There’s a real power in naming places in Nature. This transforms your yard, back woods, special hiking or camping area into a magical land of possibilities!
It’s one thing to be in the woods by that tree over there, but it is quite another to share a story about a place you have had a rich experience in where you saw raccoon tracks. It creates a hook of wanting to know more about the raccoon’s habits and life, and discover if there are more of them and if they had kits this year. The power of imagination and our deep connection to place can really awaken. This can be a way to bring magic, mystery and excitement back into our daily routine.
We live in a world full of changes and notice the technological advances that are happening–the power of TV pulling us all in where we can just sit there for a few minutes which turns into hours. I have noticed there seems to be this need to be constantly “plugged in.” This is embedded in our culture now. It is difficult to go through the day without being plugging in or seeing someone else having “screen time.”
It is believed that our environment shapes us; that what we are surrounded by consistently and our mind focuses on and our senses take in becomes our reality. So what do we do about this culture of which we are a part? Make it a habit to get into the outdoors and plug into Nature!
Nature has its own “screen time.” When you go out in nature, there’s a potential of experiencing a theatrical play. The story of the sharp-shinned hawk who visits your feeder daily may be seen as the dark force; however, the hawk is there waiting for a song bird to drop her awareness so that he can feed his young. The next day, there are cardinal feathers found right near where you see that bird retreat to when you walked outside your door. You may ponder, “What happened?” Now a story is born; one that reminds us of the delicate balance of life and death. Maybe it is as simple as what you learned from the cardinal at your house. In that initial story, we may feel the pull to go out and watch the birds at the feeder, noticing things completely differently.
Insert Nature Mentor
Then Dad or Mom starts asking questions -
Dad: “Did you see those feathers? What color were they?”
Daughter: “Red, bright red.”
Dad: “What birds are red around here?”
Daughter: “Uh, yah, a cardinal, maybe?”
At this point your children are on a journey OUTSIDE even though they are in the house talking with you. This is the power of mentoring! They are going back in their “mind’s eye” and trying to picture the event. This is a very common practice of how native cultures mentor their children. They create associations and a compelling desire of wanting to go back and look. The human nature of wanting to figure out a mystery is deeply embedded in our psyche. We just have to piece it together, take it apart, have it make sense, have a connection to it. To strengthen the connection, together come up with names of these special places in your yard: “Hawk’s Spot,” “Dinner Plate,” “Raccoon Trail.” As a mentor, you can encourage your child to map the yard with all the adventures and mysteries you both find there.
The next step is going out together and letting your child find the area and become a detective while you serve as observer and questioner. This allows you to put the “quest” back in question. This allows your child to feel like it is his/her discovery. There are so many other layers you can integrate too.
In just this story, can you see the power of influence to create nature connection and fostering an understanding of place? This in itself is transformative. Try it; see what happens, and share with us your results and learnings.
Another Story and the Effect of Seeds Planted over Time
Often people ask me, “How do you help kids connect to nature?” I usually tell them it is about establishing core routines; a special place and time in nature over and over where it builds on itself.
Over five years ago, during a class, we were off in the woods, exploring while on our way to the camp where the students loved to spend their time. We stopped to take off our shoes, going barefoot to feel the earth under our feet. I shared a little story and described a natural way of quiet-moving called “fox walking.” Everyone slowly rose to their feet and started to practice this way of movement and awareness.
There were background sounds of trees rustling and birds singing and the soft sound of leaves under our feet. The sound of a call was off in the distance to our north then it stopped. No one really noticed but then a few minutes later it screamed above us in a high-pitched voice. We were all shocked, but in a good way. We looked up and saw a giant silhouette of a bird; a huge wingspan just above the tree line. It cast a big shadow then circled to the south. The call repeated. Everything seemed to stand perfectly still in that moment; as I looked around, I saw the children mesmerized by this majestic brown bird with white head and tail—a Bald Eagle was visiting us. As the one eagle flew with such grace, we all noticed we were sharing a special moment, for some had never seen an eagle before and this marked that special day. Others never saw one this close. The look on their faces was awe and inspiration. Then I noticed there was another eagle flying over to the first, then another, and another, until there were six eagles in all circling this small group of barefoot children of the earth. Everyone was even more amazed at this miracle.
