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A Chestnut Bear

American Chestnut with Bear feeding

Digging through some old photos I came across this story I would like to share with you.  In preparation for a staff training I was running for Two Coyote Wilderness School a few years ago, I checked on one of my favorite trees in the forest we where occupying for the class.  It is an American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), and this little area has been home to the some of the largest American Chestnuts I know of (a mere 5 or 6 inches in diameter).  My grandfather had pointed one out to me 20 years ago and ever since they have grown, gotten sick and died of the chestnut blight in this tiny spot.  There are many little saplings in the nearby area, though this little patch seems to contain the most successful.

On this day I discovered I was not the only creature in the neighborhood who was interested in this tree.  As can be seen in the photo above something had damaged the tree while it still had leaves (leaves that die early cling to the be branch unlike naturally cast off leaves which, at least for most species, fall off on their own).

american chestnut blight
American Chestnut with bark damage from chestnut blight

american chestnut

There are only three animals I know of that would do this kind of damage to a tree (this assumes it was not weather related which was clearly not the case). One are people and I ruled that out pretty quickly.  Another are porcupines who often devastate trees, cutting their branches and eating the bark.  The branches were not cut and no bark was nibbled.  This left bears.

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Damage to lower limbs caused by a black bear.
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Claw marks from climbing bear.

Here in New England we have only black bears.  They are known to climb trees and break limbs to get at whatever food the tree provides, often sitting in the tree for some time.

All this is pretty obvious to a seasoned tracker.  What was not so obvious to me is what the bear was actually eating.  I have been led to believe that even a fruiting chestnut does not bare viable nuts.  I have found the spiky husks many times and sometime unopened ones.  Those I have opened contained a withered “nut” that had no real substance to it, certainly nothing to eat worth the trouble.  I have never found a healthy looking nut inside the husk.

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More claw marks.

Below is a photo of bear scat I found very close to the tree.  It seems to contain remains of nut meat.  This area has a great deal of chestnut oak (Quercus montana) acorns (so named for the resemblance of the leaves to an actual chestnut tree though it is indeed and oak), which could account for the nutty scat. And yet still what was the bear eating from the tree?  Fully matured yet infertile nuts?  There were signs of nuts on the branches the bear broke off.  Or was it growing buds?  The tips of most of the branches where intact.

I resist the urge to make the assumption that it was indeed the nuts being consumed until I have proven to myself that they can have nutritional value. I am sure someone has the answer already and I am all ears.

I love these experiences that let me feel both competent and unsure, never running out of things to learn.

Bear scat
Bear scat very nearby chestnut tree.
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The Cattail Gathering

June 9th and 10th this year I will be hosting the 3rd annual Cattail Gathering in Litchfield CT.  It’s a wonderful gathering of people taking workshops in many different Nature related skills like wildlife tracking, wild edible plants, yoga, basket making and many others.  If you are interested in this kind of thing, and if you read my blog you must be, than take a look at the website for more information.

The Cattail Gathering

Winter Black Bear

If you haven’t noticed, Winter is here.  My friend Justin and I went out on one of the coldest days to look for moose.  Instead we found this day old bear trail. Not all bears go dormant in winter (the definition of hibernation keeps changing, hence my use of dormant) if there is enough food available.  I was still surprised to find an active bear in single digit temperatures.

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Bears are walkers, often “understepping” while traveling (the hind foot falling short of the front foot’s track). This individual almost never understepped, instead it’s hind feet fell directly in it’s front tracks.img_1523

Justin found a hair where the bear passed under a low branch.  By the track and trail dimensions and the lowness of what it passed under without a change in track pattern we could tell it was not a very big bear.

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We followed the trail for a couple miles. Most of the way the animal seemed to be traveling though in one area it shortened its stride, stopped and turned several times, and looped around . img_1549

This image, though somewhat unclear, shows scat and urine.  The scat is most surely from the bear.  I was less sure about the urine as another animal’s trail passed the same spot. It also had snow in it from the previous day’s snowfall and could have been bobcat or grey fox.  I did not follow it out as we where to into the bear trail.  The urine smelled like wet dog which neither bobcat or grey fox smell like leaving me to feel pretty confident it belonged to the bear.img_1547

img_1536Above is one of the places the bear turned back on its own trail after pausing, leaving elongated looking tracks.

