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Squirrels, Bears, and birds: What’s the connection?

The Clark’s Nutcrackers have been very busy over the last month.  So have the squirrels.  They’re both competing for the Limber Pine seeds that grow around here.  The birds extract and stash seeds.  The squirrels create middens with stored seeds and cones.  The bears let these animals do their work, then rob the middens.

Clark's Nutcracker

It is really amazing to watch the Nutcrackers.  They are so adept at using their beak to extract the seed.  Limber pine cones are full of sap, really sticky.  I’ve watched a bird work a cone, sometimes to just get sap or a bad seed.  The bird cleans it’s beak quickly and works another seed hole.

Squirrels too can work a cone very quickly and efficiently.  Both squirrels and Nutcrackers seem to know exactly which seed is viable or not.  I’m sure it has something to do with its weight.  Sometimes I find a cone on the ground with a few seeds left in it.  Invariably those seeds are empty, either with worm holes or they just didn’t mature.

Meanwhile, after working hard on caching all these seeds, the bears are coming around robbing all the caches they can find.

There’s a black bear working my neighborhood intensely, day after day.  His scat is everywhere,  mostly full of pine shells.  The scat even smells like pine nuts…you can smell the rich fatty odors.

Loaded with pine nut debris

Yesterday I drove down my driveway only to find a huge stump in the middle of the road.  I got out to move it, I looked up the hillside where it had rolled down from, and saw that this bear had completely worked over an old middens.  He’d turned over the soil so much that the chickadees were having a field day.

Dug out middens on my hillside near the house

What a nice circle of feeding and robbing…birds and squirrels feed the bears who feed the birds.

Squirrel above robbed middens angry at me. "I didn't do it" I told him

The woman who married a bear teaches me about pine nuts

After we visited the bear cave in Yellowstone, Jim Halfpenny sat us down on a nearby log and told a story.

“When we first migrated north from Africa, ancient peoples had no idea how to live with cold, what foods to eat, how to make shelters.  The Bear was their teacher.  Native Americans had several layers in one story.  The first and simplest they might tell to the children so they would stay close and be afraid of bears.  As the child grew older, the same story would be told in greater depth revealing more teaching and wisdom.”

“This story of the woman who married a bear was told in some form all over the world where there are bears.”

Jim went on to tell this ancient story in great detail about a Chief’s daughter who married a bear, lived with the bear clan, bore him two sons and then went back to her people.  When she returned with her sons, half-bear half-human, she was now a changed woman–a wise woman with much to teach her people.

This is the story of why humans throughout time have respected and honored bears, and how it was Bear who taught Humans how to live.

I was wandering in the upper meadows this morning, watching the Clark’s nutcrackers poke their beaks in the pine cones and extract the seeds, stashing them in the pouch in their throats.  Sometimes they’d try and clean the sap off by rubbing their long beaks against the bark. Since all the cones were way high,  I looked for dropped pine nuts on the ground, possibly ones the squirrels and birds had missed.  There were lots.  But every one I opened was no good, the nut had never matured.  I tried tree after tree with the same result and I marveled at how the animals knew to let these bad ones go.  I figured that if my life depended on these seeds, I’d definitely go hungry.

When I had a big garden, I used to fight the birds for the cherries on my tree.  I tried netting, decoys, shiny objects.  But crows and jays are smart and they’d wait till the cherries were just perfectly ripe, then beat me out there.  I’d have only the leftovers.  Pine nuts seemed the same.   I began to think about the Native Americans in the Basin & Range and California traveling far and wide for the Pinyon Pine nut.  Or the Native Californians and their acorn harvests.  There were ancient tricks to this that alluded me.

I knew that when I lived in California, I used to collect Redwood cones unopened, then let them ripen by a window and all the 100’s of tiny seeds would fall out.  Perhaps…

I wandered a bit farther up the denser parts of the hillside and noticed an old middens I was familiar with.  In one of the cavities beneath the trees there was stashed 3 douglas fir pine cones, fresh this year.  And that gave me an idea.  I went back and started hunting for a middens of Limber Pine cones.  Sure enough, I found a really large one with tons and tons of fresh cones, unopened and untouched.

Limber pine middens.  There's lots more than shown and much is buried

Limber pine middens. There's lots more than shown and much is buried

Some even had the pitch gone.  There were cones on top and cones underneath.  I tried a few nuts.  These were the good ones!  These were the ones for squirrel for the long winter ahead.

