Cubs’ Play

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Coastal Brown Bear cubs play with each other.  They play a lot.  Well over one-half of the images I made of Brown Bears are of cubs at play.

We saw the same behavior again and again during our days observing the bears.  A mother and her cubs would be foraging or on the move from one location to the next.  Suddenly, one of the cubs would challenge another to wrestle or play fight.

The challenge invariably would be accepted and mock combat or some other form of play ensued.

Cubs’ play is physical, it is intense, and at times, it seems to be extremely violent.

The cubs choose almost any available venue as a playground.  Playing in water is just as acceptable as playing onshore.

As violent as their play appears to be, no one ever seems to get hurt.  The cubs have unwritten rules governing their mock combat.  They never use their claws — fearsome even on a yearling cub — to inflict scratches or wounds.  And, although the cubs appear to bite each other during play, the biting is feigned.

Play burns a lot of calories but the very well nourished cubs that we observed seemed to have calories to spare.  They certainly didn’t lack for energy.

Why do they do it?  Biologists studying bears don’t know.  Some speculate that play prepares the cubs for the physical challenges that they’ll face later in life.  Others think that play’s purpose is to build muscle, improve conditioning, and sharpen coordination.

Personally, I think that while bear cubs may benefit from play, they don’t understand any reason for playing other than that it is fun.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting.  First image shot at ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/1000.  Second image shot at ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/640.  Third image shot at ISO 800, f8 @ 1/1000.  Fourth image shot at ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/1000.  Fifth image shot at ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/2500.  Sixth image shot at ISO 500, f 7.1 @ 1/1000.  Seventh image shot at ISO 800, f8 @ 1/1000.

Alaskan Brown Bears, Part IV — Foraging

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What do Coastal Brown Bears eat?  A short and not entirely flippant answer is: anything that they want to. Although these bears can capture and kill prey, they are omnivores, eating both plant and animal material.

The bears that we observed foraged on two types of food consisting of beach grasses and clams.  The area we visited included a sea of grass extending inland from the shoreline for a substantial distance.  For the bears these grasslands were one gigantic salad bar.

We watched as the bears grazed almost nonstop.  According to our guide an adult bear may consume 30 pounds of grass or more each day.

Grass is of poor nutritional value and, although the bears can digest it to a certain extent, it does not provide them with necessary fat and protein.  To obtain that, the bears must eat animal material.  At Lake Clark, clams supply the bears with vital nutrition.

The tides along the Cook Inlet are big, rising and falling several feet each day.  Low tide exposes enormous mud flats that  cover  an expanse of hundreds of yards in depth from the high tide mark to the waterline.  Millions of Razor Clams bury themselves in this mud, sometimes as much as two feet beneath the surface.  The bears have learned to dig these clams from their muddy homes.  Each day at low tide bears walk out onto the mud flats and dig for clams.  Mother bears always are accompanied by their cubs.  Older cubs eagerly dig for clams along with their mothers.

Here, two third-year cubs begin digging.  Notice that although these cubs are twins, one of them is much larger than the other.  That is not uncommon among bear cubs.

The mud on the flats is thick and gooey.  It adheres to everything.  The cubs become covered with the stuff as they dig.

They not only don’t seem to mind, but like young children everywhere, they seem to revel in their muddiness.

Digging for clams sometimes requires a long reach.  This cub has its foreleg buried in mud up to his or her elbow.

As the cub reaches for the prize it looks around suspiciously, wanting to make certain that a sibling doesn’t sneak up and grab the clam.

With the prize attained, the cub reacts to an approaching bear.  No worries in this case, the other bear expressed no interest and the cub was able to eat in peace (the clam is visible by the cub’s left fore foot).

The bears harvest clams by the bushel.  These animals’ prodigious appetites enable them to pack away huge amounts of food when the opportunity exists.  As the summer progresses native fruits and berries ripen and the bears shift their focus to eating those plants.  In early autumn they will fish for salmon as they spawn.  Salmon are the grand prize for the bears.  They are rich in fat and protein and eating them enables a bear to pack on quite a bit of weight in preparation for winter dormancy.

The first image made with a Sony RX100-3, aperture priority setting, ISO 320, f7.1 @ 1/160.  All other images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting.  The second image shot at ISO 400, f8 @ 1/640.  Remaining images shot at ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/800.

