Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Bear Family - McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska

Continued from a previous posting...more images from McNeil River Sanctuary, the highest concentration of brown bears in Alaska. I’ve been posting these large dominant bears fishing and feeding at McNeil River Falls for the last few posts, now it's time to focus on bear families – sows with young cubs.

McNeil Falls is a premium fishing place for dominant males. Many sows with cubs tend to hang out at the lagoon away from large males where the McNeil River flows into the ocean. The Chum Salmon steadily swim up the current through the lagoon towards the spawning grounds.

During one of the days at the Sanctuary, a group of us were led by a guide and we waded across the creek. We walked along a narrow rocky shore under the cliff along the lagoon while the tide was low and hiked through the grassy hills to the falls. During the peak season of the salmon run, more than two dozen bears including multiple families spread across the lagoon to feast on their share of salmon. Those families with young cubs often stay at the narrow shoreline under the cliff – that’s the only pathway to the falls where we were hiked each day.

While mother bear fished for salmon in the shallow lagoon waters, the cubs curiously checked out the surroundings… playing, wrestling, and falling asleep in the sun.

As we were slowly walking under the cliff, a bear family was nearby and we hoped the family would move away. Another bear family with three spring cubs walked toward the family that we were watching. It made the mother bear nervous, so she turned around and headed in our direction followed by two cubs! 

They got closer and closer… as you can see in my photos. We were instructed to stand close to the cliff and not to move because any sudden movement could trigger the bear’s instinctive reactions causing an incident. They came very close… the mother bear was huge, almost the size of a car! I was frozen, every one of us seemed to stop breathing… then I heard the mother bear’s breathing and grunting, she walked right in front of us, only a few feet away! The cubs walked behind their mom and one of the cubs was very curious and approached us… Our guide shooed the cub away. The cub obediently turned to its mother as we just watched the family pass by as they marched into the meadows…

Another family is leaving in a different direction. All this excitement happened on our first day as we headed to the falls.

We saw the same bear family another day while traversing. The mother bear caught a fish while the cubs gathered around for the feast. They finished a whole salmon in just a few minutes.

As mother bear went back to the water for more fish, the cubs’ playtime resumed. Under the harsh midday sun, the back lighting was a photographer’s nightmare.

Here are another family with three small cubs playing in the grass.

Large bear action in the falls are always interesting, but I personally enjoy observing and photographing the sows with cubs.

I’ll update with more images from McNeil River Sanctuary on my next blog posting. Please check back in a few weeks!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Salmon Feast - McNeil River Falls, McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska

Continued from previous posting (took longer then expected...) I'm updating with new images of Alaskan brown bears.

During the summer season, as the Chum Salmon run peaks, a large number of brown bears gather at the McNeil River to feast. It is these calico-colored chum (or dog salmon) that attracts these bears in early July through mid-August to the remote Southwest Alaskan shore. The falls are located about a mile upstream from its mouth where a series of rocks and boulders form the McNeil River Falls. Salmon are slowed in their movements by the falls and they congregate there during their upstream migration to their spawning grounds. Since there are only a handful of rivers in the area with fish, bears congregate at McNeil River Falls in numbers that have brought McNeil River worldwide fame. I was fortunate enough to get a permit. The site of those large bears, some well over 1,000 pounds, at McNeil River Falls is extraordinary.

During the short salmon season, bears eat as much as 20 salmon a day to build up fat reserves for the long winter months ahead. Observing dozens of bears in close proximity with each bear having their own fishing style was obvious. Watching the bears catching salmon in their mouths is always exciting. With each successful catch it was also obvious that each bear had his or her own unique eating technique. Most bears like to carry their catch to the shore to devour.

After catching his fish, this handsome bear first shook some water off, then laid down in the shallow water to eat. He held the fish with its craws, ripped off and ate the skin, head, then roe - the nutritious rich parts of the salmon. He was actually taking time to enjoy his precious catch.

He kept coming back to eat in front of my camera! Doesn't he look like he's smiling? This bear reminded me of one of my signature images titled "Feast Time" from Katmai National Park from 2006.

This large rock in the middle of the river is a popular dining spot for the bears. Several bears feed in the small area while other bears wait for left overs and of course the noisy seagulls constantly flying overhead...

In the hot sun (Alaskan standard of course) this bear enjoyed "bathing" in calm water while casually snacking on his catch.

Younger or smaller bears often head off high up on the hill with their catch. Those larger dominant bears often steal meals from other weaker bears. This young bear climbs up seeking higher ground seeking sanctuary from other bears.

Tough bears like these large males catch his fish and eats at his fishing spot. He just stands in the rushing water, holding the flopping fish with one paw then chomps the head off for a quick bite in an artful performance. Soon after finishing his catch, he gets back to fishing, wasting no time.

Not all bears are skillful fishers, some are "beggars" that just stare at other bears feeding, slowly crawling closer and closer for a possible morsel. This bear just ignored the beggar and kept eating... Other bears get uncomfortable being watched and move out with their fish.

