Once again I’m sitting beside our mountaintop vernal pond and wondering if this will be the year the wood frogs will make it out of the pond before the water disappears. A wood frog’s life span is about seven years, and for six years the pond has dried up before the wood frogs’ have fully developed. Some years their eggs are left high and dry; other years their tadpoles are.
A vernal pond is a temporary, fish-free wetland that fills in late winter or early spring and dries out by early summer in a good year. This pond is only several yards across and several yards long, depending on rainfall, and, unlike the tiny, 6-foot-wide pond at the base of First Field, I can’t get close enough to watch the courtship and mating of the frogs. I can hear their quacking calls, though, and I enjoy watching a wide variety of wild creatures that visit it even when I’m sitting quietly beside it, my back against an oak tree.
I find it incredibly peaceful to watch the pond as it reflects the trees in its still water. But this early March day a skim of ice over it glitters in the sunlight. Its surface has a medley of half circles and triangles artistically rendered by the ice-maker overnight.
On the thirteenth of March, as I near the vernal pond, circles appear in the water. I wonder if they can be disappearing wood frogs. I study the still, dark water and spot one small mass that I look at through my binoculars. A golden eye returns my gaze. I move closer and see a male wood frog stretched out in the water. Next to him is a stick with two clumps of wood frog eggs clinging to it. This unusually bold wood frog dives into the water but quickly resurfaces. Since I am still standing there, he sinks back under the water.
The vernal pond has already contracted, and I hope that the dark clouds rushing across the Allegheny Front will drop some rain on us and fill up the pond. But it doesn’t happen. Nevertheless, two days later, I find two wood frog egg masses in different areas. The gelatinous, fist-sized blobs contain several hundred eggs with black embryos.
By the 22nd of March, I count four separate egg masses, but the vernal pond is still shrinking. If the rain comes soon enough, the eggs may survive. And come it does, raining hard from 1:00 a.m. until mid-morning on March 24, filling up the vernal pond again.
It’s almost a month before I return to the pond. At the beginning of April, while hiking on Sapsucker Ridge with my sixteen-year-old granddaughter Eva, she steps on a branch and I trip over it, my left leg landing hard on a pointed rock. Nothing is broken or fractured the doctors tell me, but my leg and foot swell up and turn black and blue. I have, after all, injured my tibia, the bone just below my knee. After days of being veranda-bound and more days of slow, short walks, I finally make it back to a vernal pond seething with insect life, most notably water striders walking atop the water and looking for mosquitoes resting on the water just after they have emerged from their “wriggler” larval stage.
Various species of diving beetles also swim in the water on the hunt for invertebrate and vertebrate creatures, including the wood frog tadpoles. I have always marveled at how these insects find a vernal pond, especially this one, isolated on a mountaintop half a mile from the nearest stream and that one intermittent near its source. Apparently, they are able to fly to it from such water. But some species of diving beetles actually overwinter in the basin formed by a dried up vernal pond.
The wood frog eggs have long since disappeared from sight, colonized by the symbiotic algae Oophila amblystomatis, which turns them green. It’s been cold most of the month, delaying the hatching of the eggs. But near the pond I stop to admire the patch of spreading spring beauties, the only place they grow on our property. This is an open, mixed-oak forest close to our neighbor’s logging operation that took place several years ago. Not much has regenerated and the vernal pond is not as shaded as it used to be.
It’s now the fourth of May and torrid summer weather has returned. I practically stumble over a porcupine as I approach the vernal pond and send the creature scrambling up a large red oak tree. The vernal pond is a veritable tadpole soup—tadpoles by the dozens wherever I look, floating near the surface to warm themselves up now that the trees have leafed out and are shading the pond. They need the solar heat to develop quickly into frogs before the pond dries up. First they graze on the symbiotic algae still clinging to their gelatinous cradle, and then they feed on algae and leaf material on the pond’s bottom. They also may feed on each other, those that hatched first preying on the latecomers.
Three days of hard, cold rain follow, and once again the vernal pond is overflowing and seeping over into a series of wallow-sized pools. My pond-watching becomes an almost daily discipline as I sit and watch the tadpoles eating, swimming, and basking in patches of sunlight. In mid-May I hear clucking as a hen turkey circles behind me. Maybe she is hoping to catch some tadpoles for brunch.
Often the tadpoles join in aggregations of ten on a submerged stick. Then there is a sudden flurry and they separate, but in a few seconds they gather together again, performing their own watery tadpole ballet. In addition to basking in the sun, perhaps they are finding refuge from predators in a crowd like flocks of birds do.
