Encounters with baby mammals: sometimes they run, sometimes you run

On our last trip, we had two very different encounters with baby mammals. The first happened when we were searching for nests in some rather strange habitat: the area had been previously logged, then—like all of my sites, rather unfortunately—used for cattle pasture. The cattle presence here had been so intense that the area not only was covered in cow pies, but smelled distinctly like cow. (Ah, nature!) The corn lilies there, usually lush tall green plants, were ragged and brown.2013_mammals_landscapeAnd the whole place was hopping with tiny tree frogs.


Nest searching, for us, means rustling underbrush and seeing whether a junco comes out. We were rustling along, frightening lots of frogs, when one of my field assistants hissed: “Katie! Katie, there’s a baby deer!

See the fawn?

See the fawn? (Hint: look for the spots.)

Deer will often leave their very young babies hiding while the adults forage. Much as it is for fledglings, being hidden is these young animals’ best defense.

There he is: mule deer fawn.

There he is: mule deer fawn.

Unfortunately the fawn took fright as we were admiring it, leapt to its wobbly legs and scrambled off. I hadn’t meant to disturb it and was sorry to have caused it to move. Next time I will stay further away.

The second baby mammal encounter occurred while we were target netting. In target netting, we have a nest with an unbanded female, and we are specifically trying to catch that female in order to band her. To do this, we set up the net near the nest where she sits, then approach the nest from the opposite side, flushing her into the net. On this day we were aiming to net the unbanded female that would, later, be banded AMLE. While my field assistants were setting up the net as quietly as they could, I began sneaking around to the other side of the nest to be in position.

I was trying to be quiet—so as not to disturb the female prematurely—when I heard a loud rustle of brush. I looked toward the sound and saw a large black bear beginning to sit up. For one split moment I though Hey cool, a bear, the guys will be excited— and then I saw the two small, startled-looking bear cubs behind mama bear.

I don’t worry about black bears very much. (In field work, you don’t worry about anything that seems moderately unlikely to kill you. I worry about mountain lions slightly more.) The exception to this, however, is startled mother black bears with young cubs who think I am sneaking up on them. I do worry about them.

Wanting to be as nonthreatening as possible, I turned and hightailed it back up to where the field assistants were. “There’s a mama bear with cubs,” I said. “We gotta leave.” They told me later that they found this somewhat lacking in vital information—was the bear right behind me? was it coming right now?—but in any case they packed up the net with due haste, found the bears with their binoculars (to make sure they weren’t coming after us) and even took a photo.

Mama black bear with one of her two cubs. The other is out of frame or possibly farther up a tree. Photo by Jeremy Spool

Mama black bear with one of her two cubs. The other cub is out of frame or possibly farther up a tree.
Photo by Jeremy Spool

Then we got out of there. When a family of bears is hanging out by your junco nest, you net somewhere else.

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