Monday, July 30, 2018

Sunset Moment - McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska

In July, Chum Salmon return to spawn at McNeil River and brown bears congregate at the river for an annual salmon feast.

It was exactly a year ago, I was at McNeil River Sanctuary to photograph brown bears catching salmon. It was late in the evening, almost 11pm, when the sun finally touched the horizon. After the long day of capturing bear action at the falls, I relaxed at the camp where warm orange lights painting the sky and distant Aleutian Range, when the drama started…

Several bears where strolling along the beach near the camp as usual. Suddenly I heard animals running back and forth… There was a bear family, mother and two cubs, playing on the beach just outside of camp. They were truly enjoying the moment. The cubs were over a year old, nearly as big as the mother, this would be the last summer to be with their mother.

A lone young bear approached the young cubs. The distance between young bear and the cubs got shorter… and they were almost touching! Usually the mother bear is very protective and normally would chase the strange bear away. However, to my surprise, the mother bear let the strange bear come to interact with her cubs! The ranger guides were also disbelieved of this rare occasion. The mother bear was just watching them play from a distance. The lone bear was as big as the two cubs. He or she must have been just kicked out by its mother.

Those bears were playing run and chase for a long time under the long-lasting sunset.

The sky and air turned to magenta. Slowly the darkness of the night descended upon McNeil River Camp. It was truly a magical moment.

My passion of photographing bears is still alive…

This is the last posting from McNeil River Sanctuary in Alaska.

In late May, I moved back to the mainland/lower 48 to Kent, Washington, south of Seattle. I lived in Hawaii for the past 2 years and finally made it to the northwest. I’ll be capturing the beautiful Cascade Mountains, the Pacific Coast, and wildlife in the Pacific Northwest. Please check back in 2-3 weeks!

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Queen of McNeil Falls - McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska

During the summer salmon run at McNeil River Falls, prime fishing spots are normally occupied by the large dominant males. But that is not always the case. A beautiful bear called Ivory Girl was a rare female bear fishing at the falls among the large males. Unlike most bears, Ivory Girl has stunning white claws on all four paws. She was a frequent visitor to the falls during my visit and had the best fishing skills!

Ivory Girl stood in the middle of a cascade at the falls, always facing downstream as she waited for fish to swim upstream. She stared intently at the rushing water waiting patiently for the salmon to swim within striking range. 

Ivory Girl's fishing technique was to allow the salmon to jump upstream and settle in a small pool where she would quickly snatch the fish with her powerful jaws. Ivory Girl preferred to eat the skin, brain, and eggs—the fattiest parts of a salmon—with so many fish available. She continuously caught fish after fish and was one of the best fishers at McNeil River Falls!

Here is Ivory Girl fishing among larger bears. Those male bears did not mind her presence, they just let her stay at the premium spot as long as she wanted.

Ivory Girl scratches her muzzle and back at the same time, at her resting spot near her fishing hole.

As for her sassy presence, or good fishing skills, Ivory Girl is one of the favorite bears for many visitors and guides. I could not help it but often focused on her during my visit.

Next posting will be my last story from McNeil River Sanctuary.  Please check back in 2-3 weeks!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Napping Bears - McNeil River Sanctuary, Alaska

In July, Alaska’s McNeil River Falls is busy with large brown bear (grizzly) traffic. Chum Salmon return to the McNeil River during a short period of time and so do a large numbers of bears that gather at the falls to feast. It is action packed at McNeil River Falls during the salmon season with over two dozen bears fishing, feasting, and occasionally fighting.

In the middle of the chaos some bears find time to take a nap! This large bear came down to the river, waded into the current, and climbed up on the rock in the middle of the river… then laid down. He fell asleep in about a minute.

The rushing water flows over the rock but he doesn’t seem to be care. He occasionally tosses and turns but still slept for several hours…

Meanwhile, other bears fish only a few feet away…

And some other bears are feasting right behind him…

He is still comfortably sleeping at the same spot. Looks like he is having a good dream…

After many hours, he finally rolled on his back, and lazily moved his legs… time to wake up.

Well, that bear wasn’t the only one napping in the middle of the fishing scene.

This handsome bear fell asleep at the spot where he fished and ate, in the calm water right above the falls.

Even a large dominant bears look cute and cuddly while sleeping.

This large bear finished fishing for the day and came up from the river, then laid down right by the gravel pad where a group of us were sitting! He was comfortably taking a nap only a few feet away from humans! The ranger guide assured us he was fine. The guide knows many of the individual bear's comfort zone… What an experience having that large bear, the size of a van, sleeping right behind us!

I still have many bear images from McNeil River Falls, maybe 2 more posts? Please check back in 2 week!

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!