Alaskan Brown Bears, Part III — Motherhood

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Brown Bears are solitary animals.  They don’t rely on each other for companionship.  The adults don’t willingly associate with each other although they will sometimes gather at a food source.   That aside, the adults’ interactions are confined to breeding and occasional fights between boars competing for territory and mates.

The exception to this rule is the bond between cubs and mother bears.  Sows are devoted mothers, caring closely for their offspring until they are about three years of age.  Mother bears and their cubs travel, eat and sleep together, and even when the cubs are more than two years old, they don’t wander too far away from their mothers.

Brown Bears frequently produce twins and occasionally triplets.  We saw several pairs of twins and one set of triplets.  The yearling cubs in this first picture belong to a sow nicknamed “Agro.”  We would encounter this family often over the four days that we photographed at Lake Clark.

All of the cubs that we saw, including Agro’s cubs, were well-nourished.  It was obvious that the mothers were doing an excellent job caring for them.

The cubs learn by emulating their mothers.  The mothers took them along as they foraged.  On several occasions we watched sows and their cubs digging for clams.

One evening we watched a sow take her third-year twins for a swim.

The cubs nurse until they are more than two years old.  They continue to nurse occasionally even after they’ve begun foraging for food.  The youngest cubs, cubs born this year, are known as “spring cubs” or “cubs of the year” (“coys”).  They are far more dependent on mother’s milk than are older cubs.  One evening we watched a sow known as “Crimp Ear” (she has a deformed left ear) nurse her first year cubs.  She lay down, exposed her breasts, and allowed her cubs to suckle.  For a couple of minutes she appeared to be the picture of maternal contentment.

However, once she decided that the cubs had had enough, Crimp Ear simply rolled over and brushed the still-nursing cubs away with her forepaw.

She then watched, seemingly indulgently, as her cubs complained bitterly about having their feeding terminated.

Tomorrow, I’ll post some images that reveal another aspect of these bears’ behavior, their foraging.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting.  The first image shot at ISO 400, f8 @ 1/1000.  The second shot at ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1250.  The third shot at ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/800.  The fourth through sixth images shot at ISO 800, f7.2 @ 1/500.

Alaskan Brown Bears, Part II — Sows And Boars

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We encountered several adults during our four-day photoshoot.  Adult male bears are called “boars” and adult females are called “sows.”  The basis for this terminology, which uses the same appellations as applies to pigs, is utterly beyond me.

The differences between male and female Brown Bears are instantly apparent.  For one thing, the males are much larger than the females.  An adult male often exceeds 700 pounds whereas a female may weigh from about one-half to two-thirds that amount.  The males are invariably solitary.  And, they are often are heavily scarred as the result of fights with other males or hostile encounters with unreceptive females.

This boar, which we were to see more than once, is a giant compared to the other bears that we encountered.  My first reaction upon seeing him was that he resembled a fur-covered SUV.  His enormous head and shoulders instantly distinguish him from female bears.

Sows, of course, aren’t exactly delicate flowers.

But, nonetheless,  they appear positively petit when compared with the big males.  That’s all relative, of course.  The sow depicted in the second and third images almost certainly weighs over 400 pounds.

The sows that we saw had more attractive coats than had the males and definitely appeared to be plumper relative to their overall size.  Boars lead a tough life, punctuated by battles.  Their existence is more nomadic than that of the sows.  Their primary role is to breed with females and there is fierce competition among the boars for that opportunity.  Females will reject a boar’s advances if they aren’t ready, and rejection can be violent.  The boar pictured below shows the many battle scars that he has picked up along the way.

This sow, by contrast, is unmarked.

And, unlike the boars, this last sow seemingly had time for reflection.

The sows that we observed invariably were accompanied by their cubs.  Tomorrow, I’ll post some images of mothers with their cubs and discuss these bears’ maternal lives.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting.  First image, ISO 1000, f10 @ 1/250.  Second image, ISO 1250, f7.1 @ 1/250.  Third image, ISO 400, f8 @ 1/400.  Fourth image, ISO 400, f7.1 @ 1/320.  Fifth image, ISO 500, f7.1 @ 1/640.  Final image, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/800.