Photograph by Tom Ricardi
This place was then named by all of us present that day. It is now “the place of the soaring eagles.” Now whenever we return to this land, the children often say, “Let’s have snack at the place of the soaring eagles.” When a new student joins our community class, the kids share this story which not only introduces and includes the new child into the story and our community, but also deepens the connection of place for the storyteller. The kids also bring their parents to this spot and share the story with them, which helps foster and deepen the parent-child relationship.
One last thought: I have been practicing this core routine with many children over the years, my own daughter included. One of my magic moments, just recently, was driving down Route 116 with my now teen-age daughter and her saying “Bear Pass,” which reminded us both of seeing a bear crossing at that place and watching it together many years ago. It made me quite the proud Papa to know that what we shared years ago is still retained in her memory. This is the lasting impression of mentoring and the power of naming.
Hope you enjoyed our stories and now understand the power of naming places in nature. Until next time, enjoy your journey into the outdoors.
There are all kinds of fall events. In addition to going for a hike and seeing the foliage, how about harvesting some nuts to prepare and eat?
There’s an amazing tree in the forest right here around us that will help us develop a stronger connection to the natural world. This is such an important part of our patterning on nature that plants seeds for the rest of our development and our ch
This tree is strong, majestic, camouflaged and blends in well with the other trees and not well known by sight, but totally worth the effort in recognizing how to find it…once you can find it. Next you have to figure out which one tastes the best because there are different kinds of hickory trees.ildren and how we will interact for years to come.
It’s not often that you hear people talk about hickories—they are not well known—so let’s go over some identification details that will be helpful in being able to develop the secret to finding this tree and some wild edible foraging skills too.
As we get started, direct your focus on looking at the different habitats in your area and aspects of the trees, bark, leaves (on the ground which may be easier to reach) and up in the tree, note branching structure and nuts and outer coating (husk). Find an area that has a lot of oaks, because we are looking for an oak-hickory forest type. Trees need to be older than 40 years for producing nuts; the younger trees will not.
Michael Wojtech has a fantastic book, Bark: a Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast. I highly recommend it, and this will help give you some really great images and great detail on what to look for. We are fortunate that he has shared an image with us here in the article. I am feeling very grateful for all his research and his graciousness in sharing the knowledge.Most the time when you find hickory nuts they will be right under your feet. They are likely to be in an area that has a lot of squirrel activity; also blue jays are active in eating and caching (storing) them too. There are many kinds of wildlife feeding on this bounty: deer, bears, turkey, raccoons. You may find tracks and signs of their feeding, climbing and presence. You might even find the nuts on the pavement of the roads, parking lots, and other parks, golf courses and recreation areas. (Be mindful of the use of pesticid
Start to create maps of the area of your favorite spots and begin to look forward to visiting those special places around harvesting times every year. As a forager, this is a good thing to pay attention to and develop the habit of. Create special names and stories about these places, and soon you will want to return often, whether you are harvesting or not.es where you are harvesting food.)After gathering for a little bit, you might want to add a little excitement, if necessary.
GAME: Nutty Squirrels–In this activity, you are a family of squirrels. By noticing the types of trees, are you able to find from where the hickories are coming (which is the parent tree?)? This is a great way to utilize
field guides and general observation skills. How many nuts can we gather as a group in a certain time limit? Ready set go!
You can always weave in predator-prey dynamics; lots of animals and birds eat squirrels!
Back to figuring out which nuts we have. Once you have the nuts in your hand, you can find out whether or not they are hard hickory nuts or soft? Why is this important? This will help in identification and to help you be successful in picking the best tasting ones and which to gather.
Look closely at the features of the nut. Is the husk thick or thin? When I say “thick,” I mean like a quarter- to half-inch thick. “Thin” is similar to an acorn shell, sometimes thinner.
Next, you need to shell and crack your nut. If it cracks really easily, you have what’s called a “soft hickory.” If it cracks really hard and the shells are like rocks, you have a hard hickory. There are two different groups of hickories: hard and soft.
