Living with Bears Redux

Most summer evenings after the heat of the day has faded, I walk Butterfly Loop. This trail encircles a portion of our 37-acre meadow we call First Field.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

A bear family photographed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Often I’m treated to a stunning sunset, and always I hear and see songbirds that prefer a meadow of forbs or the edge of a wooded ridge.

Sometimes I glimpse a herd of deer before they see me and run off. Once I watched a raccoon set out for the evening along the edge of First Field, and several times I’ve encountered a porcupine grazing on the grasses.

On my July birthday last year I had made a note of the abundant ripe huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way near the Short Circuit Trail and had stood in the cool morning eating them by the handfuls.

That evening, on Butterfly Loop, I scanned the right-of-way with my binoculars. To my surprise, I spotted a large black bear doing exactly what I had done in the morning—picking and eating huckleberries.

A black bear eating huckleberries

A black bear eating huckleberries (Photo by Harvey Barrison in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

Although bears are omnivores, meaning they’ll eat almost anything, more than 80% of their diet is vegetable matter—grasses and weeds in the spring, wild berries in the summer and nut species in the fall. They are especially fond of blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries.

On my birthday evening, I was pleased to see a bear without it seeing or scenting me and to watch it for half an hour as it moved methodically from patch to patch, peacefully harvesting huckleberries by using its paws to hold the bushes while it broke off berries with its teeth.

Sometimes I could see its face and what appeared to be a single silver disk in the middle of each ear, but I was too far away to tell if they were ear tags. Finally, it disappeared into the taller brush.

We’ve been living with bears for almost four decades, but that was one of the few times I had a chance to observe a bear without it detecting me. Often I’ve turned around on trails when I’ve seen a bear in the distance before it sees me or I step into the underbrush and wait for it to pass. But if it’s too close, I have to stand my ground.

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears

The Laurel Ridge Trail of Plummer’s Hollow, a good place to see bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

For instance, late last May, as I ambled along Laurel Ridge Trail on my morning walk, a large black sow emerged from the right side of the forest at the top of a steep incline. I expected her to cross the trail, but instead, she turned and started toward me, followed by her yearling cub.

I froze in place and considered my options. She was less than 100 feet away and moving quickly so turning around didn’t seem like a good idea. Because nearly always, talking to wild animals scares them away, first I said quietly, “You don’t want to come this way.”

The bears paused and then haltingly continued moving forward. Next I clapped my hands, a maneuver I had never tried before, and immediately the sow turned and ran into the woods on the left side of the trail.

A bear mother with her yearling cub

A bear mother with her yearling cub (Photo by beingmyelf on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But the cub still hesitated until I clapped my hands again. Then it ran after the sow, and I proceeded on my way, surprised to realize that after numerous peaceful encounters with bears, I didn’t even have an elevated heartbeat.

A week later on the first of June, my husband, Bruce, went for a walk in the foggy dawn and saw a bear on Laurel Ridge. During my walk, I found many fresh scratches on the Laurel Ridge power pole, reminding me of a time, many Junes ago, when I heard and then watched a boar raking a power pole with his claws and then turning and rubbing his back against it. This was another case where the bear didn’t see or scent me even though I was only 50 feet away from him.

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Powerline pole on the ridgetop marked by bears (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Researchers still aren’t certain why black bears do this, but tree or, in our case, pole-marking behavior does occur more often during the June breeding season. However, Bruce once watched a bear shredding a power pole near the Short Circuit Trail in August. And the power poles atop Sapsucker Ridge have even more claw marks, administered throughout the year, than those on Laurel Ridge. Because of this, I’m more inclined to consider them message poles that inform other bears of their size and presence.

Lynn Rogers, who has been studying black bears in Minnesota for decades, found that most of his radio-collared tree-markers were male bears. Right after they marked a tree, Rogers was able to smell their scent on the tree. Since bears have a much stronger sense of smell than we do, Rogers thought that bears could smell the trees long after they had been marked. Perhaps, he theorized, such trees may warn males that other males are near so they can avoid fights.

