Monday, October 29, 2012

Black bears in the Berkshires

Bear crossing sign on Route 2 between
North Adams and Charlemont, MA
On Saturday, 10/27/2012, I drove to Charlemont, Massachusetts for a day trip. Without telling too much of the backstory, I met Nick and Valerie Wisniewski of Walnut Hill Tracking & Nature Center in the summer of 2011 through a class I was taking at the time at Finger Lakes Community College. If you’re interested how I got into tracking black bears, please check out my previous blog entries over at Blogger:

-Back to blogging
-Thank you, Finger Lakes Institute
-2012 SUNY Undergraduate Research Symposium
-2012 Northeast Natural History Conference

(and on a side note, I’m in the process of applying to a conference in Wisconsin and Washington DC to present these findings!!!).

Anyway, the workshop I took with them was entitled “Black Bears in the Berkshires“. It was $50 for a day in the woods with these experts, learning about my FAVORITE animal, the black bear (Ursus americanus). Nick and Valerie have been keeping tabs on this location we travelled to, which was on Mohawk Trail State Forest land. The bears have been using this land extensively for years.
I was interested in taking this workshop because these people are a wealth of knowledge. And I’m a sponge. AND it was only a 2 hour 30 minute drive! So close for such a great opportunity.

So without getting too technical, I’ll share photos of what we saw and explain briefly what they are.

'Twas a foggy morning in the mountains, but a lovely day in the woods!

Nick showing us a bear bite on
this small birch tree.
We learned about a handful of types of markings that bears leave behind. There are varying thoughts of WHY they do this, but Nick and Val (and I) agree that they’re trying to communicate something with eachother. The markings are too deliberate to have no purpose. Bears are famous for packing on the pounds through out the summer and into the fall. And then they hole up somewhere cozy for the winter months, and must rely on those fats stores to get them through the winter. Female bears even give birth in the den, so her fat stores must support hungry baby mouths as well as herself! 

I’m going to try out a metaphor, and I hope it works. All wild animals must be constantly foraging, hunting, and planning ahead for their next meal. They don’t get a bowl of kibble, they don’t call out for take-out. So all burning of energy must be focused and “budgeted”. Wild animals don’t waste a lot of their time playing or doing other “expensive” activities that will burn up important calories without replacing them. This marking that the bears do has seemingly nothing to do with stuffing their faces. They bite, claw, and rub on trees so often that the trees can die from all the activity. But perhaps they are telling eachother something? Like: “Hey sexy man bear, I’m a pretty girl bear looking for you!”, “Don’t come in this area. I’m big and scary, and this is my land!”, “There is REALLY good food here, check it out!”, “How about those Mets?”…well maybe not the last one.
A fresh bite on this birch, evident by the orangey cambium showing through the bark.
BTW, yes bears DO **** in the woods!

Marking on a birch tree.
Many wild animals have “interdigital scent glands”, or stinky feet. Every step they take, they’re leaving behind a “foot print” of scent.

can’t see it, and we definitely can’t smell it.

But for anyone who has a dog, and taken them on a walk before, you know that Fido’s nose is to the ground snarfling around learning about who was there before. So this scratching is a visual marker to other bears as well as a chemical, or scent marker as well.

The photo at left is on a beech tree. And if you aren’t aware, beech trees often yield a large crop of beech nuts. This is like filet mignon to a bear. A concentrated food source (they can literally sit in the tree on or the ground without moving) with high protein fruits. Win win! The marks on the beech have a different intent, or actually no intent at all. They are merely incidental of the bear trying to climb. They look different, I think we can all agree, than the marks on the birch. Those were long slashes, and these on the beech are small little grip marks in the bark.

This was a great day, and again I urge all you outdoors enthusiasts to check Walnut Hill Tracking & Nature Center out. They offer great programming, and are wonderful naturalists. I can’t wait to get back to MA this winter and do a winter tracking workshop!
Hugging a bear tree: the NEXT best thing to hugging a bear :)


  1. Walnut Hill, and stunning photographs of the Quabbin Reservation, no words are adequate . Thanks for the link. Greetings from Jean

  2. I forgot to tell you that I finally found what I knew with absolute certainty was a bear bite on a smallish pine trunk. It was this past May, and the bear had stomp walked up to the tree, leaving really obvious prints. I ended up putting a cam pointed at the tree, and it's been very productive!

    It was thanks to you that the bear bite was so obviously a "bear bite" to me. You gave me a good description. I love bear trees like the one that you're hugging!

    I followed bear track in the snow for a long say this weekend, hoping to find another den. All I found was the place where the bear had laid down and slept for a long time... then, he'd moved on.


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