A Bear walks into the woods…. August 31st, Algonquin Wildlife Research Station
We began our morning with quick breakfast and some gratitude and intentions in the driveway of the research station before heading out towards the old Moose pens to investigate some possible remains from a carcass that was brought there by park staff earlier in the season.
First though we stopped to check out some Moose antlers and a Moose skull. When we took the time to look at the
dorsal side of the skull we all noticed how there was a depression a little beyond and between the supraorbital foramina (the small holes above the eye sockets) and wondered for a while what this depression was all about? Why would a skull have a dip like that? Could it be there to help the structural integrity of the skull somehow? We wondered if it might have been an injury, but when we looked at another Moose skull over the weekend and noticed the same depression, and even read about the depression in a book about animal skulls we recognized that all moose seem to have them.
We also noticed a small scat in the depression, and Alexis mentioned that it may just be a vole scat. Perhaps the vole is marking territory – claiming this massive skull as it’s long term snack.
We then flipped over the skull to look at the dentation of the skull. Someone brought up the question of how we
might age the Moose by looking at how many cusps we can find on the teeth – this is something I still hope to learn about as we weren’t entirely sure the equation, but it was something like if the Moose is under 1 1/2 years old, the teeth would be bicuspid, and if older the teeth would be tricuspid. This is something I hope to look into further.
Moving along the trail we noticed some Beaked Hazels and how their leaves were folded over. We even opened a few to reveal a white webbing which held the two halves of the serrated leaves together. This fold and webbing may be due to an known insect associate, the Juvenal’s Dusky Wing (Erynnis juvenalis).
While examining the middens of a Red Squirrel, the author saw the edge of a small bone sitting on the ground surrounded by Pine needles. When I reached for it and grabbed the bone I immediately sensed that it was much larger than it looked. I pulled on the bone and it slowly, yet easily came out from the soil. It was a skull! A Black Bear skull! We were all very excited and excavated the area around the skull to discover a left mandible.
We wondered as to how long the skull was there for, how the bear died, whether this bear was larger than your average Black Bear, and many more questions. We couldn’t find any other pieces and there was lots more adventure
to be had so we chose to move on. Later when back at camp we measured the length of the skull. It was 29.5 cm long (11.6 in), which is on the larger side of a Black Bear (Mark Elbroch writes in his book Animal Skulls that the range for an adult Black Bear is 23.5 cm – 34.9 cm).
We noticed many exciting things within the next few minutes including a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker drilling holes in a Paper Birch when along came a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird to visit the sapwells left by the Sapsucker. It seemed as if the Sapsucker wasn’t interested in visitors and the Hummingbird didn’t stick around.
More Bear sign was found just a little further up our trail. We found some trails or runs of pushed down grasses and brambles, which when measured were about 25 inches wide, which is just about right for a Black Bear. In Mammal Tracks and Sign, also by Mark Elbroch, it states that the trail width for a direct register walk for a Black Bear will be
between 20.3 cm – 35.6 cm (8 – 14 in). A few of us bent down and were using our hands to feel for the tracks as they were often better sensed by touch than by sight. It was tough work at times looking carefully for bent Pine needles or broken twigs, but it did work out. We measured some of the foot prints left behind – a right rear track was about 16.5 cm (6 1/2 in) long – and noted the vegetation around was abundant in ripe Red Raspberries, and the occasional Blackberry.
This would have been an ideal location for a Black Bear so it was no wonder we found runs throughout.
Another reason why the Black Bear may have been attracted to the site was that a few months before, just around the Summer Solstice park staff had found a dead Moose and dragged the Moose close to where we were tracking. The story goes that the Moose was likely hit by a car (we heard a leg was swollen) and then tried to make their way away from the road when Wolves came in and may have finally killed the badly hurt Moose. When park st
aff came across the carcass near the Research Station they moved the body to a more “private” locale behind the old Moose pens (an old research project) and set up a trail cam. Lucky for us they got some really good shots of a Black Bear disembowling the Moose carcass.
Others were ahead of me by the time I got to the site of this Once-A-Moose, and all that was left were a few scattered vertebrae, ribs, femur, the mandibles, and some other pieces which I do not know the names of. Though, I do know the Scapula, and I do love a Scapula. I find them often, but mostly from Deer. I used to think that Scapula may have been connected to the origin of the word Spatula, but there is no connection, though a Scapula could possibly used as a Spatula.
I began asking my co-trackers which bones they thought were cooler : Scapula or the Vertebrae? Seems like most people think the Vertebrae are cooler…. whatever.
As we all left the Moose pen area we came across a hydro pole which seemed to have years of markings along it’s length. It was something I remembered from last year, but some of the chews seemed newer. I am still trying to figure out how to decipher between chews and claws. A mystery for the future.
I want to take a moment to reflect on the fact that we no longer have Black Bears and Moose as common inhabitants of most of Southern Ontario. They were once prolific, roaming the thick Carolinian forests up towards through the Great Lakes Region and beyond. Through deforestation due to agricultual expansion or cleared for development, and population growth equalling loss of habitat Black Bears and Moose were pushed out, extirpated, with only rare sightings (Scarborough Saturday May 13th 2017 being a recent example near Toronto) since.