Bears mating

Bears mating (Photo by the North American Bear Center on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

There’s no doubt that male bears are excited during mating season. The only time I was chased by a bear was when a male apparently mistook me for a sow. I had been sitting quietly in First Field near some shrubs when I heard a bear and stood up. As I started walking around the shrubs, I realized the bear was close behind me. Again I turned around and spoke to him. He stopped short, wheeled around, and headed off to find a female of his own species.

By the time females are in estrous, they have chased off their yearlings. Two weeks after I encountered sow and cub, first Bruce saw a yearling streaking across Greenbrier Trail near its confluence with Bird Count Trail and later our son Dave saw what was probably the same yearling still running straight out, this time across Ten Springs Trail. Probably either the sow or her paramour were chasing her persistent cub away.

Female yearlings will stay in the sow’s territory, researchers have found, but male cubs have to leave the area and try to find a place that has no bears. Male territories are larger than those of females and usually include two or more females. Territory and range size vary depending on food sources.

Bears of both sexes have been known to wander off their ranges for miles in search of food, especially in autumn when the acorn and/or beechnut crops fail because they rely on the high fat content of those foods to put on weight before winter.

Last summer our berry crops were huge, especially blackberries, and we picked over 50 quarts. Our lowbush blueberry crop was poor; our huckleberry crop adequate. Later, the black cherry crop was also poor, the wild grape crop average, and the acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts scant.

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds

Black bear scat filled with berry seeds (Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

We didn’t have any other bear encounters, but I did find piles of bear scat filled with berry seeds and later with corn, presumably from the valley farms. Unlike bears in wilderness areas, our bears can depend on cultivated crops if the wild ones fail. Here in Pennsylvania, there are many sources of food from farms and forests—carrion from domestic as well as wild animals and fresh insects, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and even new born fawns.

As the years have passed, we’ve had our behavior shaped by bear appetites. When we heard a bear overturn the garbage can with what we thought was a tight lid to cover itself with sunflower seed, we put the bird feeder cans in our basement. When we were awakened another night by a bear emptying our washed recycled cans, also in clean garbage cans, we put them in the basement.

We bring in our bird feeders every night during November, most of December, March and early April and then retire them until the following fall. And since a sow with her cubs broke through our kitchen screen door two years ago and was climbing in when we sent her off one summer night, we close all doors and windows in our kitchen in the evening, no matter how stifling the weather.

But even that sacrifice is worth it to live with bears. Here is a video of a bear family filmed by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow.

Tracking Snow

Most Januarys it is cold and light snows fall which make ideal tracking weather. Only then do we discover, for instance, that we have fishers on our mountain property.

Last winter, in mid-January, it was a relatively balmy 16 degrees Fahrenheit, after days below zero or in the single digits, although three days before, it had warmed briefly to 34 degrees with a freezing rain, and then had quickly frozen over again. Still, I was tempted to walk along a pathless section of Laurel Ridge in search of tracks. Because of the threat of Lyme disease ticks in this brushy area during the warmer months, I only explore it when the temperature is well below 32 degrees.

Near the end of the ridgetop, I encountered a large area dug up, the leaf cover scattered in all directions. At first I thought it was the work of deer or turkeys during the brief thaw. A few hundred feet farther, I found a much larger area churned up and even spilling down the steep slope toward the farming valley below. In either place I couldn’t find any deer or turkey tracks.

Black bear footprint

Black bear footprint

Then, I was surprised to discover a perfect bear track frozen into the snow. The more I looked, the more tracks I saw coming and going from all directions. It looked as if more than one bear had been searching for acorns during the brief thaw. At least two sets of tracks emerged from a large thicket area on the slope below, and I wondered if they had come from a den in the heavy brush.

Here in Pennsylvania, brush dens are popular but so are dens in tree-root cavities, rocks, and even in hollow trees, or in or under piles of fallen logs. And despite the size of a bear its den can be surprisingly small. One study in Pennsylvania of a ground den found that it was only 22.4 inches deep, 38 inches wide, and its main entrance a mere 14.4 inches by 12 inches.

I continued my tracking on the ridgetop and found several more, smaller, disturbed patches. One had a few bear tracks filled with a dusting of snow. Another had fresh turkey tracks. Still another had bear tracks coming from across the ridgetop instead of up the slope. In the middle was a fresh pile of bear scat.

