Close encounters of the wild kind
This summer, I spent a good chunk of my field trips to the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) fescue prairie preserves being bear-anoid. Although I saw several black bears last year, they were all solitary and a fair distance away. Not so this summer!
On my second field day in late June I was examining a plot for pollinators. When I looked up there was a mother bear with her two cubs, down in the valley below me. Nuts! They apparently hadn’t notice me high up on the hill. I began moving slowly away from them and making noise in hopes that would be enough to warn the bears of my presence. The mother paused, looked at me like I was crazy and ran into the bushes with her young ones behind her. I was relieved, figuring it would be my only bear encounter of the trip.
Once again, this was not so.
That afternoon I was busy photographing a bumblebee on a thistle. I turned around, and there was a small bear cub digging away about 10 metres down the slope from me. Again I turned myself into a noisemaker and the cub took off.
But where was mom? Down in the valley, I hoped, rather than in between me and her offspring. I beat a hasty retreat.
One thing that became very clear to me that day was that despite their ungainly appearance, bears can sure be stealthy when they want to be. As I walked back to the field station I noticed many signs that the bears were foraging extensively in the preserve. I found bear scat, overturned rocks and turf and hair caught on a barbed wire fence.
The next day I was determined to make plenty of noise to alert the bears to my presence. I tooted on my whistle and loudly sang nature-inspired show tunes from Les Misérables ("Do you hear the warblers sing, singing the song of hungry birds. It is the music of a genus that likes to eat lots of worms!"), vaguely hoping I wasn't inspiring any forest revolutionaries.
The noise must have paid off, as I didn't see any bears for the remainder of my field work. But I was still jumpy.
At one point I felt something poke my back. I jumped five feet in the air from fright. Was it a bear? No, it was just the walking stick that I had propped up on a fence.
Then something zoomed by my face. I screeched like a three-year-old watching a scary movie. It was only a great grey owl, which stared at me like I was crazy. Or maybe that’s just the way it always looks. Clearly I was a little high strung.
Fortunately I encountered many other less frightening creatures throughout the rest of my field trips (at least less frightening to me although I’m sure the bee that I saw getting eaten by a crab spider would disagree). A grasshopper that wanted to lick me, a great grey owl, two racing white-tailed deer and some amorous blister beetles, along with many cool pollinators, made my field work a feast for the eyes! And quite frankly, all these close encounters are exactly what makes my field days a mini adventure each of its own.
For more information about encountering wildlife and how you can be bear smart, visit the Government of Manitoba's website.