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We did find some moose sign near a small wetland.  The moose had been eating the bark of this red maple tree, scraping it with it’s incisors.  Only their bottom jaw have incisors causing them to only scrap upward. img_1561

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After several hours the bear crossed the road we had come in on so we took that as an end to our journey.  It was very exciting for both of us and though we had dreams of finding the bear sleeping in a den at the end of the trail we left happy and fulfilled.

A quick disclaimer of sorts.  Single digit temperatures in fairly featureless woods with an overcast sky with the plan to “follow a bear” is a potently dangerous situation.  I do not it take lightly.  We have experience both with wildlife and cold temperatures, had a way to make fire, told someone where we were and when to expect us back and were not alone.  That said it is worth it and if one is prepared need not be feared.

Bird Babies and Other Young Creatures

I have encountered more active birds nests and seen more eggs and babies this year than in the rest of my life combined.  Learning to notice bird language and behavior as a way to go deeper in connecting with the natural world has never been more important to me.  It took years to get to the understanding I have now and the time seems to be coming to fruition this spring.

Here is a run down of most of what I observed.

     baby robins

This robin’s nest was in the garage on a shelf as it was the spot we keep them next to the wiper fluid and duct tape.  The mother would stay on the nest if we walked through even though we would be about a foot away from her.  If I hesitated even a little on my way by she would fly off.  We watched the babies grow from one egg to three and then to fledglings.  I did not notice them leave the nest, they were just gone one day. There was no sign of predation so I assume they are full grown now, probably still pestering their parents for food.

 

  

While on the deck I heard some intense little chipping sounds from the boxwood nearby.  Sure enough inside was this tiny nest of chipping sparrows.  They nest somewhere in the back yard every year, this was their most well hidden spot I have found so far.  If not for the begging of the chicks I never would have discovered it.

 

Many of the nests I found were in the back yard.  Because of this my daughter Gabby was able to check on some of them regularly like this bluebird nest in the bird house we put up a couple years ago. Pictured above is our last sighting, they looked almost ready to hop out for a few days on the ground before being able to fly.  Their parents will still feed them for some time after they are full grown.

 

I also came across some non-bird baby animals too.  Above are baby bunnies also in the back yard.  Gabby and I were outside picking the wild asters in the lawn when I spotted a cottontail hopping into the un-weeded corner of my fathers garden.  My gut told me there might be a bunny nest in there so I approached shortly after.  Unfortunately I spooked the rabbit out of the garden.  She had been right in the spot I was looking and I did not see her until she moved, her camouflage was so good.  She had been feeding her babies in their nest.  Cottontails dig a shallow depression for their young.  The nest is also covered using fur the mother pulls from her own belly and other material, concealing the babies inside.  This was done so well that when I returned the next day to show my father I had trouble finding the nest even though I knew right where it was.  In fact my father had seen a red fox walk right by within a foot or two just a few days before with no sign of noticing anything.

The grey fur covering is just visible in the image above.  This was after I reveled it slightly for the photo.

 

The unfortunate little creature above is an example of how tough life can be for young wildlife.  This is a very young bat, likely a big brown bat, lying among the guano under a well used roost at White Memorial Conservation Center.  It is so young in fact that its umbilical cord can be seen still attached and fresh.  Many, in fact most, young wild animals don’t make it past their first year, often succumbing when quite young to disease, starvation and predation.  I wonder if the mother of this bat did not come back to the roost, having met her own end, or if something else happened to this little one.

 

killdeer eggs

Back to birds.  Killdeer belong to a longlegged group of birds called plovers.  Most plovers are shorebirds and killdeer are often found at the shore and in wetlands though they nest in open country like fields and large gardens.  This one was in a rarely used little beach adjacent to a small pond dozens of miles from the ocean. I only knew to look for it because of the behavior of the mother caused by my presence.

