Monday, May 2, 2011

Goldilocks Pays a Price - The Bear Encounter

It was over a week ago when a hungry bear ravaged my bird feeding station, waking me up with a start. I was fortunate that it did not destroy the feeders. I decided that I would continue feeding the birds, but I had to take the feeders down at night. I was unable to bring them into the house because of mice, so I opted for the trunk of my car.

The flurry of bird activity did not settle down until well after sunset. I was careful to take down the feeders each night before dark; I awoke early each morning to hang them. My devotion to birds dates back to my childhood when I used to band them as a 4-H project on Sunset Hill in Center Harbor. I have been feeding, watching, counting, reporting, banding and nurturing abandoned babies and injured birds for many years.

I spent the last three winters on the Gulf of Mexico, celebrating the sunny beaches but craving the mountains. This was my first winter back home. In the fall, I hung several feeders filled with black oil sunflower seeds, songbird seeds and both homemade and commercial suet. I was concerned by the lack of attendance at my feeders. I tried to understand this radical change.

I was filled with joy when the bird activity increased, including over a dozen species. Taking down the feeders at dusk and hanging them up at dawn was a small price to pay. Soon I would delight in visits from the migrating indigo buntings, rose-breasted and evening grosbeaks and orioles that would join the already feasting chickadees, nuthatches, variety of finches, sparrow, juncos and woodpeckers. I am also honored to have a pair of mourning doves and blue jays. Even the red squirrels are well mannered and eat the spillage on the ground.

Last night I lost track of time. I gasped when I realized that darkness had fallen and I had not taken down the feeders. I slipped into my bright pink crocs and headed out the door. I stopped abruptly when greeted by a full chorus of peepers and wood frogs. They finally arrived. Their chirping whirled around me from all sides – the woods and two ponds. My original intent vanished quickly as I raced inside to get my recorder.

After making sure that my batteries were charged, I flipped off the porch light, went outdoors and walked towards the pond. I recorded for about 45 seconds and stopped. I inched a little closer to the pond because peepers and friends tend to fall silent when they realize that they have an audience. Without pressing my luck further, I stopped and recorded for another minute. I stood quietly trying to decide if I could get even closer when I heard a snap and some rustling in the woods. This is not uncommon, but I sensed something different.

I stood motionless and waited. I heard nothing. I brought my recorder into the house and remembered that I needed to take down the feeders. Not wanting to interrupt the glorious earthy jam session, I approached the bird feeding station in darkness. I took one feeder off of the hook and then another. Suddenly I heard a very loud, deep huff – almost a snort. It was close enough that if I reached behind me, I could definitely touch it. I knew it was a bear. He blended into the blackness of the night. I darted up the porch stairs into the house with my heart pounding. I grabbed a flashlight and ran onto the porch and shined it on him, a full grown adult black bear. His muscular, sleek, black magnificence overpowered my senses.

We maintained steady eye contact. At first he was on his hind legs and then without moving his head, dropped on all fours and snorted once again before ambling off into the woods.

My breath came in short puffs. I knew that I should have been afraid. However, what I felt was not fear; it was exhilaration. Knowing that the bear watched me record the peepers, return to the house and then walk within a few feet of him is almost too much to comprehend. Although he was in my domain, I was too close and he let me know. He was uncomfortable and could have easily mauled me. First, it was a warning from the bear and then from nature that I needed to experience on many levels. We share this world; I must remember that there are others in the woods and to be cognizant of their presence.

I felt more awake and aware than I had in months, maybe years. The significance of our exchange sharply defined the boundaries between us. I was reminded of opening my eyes to see the larger picture. This was no accident.

Symbolically, the bear awakened my senses and called for me to be more in tune with my natural surroundings. Being Goldilocks has consequences.

It was imperative that I rethink the bird feeding situation which had transformed bird feed to bear bait. If I continued to feed the birds, he would continue to visit the area, which is unfair to him, because he is operating on instinct and hunger. It would be dangerous for us all. I could not imagine him being killed because of this.

The birds are okay now; it is no longer the dead of winter. My interest is based on my own desire to observe them. This is my favorite time of year for birding. However, I live in bear country. It is my responsibility to take the feeders down by April 1st, when hungry bears come out of hibernation. Got it.

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