Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bearing With It

“Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby.” 
― James Rollins, "Ice Hunt"

Here in the suburbs we have our neat lawns, our "park-like" and fenceless backyards, our bird feeders to attract cardinals, chickadees and titmice.

You don't expect black bear out here.

But after years of warnings I believe I had an unwelcome visitor sometime the other night and I believe it was a bear.

I opened the shades in the morning and saw only one of two feeder poles and only one of three feeders. Cursing, in disbelief, I grabbed a parka against the dawn chill and ran outside to find one pole bent nearly to the ground (the feeder, where the seed tube is enclosed in a squirrel-proof cage, was still secured to the pole and in one piece). The house feeder - mentioned many a time in these posts - had been ripped from the other feeder pole, which had been bent back from the force of being pulled.

Female cardinal atop house feeder, pre-bear. (Margo D. Beller)
That feeder lay on the ground, empty. I was relieved to find it had not been smashed to bits.

Only the suet feeder - with its plain, unscented suet - was untouched.

My first thought was, WHO would do such a malicious thing. MH had no such thoughts - he immediately cursed and said the bears had finally gotten to our little town.

That wasn't quite true. Years ago, when we had more apple trees, I came out one morning to find a hunk of one tree on the ground and a large indentation (not to mention a lot of scat) and we conjectured a young bear went up in the tree for a snack and the branch gave way, bringing both down. We laughed about it and hadn't thought of bear since.

No more laughing.

This has been another strange winter. No, we weren't buried under the feet of snow seen last winter but it has been very cold for most of the last six weeks and even now, in late March, any warmish weather (which has caused the early flowers to bloom) has been countered by cold, very windy and wintry times.

Still, there comes a point when hibernating animals need to wake up and start eating. I was not surprised to find a chipmunk running around the backyard recently, the bane of my garden's existence because of its damned digging.

Black bear, June 2014, Old Mine Rd., Sussex County, N.J. (RE Berg-Andersson)
Bears are another matter. Bears have been found in most of wooded northern New Jersey for decades. As the population has increased, bears have spread south and east so that there are more bear encounters in urban areas and in parts of the state where a bear had never been seen. Bears have long been part of Morris County, but not my part of the county. Or so I thought.

The other year the mayor of our town had notices put in every mailbox warning people bears were waking up and would be active and hungry, and to take in feeders and keep your garbage secured and watch your pets. In researching this post I found that in 2010, for instance, a bear was seen in broad daylight on our train tracks. The bear problem has gotten so bad the state has reinstated a bear hunt, which has been popular with the deer hunting crowd but not so popular with the animal lovers.

One such animal lover accused me of causing the deer and bear problem by moving to my suburban development. I told the man my house had been built in the 1960s when the populations of both creatures were much lower and, besides, it wasn't my fault. I told him I supported the hunt and if looks could kill my head would be hanging over his mantel.

So now I take the feeders in at night and I have to either straighten the pole - it was bent at a 45 degree angle - or replace it. Since we are coming into spring I have cut back the number of feeders I put out to two, the house (which I repaired) and the suet. But I miss that second pole, not just for putting out more seed but for hanging flower baskets during the summer.

I guess I got off easy. In other areas property has been destroyed, pets and livestock killed and, in one gruesome case, a college student was mauled to death by a bear while hiking in northern New Jersey. As the human population moves into housing developments built where they have no business being (in the 1960s people didn't wonder about such things when my house was built on what had been meadows), there will be more interactions with wildlife.

There are already many reports of coyotes. I've seen foxes and racoons running down my street, as well as skunk and the occasional possum. Deer have been a nemesis almost from the day we moved into this house over 20 years ago.

But bear is different. Bear is big, strong, fast and dangerous. A bear that can bend a metal feeder pole to the ground can snap my spine. If I get between a sow and her cub, I'm dead. Bears have learned to appreciate fine dining from garbage pails and dumpsters as their natural habitat is destroyed.

Like the deer, they have lost their fear of people. It doesn't help when people are stupid enough to try to entice bear into pictures with their children, as one NJ idiot did using a bagel.

Years ago one of my nieces casually told me of the bear she'd seen just that morning at the end of the driveway during my visit to that very house. In rural New Hampshire bear are no big deal. They are respected but they are also hunted. Balance is maintained. Not in the suburbs where I live. Any threat to small children and pets or a genteel way of life where interaction with the natural world is unnatural if it can't be completely controlled must be eradicated, the faster the better.

The bear problem in NJ reminds us you can't let things get out of balance. Our ancestors hunted bear - over-hunted them, in fact. That wasn't right either. Now that the population has been allowed to come back, it is time to start the hunt again, to get the numbers to a manageable point.

