Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Bear Fighting - McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska


Continued from a previous post, I have more bear images from the McNeil River Sanctuary in Alaska! I observed and photographed a large numbers of brown bears bears catching salmon in the Alaskan wilderness in July of 2017.

When fish is abundant at McNeil River, bears fish in close proximity, literally shoulder to shoulder. Those bears mostly ignore each other and focus primarily on catching and eating fish. However, fights do break out . . . possibly over a dispute of prime fishing spots or maybe just over personal space.

At the start of the fight, one bear slightly opens its mouth and starts roaring prompting a response roar… the two bears intensely stare at each other and continue the roaring for a few moments… 

One of them advances a little, most likely the other bear gives up and moves away without any actual physical contact. When a fight breaks out they are usually brief. They don’t want to waste a time and energy fighting over catching and eating fish. They just quickly go back to fishing as if nothing happened. During only a few weeks of the salmon season, they need to put on as much weight as possible for a long winter hibernation.

Meanwhile, at the calmer side of the river, these two young bears are play fighting. Starting with a playful roar then casually bite at each other.

Then the biting escalates to wrestling!

Unlike serious fights, the “play fight” lasts for several minutes…

These two bears repeated a series of play fights all afternoon. Play fighting is important to subadult bears to build their fighting skills and experience to be a future dominant bear or to protect their future young.

This subadult bear flees from a larger male.

Observing the large number of bears, I noticed many of the larger mature bears have plenty of scars on their bodies from previous fights. To grow into a large dominant bear the young bears must endure many years of survival.

I will post more bear images on the next blog… Please check back in a few weeks!


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!