Since there are no poisonous hickories, you can experiment and may be lucky enough to find Pignut Hickory, which is a thin-husked hickory with a hard shell similar to Shagbark but a little bigger in size and more nutmeat inside. This is the PRIZE one that can double your harvesting efforts.This is really helpful because the hard hickories with the hard shell have the sweet nutmeat inside. The soft hickories have the bitter nutmeat; at least it needs to be leached (take out tannins) and can still be edible. We are going to focus on the ones that do not need the extra step of leaching. These are the Shagbark and Pignut Hickories
I have found that Shagbark and Pignut together are excellent. There is some information out there that says Pignut is bitter, but I think they’re confusing that with Bitternut. It can be a little confusing, so let’s focus on the hard and sweet hickories this time.
You can crack nuts i
ndividually, similar to the walnuts you get in the store, using a pick and getting the nutmeat out (which really makes the effort worth it when you taste the goodness). It can take about 20 minutes, and you can have a generous handful.
There is a learning curve of breaking the nuts to access them. You will find that some of them are hard to hold and hit just right, (watch those fingers) break the nut and try to open it; you have to be careful how much force you use because too much force just smashes it then you have the shell mixed in with the nutmeat and it can be challenging to get that out.
Learning traditions from our past and developing seasonal harvesting routines for free food creates an enriching future
A Recipe from our Past Called “Powcohicora” (Algonquin Language)
Historically, the native people used hickory. The way they did it was to pulverize the nuts, crushing the shell and nutmeat together, and place all of it in a container and boil it with a watchful eye. The shells sink and everything else rises to the top and they skim the heavy liquid off the top, which is called “decanting.”
Important: They got a special cream off the top which is hickory nut cream, and the rest of it underneath the cream is hickory nut milk (sweeten to taste, but not necessary).
This is not only sweet but it also can be very good as a soup broth or for a stew; it’s full of oils and healthy fats (very high in calories as an easy to digest oil including the high-quality essential fatty acids shown to prevent heart disease), and it’s a good source of vitamin B1 and magnesium. They also provide protein, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorus, potassium, trace minerals, and vitamins A and C
I hope this has inspired you to get out into the fields and forest, and in a sacred way, harvest from these great beings. I also would love to hear about your experiences learning about wild food. May we meet each other underneath a beautiful hickory tree…
There are many different plants that offer potential foods for us to experience. Our ancestors all over the world remind us to share a deep relationship with plants and the importance of a sacred balance. There are cultural tracks left behind for us to follow and learn this deep knowledge that may come directly from indigenous elders around the globe as well as a plethora of information in Ethnobotany and wild food literature.
I have had an opportunity to study with a number of authors and specialists and have integrated foraging into my life for more than a decade. These wild foragers, each coming from there own unique perspective, share many commonalities – passion for sharing their love of plants, eating wild food as a lifestyle, and the tremendous depth of knowledge they share. I have been able to integrate many of their best practices so as to add to the living book of eating wild.
Inspiring foragers with whom I have trained with include: Doug Elliot, Sam Thayer, Arthur Haines, Blanche Cybele Derby, Rosemary Gladstar, Walt Gigandet, Russ Cohen and John Kallas
As people discovered the gift of fire, many parts of the plants became available as food. It has been scientifically documented that the nutritional value in wild plants is beyond their cultivated counterparts.
There are many cycles in the natural world, and many of our classes are designed by what is available during these seasons. These cycles are all different in what they yield with many species of plants and the many parts, such as;
The forager knows this and looks forward to the amazing diversity of food available in early spring, late spring, early summer, late summer, early fall, late fall, and even into the winter. Through this knowledge, we learn to develop a personal relationship with these plants and the special places that they grow.
THE NEED IS GREAT RIGHT NOW TO EAT LOCAL
For ultimate health and wellness, eating WILD is the best health care insurance you can have. With these changing times that we are living in, it is important to supplement our cultivated harvest, supporting our local farmers, with a WILD harvest.
BOOKS ARE GREAT RESOURCES BUT DIRECT EXPERIENCE WITH A KNOWLEDGEABLE PERSON IS INVALUABLE.
