Thursday, October 16, 2008

2008 KATMAI BEAR TRIP REPORT: PART 4 (GEOGRAPHIC HARBOUR - INDIVIDUAL BEARS)

A sow with her older cubs attempts to teach them to fish, although they prefer to play and loot their mother's catch.

Geographic’s fishing grounds were also home to a vivacious family unit, consisting of a sow and a pair of ~ 2 1/2 year olds. The mother was an efficacious “fisherbear,” while her cubs did little fishing. Instead, they spent much of their time grappling with each other like hairy Sumo wrestlers! When they were not playing, they were shadowing their mom and stealing any fish that she hauled in. Most of the time she would let them take off with her catch, although she did occasionally attempt to wolf down some of her piscine prey before she was looted by her greedy brood. On one occasion she lost her patience and cuffed one of her overzealous offspring before giving in and letting go of her fish (see video below). Occasionally, the two hooligans attempted to include mom in their frolicsome behavior. She complied a couple of times, jawing at her young assailants.

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A trio of grizzlies: a sow with her two offspring (these to youngsters are probably 32 months old). Note how she does all of the fishing, while they benefit from the fruits of her labor! Compare these two laggards with the adolescent fishing machine below.

In contrast to these impish, 2.5-year olds, we observed an amazing young bear that was a fishing machine! This bruin was a ~ 1.5 year old (usually referred to as a yearling) with a light colored (nearly blonde) mother. The pair initially made their presence known when the mother, with the cub trailing behind, were observed chasing another bear. They gave up their half-hearted chase and began to slowly meander toward the prime fishing area. Once they arrived at the river bank, it was not long before the yearling was chasing and even catching salmon! (There were few other bears in the area at the time.) The mother bear seemed to lag behind the young bear, keeping close enough to protect its progeny if the need arised, but yet far enough away to allow it to learn some life skills. The young bear was such an enthusiastic piscator that at one point it had a fish in its mouth, while it attempted to capture a second salmonid (see the video below)!

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The fishing exploits of an ~ 1.5-year old (yearling) bear - this young bruin was a very effective fisherman, as you will see in the video above.

© Scott W. Michael

Monday, October 13, 2008

2008 KATMAI BEAR TRIP REPORT: PART 3 (GEOGRAPHIC HARBOUR - INDIVIDUAL BEARS)

A sow with a first (spring) cub. Bother were very flighty. At one point, the cub ran into the tall grass and it took the nervous mother 20 to 30 seconds to relocate her progeny.

During our stay at Geographic Harbour, we spotted one sow with a first year (spring) cub, both of which were quite flighty. The sow had large, white fringed ears and her cub looked very healthy (it was quite chubby!). The first time we saw them, they made a brief appearance at the river when four or five other big bears were around. Their stay was brief, being cut short when the nervous cub was startled and dashed into the tall grass. Mother gave chase and after 20 to 30 anxious seconds was able to relocate her frightened offspring. The pair disappeared after that, apparently in search of safer pastures in which to feed.

On our last day at Katmai, this sow and her cub reappeared. The mother’s desire to increase her nutrient intake apparently overcame her concern about exposing her cub to conspecifics. The mother succeeded in catching a few fish, with the cub trailing right behind her (this includes venturing into the rapid moving water in the center of the stream). The cub also ate some its mother’s catch. It is sad to think that this tubby little bear has about a 40 % chance of surviving to adulthood.

Ginger Bear - a young bear, possibly chased off early from its mother. This is one of many pink salmon this little bear was able to capture.

On our second day at Geographic, we observed a small bear that cautiously made its way to the river. It appeared to be a young bear – possibly a runty three-year old. We speculated that it may have been run off by its mother prematurely or possibly it had somehow lost its maternal parent? It came to the river to fish and was successful in its efforts. Rather than eating it near the stream bank, the little bear grabbed its salmon by the tail and sought solitude in the tall grass. When fishing, it was very aware of its larger ursid neighbors, no doubt cognizant of its greater vulnerability because of its small size. This bear had a very distinct appearance – it was rather skinny and had large ears (it almost had a fox-like look about it). We dubbed it Ginger Bear because of its lighter pelage. We were to encounter ginger bear on a couple of occasions (more on this bear later).

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Friday, October 10, 2008

2008 KATMAI TRIP REPORT: PART 2 (GEOGRAPHIC HARBOUR)

Geographic Harbour (Amalik Bay) is picturesque, sheltered and infested with brown bears!