Wild turkey tracks

Wild turkey tracks

This tracking expedition made me wonder why the bears had been out in the middle of January looking for food. We had had an excellent acorn crop, and they should have been settled in for their long winter’s sleep with their fecal plugs, a wad of material held within the bear’s colon, in place. Yet not only had they eaten, but at least one bear had also defecated.

Apparently bears are more likely to be out late if their food supply is plentiful, according to researchers, and the late-hibernating bears would probably be males since females in Pennsylvania would be giving birth by mid-January. Those with the previous January cubs most likely would also have been in their dens with them by December.

Three days later I hiked up to our vernal pond on Sapsucker Ridge, three miles from the bear tracks area on Laurel Ridge. There I found a pair of frozen bear tracks crossing the pond. I followed them to another pond several hundred feet through the woods, then over to the neighbor’s old clear-cut and down the mountain to a huge pile of downed trees left by the loggers. From there the ridge dropped off sharply, so I could only hike to the near side of the log pile, where I saw the tracks running on top of one of the logs. I couldn’t see any sign of a bear denning on the near side, but it looked like an ideal site for a den.

Tracking the bears in mid-January reminded me of our experience years ago, during a warmer period, when my husband Bruce and I tracked a bear below Sapsucker Ridge through melting snow at the edge of First Field and finally lost the tracks as the snow disappeared beneath a warming sun, leaving large open patches. But later our son, Dave, picked up the trail and eventually found the bear sleeping in a hollow on top of the ground. That was when we realized that bears can still be abroad in January, but my experience on Sapsucker Ridge was the first time I had evidence that they sometimes ate and defecated as well.

Squirrel tracks

Squirrel tracks

In my continual effort to interest our ten-year-old granddaughter, Elanor, in the outdoors, I took her on a tracking expedition the following day. A skim of snow had fallen overnight and blurred all but the most recent tracks. Nevertheless, I put her in the lead, and we followed a series of old deer tracks back and forth over First Field until we spotted fresh tracks that led us along the edge of the woods and straight up the steep Sapsucker Ridge powerline right-of-way.

“We better be quiet,” Elanor said, hoping that the brown humps she saw at the top of the right-of-way were deer. Instead they were frozen piles of dead, hay-scented ferns and other vegetation.

Still, she was undaunted, and we followed deer tracks through a portion of our neighbor’s clear-cut until they swung back onto our land. Elanor also identified numerous squirrel tracks and once I showed her fisher tracks.

When we reached the vernal pond area, she was eager to see the bear tracks but not to follow them, protesting that she was tired. Perhaps, it wouldn’t have been a good plan to return to the log pile with her. If a bear had been denning there, it might have been roused by what is almost always Elanor’s noisy presence.

Instead, we walked over to the Norway spruce grove where I pointed out porcupine tracks that I followed, while she went another direction after deer tracks. We met finally at Alan’s Bench. By then she was more interested in catching an occasional snowflake on her tongue and making snowballs to throw at spruce tree trunks.

Ruffed grouse tracks

Ruffed grouse tracks

But once we reached our home, after she ran down the field trail ahead of me, she was eager to tell her father about all the tracks she had seen and followed, especially those of the bear and deer.

I continued my tracking throughout January. Wild turkeys and deer did dig into the leaf cover in search of acorns in numerous places. Raccoons, coyotes, and foxes were also out and about. One morning I found the filigreed tracks of ruffed grouse stitching back and forth across the Far Field Road. Squirrel, mice, and shrew tracks went under, over, and along fallen logs.

Another morning I followed a pair of pigeon-toed porcupine tracks that crossed Sapsucker Ridge Trail and continued on to the edge of the ridge. Then they started down the mountainside and disappeared into a pile of slash just as the bear had. But judging from the paucity of porcupine tracks, their numbers were down from the previous winters when I found them in most areas of the mountain.

The tracks of a mouse near its burrow

The tracks of a mouse near its burrow

Near the end of January, it started to snow in earnest. With a foot of snow on the ground, we dug out our snowshoes. Although I could still see a few deer, mice, squirrel, turkey and even rabbit tracks, the best of the tracking season was over.

But, as usual, I had learned more about the animals sharing our land—how they moved and where they were concentrated. No wonder I look forward every January to light, tracking snows.

