The Beldingville bears just keep on giving in this, a week that has thus far offered ideal morning weather for bottomland rambles. So, of course I took robust, refreshing walks through familiar riverside habitat each day, doubling the normal distance to extend the splendor of a cool north breeze, bright blue sky, and sparse, white, wispy clouds silently drifting south like dreamy, distant cotton swabs.
Had I time and willing companions other than the dogs, I would have headed for an upland hardwood wonderland to investigate ridge-top forest that looks quite inviting and lush from afar despite the dry spring and summer some call a drought. And you must understand that time is running out for woodland treks, with bear season looming the day after Labor Day. After that, explorative woodland romps could be hazardous to one’s health, not to mention potentially dangerous to a pair of rambunctious springer spaniels, one 12 but still plenty frisky when everything lines up.
Walking the wilds can stir the most pleasant, probing and profound pondering. It was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote: “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” And one of our own, Henry David Thoreau, believed that a lifetime of walking within a 10-mile radius of home could produce infinite new discoveries. Both men have stood the test of time. What they said in their day is still true and pure. That’s what gives them merit. Their words of wisdom have stood the test of time and will continue to do so for the ages. Walt Whitman, an American literary giant who overlapped Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century, was once asked whose words would be followed longer, Thoreau’s or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s. Without hesitation, Whitman correctly named Thoreau, considered a lesser literary figure and scholar than Emerson in his day.
But enough of that temporary digression spurred by invigorating morning walks in perfect weather, and back to our Beldingville bear discussion, because another articulate voice entered the fray last week. Which reminds me. I’d be a liar to deny that more than a few times it has crossed my meandering thoughts while hiking that it may have been unwise of me so close to hunting season to publicize recent interesting bear encounters in that rural Ashfield neighborhood. “What if,” my inner sanctum has queried, “hunters populate the woods up there and take out that sow which appeared to be with four cubs in a friend’s garage?” Well, let’s just say that was not my desired outcome when identifying the bears’ whereabouts. In fact, truthfully, I’d hate to learn I played any role in leaving four orphaned cubs to fend for themselves in our idyllic western uplands.
To briefly summarize the bear tales I am speaking of and have written about the past two weeks, first Jack Shea and dog Nye had a scary encounter, then neighbors Lester and Nancy Garvin had an unrelated sighting worth sharing in their nearby garage and yard. And now, after reading the two previous narratives, another sophisticated wildlife observer chimed in by Friday email, wishing to share his perspective on the mini-attack and potential bluff charge endured by Nye and Shea, plus the unusual configuration of a sow and four cubs that showed up at the Garvin homestead. What was unusual about the Garvins’ sighting was that the different sizes of the four cubs appeared to indicate two pairs of offspring born in successive years — rare for bears, which typically mate every other year, raising cubs into their second spring before rejecting them to produce another litter.
Our most recent correspondent is Deerfield Academy English teacher Joel Thomas-Adams, who has previously responded to other columns. A little online poking around will tell you that the man is much more than a teacher at one of the world’s most respected prep schools. With a concentration in English and environmental studies, he’s an Oxford Rhodes Scholar who’s studied bears of all types during stops in the Northern Rockies, the Bitterroots, the Great Smokies and the Nantahalas. These days, he doesn’t have to travel far from his Old Deerfield home, with bears inhabiting the Pocumtuck Ridge to the east and, to the west, t’other side the Deerfield River, in the Old World. And that doesn’t even include his own backyard the foraging black beasts occasionally visit. In Thomas-Adams’ opinion, the scenarios described in my last two columns were not “mysterious.” To the contrary, he says that what he’s read is to be expected under the right circumstances.
“In the case of Mr. Shea, what clearly happened had less to do with (foraging of) blackberries (in dense, shielding cover) and more to do with the presence of a cub,” wrote Thomas-Adams. “Whether he saw it or not, (Shea) and/or his dog must have crossed the line between a mother and her cub, probably treed. Just about any black bear, otherwise, would just move on to avoid conflict. The incident you reported is classic cub-defense behavior.”
Ok, understood and accepted. But in defense of Shea — who spent three hours in my company the day after his harrowing incident and actually accompanied me on my daily walk while waiting for the veterinarian to stitch-up his pet’s chest — he too suspected a cub or cubs were nearby, even though he never saw one like he had 30-some years ago when bluff-charged by a bear in the same area with infant daughter Emily in tow.
“Regarding the four cubs of various sizes,” Thomas-Adams continued, “it’s relatively predictable after such a mild winter. ‘Induced ovulation’ for bears is considerably more amazing than mere opportunism. Sows can carry fertilized eggs from several potential fathers and decide which to implant and which to jettison, usually depending on how much fat they’ve stored when it comes time to den. All fattened up with a good den and a clement winter coming on, she might well have implanted four eggs last fall.”
Thomas-Adams says he’s twice witnessed sows with four cubs, “and a sow with three cubs used to visit our backyard (and feeders) predictably each June. In turn, one of her cubs had three offspring and kept up the practice, returning (last June) with three tiny cubs that she treed in our backyard when I interrupted her destroying my feeder.”
