The number of high quality images both my clients and myself took in the first week of August 2013 continues to stun me, in a good way. Every time I open Lightroom to go over the images I keep finding another keeper that I need to process. Spending 2 full days at my favorite creek (I will share it with you when you book a trip) was the ticket for success on action shots. Here I just wanted to post a small slideshow of charging/diving bears. I estimate I have over 40 publishable images in excellent focus with great action. One of the benefits of this creek is we line up on one bank, and the bears are right across from us on the other. Luckily the fish are in between allowing us to get great shots, often coming right at us, as the bears dive for fish. It also allows for great "broadside" action if the bears are up or down river from us. Next year I'm bringing some tilers knee pads as I found the best POV was when I was kneeling in the water; good thing the lodge provides chest waders. This is just a few and hope you enjoy.
Well, both my clients and I had some wonderful bear shooting in Katmai National Park from August 1 through August 4 this year. We visited 3 different locations, Little Koo, Margot Creek, and we went to Morraine Creek twice. All had bears, the most activity was at Morraine but Margot has beautiful backgrounds to enhance your images. The weather was typical SW Alaska weather, highs in the upper 50’s low 60’s with some wind and rain. Cloudy every day; some day I will photograph bears in the sun in SW AK but not in the last 3 years. We did not visit Brooks this year as I planned the trip for later. By August 1 there were only a couple bears left which is what I expected. Brooks is still a fantastic place to go but timing is everything when it comes to fish running and the bears that follow. Both Rex and Ginna Short, and Clay and Carla Smith were happy enough with their images they were willing to share them with me for this site. So my first post will just include a couple of my images but many more of theirs. I attend workshops and training myself, and I thought you might be even more interested in what the attendees took than I so have a look at these wonderful shots from the brown bear capital of the world, Katmai National Park. All of the photos in the slide show below are from my guests. I'll be posting more of mine later and on my facebook page.
Coastal brown bears are one of the largest land carnivores in the world with males weighing up to 1500 lbs. On average polar bears are larger but the largest bear ever weighed was an Alaskan brown bear over 1800 lbs. This guy is probably a mere 1000 lbs, and will probably be 200 to 300 more after the salmon season.
This sow is probably just over 500 lbs while her 2 cubs are near a 100 lbs at 14 - 16 mos old.
How large do Coastal brown bears get?
The size of course depends on the age and the sex of the bear. A brown bear male (also known as a boar) is usually fully grown at 8 years old, and gains about 100 lbs a year from 3 to 8. His final weight will be from 800 - 1000 pounds, but brown bear males over 1500 pounds have been measured. A female (aka sows) usually stops growing at 5 years old and weighs about 350 -500 pounds midsummer. Both the male and female can easily gain a couple hundred pounds from early summer to late fall when they go into hibernation. An interior brown or grizzly boar could range from 500 up to 700 (but that's very large) and a female will be from 3 to 500 lbs.
Why are the Coastal Brown Bears larger?
The larger predictable supply of the vegetation and berries growing along the coast helps, but it’s primarily the salmon diet that helps them attain and keep a large size. Not only are coastal brown bears up to twice as large as inland browns, their populations are up to 10 to 20 times denser than interior populations, another facet based on the abundance of food. Females tend to have larger litters and are more successful at raising them. The predictable supply of the high fat/protein salmon diet gives them a tremendous ability to succeed.
At an average of 4000 calories per fish stored, this is when the coastal brown bears really put on the weight, eating from 10 to 50 fish/day
When do the bears begin to eat the salmon?
The answer to this is easy, but not exact. It's as soon as they can! Bears seem to have an uncanny knack for knowing when the salmon begin to run and will show up within a few days, often congregating at shallow spots along the creek where it is easier for them to catch the fish. Depending on the geographic location in either Katmai or Lake Clark National Parks, salmon may be available as early as late June or as late as August-September in other areas.
How many salmon does a bear eat a day? Do they eat the whole
The short answer to both questions is it depends. How many salmon they eat depends how many they can catch, and how large of a bear they are. If the salmon are numerous and each bear can catch the number of salmon they want, they will catch somewhere between 10 and 20 a day, but large males have been seen catching and eating as many as 50.
