Intelligent, and charismatic, black bears make fascinating trail camera subjects. Much about their behavior is already well documented, but trail cameras continue to reveal interesting tidbits, so you can be on the cutting edge with nothing but a trail camera and some basic knowledge of bear behavior, tracks, and sign to guide camera placement.
So where do you look for bear sign? For the most part, bears are creatures of the woodlands, but they prefer a patchwork of upland and lowland forest in various successional stages, from recently cleared to mature woods, with wetlands and riparian zones. This is because a diversity of habitats provides a diversity of seasonal foods for this adaptable omnivore. Tender spring forbs and grasses, catkins, young leaves of trees and shrubs, ungulate fawns, and bird eggs are spring fare. In summer, insects, and berries are taken as they become available, and in fall bears fatten up on acorns and other nuts, as well as crops such as corn and apples, where available.
Since the diet is so varied, the appearance of bear scat is quite variable – it reflects whatever the animal was eating. The large size of scat from adult bears usually makes it easy to distinguish from scat of other species. However, cub and yearling scat can be quite small, and if it is well-formed, it may be confused with scat of medium sized omnivores, like raccoons and coyotes. The two photos below show large bear scats of very different appearance due to different diets.
Bear tracks, however, are distinctive, and clear tracks in good substrate are hard to confuse with other species. You will do well sear into your mind the basic appearance of good tracks so you can pick them out even when they are subtle or indistinct. Bear tracks 5 toes but sometimes only 4 register. A wedge-shaped palm pad is usually obvious, and sometimes s a heel pad shows. Claws are long, but they may not register.
Once you determine that bears are present, an easy approach is to put the camera on a travel route. A simple example is a game trail. Choose one where you’ve seen bear tracks or scat. Bears also use log bridges and beaver dams to cross water. Any of these can be highly productive spots, but the bear is not likely to be doing anything more than walking by.
If you want to capture some interesting bear behavior and you’re up for a challenge, you must move beyond footprints and scat. The ability to recognize bear sign on trees will open up a range of camera trapping possibilities.
Feeding trees are perhaps the easiest to find. Bears may leave claw marks on trees when they climb to obtain food. Aspens are used in spring for catkins and young leaves, black cherries are climbed in summer for fruit, and beeches and oaks are used in fall for nuts. It’s easiest to see claw marks in smooth barked trees, like aspen and beech, and old, scarred claw marks are most noticeable, but fresh marks indicating recent use make for a better trail cam target. A tree that has been used or many years may have a mess of claw marks of various ages, from thickly scared ones to fresh, knife-like scratches. See the examples below of fresh claw marks on white birch and old claw marks on beech. You could experiment with placing a camera in a feeding tree itself or in a neighboring tree. If you can get the camera high enough, you may be able to record the actual feeding behavior. Just be sure the camera is in place during the right season – whenever the food that bears are after is available.
Another kind of bear tree is a refuge tree – A mother sends young cubs up into certain trees while she forages. She often chooses a large conifer with low branches and thick, furrowed bark. Conifer foliage provides cover in early spring when deciduous trees are still bare, and when cubs are small and most vulnerable. Low branches and thick furrowed bark facilitate climbing for the youngsters. You will find these trees near good feeding areas, and in spring and early summer, when mothers with young cubs are most in need of these trees, wetlands are a good bet, because that is where green-up usually begins. You might notice cub sized claw marks on refuge trees, but cubs are light and bark is furrowed, so claw marks might be difficult to find.
An especially entertaining trail camera target is a marking tree. This is where bears rub, bite, and claw, presumably to leave their scent. A mark tree is a sort of message board, for it appears that all bears, including cubs and yearlings, in the area use the same tree. Marking trees seem to be located along well used travel routes or near important food resources. Usually bears mark these trees while standing on their hind legs, so bite marks, claw marks, and snared hair are most abundant at about eye level. Be aware that snared bear hair may be blonde, even in areas where light color phases of black bear do not occur. This is because bear fur is quickly bleached by the sun.
In some locations, bears seem to prefer certain species of trees for marking. For example, in the northeastern US, every mark tree I’ve seen has been a red pine. I do not know how selective of tree species they are in other parts of their range. I’ve seen sycamore used in Arizona and lodgepole pine in Montana, but bears may use many tree species. The tree need not be especially large. One mark tree I found was only 3 inches in diameter. Bears love to use utility poles and sign posts as marking “trees”, too. These are easiest to find, but don’t make good camera spots because they’re too close to potential thieves.
While all bears in the neighborhood may use a given mark tree, it’s thought that males use them more in spring and summer, and females use them more in late summer and early fall. In grizzly country, the two species sometimes use the same trees.
Bears scent mark in other ways, too. A very interesting type of bear scent marking is called a marking trail. It’s basically a series of worn ovals caused by bears stepping in the same spots each time they use the trail. The photo below shows a bear marking trail with a 6-inch ruler beside one of the ovals for scale.
Like mark trees, mark trails tend to be near important resources. When bears use these trails, they move with a stiff legged, wide based gait, sometimes called a cowboy walk, pausing after each step to rub the foot into the ground. They are probably depositing scent from pedal glands. Target one of these trails one day, and you’ll get to see this interesting behavior. As with mark trees, multiple bears probably use the same mark trail, but I don’t know if there is a sex related seasonality to it as there is with mark trees.
Yet another interesting target would be a bear bath or wallow. Bears bathe in pools or small ponds and wallow in mud to cool off and fend off biting insects in summer. Look for tracks in the mud of a wallow or around a pool or small pond. Set your camera in the heat of the summer and wait for the action.
A final note - bears are notorious for damaging trail cameras. While I’ve found that the vast majority ignore my cameras, all it takes is a single curious ursid and one destroyed camera to convince you that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Use a security box to prevent that.
I hope this piques your interest in using your trail cameras to learn about bear behavior. Who knows, you just might discover something new to science.
Author: Janet Pesaturo, Exodus Blackhat Member, Wildlife tracker, and Camera Trapper at Winterberry Wildlife
For more info on Janet available at https://exodusoutdoorgear.com/pages/exodus-- s
Photo/Video Credit: Janet Pesaturo