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Black Bears

An Artist’s Eye

Readers of my Naturally Curious blog have provided me with connections to kindred spirits, inspiring insights and probing questions. Sometimes I receive requests from non-profits to use my images in their newsletters, displays, etc. Occasionally an individual writes with a special request. Melissa Ball is such a person. She wrote me just about a year ago and introduced herself as an artist in Pennsylvania who would like to use an image of a Black Bear that I photographed settling in for a nap 20’ up in an Eastern White Pine as a reference for a painting. I said of course, and truthfully, pretty much forgot about this exchange. Little did I know what an honor had been bestowed upon me. It turns out that Melissa is an artist very well-known for her  unique and highly detailed artwork on turkey tail feathers. (You can see her work at http://www.turkeytails.com.)  Her Black Bear painting, however, is on canvas, not a feather!  There is no question that in my eyes, Melissa absolutely captured the essence of this winsome bear. (Original photograph is beneath Melissa’s painting.)

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Black Bears Gorging

10-28-16-corn-203Black bears are omnivores as well as opportunists.  They will eat almost anything that they can find, but the majority of their diet consists of grasses, roots, berries, nuts and insects (particularly the larvae).  As the days cool, and the time for hibernation nears, black bears enter a stage called “hyperphagia,” which literally means “excessive eating.”  They forage practically non-stop — up to 20 hours a day, building up fat reserves for hibernation, increasing their body weight up to 100% in some extreme cases.  Their daily food intake goes from 8,000 to 15-20,000 calories. Occasionally their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, and all that they’ve eaten comes back up.  Pictured is the aftermath of a Black Bear’s orgy in a cornfield.

If you  share a bear’s territory, be forewarned that they have excellent memories, especially for food sources.  Be sure not to leave food scraps or pet food outside and either delay feeding birds until bears are hibernating (late December would be safe most years) or take your feeders in at night.

NOTE:  Orders for 2017 Naturally Curious calendars must be received by October 31.

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Porcupines Foraging For Acorns

10-12-16-porcupine-20161011_4950If you live near a stand of Red Oak trees, your chances of seeing a Porcupine this fall are greater than average. At the end of August, when the apple supply has dwindled, Porcupines move on to important new food sources – acorns and beechnuts. While American Beech trees in central Vermont have not produced a bumper crop of beechnuts this year, Red Oaks are experiencing a very heavy mast crop. These acorns provide sustenance for many animals – Black Bears, Red and Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and other small rodents, White-tailed Deer and Wild Turkeys, to name a few.

Porcupines are typically one of the first acorn consumers, as they are able to climb oaks and eat the acorns before they drop and are accessible to many of the other animals that are limited to foraging on the ground. If you see the tips of branches nipped off with acorn caps (but no acorns) still attached lying under an oak tree, it’s likely that a Porcupine has been dining in the tree and discarding branches after scooping out and eating the acorns.If the tree is large, the Porcupine may reside in the canopy for several days. (Thanks to Emma for photo op.)

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Black Bear Lactation

2-11-16  black bears IMG_0380Black Bear cubs are born in late January or February, weighing about eight ounces. The newborn cub(s) immediately crawl to their mother’s teats (she has six) closest to her pelvis to nurse. Later, as the cubs get older, they nurse from the top four and the mother often “switches off” production in the bottom two. At birth a Black Bear cub weighs half to three-quarters of a pound, and when it emerges from the den in April it averages about six pounds.

Most hibernating mammals are not pregnant. The fact that Black Bear cubs are born in late January or February, and the mother bear nurses them for two or three months while she is not eating or drinking is a phenomenon in and of itself – just ask any ravenous nursing human mother.

