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Otters, Bears, Birds, and Other Wildlife

The mountains surrounding the Asheville area are home to one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Countless species of plants and wildlife can be found on mountaintop ridges, along the trails and even in urban settings.

Keep your eyes peeled along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains or the national forests that wrap around Asheville and you may spot larger mammals such as bear or coyote. The Smokies alone boast more than 60 species of mammals including the recently re-introduced elk in Cataloochee just 45 minutes from downtown Asheville.

Otters

Meet Obi-Wan and Olive, two adorable North American river otters that call the WNC Nature Center home. These playful creatures are found in a wide variety of aquatic habitats and can tolerate a great range of temperature and elevations. A river otter's main requirements are a steady food supply and easy access to a body of water.

Facts you otter know…

  • Life expectancy in zoos: 16 years

  • Life expectancy in the wild: 8–10 years

  • Otters can hold their breath over 6 minutes

  • Otters can grow to be more than a meter long and weigh up to 14 pounds

  • 80% of the river otter's diet is fish, crayfish and aquatic insects

  • Otters are a member of the Mustelid family, which also includes skunks, weasels and minks

  • North American river otters can dive down 60 feet. Special "nose plug" muscles close their nostrils while they are under water

Tune In

Our Ottercam is live from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, and the best time to catch them being active is around 11:30 a.m. when they are being fed.

The otters are resting right now. Check back after 10 a.m.

See them in person

Want to visit Obi-Wan and Olive? Make plans to stop by the WNC Nature Center while in Asheville. You can see a variety of wildlife while at the park, including black bears, cougars, wolves, birds of prey and a host of amphibians and reptiles.

Bears

A bear in a car

Has there ever been a creature so fearsome yet so adorable? The black bear is the largest mammal inhabiting the forests of Western North Carolina. Its average weight is about 250 pounds, but some black bears have been known to reach over 800 pounds. If you spend enough time hiking or picnicking in the mountains near Asheville then odds are it's only a matter of time before your next bear encounter. Fortunately, the black bear tends to be friendly and will not attack humans unless provoked.

Of course, the best way to avoid run-ins with North Carolina's largest mammal is taking measures to prevent a bear encounter.

Courtesy of Chimney Rock State Park
  1. Keep your picnic area clean of food and garbage: The top reason for bear encounters is their search for food. Bears have been known to approach picnic areas and campsites to satisfy their hunger, so be sure to keep your eating and your sleeping separate. Always pack out your trash.

  2. Hang odiferous items out of reach: If you have something a hungry bear is likely to sniff out, keep it out of reach by slinging it over a branch at least ten feet above ground and four feet away from the tree trunk or nearest major tree limb. While this may not ensure the safety of your food, it will buy you time if a bear finds you in the woods.

Photo by Brenda deLaet
If you do see a bear during your mountaineering expedition, keep in mind the following safety tips:
  1. Do not approach or feed the bear: A bear sighting is an awe-inspiring experience, and it's natural to want to be closer to this magnificent creature. But keep in mind, the black bear evolved as a killing machine, albeit a cute one. The last thing you want to do is encourage the bear to seek you out as a source of food.

  2. Back away slowly and loudly: Do not run or try to be a silent ninja, because startling a bear can have unpredictable consequences. You want the bear to be aware of your presence, and you want it to know that you are not prey. Stand tall, act big and make loud noises.

  3. Do not play dead: In the unlikely event of an attack, the National Park Service Black Bear Brochure advises to fight back using whatever is available.

It is important to follow these basic guidelines not just for our own safety, but to protect the bears as well. If a bear become too aggressive towards humans for food, the proper authorities will have to put it down. Peaceful coexistence is entirely possible, so long as we treat bears with respect and caution.


Bear Sightings in Asheville

Interactions between bear and human have been on the rise, as both populations continue to grow in Western North Carolina. It's easy to see why we love the same habitat; bears and humans share a lot in common. We both love exploring the mountains and we both love to eat.


photo by Valerie Barnes - Smoky Mountain News

A black bear bravely explores Downtown Asheville.
Photo by Valerie Barnes, Smoky Mountain News.


Bear in Car

Be sure to roll up your windows when hiking in bear country!


Birds

The Southern Appalachians are a birder’s paradise. Bald eagles, Peregrine falcons, great blue herons, ospreys and pileated woodpeckers are just a few of the 200 birds that make their home here year-round, while another 80 species move through the mountains on their annual migratory journey.

The north-south orientation of the Appalachians makes this mountain chain a superhighway for migratory species, especially the feathered kind. It's easy to hear their song, but even more exhilarating to catch a glimpse of wild birds in the mountains. Fortunately for bird-watching enthusiasts, the varied ecosystems of the Asheville area host a myriad of beautiful winged creatures who remind us of nature's delicate balance.

Beaver Lake

The Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society acquired 8 acres of wetland on Merrimon Avenue in North Asheville to protect it from commercial development in 1988. Today, the Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary is a haven for birds, butterflies and dragonflies. Bird walks are held regularly on the first Saturday of each month at 8 a.m. from April to September, and 9 a.m. from October to March.

