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.

DSC_0289
Damage to lower limbs caused by a black bear.
american chestnut bear
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.

DSC_0322
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.

White Memorial Conservation Centers 2013 BioBlitz

Red Fox Tracks

Deneen and I had the opportunity to put our tracking to good use for the Mammal Team at White Memorials BioBlitz over the weekend.  For 24 hours a large team of scientists, experts and volunteers counted every living species on White Memorials 4000+ acres of very diverse habitat.  The final count was 931 species.  The Mammal Team counted 31 species, many of which were identified by tracks or sign.  There were also direct observations, live traps, and audio monitoring for bats.

Here was the Mammal team’s list and how they were identified.

Human    direct observation

Domestic Dog tracks and direct observation

Domestic Cat tracks and direct observation

Coyote   scat

Domestic Horse  scat, tracks, direct observation

Domestic Cow   direct observation

Red Fox   tracks

Raccoon   tracks, scat

Opossum   tracks

River Otter   scat

Long-tailed Weasel   tracks

Striped Skunk    scent

Woodchuck    direct observation

Porcupine    feeding sign on trees

Muskrat   scat, tracks, direct observation

Beaver   tracks, feeding sign, dam and lodges, direct observation

Bobcat   tracks

Jumping Mouse spp   tracks

Grey Squirrel   tracks, direct observation

Red Squirrel   track

Chipmunk   tracks, direct observation

White-footed Mouse   (the Mammal Team leader found evidence, I forgot to ask him what kind)

Meadow Vole   caught in live trap

Mole spp  tunnels

Little Brown Bat    audio monitoring

Big Brown Bat   direct observation, audio monitoring

Silver Haired Bat    audio monitoring

Red Bat    audio monitoring

Hoary Bat    audio monitoring

Eastern Cottontail   direct observation ( I could not completely rule out New England Cottontail which are know to be on the property in a different location)

White-tailed Deer    tracks, scat, direct observation

I also share some images from our time on the land.  At the top of the page are Red Fox tracks.

Long Tailed Weasel Tracks

Above Long-tailed Weasel tracks, below a painted turtle laying here eggs.

Painted Turtle laying eggs

Sunrise Litchfield Country Club

Above the Litchfield Country Club Golf Course at dawn (the clubs land is part of the White Memorial Foundation).

Below a spider in its web (sp unknown)

Spider Web

Turtle Tracks

Above turtle tracks, below a beaver trail.

Beaver tracks

Raccoon Tracks

Above Raccoon tracks along with bird tracks (possibly Killdeer or similar).

Below Muskrat tracks.

Muskrat Tracks

Osprey mobbed by Red-winged Black Bird

Above Osprey pestered by a Red-winged Black Bird, Below nest and eggs of a Northern Water Thrush located under bank of a small stream (one of the Bird Team identified it for us).

Northern Water Thrush eggs and nest

Jumping Mouse Tracks

Above Jumping Mouse sp tracks, below old Porcupine feeding sign (missing patches of bark)

Porcupine Feeding Sign

Otter Scat

Otter scat.

We spent all of the second half of the 24 hours searching for just a few more species, we already counted all but 2 or 3 of the final number by early morning (the time went from 3:13p on Friday till 3:13 p on Saturday). Several species we knew were there eluding us including Mink, Fisher, Bear, Shrews, more mice and voles.

Porcupines Porch

Porcupine sign, tracks

 

There is a steep rocky ridge near Mt Agamenticus in southern Maine where the Hemlock trees are thin and the Porcupines are thick.  Above and below you can see obvious sign of the damage Porcupines can cause as they feed on the bark of trees by nipping off branches to get at the tender ends.

porcupine damage to Hemlock tree

 

I came here knowing I might run into the creatures and hoping to see other creatures as well.  After wandering around for a few hours and seeing a lot of porky tracks and not much more I returned to the rocky ridge hoping for some bobcat sign.  This spot is known for bobcat.  They like to den and lay up in the same bouldery places as porcupines.

Porcupine tracks in snow

By now I had been out for quite some time and my body had relaxed and slowed.  I climbed up the jumbled boulders toward a likely spot.  I have been told it is better to hold no agenda in the wild, that it can be sensed by other animals and cause them to flee or that an agenda narrows one’s focus and other things can be missed.  I had an agenda to get to a certain spot likely for Bobcat sign.  Maybe I held it loosely enough because as I moved up I was a bit startled by this sleeping Porcupine beside me, napping on the porch of its den.

 

Porcupine in Den

 

Porcupine, I soppose can afford to sleep more soundly than other animals having quills to protect them.  I managed to maneuver around a little and take many pictures with a noisy shutter without waking it.

Sleeping Porcupine

 

Sleeping Porcupine in den

 

Porcupine

 

Eventually I got greedy and disturbed this cool creature.  A good tracker gets in and out without the animals knowing, I have some learning still to do here.  It clicked its teeth and moved slowly back to the deepest gap between rocks.  I left slowly too, as not to disturb further.

Porcupine Under the Garage

porcupine in trail camera

Deneen and her nephew Jace put our camera trap behind her parents house in Maine where we had seen tracks going in and out from under the neighbors garage.  While they were out they saw the culprit in person trudging through the snow.  The porky was well known to her family, its trails are visible year round as well as the damage it caused the trees as it feeds.

camera trap

The camera did good work and captured many more pictures than I put here.  The animal seemed to come and go from its den under the garage multiple times a night.

porcupine near barn porcupine in camera trap

A couple winters ago we saw Grey Fox tracks going under the garage as well as the Porcupine.  I don’t know if they were sharing winter quarters (Grey Fox, unlike other canines, will use dens year round to sleep in) or if the fox merely  went under there several times looking for mice.  No sign of grey fox yet this winter.

Porcupine in back yard