, the highest density of bears in North Carolina. We, however, saw three. The first two stood up out of a wheat field to peer at the excited bipeds in vans. The third one couldn't be bothered. It was a massive beast. Our estimates ranged from 400 to 650 pounds. It was standing in the path we had intended to walk down. The presence of the vans barely seemed to register with it as it walked slowly away. We waited another twenty minutes before walking down the trail ourselves and checked the bushes frequently as we did so.

An apt gate keeper, a bear greets us at the entrance to "bear road".

The chainlink barrier this bear was standing behind is about three feet off the ground. If you had asked James on Monday whether he would watch an enormous bear amble down a road and then walk down that road himself without knowing where the bear was he would have said, "Call the bear now and tell him I won't be around." Now he says it was a great experience. Nobody hesitated when the time came to walk down Bear Road.

Knowing that a large bear had walked down the trail, we expected to see tracks, but not in the numbers that we found — and not just bears but coyotes (perhaps red wolves, it's very hard to tell from tracks), raccoons, deer, and opossums. The tracks showed us the size of the bears (very large to small cubs) and their direction. We walked down the road and down part of a bear trail. The trees at the side of the trail were marked with deep scratches showing other bears how large the bear who made them was (way larger than Mera, even according to Mera). However, no bears were around to be seen. It was hot, and they were likely resting somewhere deep in the shade.

We used plaster to cast some of the tracks, a technique that allows tracks to be recorded and examined later. Everyone was walking down the trail searching for the largest bear track to cast. The largest front foot tracks were larger than James' self-described sizable hand. ("My hand is pretty big," James says. "No it's not," Mera replies, rolling her eyes in a master-class expression of disdain. "Bigger than your face!" James replies.)

A bear footprint. The fine sand and mud along the roads at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge makes the perfect medium for preserving tracks!

After lunch we visited the Red Wolf Recovery Center and talked with Dr. Becky Harrison of the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). Red wolves are a species of wolf separate from the gray wolf most people are familiar with. Red wolves are also extremely endangered, having actually gone extinct in the wild at one point. Captive-bred red wolves from zoos were first reintroduced into the wilds of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and have expanded in number and range. We learned about the wolves and the recovery effort from the project's assistant director who talked with us while standing in front of an enclosure containing a pair of red wolves. One of the issues facing the red wolf recovery is interbreeding with coyotes. When a wolf and a coyote pair up, the project sterilizes the coyote so that no hybrids will be produced but the wolf's territory will still be defended. We also saw furs from both coyotes and wolves to show us the difference in size and color. Red wolves are larger than coyotes and frequently, but not always, redder. The live wolves in the enclosure were cautious at first but eventually came over to the fence to look us over.

Dr. Becky Harrison, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, talks to us about her ongoing work with the Red Wolf Recovery Program

Red wolf camouflaged in the woods.
Can you find the red wolf?

We arrived back at the camping site earlier than yesterday and James, Mera, Shaliek, Megan, and Dr. Butler went for a short walk to cast more tracks. On the walk we found (and Megan caught for us) the same juvenile rat snake we saw yesterday. This time, we took the opportunity to more closely examine (and practice safely handling) this tiny snake.

24 Hours of Stink: The Voyage from the Swamp to Pettigrew
May 13, 2014

Tonight we had showers for the first time since we left Raleigh. We have finally arrived at Pettigrew State Park, our base camp, where we will be exploring all the great wildlife of the pocosins. Below are photos of all activities done for today.

Waking up this morning along Upper Deadwater Creek: Sleeping on the platform, I still felt the rocking of the canoe and woke up to songs of the swamp canary.

Brittany is pondering the nutritional value of crayfish.

Here is an assortment of dragonfly nymphs, crayfish and minnows from our macroinvertebrate sampling. Not included in this photo: water scorpions, leeches, tadpoles and snails.

Shaliek tests a replica of a Native American dugout canoe. Our canoes were not as primitive but we canoed about three miles today, a task made much easier by our prior practice.

We listened to superintendent Doug explain the history and wildlife of the area while a stuffed mountain lion prepared to attack Brittany’s elbow.

Guess which foot belongs to a juvenile black bear.

