Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Grizzly Bears at Brooks Falls

It was very interesting and sometimes entertaining observing the behaviour of the grizzly bears at Brooks Falls.  Some bears seemed to be frequently catching salmon either swimming in the river or jumping at the falls while other bears seemed less fortunate.  And there seemed to be an established pecking order among the bears who were all trying to catch enough fish to satisfy themselves and fatten up prior to winter.   When one bear caught a fish, there was another particular bear that would chase after him and try to intimidate him into giving up the fish.  It seemed that this "bully bear" would almost always succeed in getting the fish away from the bear who had actually caught it.  This bear may have been too big and fat to be catching his own fish, but he got plenty to eat nonetheless by harassing all the other bears.
The tougher bears took the best fishing locations at the top of the falls, and were willing to fight other bears to keep their position.  There were usually lots of bears in the water in front of us.   One evening there were 19 bears there at the same time.

Soon we found ourselves giving the various bears nicknames based on their behaviour.  We were particularly entertained by a bear that I labelled 'beggar bear', who would frequently approach a bear that had just caught a fish.  But unlike the 'bully bear', beggar bear would approach within a foot or two and put his paws and head on the surface of the water, and gaze at the bear eating the fish, hoping the other bear would share some of the catch.  This bear was never aggressive and I never saw him try to steal the fish. This approach apparently worked because we often observed bears saving a small portion of their catch for him.

Another bear seemed to always stay in the swirling waters and bubbles just below the falls, and we appropriately named him "jacuzzi bear".

I tried to get a photo of a bear catching a fish, just before he closed his jaws on it. but I never exactly manged to get the shot I had in mind.  It was about 2 weeks past the peak of the salmon run, and fish were not jumping very often.  

As the bears would devour the fish, several gulls were always wading just a couple feet away, waiting for the scraps.  On one occasion, a gull went up and pecked away a piece of a fish while a bear was eating it.  That was one brave gull. 

Visiting Brooks Falls was nothing short of amazing.  I had never been here before, and I wouldn't hesitate to return if given the opportunity.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Grizzly Sow with Cubs

Katmai National Park, Alaska

Camping five days at Brooks Falls provided some great photo opportunities, but I think Thursday was the best day of all.  We had seen a sow with four cubs on the beach Wednesday morning, but not in time to try to get in position for photos.  Since my main photo goal on this trip was bear cubs, I was determined to be on the beach again early Thursday to look for them.  We headed to the beach first thing the next morning before going up to the falls, and sure enough she was there again with her 4 cubs. 

Seeing a sow with 4 cubs is a pretty amazing sight by itself because usually they have just 2 or 3.  Having the opportunity to photograph them was like a dream.  The sun was not yet popping through the cloudy sky at 6:45am, so I was forced to use make some compromises on camera settings.  I was fortunate to still get sharp photos.  

We watched as the mother left the cubs to look for fish in the lake, always keeping an eye on them to guard them from any danger.  At one point another bear approached, and in the top photo above it is this other bear that the cubs are watching.   Bears have been known to attack and kill cubs if the mother leaves them unprotected.  I believe this particular bear was quite capable of protecting her new family, and when she stood on her hind feet, she showed us just how big she is. 


The cubs are really cute as they play around and discover more and more of the world around them, and they are a joy to watch.

Dancing Bears?

It was really entertaining watching the cubs stand on their hind feet to get a better look at their surroundings.    They look like they are dancing.  

The next post will explore grizzly bears catching salmon in the falls. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Brooks Falls - Katmai National Park

It's been a while since I've posted, but having just returned from 10 days of hiking and camping in several National Parks in Alaska, I finally have some material I feel is worth sharing.  After meeting my friend Ken Conger in Anchorage, we flew to King Salmon and then took a float plane over to Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park.   The flight itself on the float plane was a treat, as I had the privilege of sitting in the cockpit for the short hop down to Brooks.   It's a shame the weather was not good for photos that morning, but I did snap a few anyway, especially as we prepared to land on Naknek Lake.

I couldn't resist looking back and snapping a photo inside the plane before we took off, since I figure it will be while if ever before I am able to enjoy an experience like this again.  You can't help but notice the looks of excitement of the faces of everyone in this photo.

The float plane landing is remarkably smooth and this really surprised me. I thought there would be a thud when the plane began to touch down on the water, but in reality a water landing in this type of plane is smoother than a typical runway landing.

In only about 25 minutes, we were preparing to land on the lake.   We saw 5 grizzly bears on the beach as we made our  descent to the water.

After getting off the float plane we saw grizzly bears roaming the beach within about 100 yards of us.  To me this was a remarkable sight.  I have never been to Brooks Falls before, and if this was any indication of what was in store for the next 5 days, it was going to be great. 

Our first task was attending bear etiquette training, so that we would be prepared to act safely in case we came in close proximity to bears during our stay. Next, we would get our gear over to the camping area and set up our tents. We felt fortunate to have arrived at Brooks by 10am, because the visibility had been much worse in Anchorage earlier that morning. It was clearer in King Salmon where we got on the float plane.
After taking a few minutes to set up camp, we grabbed our camera gear and headed up to the falls, about 1.5 miles hike.    When we arrived at the falls, there were about a dozen grizzly bears there.  

[click on the image above to see a larger view]

In the next post, we'll take a lot closer look at the grizzly bears, including a sow and 4 very cute spring cubs that I photographed on Thursday morning.