Bird-Count Bear

The soft crunch of gravel: a bear-shaped shadow detatches itself from the woods, ambles up the road, turns onto my walk, and stops right in front of the door. Stands there under my portico, still as a statue. The light of the half-moon is disappearing into the dawn like spilled milk into a cat.

I’m up early to help my mother with our annual Important Bird Area point-count, which involves counting every bird seen or heard in three minutes from each of 16 points, located 250 meters apart, before 9:00 a.m. — but first I have to take my coffee, as usual, out on the porch. The large red cedar in my side garden is blocking my view of the bear, who doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. The other week, a bear tore up a couple of greenhouses in a nursery less than a mile from here, but the game wardens trapped and relocated it, they said, several counties away.

I ease the porch door open, creep inside, and tiptoe through the house to the other door. Fortunately, the cold front had blown in the night before and I had pulled the sliding storm window down over the screen. There on the other side of the glass, a massive head shakes slowly from side to side, as if trying to free itself of some hallucination. I consider trying to get a flash photo, but why let the trophy-hunting instinct hijack this encounter?

I crouch down so my eyes are level with the bear’s, six inches away. Does he see me? It’s hard to say. He finally turns around, pads back down the walk to the driveway, and heads up the hill toward the barn. I go out after him, and this time, he does acknowledge my presence, looking back, then breaking briefly into a slow trot.

Two and a half hours later, we’re ascending the southeast-facing side of the hollow along the Dogwood Knoll trail, en route to point number ten, when I spot a large black animal in the middle of the trail: no doubt the self-same bear. We watch from 75 feet away as he sits down — still in no hurry — and appears to engage in some birdwatching of his own. This is the first non-humid morning in two weeks, and with the temperature in the low 50s, it’s reasonable to assume that the bear, too, is enjoying the change.


Video link (subscribers must click through to watch)

We must’ve watched for at least five minutes. The shakey, often out-of-focus video I managed to shoot has been edited down drastically, and fails to convey the slow, contemplative mood the bear seems to have been in. If I hadn’t moved to try and get a clearer shot and disturbed its reverie, we might be there still.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

31 Comments


  1. The light of the half-moon is disappearing into the dawn like spilled milk into a cat.

    Lovely line, Dave.

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  2. That was really fun. I loved the up-close look through the window part. I can imagine my heart pounding in such a situation, not from fear. To have a bear show up at your front door is probably a good thing. Unless you are a bee.

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    1. Yes, I must admit that the encounter with the bear woke me up much more quickly than the coffee did! And it put me in a properly attentive frame of mind for many more wildlife sitings this morning, which included not just another encounter with the bear, but also good sightings of turkey hens with chicks, ruffed grouse chicks, twin fawns (twice), a yellow-billed cuckoo, and a nesting pair of indigo buntings, among others.

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  3. No, not over the top.

    Thanks for going for over 140 characters. The morning and the bear deserved it. (I love the preciseness of the important bird count, too.)

    They don’t have good eyesight, perhaps the closed storm-window hid your scent, a bit. You were probably a shadow to him, too.

    Bears are one of my favorite animals. Thanks for posting your experience. I envy your 6-inch encounter. ;-)

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  4. Yeah, I think that’s why they move their heads back in forth: they really don’t see too well, and/or they’re trying to pick up a scent.

    Always a thrill to see a bear — I can’t imagine getting bored with them as we do with deer. Fortunately, our eastern black bears are real pussy cats, though their potential danger does add an element of excitement to any encounter.

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  5. My wife had a good look at a bear a few days ago not far from our home — again (and she didn’t even bother mention it until just now!) I’ve never seen one hereabouts in Southeastern Missouri. Something to look forward to, I suppose. For the time being I feel my heart surge in a *cushioned darkness* (thanks (p)(b)!) at the news that she is seeing them.

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    1. What is she doing that you’re not — or vice versa? Are you a whistler, for example? Or maybe you just smell different.

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  6. Kia ora Dave,
    What a very cool interaction! I used to enjoy coming across the odd black bear in northern Wisconsin, or more frequently up in the Boundary Waters. Not an experience one gets to have here in New Zealand. Great video, and after waking up like that, a cup of coffee would hardly be needed!
    Cheers,
    Robb

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    1. That’s true, I guess the native wildlife isn’t too big in New Zealand, is it? Except for those extinct giant moa things. Those must’ve been pretty cool.

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  7. Wonderful video and thanks for sharing it. We don’t see bears here in central Texas so this is a real treat for a Monday morning. The one time I saw a bear was hiking near Lake Tahoe a few years ago. That’s still one of my favorite days in the woods. How exciting it must be to see one outside your house and so close too.

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    1. Glad you liked. The increase in the black bear population is one of the few really positive developments in the almost 40 years we’ve lived on the mountain. Back in the 70s and early 80s, when I was a kid, we never saw them. This reflects a state-wide trend.

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  8. A grand close encounter, dave. I’ve never seen a bear in the wild, so even just watching this video I get a sense of the thrilling excitement. Quite a creature.

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    1. Well, I’ve never seen a bobcat in the wild, so I’d say we’re about even!

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  9. Wow. I haven’t seen a bear for at least a decade now. I’m just getting back into hiking, having gone on short stretches along the AT three times this year. I’m sure I’ll see signs of them before long. (I probably already have; I really don’t know what I’m looking at most of the time out there.)

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    1. The scat isn’t hard to find. The scratch marks on trees can be a lot easier to miss.

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  10. Pretty cool. I’ve also been hiking the AT — I’ve seen likely bear scat, and once what looked like a bear’s footprint in a muddy path. But by far the most common “spoor” along the trails has been those huge gouges in long-fallen trees. (The bears tear them open to get at the grubs.)

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    1. Oh yes, quite right. The only other thing that tears up rotten logs like a bear is a crazed beetle collector with a Bowie knife. You can never quite rule that out — not if you’ve met my brother.

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  11. Thanks for sharing your bear event, Dave. They are around here, but I haven’t seen one in several years — and when I did, the sight of me always frightened the bear into a hasty retreat.

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    1. Yes, it was great to find one that seemed so unconcerned about, or unaware of, human presence. I fear for it, though: one of the neighboring landowners took three bears off his property last hunting season.

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  12. Amazing and fortunate that you can have such an encounter so close to home, Dave. I can’t imagine an incident like this (outside of the zoo) in a London park – it would probably attract more news cameras than a flying saucer landing.
    How big is the bear – About 6ft tall if standing up?

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    1. No, more like five feet. He (probably a he) was a medium-sized bear. Pennsylvania black bears can get up to 800 pounds, but I don’t think this one was much over 200.

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  13. Just a postscript — on this last Friday’s hike, we saw several bear “mounds” in the middle of the trail, all full of large seeds. Clearly it had found some berry or fruit crop! We ran into another group of hikers who had actually seen the bear (it climbed down from its tree and skedaddled).

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    1. Large seeds? Cherry pits, perhaps? Obv. not blueberries, raspberries, or the like.

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