When killdeer and other birds (I have witnessed a similar behavior with a chipping sparrow in person) feel their nest is threatened they will act “injured” and lead the predator away from the nest.  The killdeer might be the best known for this since their nests are on the ground and their display is rather dramatic (the chipping sparrow I saw did a less elaborate version).  Hopping about while dragging a wing or both and flaring its tail, this killdeer appeared to be an injured and easy meal for a passing predator.  I did follow her to get some images and once far enough away she returned to her normal fast run and left me behind.  Here is some video of this encounter.

 

 

My favorite find of the summer, a chickadee nest in a rotten log.  Chickadees are cavity nesters who, not possessing a woodpecker’s strong beak still excavate their own cavities.  They find decaying wood and dig out a space for themselves.  In this case in an old stump.  Another chickadee nest I once spotted was high in a dead birch branch.  This time I was able to get right up close and even see the mother sitting on her eggs.  As you can see the bottom was well lined with soft fibers for the eggs.  Not all cavity nesters make such a plush lining for their babies.

Spots on eggs are created as the egg is laid by glands in the mother’s birth canal.  Most bird species that keep their eggs well hidden in a cavity or nest box have plain looking eggs, not needing camouflage.  You can see the very effective camouflage on the Killdeers eggs in their ground nest above.  The chickadee eggs though are spotted despite being in a hole in a log.  I do not know what is going on here, I only found the nest because I witnessed the parent birds going in and out of the cavity and once I looked inside the spotting was not nearly enough to fool me or any egg robber worth the label.  Maybe there is a yet to be understood benefit from such markings.  They are rather beautiful and that alone feels beneficial to me.

 

 

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Chickadee Nest

I have never had the good fortune and honor of observing a chickadee nest up close before today.  Chickadees are cavity nesters and therefor much more difficult to locate and observe.  I have discovered a nest cavity in the past high tree branch.  The nest pictured below was in a rotten tree stump only a couple feet from the ground.  I watched a chickadee fly into a little hole in the stump a couple times as I was gathered nearby with some friends.  I finally approached it and captured the image below of one of the parents sitting on the nest.

Chickadee in Nest

Later I observed one parent feeding the other just outside the nest.  When both parents were away I went back an took and photo of the eggs.  What wonderful luck to get this close to a nest that was visible from the entrance with no twists or turns to block my view.

Chickadee eggs in Nest

Thank you chickadees.

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Big Spoon

maple spoon

I carved this serving spoon/ladle from a red maple branch a friend of mine had cut. It had a beautiful curve to it which I followed with the spoons shape.  Red Maple is sometimes called soft maple, and it is when compared to Sugar Maple, though its still pretty hard.  Red Maple can get brown streaks in it as you see here. Sometime they occur throughout a section of wood and is referred to as ambrosia maple by woodworkers.

Robin Nest

This nest is on a shelf in my folks garage. Every time anyone walks through the mother flies off the nest almost into the persons head, startling the heck out of them.

I had seen a Robin with a beak full of grass trying to get in just a couple weeks ago.  Now they have two eggs.  I look forward to the baby birds, my daughter Gabby and I can watch them grow.

PS sorry for the not great picture, my good camera needs repair.

Little Spoons

hand carved spoons

I made these two little eating spoons out of the same black birch log.  It’s amazing to me how complex a thing trees are.  The darker of the two was from the heart wood and the lighter the sapwood.  And they are quite thin, not much more than a millimeter in the bowl and end of the handle, and still plenty strong enough to do their job. Birches are flexible, strong trees that can bend a great deal under the weight of snow and not break.  I often see small birches with their tops bent all the way to the ground under a heavy snow.

These spoons are the smallest I have made and took just as long as the biggest ladle due to the complexity of the design necessary for a good eating spoon (the picture does not show this well as you cannot see the profile, I’ll do better next time) and their thinness.

Working with natural material that are harvested personally is one of the best ways I know to connect with ones local landscape.

Wild Edible Plant Walk With The Forest Wolf

coltsfoot

I will be leading a plant walk at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington CT May 14th (Mothers Day) from 12:30 to 3:30.  So instead of buying your mom flowers take her for a nice walk in the woods to learn about wild ones together.

You will have to register with the Institute ahead of time to be sure there is room.

With thanks

The Forest Wolf

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