On previous trips to Katmai, most of our bear-viewing had taken place at Hallo and Kukak Bays. On our 2008 trip, we didn’t get to either of these sites as bear numbers were sparse at the time. Instead, we spent much of our adventure in Geographic Harbour, a picturesque site at the head of Amalik Bay. Like the rest of Katmai, the scenery is magnificent and bears are ubiquitous - there are usually at least two or three bears fishing in the main stream that flows into the bay. The harbour is surrounded by a high profile landscape that provides natural protection from the inclement weather that rushes across the Gulf of Alaska. It provides an ideal anchorage and a calm landing “strip” for float planes.

The downside of Geographic, is that on a clear day you are likely to share the prime bear-viewing spots with a number of “day-trippers” (these bear-viewers arrive by floatplane and remain in Geographic for two to four hours before being whisked back to Homer or Kodiak). During our stay, there were times where we were in close proximity to at least 30 other bear-viewers. While it certainly takes away some of the “wilderness feel” of the experience, this “bear paparazzi” did not seem to bother the bears that frequent Geographic Harbour (mind you, there may be other bears that would come and fish here but do not while the viewers are present). Also, in the early mornings and from mid-afternoon on, we were the only people among the bears.

A rotund sow (possibly a barren female - see notes in text below) exhibiting the typical Geographic Harbour dark pelage.

Interestingly enough, the bears that frequent Geographic Harbour tend to be darker in color than their Hallo Bay “cousins.” While you see some darker bears in Hallo, almost all the bears at Geographic are chocolate brown. While I am sure it varies from year to year, there were fewer bears at any one time on the Geographic stream than we had seen in early to mid-August at Hallo (we saw as many as 23 bears at once during one of our previous Hallo Bay visits, while the most Ursus arctos in view at any one time in Geographic was less than 10). This may be due to the fact that the prime fishing spots (at least those in view of the bear-viewing areas) in Geographic are not as abundant so there is less space for bears to fish comfortably around one another (fishing spots are more abundant when the tide is out).

In Geographic, there is high grass meadow (Calamagrostis spp.) that grows right up to the edge of some portions of the river. It was not uncommon to see subordinate bears, standing on their back legs, peering above the grass to make sure it was safe to take up a position along the water way. At low tide we would take-up a station on the intertidal flats, where bears fished in the dendritic tributaries that branched out from the main river channel. There is also a viewing pad, consisting of a flat, slightly raised bank situated along the edge of the stream that can be used at both low and high tide. It was not uncommon for bears working the stream edge to come within 15 to 20 feet of this viewing area.

While the area was never overrun with bears, there was often good fishing action in Geographic, especially at and around low tide. We saw numerous salmon pulled from the water by subadults, and both adult boars and sows (although the latter were slightly more abundant in the area). There were some fat, beautiful sows around the river, several of which were very effective at catching fish. One of these females was huge! Brad Josephs, brown bear expert, speculated that this was possibly a barren female, as they have a propensity to become very rotund.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

2008 KATMAI BEAR TRIP REPORT: PART 1

In late August of 2008, Janine and I were joined by five other photographers/naturalists on a trip to Katmai National Park. This included Larry Jackson, Debbie Titus, David Salmanowitz, and Larry and Nancy Peterson*. I had been to Katmai in 2006 and 2007 and was excited to get back, as well as share this very special place with great friends. Based on their reactions, I think they too have caught the bear bug - at least three of the five have expressed an interest to go back next year!

We were the guests of bear-viewing guru John Rogers (Katmai Coastal Bear Tours). He runs a number of boats along the Katmai coast and he, and his guides, know the area and the bears like no one else. I had been with John on my two previous trips and once again, John and company came through with a truly amazing wildlife experience!

Katmai Notes

In my past two visits to Katmai, I did my bear-viewing in early to mid-August. This year, we arrived in the land of the great bear a little later in the season (from August 22 until August 31st). We hoped to see more corpulent bears (as a result of a few more weeks at the “salmon buffet,” which is available from July into September) as well as some different behaviors. It was highly likely there would be more fishing activity as at least three and possibly four species of salmon (chum, pink, sockeye, and possibly silver) could be “running” at that time. I also wanted to document bears feeding on moribund and/or dying salmon, as this food source is an important part of the diet of hyperphagic bears.