I was lucky to have beautiful sunshine for all four days at McNeil River Falls. The glacial water of the river was vibrant turquoise under the sun. However, the midday's harsh sunlight created shadows on the bear's eyes, and back lighting was too contrast. Overcast lighting may be better for wildlife photography. I have been spending extra hours on the computer to modify the contrast shadows. Nevertheless, capturing these special moments at McNeil River was a once- in-a-lifetime-experience. I will post more bear images on the next update, hopefully soon!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Bears Fishing - McNeil River Falls, McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska

In late July, I spent four full days at McNeil River Falls in the McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska to photograph bears. As the Chum Salmon run peaked, a large number of brown bears (grizzlies) congregated at the river for this big feast opportunity. The full river of salmon slows down at McNeil River Falls (more likely cascades rather than waterfalls). The falls are a premium spot for large male bears. Dozens of bears fish in the small area of the falls.

Each bear has his own unique fishing style - some bears stand right on top of the falls and wait for fish to jump or leap up. When fish successfully climb the few feet of the falls, hungry bears wait at the ready.

For several days this bear (a rare female ) stood at the same spot at the falls looking down the cascade. When a fish swam near her, she would quickly snatch it up! She was very skilled and caught more fish than any other bears in the area.

Some large males sit in the white water of a cascade, staring at the water until fish swam by.

This bear stood with three legs in the water with his left hind leg against the vertical surface of the rock. When fish passed by, he tried to thrust himself in the water... but it wasn't successful...

While most other bears fished patiently and methodical, this young bear tried another method of fishing. He leaped and pounced into the water, splashing, came up with nothing, shook off the water, and pounced again and again. It looked like a waste of energy in that method, but after many tries, he finally caught a fish.

This bear is "Snorkeling." He floats on the surface of water, keeps eyes underwater searching for fish swimming by.

This large male with a fresh deep scar, sat in the icy cold rapids for hours... he stares at the current, and when fish swim close by, he quickly dives and snatches it. He is one of the more skilled bears. He was staying at a rough deep part of the river with waves crashing on him time and time. I admired his endurance. I was happy to see him catch some fish. He didn't waste his time, he ate his catch at his fishing spot, in the rushing water.

Photographing bears has been my passion since I started nature photography... I have visited some amazing bear viewing locations, but I have never seen this many bears gathered at one spot! McNeil River Falls was truly magical.

Now back at home, I'm still editing thousands of images... I will keep updating with more bear images for my next posting. Please check back later!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

"River of Bears" - McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska

Photographing bears in their natural environment has been my passion since early in my career. I have visited some prime bear viewing areas before, but Alaska's McNeil River is truly outstanding!

The McNeil River Sanctuary is located in the remote wilderness on the Alaska Peninsula along the Aleutian Mountains just north of Katmai National Park & Preserve. McNeil River Sanctuary contains the highest concentration of brown bears (grizzlies) in the world during the peak season of the Chum Salmon run in early July through mid-August. As many as 80 bears congregate at the river. The area was designated as a wildlife sanctuary in 1967 and enlarged to a preserve in 1993. The sanctuary allows only 10 visitors per day for a four-day period with permits scarce and at a premium during the peak season.

I arrived at the McNeil Sanctuary in late July by seaplane. The area is truly remote where access is permitted by seaplane or boat and is without road access. The closest town is Homer on the Kenai peninsula, 100 air miles across Cook Inlet. As the flight approached the lagoon at McNeil River, I could spot a number of bears from the air.

McNeil Falls, the bear viewing spot, is about a 2 mile hike from the camp. An armed naturalist from the Alaska Fish and Game, led us to the falls. We were not allowed to leave the camp by ourselves. We were instructed to walk close together so that bears think we were one big animal instead of individual humans. Crossing the river mouth at the lagoon and waiting for bears to pass by, the 2 mile hike took us 2-4 hours. Approaching the McNeil Falls for the first time, I was amazed that two dozen large bears were standing in a tight spot!

Bear activity was everywhere! As large numbers of salmon continuously came up the river, bears energetically fish. 

Visitors are divided into two groups and sit closely together on the two gravel viewing pads. Bears often walk by within several feet of us. A large bear, the size of a small van it seemed, walked right in front of us and it was really intense, but no one has been injured or been killed since the bear viewing program in McNeil River began. Following strict rules, humans and bears have been coexisting in McNeil for over 50 years.

After a successful catch and quick devouring, it is back to fishing again.  My problem was figuring out which bear to photograph.

Fights can break off at any moment. Tensions among the bears was high.

McNeil Falls is dominated by large males whereas sows with cubs hang out at the river mouth and lagoon area. While the mother bear fishes in the lagoon, cubs play at the shore, sometimes not so far from us. We often stopped by the lagoon and had to wait for a bear family to pass by. Capturing the cubs playing with each other was one of the best parts of this trip.

During an intense 4 days at McNeil Falls, I shot several thousand photos... it took me a month to go through all of them, made some selections, deleted a bunch, and finally the post processing began. It'll take at least a few months to complete the entire work... I will slowly update my blog with new bear images.