The cone collector's home

The cone collector's home looking down on us raiding his middens

Then I remembered the bear story.  Bears are smart.  They do sometimes climb the trees for their beloved nuts.  But its a whole lot easier to let squirrel do the work and just raid his larder, and that’s what they do.  Bear must have taught that to the People.  That was my lesson for today.

Look close, I took this bear scat apart & there's pine nut shells

Look close, I took this bear scat apart & there's pine nut shells inside

More Scats and Tracks

Yesterday I found a cougar track in the mud.  I know there’s a cougar on that side of the creek because a friend of mine saw one a few months ago driving from the Cody Pow Wow down Dead Indian highway.  It was around 9pm, he said, and the cougar was just standing along the side of the road.  He stopped the car and watched the impressive animal for about 10 minutes.  Only one other car, a neighbor as well, came along, stopped and watched.

The track was right along the trail, not too far from the trail head. This part of the trail is in eyeshot of the main road, which climbs steeply up the mountain.  The track, measured out about 3 3/4″ length by 4″ wide.

cougar track in mud

cougar track in mud

cougar track with penny for reference

cougar track with penny for reference

Being that the ‘Scat’ post is popular, here are a few more gems!

Wolf blood and urine from wolf in estrus

Wolf blood and urine from wolf in estrus

Wolf scat

Wolf scat

Comparison of elk and deer scat

Comparison of elk and deer scat

Moose scat

Moose scat

Ant hill

Ant hill

Ant hill destroyed by a grizzly looking for grubs

Ant hill destroyed by a grizzly looking for grubs

Turkey tracks

Turkey tracks

A surprise walk

Its starting to feel like the Canadian Rockies here, raining every day, even if just a little bit.  Last fall I had driven up an old fire road that’s usually closed.  I wasn’t sure if they only opened it in the fall for hunters, so I took a drive over there, and sure enough, the road was closed and the gate locked.  I parked and walked up the dirt fire road that leads to high meadows.  This area was home to the ’88 fires and the lush undergrowth shows it.

There’s been so much rain that the forest is lush.Lush forest

More and new wildflowers appear every day.Paintbrushes

Calypso bulbosa - Fairy Slipper Orchid-endangered

Saxifraga odontoloma

A loud almost bell-like sound announced the presence of a marmot hanging in the rock pile below us.  Koda went crazy.  He knew he couldn’t get to the marmot, and that fat marmot just kept teasing him.Fat Marmot

As we ascended higher, the reef cliffs came into view.  A Golden Eagle sat in a tree near the old road cut.  Our presence caused him to take to flight.Looking up at the limestone reef

There was a lot of fairly fresh grizzly scat along the road, but the only recent prints were elk.  Occasionally there were faint bear tracks, and it seemed like there might be two bears, indicating a sow and cub.

Pretty fresh bear scat.  Can you see the penny at the right for size?

Pretty fresh bear scat. Can you see the penny at the right for size?

Along the road, there were lots of berry bushes–thimbleberries and raspberries.  A perfect place for bears in the fall as well.

Thimbleberry

Thimbleberry

Way up near the top of the ridge, I suddenly heard a loud high-pitched consistent chirp or call.  I thought it was coming from a large bird and looked towards where I heard the sound, down the hillside.  Meanwhile, the smart animal with me, Koda, was looking up the hillside into the wooded bank.  I turned around and there was an elk in the timber.  Confused about the sound, it seemed to have been coming from the elk, although not at all like the bugling I’ve heard in the fall.   It was a contact call I found out later, between that elk and her calf.

As we headed towards the top of the ridge, an old fire cut from the ’88 fires, now overgrown, was covered with Geraniums.  Apparently these plants like disturbed areas.

Geraniums in disturbed area-old road cut

Geraniums in disturbed area-old road cut

The ridgeline meadows were magnificent.  Plenty of water and waterfalls along the way.  So much water so high up.  The old fires had provided great forage areas.High meadow and old burn

Koda catches a whiff

Koda smells out the grizzlies

On the way down, Koda stopped at the cliff edge.  I thought he was looking at the view.  My old dog used to relish the views from high ridges.  But Koda is different.  He’s still young and not prone to being pensive nor reflective yet.

