Monday, April 1, 2013

Black bear den season: part IV

This is my third and final installment of black bear den visits for the spring 2013 season. I had a good run with the NYS DEC Region 8 wildlife biologists and technicians. Their invitation allowed me a truly unique experience that many, including those "in the field", may not get to experience. I'm aware of that, and VERY grateful!

To catch up on my other black bear den experiences from this year and in the past, check out those entries here.

My first entry this season focused on the protocol of handling bear cubs, and what data is taken from them. My next entry was all about Mama Bear. Every piece of information that can be taken, seems to be written down. And why not? We have the time and the access to the bears while the mother is chemically immobilized. In this entry, I'll show you what this den actually looks like. Not all bear dens are created equal, keep that in mind.

The township of den visit #3 was in Cameron, NY.
Click to enlarge the image.
Often, when people think of a bear den, they think of a cozy, sheltered rock cave. This is rarely the case. I've not seen enough dens to know what the majority of black bear dens look like in New York. I've visited and seen with my very own eyes 5 black bear dens. All of them broke "convention", or what I made convention to be in my mind.

I think it's safe to say that all of them have some sort of protection from vegetation. In a couple of cases, it was thick, dense thorny branches. In one case, it was dead Christmas trees in a brush pile. In another, the den was underneath a blown-down dead tree. The bears seem to be way more exposed to the elements than is preconceived they would be.

Region 8 Wildlife Biologist Art Kirsch (left),
and Fish and Wildlife Technician Ron Newell (right).
The location of this den was in the township of Cameron, NY. This town seems to be in the middle of nowhere, and really to close to anything. Except maybe the Pennsylvania border!

We drove down a road (dirt, seasonal, 2-track) for a few miles and ended at a dead end which had one house at the end, and was surrounded by agricultural fields. The den was down a bit of a hill, and about 50 yards into the woods at the edge of the field. Standing at the edge of the field, I could see the den, once I knew what I was looking for, so it really wasn't far from the field.

Both of the above images were taken at the same spot. The top picture was taken to my left, looking into the woods.
The red arrow shows approximately where the bear den was located.
The bottom image was taken to my right, looking out at the agricultural field.

The whole process went smoothly- the team went in a successfully and safely chemically immobilized the mother, and the rest of us came in to handle cubs and take data down from them.

There were triplets at this den, but I could only get my hands on 2 at a time!
Photo credit: Marty DeLong
Meanwhile, the mother was under the case of the veterinarian, Dr. Jeff Wyatt, and vet tech Robin English.

I was invited over to get my hands on the mother bear. It was a really neat experience...most of the group was off to the side with the cubs, obviously preoccupied. But Art, and the vet staff were working on the mother. I kind of meandered over, and they invited me to listen to her heart beat. I'm not a mother, so I haven't heard the first sounds of my child's heartbeat. But, listening to that bear's steady heart beating was awe-inspiring.
Photo credit: Art Kirsch
At this den visit, the FLCC students and faculty did not attend. They had to get back to the college for classes, but since I was there on my own, I stayed for the entire day (this was the second den visit we did that day). They asked if I would be OK with taking down some data for them, in their absence. Of course I said I would, but really it was for selfish reasons. HAVING to take down data only gave me more access to the fun stuff. And this time it was data off any of the bears, it was the characteristics of the bear den.

When I was a student at Finger Lakes Community College, during my first full time semester, John (my professor) tasked me with revamping the "den data sheet". It's not in my nature to turn something down, so I started working on it. Looking back, in the fall of 2010, I had never USED a data sheet and had actually never even seen one. I hadn't experienced a den visit, or met any of the biologists. I really had no idea what I was doing. I had the old, out of date data sheet to guide me, as well as a 3" binder stuffed full of journal articles related to bear dens. "Have at it" I was told.

I distinctly remember sitting at a computer in the Conservation Department equipment room at FLCC in tears because I had been asked to do this, and I didn't want to disappoint, but I was lost. It seems so trivial and silly now, since I've created that new data sheet, and used many, many of them since for various projects. But at the time, it was very overwhelming.

So, to be able to take "my baby" into a bear den, alone, and use the protocol I wrote and take down the measurements, and read my own was a "moment". Nothing too profound, but cool.

Here's the den!
Instead of a rock cave, this is more likened to Bird Bird's nest! In the middle of the den is a digital thermometer reading the in-den temperature. To the right of that is some one's camera that fell out of a pocket when they were removing the bear from the den.

This is the view from laying inside the den looking straight up. As you can see, there isn't a whole lot of cover.
Precipitation comes right in...

Don't judge me! I'm in a BEAR DEN, people! You'd take a picture like this too!

Below are a few snippets from the data sheet, so you can get an idea of what types of information FLCC students are interested in. A current student of the Black Bear Management class at FLCC, just presented the class's findings of bear dens in the Finger Lakes at a national conference. It was really well received, and very interesting to see all of the data collected!

And so, another fantastic experience was coming to a close. Envious classmates of mine, current and past, keep telling me how lucky I am. I am a lot of things: grateful, appreciative and fortunate mostly, but not lucky. Luck would have been if I woke up that morning snuggled in with the bears in the den! The opportunities I've been presented were made with forged relationships (with generous, patient people), and persistence on my part. It's been number one on my bucket list to visit a bear den and handle a cub. And by the time I was at the 3rd den, handling cubs was not old news by any means, but I was comfortable enough to meander around the scene, taking in different aspects of the science taking place, and enjoying the wonder on everyone's faces.

After everything was wrapped up, the cubs were placed back with their mother. There are 3 in there, although just one little guy, probably only 6-7 weeks old, peeked back at me.

I lingered JUST long enough to get this shot of this bear family.


  1. Wow, Kinda cool, I never new a bear den could be so open and relatively exposed, either. Thanks for the info. Now I'm wondering if I may have walked past bear dens in the past and never even known it. I'll have to keep a sharper eye out in the future!

  2. I'm very envious! Those cubs are just too cute! I'd want to take one home with me:) You're quite lucky to be studying these things. Nothing like living the dream:)



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