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1970s. As a child I remember summer nights filled with fireflies in the back yard. I was so transfixed by these little creatures! They had little flashlights on their tiny bums and they would dance in the nighttime breeze, flashing their little lights to some silent tune, as if only they could hear the waltz.
Now, every June I await for the fireflies to begin their summer ritual. Frank and I have so few where we live so sometimes, to get my fix, we travel all the way to Montague where I know of some choice fields where the action goes on for hours.
Did you know there are two dozen species of fireflies in Massachusetts alone? I sure didn’t; not until I took a citizen science class on fireflies at the annual Massachusetts Environmental Education Society (MEES) conference this year. I knew there where at least two, but wow, two dozen? Twenty-four species of fireflies was phenomenal news to me. And each specie that does flash has its own special signal.
Now before I get into the natural history and science of fireflies, I just want you all to know that becoming a citizen scientist for firefly counting can be done, not just by adults, but by kids as well. What a great reason to stay up just a wee bit passed bedtime – “Mom, Dad, can’t go to bed right now. I have an important duty to perform as a citizen scientist; I am going outside, to count firefly flashes.”
Of the twenty-four firefly species in Massachusetts, there are three that flash. Yes, you read right, not all firefly species have little flashbulbs on their bottoms; only three (that we know of thus far) do. So that firefly-looking insect you saw during the day earlier this spring was probably the Winter Firefly.
A firefly, also known as a lightning bug, is neither a fly nor a bug but a beetle. To get to know this order of insects look for the tough front wings that meet in a straight line down their back. A pair of thinner wings is kept folded under the top pair when this creature is not flying. Like all insects, fireflies have three main body parts: the head, thorax, and abdomen. Being an insect they also have six legs and antennae. Those that have the light-emitting organs on the lower parts of their abdomen are able to flash because of a chemical reaction called bioluminescence. Ever bite down on a Wintergreen Lifesaver candy and seen that spark in the dark? Same concept; a chemical reaction takes place that creates this “cool light”. Cool, huh?
Each flashing firefly has its own language, or secret code, to communicate with others of its kind. We used to understand that each firefly was just out there flashing to find a mate. We now are learning that it is not just same specie partners that are attempting to match up to mate and make more fireflies. There is also intrigue taking place in those bushes out back.
Trickery in the Tall Grass
While the Photinus male is minding his own business trying hard to attract a female of his own kind, the Photuris female, who is about twice the size of Photinus, has other plans. She is hungry. So to attract a meal, she mimics – pretends to be – a Photinus female by copying the Photinus female’s answering flash. The Photinus male gets all excited, “hooray, I have found my sweetheart!” Only to be set upon and eaten when he alights on the leaf or grass-blade.
To make matters more complex the Photuris male, trying to attract a Photuris female will also mimic the Photinus in hopes that he can lure his own specie by tricking her into thinking she is going to get a meal but instead the Photuris male arrives hoping his affections will be reciprocated by the Photuris female. And that is not all; a Photinus male, after having arrived successfully at the doorstep of a Photinus female, will ward off other potential suitors by mimicking a Photuris female, mimicking a Photinus female, but one who accidently gave herself away as a Photuris. Wow! What complexity! What adventures are taking place outside our windows in the gloaming.
If you want to find fireflies that flash, first you need to head outside at dusk. Yes, when the mosquitoes are descending upon you in hoards. Photinus, Photuris, and Pyractomena can be found in moist meadows and fields. Their larvae need moist soil to grow in and soft-bodied invertebrates to eat, so an ideal habitat for youth and adults consists of a meadow or large yard with shrubs and uncut grass which is surrounded by forest.
If you can even keep just a patch of your grass uncut and some of your garden a bit wild, your chances increase that fireflies will find your yard an appealing habitat.
Games you can play with other families and neighborhood kids on summer nights
Flashlight Tag: Depending on how many participants you have enlisted, you may want to have one or two “it”. In this game only the “it” has the flashlight. Decide upon three to four bases that the participants have to get to, in no particular order. This way no one can just stay hidden but have to find a way to sneak in, tag a base, and leave. The object of the game is for the players not to get tagged with the light of the flashlight while tagging each base. After a player has successfully tagged all the bases s/he can hide nearby and wait. The object for “it” is to shine their flash light on other players. Players who are tagged sit out until the next round. The round is called after there is apparently no one except “it” running around.