A number of fish had become separated from the lake when the water control gate was closed to the canal. We stopped and assisted park workers in moving them.

Megan shows us one of the two largest fish to be removed from the canal- a longnose gar. This was also one of the last fish removed due to the extreme effort required to catch it- he was feisty!!!!

Walking on the newly finished boardwalk trail we found our second rat snake of the day, this time a juvenile (our first was a beautiful green rat snake in the swamp)!

Who Knew We Could Canoe?
May 12, 2014

Tonight two barred owls screamed and hooted from the trees over our dining room, a wooden platform suspended two feet over the black water of Deadwater Creek. If you have a lot of imagination barred owls are supposed to hoot “who cooks for you?” but that answer is pretty obvious – Mera and James. Instead, todays’s question was “who knew we could canoe?”

When we began today only one student had ever been in a canoe before. By the end of the day we had canoed 4.5 miles without mishap. (Although it somehow escaped mention that we would be canoeing that distance until we had already completed the first mile.) Our journey was not without hazard. Like maritime adventurers of years past we had to contend with piracy in the form of the not-so-dread kayak pirate Shaliek who attempted to raid our slower cargo canoes in between doing the limbo under dead branches. We also had to contend with dangerous wildlife. A prothonotary warbler attacked Mariam (a small yellow bird flew past her face). We had a welcoming celebration from the fish who jumped around our canoes the entire trip in.

Once we reached our destination (two wooden platforms nestled in a maze of trees and cypress knees) we had to deal with pressing business: the portable toilet. “The toilet is…. creative,” Mariam comments. “It’s a bucket and a butterfly net,” not-so-dread pirate Shaliek says. Brittany suggested that the toilet contained cat litter. The Portable Environmental Toilet (PETT, don’t ask about the second “T”) is a tripod toilet seat with a catching bag. Further description is not required.

Once the toilet was set up we began work on the tents. Megan showed us how to set up the first tent in a matter of minutes. The second tent was an exact replica of the first tent and should have taken the same amount of time. Instead, it took an extra 15 minutes and almost broke our happy family apart. (Shaliek is still wrong.). After we spent 15 minutes on the second tent for the girls, the boys tent took exactly zero minutes because it did not exist. Oops. Should have been more careful packing those canoes. (At least we have all our snacks.) The tarp tent leanto thing is a lovely addition to our wooden platform in the middle of the endless swamp.

We shouldn’t leave dinner out. It was good and food matters after 4.5 miles of canoeing. We discussed the things we had accomplished today that we had not thought possible at the beginning. We were out of our comfort zone but nobody minded. Instead, we had good conversation among good friends.

A Coastal Experience
May 12, 2014

Upper Deadwater Creek9:27am, May 12: we’re underway. Two vans, eleven people, a dozen doughnuts, thirteen brownies, a container of strawberries, and a bottle of hot sauce. And some tents and stuff.

Shaw University and the Museum of Natural Sciences have partnered to take Shaw students on a five day camping trip through Eastern North Carolina using funds from the National Science Foundation Targeted Infusion Grant #94F (Principal Investigator (PI) Dr. Rental Dusenbury, CoPI Dr. Eric Butler). We will be journeying through three different ecosystems: bottomland forest and swamp along the Roanoke River floodplain, pocosins (coastal plain wetlands), and barrier islands.

During our trip we will be camping first on platforms in Upper Deadwater Creek (reached via the ominously-named Devil’s Gut) and then at Pettigrew State Park. Six of us have been camping before, four of us only once under the inspired and brilliant leadership of Dr. Butler (disclaimer: the inspiring and brilliant Dr. Butler is writing this post); the remaining five will be jumping into the deep end with this extended first-camping endeavor. We anticipate that this will be a growth experience. (“Always do what you are afraid to do.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man not noted for his camping adventures.)

During the trip the students will be divided into three groups (bears, barred owls, and red wolves) each of which will have a specific task: writing this blog, preparing food, recording animal sightings, or monitoring the weather.

A small sampling of our goals for this trip:

  • Canoeing - Tamira
  • Seeing a bear - Michaela (widely seconded)
  • Seeing a red-tailed hawk - just accomplished
  • Having fun - Tamara (not to be confused with Tamira)

This last goal seems quite likely to happen!