Milk production and intake increases four-fold after the cubs emerge from the den. At peak lactation (June and July) a black bear cub consumes about 30 ounces of milk a day. If a bear has two or three cubs, that means she must produce two or three quarts of milk a day. The milk of Black Bears is very rich: human (and cow) milk is about three to five percent fat while Black Bear milk is around 20 to 25 percent fat. In addition, the carbohydrate composition of the Black Bear mother’s milk while she is nursing in the den is relatively high compared to the carbohydrate composition found in milk after denning; the protein content after denning is double that of milk produced during hibernation.  At roughly six to eight months of age, Black Bear cubs are weaned. (Thanks to Ben Kilham for photo op.)

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Gray Squirrels Digging Up Cached Acorns

1-27-16 gray squirrel cache 022If you have oak trees in the woods near you, chances are great that their acorns attracted wildlife this past fall, one of which was most likely a Gray Squirrel. Unlike Black Bears, Wild Turkeys and White-tailed Deer, which eat acorns immediately upon finding them, Gray Squirrels tend to cache acorns for winter consumption. They do so by burying them individually, often in fairly close proximity to where they find them. (Red Squirrels also cache food in the fall, but typically bury numerous seeds, mostly conifers and maples, in one spot.) When food becomes scarce, as it usually does this time of year, it is possible to find numerous holes dug in the snow, frequently with leaves and bits of acorn shells littering the snow around them. Tell-tale Gray Squirrel tracks leading to and from these holes identify the excavator.

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Black Bears In No Hurry to Den This Year

11-16-15 black bear apple scat 026Bountiful acorn and apple crops have enabled black bears to delay denning this fall, as this recently-discovered apple-filled bear scat attests to. Denning is triggered by a seasonal shortage of food, low temperatures, and snow cover on the ground. When these conditions cause bears to den, they typically stay within their summer range boundaries. On average black bears enter their dens in November and emerge in April, but this varies considerably with crop and temperature conditions.

Denning sequence usually begins with yearlings, followed by pregnant females, then solitary females, females with cubs, adult males, and last, subadults (not sexually mature) of both sexes. Most dens are excavated below ground, and on well-drained, upland sites. Rarely are they re-used in consecutive years. Adult males are the first to emerge in the spring, followed by subadult males and females, then females accompanied by yearlings, and finally, females with cubs of the year.

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Dung Beetle Feeding on Bear Scat

10-16 dung beetle 127Wherever there is scat, or dung, there are dung beetles. This is a photograph of a dung beetle in heaven as it has located a black bear’s gigantic (apple-filled) scat, which will provide it with food for a long, long time. Some species of dung beetles (rollers) shape pieces into balls and roll them away and bury them to eat later or lay their eggs on. Some species (tunnelers) bury their dung by tunneling underneath the pile of scat. And a third group (dwellers) actually lives inside dung piles.

Most dung beetles prefer the scat of herbivores. There are always bits of food that do not get digested, and these bits are what a dung beetle feeds on. Dung beetle larvae eat the solids, while adult beetles drink the liquids contained in the scat. A given species of dung beetle typically prefers the dung of a certain species or group of animals, and does not touch the dung of any other species.

Dung beetles have a brain that is the size of a grain of rice, yet they are very sophisticated insects. They use celestial clues (the Milky Way) in order to roll balls of dung in a straight line. Dung beetles are known for “dancing,” which helps them orient themselves after their path has been disrupted. They use their dung balls to regulate their temperature, and cool off. (In very warm climates, around noon, when the sun is at its peak, dung beetles will routinely climb atop their dung balls to give their feet a break from the hot ground. Thermal imaging has shown that dung balls are measurably cooler than the surrounding environment, probably because of their moisture content.) And dung beetles keep track of the number of steps they take and the direction from which they came (instead of landmarks) in order to return to their nest with a ball of dung.

Even though they are remarkably clever, dung beetles can be duped! A flowering plant native to South Africa (Ceratocaryum argenteum) produces large, round nuts that are strikingly similar in appearance, smell, and chemical composition to antelope droppings, which the dung beetles accordingly roll away and bury, effectively sowing a new generation of C. argenteum.

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