Bearly There (sorry)

 NJ Black Bear – photo by Rob Socha

A few ‘bear aware’ flyers and posters are beginning to appear around town – especially in sporting goods stores or places that sell feed. A bear population in KY is a relatively new thing – which seems rather odd considering the amount of bear habitat here. But the bears have been gone since around 1900.  The wooded habitat was severely logged, and the bears hunted without laws or limits.

The forest habitats have largely recovered from excessive logging, and black bears are now finding their way into eastern Kentucky from Virginia and West Virginia, and in southern KY, from Tennessee. We’re sort of between the two, in south-central KY very close to Tennessee in the Daniel Boone National Forest, and only 20 miles from the Big South Fork Recreation Area.  Plenty of prime bear habitat – but we have heard of only one or two sightings.  I can’t believe that there are no bears here, so I’m thinking the lack of sightings may be due to the fact that, unlike overpopulated New Jersey (a few old posts  here and here) the bears in KY simply have plenty of open space and don’t venture near or stay around people long enough to be seen.

The current bear situation in KY reminds me of NJ when I was a kid in the 60s.  I’m sure there were a few around, but we never, ever saw them. I saw my first bear in NJ in the mid 80s, only because I was with the bear biologist and we were tracking a radio-collared female. Come to think of it, we never did actually see her – she kept moving away whenever we got close.

According to the Fish and Wildlife authorities here, the number of bears in KY is unknown.  There are enough, however, in three eastern counties that there’s going to be a short bear hunting season this December. Of course there is.  I won’t say any more about that….

For now, having come from NJ where bears are commonplace, I’m enjoying not having to worry about them being in my face.  But the truth is, I miss seeing them.  Surely, they belong in woods as vast as these, and I’m certain they are out there. I”m hoping we can continue to enjoy this natural balance, where they remain wild and in the woods instead of parked in my yard.

I have all this new-found freedom!  I can hike here and be outside without constantly watching for bear. I can put up my bird feeders and suet without imposed restrictions from the authorities. I can leave my birdfeeders out overnight. Still can’t leave the trash, but that’s due to coyotes, feral cats, raccoons, opossums, neighborhood dogs, and other mysterious nighttime critters.

So far, my suet and bird feeders have been molested only once by raccoons.  I’ve hung them out-of-reach on a wire line now, so the raccoons will have to scrounge for leftovers on the ground. When my hanging suet and sunflower feeders disappear, and when I find my cross wire ripped out of the poles and on the ground, I’ll know there’s been a bear in the yard.  Or maybe Bigfoot.  Cain’t never tell around here….


Meanwhile, Under the Pines…

Banding ground  to a halt for a few days.  My Jeep is in the shop, which meant there was no available vehicle to take into the bear fields, as we need to cross the Puddle of Doom in order to reach the net lanes.  The bander who helps out a couple of times a week was ill, and that left the decision to walk alone into the fields and take my chances…or not.  I chose not. 

Although this decision resulted in a mild case of ‘bander’s guilt’ (i.e. I should be out there banding!!), as a naturalist I also respect the unpredictable nature of wild animals.  Especially ones larger and stronger than I, who are feeding on berries that they may consider theirs alone.  I figure it only takes one unpredictable big hairy animal with a bad attitude to ruin my day and possibly my life, and so bander’s guilt takes a back-seat to common sense.

Apparently, this family of deer had the same thoughts.  Seems like a good time to huddle on the moss under the pines and relax, and leave the berry-picking to others.

Oh NO! Not Again!

This can’t be happening….

But it is.  First thing this morning on the way to the fields to open the nets, there’s a bear in the adjacent field.  This is an adult bear,  not one of the yearlings from yesterday.  Bigger. It has an ear tag.  I round the bend and enter the banding field where Net #1 is set and it immediately becomes apparent that we have a serious bear problem. 

The two cubs from yesterday – or at least, the same sized cubs in the same place – are running across the net lane at the end of the net.  They tree in the large pine on the left of the net, on the edge of the swamp.  This photo is taken from the Jeep, parked at Net #1.  The second cub is just below the first.  The adult bear from the field is no where to be seen, so I sit quietly in the Jeep and observe.  Only moments pass before there is much shaking of the autumn olive bushes about 10 feet in front of the Jeep.  I can’t see the bear through the vegetation, but it must be the adult.  I hear the crack of breaking branches as she brings the berries down to her level.

The cubs remained treed for only about five minutes.  They can see the Jeep from their perch in the tree, but I remain quiet.  They come down with lots of scratching and clawing, and run across the net lane back to what is apparently their favorite hiding spot now – the bushes from yesterday.  OR, is that adult bear their mother?  Somehow, I don’t think so, or she would have been nearer the treed cubs.

