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On the Trails: Lazy day at Crow Point

Posted: March 8, 2013 - 1:03am
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In early spring, bears were digging up rice root, often leaving uneaten nodules behind.   Photo by David Bergeson
Photo by David Bergeson
In early spring, bears were digging up rice root, often leaving uneaten nodules behind.

The tide was just starting to go out, leaving elegant wave marks in the sand. Otter and mink tracks were barely discernible amid the evidence of the passage of booted humans and their happy dogs. At the mouth of the river, a little cluster of gulls flitted up and over the heads of two seals; there was obviously something edible there. A few buffleheads and a solitary Barrow’s goldeneye cruised the lower reaches of the river. Canada geese honked their way up the river, two by two; could they already be thinking about nest sites?

We found an old stump under which a porcupine had sheltered. A sizable pile of scat pellets filled a depression under the arching roots, and back in a corner, a cubbyhole offered protection from wind and rain. These pellets were more rounded, less oval, than usual for wintertime scat of porcupines, but we couldn’t think of any other creatures that would leave a latrine like this.

Possibly the most interesting observation was evidence of bear activity. In late February, this is a bit unexpected. But in this goofy pseudo-winter we are having, some bears in town have continued to be active and apparently never denned up to hibernate. So maybe all the signs of digging and eating out here fit right in with our mild weather.

In some places, the vegetation had been roto-tilled with shallow scoops that overturned mosses and roots. It wasn’t always clear what the foraging bear was seeking, but in several spots we found the exposed roots of chocolate lily (a.k.a. rice root). However, in each case, only some of the root material had been removed, leaving much seemingly edible stuff behind. That’s a little mystery that we’ve seen on several occasions—why dig it up if you’re not going to eat it?

A couple of bear scats contained only vegetation fibers. One also held partly digested highbush cranberry fruits. Because bears have short digestive tracts, food often passes through fairly quickly, and whole berries commonly come through. Another scat contained plump, juicy, bright red (undigested) berries of the plant called false lily of the valley (A terrible name! This plant does not resemble the real thing at all).

The grassy berms behind the beach at Crow Point provide excellent habitat for false lily of the valley, and there was an abundant berry crop on view. Last year’s dead, heart-shaped leaves were gray, with black veins, and they set off the glowing red berries. These berries don’t get their fully ripe, bright red color until they’ve been well chilled. So berries produced last summer are conspicuous after a cold season and are then available for spring-arriving birds. It is interesting that this bear had not focused on the many berries that bejeweled the ground, but instead had spent its time digging.

More than 100 Canada geese grazed in the broad tidal meadow. By walking close to the trees, we managed not to disturb their foraging. A few alert heads popped up to check us out but soon went back down to the business of eating. Earlier, an eagle had caused much consternation in this flock, but our passage left them calm.

While we were ambling down the beach, a stormlet blew in from the south, the sharp wind stirring up growing whitecaps. We were glad to put the wind at our backs when we left the beach to circle the grazing geese. Parka hoods up, shoulders hunched, we put on our ice cleats to trudge the icy trail back to the car.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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