Mimickers: For this game, all players need their own flashlight. Half the players are Photinus and the other half are Photuris. Each group separates, decides on specific flashes and what those flashes mean. For example, the Photinus team may decide that two quick flashes mean “come here” and that the proper response would be to flash three quick flashes. Spread out in a large area; this can be school grounds, someone’s backyard, a patch of woods, or a field. The object for Photinus is to find one another again, at least in pairs. The object for Photuris is to figure out through observation, what the various signals Photinus are using and lure in a Photinus. If a Photinus is tricked into going to a Photuris, the Photinus is out and can stargaze through this round.
Learn more about Fireflies
General nature activities, including fireflies: http://www.backyardbiology.net/
Firefly facts, photos, stories http://www.firefly.org/
Firefly Flash Chart: https://www.mos.org/fireflywatch/flash_chart
Into the Outside with Fireflies Family Outing, Saturday, June 16, 8:00 – 9:30pm with Arianna Grindrod of Earthwork Programs. For details go to: www.earthworkprograms.com
Fingers of twilight etch the sky
the landscape is a slumbering body bruised purple
from holding the sweet weight of the sun’s warmth.
Day bids a lingering farewell to the mountains
illuminating grassy mounds in hot gold and pink.
As the landscape slips into darkness
wind blown flickers of lightning taste the tall grass.
Summer-night holds its own light
luminescent beings it borrowed from the stars
small reminders of their brilliant cousins
kissing the evening breeze.
I watch these tiny creatures etch the mysteries of life across the lawn
as they seek food shelter companionship.
Fireflies create a pattern in their dancing
that is the chaos of being alive.
I will not profess to understand what these patterns mean
only that they exist amid the lightning flashes and tumble of wings.
Winter has come and gone, and spring is clearly unfolding: the birdsong, the wildflowers, the bursting of shoots braking through the Earth’s surface in fertile ground, the trees leafing out, the warmer days as frogs sing, and then in the spring, showers are coming as the ice melts off the mountains, bringing it down through the rivers. It’s a powerful time of change.
My daughter and I–with binoculars in hand and our favorite walking stick, backpack filled with food, water and a couple of field guides, map and first aid kit–venture into the forest, as the sun rises, with a goal of seeing wildlife and not being seen. We move quietly through the deep forest, moving like a ghost, invisible as best we can while using the Indian sign language we have been practicing.
We are so blessed to be in the middle of a magical place with such a rich diversity as we are in southern New England…a world where the boreal forest and the northern forest meet, giving us the best place to be immersed in nature. The boreal forest, also known as “the spruce-moose forest,” has mainly evergreen trees and a few select hardwoods like poplar, paper birch, tamarack and others. The northern hardwoods have such a vast amount of trees like yellow birch, sugar maple, American beech, eastern hemlock, white pine, northern red oak, cherry, and those are just a few—there are many more.
As we trek deeper into the forest, we notice the dense canopy not letting in much sunlight as the sun rises out of the east, giving us a sense of direction, but our awareness tunes into a subtle change, and as we enter, there is more light shining down on us than just a minute earlier. This is a track on a large scale that is affecting how much light which helps to make a more rich forest in vegetation and brings with it many animals and birds and the like. With our senses honed, there are signs of the animals all around us. We notice claw marks and bites on trees, stunted growth where it looks like a nursery of Japanese bonsai trees, and when we look down in the leaf litter, there are many footfalls showing worn-in paths on the forest floor, weaving in and out of the cliffs.
Passing through different habitats, we see the many deciduous leaves and all the light that shines creates a dappled look under our feet and in the area between the wetland and the cliffs. There is a lot of feeding sign called browse (little 45-degree angle cuts), taking the end of the branch clean off, almost like clippers.
As we expand our awareness to the area high up on the cliff, we see a good hiding place opposite of the spot we want to watch. Scanning for signs of movement, we hope to get a glance of this very elusive animal who chooses the south-facing, hard-to-access areas in the cliffs. We have already done our research; we know this animal is crepuscular, which means it is active at twilight hours (dawn and dusk). It is diurnal (day) and nocturnal (night).
