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My local wildlife pages are usually about our local osprey and eagle nests - this is something very different - a once-in a lifetime experience for Charlie and me.
As some of you know, I work for the Maine Legislature, doing tech support for the Clerk of the House. And the Maine Legislature has an annual Legislative Memorial Benefit Auction, which raises money for scholarships for one student from each of Maine's 16 counties. There are lots of items donated - I like auctions and it's a good cause and over the years I've won some handmade jewelry and a cashmere hat croched by a legislator with wool from her own goats and a lot of nifty things.
And among the prizes that has been donated annually for several years is the opportunity to accompany biologists from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) when they visit one of their monitored bear dens to check the collar on the female - and see how many cubs there are and tag them. Last year we won the certificate to do that - and today we met two very little bears.
As a bit of background - there's been a lot less snow in Maine this year than most years, and it's been warmer than usual - but this is Maine, so while it was a sunny day, the high temperature was expected to be about 30°F (-1°C), and while the snow was mostly not very deep with a thick enough crust that we could walk on it - I did go in up to my knees a couple of times. And, oh yeah, I broke my elbow a month ago, so my left arm was in a cast. So here I am with enough layers that I'd probably bounce if I did fall down, and the walking stick the great crew from IFW cut for me to help me maneuver over the tricky areas (all s'caps click bigger).
There were times when it felt as if we'd hiked several miles - but the den was really only about a half-mile from the road, half of which was on a woods road (where the picture above was taken) and the rest of which was more cross-country. Charlie and I and the other non-IFW person accompanying the team waited quietly about a half hour here on the road while the team checked out the den, and eventually shouted to let us know we could follow their tracks in to the site. And as we entered a clearing, we saw team member Jake (nicknamed "Jumper" because he had spent some years out west on a fire-fighting crew - which involved jumping from planes to get behind the fire line - wow!). And Jake and I discovered that we'd both grown up in the same small town in Maine - and he went to school with our niece - one of those neat small world moments. And I completely forgot about all of that when I saw what he was holding. ♡
Randy Cross is the head of the IFW black bear team, and has been monitoring bears for more than 30 years. He knows a whole lot about bears, and shares that information freely and in an interesting fashion - and I'm very certain I was totally not listening after he showed me how to hold a cub, plopped it down next to my elbow, and said "you can hold the other one too - right" and plopped it in my other arm.
I eventually returned (partially) from cloud 9, and learned that the cubs are about 7 weeks old, and the larger one is about 4-1/2 pounds (so together they weigh a bit less than our modest-sized tomcat Miskin). Randy and the other team members said they both were in great shape, nice and plump, which is good news because this was the first litter for five-year-old Eva, and raising cubs is a bit challenging for new moms. And Charlie did get another nice close-up of the cubs while I was talking with Randy.
Here's the rest of the team - and they were all wonderful and supportive - and we really got the impresssion that they like what they do! Mitch's nickname is "Shoe" - and no one actually remembered how he got that nickname (or at least they weren't talking!), Lisa in the middle is nicknamed "Kid" - and for some reason I'm thinking Billy the Kid - a force to be reckoned with (she's the one that crawls into enclosed dens to check on the bears!) - and Jake/"Jumper" is on the right.
Jake offered to take a picture of both of us, so Charlie passed him the camera and came over beside me.
I was very happy that Charlie was happy to come along on this great adventure, which was initially more my great adventure than his - but I think once he touched one of the cubs he was converted - and so was the cub. The little one looks very happy with him! (Pictures by Jake)
And we didn't go with the team when they returned the cubs to the den (and "den" is really a misnomer - among the new things I learned today is that a number of bears, including Eva, don't really have dens, but make a bit of a nest on the ground, generally in a really dense thicket (which would be one of the reasons we turned down the offer to see the nest) - and to my amazement it works, and these cubs are living proof that a bear mom can keep her cubs warm and dry without what I think of as a den. Jake offered to take our camera when he and Mitch returned the cubs to the den, and here they are, with a bit of fresh bedding while they wait for Mom to return.
The team invited us to accompany them to the next den - but I have to admit that I was OK with letting the adventure end here without taking more risks on rough terrain - and with wonderful memories that will last a lifetime.
If you'd like to learn a bit more about the monitoring program, here's a link to an article Randy wrote about the legacy of one of the bears they followed - http://www.maine.gov/wordpress/insideifw/2015/04/07/the-legacy-of-one-bear-sara-id-225-written-by-randy-cross-biologist/.
Several people have asked where the mother bear was during all this. She was nearby. The team had hoped to sedate her so they could check her collar and replace its battery, but they knew she might bolt as they approached. It does make sense from a survival of the species perspective - like eagles, it takes bears 4-5 years to reach maturity, and not all cubs or eaglets make it that far, so she is more valuable than the cubs. As she gets older, and larger, and more confident, she's probably going to be more likely to stay longer to try to chase off interlopers - which would give them a chance to sedate her. But this time she took off before they were within range.
They said because she had a ground nest, in a thicket but open on all sides, she would be able to hear them from quite a ways away, and apparently bears are not sound asleep while they hibernate, but aware of what's going on around them, at least some of the time (another thing I did not know!). They had said that if she ran off, they'd decide whether to back off quickly and try again another day, or whether to quickly check the cubs and hope her collar and battery lasted another year - and they chose to tag the cubs rather than risk disturbing her a second time. As you can see from the picture, they made sure there was plenty of insulating material around the cubs - and they said they'd check back later in the day to make sure the mother was back on the cubs (which I think they can do from quite a ways out with their antennas) - and I got the impression that they also might be able to hear her with the cubs from a safe distance (safe in terms of not disturbing her).
We spent a half hour or so with the team at their office before setting out yesterday morning - and it was clear to me that they have probably run across any possible combination of circumstances, and can easily adapt on the fly as situations evolve. And they clearly love their work.
Added March 2 - we got an update from Randy - Eva did return to the cubs as expected, and in response to my question, he said both little ones are female.