Have you ever looked up in an American beech (Fagus grandifolia) forest and seen what looked like a giant squirrel’s nest? Well you may be seeing what’s left of a bear-feeding site—the bear sitting high up in a crotch, has torn and bit off branches, stuffing them under its bottom, gorging on tasty little beechnuts, and maybe then taking a nap.
We hiked into the Strafford Town Forest a couple days after Thanksgiving to examine a dozen or more bear “nests” high in the beech trees. The leaves were still attached to the torn branches up in the trees and on those that had been thrown to the ground, indicating they were recent. Each nest tree also had scratch marks on the trunks—historic ones and fresh ones. Older scars are grey and have puffy sides from the tree’s healing process; fresh scratches reveal the orange phloem of inner bark. The sides of the tree will have diagonal scratch marks from the bear pulling up with its front paws; the front of the trunk will have straight scratches in the shape of a paw, as the hind feet “walk” up the tree.
It can be hard finding claw scars on trees with Beech bark disease, as the bark becomes rough and gnarly. Beech scale Cryptocococcus fagisuga invades the tree and opens the way for a fungi Necrita coccinea to enter and causes significant mortality and scarring of wood.
It has been a bumper year for both hard mast nuts like acorns, beech and butternut, and soft mast fruits. The apples have been more abundant this year than I can remember. Although almost ninety percent of a bear’s diet is plant material, black bears, Ursus americanus are omnivorous and will eat tubers, rodents, insects and fawns as well as carrion. In the summer they tend to consume berries, cherries, and hazelnuts; in late summer, wild apples, arrow-wood and raisins; eventually beechnuts and acorns in late fall. Bears must gorge for most of the day (hyperphagia) before they are able to enter hibernation.
All photos are by the author and used only with permission.