Each salmon is roughly worth 4,000 calories in entirety, and 20,000 calories ingested a day is common. In the height of a salmon run, bears are estimated to gain from 2 to 4.5 lbs in fat a day. That’s very important for that winter hibernation period. If the salmon numbers are high, and the bear is skilled at catching fish (something they get better at with age), bears are known to switch to just eating the fatty parts of the fish. Fat has twice the calories of protein, so it's possible to see a bear just eat the brains, the skin, and the eggs if it's a female salmon. They may lay that carcass down and then go get another. Although you may consider that wasteful, nature won't allow it and the red mass of protein will be utilized later by less skilled bears, cubs, or even other species such as bald eagles, gulls, magpies, or even other fish like the dolly varden that follow the salmon.
This large bear is skinning the just caught salmon. When the fish are really running in large numbers some good fishing bears may only eat the skin, roe (eggs), and brains. The rest does not go to waste however, and the waste is quickly devoured by less skilled fishing bears and/or eagles and trout waiting near by.
Before I start this particular blog (or chapter may be more appropriate) I think it's important to point out that the life of a bear could be defined as a race. Each year is a race to put fat on before there is no food and the bear must hibernate. When they enter hibernation they have to count on the fat reserves they were able to store over summer. If there is not enough fat they could die during hibernation, or during the following spring before the summer growing period starts.
A female will only produce cubs if she has enough fat reserves when she goes into hibernate. Years of poor vegetation growth or salmon runs are followed by years of little to no cub production. A study of Katmai brown bear females found that they averaged losing 150 lbs when hibernating (approximately 30 to 40 % of their fall weight), most of which was fat. They need to get all of that back each year.
The questions below are one's I commonly receive so I put this blog in a question and answer format. I hope you enjoy reading it!
What do bears eat?
Coastal brown bears have access to 4 different food groups: 1) vegetation, 2) clams and other intertidal invertebrates, 3) berries, and 4) the food item they are most associated with, salmon. Vegetation is the most available, and green areas along the tidal zone appear first (as early as May 15). These early green ups are critical for bears emerging from dens that have lost so much weight.
What type of vegetation do the bears eat?
They won't graze on all the plants but brown bears have been recorded eating over 200 plant species so they are probably much more herbivorous than you thought. Goose tongue and arrow grass are some of their favorites in the Lake Clark National Park area.
The vegetation itself benefits from it's coastal location. First, the warming effects (just above freezing is warm for coastal Alaska in April-May) allow these zones to be the first ice free areas and the plants begin to grow. Second, each time the area is flooded with high tides it's essentially fertilized from nutrients in the water from the ocean. The slow retreat of the tide allows the vegetation to capture additional large particulates that adds important nutrients. A high tide essentially fertilizes the vegetation, and the bears take advantage of the extra growth and essential nutrient the plants provide.
Do bears digest vegetation as well as a cow?
Even though they seem to graze like cattle, bears are not near as efficient as extracting calories and nutrients from vegetation as a cow. One research model predicted that a brown bear must eat for at least 12 hours and ingest 20 lbs to just maintain it's weight This large amount of forage is necessary partly because of their poor ability to digest vegetation and partly due to their large size. There have been numerous studies with conflicting results on how bears fare as herbivores, which is the most common part of their diet when salmon are not available. Interior bears may eat up to 90% vegetation in a season, but most coastal bears switch to more nutritious salmon when they begin to show up. Most studies found emerging coastal brown bears continue to lose weight after hibernation at least until the vegetation green up occurs in Mid May. Most scientists estimate they maintain the weight after the green up by grazing, with maybe some minor weight gain. It's obvious that coastal brown bears must have access to more nutritious sources to put on weight, and reach their large size. As a fellow photographer I know the frustration of following grazing brown bears that seemingly never lift their heads. And Murphy always rules as their head seems glued down when you get that rare sweet light. I do ask however that you remain patient and not disturb the grazing bears. All that effort they are putting in for up to 12 hours just to maintain weight is a lot, and we don't want to negatively affect them by scaring them and reducing that valuable grazing time. They will pick that head up, just be ready!
