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Bear Claw Beech

by Neil Carleton 

“If you go out to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise. “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic" song was popular at our house when our children were growing up.  The first line is a good introduction to this month’s Shady Character.

 During the Monday morning hikes of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN), I join other nature enthusiasts for good exercise and outdoor adventures in all seasons.  Our discoveries range from spring birds and wildflowers as the days get longer, to animal tracks in the fresh snow of cold sparkling days.

With the leaves off during the winter, our snowshoe or ski outings are also good opportunities to observe the shapes and bark textures of dormant trees along the trail.  Each kind of tree has a distinctive form of trunk and branches, along with a unique bark pattern.  In contrast to the rough ridged bark of sugar maples, for example, the elephant hide bark of the American beech feels smooth. 

Beeches are one of my favourite woodland trees, and the black bears of our area share a related interest in them.  Although my attraction to a golden crowned beech in the fall is aesthetic, a black bear recognizes the same tree as a good source of high quality food.Shady Character 1 March 2012 Beech trees in the winter woods near Clayton on the property of Cliff and Lynda Bennett.

The edible seed and fruit that’s produced by trees and shrubs is known as mast.  It comes in two forms.  Trees like oak, hickory, and beech produce a hard mast – acorns, hickory nuts, and beech nuts.  Other tree species and shrubs, such as birch, ironwood, and pin cherry, produce a soft mast – catkins and cherries.

In the southern part of Ontario, over 75 species of birds and animals consume soft and hard mast from the various shrubs and trees in the forest.  While ruffed grouse and red squirrels will eat the flower buds, fruits, and seeds of trees, black bears are partial to the hard mast offerings of the woods.  If they’re available, a good feed of ripe beech nuts is high up on a black bear’s meal list in the fall.

 It’s always eating time for bears.  Over the summer they dine on carbohydrate-rich offerings like strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, then seek out fall fare such as mountain ash berries, apples, and wild grapes.  In early autumn, bears switch to a high-fat and protein-rich diet, including beech nuts. 

Black bears don’t wait for a meal of beech nuts to be served down on the forest floor, they go were the pickings are good – right up the tree trunk.

 If you go out to the woods today there could indeed be a big surprise if you chance upon a beech tree with distinctive bear claw marks on the trunk.  This month’s column features a young beech not far from Clayton, north of the Indian River, on Cliff and Lynda Bennett’s property.Shady Character 2 March 2012What a nice surprise if you happen to find bear claw marks on a beech tree in the forest.

 When I hiked in on March 12th for photos, snow shoes were needed to make progress across the softening snow covered landscape in the woods.  Even with winter conditions early that morning, spring was definitely looking over my shoulder as noon hour approached.  Stepping about with just boots on for closer bark inspections, I quickly sank in the snow almost to my knees.  The hundreds of Canada geese flying overhead that day knew it was spring too.

 Although familiar with this particular tree from a Monday morning outing with the MVFN last year, I’m grateful to Cliff for his good sketch map.  A forest changes with the seasons, and landmarks last seen briefly in summer shadow can look quite different under a blanket of snow.

 My destination was a clump of fifteen young beech trees.  Two had distinctive bear claw scars and I chose the smaller beech (83 cm in circumference, 25 cm diameter), with more easily seen markings, as this month’s tree of renown.Shady Character 3 March 2012The strong leg muscles and sharp claws of black bears enable them to grip and climb up a beech tree in search of a good fall meal.


Shady Character 4 March 2012The soft bark of a beech tree is easily gouged by the sharp claws of a black bear.  Claw marks remain visible on the tree trunk for years.

 Clusters of five claw scars on a beech tree indicate where a bear’s front paws gripped a tree while it climbed.  Some trees might have long vertical slashes where the rear claws gouged the bark while sliding down.Shady Character 5 March 2012It’s a long way up to the top branches to feed on beech nuts.

 Included with the hiking gear in my knapsack is a supply of white copy paper and a small block of black crayon to make bark rubbings.  The unique bark textures of different kinds of trees can be easily captured with these simple supplies.  It’s a great way to bring home a souvenir of bear claw marks too. Shady Character 6 March 2012A sheet of white copy paper and a small block of black crayon, available at art supply stores, are all you need to make a good rubbing of bear claw marks on a beech tree.

 Do you have a notable of favourite tree?  Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles.  You can contact me at 613-256-2018, < >, or Neil Carleton, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0.  I look forward to hearing from you.

 My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee.  The contact for the Tree Working Group is Ron Ayling, 613-256-4617.  In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.

 Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with local shady characters.




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