Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the August 21, 2005 Newsletter, issued from California's Sierra Nevada Foothills:

This week I saw my Black Bear, URSUS AMERICANUS. In El Dorado National Forest I was following a narrow four-wheeler trail down a wooded slope when the bear and I met at a curve about 25 feet apart. Both the bear and I froze in mid stride and I was gratified when he remained frozen as I raised my binoculars and had a good look. He was all black except for a cinnamon chest, and not quite fully grown. We stared at one another for about 15 seconds and then he turned and waddled off in the opposite direction. I continued my walk past where he'd been and followed his tracks on the dusty trail for a good distance before they led into the brush.

This was in the same general area where earlier I had seen bear tracks. Those prints had been 7.5 and 7 inches long, not counting claws, and this one's prints were 6.5 inches long, so now I know that at least three bears inhabit that vicinity.

Earlier I wrote that surely bears at this season are having a hard time finding enough food to survive because it's too early for acorns, blackberries and other such fruits. However, this bear looked well fed and healthy, and now that I've looked more into bear food I can see why. Bears are much more vegetarian than I'd believed, at this time of year mainly eating miscellaneous herbage and even grasses, until berries and nuts ripen later.

I was curious about the bear's cinnamon-colored chest. I read that about 95% of Black Bears in the Sierra Nevadas are some shade of brown and only about 5% are truely black, but I can't find mention of black bears with large brownish spots.

from the October 3, 2004 Newsletter, issued from California's Sierra Nevada Foothills:

Saturday morning I hiked down to the old goldmine in the canyon and was surprised to find a good bit of bear poop -- Black Bear, URSUS AMERICANUS. Some of the hard, crumbly turds, the same diameter they came out of the bear, measured a full two inches across (5 cm) and they consisted of almost nothing but the remains of Manzanita fruits. There just isn't another species in the area that can produce such large, fruity poop!

This poop was orangish red, since that's the color of Manzanita fruits. In Spanish the word "manzanita" means "little apple," and that's what the pea-sized fruits look like, though inside they are very dry and seedy. Here Manzanita bushes are super-abundant. They belong to the Heath, or Azalea, Family, and currently bear a very heavy fruit crop.

Many Manzanita fruits had passed through the bear's gut whole. Fruit stems were also visible, so I could just picture bears on our recent full-moon nights pawing clusters of Manzanita fruits into their maws and chomping down on leaves, stems and fruits, making a few half-hearted and sloppy chews, swallowing, and then moving on.

There's an interesting Web page about Black Bears in California at www.bear-tracker.com/bear.html with several pictures and personal anecdotes. A locally based website treating Black Bears as a problem is at www.co.el-dorado.ca.us/ag/wildlife/bears.html. That site says that Black Bears are "generally protected," which appears to mean that you can't shoot them unless you feel threatened.

from the August 8, 2005 Newsletter, issued from California's Sierra Nevada Foothills:

The dry season is bearing down on us and the grassy, wildflower-graced slopes are now brittle and hay- colored with only deep-rooted trees and shrubs remaining green. The gravel and dirt roads upslope in El Dorado National Forest are developing stretches of deep dust and what's good about that is that dust is as good for tracking critters as snow. Therefore, when I wandered into the mountains this week my radar was set to animal tracks.

I really wanted to see porcupine tracks, for I have no experience with that animal and porcupines are found here. Fred saw one years ago beneath some brush but they're not common, and I found no sign of them during my hike. In dust their tracks would be easy to identify because their quills scrape the ground at the sides of their prints.

That dust told enough stories to keep me fascinated during the entire hike. Jackrabbits, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, beetles, lizards, quail, deer, snakes, and several things I couldn't identify, all left signs of having done nearly everything other than walk in a straight line.

Black Bear tracks, photo by Diana Adams of CaliforniaI'd grown accustomed to the tracks' smallness, the largest ones being the deer's, so when bear prints suddenly appeared below me it was breathtaking. The back paw prints were 7½ inches long, not counting claws, which weren't visible, and 3½ inches broad. They looked unsettlingly like human prints, just much wider, plus the biggest toe was on the outside of the foot, not as among humans. [The shot at the right is of prints found later, in mud.]

While measuring the prints my own hands placed near those massive, plodding tracks looked spidery and weak. For a moment I glimpsed how early people with simple arms must have felt when tracking a bear.

A few minutes later I came upon a shoulder-high Douglas-fir sapling right beside the road. It had been clawed and possibly chewed on one side so that its bark and wood hung in shreds. Copious resin exuded in gummy droplets, and I suspect that that's what the bear had been after. When I tasted the resin at first there was a hint of sweetness but then there was no flavor at all other than that of turpentine.

It's hard to imagine enough food being available at this time of year to keep a large bear going. It's too early for manzanita fruits and blackberries, and only a few undersized acorns are falling. We were over a mile from any water. About all I could think of that a bear could eat were grubs in decaying logs and ants beneath rocks. I've seen Pileated Woodpeckers extract thumb- size grubs from old logs, and I know that some very large ants with their white pupae live beneath our rocks. Black Bears are known to relish ants, which they eat in masses. Bears also eat roots and tubers, plus there must be the occasional honey tree. Down below, Diana tells me she's just seen some bear poop full of plum pits, apparently from a neighbor's orchard tree. Still, I think our bears must be pretty hungry these days.

The next day, backtracking, I came upon a second, slightly smaller set of tracks. Moreover, in the section of dust where they appeared they lay exactly atop my own tracks of the previous day, and going in the same direction. Was it a coincidence, or was that bear tracking me...?