Berries can be important very early or late in their active season. The high sugar content can be crucial to provide the extra fat, especially after the salmon run, that bears need as they near the end of their race to regain weight in late fall. Key berries in Katmai and Lake Clark that brown bears consume include blue berries, salmon berries, elder berries, and nagoon berries. Berry crops not eaten the fall before also may provide forage just after hibernation if not covered by snow and ice.
Are the bears really clamming out at low tides?
You bet! Along the coast, many bears will hunt for the clams uncovered during low tides. The majority of clams eaten on the Alaskan coast are Pacific razor clams. Studies of Alaska bears found they like razor clams, soft shell clams, and a few types of molluscs, and polychaete or tube worms they find in the sand. They probably use all of their senses to find them as they walk around with their nose close the ground. Smell, vision, and even feeling the clam move though it's paws make them so successful. A study where bears were observed clamming on 233 days over a 3 year period found that the average bear ate a clam almost each minute it foraged. Many ate from 50 to 100 in the short periods the tide was low enough. Researchers found some bears are right or left pawed, but I've seen the same bear use both. How they break and extract the clam from the shell can be different between bears as well. Clams are only available for a few hours and only about 15 days a month when the tide is low enough to expose them so not all bears use them. However, they provide another important pre salmon food source, which contains 3 times the amount of protein as a similar amount of vegetation. One study found that a brown bear that ate 50 - 100 clams in a couple hours was able to reduce it's necessary grazing time by 25%. As I mentioned above, this valuable time could allow her to add more fat, and be more successful in making sure she can make it through the winter.
Why don't more bears make use of the clams that are exposed during low tides?
That is an excellent question and not one easily answered. Observations of clamming bears throughout the coast discovered 2 key points, sows with cubs are seen clamming more than you would expect based on their numbers, and large boars are rarely seen on the beach. In fact, in the study above, 45% of the bears observed were females with cubs, and 55% were "unidentified gender and smaller (< 500 lbs) bears". Why large boars don't frequent beaches given the higher protein content is unknown. Some scientists hypothesized that because of their large size, the energy required to walk that far for a smaller amount of food may not be worth it for a large boar. Why females with cubs are found more seems fairly easy to explain. First, lactating females need more and richer foods, as do their rapidly growing cubs. Second, for a Mother bear to find an area to forage where the main cub predator, large boars, is absent makes life easier on them.
I've posted over 70 new images I took on the Katmai 2012 trip. You can view them just under the description for the 2013 Katmai trips to see what kind of opportunities await. Or you can click here to see them on Flicker but note I keep the size of images small due to photo theft so if you enlarge them too much they won't maintain their quality. Drives me crazy but I've had one photo stolen and don't want it to happen again.
The Katmai workshop was a complete success. With 2 days at Brooks and 2 days at different fly out locations we all have more images to edit than time allows. I've gone from 2,600 to 600 to 200 images and still going. I'm sure I'll have at least 100 high quality publishable images from this trip. Brad and Phillip at Katmai Adventures were great hosts and we had no problems flying out every day, with each participant getting to sit in the copilot seat a couple times. The bears were fantastic, with at least 10 different individuals seen each day. The max I counted was 20. Brad asked me to try and bring 2 groups back next year so those dates will be posted soon. I want to thank each of the participants; Dixie, Denny, Kathleen, and Rebecca for being "troopers" and excellent photo companions.
Please check back as I have many more photos from this trip and other photo trips to post from this summer.
Good question, the easy answer is both. Both the large bears you will see in Alaska and the smaller bears you might have seen at Yellowstone are not only the same species, but the same subspecies, Ursus arctos horribilis. The brown bears found on Kodiak are considered a different subspecies, primarily because of some differences in the skull. In general, bear biologists and those interested in bears tend to call the bears in Alaska brown bears, and those found in the Northern Rockies of the United States and Canada Grizzlies. The term grizzly comes from the silver tipped hair of the bears in the Rockies.