All photos by Dave Bonta on Flickr.com and taken in or near Plummer’s Hollow.

Living with Bears

Ursus americanus close up

Photo by Valerie/ucumari on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

On a warm, humid day in late May, I climbed up Pit Mound Trail to the top of Sapsucker Ridge and followed the old logging road along the ridgetop.

As I reached a foot trail into the forest, a medium-sized black bear burst from the underbrush and ran full-tilt toward me.

“Hey there,” I said. It stopped, looked at me, turned, and ran downhill. As usual, my close encounter with a bear—a mere 30 feet away—was so peaceful that my heart rate didn’t even increase.

Over the years I have had numerous close encounters with black bears, and not once have I felt threatened. That is as it should be according to black bear researcher Benjamin Kilham. He has been studying black bears in the field and raising orphaned cubs at the behest of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department for nearly two decades.

In his excellent, new book, Out on a Limb, Kilham advises us to stand still, look at bears and speak quietly to them. In almost all cases the worse they will do is false charge.

Out on a Limb (cover) by Benjamin KilhamBut if you feed bears, either intentionally or unintentionally, with bird feeders, they quickly become habituated, and you must continue or they may come into your home in search of food. Kilham feels that “nuisance bears” have become so because humans feed them. We learned that lesson when they came on our back porch and turned over metal garbage cans filled with washed cans and bottles for recycling and with birdseed. Once we put those cans in our basement and brought our bird feeders in at night, we had no more bears tramping around on our porch or peering into our bow windows.

Black bears live in a world of scent, Kilham says, and they can smell food from a distance. Especially when wild food is scarce, as it has been our last three autumns without a good acorn crop, bears are on the lookout for black oil sunflower seeds which give them more nutrition than any wild foods available to them.

But they also use scent to track down each other, identify bears in the vicinity, and follow bears that have found surplus food. Their sweat glands excrete alarm scents when they sense predators, such as coyotes. If they are extremely frightened, they emit scent from their anal glands which brings other bears to their rescue.

They leave scent marks on trees along with claw and bite marks. In New Hampshire, where Kilham lives, they favor red pines. On our mountain they use the power poles on our small powerline right-of-way.

The day before I ran into the bear, I was crossing the right-of-way on Laurel Ridge and looked 1900 feet across at Sapsucker Ridge. I spotted a round, black object beneath a power pole. At first I thought it was a shadow, but when I looked through my binoculars I saw a very large black bear nosing around. Then he ambled off toward the vernal pond area.

Later, when I examined the pole, I found it had been shredded as high as seven feet. Probably the bear was a male signaling his availability to local females. Both sexes will back-rub, side-rub, and chin-rub such trees too. They also walk over saplings or crawl under them to leave their sent or mark with their scat or urine.

black bear-marked power pole in Plummer's Hollow

black bear-marked power pole in Plummer’s Hollow (photo by Dave Bonta)

Using radio collars, remote cameras and DNA testing, but most of all his own observations, Kilham has found that other bears not only know the identities of the marking bears but also their gender, mood, relationship to them, and where they stand in the social hierarchy. In his area, females have a core home range from three to five square miles and a dominant female ensures that her daughters and granddaughters set up nearby so she can control an even larger area.

Male cubs are sent on their way at 12 to 18 months of age to live wandering lives, usually in bands of other subadult males so they can overpower females and get access to food. But adult male bears don’t compete with females for space, cover, or water because they are hoping to mate with them. Instead, they wander as far as 200 square miles a year in search of food.

On the other hand, overlapping female home ranges may also be the home ranges of several breeding males, but often only one dominant male will mate with the females in his breeding area. Kilham estimates that only the largest males age eight or older get to mate—10 to 15% of the population–even though males are sexually mature at age two.

In addition to scent, bears communicate through facial expressions, ear movements, body posture (like their stiff-legged walk to intimidate other bears) and vocalizations. The bear I encountered looked startled and Kilham says by studying bears closely, especially some of the cubs he’s raised to adulthood and then continued to observe closely throughout their lives, he has “found a great deal of similarity between human facial expressions and those of bears…Smiles are smiles and frowns are frowns.”