By the twentieth of May a few of the larger tadpoles are developing back legs. I sit close to the water and watch as the tadpoles continually surface to feed on the detritus floating on the water, then submerge, each tadpole swirling the water into a circle. I try counting the circles to figure out how many tadpoles still inhabit the pond, but the confusion of circles quickly confuses me. Instead, I settle back and enjoy the ambiance of the pond and surrounding woodland having long ago learned to tune out the occasional train whistle and the constant traffic noise on Interstate 99 at the base of the ridge.
A mourning dove sings without ceasing. Red-eyed vireos, eastern wood pewees and a scarlet tanager frequently add their songs to that of the doves. Water striders skate along the water. A common green darner dragonfly buzzes over the pond. Then an American crow flies in like a kamikaze fighter plane, veers when it sees me, and silently retreats.
There are more days of rain and again the pond overflows. The pond water is so dark that I can’t glimpse the tadpoles, but dozens of circles that gradually subside as I sit in front of the pond indicate their presence. Sitting beside the pond, a sudden nearby gunshot startles the tadpoles as much as it startles me. Not only do they have sharp eyes but sharp ears too.
Near the end of May, I’m serenaded by a robin and scolded by a hairy woodpecker while I sit beside the pond. I also see a dark-eyed junco, which should have been breeding farther north on the Allegheny Front or beyond by now. A mourning dove flies in to catch insects from the pond and goes off in a flurry when it realizes I am there. A black-and-white warbler sings. Chipmunks scold. Mosquitoes that probably have hatched in the pond circle me and force me to move on after I catch a glimpse of a few more tadpoles with back legs.
My vigil continues in June. By then, I wonder if those tadpoles will ever change into bandit-masked wood frogs. On June 8 many heads pop up from the water and stay up even though most tadpoles still have tails. Two male robins hold a song fest while a female chases all comers to the pond as her spotted youngster bathes. Later a tufted titmouse takes a bath. Chipmunks chase around the pond and one scampers up to me, pauses at my feet to look, and then continue its race with its rival. A pileated woodpecker pounds on a nearby tree trunk.
All the while a pleasant breeze blows, keeping biting insects away. The pond is slowly shrinking, but it is still a bathing and watering hole for birds and mammals alike.
The following day I spend another session at the vernal pond serenaded by the same two robins. Little mouths surface to catch detritus spread atop the pond, and once I see a tiny froglet hopping over a small section almost as if it could walk on water. Froglets are supposed to be between a half and 7/8th of an inch when they metamorphose. Their watery life is ending and none too soon.
A chipmunk approaches me with much trepidation, and when I don’t move, it goes to the pond and drinks. Then it scampers off.
Suddenly, the robins begin high octane scolding as if, after half an hour, they finally notice me. On and on they scold, but at last they subside.
When I am too stiff to sit any longer, I get up and walk back to the field path. There I find an enormous pile of fresh bear scat that wasn’t there before. It looks as if the robins were scolding a bear.
A couple days later, as I’m sitting by the pond, I hear crashing in the woods that sounds like a bear. Sure enough, one approaches the pond, and I ponder my position. It’s obviously hoping for a drink and doesn’t see or scent me. At last I stand up, and the bear looks up, sees me, and flees.
The vernal pond continues to fill every time it rains, and slowly the froglets depart, although I don’t see them. But there are fewer circles in the water, less little heads surfacing, every time I visit. How wonderful that after so many springs when the pond dried up too soon, our aging population of wood frogs will finally get some newcomers. The young frogs will spread out, traveling up to several hundred meters in all directions, making new homes in the leaf litter, and preying on a variety of arthropods.
But even as the pond shrinks and the froglets leave, I still seek quiet time beside it. One day, late in June, I encounter an eastern box turtle, floating in a couple inches of water, its eyes closed. At first I think it is dead, but when I touch it, it opens its eyes. Later, I learn that eastern box turtles like to soak and feed in vernal ponds.
On another day, two doe wander past me and water at the pond while I sit a few feet away. Then they continue on their way. They never do detect my presence.
I can only wonder how many other wild lives are impacted by this small pond. Even though knowledgeable foresters will steer logging operations away from such places, most loggers either don’t know or don’t care about such refuges. Or they begin their logging operations in the fall when the ponds are dried up and they don’t recognize them for what they are.
My own life has been enriched by our vernal pond this water-full spring. Even after it is completely dried up, in broiling hot, droughty July, I wander back to sit under the oak shade. Where have all the wood frogs gone?
One day, on my daily walk, an adult wood frog hops across my path.