However, based on sizes, diet, and home ranges some biologists have recommended designating 3 groups of brown bears whose ranges are mapped below. The 3 groups described from studies of 25 different populations were the Coastal, the inland, and the barren ground brown bears. In Alaska, both in Katmai and Silver Salmon Creek, you are seeing the Coastal Brown, the largest of any of the brown bears found in North America or the world. There are large coastal brown bears in the former Soviet Union in Kamchatka as well.
(From Effect of energy availability, seasonality, and geographic range on brown bear life history by Steven H. Ferguson and Philip D. McLoughlin; Ecography, Copenhagen, 2000.)
This is a list of clothing I suggest from 10 years of Alaska summer visits.
In Alaska, even during summer, we most likely are going to have some tough weather. Rainy days are common, but it's usually more of a drizzle than a pour. It also can get cold and/or windy so you need to be prepared. At Katmai Adventure Lodge in King Salmon, Brad will provide chest waders which will help with wading, rain, and warmth. But this is a list of items (with some explanations) that I find helpful to make my trips comfortable. If you have the right gear, rough weather won't dampen your attitude and the bears will keep your interest, not the cold conditions. I don't want to scare you, and I think we will have a couple warm sunny days, but if it's rough I want you to be able to enjoy yourself. Count on temperatures from the 50's to low 70's, although Alaskans start dying of heat exhaustion much over 70. Average temp in the mountains around King Salmon are mid 50's to low 60s. Remember we will be where the bears are, and that's near water so count on a cooler breeze
BOOTS - Even though Brad has waders you will want good boots if you go outside the lodge. We won't need waders at Brooks Falls but you won't want to walk around in tennis shoes. They don't need to be irrigation boots, but something that will keep your feet dry if it's raining or you are walking through wet grass, which we will be doing.
WOOL SOCKS - Wool socks, a pair for each day. I prefer merino wool (packs smaller and lighter), and the lighter "undersocks" can help keep your feet dry.
HAT - A rain-proof hat is a must, but if you get a floppy one, remember that you still need to look through your view finder. I usually bring one weather proof stocking cap, an oil skin ball cap, and I make sure I have a hood on my rain coat.
GLOVES - Gloves can be handy but make sure you get a pair light enough that you can feel and manipulate your camera accessories. There are few things more aggravating than finding a perfect shot and not being able to operate the shutter.
RAIN GEAR - A good rain coat and rain pants. Gortex is the material of choice, but purchase or borrow the heaviest you can. I pack "rubber fishing gear" pants for when the days are rough, but with waders these are not required. Your rain gear should be larger than normal to fit over the several layers that I'm going to suggest later.
PANTS - I have a couple pair of heavy weight pants (insulated) from Cabelas that are "weather proof". Wool is nice but it can be tough to dry and will shrink eventually, even if you buy the non shrink wool. I've given several of my "non shrink" wool clothes to my wife.
UPPER LAYERS - I suggest bringing a couple nice long sleeve t-shirts (I have found the $45 for turtleneck Under Armor shirts worth it). I also bring one set of heavy "long john's" or underwear for extra cold days. For a 4 day trip bring at least a couple heavy shirts (wool or flannel), at least one fleece, and a wool sweater. Remember, all of this should fit under your rain gear.
For around the lodge I usually bring heavy weight sweat pants and a sweatshirt...not an AZ running suit. You will find yourself cold and uncomfortable.
INSECTS - They will be there and you will find you take real liking to wind as it blows the mosquito's away. Brad will have plenty of bug spray and bug netting, but I'd still bring a small bug spray for you in your day pack.
All this warm clothing results in an overstuffed bag. I can go to Hawaii in an overnight bag, but I'll use a wheeled duffel bag for AK. We won't have any weight restrictions to or from King Salmon, but remember to keep your bag under 50 lbs unless you like giving airlines your money. I will let your vanity decide how many shirts, pants, etc. you decide to bring. Some of the above items can be found at used clothing stores BUT DON'T SKIMP on your rain gear.