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.
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.

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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.

Forever Learning… a Lesson in Trailing and Tracks

A few days ago I got to go out tracking with some friends.  We came across some great stuff I’d like to share with you including ritual bear trails and moose sign.

Pine Tube Moth Larva's Shelter.
Pine Tube Moth Larva’s Shelter.

One of the first things we came across were little tubes made of pine needles like the ones above. They hold a moth larva that overwinters inside.  I had never noticed them before.

Ritual Bear Trail
Ritual Bear Trail

Kersey had been here before and brought us to this ritual Black Bear trail.  The bears walk in the footsteps of past bears, grinding their feet into the ground, leaving sometimes obvious and long lasting impressions.  It is hard to see in the photo though they were quite clear in person.

This sign is usually associated with marking trees though we didn’t find any.  We were more focused on something else.

Lee with a possibly bear damaged tree on ritual trail
Lee with a possibly bear damaged tree on ritual trail

Lee is from South Africa where he runs Nature Guide Training which teaches guides and other students about African wildlife.  He was intensely curious about everything.

Kersey and Mike exploring bear sign
Kersey and Mike exploring bear sign

Kersey runs Original Wisdom which also trains people in wildlife tracking and other Naturalists studies.  She is generously mentoring Deneen and I in trailing wildlife (the act of following tracks to the animal who made them).  More on that later.

Mike is a tracker and forager who is on his way to great renown in the world of survival skills.  He was also known on this day as Samwise sans frying pan.

One of two large Red Squirrel Middens we came across
One of two large Red Squirrel Middens we came across

We also found some of the largest Red Squirrel middens I have ever seen.  Red Squirrels store food in large amounts, usually underground, in what are called larders.  They eat this food while perched in a favorite spot leaving a big pile of scraps, in this case pine cone parts.

Red Squirrel sign on white pine cone
Red Squirrel sign on white pine cone
The other large midden
The other large midden
many ages of Red Squirrel eaten pine cones
Many ages of Red Squirrel eaten pine cones
Black Bear sign on a rotten log
Black Bear sign on a rotten log

In another area of the woods where more bear sign in the form of torn apart rotten logs.  Bears dig through them looking for grubs to eat.  I especially like the one below as the bears hind feet pushed down the ferns below the logs giving a better impression of it movements.  The destruction seems intense however I bet it is quite a deliberate act on the part of the bear, possibly even slow and methodical.

More Bear sign on logs.
More Bear sign on logs.
Bear claw marks on sugar maple
Bear claw marks on sugar maple

A bear had been up this big old maple tree leaving some claw marks.  They may eat the maple seeds up there though that is just my guess.

Unknown species of "Foxfire Fungus"
Unknown species of “Foxfire Fungus”

Another cool find was the fruiting body of a type of foxfire fungus.  There are several types of fungus that are referred to as foxfire because they are phosphorescent (glow in the dark). I have yet to determine the species here.  It is the one responsible for the greenish blue rotten wood one often sees in New England.

The main purpose of this trip was to practice trailing.  Deneen was not able to be with us this day so it was me and Mike under the tutelage of the experts.  We had found some old moose sign early in our time.

Moose stripping of tree bark for food
Moose stripping of tree bark for food

Eventually we found a trail to follow. Below is a track, one of the very few obvious to me.

Another moose track, one of the few obvious
Another moose track, one of the few obvious
Kersey helps me find the moose trail
Kersey helps me find the moose trail (photo by Lee Gutteridge)

The tracks were very difficult for me to find.  Some were clear, two or three or four in a row, then nothing.  The terrain was not what would be called easy.

Andy on a moose trail in what is locally refereed to as "shit-tangle" habitat
Andy on a moose trail in what is locally referred to as “shit-tangle” habitat (photo by Lee Gutteridge)

After loosing the trail and finding it again (usually it was re-found by one of the others) we would come across something really obvious.  When Lee called us over to this moose scat he said, in that dry humor of experienced outdoors people, “I think it may have been here.”

Relatively fresh Moose scat of one of the animals we were trailing
Relatively fresh Moose scat of one of the animals we were trailing
Moose track in the forest floor
Moose track in the forest floor

I wasn’t going to find a moose that day, the trail was a little old and really difficult to follow.  That was fine with me because I was following a trail further than ever before.  Sure in snow I have followed trails for miles, even catching up to the animal.  That’s easy.  This was challenging. I searched for occasional clear sign like the image above of crushed logs and sticks, loosing the trail again and doubling back to the certain print to start over.

I had one really good sequence that I had found by myself and followed a few dozen yards with confidence.  In that moment it was pretty clear that I was made for this stuff.

It was also quite humbling as I stumbled around, to be with two people who routinely track lions in Africa this way.

Imagine that… lions.

(photo by Lee Gutteridge)
(photo by Lee Gutteridge)

Algonquin Provincial Park Tracking Trip

Deneen and I have just returned from White Pine Program’s Algonquin Park Wildlife Tracking Expedition.  It was a trip of a lifetime.  We went with the intention to track the wolves of the park who have their own interesting story which I will get to in future posts.  This post will be an overview of the trip, what it was like to be there in the deep snow and extreme cold, with really great people, tracking amazing Northwoods animals.