Alaskan Brown Bears, Part I

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Over the next couple of weeks or so I am going to depart from this blog’s usual format to publish images and text about a trip that I made to the shores of Alaska’s Cook Inlet during the first week of July to photograph Coastal Brown Bears and other wildlife.  For me, it was one of the more thrilling experiences of a lifetime.  I came home with thousands of images from which I have extracted more than two hundred of the best.

In order to visit these animals I traveled with a group of photographers as part of a tour organized by Aaron Baggenstos of Aaron’s Phototours.  He was a superb team leader and guide and our trip was exceptionally well planned and led.  I’m the guy in the orange rain jacket in the image below.  Aaron is third from the left.

The bears live in Lake Clark National Park, on the shores of the Cook Inlet, about 150 miles southwest of Anchorage.  It is not possible to get there by automobile.  We flew in and out by bush plane.  Our principal plane, a DeHaviland Beaver, seemed to be nearly as old as I am.  However, it functioned perfectly, and the flights were quite comfortable even if the noise level inside the plane was deafening.

Over the course of four days of intense photography the members of our group were in close proximity to bears.  There were times that we stood so close to them that we could hear them eat and there were several instances in which a bear approached to within 15 feet of our group.

I’ve always been fascinated by large predators and Coastal Brown Bears are about as big as they get.  Brown Bears may be found throughout the northern hemisphere and all of them, from Europe to North America, belong to the same species, Ursus Arctos.  There are numerous subspecies of these animals.  North America’s Grizzly Bears and Alaska’s Coastal Brown bears are different subspecies, but they are close cousins.

These animals can attain immense size with males in some subspecies weighing well over 1000 pounds.  The bears that I observed are a bit smaller than that, but still huge, with the adults weighing upwards of 700 pounds.

We observed these bears foraging, sleeping, and playing on a coastal plain that included a vast expanse of grass and a tidal zone that became an immense mudflat at low tide.

Brown Bears have a fearsome reputation as predators, and publications and the internet abound with stories of bears vs. human attacks.  A staple of romantic literature about the Old West is the tale of the attack on a hunter or trapper by a grizzly bear.  Every year we read stories about hikers and cyclists who fall victim to these animals.  Given that, how could we venture so close to these animals and walk away unscathed?

I think that the answer to this question has more than one element.  First, and foremost is the fact that the Lake Clark bears are very familiar with humans.  Bears aren’t hunted there.  People have come to the area to observe the bears for decades and so, the animals are inured to humans’ presence.  Furthermore, we offered nothing of interest to them.  We were strictly forbidden to carry food into the field.  The bears, on the other hand, had an abundant food supply consisting of the grass that grows densely near the shoreline and clams at low tide.  Moreover, nothing that we did interfered with the bears’ activities.  Although we stood close to them, we never cut off their lines of travel and never interacted with them.  We stood quietly, talked in low tones, and made no sudden movements.  Although the bears certainly were aware of our presence they ignored us.

Over the four days that we photographed these bears we saw them engage in a wide variety of behaviors and activities.  We photographed bears of all ages, from older adults like the ones pictured above to cubs ranging in age from a few months to three years.

My plan over the next week or two is to post about all of the aspects of bear life that we witnessed.  I will post images of male and female bears, of mothers and cubs, of cubs playing, and of bears foraging.  And, I’ll post images of other wildlife that we saw and photographed.

The second image made with a Canon 5Diii, 70-200mm f4 L  zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 400, f7.1 @ 1/320.  All other images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting.  The third image shot at ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/1000.  The fourth image shot at ISO 500, f7.1 @ 1/800.  The fifth image shot at ISO 400, f6.3 @ 1/640.  The sixth image shot at ISO 800, f8 @ 1/1250.  The final image shot at ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/2500.



Fledgling Vermilion Flycatcher

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Back in April I posted about a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers, male and female, at Fort Lowell Park near our Tucson home.  The little flycatchers appeared to be in love.  I’ve gone back to the park periodically, hoping to find a nest or fledgling birds.  I had no luck until a couple of weeks ago.

I was in the park when I spotted the male, sitting on one of his favorite perches.

