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Close Encounters of the Wild Kind

I spent a good chunk of my summer field trips to the Nature Conservancy’s fescue prairie preserves being bear-anoid. Although I saw several black bears last year, they were all solitary and a fair distance away from me. On my second field day in late June I was examining a plot for pollinators and when I looked up there was a mother bear and two cubs down in the valley below me. Nuts! They apparently hadn’t notice me high up on the hill. I began moving slowly away from them and jingling my bear bell like a deranged Dickie Dee boy. The mother paused, looked at me like I was crazy and ran into the bushes with her young ones behind her. I was relieved, figuring it would be my only bear encounter of the trip. Not so.

An image of a black bear along a roadside.

A black bear located where I normally like to see them-far away.

That afternoon I was busy photographing a bumblebee on a thistle and when I turned around a small bear cub was digging away about 10-m down slope from me. Once again I jingled my bell and the cub took off. But where was mom? Down in the valley, I hoped, rather than in between me and her offspring. I beat a hasty retreat.

A photograph of a yellow and black bumblebess on a purple thistle flower.

Bumblebees just loved visiting these stemless thistles (Cirsium drummondii).

One thing that became very clear to me that day was that despite their ungainly appearance, bears can sure be stealthy when they want to be. As I walked back to the field station I noticed many signs that the bears were foraging extensively in the preserve. I found bear scat, overturned rocks and turf, and hair caught on a barbed wire fence.

A photograph of a hole dug by a black bear.

The black bears in the areas were digging for beetles on the hillside where my research plots are located.

The next day I was determined to make plenty of noise to alert the bears to my presence. I rang my bell, tooted on my whistle and loudly sang nature-inspired show tunes from “Les Misérables”, vaguely hoping I wasn’t inspiring any forest revolutionaries (do you hear the warblers sing, singing the song of hungry birds. It is the music of a genus that likes to eat lots of worms!).  Anyway the noise paid off and I didn’t see any bears for the remainder of my field work. But I was still jumpy.  At one point I felt something poke my back. I jumped five feet in the air from fright. Was it a bear? No, it was just the walking stick that I had propped up on a fence. Then something zoomed by my face. I screeched like a three year old watching a scary movie. It was only a Great Grey Owl. It also stared at me like I was crazy.  Or maybe that’s just the way it always looks.  Clearly, I was a little high strung.

A photograph of a Great Grey Owl sitting on an aspen branch.

A Great Grey Owl scared the #*$%* out of me.

Fortunately, I encountered many other less frightening creatures (at least less frightening to me although I’m sure the bee that I saw getting eaten by a crab spider would disagree). A grasshopper that wanted to lick me, two racing white-tailed deer, and some amorous blister beetles along with many cool pollinators made my field work a feast for the eyes!

A photograph of a white and pink crab spider on a white common yarrow plants eating a small brown bee.

Bees have a good reason to be wary of crab spiders.

A photograph of two purple and green irridescent blister beetles.

It was mating season for these spectacular blister beetles.

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Dr. Diana Robson

Curator of Botany

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Dr. Robson obtained a Master’s Degree in Plant Ecology and a Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been working at the Manitoba Museum since 2003, conducting research mainly on rare plant and pollination ecology.