Again, I must defend Dr. John McDonald, the expert I reached out to for analysis of the Garvin sighting. Reviewing the available information, McDonald laid out three potential scenarios that could explain four cubs, two larger than the other two, which would lead one to believe they were from different litters over two years. McDonald — currently a Westfield Sate University wildlife biologist with previous stops at MassWildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — first speculated that all four cubs could have been from the same litter and two were noticeably larger (possibly males). So he did have that option covered before launching into two more possibilities.
Thomas-Adams didn’t limit his insightful musings to the black-bear discussion. No, he went on to a describe a diminishing family of orphaned coyote pups he’s been observing for some time in Deerfield’s South Meadows, along wetlands that I myself know very well from pheasant hunting. Better still, he closed with an enticing little tease about a subject dear to me. In mention of the intriguing standing stones of ancient lore and local mystery on high, lonesome Burnt Hill in Heath, he implored: “I’d love to hear more (based on something besides woo-woo mysticism, of which there is plenty around here) about indigenous stone formations. I was checking out the ones on a high ridge in Heath recently, and there is an as-yet untraced network that may well have much to tell us.”
Oh my! He’s preaching to the choir there. I have been immersed in deep history and deep ecology of the Pioneer Valley for three or four years now, and Mr. Thomas-Adams’ little nudge toward that high Heath mystery among low-bush upland blueberries is right square in my wheelhouse.
Let’s save it for another day.
COUGARS TALES: First, a Hog Hollow Road/Buckland sighting by Sandy Cardinal, who wished she could furnish more information but, “was too surprised to even fumble for my phone/camera.” However, she could say that her driveway is about 800 feet long and, driving out, about halfway down “we saw the cougar, about 25 or 30 feet in front of us. It was turning from the driveway to return to the woods on the right, where there is a patch of lawn about 12 feet wide, then another 20 feet under tall trees, slightly shaded, before the woods close in. At first I thought bobcat until it finished its turn and we saw its full length and tail. I’m estimating its back was about 3 feet long with tail to match. Color was a deep tawny, darker at the tip of its tail, which had a slight, not quite upturn at the end. It was in no hurry but moved with strength and purpose. It never looked back at us.”
Ms. Cardinal says she’s been enjoying playful back and forth with neighbors ever since her sighting, teasing them that she’ll add a rope with feathers to make her walking stick a large cat toy and calling “here kitty, kitty’ as she wanders. Her neighbors are “teasing back that they’ll bring along some Meow Mix.”
Meanwhile, for the second time in a month or so, longtime Heath correspondent Rol Hesselbart forwarded a New York Times article about reintroducing mountain lions to the Northeast (if they are not already here in limited numbers). First, the reintroduction was proposed as a way to reduce a burgeoning whitetail deer population, which has become hazardous to the health of highway travelers, not to mention expensive for insurance companies, who, of course, defer the cost to policy holders. The thinking was that reintroducing an efficient deer predator like cougars would act as a natural check and balance. But can you imagine the public outcry? It would be immense … and, for some, hysterical.
Now, this week, another NYT article proposes a similar Northeastern program to reduce the incidence of Lyme disease, which is rampant in the New York City suburbs, coastal Connecticut, New Jersey and beyond. The latest proposal is to bring back cougars and timber wolves to keep in check the most prevalent carriers of the tick-borne disease: deer, mice and chipmunks. Also, the article suggests that reintroduction of the two efficient predators would also cut down the ever-expanding “coywolf” population expanding into out urban and suburban neighborhoods. Sometimes called a hybrid coyote, this canine we’re by now all familiar with is, according to the NYT article, one-quarter wolf, two-thirds Western coyote and part domestic dog.
We’ll see how much traction these proposals get.
CATFISH DERBY RESULTS: Brothers Gary and Rick Hallowell’s seventh-annual Last Cast Catfish Derby held “anywhere on the Connecticut River and its tributaries for 36 hours last weekend (Friday night through Sunday) drew 48 competitors and raised $330 for Franklin County Big Brother/Big Sister. Old pro and previous two-time winner Bob “Catfish” Bedaw of South Deerfield looked like he would again walk away with top prize by catching an 11-pound, 5-ounce channel cat. But then the wily team comprised of James Lund of Montague, and father/son Mike and A.J. Sackett of Gardner put their heads together and pushed Bedaw aside. When it was all said and done, Mike Sackett won the $150 top prize with his 12-pound, 11-ounce cat. Second place ($100) went to Lund for his 12-pound, 1-ouncer, followed by Bedaw ($50) in third and Dave Chmura of Hadley ($25) in fourth at 11 pounds 2 ounces. Ken Magdycz of Plainfield won the $25 Sam’s gift-card door prize. The tourney was hosted by the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Club, with its clubhouse quietly nestled on the southern shore of Barton Cove. Pipione’s Sport Shop generously donated $100 and served a ticket headquarters.