“There you are,” I say out loud as it hops quickly out of sight.
Next to poisonous snakes, people fear encountering bears in the outdoors. Even some of our hunter friends are bear-shy. But ever since black bears returned to our mountain, back in the 1980s, I’ve relished every experience I’ve had with them. So far, they’ve been exciting but harmless.
Last spring and summer, I saw more bears than ever before. And it all began on April 18. On that day, the temperature reached the mid-eighties, which finally brought out our hundreds of daffodils. Because Bruce and I were away for the day, we missed the advent of our resident female bear and her four cubs from the previous year. They drank from the stream below the guesthouse, and our son Dave, who lives in the guesthouse, had wonderful views of them from his front porch. One of the cubs was cinnamon-colored, and all of them looked healthy.
I was upset that I had missed this close encounter. But the following evening, our family was sitting out on the veranda after dinner.
“What’s that up in the field?” our daughter-in-law Karylee asked.
I grabbed my binoculars and immediately ascertained that the sow and her cubs were back.
“Get the scope,” son Steve said quietly to Bruce. In the meantime, I trained my binoculars on the family foraging up in the corner of First Field.
Bruce set up the scope and we all took turns watching the little family. Despite our granddaughter Elanor’s high-pitched talking, playing, and banging in and out of the front door, the bears continued feeding, seemingly oblivious or at least unconcerned by us.
No doubt, this was the same calm sow that I have encountered in other years with her family. Never once has she acted threateningly toward me when I have accidentally run into her. She and the cubs have always run off together.
On this evening, they not only ate but they played. First one cub, then two, and then three cubs climbed high up in a black locust tree and out on branches that looked too slender to hold them, perhaps playing their version of “king of the mountain.” Even the fourth cub joined them off-and-on, but it usually stuck close to the sow instead. Once a pair of them faced each other, all four of their legs curled around the trunk, and alternately nuzzled each other and batted back and forth, like prize fighters in training.
Sometimes one or two of the cubs would move close to the sow as if trying to see what she was eating. As she dug in the ground, they all crowded near, but I couldn’t tell if she was giving them food.
I was particularly interested in observing the uncommon cinnamon bear, and I noticed that another cub had a slight cinnamon cast too. I couldn’t remember seeing a cinnamon cub here before, but Dave claimed that there had been one several years ago.
We watched them for more than an hour until it was too dark to see them. I was elated, because that was the longest observation time I had ever had of a black bear family.
The next day we found muddy bear paw prints on our back porch door. Then Bruce discovered more, five feet from the ground, on the window over the kitchen sink. The bears had been giving our kitchen, at least, a thorough examination, and we worried that they might get even more familiar. But I was no longer feeding the birds from feeders hanging on the back porch, believing that winter feeding is the wisest course when living close to bears. Even so, I always bring the feeders inside every evening during November, December, March, and early April, when some bears are liable to be around. And, as it turned out, that was the only interest bears showed in our home even during the summer when only a screen door separated the kitchen from the outdoors.
It rained hard the morning after we watched the bear family. I waited until there was a break in the weather and hurried up to the corner of First Field to look for bear sign. I paced back and forth where I knew they had been and could find no sign, not even of the digging the sow had been doing. If we hadn’t seen them with our own eyes, we wouldn’t have believed they had been up there.
But we found fresh bear scat on all our trails over the next several weeks. Often I followed in the footsteps of bears because I would find many large and small rocks wrenched out of the ground and overturned on our trails as the black bears searched for ants.
Then, near the end of May, I wandered through the spruce grove and sat down at the edge under a spruce tree, hoping to locate what I thought was a crow’s nest. The crows flew in and scolded, but still I couldn’t see that nest in the dense tops of the spruces.
Then I heard a crashing below the grove and thought, “Uh, oh. A bear.”
I remained seated, but as the bear lumbered up the field trail, I grew increasingly uneasy, especially when he turned and headed toward my spruce tree. I inched my way around it and the bear heard me. He followed behind me around the tree about 20 feet away. Knowing that bears don’t see very well and that I shouldn’t run from him, I turned around, faced him, and yelled, “Go away, get out of here, buddy.” He paused for a second and then ran off through the grove.
He was a large male and probably on the prowl for a female. I suspected that our resident sow was in heat and the youngsters on their own.
The next day I walked Greenbrier Trail, listening to birdsong. As I rounded one corner, I spotted a black bear on the trail ahead with its head down as it plodded along. This one too appeared to be a big male bear, maybe the same one as the day before. Luckily, he hadn’t seen me.
