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.

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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)