Things that bear nerds do
I’ve worked on the Unity College Bear Study in Unity, Maine, for about a year and a half now. As we begin our second summer field season with a new crew, lessons learned, and a better understanding of where bears are in the area, I am confident that the student-led study will be even more successful this summer. Last year, to the surprise of many, we captured eight individual bears and were able to deploy three collars on females. Currently, there is one two-year-old female with a GPS/satellite collar that provides locations every four and a half hours, allowing us to practically monitor her every move.
I can honestly say that when I first began on the study, I did not have the greatest interest in black bears. Most of all, I was looking for an opportunity to gain experience in wildlife research as an undergraduate student. Well, in addition to a great experience, I’ve certainly become infatuated with bears. The fact that we can monitor our bear every few hours in almost real time astounds me. I’ve made it a part of my regular routine to check up on her latest whereabouts; as I go on my laptop periodically throughout the day I stop at my email inbox, check my Facebook notifications, and log in to see where her travels have taken her.
As a student, this all excites me. Based on the three females we’ve monitored so far, we’re finding that bears in this area of central Maine are moving across larger home ranges than in northern and Downeast Maine. So I can’t help but wonder: where will she go next? I’m always hoping for some long journey that’s out of the ordinary, but all too often I find her moving from place to place, spending a day or two here and there.
Last week, for five days straight, she stayed in a concentrated area, and I finally became so curious why she had settled down there that I took it upon myself to walk in on her. Her GPS/satellite collar is also equipped with a radio beacon, which allowed me to determine where she was by following the radio signal emitted by the collar.
After stalking through some partial cut woods and carefully placing my every step to avoid snapping twigs, I came to a fairly dense boggy area. While listening for the radio signal I scanned through the leafless winterberry and alder. My eyes stopped on a curious black shape that, after some squinting, I realized was the outline of the bear’s head. She was just staring curiously at me, and I back at her. I have terrible eyesight and wished I had brought binoculars, despite being about 150 feet away.
I stayed perfectly still and eventually she went back to her business of munching on sedges that surrounded the grass bed she was laying in. With my eyes on her, I stepped up onto a little mound to get a better perspective and snapped a twig. She bolted and the last I saw of her was her rear-end splashing through the bog.
I thought it best to inspect her bed and possibly collect a scat, as well as take a look around at possible food sources. Sedges and grasses were plentiful and a rotting smell alerted me to some skunk cabbage, a springtime favorite for bears. Her bed was very depressed and it was obvious that she had been there for days, just as the GPS locations had shown. Peculiarly, I found eleven scat piles around the perimeter of the bed, as if she were too lazy to move from her resting spot to relieve herself. As I looted through the poop and bagged a couple of piles, I couldn’t help but chuckle. “I will gladly do this for the rest of my life,” I thought.