Photographing the Kodiak Brown Bear cubs with Mama Bear was so much fun and yet frustrating at the same time. I would watch through the viewfinder, poised and ready to fire at just the right moment, with all three little heads poking out of the grass behind Mama Bear and all three cubs plus Mama Bear looking straight at the camera. That moment never happened. Not that I’m complaining. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, watching the interaction of the cubs with each other and with their mother. If I didn’t get a single photograph it was still an exceptional experience, one that I will not soon forget. But I did get lots of photographs of the mama bear and her three cubs. I mean LOTS of photographs. I already tend to be trigger happy with my camera when I’m in situations like we had on Kodiak Island because I get so excited. The Nikon Z9 lets me record a few more memories in a shorter time than I ever could get with any other camera I’ve had. And I didn’t always wait for the moment, I tried to anticipate the moment. Here is a shot that shows almost the moment I was waiting for, with four pairs of eyes, Mama Bear and three cubs, well, three and a half pairs of eyes, all looking in the direction of the camera. I never did manage to get the four bears looking directly at the camera at the same time. This was about as close as I got with two of the cubs looking at the camera and one cub and Mama Bear looking in another direction. A fraction of a second after this shot, Mama Bear rose and the scene completely changed.
A flock of hummingbirds is called a glittering, a hover, a shimmer, or a tune. They are all delightful descriptions that I think are perfect. However, I do not have a flock so I’m calling this single female Anna’s a Humming Dazzle.
The female Anna’s Hummingbird that seems to dominate the yard right now (no males in sight) is still vigilant at keeping other hummers away. At least one other female Anna’s and possibly a female Black-chinned check out the hummingbird mint, salvia, cigar plant, and petunias but don’t seem to get much time to taste before this one makes her presence known and chases them away.
My Nikkor Z800mmPF lens has arrived! I’m thrilled to have a super-telephoto lens back in my camera bag. It weighs only a couple pounds more than my 500mmPF and so it is easy to hand hold. And, while I did take a few practice shots hand holding the lens, I set it up on my tripod with my Zenelli Gimbal head so I could familiarize myself with it. The minimum focusing distance of this lens is 16 feet so when I set it up inside the patio door facing out, I’m ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. As luck would have it, there is a large pot of Hummingbird Mint just about 16 feet outside my patio door. The hummers love it and spend lots of time drinking from its many blossoms. An Anna’s Hummingbird, one of my favorite subjects, was destined to be the first subject taken with this wonderful new lens. With the rig set up the way it is, if I’m sitting at my kitchen table or working at the kitchen counter, I can easily see any hummer activity and quickly get to my already-set-up rig without disturbing any of the birds outside. There are two drawbacks to this set up, though. The first drawback is the weather. Sacramento summers are blistering hot but thankfully the mornings are usually bearable so I can leave the door open for a while then. The second is flies. One or two always find their way inside when I do this so when I stop shooting, I usually spend another half hour trying to outwit a housefly. It’s worth it, though. I know I’m going to love shooting with this lens.
An afternoon of munching on barnacles is likely what caused this Kodiak Brown Bear to stick out its tongue, trying to get all the grit out of its mouth. After watching the process for a while, it appeared that the bear scooped a mouthful of gravel and barnacle covered rocks, crunched and scraped the barnacles off, then spit out the residue. The barnacles must have tasted better than the gravel, rocks, and shells.
The rafts of Northern Sea Otters that we passed everyday floating in Mush Bay at the mouth of the Uganik River were always fascinating to see. Late one afternoon as we waited for the second skiff to get unstuck from a sandbar, we watched a small raft floating nearby. They looked like wizened little old men and perhaps these were older otters, with their grizzled appearance and constantly perplexed gaze. I didn’t notice any pups in the small group. It’s always fun to see and watch Northern Sea Otters. These were a bit more skittish than the otters we photographed in Homer a couple of years ago, perhaps because they have far fewer encounters with people in the remoteness of the Kodiak archipelago. Although the boat was continually moving up and down in the waves, the gimbal in the Nikon Z9 was up to the challenge. It never lost focus and never lost the subject’s eye.
I’m not sure who was more surprised, us or the Kodiak Brown Bear. We’d gone out after dinner one evening to search for the Mama Bear and her three cubs, an effort that proved elusive during first week on Kodiak Island. After waiting patiently for quite a while in our skiffs anchored on the shoreline at the place where the little family was usually seen, our guides decided they were not going to show up that evening. We headed back to camp. Eric, Javier, and I were in the lead boat with our guide Hiram. We had our cameras in our laps which we usually didn’t do but Hiram had a feeling that around the bend, there’d be a bear. Just as he said that, we rounded the bend and there it was to my right only about 15 yards away standing on the berm overlooking the river. I shouted, “and there’s the bear!” I managed to focus and get a few shots and suddenly another bear crashed through the brush behind the first bear just as the second skiff approached behind us. The second bear continued its path toward the water, splashed in and crossed the river behind the second boat. Then the first bear decided to get out of there and it, too, splashed into the river. Half way across, it turned and looked back at us with a quizzical look. We didn’t get to see Mama Bear and her cubs but still it was a great way to finish the day.
