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On The Trail

On the Trail: Summer mode

It started early last week with a startling sound, an invisible burst of energy, a rumble in the jungle, a rustling, brush- and stick-busting sprint by something near and heavy fleeing up the escarpment from a narrow wetland framing the northwestern perimeter of Sunken Meadow.

It was a Tuesday morning and the dogs and I were working our way around a large sumac tree poking prostrate out into the second row of Christmas trees, obscuring our beaten path. As I studied its drupes, which had changed color from gold to red since it had fallen in a windy rainstorm perhaps a week earlier, whatever was harbored there bolted off, starting maybe 20 feet from me and 10 feet from Chubby, the dog standing statuesque along the dense, thorny, tangled wild-rose border. Frozen, head high, ears perked, Chub-Chub bounced excitedly south a couple times along the border, threatened to pursue, then decided against it.

Hmmmmm, I wondered, what the hell was that? Maybe a bear, because I hadn’t seen any white flashes and, frankly, it just didn’t sound like a thin-legged deer bounding away. Furthermore, Chubby’s tentative reaction was not indicative of a deer, which he will, more out of playful curiosity than anything else, briefly chase before returning. Whatever it was that we had disturbed, Chubby took the cautious approach, which set my wheels spinning. In fact, I often thought back to it over the next few days .

Something I was happy about in that familiar setting was that the landowner had finally harvested the upper hayfields, which I had been patiently awaiting to extend my walk an extra mile through scalped acreage. I had seen the man to wave to many times in passing but hadn’t had the opportunity to rattle his cage. You know, something playful like, “Hey, Buddy, what’s going on? On vacation this week?”

Well, I finally got my chance Saturday, when I caught the man outside his barn with a young hired hand. I pulled over, slid down my window, smiled, and started in on him about taking advantage of “vacation,” which seemed to humor him some before he informed me that he had a new job teaching at vocational school, a great transition that’ll provide him more free time for summer farming. Fact was, though, that he had something else he’d been wanting to share when he caught me. So, see, we’d been trying to catch each other for days.

“Yeah,” he said, eyes wide with excitement, “did you know there’s a bear down there where you walk? It’s a big one. Tracks like this (holding his hands 10 inches or more apart). It tore through the plastic wrap into five of my hay bales lined up along the woods.”

I was now certain — given this latest revelation, and combining it with what I had heard with my own ears, seen with my own eyes, plus heard a neighbor report a few days earlier during casual conversation that a large bear had crossed the road less than a quarter-mile west of my home — that what I had heard flee four days earlier was a bear.

It made sense to me that bears would migrate low around wetlands and agricultural plots in the summer. Soon the cornfields would be prime for foraging, then the berries and fruits before the big omnivores would head for the uplands in search of ripe, protein-rich hard-mast available in hickory, beech, oak, walnut and butternut groves. But before I put it in black and white, I figured I better talk to bear experts for confirmation of my deductive suspicions about an animal I’ve never studied, hunted or observed much.

The first two sources who came to mind were a couple of wildlife biologists — Ralph Taylor, now Masswildlife’s Connecticut Valley Wildlife District manager, but formerly a bear man; and Dr. John McDonald, now a Westfield State University professor, but formerly a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specialists, MassWildlife’s Deer Project Leader and before that a member of the agency’s bear-management team. I knew either or both could tell me about summer bears, and they didn’t disappoint.

I called Taylor first, had to take a circuitous route back to him through a third party in the 617 area code, and actually received my first response from McDonald, vacationing with his family and their new cocker spaniel on Cape Cod. Rrrrrrrrrrr! The press filter a man like me must go through to get benign information from state employees with whom he has enjoyed decades-long professional relationships is annoying indeed. But I won’t go there. Why beat a dead horse?

Obviously, McDonald didn’t have access to his office files but nonetheless wrote back that he found it interesting the bear had torn into hay bales. He speculated the beast must have smelled something sweet and enticing.

“This time of year, bears are eating mostly vegetation, getting off skunk cabbage, which has toughened,” he wrote. “Swamps are often good summer habitat because they’re cooler and provide succulent (easy to digest) vegetation. .. .

“I’m trying to remember what we found in the summer scats we analyzed, and think it was a pretty wide array of foods this time of year, mostly vegetation, ants and sunflower seeds. Nothing made up more than five or 10 percent of their diet.”

Taylor, finally cleared to respond by early afternoon, phoned me at home, apologized for the delay and concurred with his old friend and colleague McDonald.

“Bears will investigate anything that smells strong,” he said, “even something they aren’t familiar with. Those large circular bales wrapped in plastic give off a strong odor when they ferment in the hot sun. My guess is that’s what attracted the bear.”

He was in lock-step with McDonald on summer bear diet, saying, “They’re in their vegetation stage now, plus insects and grubs. Soon they’ll convert to mast crops.”

When told of a rich, dense two-acre field of clover I walk through daily with the dogs, he said, “Yes, they’ eat that, too. In fact, I think we have a picture on our website of a black bear eating clover. They’ll also eat alfalfa and pick at carrion in freshly hayed fields.”

When told of a large, dead snapping turtle hit by a mower not far from where we jumped the bear, Taylor chuckled and said, “Yeah, I’d expect that once that turtle got ripe and the bear caught wind of it, it was eaten.”

Told of two wood turtles that were killed during the same mowing chores, Taylor sounded sad.

“We’re concerned about wood turtles,” he said, “and have been working with farmers to delay cutting riverside hayfields until after their eggs are laid in early June. A lot of wood turtles die in June hayfields.”

Off I go.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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