K and I headed out for a morning hike into a cold and windy day, with little sun filtering through the clouds.
Our goal today was to make a big circle around the bear den to find out if the sow and yearling had been up and ambling around their territory. To avoid disturbing the bears, we stayed fairly far away from the den. Thus, we'd only find bear tracks if the ursines had walked a long way.
As you can see below, the trail where I see my first bear tracks most springs was a blank slate - no bear signs.
Despite searching extensively in a large area around the den, we found no bear tracks in the snow.
Consequently, because today's cold weather wasn't replicated in the foreseeable weather forecast, I decided that my partner and I would visit the den this afternoon. We needed to change memory cards in the existing wildlife camera, replace its batteries, and add an additional camera.
This time, we knew the best route to approach the den. We quietly hiked from above. Believe it or not, the den sat in the center of this photo about 20 ft from us, below a snow-covered boulder. Again, I was astounded by my good luck in literally stumbling upon it back in early February.
As we took a few more steps down toward the den, we saw tracks outside the den entrance. The small hole leading into the den sat just below the gnawed fallen tree trunk in the middle of the photo.
Since we knew that it last snowed a week ago, we surmised that the tracks were less than a week old. So, we moved very cautiously in the direction of the den. It became obvious that the tracks were ursine even from a distance. The rear paw tracks were shaped like human tracks, with deep heel impressions, toes, and nails.
Without peeking in the completely silent den and possibly riling up two bears, we went straight to work on the cameras. We took turns dealing with the cameras and standing guard. We each had a big can of pepper spray but fervently hoped not to disturb the bears.
Once we'd set up one wildlife camera to shoot video and the other to shoot still photos (both infrared), we peeked in the den. Initially, I saw only black bear fur. The mama bear still lay across the den entrance and looked asleep, completely unperturbed by our work on the cameras.
Then, she opened her eyes and lazily looked at me. I didn't feel even vaguely threatened. She looked sleepy and peaceful.
Within seconds, she decided that I was too boring to keep her awake. She laid her head down, with one eye still on me.
In no time at all, she was back asleep, eyes closed and snoozing. The branch hid her head in the photo below, but it's resting on the floor of the den. From what I've read, the sow likely lined the floor with pine boughs before she and her cub retired to the den early in the winter.
I didn't see the yearling cub today. I suspect that the youngster was sleeping deeply behind his mother. Our video coverage doesn't show that anything nefarious happened to him - that was my greatest worry when I didn't see him in the den. On the hike home, I conjured up wild scenarios where a mountain lion somehow ate the cub. We found no video evidence of the cub ever leaving the den.
When we arrived home, we anxiously checked the precious memory card containing video since our last visit. We were pleased beyond words that the bears didn't stir for almost two weeks after our last visit. Obviously, we didn't disturb them too much. My greatest fear is scaring them into moving their den or into wasting energy checking outside the den.
The sow stirred almost two weeks after we'd put up the camera. She emerged from the den at about 10 AM, voraciously eating snow, stretching her front limbs, and then turning her large rump toward the camera. She then urinated but the video cut away in the midst of it. The wildlife camera paused to check for continued activity after a minute and then resumed recording when it sensed that the sow was still outside the den. The remainder of the video shows the sow gracefully sliding into the narrow den opening to go back to sleep.
The video is NOT in slow motion. Rather, the sow moved languidly, like caffeine-deprived KB early in the morning. I could imagine her sighing softly as she settled back into the den and sleep overtook her once again.
Intriguingly, many descriptions of bear hibernation say that they don't ingest any water or food all winter long. Moreover, according to these sources, they don't urinate. Hmmm, my sow has decided to break the mold!
From our memory card, we also discovered that the sow had made another foray outside the den just yesterday. I'll collate that video for tomorrow's post.
I find nothing as fascinating and exciting as these glimpses of a wild animal's natural life. If I hadn't been worried about disturbing the bears or habituating them to humans, I might have sat with them for a while. Their winter sleeping den felt so tranquil that I didn't want to leave.