Furthermore, if a bear’s eyes twitch or its ears are cocked back, it is annoyed and deciding what to do. When it is irritated, its ears are half-cocked. If a bear is being cautious but curious it may have one ear cocked forward and one backward.

Black bear vocalizations include what Kilham calls a “guttural reverberation of sound in their chests” when they are angry and as well as a “huh huh” when they are upset and an “mmm, mmm,” appeasement call. They also make a gulping sound that males use to get female bears to go with them during mating season and females use to guide their cubs and keep them safe.

Black bear mother with cubs in Plummer's Hollow

Black bear mother with cubs in Plummer’s Hollow (photo by Dave Bonta)

When cubs are nursing, they make a “deep loud purr” which they also make when they are happy. They have a loud distress call that Kilham says sounds like “Baa Wo Oow,” but I thought was a wailing child. Years ago I heard such a sound one fall morning and then saw two cubs below our house crying while standing over something black. When I rushed down, they ran off still yowling. There on the ground was a dead adult bear. She had been shot out of season with an arrow somewhere on our mountain and had managed to reach our yard before dying or so the game protector we called told us. He took her away, but I will never forget the sound those cubs made.

I often wondered if the cubs survived on their own. They would have been born the previous January and their mother would have begun teaching them about food sources once they had emerged from their den in the spring. Kilham discovered that they learn by mouthing and smelling what their mother eats– buds, young leaves and flowers of trees, especially red maples and white ashes, in spring as well as wildflowers such as nodding sedge, jewelweed, wild lettuce, and especially jack-in-the-pulpit, in summer berries of all kinds, and in autumn acorns and beechnuts. In all three seasons they devour ants, bees, and grubs. One of Kilham’s cubs, Squirty, ate 40 to 60 ant nests in an hour while another, Yoda, consumed 20 to 30 yellow jacket nests. They are also opportunists and will take newborn fawns and young nestlings and fledglings. A Pennsylvania Game Commission study found that they were a major predator on fawns.

Black bear enjoying a foggy day by Howard Ignatius

Black bear enjoying a foggy day by Howard Ignatius (CC BY-NC-ND)

Because Kilham suffers from severe dyslexia, he is not a trained biologist. Instead, he makes his living as a gunsmith. Yet year after year, he goes into the woods to watch bears. Through various experiments he has found that bears use fresh ungulate scats as probiotics and that they can learn to recognize themselves in mirrors. He also discovered what is now called the Kilham organ by noticing that the cubs he raised mouthed all new-to-them vegetation, often holding it in their mouths for a few seconds and then releasing it unmarked. He dissected a road-killed bear and found a fleshy organ about jelly bean-sized in the pocket of a V-shaped bone, called the vomer, which is under the center of the nose and above the palate. Eventually, after years of research, he realized that sensory nerves in the organ allowed them to identify airborne scent with it. They also use it to figure out what is safe to eat.

At a lecture he gave at the College of the Atlantic (which I watched on YouTube), someone asked him why he studied bears. His answer was that “We need to know more about the animals we exist with.” And, as he says in his book, “You don’t need to be a credentialed scientist to make new discoveries. You just need to go outside and open your eyes.”

Vernal Pond Adventures

The largest of our vernal ponds in early April.

The largest of our vernal ponds in early April.

Once again I’m sitting beside our mountaintop vernal pond and wondering if this will be the year the wood frogs will make it out of the pond before the water disappears. A wood frog’s life span is about seven years, and for six years the pond has dried up before the wood frogs’ have fully developed. Some years their eggs are left high and dry; other years their tadpoles are.

A vernal pond is a temporary, fish-free wetland that fills in late winter or early spring and dries out by early summer in a good year. This pond is only several yards across and several yards long, depending on rainfall, and, unlike the tiny, 6-foot-wide pond at the base of First Field, I can’t get close enough to watch the courtship and mating of the frogs. I can hear their quacking calls, though, and I enjoy watching a wide variety of wild creatures that visit it even when I’m sitting quietly beside it, my back against an oak tree.

I find it incredibly peaceful to watch the pond as it reflects the trees in its still water. But this early March day a skim of ice over it glitters in the sunlight. Its surface has a medley of half circles and triangles artistically rendered by the ice-maker overnight.