Its primary food source has left sign with the angled cut that we found earlier, so we know there is a feeding area in close view. One of the traits of this animal is the ability to be motionless for long periods; even in winter, being able to lay in the snow where you can find a sphinx-like “hunting bed” while it waits to ambush its prey. To discover this body print melted out from the heat that is generated while it remains still as a shadow is inspiring! As we get down low, we find sections of hair frozen to the ice; however this time of year, you want to look for “resting beds;” places where you can make out where it has been laying down, usually under a rock overhang on a pile of leaves insulating from the ground.
The forest is so quiet. My daughter and I take turns to scan the cliffs with our glasses. We have been watching, quietly, for almost an hour and a half. We know that patience always pays off. We also know that this animal has a very small heart and it travels a very short range compared to others of its size. By knowing this, we also could watch it hunt as it stalks its prey since it is primarily a carnivore.
While looking near the top where we have been looking all morning, in the best rays of light, we see movement–a very camouflaged tawny color with dark shades and beautiful markings, big eyes and graceful movement as we watch it stretch basking in the suns glow. It has been there all this time…watching us watching for her. So who’s watching whom? While studying us, perhaps, she senses we are not a threat.
It is time to hunt. Her preferred prey, the rabbit, helps to sustain her but also helps raising her kittens. If you haven’t guessed by now, the mystery animal is the bobcat.
As we watch our cat in her natural rhythm, we are excited because we may be able to watch her hunt. Earlier we mentioned how she lies in wait in “hunting beds.” Once the prey is close enough, there is an explosion of energy–a POUNCE! From her ambush spot, bursting forth after the rabbit who has zigzagging motion to avoid capture. There is a very small window of time because she needs to not burn too much energy; if the hunt lasts longer than just minutes, she will stop rest, find another spot and start again and continue that cycle.
This bobcat needs to eat and feed her new kittens, and when she has the rabbit, she will take it to a place close by to hide it and take parts of the animal and “cache” (cover and save for later) the rest, using her front paws very much the same as our house cats. She will travel back and forth to feed her young if she has gotten a good amount of food. She will continue to hunt this area because of the success.
Thanks for joining us on our adventure into the outdoors.
Many years ago I was awakened to the stories of our wild neighbors. Though we do not always see them, they leave so much information about the stories of their lives. There is adventure, drama, death, play, romance, and mystery. Through the years I learned how to stop, look, listen, smell, and feel these stories and attempt to reveal the mysteries. I do this through the art and science of animal tracking.
To see what our wild neighbors do – through their tracks, and their behavior through the signs they leave behind: claw marks on trees, scrapes, bite marks, digs, rubs, scat – is an initiation into a secret world. Though the world of our wild neighbors may seem one of secrecy to us; to them it is a very obvious. The sign they leave behind are markers to state who they are, what they are doing in the area, and if they are available to mate.
Some mammals are crepuscular; that means most active during twilight, at dawn and dusk such as deer, moose, rabbits, and beaver. Others are nocturnal such as our bat friends and flying squirrels. Then there are those, who like the majority of humans, are diurnal – active during the day – such as gray and red squirrels. Whether or not we have the opportunity to watch our wild neighbors up close and personal, they always leave sign of their presence and as a tracker you get to see those visual cues and smell their scents and be able to have that deeper connection and understanding of what is happening in the environment you are exploring.
