Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project
Once trained up as a bear citizen scientist, this is how your field day goes down:
As I rise before seven in my cabin, the morning chorus is in full swing. The wood creaks a little from the sun shining on it, fairly high in the sky already. The grass outside is a soft green carpet that caresses my feet as I wander over to the shower block. Fellow citizen scientists greet me sleepy-eyed on the way. A young red squirrel sits on the steps, seemingly unperturbed by all of us around. A crane flies in and settles on the meadow for a morning graze. The sky is blue and white, full of promise of a good day ahead.
The smell of coffee greets me as I walk into the main house and kitchen, busy with the team having breakfast and making their lunch packs for the day out. Before eight we gather round the map that ominously fills one entire wall, showing how large the study site is and how many bears it can hold in this landscape of forest and water. Andrea, our scientist, has prepared our maps and tasks, a sheet of lines and numbers that would have meant nothing to me only three days ago. Now it holds the keys to my day ahead. Andrea explains where each group should go and briefs them all individually. We then work out the best route to drive there to get us as close as possible to our target sites. Today we have a bear den and a few bear position clusters on our list. The den positions are know den sites that need to be documented. The clusters show where a bear has spent some time in one place. It is our job to find out why it has spent time there. It could be a good feeding site (for example a carcass the bear can feed on). It could be a day bed for a rest. Or something else.
Today the drive to our first site is about one hour, mainly along a very smooth gravel road and past pretty lakes, waterfalls and seemingly endless forest.
Once at the site, we do two things. First, mark the car position in the GPS so that we can easily find it again. And second – where necessary – check there is no bear at the site. This is done by radio telemetry. If there was a bear nearby, I would hear a clicking beep in the receiver. No sound, so off we go.
It’s only 363 m to the den by the GPS. But that can take a while as the going is usually slow over pathless and broken terrain. Today it’s especially tricky as this site has recently been logged, so there are logs, stones, roots and all sorts of other things strewn over the ground. You have to place every footstep carefully and be patient. Actually, I find this meditative, relaxing and mentally taxing at the same time. Once you hit a slow rhythm it’s not bad at all and we get there after 20 minutes or so.
When the GPS beeps to tell us we have reached our target spot, we need to look around the find the den. Sometimes it’s right there and obvious; other times you have to look for it for a while. This one’s easy today. It’s right there, a nest in the ground, shaded and hidden by two small pines.
Then the work begins: measuring the den, looking for scats, assessing the vegetation around, how well hidden the den is etc. We have a manual to take us through each step – in case we have forgotten bits of our training – and a datasheet to fill in one field at a time. It takes us about 45 minutes to document everything.
Then it’s back to the car and the next site. Another 350 m into the forest. This one’s a cluster site, so we search for clues as to why the bear would have spent time here. We find animal remains. Some bones and moose antlers, chewed down by the bear, probably for its minerals, but nobody is quite sure. A scat that is snowy white and full of bone material. Again we document everything and move on.
By the time we get to site 3, the day is already well advanced and we have to hurry. We find scat, bag it quickly for Andrea and get back to the car. An hour’s drive back. A beautiful owl encounter on the way. A quick dip in that lake that beckoned in the morning and we’re back at base, tired but happy. Andrea is happy too, looks at our haul, the datasheets, asks questions and lets us off the hook for a quick shower before the group debrief session, where every group talks the others through their day and results. These are marked on the big map and scored. Ulli and Karin: 8 scats, 9 (!) day beds, 3 carcasses. Pat and Neil: 12 (!) scats and 1 den. Chris & Evelyn: 6 scats, 1 den, 3 chewed antlers and 1 carcass. There are tall tales, much laughter and excellent results. Andrea is happy and that is the point.
Then off to a delicious dinner of chilly sin carne, lovingly prepared by Roland and Pat, and some well-deserved down-time until we start all over again the next day. It’s not easy being a citizen scientist, but someone’s got to do it 😉