Okay, so I won’t be opening net #1.  I drive down the path, passing Nets #2 and #3 (still too close to the bear cubs).  Maybe I’ll just open Nets #4, 5, and 6.  Or not.  Maybe I’ll just drive back up to Net #1 and make some noise, and see what happens.  Sounds like a plan.  I stop by Nets 2 and 3, honk the horn, get out and shout “Run Away!”   I don’t hear anything, don’t see any movement, but bears are amazingly quiet.  I get back up to the  bushes where the first two cubs were, but don’t see anybody.  I go back to the Observatory building and turn around.  Let’s try this again. It’s still early enough to open nets – around 7. 

It’s an instant replay.  Adult bear in the field AGAIN.  She cuts through the bushes towards Net #1.  This time, when I get to Net#1, a little cub, just one, runs across the net lane and into the swamp.  This is NOT good.  Is the adult bear that was just in the field this one’s Mom?  The same adult as before?  This cub was NOT one of the yearlings, at least not the two I’ve been seeing.  This one is much smaller.  There’s no sign of the adult now, so I am assuming Mom and small cub have gone into the swamp (to the left of Net #1).  

Okay, forget Nets 1, 2 and 3.  I’ll open 4, 5 and 6.  I drive down the path to those nets, and unbelievably, there is a bear sitting in the autumn olive bushes on the other side of net #4.  He ducks down into the bushes and disappears.  This can’t be Mom, she went the other way, with the small cub. There’s no way for her to get here, at the other end of the field, without my seeing her.  This bear has not just been in the field and spooked by my Jeep.  Clearly, this is another adult, sitting there looking at me.  As I grab for the camera he ducks into the bushes.  This is a second adult, and that makes him bear number five!  And that’s just counting the ones I’ve seen.  I’m certain there were others, because as I was sitting quietly in the Jeep, parked at Net 4, and with the windows open, I could clearly hear the snap and crack of autumn olive branches being pulled down to bear-level, coming from the field beyond where nets 7 through 12 are located.  

I decided there would be no banding today. Although I enjoy watching the bears, I will need to figure out what to do about this, as it is going to seriously disrupt my banding schedule.  It won’t be so bad on days when there are two or more banders, but on days when I band alone, I need to rethink this plan.

Or, we could become Raccoon Ridge Bear Observatory.  Tours, anyone?

Too Close!















This morning seemed to be promising for migrating birds.  As usual, I opened the nets around 6:45 (yes, we wait until we can at least see what’s around in the field, and for very good reason).  I was banding alone this morning and when that’s the case, I’m probably a bit more wary than other times.  Didn’t see any bears this morning, so I opened Net #1 and went on to the others. 

On my way back from opening the last nets, I stopped at Net #1 again to pick a song sparrow.  I’m standing there getting the bird out, and right behind me I hear a bit of rustling in the bushes.  Through the goldenrods and brambles, I can see the tell-tale, solid black nothing that is bear-hide under the bush.  Right there!

Fortunately, it was a little guy, about the size of a German shepherd, standing there looking at me.  Next to him was another sibling.  So I said to myself “Self, where’s their mother?” 

I got the bird out of the net in record time and returned to the Jeep, which was only a few feet from the end of the net.  Surely when I beeped the horn and started the engine, the bears would move.  Not so.  They were camped out and seemed not the least bit concerned about my presence. No sign of Mom anywhere.  Although I didn’t make too much noise and didn’t feel it necessary to really scare them (I didn’t want them to panic and run across Flatbrook Road), they certainly knew I was there, and it was pretty apparent that these two cubs had no intention of leaving.  They looked relaxed and not at all afraid, and they intended to stay put and munch berries.  Okaaaaay.

I ended up closing net #1 (carefully, while looking over my shoulder) and watching the bears between net runs to the other nets. 

These two are the first bears I have encountered while banding that have not immediately run away, which left me wondering.  They weren’t that big, and believe me, I was watching for Mom, but she wasn’t around.  I do think these two are on their own.  After half an hour or more of watching them sit around the bushes, munching on berries and just hanging out, I figured they weren’t going to be much of a threat – but I wasn’t going to press my luck either.  It’s not the first time there’s been a bear in that particular set of bushes and apparently, won’t be the last. 

I found it sort of amusing.  We have nets further afield set up between a large stand of autumn olive bushes – that I normally don’t even open when I’m alone because visibility is very poor.  Instead, I open nets #1 through #7, which are in a more open field and visibility is much better.  Or so I thought until this morning.  It made me wonder how many times have I  ‘safely’ banded alone there with bears hiding just a few feet away?

Managed a blue headed vireo and a few others before deciding to call it quits.  I have help tomorrow.  Anyone who wants to volunteer to watch out for bears while I’m banding, just let me know!

What Bird is That?