On the thirteenth of March, as I near the vernal pond, circles appear in the water. I wonder if they can be disappearing wood frogs. I study the still, dark water and spot one small mass that I look at through my binoculars. A golden eye returns my gaze. I move closer and see a male wood frog stretched out in the water. Next to him is a stick with two clumps of wood frog eggs clinging to it. This unusually bold wood frog dives into the water but quickly resurfaces. Since I am still standing there, he sinks back under the water.

The vernal pond has already contracted, and I hope that the dark clouds rushing across the Allegheny Front will drop some rain on us and fill up the pond. But it doesn’t happen. Nevertheless, two days later, I find two wood frog egg masses in different areas. The gelatinous, fist-sized blobs contain several hundred eggs with black embryos.

By the 22nd of March, I count four separate egg masses, but the vernal pond is still shrinking. If the rain comes soon enough, the eggs may survive. And come it does, raining hard from 1:00 a.m. until mid-morning on March 24, filling up the vernal pond again.

The vernal pond in mid-March.

The vernal pond in mid-March.

It’s almost a month before I return to the pond. At the beginning of April, while hiking on Sapsucker Ridge with my sixteen-year-old granddaughter Eva, she steps on a branch and I trip over it, my left leg landing hard on a pointed rock. Nothing is broken or fractured the doctors tell me, but my leg and foot swell up and turn black and blue. I have, after all, injured my tibia, the bone just below my knee. After days of being veranda-bound and more days of slow, short walks, I finally make it back to a vernal pond seething with insect life, most notably water striders walking atop the water and looking for mosquitoes resting on the water just after they have emerged from their “wriggler” larval stage.

Various species of diving beetles also swim in the water on the hunt for invertebrate and vertebrate creatures, including the wood frog tadpoles. I have always marveled at how these insects find a vernal pond, especially this one, isolated on a mountaintop half a mile from the nearest stream and that one intermittent near its source. Apparently, they are able to fly to it from such water. But some species of diving beetles actually overwinter in the basin formed by a dried up vernal pond.

The wood frog eggs have long since disappeared from sight, colonized by the symbiotic algae Oophila amblystomatis, which turns them green. It’s been cold most of the month, delaying the hatching of the eggs. But near the pond I stop to admire the patch of spreading spring beauties, the only place they grow on our property. This is an open, mixed-oak forest close to our neighbor’s logging operation that took place several years ago. Not much has regenerated and the vernal pond is not as shaded as it used to be.

It’s now the fourth of May and torrid summer weather has returned. I practically stumble over a porcupine as I approach the vernal pond and send the creature scrambling up a large red oak tree. The vernal pond is a veritable tadpole soup—tadpoles by the dozens wherever I look, floating near the surface to warm themselves up now that the trees have leafed out and are shading the pond. They need the solar heat to develop quickly into frogs before the pond dries up. First they graze on the symbiotic algae still clinging to their gelatinous cradle, and then they feed on algae and leaf material on the pond’s bottom. They also may feed on each other, those that hatched first preying on the latecomers.

Three days of hard, cold rain follow, and once again the vernal pond is overflowing and seeping over into a series of wallow-sized pools. My pond-watching becomes an almost daily discipline as I sit and watch the tadpoles eating, swimming, and basking in patches of sunlight. In mid-May I hear clucking as a hen turkey circles behind me. Maybe she is hoping to catch some tadpoles for brunch.

water striders

Water striders

Often the tadpoles join in aggregations of ten on a submerged stick. Then there is a sudden flurry and they separate, but in a few seconds they gather together again, performing their own watery tadpole ballet. In addition to basking in the sun, perhaps they are finding refuge from predators in a crowd like flocks of birds do.

By the twentieth of May a few of the larger tadpoles are developing back legs. I sit close to the water and watch as the tadpoles continually surface to feed on the detritus floating on the water, then submerge, each tadpole swirling the water into a circle. I try counting the circles to figure out how many tadpoles still inhabit the pond, but the confusion of circles quickly confuses me. Instead, I settle back and enjoy the ambiance of the pond and surrounding woodland having long ago learned to tune out the occasional train whistle and the constant traffic noise on Interstate 99 at the base of the ridge.