I backpedaled fast because the trail was too steep on both sides for me to get off it. After a couple hundred feet, I reached a flatter area, left the trail and plunged into the underbrush. Breathlessly, I waited and waited for the bear to pass on the trail above me, but he didn’t appear. I heard no sound either. I reasoned that he must have heard me crashing down slope through the dry leaves and retreated. Still, the waiting and indecision were worse than the previous day’s encounter.
Should I return to the trail and continue on my way or retreat down the mountain through thick underbrush to Ten Springs Trail? I sat on a log trying to decide as birds sang and flies buzzed around me. Finally, I opted for the open trail where I wouldn’t be surprised by a sudden appearance as I (and he) would be in the impenetrable brush. I picked up a big stick to hold above my head so that I would present a tall silhouette to the bear should I encounter him again.
The trail was clear. Apparently, the bear had heard me and gone the opposite direction. When I reached a muddy area on the trail, I spotted large, fresh bear tracks bigger by a couple inches than my hand span, thumb to little finger.
After that, I began to see more of the young bears than I had bargained for. In mid-June, I sat on a log at the top of Pennyroyal Trail at the Far Field. After awhile I walked on and, in the thick underbrush to my right, at least two bears ran off — one went left, the other right — still in the thick underbrush. I guess they were resting in the deep shade as I was.
As I continued walking, I kept peering into the underbrush. Was that black mass a bear? Indeed, it was, and again it ran off as I said loudly, “It’s okay.”
Three days later, during an evening walk, Bruce and I surprised a young black bear as we descended Laurel Ridge Trail. It was ripping apart a log and looked up at us in obvious confusion. Finally, it decided we were not its friends. It turned around, ran down the trail, and disappeared in the underbrush.
Near the end of June Dave saw two of the cubs on Laurel Ridge Trail. One was cinnamon, the other one was black. He had been trying to photograph a black-throated blue warbler when the cubs appeared. He was so excited that he didn’t know which creature to photograph, and, in the end, he didn’t capture any of them on film.
Throughout the summer, we continued to see bears and bear sign nearly every day. Several of the power poles had fresh scratches on them where the bears had left their messages for other bears. Massive piles of bear scat, first filled with huckleberry seeds and later with cherry pits, were deposited on our trails on a daily basis. All of this kept me on high alert, especially along the narrow trails that wound through thick underbrush that had grown up because of the January 2005 ice storm.
On July 24, I found an enormous, fresh bear scat on Laurel Ridge Trail. I continued on to the Far Field Road and then turned back home. I practically stumbled on a bear rubbing itself all over a small red maple tree at the confluence of Laurel Ridge, First Field, and Far Field trails.
The bear saw me seconds after I saw it and stood up to peer nearsightedly in my direction before starting toward me.
“It’s okay,” I said to it, and it turned around and ran down Laurel Ridge Trail. Then it paused and looked back at me.
“It’s okay,” I repeated. “I won’t hurt you.”
Finally, it bounded on down the trail. Undoubtedly, it was one of the cubs that was growing up fast.
Two days later, I was wandering back along Laurel Ridge Trail picking huckleberries. Suddenly a strong smell wafted past that caused me to pause and look carefully around, but I didn’t see anything. I knew that the bears had been eating the berries and had read that you could often smell a bear before seeing it. Then, as I walked on, humming “The Hills of Home,” a bear loomed up ahead of me on the trail. It spun around and ran off.
So I had smelled a bear. Now I knew what bears smell like or at least that bear. Probably if I hadn’t been humming, I would have had a closer look at it.
The bear sightings continued. In mid-August, during an evening walk, as Bruce and I crossed the powerline right-of-way on the Short Circuit Trail on Laurel Ridge, I caught a movement at the top of the Sapsucker Ridge portion of the right-of-way. Through my binoculars, I watched a black bear slowly amble down the slope. Just before it reached the base, it disappeared into a small ravine.
Five days later, as I neared the Far Field, a crashing off to my left alerted me to a black bear. At the same time, blue jays spotted it or me or both and set up a terrible ruckus. The bear kept trudging along until I lost sight of it in the underbrush. And that was my final view of a bear last summer. But the sign continued throughout the late summer and into late autumn before the bears went into hibernation.
“What about bears?” people continue to ask me when they learn that I go off by myself on our trails every day. Now you know. So far, I have enjoyed my peaceful coexistence with them. And I look forward this April to our resident sow appearing with her new batch of cubs.
All photos and video were taken on Brush Mountain by Dave Bonta except the last, which is by ashe-villain and licenced for free non-commercial use with attribution.