I wish for the sake of a healthier landbase, intact ecosystem and for the sheer joy and study of these animals that there were still Black Bears down here.
We continued on with some more debris tracking through Pine and Spruce duff for quite a while, everyone down on
hands and knees, slowly counting out the tracks as they saw them, with a few folks collectively finding more than 100 tracks in a row! A hard feat in any substrate let alone old needles, cones and twigs.
I admit I got distracted at this point, checking out the Spotted Tussock Moth and following them up a hill. The brilliant yellow middle contrasted with black spots along the back, and the long white lashes at the head and rear, a truly beautiful caterpillar. I have no shame for watching this colourful larvae make their way across the forest floor.
As everyone made their way up the hill to join the few of us who were already up there, we decided on lunch. Tracking can be taxing and sitting down to packed lunches in the thick of Algonquin is pretty nice. While sitting down for lunch our second skull discovery appeared. Alexis found a Deer skull behind a large glacial erratic (a boulder placed in an unusual place by a retreating glacier) which we then passed around to examine. We all guessed at how old the Deer was, what time of year they died, and how long had it been since the Deer had died? We could tell the Deer was a buck, a male, due to the remnants of antlers still attached to the skull. This would also imply that the buck had died before January or February when the antlers drop. Alexis also explained that White Tailed Deer often leave the park and yard up before the heavy snowfalls so they can navigate better. Personally, I have always wanted to visit a Deer yard in winter. I would see how the Deer move through their shared trails, the height at which they browse, and be witness, through the tracks, to the social dynamics of White Tailed Deer in a very real, very snowy Central Ontario winter. Likely pretty different than in Southern Ontario. It is amazing how a few hours drive away, the landscape is so different.
Alexis challenged everyone to guess at who’d been chewing the remains of the antlers. Can you guess by looking at
After we packed up our lunches we made our way down a hill heading in the general direction of the research station, when Brier noticed a large Bear track in the debris. This track was great. Lots of definition and depth, you could count the toes and it was big. I didn’t get to measure the track as we were on the move but when I looked and assessed the track my thought was that it was a left rear track. Someone pointed out that the little toe is on the inside of the track and the big toe on the outside, opposite of a human foot or hand, and they also told me that the little toe will appear lower in the track, closer to the posterior of the foot. I would love to be challenged and have someone point out some details to show me otherwise, but we were on the move and the momentum of going downhill is sometimes hard to beat.
As we descended further towards Lake Sasajewun and the research station someone noted a big dead Spruce with a
lot of the outer bark missing. Alexis asked if anyone was familliar with this and Tamara piped up that it could have been a Black Backed Woodpecker looking for insects. They remove the outer bark layer on trunks of trees and look for insects beneath to feed on. Some species of Nuthatch have even been seen to use the first scales they pry off as pry bars to help remove other scales, thus making the work easier.
Across from this Spruce was a Paper Birch where we noted signs of a Downy Woodpecker opening small flaps in the bark where a small insect, the Xylococcus betulae would live.
Xylococcus betulae, a Scale Beetle creates small welts in the bark of the Birch tree it infests and then in winter the Downy Woodpecker comes along and pecks a small vertical slit in the bark and pries the bark strip open to access the Xylococcus beetle just below. Some call it a “trap door”. Amazing ingenuity of the birds!
We lowered the hill and came out on to a road which led towards the canoes we were going to take to cross Lake Sasajewun and along the way found a pile of Fir cone scales which had been likely left behind by a Red Squirrel. In the pile of beautiful purple brown scales were also small winged seeds which when tossed into the air, helicoptered down as a Maple seed would. A few of us tried eating a couple of the seeds and they were potent! Powerful Fir taste rang through your mouth and seemed to spill out your nostrils. They were medicinal in strength. I had to eat a couple more just for the experience alone.
At around 2pm we got into the canoes and began paddling out into the small narrows towards the north end of the lake. When we reached a suitable place to bring the boats to shore we immediately noted all the varied plant life growing in the area. Pitcher Plants, Sweet Gale, Blueberries, Blackberries, even a couple of Sundew digesting Dragonflies. We couldn’t tell which Dragonflies, as most of the insects were gone, but there were plenty of wings left behind to tell of the banquet that was had.
Along this edge of the lake we spotted some older Wolf, Moose, Muskrat, Otter, and Canada Goose tracks. It seemed more secluded than the south end of the lake, further away from the main road of the park
There was potential Bog Lemming sign, chewed up Sedge seeds littering the mucky soil left bare as the water level was low.
When we all ducked into the woods away from the open shore of the lake we took a moment to pick apart some wolf
scat, wonder at the brown tawny hair in the scat and try to sort out who the wolf had been eating. Lots of guesses were thrown around; Muskrat, Mink, Marten, Moose, etc.. Eventually Alexis suggested Beaver. It seems to fit, but now I need to go out and watch a Beaver and really check out their hair.
After the Wolf scat it was time to turn back. We weren’t far but it was a long day of beautiful discoveries, it felt like we’d been out for a week, yet only an hour or two at the same time.
Just for the fun of it, here’s a photo of our potluck spread. It was a great way celebrate the day.