Yes, it would be fine to stop people from ripping up woods, damming streams and building mega-houses on multi-acre lots, forcing the clear-cutting of trees and the digging up of land to accommodate sewage, gas and power lines.

But it is unrealistic to think 2/3 of the population of New Jersey, myself included, is going to just go away, just as it's a fantasy to think allowing bears to spread out and breed unmolested is a good thing. At the same time, if you are going to put people in bear country, interactions are going to happen and someone - bear or human - is going to get hurt.

I got my warning. I'm heeding it.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Faith in a Tree

I write this on the first day of spring, according to the calendar. To meteorologists, "spring" started March 1. Today, March 20, at 7:45pm, will be the vernal equinox, when the sun is over the equator. After this, the Earth will tilt in such a way that the northern hemisphere will get more light and move into summer.

But as I write it is cold and cloudy and snow - a lot of snow - is expected. In fact, at this very moment it IS snowing.

It is a depressing thing. The early flowers - snowdrops and crocus - are open, the daffodils and iris are showing signs of life and I was able to unearth my brush pile when the last of the old snow melted. Even tho we got far less snow than last year, it was colder this winter and it made the snow hard and dreary to look at. I was glad to see it melt away. Now it is back.
MH and last year's snow (Margo D. Beller)

The birds, spurred by the increasing daylight, have been singing. A song sparrow nearby is particularly persistent, as are cardinals, titmice, chickadees and house finches. Woodpeckers have been drumming and calling. In a month, the winter birds - juncos and white-throated sparrows - will be leaving and the summer dwellers and migrants will be passing through New Jersey. I've already seen early birds including brown creeper and gold-crowned kinglet, and skeins of Canada geese have been flying north, sometimes in very stiff March winds.

Spring will come, but right now it is dreary and it is snowing.

I try to find things to lift my spirits. One was on a small hill along one of the roads heading into the Central Park of Morris County, which I still call by its old name, Greystone, from its time as state land surrounding a mental hospital.

The snow was piled heavy on this hillside and it was very cold. But the sun was rising and I saw this little conifer above the snow. Somehow, despite all the deer tracks up and down the hill, this conifer - I can't get close enough to determine what type - wasn't eaten to death. It struck me as a hopeful sign, that despite the long, cold winter, spring would come again and things would grow.

Conifer emerging (2015) Cellphone picture by Margo D. Beller

A few days ago I was walking the same road and now all the snow is gone. The tree is still there, still growing, still untouched by deer. It blended into the hillside so well it really doesn't show up in my cellphone picture, as the winter scene does. I hope the tree survives and becomes very tall, somehow elbowing the oaks and maples aside to get enough lift to reach its full height.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about seeds in a book compiled and published after his death called "Faith in a Seed." In the case of this small tree, something - a squirrel, chipmunk or bird, most likely - picked a seed out of a cone and either planted it or excreted it on this spot, which just happened to have favorable conditions for growing.

What makes this tree so interesting is there are no conifers anywhere around that area. The closest ones - hemlocks, a couple of white pines and larches - are farther along the street. Or perhaps a seed was blown in from the wooded areas on the other side of the road, beyond the brook? Somehow, that seed made it to the right spot and is fighting to stay alive.

So am I. At least, I hope this is the right spot and I hope to survive. It isn't easy in this life.

The Passaic River at Scherman Hoffman (2014), some distance from where David Bird was found. 
(Margo D. Beller)

Fourteen months ago, a man about my age and with whom I had a tangential connection through work, went out for a walk and didn't come back. He lived near the Great Swamp, and by a strange coincidence I was hiking through there the day after he went missing. A woman drove up and handed me a flyer about him. It was later I realized why the name - David Bird - seemed so familiar. How ironic, considering I was out birding.

His jacket was sighted by two men in canoes on the Passaic River, the same Passaic that separates Morris and Somerset counties and runs through another of my favorite birding locales, New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary. Bird's remains were found later and identified through dental records.

A long time ago, in Boston, I interviewed a man from what used to be the Metropolitan District Commission, which, among other things, policed the Charles River. The Charles has been known to freeze hard in winter, and people walk across it. But ice is hard to judge and when it thins people drown. The man told me that every spring his people would go out to find "floaters" - drowned bodies that float to the surface after the ice melts and they lose weight through decomposition.

It took 14 months for Bird's body to float to the surface, more time than usual. If not for his red jacket he might never have been found.

MH worries something like that will happen to me when I go birding alone. I reassure him that when I go alone I go to familiar places and stay on the trail.

But really, how safe are we nowadays in this world? We are all like that little tree, placed by chance upon this Earth, our existence dependent on outside factors beyond our control.