Art, the Barred Owl

Big Ivy

Douglas Falls, a 70-foot waterfall in Big Ivy, is a great place for families. The road to get there is scenic and, once you arrive, fantastic mountain hiking awaits. Elevations range from 2,200 feet to more than 5,000 feet, allowing for spruce fir zones that are home to the red-breasted nuthatch. Other species to look out for include the golden-crowned kinglet, pileated and hairy woodpecker, and the dark-eyed junco. To get there, take I-26 west from Asheville. Take Exit 15 and turn right on Highway 197. Take a right on Dillingham Road at Barnardsville. Turn left when it comes to a "T," and follow it all the way to Douglas Falls.

Chimney Rock

Peregrine Falcons love to roost on cliffs, and that is exactly what you'll find in the Hickory Nut Gorge where Chimney Rock Park is located. The walls of this canyon rise 1,000 feet above the valley floor, providing the perfect hunting and breeding grounds for one of the fastest creatures in the world. Chimney Rock Park is also one of the best spots in the Southern Appalachians to find rare warbler species, including Swainson's and cerulean warblers. To get there, take I-240 east to Highway 74-A east, also known as the Charlotte Highway. After 20 miles on Highway 74-A, you will pass through the Hickory Nut Gorge to reach Chimney Rock Park, located on the right.

Craven Gap

Many birds take advantage of the shortcut Craven Gap provides between two valleys, making it an excellent location for bird watching. Craven Gap is located at milepost 377.4 at the intersection with Town Mountain Road, providing easy access to downtown Asheville. There is also a trailhead with access to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Max Patch

You'll find a variety of terrain along Max Patch Road, which climbs from 1,900 feet to 4,629 feet at Max Patch Bald. The old fields and pastures, mixed forests and farmland attract neo-tropical migrant species to breed, including golden-winged warblers and least flycatchers. To get there, take I-40 west to Exit 7. Turn right on Cold Springs Creek Road. Follow this road for 6.2 miles until you reach Max Patch Road, then take a left. The Max Patch parking area will be on your right after 1.5 miles.

Mount Mitchell

Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, is just a short drive from Asheville. Here you'll find a breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view from the summit, as well as hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult. The alpine spruce-fir forests provide a unique habitat for close to 100 species of birds including the red crossbill, golden-crowned kinglet and ruffed grouse. To get there, take the Blue Ridge Parkway north from Asheville to milepost 355.4. Turn left on Highway 128 to access Mount Mitchell.

Mount Pisgah

From high atop Mount Pisgah, you can see the city of Asheville, Cold Mountain and vast expanses of the Pisgah National Forest. Enjoy a panoramic vista of the beautiful mountains in Western North Carolina, where trained eyes might recognize the Northern Saw-whet Owl or Alder Flycatcher. To get there, take the Blue Ridge Parkway south from Asheville to milepost 408.6, where you will find parking lots for Mount Pisgah.

The North Carolina Arboretum

With easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway and 434 acres of some of the most diverse forestland in the East, the North Carolina Arboretum attracts plenty of visitors of the winged variety. It won't be difficult to spot the vibrant scarlet of North Carolina's state bird, the cardinal, but you'll need patience to find the elusive hooded warbler or red-eyed vireo amongst the lush foliage of Bent Creek. To get there, take I-26 east to Exit 33. Turn left onto Highway 191, going south. The North Carolina Arboretum will be on your right after 2.4 miles.

Not So Wild

Western North Carolina is covered with miles of rolling farmland, and home to a variety of "wildlife." Asheville offers a variety of ways to interact with the more domestic creatures of the animal kingdom. Here are a few ways to go hand on with these barnyard adventures, perfect for a family outing.

Llama Treks

These curious creatures are very friendly and approachable. Enjoy guided llama trekking through the Great Smoky Mountains and let a llama carry your lunch or gear.

Baby Goats

Who doesn't love baby animals? Take your kids to see the "kids" at Antler Hill Farm at Biltmore. The farmyard, which is open daily, features professional interpreters that will introduce you to a variety of family-friendly animals.

Monarch butterfly migration

Butterfly House

Asheville is a stop along the annual monarch migration. Visit Hop n' Blueberry farms to tour their butterfly home and learn more about this beautiful winged creature. Be sure to pick some blueberries while you're there!

Sheep

The educational zoo at the WNC Nature Center has Cotswold Sheep, usually white, though black specimens have been recorded. Called "Gentle Giants", they are one of the largest sheep breeds, with rams (males) averaging around 300 pounds and ewes (females) weighing up to 200 pounds. They are noted for their long, coarse fleece of naturally wavy curls and the tuft of longer wool on their foreheads.

Horses

Explore the mountains by horseback. Sandy Bottom Trail Rides offer a chance to ride a horse, sit in a horse-drawn carriage or enjoy a hayride though the countryside. Their big Belgian horses make quite a show.