One of the first tasks at the bird observatory every morning is to put seed out on the feeder.  We have a unique feeder.  Its the wellhouse from the old farmhouse that once stood where the RRBO building is now.  The well is no longer in use, and a metal grate installed at the top protects anything from falling into its watery depths.  A piece of fiberboard cut to fit the top provides the feeding platform, and Voila!  The perfect bird feeder!

The wellhouse roof protects winter seed from snow and ice, so the birds can always locate some food.  The former cover was a piece of plywood that didn’t quite fit exactly, so there were openings to the grate on either side.  Scared me half to death the first time I saw a chipmunk dive under the top cover.  I thought he was a goner until he popped out the opening on the side of the well.  I needn’t have worried – the inside walls of the well are hand-laid stones, and there are plenty of holding-on places for a chipmunk.  Still, it was a bit unnerving to see the chipper dive into the well. 

We have since replaced the plywood with a fitted piece of fiberboard.  Happened to be laying around, so we made use of it.  So far, it’s only slightly warped and works just fine.  In the summer I hang flowering plants around the top for the hummingbirds.  In winter, the seed is spread on the cover and we hang suet and smaller feeders from the roof structures – but usually, not until the bears are in for the winter.  We have found our hanging feeders in very odd places on the grounds, far away from the well house.

So yesterday morning, I went out to add more seed to the feeder, which was completely bare of sunflower seeds (I took this photo after adding seed).  Didn’t take me long to figure out why.  There were some obvious tracks etched into the fiberboard.  Some big ‘bird’ had apparently climbed on to the feeder and helped themselves to the seed.  Can you tell by it’s track what bird it was?



Trails, Snakes, and Bear Poop

What a title – but it’s the best I can do at the moment.  And quite descriptive, really.  Rob and I enjoyed a walk on a new (for us) trail in the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge.  I am especially pleased to see the creation of this refuge, as Sussex is my humble hometown.  I grew up only a few miles from the Wallkill and have a special fondness for this river.  But I digress.

There are many trails in this refuge, but the Wood Duck Trail has to be one of the best (as confirmed by hikers we met who have walked the others).  It is an easy 2 mile (one way) hike along a former railroad bed that ends in a broken bridge over the river, so if you walk to the bridge and back to the parking area, you’ve done an easy and entertaining 4 miles.

We regularly walk that anyway, so this wasn’t a strenuous trip.  In fact it seemed much shorter, but that was because of all the neat things to see.  The trail traverses wetlands and swamps, offers benches to sit quietly and observe, and even has a blind set at the edge of the swamp.

The blind overlooks a portion of the swamp and several wood duck nesting boxes, though we didn’t see any wood ducks.  There were great blue and little green herons, a family of muskrats, many different species of birds, frogs and peepers, and turtles on almost every available log. 

We were there at the wrong time of the day for much activity, but the signs are abundant as well.  I walked the trail myself a few days ago, then brought Rob back for another visit.  On my first trip, I didn’t go all the way to the end – it was nearing dusk, I was alone, there weren’t any other cars in the small parking lot, which meant there wasn’t anyone else on the trail.   I had intended to make it to the end, until I came upon a pile of poo in path and decided to turn around and head back toward the Jeep.

That evening when I showed a friend the pictures on my camera, she remarked that I was the only person she knew who took pictures of animal poo.  Really?  That just struck me as odd.

Anyway, when Rob and I walked the trail a few days later, there was no sign of a bear anywhere, and several other people on the trail, so we did go the whole distance.  Good thing we did too, or we would have missed this handsome fellow, coiled in one of the saplings at the edge of the river very near the end of the trail.

Isn’t he/she  magificent?   Rob wasn’t really happy with the photo – the snake was backlit by the sun and he had to use the flash, which discolored the snake’s eye.  But I think he did just fine.  Snakes aren’t my favorites by any stretch, but we stood and watched this guy for about fifteen minutes with nothing but admiration for him.  I’m not sure he could say the same about us, for after a while, he started to raise his head and think about moving away.  We left him alone and continued on our way.  Life is good.



Fearless….For Now

I noticed an interesting phenomenon within myself the other day, that surprised me and has me wondering how it came to be.  Apparently, I’m no longer “timid” around black bears.  As for how it came to be, I’m sure not having a serious confrontation of any kind has helped immensely!


As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I was born and raised only about 10 miles from my present location, and have lived here my whole life (OK – more than half a century), with the exception of 10 years spent in Florida, one year in North Carolina, and almost two years in Kentucky.  In none of those places had I ever encountered a black bear.   Admittedly, when I returned here in March, 2006, the ‘living in bear country’ warnings had me just a bit nervous.  I knew about bears; I’d read all the literature, and even spent time in the 1980s with NJ state biologists, tracking and tagging black bears in the Delaware Water Gap.  But that was different.  There were a group of us together, and the bears would be drugged.  Easy.

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