It was well past dark when I first heard it: around 2 in the morning, it woke me in my tent. I lay awake for what felt like a long time, listening, trying—and failing—to classify the noise definitively as not a danger so I could go back to sleep. At the same time, I tried to think of what it sounded like, so that I could describe it the next morning. A large animal roar. A metal chair scraping across the floor. A death-metal chord. A train whistle.
Whatever it was, it neglected to devour me that night, and in the morning I was relieved to find that one of my field assistants had also been woken by the noise and shared my bewilderment. We agreed that it was primarily a cross between the bellow of some large mammal and the scrape of something mechanical, and so it was dubbed “the robot bear.”
The robot bear
The robot bear called most nights after that. Sometimes I thought it must be a noise of pain, or maybe rage—the tearing roughness in it sounded like strong emotion. Sometimes I was sure it was distant machinery; but we were surrounded by forest, and why would anyone be running machinery in the middle of the night?
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.And the whole place was hopping with tiny tree frogs.
If you have ever driven through Yosemite National Park, you’ve seen them: distinctive yellow signs with a silhouette of a bear and the admonition, “Speeding Kills Bears.” Although it doesn’t say so on the sign, each sign is placed where a bear has been killed by a car.
On our last trip, driving through Yosemite on our way home, we saw the truth of this first-hand: a black bear lying dead at the side of the road, his blood still red on the asphalt. He was young, no larger than a St. Bernard. His muzzle was delicate, his ears soft. Like many of the black bears I’ve seen, he was not just black, but had an elegant sweep of blond across his shoulders, like a shawl.