It does my heart good to report that Bobo, my Red-lored Amazon, has recovered from whatever had her in its grips for the past several months. After weeks of lethargy, constant sleep, a complete change in her eating habits, a couple of nights at the veterinary clinic, a lengthy regimen of antibiotics, and several more weeks with no improvements, she is suddenly Bobo again. She has returned to her old goofy, curmudgeonly self. Her trademark trail of chili peppers that for decades has marked her path, is back. The dish of raw baby carrots that has been ignored for months, is merely a pile of shredded orange bits now. My avian alarm clock has been rewound, to 6:00AM every morning, starting with a wolf whistle, then two, then four, then shrieks until I call back downstairs to let her know I’m at least awake. The buckwheat seeds which are the only seeds I’ve fed her for twenty years after converting her from an all-seed diet, are back on the menu. She is excited to start the day by touching the target stick for an almond reward (or several) while I read the morning paper on my iPad, something that she’d lost interest in doing while she was under the weather. She frequently visits the window seat (leaving a trail of peppers) to search for pine nuts placed in things she has to figure out how to open to find them. That’s a pine nut and bit of carrot in her beak. She has rekindled her interest in the bird-sitter video that has entertained and distracted her for years when I’m gone. She’s back! And I’m relieved.
There was just something about those big Kodiak Brown Bears that captured my heart. They are one of the most exotic creatures I’ve ever seen. Kodiak bears are a unique subspecies of the brown or grizzly bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi), the largest of these bears. They live exclusively on the pristine islands of the Kodiak Archipelago and as a result, they have been isolated from other bears for at least 12,000 years. The remoteness of the area we were in has also made their interaction with humans less common. They are big and they are exotic, but their actions make them seem familiar, friendly, and common. In many ways, their every day activities are so much like domesticated animals that it is sometimes hard to believe that they are wild. Watching this bear drink from a stream was exciting and amazing because we were able to get so close and because he was relaxed and doing something so common.
The three young Kodiak Brown Bear cubs were slightly different from each other but in the excitement of the moment, I didn’t take the time to memorize who was who. It was only after I had an opportunity to review the images more closely after I returned home that I could see the slight differences not only in the patterns and colors of their coats, but in the expressions on their faces. What they had in common was wide-eyed innocence. That was what struck me most. And complete and utter confidence that Mama Bear would protect them. Watching the cubs as they followed Mama Bear about and as they strayed away from her side was simply wonderful. Seeing how they watched their surroundings, then noticing that they ignored what was around them as they munched the nutritious grasses, was fascinating. They often wandered away and munched alone, like this wide-eyed cub did briefly. This was an experience I will not soon. forget.
The sun was setting about 8:30PM on our last evening photographing bears on Kodiak Island when this young Kodiak Brown Bear came up from behind, approaching cautiously. I thought the shimmer of its coat haloed by the setting sun was quite beautiful. I took a few photographs while he was still silhouetted. In less than a minute, he broke into a run and galloped quickly past us. Soon he was in full sunlight and we spent most of the next hour alternating between photographing him and photographing the bear we had begun to call Barnacle Bear. I dubbed this one my Goodbye Bear because he was the last Kodiak Brown Bear I photographed on this trip.
The euphoria of my recent trip to Alaska’s Kodiak Island is still with me. And, while there were many highlights during that two week visit, I have to admit that some of the most memorable moments involved Mama Bear and her three cubs. We were privileged to see and photograph them three different days and in four separate encounters. Each of those times gave us very different views of the life of a Kodiak Brown Bear family. The expressions on the faces of the cubs were so funny to watch and of course it’s easy to anthropomorphize when you have subjects that project so well. Their curiosity about what was going on around them made me laugh out loud but they were always quick to return to Mama Bear’s protection when they felt it was necessary.
