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On the Trails: Bear watching in spring

Posted: June 13, 2014 - 12:01am
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A black bear cub pulls on a bunch of cottonwood seed pods to snack on near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in early summer.   Janice Gorle | For the Juneau Empire
Janice Gorle | For the Juneau Empire
A black bear cub pulls on a bunch of cottonwood seed pods to snack on near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in early summer.

By early June, the cottonwood seed pods are fat with maturing seeds, and that’s when local bears (and porcupines) love to eat them. In some places in Juneau, many of the cottonwoods have broken-off tops and lots of missing branches on otherwise vigorous trees. That’s the result of harvesting by eager bears that commonly break off branches in order to reach the apparently delectable seed pods.

One day in very early June, I enjoyed two hours of primo bear-watching. A glossy female black bear perched high in a female cottonwood; her two tiny cubs scrambled around, beside and above her. The cubs were already very adept at climbing; they reached out to pull in small branches that held the dangling chains, deftly stripping off the seed pods.

One cub clung to a slightly wobbly vertical branch at the very top of the tree. Rockabye, baby! Suddenly, mama’s big jaws chomped through the branch about two feet below the cub; with a crack and a swish, down came the tree top, cubbie and all. Cub and treetop fell ten or fifteen feet and landed safely, cushioned on a hammock of dense spruce branches well above the ground. The cub was not perturbed by the fall and immediately started to munch the seed pods from the broken-off tree top; it was later joined by its sibling.

Sometime later, the little family slid down the tree and ambled off along the hillside. A bit unsettled by some rowdy dogs that raced into the area, mama sent her cubs up another cottonwood and followed them up. Luckily, it was another female tree, so this refuge provided snacks as well.

Snacks were followed by naps: cubbies up in the tree and mama on a mossy bed among some boulders. After fifteen or twenty minutes, mama called the young ‘uns down. They gamboled up to her, in her mossy nest, and nursed for a few minutes, humming softly. Then they all departed up the hill.

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

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