I stepped to the edge and noticed two grizzlies below in the tarns.  I don’t know if Koda saw them, but he certainly smelled them.  I bet they smelled us too.  At first I just saw a smallish black bear, and, from afar, tried to make out whether he was a grizzly or not.  It was hard to see the hump or his face clearly enough.  But then, following about 20′ behind, I saw a large brown grizzly.  I assumed the black bear was her two year old cub.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my new camera with me so the shot is far away.  But, that’s about the distance I like to see bears from.

Look close there's the grizzly

Look close there's the mama grizzly. Black cub is in the upper left corner.

I glassed the bears for as long as the mosquitos would let me.  They moved down the mountain, through the scree and downed timber, foraging as they went.  What a privilege to see these magnificent animals.  As always, I carry bear spray, but what I use the most is my mosquito spray!

More Grizzly news around town

The Wyoming Game and Fish is finally starting their bear trapping and collaring in my valley.  They were supposed to start weeks ago, but the weather was too incremental, with several wet snowstorms, making it impossible to get far enough in to place the traps.  I know this only because one of the students who worked on the elk project this winter was supposed to help with the trapping.  Instead, because the work was delayed, he’s already off to Canada to work with bears there.

Our main dirt road travels directly west, ending about 7 miles from the Yellowstone boundary.  But those seven miles are straight up, through the shale and scree of the Absaroka Mountains.  If you can make it over the pass, you’ll end up in the Hoodoos, one of the most remote areas of Yellowstone.

Past the bear gate, the Absarokas are the eastern border of Yellowstone's wilds

Past the bear gate, the Absarokas are the eastern border of Yellowstone's wilds

The dirt road is maintained for about 25 miles from the Chief Joseph Highway.  After that its strictly four-wheel condition, and mostly only ATV’s can cross some of the creeks at the upper ends.

Past the bear gate its rugged and wild country.

Past the bear gate its rugged and wild country.

About 20 miles from the main highway, the road is closed till July 15.  That’s the ‘Bear Gate’.  People ask “Is that so the bears don’t get into the populated part of the valley?”  But the gate is so cars don’t go up there and disturb the bears.  The idea is that the Grizzlies can have their own space, undisturbed by cars, atv’s, people, when they emerge from their dens.  Its a great idea, but of course the grizzlies do what they want and roam free, which means they are up the valley this direction if they please.  But it does help to discourage weekenders and reduce human-bear conflicts.

Where do they go after July 15th?

Just 10 or 15 years ago, no one knew where Grizzlies went when they suddenly disappeared from the Park in early July.  One day a private plane was flying over the Absarokas and saw bears, lots of them, congregating on slopes of scree above timberline.  They were turning over rocks and boulders.  Usually solitary, this was a strange site to see groups of bears together.  It turned out they were looking for cut-worm moths and eating them at the rate of up to 40,000 a day.  I once saw these moths in the Wind River Mountains.  Thousands of them hanging under a rock crevice.  It was a sight I won’t forget.

The moths provide the bears with much needed fat for the winter.  At the end of my valley there is a glacier.  Its not uncommon to find the bears in the talus slopes in August.

Moths at high altitudes attract bears in my valley in late summer

Moths at high altitudes attract bears in my valley in late summer

Today I drove up the valley for a short hike across the river to a Sulphur Lakebed.

Sulphur deposits around the lake.  Lots of grizzly sign here

Sulphur deposits around the lake. Lots of grizzly sign here

On the way, I stopped and chatted with some new young forest rangers.  I asked about the collaring and if it had begun.

“They’re trapping at the bear gate.  Just a bit beyond it.” They informed me.

I said I wished they’d let us residents know so we don’t hike there.  They put carcasses out as bait and I don’t want to be nearby. “I wish they’d tell us”, the young rangers replied.

I suppose its good science to have them counted and collared.  But I can’t help but feel “let the bears be bears.”

My hike today on the south side of the creek, quite a ways down from the bear gate, was full of fresh bear tracks and scat.

Front and back grizzly tracks.

Front and back grizzly tracks. Notice the penny for size. See the straight line of the grass under the toes

On the way back home, I met a neighbor who told me there were fresh tracks behind his ranch and he’d led the G&F fellows up to where they could place their traps.  There was a huge pile of scat on the road as well. Last week I ran into fresh tracks in two drainages on the north side of the road.

Bear scat with trash collected on my hike today.

Bear scat with trash collected on my hike today.

