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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Close encounters with the outdoors world

Blane Klemek

Since the passing of my beloved old Chesapeake Bay retriever Duke, things aren't quite the same around the homefront. In fact, it's downright lonely, and that lonesomeness is acutely felt while walking my favorite wooded trails to chase Ol' Ruff around, which was without question Duke's favorite thing to do, too.

As such, although not foregoing grouse hunts altogether on account of the loss of Duke, I've taken to another autumn passion of mine: sitting in favorite trees waiting for a deer, but mostly just letting the world pass by to observe Nature unfold before my eyes.

Since my return to standing vigil within the limbs of oaks and other trees, I've enjoyed several close encounters of the creature kind. For instance, one evening a gray squirrel, having spotted me from a nearby tree, leapt to my tree and onto a limb near my head. The squirrel crawled to less than a foot from me to look into my eyes as if to say, "Who are you and why are you in my tree?"

On another eve, a flying squirrel glided from another nearby tree to land squarely on a patch of bark right next to my left shoulder. After seeing me, it skittered further up the tree and launched into the air and glided to a different tree.

I've also been thrilled by close-up sightings of deer, raccoons, blue jays, nuthatches, eastern towhees, brown creepers, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, barred owls, and, not surprisingly, ruffed grouse. Of the latter subject on one dark and rainy morning while walking in the light of my headlamp to my favorite perch in the woods, I practically stepped on a grouse hunkered within the grass alongside the trail. The bird immediately flushed in a flurry and nearly hit my face as it catapulted itself straight up. Not only did I feel the wind from its beating wings, I felt my beating heart in my throat!

A few evenings ago was perhaps the most thrilling of all so far. Hearing the telltale call of an alarmed chipmunk sound off not far behind my oak tree, I turned my head cautiously around to see what would cause the chipmunk to frighten. Almost immediately I observed the coal black body of a black bear moving slowly in a thicket of hazel brush just 25 yards away.

Seeing a bear is always exciting, but normally our sightings of bears are fleeting glimpses, as these secretive animals usually keep to themselves. Yet in the case of this particular bear, I enjoyed the company of the bruin for a full hour as he or she went about its natural activities that amounted to no more than finding things to eat.

It was fascinating to watch the bear forage. I observed it digging for what I presumed were tubers or perhaps insects; I saw the bear stand up and rake leaves into its mouth; and I watched as it delicately plucked with its pursed lips hazel nuts and cranberries from the tips of branches. For all practical purposes, the bear was on a feeding binge.

Such incidences are common occurrences this time of the year. Wildlife everywhere, particularly those that spend the winter here in Minnesota (be they hibernators or those that are active all year long) need to consume and cache plenty of fatty foods in order to survive the cold months ahead. And where bears are concerned, it's important for those people living and recreating in bear country to remember that being in bear country not only has its many joys, there are a few things that folks should be aware of.

One primary factor is food. Food, and the finding and feeding of, is what motivates all bears right now. Nearly every waking moment black bears are busy searching for food and eating as much as they possibly can in order to put on enough fat reserves to sustain them for their long sleep this coming winter. For such insatiable appetites, it is no wonder why black bears will become bold enough to lumber into towns and raid garbage containers, pull hummingbird feeders from windows or, as some of you might recall from a couple of weeks ago, lick moths from living-room windows.

If bears do show up at your doorstep looking for a handout, it may be time to quit feeding the birds for awhile and remove the feeders altogether. Garbage receptacles should be bear-proofed, emptied often, or placed inside a building or some other structure. A fence should always surround beehives, preferably an electrified fence to keep salivating bears out.

If camping in bear country, keep a clean and, as much as possible, odorless campsite. Clean fish away from the encampment, bury the remains or leave on exposed areas like large rocks for birds such as gulls and other scavenging birds. And by all means, don't bring food or wear fishy or food-smelling clothes inside the tent.

For the bird-feeding enthusiast living in bear country, especially when natural foods aren't abundant, consider avoiding feeding birds in the summer months through October. If you do feed, be sure to suspend feeders at least 10 feet high and 10 feet away from climbable objects. Thistle seed is somewhat less palatable to bears.

It won't be long when bears retreat to secret places deep in the woods for their long winter naps. In the meantime, and until they do, lucky we are to catch sight of one of these extraordinary animals as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at