Looks can be deceiving. This young Kodiak Brown Bear was not growling or threatening in any way. He was actually trying to dislodge bits of shell and rock that had stuck in his teeth. The gyrations of his jaw were necessary to continue consuming the barnacles that he was feasting on. The process of eating barnacles requires the bear to scoop mouthfuls of barnacle-covered rocks and inevitably some of the gravel surrounding them and crush the small shells to extract the live barnacles inside. It’s amazing to watch because the barnacles are so small, most under a half inch in diameter. If you look closely at the rocks under the bear, the small round barnacles are visible, clinging to the rock surfaces. I do not know the nutritional value of a small barnacle but it must take an awful lot to sate a 500 pound bear. On a couple of occasions, we watched this guy and another bear that we dubbed Barnacle Bear for hours grazing along the shoreline. The expressions they conveyed during this process were fascinating and could be easily misconstrued if you didn’t see what was actually happening.
The Kodiak Brown Bear cubs stuck close to Mama Bear much of the time. The grass, which was growing quickly, helped to keep them partially hidden. It was amusing to watch them as they grazed nonchalantly, then they would suddenly pop up to look around. In this shot, both Mama Bear and one of the cubs looked up briefly, then just as quickly, returned to grazing. It was nice to realize that they had accepted our presence and seemed not to feel threatened by us.
Mama Bear has just crossed a stream in the meadow. Her three cubs are out of view in this image, behind her on the other side of the water scrambling to keep up as she headed directly toward us. This was our second day with Mama and her cubs. She actually accepted our presence because our behavior told her we were not a threat. She was very attentive to her cubs, letting them forage but always seeming to know exactly where they were. The cubs knew it was safe with Mama and at the slightest uncertainty, they were at her side, staying there until it was safe to venture away again.
When it rains on Kodiak Island, the bears still eat and the photographers still photograph the bears eating. We were out in the rain for about an hour or so. It didn’t seem to bother the bears and it certainly didn’t bother us. We had white towels at the ready, stashed under our rain jackets, so we could dab the biggest drops off the cameras and off the front elements of our lenses. While it appears that this bear is in deep grass, a knoll between me and the bear makes it seem that way. However, the native grass, high in protein so the bears feed voraciously on it in the spring, had already grown several inches in the week we were there. It would likely be too deep in a week or two to safely watch the bears. They can disappear in the high grass so the timing of our visit was perfect. The rains would certainly contribute to a growth spurt.
During the first few days of our Kodiak Brown Bear adventure, the tides were so high that the grassy flats along the river were completely submerged. Last year we photographed the bears eating the grasses there. This year, we photographed Arctic Terns in the same place on day one. There birds were reflected in the water that looked green probably because the green grasses were submerged just a few inches below. Instead of debarking on the gravel edges of the river, we slogged through knee-deep water and climbed a ten foot berm overlooking the water covered flats. There were bears in the distance but there were also lots of terns, many of them perched on the logs that during lower tides serve as scratching posts for the big browns. I loved watching the interaction among the terns and the wavy reflections.
Mama Bear and her three cubs were heading home after a day spent at the beach. This is a rare capture from one of our several encounters with this Kodiak Brown family because all four bears are visible and distinct. It was so much fun to watch the family dynamic. We concluded that Mama Bear was a good mother. She kept her eye on her cubs and shepherded them to safety from the swift river current but let them roam and discover the world around them. The cubs seemed to know when it was time to go with Mom although one occasionally lagged behind, only to get some sort of signal and then scurry to catch up.
There were extremely high tides during the first week of our Kodiak Brown Bear adventure, somewhat hampering our access to bears. Much of the grassy flats where we successfully photographed bears last spring was under water during prime photography hours. Sometimes, when the tides went out, the water was so low we couldn’t make our way across the gravely sandbars. We did see bears during that first week though and some other critters as well, like those adorable Sea Otters. Rafts of Sea Otters greeted us each time we ventured out in the skiffs, watching us closely as we motored by and disappearing under water if we got too close. One evening when we were headed back to camp, the other skiff got hung up on a sandbar and it was going to take some time to extricate so Hiram, our guide, took advantage of the situation and Eric, Javier, and I had a few minutes to photograph a small group of Sea Otters. It was about 8:30 PM and the setting sun warmed the scene as this older Sea Otter floated nearby and seemed to ponder our presence in his waters.
Drinking water is such a normal thing. We do it every day. There’s nothing particularly exciting about drinking water. But watching a huge creature like a Kodiak Brown Bear drink water, raises this mundane normalcy to a new level. I watched this bear drink just for the sheer joy of watching this everyday activity in a new light. The bear’s fur shimmering, the droplets of water dribbling off its chin, the claws clamped tightly to the river’s edge. And of course I held the shutter release so that I have about 700 images taken in under two minutes. I gotta love that Z9! It was such an awesome experience to witness a Kodiak Brown’s everyday activities, accepting our presence and going about its business. I’m still recalling every moment of those two weeks on Kodiak Island with a broad smile and fond memories.