February 12, 2018

Stories to Tell - Bear curiosity or Bear destruction?

By Eric D'Aleo

It was the day before Halloween and the sky was gray and overcast. The area had just received a heavy storm that deposited over five inches of rain in twenty-four hours. Strong wind accompanied the rain and its remnants were still howling among the tree branches as I walked through the woods to check on some remote trail cameras. The streams were full with water and many trees in the forest had blown down, some across the trails. I discovered the trees were not the only things damaged. There had been a different kind of recurring “storm” in one location. I walked off the trail through the brush toward it. My destination was a vernal pool in a remote area of Science Center property. An unusual story had unfolded here earlier in the year involving a chicken carcass and a coyote. I had placed the chicken carcass out as bait and captured some interesting pictures over several weeks. This time nothing had been put out to draw an animal to the area, or so I thought. As I pushed through a stand of young hemlock trees I could see the rain had filled the vernal pool half full of water. I walked to the tree where the trail camera was and came to a halt. Something was wrong. The clasp to shut the camera had been opened and the batteries removed! My first thought was that someone had walked through the woods and vandalized the camera, an idea I quickly discarded. Most people photographed by the trail cameras are unaware of them or simply wave and say “hello” once they realize it’s there. I closed the camera and found my first clue; the motion detector’s plastic covering was punctured.
The second clue lay around my feet. My feet disturbed the leaves just enough to revel the batteries. I searched through the leaves and debris and found all of them. They were dirty but otherwise fine. I had unknowingly received an additional clue weeks earlier when the same camera was found on the ground and the strap that held it around the tree was found twelve feet away. That time the culprit was a black bear.

I experienced déjà vu as I stood looking at the camera on the ground and the batteries in my hand. I thought a black bear might also be responsible for the damage this time. I took the broken camera to my office and looked at the images. Sure enough, it showed a black bear yearling energetically investigating the camera. Black bears are curious and investigate novel objects. Apparently the camera interested this bear. It flashes an infrared light whenever there is nearby movement and takes a picture. Perhaps it might rouse a bear’s curiosity to investigate but the yearlings and their mother hadn’t showed much interest in the camera before September. When I looked through the images, this bear was intent on the camera and moved it back and forth triggering the camera to take distorted images of the ground, its fur, its face, its mother, and its sibling from numerous angles.

This young bear was investigating a novel object by smelling it, “manipulating” it with its paws, and finally by trying to chew on it. I thought the bear would lose interest after its first camera encounter. But how wrong I was. This behavior happened again four times during one week in October. Each time the bear would paw and wrestle with the camera anchored to the tree. The last day of images was October 21. The bear must have accidentally triggered the camera latch to open. Once opened it was only a matter of time before the yearling pawed the batteries loose causing the camera to stop taking pictures. There were no pictures of a bear’s mouth or teeth, but the puncture mark in motion sensor covering must have been another way it examined and “tested” the camera. I thought the camera could be sent off for repairs and wondered if I would have to stop gathering images from that location. I was more than just curious now. I was also feeling a bit stubborn about keeping a camera at the vernal pool. I moved a camera from a different location to the study area, but enclosed it in a protective metal case and secured it to the tree with a sturdy wire cable. Maybe this might prevent the black bears from becoming too zealous in investigating the camera and I could learn what might happen before they denned for the winter. We’ll see what the future brings.

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