The male was, as usual, patrolling his territory.  He’d sit on his perch for a minute or so, fly off in search of insects to capture, and then either return or land on another perch a few yards away.  I concentrated on photographing him.

But, after a couple of minutes, I noticed a second bird sitting on a chain link fence a few yards away.  The second bird seemed to be shadowing the adult male, following it around.  My first reaction was that this was a female flycatcher, probably the male’s mate.  But, there was something unusual about this second bird’s behavior.  It wasn’t a very sophisticated flier.  It kept trying to squeeze through the openings in the fence, which were just a hair too small to allow the second bird passage.  After a minute or so of this, it gave up and flew to a different perch, again just a few yards from where the male was perching.  I took the opportunity to photograph it.

I believe this to be a fledgling bird, probably one of the male’s offspring.  Female Vermilion Flycatchers lack the males’ brilliant red plumage, but they usually have pale yellow or orange breasts and abdomens.  This little flycatcher is lacking that plumage, suggesting that it is sporting a fledgling’s feathers.

I also suspect that it is a fledgling bird from its behavior.  Its clumsy attempts to squeeze through fence openings are the sort of thing that fledgling birds do.  There is a learning curve for fledglings and they go through a period after leaving their nests when they are extremely naive, just like all youngsters who are one their own for the first time.  The fact that it was hanging around the male also suggests that it is a fledgling.  Young birds often continue to get fed by their parents for a few weeks after fledging.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII lens+1.4x telextender, M setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1250.

Mississippi Kite In Cochise County

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The other day I posted some images of a relatively uncommon bird — a young Gray Hawk making the transition from juvenile to adult plumage.  Today, I’m posting images of something that is much more uncommon, at least in southern Arizona.  This is a Mississippi Kite.

Mississippi Kites are hawk-like raptors whose native range includes much of the southern United States.  That range extends westward into Texas and the southeastern corner of New Mexico.  And, there it stops.  Except that there are a couple of tiny populations of these birds — just a handful of them — in southern Arizona.  In Cochise County, between Benson and Tombstone, there is a community of perhaps a half-dozen or so Mississippi Kites.  How they got there is anyone’s guess.

Mississippi Kites are insectivores, feeding mainly on large insects like dragonflies, which they capture on the wing.  They are impressive fliers.  Like much smaller insectivores, flycatchers for example, Mississippi Kites are capable of awe-inspiring aerial maneuvers as they chase down their prey.  Dragonflies are extraordinarily adept fliers in their own right and often engage in aerobatics that may include loops and rolls.  The kites, somehow, are capable of pursuing these insects, matching their maneuvers, and seizing them from mid-air.


These birds have very distinctive plumage, solid gray on their backs and outer wings, pearly white on their breasts, abdomens, and heads. They also have distinctive eyes, which range in color from deep red with some individuals to dark amber.

The southern Arizona population of Mississippi Kites is a breeding population and that raises hopes that they may expand their numbers here.  I’ll go back to the kites’ location later this summer to see if I can find fledglings.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/1000.



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I think that many who don’t live in our desert are surprised when they learn that it is home to several species of amphibians.  All amphibians depend on water to one extent or another.  Some live in water full time, others are never far away from water, and all amphibians lay their eggs in water.  In southern Arizona several native amphibian species have adapted to the extremely dry climate by being dormant for most of the year, becoming active only after our summer rains have begun (which, thankfully, has finally happened).

And then there are Bullfrogs.  Bullfrogs are an introduced species.  It’s unclear how they got here but they have thrived.  Every pond or canal in southern Arizona seems to have its resident population of non-native Bullfrogs.

They are a nuisance.  Bullfrogs are huge — up to nine inches in length and weighing nearly a pound — they are voracious predators, and they breed prolifically.  They are also almost legendarily tough, having the ability to travel for substantial distances out of water as they search for new homes.  In southern Arizona, they’ve outcompeted most of the local frogs.  Ponds that once were populated with native species are now exclusively the bullfrogs’ home.  Bullfrogs are predators and pretty ferocious ones at that.  They’ll eat anything that they can grab with their huge mouths, including fish, aquatic bird hatchlings, and other frogs, including smaller Bullfrogs.

