Bear witness

The drought is over, at last. Starting in late June, we had a run of 55 days straight without rain. Then a half inch in mid-August and another half inch when I checked our gauge September 9th, but otherwise nothing much happened in the way of precipitation. For 3 ½ months, we got the same amount of rain as large swathes of the Sahara desert. But then all Hades broke loose. Early this month the weather system called the Pineapple Express delivered a line of storms that stretched from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest, re-wetting the woods.

And with the rains, wildlife sign is back. Black-tailed deer have left calling cards everywhere. Their droppings litter the floodplain of Tarboo Creek, and they are nipping at the willow and cottonwood saplings that we’ve been planting in a reed canary grass infestation there. All of the deer-high saplings have had their hair trimmed. Walking through that area you can almost see the deer moving from one willow youngster to another, chatting as they go—or at least munching. They tear the tips off every twig within reach, eating the nutritious terminal leaves and buds. Those are the spots where the plant is caching most of its sugars, to support the fastest growth. Little candy tufts.

Baby tree, maybe 2 years old, that deer “browsed.”

Once a terminal bud is gone, plants respond by throwing tufts of shoots skyward. Browsed regularly, trees and shrubs get a stunted look, with twigs shooting straight up like the hair on a 1960s-vintage Troll doll. But if one of those twigs can grow beyond the reach of a deer’s craned neck, it is out of danger. It will take over and create the main stem of the plant. Most of the willows and cottonwoods that got browsed at this time last year have accomplished this, and are now deer-proof.

Some of the larger willow saplings, and several of the western white pines we planted back in the winter of 2005, have also borne the brunt of jousts with bucks. When a male’s antlers are growing quickly, the spongey outgrowths are covered in a velvety tissue thickened with blood vessels. When the antlers harden and are ready for the dueling season the tissue dies and sloughs off. With that, it’s time for the bucks to make their marks. They prefer small-diameter, whippy saplings as sign posts, rubbing their foreheads to leave scent from head-mounted glands. In a testosterone-fueled frenzy, they break branches as they rub and abrade the scented bark into a raw, ratted mess. It’s an odiferous no trespassing sign.

A “sign post” that deer have been here.

The signpost trees and shrubs come off much the worse for the wear, but live to grow another day. Years later, you can see the scars from battle: thick ridges of scar tissue growing along either side of a grayed length of stem—the core that took the brunt of the scent marking.

Our nephew Demetri is even hearing deer sign. He lives in a cabin just above a marsh along a tributary to Tarboo Creek, where thick mists have been settling in the increasingly cool evenings. When he goes out after dark these days, he can hear bucks stomping and snorting from the heart of the mist. The stomping is to make muddy scrapes, flavored with scent from glands between their hooves. The snorting is boys being boys.

We’ve also been seeing bear sign. This is usual this time of year but unusual otherwise, so I imagine that it’s from yearling cubs that have gotten kicked out of the house by their newly pregnant moms. We almost always see piles of scat along Old Tarboo Road not far from our cabin, and for the second year in a row we’ve had nose jabs in an ant mound near one of our trails. Some of the woodland ants here make thatched-roof homes that are a foot or more high, and bears love to eat ants. When I worked on a grizzly bear study in Yellowstone Park many years ago, we’d find “ant scats”—long, thin tubes of feces made up almost entirely of ant bodies, excavated from colonies in rotting logs.

One of the larger ant mounds at our place has had depressions pressed into the thatch, each the size of a bear’s nose. (That’s the photo up top.) I’m guessing that when bears get a rise out of the ants by nosing the mound like this, they lick them up. Ant larvae, or brood, are probably more nutritious than adults, but the babies are buried in the thatch and their sisters defend them by spraying noxious clouds of formic acid. I’m not convinced that our bears have torn the mounds apart thoroughly enough to find much brood. So I’ve got my eyes peeled for ant scats.

Steady rains, smelly deer and broody bears. Fall is here.