A mourning dove sings without ceasing. Red-eyed vireos, eastern wood pewees and a scarlet tanager frequently add their songs to that of the doves. Water striders skate along the water. A common green darner dragonfly buzzes over the pond. Then an American crow flies in like a kamikaze fighter plane, veers when it sees me, and silently retreats.

There are more days of rain and again the pond overflows. The pond water is so dark that I can’t glimpse the tadpoles, but dozens of circles that gradually subside as I sit in front of the pond indicate their presence. Sitting beside the pond, a sudden nearby gunshot startles the tadpoles as much as it startles me. Not only do they have sharp eyes but sharp ears too.

Near the end of May, I’m serenaded by a robin and scolded by a hairy woodpecker while I sit beside the pond. I also see a dark-eyed junco, which should have been breeding farther north on the Allegheny Front or beyond by now. A mourning dove flies in to catch insects from the pond and goes off in a flurry when it realizes I am there. A black-and-white warbler sings. Chipmunks scold. Mosquitoes that probably have hatched in the pond circle me and force me to move on after I catch a glimpse of a few more tadpoles with back legs.

My vigil continues in June. By then, I wonder if those tadpoles will ever change into bandit-masked wood frogs. On June 8 many heads pop up from the water and stay up even though most tadpoles still have tails. Two male robins hold a song fest while a female chases all comers to the pond as her spotted youngster bathes. Later a tufted titmouse takes a bath. Chipmunks chase around the pond and one scampers up to me, pauses at my feet to look, and then continue its race with its rival. A pileated woodpecker pounds on a nearby tree trunk.

Wood frog in mating season

Wood frog in mating season (in the tiny, spring-fed pool at the bottom of First Field)

All the while a pleasant breeze blows, keeping biting insects away. The pond is slowly shrinking, but it is still a bathing and watering hole for birds and mammals alike.

The following day I spend another session at the vernal pond serenaded by the same two robins. Little mouths surface to catch detritus spread atop the pond, and once I see a tiny froglet hopping over a small section almost as if it could walk on water. Froglets are supposed to be between a half and 7/8th of an inch when they metamorphose. Their watery life is ending and none too soon.

A chipmunk approaches me with much trepidation, and when I don’t move, it goes to the pond and drinks. Then it scampers off.

Suddenly, the robins begin high octane scolding as if, after half an hour, they finally notice me. On and on they scold, but at last they subside.

When I am too stiff to sit any longer, I get up and walk back to the field path. There I find an enormous pile of fresh bear scat that wasn’t there before. It looks as if the robins were scolding a bear.

A couple days later, as I’m sitting by the pond, I hear crashing in the woods that sounds like a bear. Sure enough, one approaches the pond, and I ponder my position. It’s obviously hoping for a drink and doesn’t see or scent me. At last I stand up, and the bear looks up, sees me, and flees.

The vernal pond continues to fill every time it rains, and slowly the froglets depart, although I don’t see them. But there are fewer circles in the water, less little heads surfacing, every time I visit. How wonderful that after so many springs when the pond dried up too soon, our aging population of wood frogs will finally get some newcomers. The young frogs will spread out, traveling up to several hundred meters in all directions, making new homes in the leaf litter, and preying on a variety of arthropods.

But even as the pond shrinks and the froglets leave, I still seek quiet time beside it. One day, late in June, I encounter an eastern box turtle, floating in a couple inches of water, its eyes closed. At first I think it is dead, but when I touch it, it opens its eyes. Later, I learn that eastern box turtles like to soak and feed in vernal ponds.

Wood frog found under a rock in Plummer's Hollow Run in September

Wood frog found under a rock in Plummer’s Hollow Run in September

On another day, two doe wander past me and water at the pond while I sit a few feet away. Then they continue on their way. They never do detect my presence.

I can only wonder how many other wild lives are impacted by this small pond. Even though knowledgeable foresters will steer logging operations away from such places, most loggers either don’t know or don’t care about such refuges. Or they begin their logging operations in the fall when the ponds are dried up and they don’t recognize them for what they are.

My own life has been enriched by our vernal pond this water-full spring. Even after it is completely dried up, in broiling hot, droughty July, I wander back to sit under the oak shade. Where have all the wood frogs gone?

One day, on my daily walk, an adult wood frog hops across my path.

“There you are,” I say out loud as it hops quickly out of sight.