These invaders are here to stay.  No one has come up with a means to eliminate them.  Evidently, Americans’ appetite for frog legs (or, at least,  Arizonans’ appetite) is insufficient to pose a significant threat to our Bullfrogs.  Given that, one might as well accept their presence and admire them.  Because, invasive or not, they are beautiful.

I photographed both of these individuals one morning a couple of weeks ago at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson.  No two of these frogs have exactly the same coloration and the patterns on each frog’s body are unique.  Some come in muted tones, as is the case with this first individual.  Others are much more brightly colored and patterned as the second frog demonstrates.

All of these frogs have characteristically beautiful golden eyes.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f6.3, with the camera supported by bracing it against a fence railing.  The first image shot at 1/250, the second at 1/160.

Yearling Gray Hawk

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I’m back!  I’ve spent the last week in Alaska photographing Brown Bears and several other wildlife species.  I took over 7000 images during the week and have a mountain of material to wade through and process.  It was a tremendously exciting and pleasurable week and I suspect you’ll be interested in and will enjoy some of my images.  I anticipate posting the fruits of my labors beginning in a few days and it is likely that I’ll dedicate a number of posts to Alaska’s unique and spectacular wildlife.

Meanwhile let’s turn to a more local subject, a subject that one rarely sees.  A couple of weeks ago my friend Ned Harris was kind enough to show me a yearling Gray Hawk living in Cochise County, southeast of Tucson.  The bird is unique in that its plumage is neither that of a juvenile bird nor that of an adult, but rather, it is a melange of juvenile and adult plumage.

Adult Gray Hawks are, as their name implies, predominately gray in color with gray and white patterned breasts and abdomens, and tails that are banded gray and white.  Fledglings and juveniles are mostly chestnut colored.  This bird has lost some of its juvenile plumage.  Its breast and abdomen are growing out gray and white and there are gray feathers on its back and wings.  However, it still retains mostly juvenile plumage.

Most Gray Hawks live in Latin America.  There is a very small population of these birds in southern Arizona, perhaps a couple hundred nesting pairs.  They tend to hang out in large cottonwood trees that grow adjacent to streams.  They often hide in the cottonwoods’ dense crowns where they are invisible to the casual walker or hiker.

However, if adult Gray Hawks are rare in the United States, youngsters making the transition from childhood to adult are even rarer.  The bird depicted here is the first and only one of its type that I’ve observed.  The plumage is remarkable, sort of a crazy quit of chestnut, gray, and white.  In a few months this bird will look completely different, having grown in the all-gray and white adult plumage.  Meanwhile, it is a highly unusual individual.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 ISII zoom lens+1.4x extender,  aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1640.

Green Heron Preening

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Before turning to today’s post, a brief note:  The blog will be on hiatus beginning tomorrow until next Wednesday.  It should be worth it if things go as planned. I’m off on a photographic adventure and hope to have many images to post on my return.

I was at Sweetwater Wetlands very early one morning about a week ago, standing on an overlook of one of the wetlands’ several ponds.  I saw a Green Heron fly in and land about 75 feet from where I was standing.  That was an unusual event: these little herons are wary of humans.  Evidently, the heron hadn’t noticed me because it was extremely relaxed.

For my money, Green Herons are the most beautiful of the aquatic birds that we see in southern Arizona.  These chicken-size herons have extraordinarily beautiful plumage, ranging from slate blue to green on their backs, necks and wings, to a deep rich russet and white on their necks.

The heron perched on a floating tree branch, occasionally seizing a tiny fish from the water.  After a few minutes, it began to preen, carefully cleaning its feathers.

Preening is an important daily chore for all birds but especially for wading birds.  These herons don’t swim but they are exposed to water and waterlogged feathers would weigh them down and make flight impossible.  Consequently, they spend considerable time assuring that their feathers are dust and dirt free and transferring oil to their feathers from glands on their backs, in order to make the feathers as water-resistant as possible.

I watched this heron groom itself systematically. It paid considerable attention to detail, seemingly obsessed with certain areas and specific feathers.

I was surprised that the heron never noticed my presence.  I was standing in plain view of the bird and my camera’s shutter is pretty noisy.  But, the heron was so focused on the job at hand that it remained oblivious to me.

The heron was still preening after about 15 minutes when I left it to its task.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640,  f6.3 @ 1/2500.