My valley is where ‘problem bears’ are dropped off.  They take them to the bear gate, or beyond, and let them go, with the hopes they’ll go into Yellowstone.  A problem bear was dropped off just last week.  I think we average about 4 or 5 problem bears a summer.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of riding around with Mark Bruscino for an afternoon of bear education up the North Fork.  We didn’t see any bears, but I learned a lot talking with Mark.  Mark is the bear specialist for Wyoming Game and Fish.  He’s been working to restore the Grizzly population for over fifteen years.  I asked about the problem bears.

“Tell people that the bears they really don’t have to worry about are the problem ones we drop off.  Within days they ‘home’ back to where they came from.”

I think the relocation is an exercise in public relations, with a hope and a prayer that the bear learns something once he gets ‘home’.

The cool thing about hiking in grizzly country is the need to stay alert and aware.  In California, I could hike, think, talk, and space out all at the same time.  But hiking here, in the Greater Yellowstone area, I have to stay aware of my environment all the time.  I listen, I slow down, I look around; and so I notice so much more.  That doesn’t mean being tense. It means being conscious.  I think that’s how we’re all meant to be living all the time.  Taking the predators away, well, we’ve just forgotten.

Grizzly photo taken in Lamar Valley last sunday, mother's day

Grizzly photo taken in Lamar Valley last sunday, mother's day

Some Scat

I thought I’d post a scat entry with photos.  Some I’m sure of, many I’m not.  Not all have size references.  Sorry about that.  I’m now starting to carry around a penny which I’ll put with future photos.  A penny is exactly 3/4″ in diameter.

Breaking up scat helps in identification and is a window into what the animal was eating.  Smelling scat (do not smell raccoon scat as they can carry a parasite that is fatal to humans) also holds clues.

Animals communicate vast amounts of information through markings and scat.  Many times I’ve watched Koda intently smell an area, then urinate on it.

Koda with his nose in a squirrel hole

Koda with his nose in a squirrel hole

One time he was smelling a log that had no obvious scat on it.  Because he is still a pup, he started licking the log to ‘uptake’ the smell better.  I got down and smelled the log and was overpowered by a extremely pungent smell.  Other times he spends a lot of time smelling an area and when I put my nose to the ground, I can’t discern anything.

One time in California I was at the tracking club meeting.  We were circling a large field and found mountain lion scat.  The group leader advised everyone to get down and sniff it.  One whiff of that scat and you’ll never forget it.  It made the hairs inside my nose stand on end for a long time.  Imagine your kitty litter box, then multiply that smell 10-fold.

Last year in the spring I had both my dogs with me in Wyoming.  My old dog started making a beeline for the woods.  I followed her to a fairly fresh turkey kill, probably from a coyote.  The kill was in the nearby vicinity of the cabin and the magpies were already on it.  The 2 dogs spent lots of time chewing and further demolishing it. Early the next morning, on the walkway in front of my house, a coyote left his fresh scat.  My old dog smelled it, but before I could hardly look at it, the 6 month old dog gobbled it up.  Koda was still learning about smells and scats, and eating it is another way to really remember it.  (I, personally, will not go that far!)  I had the distinct impression this particular scat was left for my dogs as a calling card, as if to say, ‘this is my territory and that was my turkey you fooled with.’

I’m a crazy beginner at this.  I find it’s a fun way to explore what’s happening around me. Learning scat takes practice and lots of direct experience.  I take photos, then go home and look at Mammal Tracks & Signs by Mark Elbroch.  Elbroch’s book contains tons of color photos throughout.  He includes photos of tracks, scat, as well as sign.  The book is thick at over 750 pages. Too bad he doesn’t include ‘scratch and sniff’.

Unknown scat

This one's unknown, found in the woods nearby

Marmot in hole with scat above

See Marmot scat at top of photo. Marmot's in his hole.

pack rat scat

Years of pack rat scat.

Canid scat

Could be coyote or wolf. 25% of wolf scat is coyote size.

Bobcat I think.  Smells like it.

Smelled like a cat. Bobcat I think. Cat's digest 90% of the bones.

Owl droppings

Owl on tree. Notice the white droppings.

Bear sweet smelling scat in the spring

Big pile of bear scat. All forbs/grasses. They clean themselves in the spring with grass.

Mustelid I think.  Smelly and strong.

Some kind of mustelid I think. It was skunky smelling.

Another mustelid, I think.  On the same trail as the other scat.

Another mustelid, I think. On the same trail as the other scat.