What Wild Bears Do When We Aren’t Watching

Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) are an enigma. While undoubtedly the most powerful animal in the woods on Chichagof Island and wherever they roam they can also be the most shy. Their shyness is, I believe, linked to their intelligence and their intelligence results in personalities. Their personalities are where Brown Bears truly get truly interesting. It results in multiple survival strategies including where to choose to forage, den, and raise a family. They exhibit kindness, understanding, judgement, and aggression and the amount of those as a daily allotment is linked to the individual. There are “Grumpy Bears”, “Shy Bears”, “Angry Bears”, “Goofy Bears”, and so many more. All of these factors and opportunities for different behaviors are a draw for wildlife photographers like myself. However, regardless of how much we try to fool a bear with camouflage or make them trust us while we are in the field it is undeniable that we are impacting their behavior while we sit behind a camera. That link is so strong that a quick search will guide you to several articles supporting that bears alter their behavior around photographers. So what’s a photographer to do?

This Brown Bear stopped to take a break right in front of my camera trap. I love how the wide angle lens helps you take in the story of this bear and its surroundings!

In 2019, I built my first camera trap to get over the pesky alterations we can have to the behavior of wildlife as we make photos. That journey has snowballed significantly as I have learned more about what works and what doesn’t. In 2019 I set out a few goals for myself including documenting scent poles and “hot feet”. To work towards those goals in 2020 I sought to refine the technique from what I had learned and tackle my visions of the “perfect shot”. My goal isn’t to take pictures of bears, it is to see life through a bears eyes. I doubled my arsenal of camera trap gear by building a second housing as well as building a camera housing capable of being underwater and took to the field.

Scent Trees

If you walk along a bear trail for very long you are likely to find trees where they have rubbed and clawed. Often its apparent the tree has withstood the torture for many years. As bears have a notoriously good nose they rely on scent trees to communicate with other bears in the area. I hoped these hubs of bear behavior would offer lots of traffic and interesting interactions. I certainly learned a few things.

After leaving my camera in a few different rub trees, I discovered the trees I chose were not used as heavily as I hoped. I got some very candid shots but no photos of a bear actually rubbing on the tree. Due to that I think I partially failed in my mission because even the remote camera seemed to alter their behavior at the tree. I think the click of the DLSR inside the camera trap was enough to alter the bear’s behavior. This coming year I will be working to rectify that by either insulating the camera box to reduce noise or by investing in mirrorless cameras with silent shutters. That’s what I love about this project – always more to learn in the pursuit of what works best!

Mom and the Kids

Mother bears and their cubs are iconic in wildlife photography and cultures of many origins. They have the reputation of being fiercely protective of their offspring and being “as protective as a mama bear” is a phrase understood by almost anyone. This year I was fortunate to find a spot where a mother and its cub consistently used the same spot in the river. I have dozens of shots of these two, but only a few where each are in frame in a nice composition. I love the insight and context that I could add to their interactions by capturing them with a wide lens.

This mother bear and cub used this spot in the river consistently. It was a great insight into site fidelity.
I love the story of this image – a cub trails closely to its mother. As rivers attract many bears during the salmon run, not staying close could mean an unaccompanied encounter with another bear and that could be fatal.
As cubs get older they start to stray just a bit. I don’t see the mother in this shot, but I bet she isn’t very far away. The gulls in this image tell the story of salmon in the river as much as the bear does.

Impressionistic Shots

Gambling on 50mm

One of the reasons I built two camera traps this year was to expand my ability to take risks and be creative. With only one camera trap my mentality is “put it in a spot where I’m guaranteed a shot”, but a second one allowed me to put one in a spot where I “might get a shot”. In the second camera trap I mounted 50 mm lens which required significantly more planning in the shot prep because you have to anticipate where the bear will come out and how the shot will be composed. Not necessarily an easy thing as both nature and wildlife can be fickle! The 50 mm gamble ended up being a tough shot to get, however, I really like the “over the shoulder” feel you get from these images. Since 50mm mimics our vision it really feels like you are walking right next to the bear.

Up close and personal

There were many instances that my shots focused on some interesting aspect of the bears. Their claws, wet fur, and curiosity were fascinating to look at! These few images below are my favorites of dozens of images that featured only a small part of the bear.

Ambitions and Technology

My most ambitious project this year was to build a split-image housing that is also a camera trap. My goal was to photograph bears in the river holes snorkeling for salmon. I am very, very excited about the potential of the camera – after many trial and errors it worked flawlessly (and without leaking which ended up being a huge hurdle)! However, we had one of the rainiest summers in a many years this year and the high flows reduced the amount of time I could have the camera out – I was concerned about it washing away and I needed clear water in order to pull the shot that I had in mind off. These images are my best efforts this year, but I can’t wait to get back at in next year!

So now both you and I have a little bit better idea of what bears do when we aren’t looking. I can’t wait to continue to develop my camera trap technique, continue to document behavior, and bring you more stories of bears in nature. In the meantime, please remember to take ethical wildlife photography seriously. The animals is more important than your shot! If you want to delve more into the world of ethical wildlife photography please start by reading this article by my photography colleague David Shaw.

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