Dave Anderson's Forest Journal: Night visitors in the orchard

By DAVE ANDERSON August 25. 2017 6:57PM
Black bear sightings spike annually in late summer when fallen apples become available. (Dave Anderson)

Fallen apples are like a dessert buffet at the edge of the woods. The sweet scent lures nocturnal wildlife to our orchard in late summer as nights lengthen and the apples accumulate, and it seems to happen every other year.

Two years ago, we had a bumper apple crop. Last year, it was a bust: zero apples. This year is another windfall - literally.

The grass is littered with fruit beneath two, ancient, early-bearing McIntosh trees. I don't mow the grass to avoid mincing the fruit.

I set-up a remote "apple cam" just outside the adjacent fenced chicken yard to learn more about our critter neighbors. The usual nocturnal suspects include deer, porcupines, skunks, coyotes and bears. By day, gray squirrels, turkeys, crows and songbirds feed on the apple pile.

We've not seen the foxes or raccoons but we know they're lurking. They prefer fresh chicken to apples. Our chickens and eggs are off the menu.

The most numerous and frequent night visitors are deer, specifically female does with fawns. Regulars include a large doe with a single fawn, and also smaller does, yearlings or siblings. Other cameras in remote locations of the woodlot catch portraits of bucks, particularly one elusive patriarch. Thus far, we haven't seen any males in the orchard or elsewhere. Bucks are elusive, wary and solitary.

Other frequent visitors include porcupines. They arrive in early evening and return several times per night. Porcupines enjoy diplomatic immunity. Nothing messes with them. They're relaxed, confident and cute as they deftly roll apples in their forepaws like little monkeys. Old-timers called them "quill pigs" or "hedgehogs," Old World European species not native to the United States.

The porcupine population is booming. Their only natural predators - fishers - have become rare judging by the absence of tracks the past three winters.

Skunks are occasional visitors. This summer's solitary skunk is nearly entirely black. Last autumn, the cameras caught a larger, almost entirely white skunk and her offspring attempting to tunnel under fences to establish a winter residence beneath the fortified chicken coop. We sunk chicken wire a foot deeper and rolled larger stones onto the granite sills supporting the hen house. It's like a Colonial Sanders' Fort Knox.

Bears leave forest for apples

Bears returned for the first time this week, arriving just after dark and again before sunrise. We've been expecting them.

Black bear expert Ben Kilham says forests supply black bears with the natural foods they require and decrease risks associated with people.

Kilham is the author of "Among The Bears: Raising Orphaned Cubs in the Wild," and he operates the state's only licensed orphan bear cub rehabilitation center. He has cared for and released more than 130 bear cubs in the past 30 years.

Kilham says, "bears are fundamentally forest animals." Forests provide bears with food, concealment and travel corridors that connect suburbs to rural areas. Even narrow strips of woods provide safe travel lanes for bears. Forested edges of suburban housing and commercial businesses allow bears to connect larger blocks of adjacent forestland where food is plentiful and risks minimal.

Kilham says female black bears occupy a core home range averaging three to eight square miles. Males inhabit expanded ranges up to 200 square miles. Males are wide-ranging, traversing matriarchal territories of several different familial clans of females with cubs and mature offspring with their own cubs.

Kilham says bears prioritize natural food resources by quality, quantity and the risks associated with obtaining calories, essentially calculating profit and risk. Kilham says black oil sunflower seeds in back yard birdfeeders are of such high calorie content compared to natural foods, the profit of raiding backyard birdfeeders becomes worth the risk of entering a suburban setting.

Kilham says, "85 percent of bears' natural diet is comprised of vegetation. The other 15 percent is animal protein, with 90 to 95 percent of that consisting of insects." Ants, termites, wasps and their larvae are an underappreciated component of bear diets.

Kilham fitted an orphan female bear, "Yoda," with a radio-telemetry collar for long-term study before she was released. In early autumn, Kilham observed Yoda sniffing out and digging-up ground hornet nests, feeding at the rate of 12 to 16 hornet nests per hour. Kilham followed another bear, "Squirtie," for a decade. Kilham says it was not uncommon for Squirtie to excavate 40 to 60 hornet nests per day while foraging.

In autumn, ground hornet nests are packed with nutritious larvae, the fat-laden and protein-packed grubs destined to be adult hornets. Hornet stings do not deter bears from digging up nests.

In summer, fruits and berries provide carbohydrates while insects - particularly ants and termites - provide protein and fat. Summer fruits include raspberries, blueberries, choke cherries and pin cherries. By August, forests supply fat-rich ripe beechnuts and beaked hazelnuts. When nut crops are sparse, nearby farmlands lure bears to sweet corn, fallen apples and pasture grasses.

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Join Dave Anderson of The Forest Society and the Concord Public Library for a fun "NH Nature Trivia Night" on Tuesday, Aug. 29, at 7 p.m. at Area 23 in Concord.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Forest Journal runs every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail Anderson at danderson@forestsociety.org or through the Forest Society's website: forestsociety.org.

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