Our black bear story takes place on a chilly fall day where the leaves covered the ground and the sound of the crunching under our feet echoed through the forest. My friend Mark and I were tracking through an open deciduous forest full of majestic American Beech elders, Red Oak, White Birch and Hickory. This year was a mast year for Beech and many beechnuts covered the ground. We noticed a large disturbance of leaves and as we looked closer we saw the tracks of turkey feeding signs mice,squirrel and the prints of deer and bear tracks. For a tracker all this sign could be equated to a kid in a candy shop; so much to gaze at and be excited about; so much to choose from. Aha, the treat we had to take a closer look at; the pièce de résistance, were black bear claw marks going up this tree as we looked up we saw many broken branches. They had been broken from all directions being pulled into the center. We knew this was not storm damage for the breakage would have been in all one direction of the path of the storm. We had discovered a “Bear Nest” this is a place where they climb up and sit in the middle of the crotch of a tree and FEED pulling the branches in to them then sitting on them and eating more. When bears are feeding constantly to put on weight they often are resting/ napping often too. Perhaps in the nest? later on that day when we were under the Hemlock trees we found an amazing sight. A set of bear tracks in the shallow snow with great detail. As we followed the mystery of where are they going why this direction we saw something I had never seen before. Right underneath the Hemlock tree at the base was a large clump of branches. These were not short they were rather long some 2 feet and in such a beautiful arrangement in the shape of a rounded bed. This was a Bear bed I had never known they made above ground beds with such detail and weaving of all Hemlock branches for a soft form.
So earlier in the day we found bear tracks at the base of the beech tree’s bear claws leading up the understory to eat beechnuts. Why beechnuts? Beechnuts are high in fat and bears are looking for high-energy foods to fatten themselves up to survive the winter some sources quote Beech nuts having 60% Fat. When we have a mast-year of beechnuts such as we had this year, with so many Beeches producing an abundance of fruit, the bears capitalized on this food source. You may have noticed last year that we had a mast year of acorns, with oaks putting out acorns aplenty. Bears are opportunists so whatever tree species are masting, bears will be there to put the weight on.
Throughout the summer bears are fattening up whatever berries, nuts, invertebrates and other animals they can find and just as we do they have their favorite foods. Don’t worry though, we are not on the menu of the black bear who typically stands about five feet tall with a range of four to seven feet tall. Adult males weigh between 125 and 500 pounds, depending upon age, season, and food while adult females usually weigh between 90 and 300 pounds, again, depending on age, season and food type availability.
According to Paul Rezendes, a renowned tracker in the northeast, that given the choice, Black Bears seem to prefer beechnuts even after the snowfalls. He has witnessed them digging up Beechnut under a foot of snow and putting off their sleep if there’s a good crop. Looks like this year the bears may be up past their bed time. There are years when
the American Beech do not have a “bumper crop” year and so the bears will seek out other tree species that are masting in any given year. Apparently they will even feed on White Ash seeds when the oak, beeches, and hickories are not masting. My wife and I sampled White Ash just to see what they would taste like. Arianna was not impressed
with the idea of having to eat many of these, whereas, upon soaking the beechnuts, she claimed them “quite tasty”.
Though spring to summer was mating season and summer to fall was major caloric intake season, come November a black bear’s focus is finding a denning site. They will try a number of sites before they settle on the one that serves their specific needs. A den may be a hollow tree, a cave, or an excavated den of a smaller mammal or even a small depression above ground; the main criteria is where a bear has determined to be safe and secluded. And this winter, on your visits through the woods, you may snowshoe or ski right by a bear den and not even know it.
A pregnant female will give birth sometime in January or early February and as any human mother will confirm, that under no circumstances, unless you are being heavily sedated, could you possibly sleep through a birthing experience. They are however, very efficient hibernators. In the late fall the Black Bear will start to eat less and become more lethargic, and while they are denned up during the winter they will not eat, drink or defecate during hibernation. And because their fur is so insulative, the bear’s body heat is lost very slowly, “maintaining temperatures above 88 degrees–within 12 degrees of their normal summer temperature.” (Rogers, Lynn, 1981) Still, a female Black Bear is
certainly alert enough to nurse and clean her young.
So as you step outside this winter, work on developing a deeper awareness of the beings around you. This will serve you in whatever you do in life. So go off trail into the forest, fields, swamps, and ridges. Explore the wild world around you and perhaps you too will find black bear marks on a beech tree in the middle of the woods and then say – AHA!
Learn more about Black Bears!
Read and watch Black Bear researchers such as Lynn Rogers and Ben Kilham; they have so much to share! Additionally, since it is challenging to express all the information in an article about black Bears and I want you to get outside, into the outdoors, I’ve provided a video to go along with this article so that you can go out on your own or with your family
and be able to find these things in your own forest. http://earthworkprograms.com/?page_id=800
Please be mindful and respect the Bears in their habitat.