So here goes.

Deneen and Andy in our cold weather attire

Canadians use Celsius and Kilometers.  Compared to miles and Fahrenheit the numbers always seem big.  The speed limit was 100 and it was about 20 below when we took this picture.  Thats -4 F.  Add wind chill and some days were -20 F or colder.  The lowest it got at night was something like -30 to -40 F. 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet, its also where your nose hairs freeze into prison bars.

Alexis with bear sign

Alexis Burnett from Earth Tracks in Ontario was one of our instructors. He and Dan Gardoqui from White Pine Programs lead the trip along with Caren Vigneault also from White Pine who kept us wonderfully fed. It takes a lot of good food to keep warm in those temperatures.

bear bite marks

We experienced lots of cool tracks and sign of the Algonquin Park wildlife.  The above two photos show Black Bear bite marks on a telephone pole, excuse me, hydro pole.

sitzmark

I had never seen as much flying squirrel activity as we did just in the first day.  This is an older set of tracks of a flying squirrel landing and hopping away back to the trees.  There are two species known in the park Northern Flying Squirrel and Southern Flying Squirrel, both of which remain active all winter long, living in communal dens in hollow trees and eating seeds, nuts and any insects they might find.

Raven track

Raven track.  We saw a few over the week flying about.

Bear scratching on tree

More bear sign. This time claw marks on this fir tree. Deneen is demonstrating the technique. She is standing on at least two feet of snow so the bear must have reached much higher than she easily could.

Fisher tracks

The group as a whole (we often split up for the day) saw tracks of all six of the Park’s mustilids; Fisher (seen above in a walking pattern), River Otter (below coming out from a whole in the ice, rolling around and moving away), Pine Marten, American Mink, Long-tailed Weasel and Short-tailed Weasel (also know as Ermine when wearing their winter white).

otter tracks and sign

I was often surprised by the familiar species we encountered, only a few were really foreign to me. Below is a hole excavated by the very familiar Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker sign

Moose rub

Above Deneen stands next to a moose rub that nearly destroyed this little tree.  Again remember that she is standing on two or three feet of snow that was not there when the moose did the job.  Deneen didn’t demonstrate this one, maybe next time.

Raven tracks

More Raven tracks.  They can be distinguished from crow tracks by the thick hallux or back facing toe which is very wide and robust near the center of the foot which also shows clearly.  In crows the center shows weakly and the hallux is thin.

Black-backed Woodpecker sign, bark sloughing

This is a good one for bird nerds, Black-backed Woodpecker sign.  They pry off bark to get at the insects underneath.

Lunck time campfire

Most days we had a fire for lunch time.  This particular day it was more welcomed than usual.

Out on the lake

On the second to last full day the tradition on this trip is to snowshoe out to an old ranger cabin near Chit Lake about 4 k from the Research Station where we where staying. The first part of the hike was over a frozen lake. One of the park staff later told us the ice was not very thick this year, only 16 inches compared to the usual up to 3 feet.

Deneen and I at the Chit lake rangers cabin

Deneen and I at the old rangers cabin.  In the early days of the park there was a lot of poaching and the rangers patrolled in teams of two, often with dogsled, from one cabin to another looking for poachers and shooting wolves.  More on the Park’s relationship with wolves in a future post, you will see it changed dramatically.

Some clear track lessons from Dan

Dan gave us a lesson on small mammal front tracks on the floor of the cabin.  V = vole, S = shrew, and M = mouse.

Back on the ice on Sasajewan Lake

Back on the lake as some snow fell.

Chickadee eating from our hands

There are places in the Park where people have been feeding the birds for a long time. The Chickadees, Red-bellied Nuthatches and Grey Jays will eat out of your hand in these spots. This alone was worth the trip.

Chickadee on my head

Some of the white in my beard is ice (some of it).

Chickadees on Deneen's head

Chickadee

Whiskey Jake

Grey Jays, also known as Camp Robbers and Whiskey Jacks (above and below) are studied here, in what might be the longest ongoing wildlife study in the world, by Dan Strickland whom we met briefly. His license plate says “Grey Jay”. Top notch wildlife biology goes on in the Park.

Grey Jay in my hand

Below are Grey Jay tracks. Somewhat similar to our Blue Jay only quieter with a pretty little song.

Grey Jay tracks

The tracks we encountered the most were those of the Pine Marten (aka American Marten). They were all over the bush (a Canadian term for the forest) and around our cabins.

Our cabin in Algonquin Park

This was our little cabin. As the only couple on the trip we got one all to ourselves. And below are Marten tracks we found on the front porch one morning.

Marten tracks on our porch

evening activities

In the evening we all did research, pouring over the books, learning everything we could about they day’s observations. Lots of silliness and laughing, bad jokes guitar and banjo playing and good food may have been involved as well.

Moose track

The two biggest stories of the week involved these tracks above and below. In following posts I will share these stories, and what I have learned since then about these animals.

Wolf tracks!

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