It turned out the fish were present in large numbers. In fact, in certain parts of the Alaskan Peninsula (e.g., Bristol Bay), there were reports of huge fish runs. I certainly observed bears catching more fish during this trip than I had seen on previous visits (in the past two years I had seen relatively small runs when I visited). We observed pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), chum (O. keta) and sock-eye salmon (O. nerka) being plucked from Katmai’s rivulets. While there were definitely more fish, we saw fewer bears than we had on our past trips. Some locals speculated that the reduction in fishing bear numbers was a function of an abundant berry crop – many of the bears were in the ”bush” gorging on salmon berries. Even though Ursus arctos numbers were down, there were still more than enough bears to keep us in a constant state of awe.

First Stop Kodiak

We began our trip in Kodiak – the jumping off site to Katmai (i.e., you take a float plane from Kodiak to the Katmai coast to meet the “bear boat”). We arrived at Kodiak about five days before our Katmai trip was to commence. Katmai Coastal Bear Tours recommends that you show-up in Kodiak at least a couple days before your scheduled departure, just in case it is necessary to make an early trip to Katmai. If inclement weather is forecast for the day you are scheduled to travel to Katmai, John may have you fly out to the boat one or even two days earlier in an attempt to ensure you get to spend the time you paid for with the bears.

Spending some time on Kodiak is a treat in and of itself! It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, especially when viewed from the air. There are valleys, mountains, rocky coastlines replete with tide pools, clear streams and lakes and lush vegetation (the latter is a function of the high precipitation levels [average annual rainfall of 173 cm, average snowfall 198 cm]). And, of course, it also has a large population of brown bears (a.k.a. Kodiak bears). How many Comfort Inns in the world have a sign posted on the door suggesting that guests be very careful while moving about the parking lot after dark as a curious bear has been sighted lurking around the hotel! During our stay, there were a couple reports of Kodiak bear being sighted fishing in local streams. While we did not see any bears on Kodiak, we did visit a beached humpback whale carcass in hopes of seeing some scavenging brown bears. We also did lots of hiking, learned about spatterdock (Nuphar luteu) (thanks to Larry, our amateur botanist), enjoyed some amazing scenery and found some great intertidal, invertebrate life.

Fortunately, the weather was good while we were on the island (although we arrived on a blustery, rainy night) and we were able to get off to Katmai on schedule. In the next post, we will take a look at our first bear-viewing stop, Geographic Harbour.

URSIDOPHILES 2008

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* Larry and David are great dive buddies and accomplished photographers - Janine and I have spent many hours with them in the Western Pacific, both above and below the water! This was the first time we had traveled with Debbie - she was a delight to have on the trip and an accomplished photographer in her own right. Larry and Nancy are good friends from Lincoln, Nebraska (where we reside) that are passionate about wildlife. We want to thank these five great travel companions for sharing this wonderful ursid-rich experience with us!

© Scott W. Michael

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

UNDESCRIBED SEA BASS FROM EASTERN ATLANTIC

Undescribed Serranus sp. from Western Africa.

An example of this same fish in the aquarium. The banded color pattern is displayed when the fish is stressed/frightened.

The Central and Eastern Atlantic is home to a number of reef fish species, some of which are very similar to more familiar fishes found in the Western Atlantic. For example, you have the Marcella butterflyfish (Prognathodes marcellae), which is similar to the bank (P. aya) and threeband butterflyfish (P. guyanensis) of the Western Atlantic. Then there is the ever-popular resplendent angelfish (Centropyge resplendens), known from Ascension Island (in the Central Atlantic), which is similar to its Western Atlantic counterpart, the cherubfish (C. argi) and flameback pygmy angelfish (C. aurantonotus) (Note: Wirtz et al. have recently collected a specimen of the later species from the Gulf of Guinea). The lesser known West African coral hind (Cephalopholis taeniops), which is very similar to its Western cousin, the coney (C. fulvus) and the African Creole wrasse (Clepticus africanus) that is a sister species of the Creole wrasse (C. parrae).

Recently, a lovely little serranid has been imported from Western Africa. It is a handsome little fish that, thanks to the efforts of Joe Russo, has become quite readily available (e.g., www.liveaquarium.com usually has one or more available). According to Joe, they are collected in fairly deep water (greater than 35 m). Dr. Peter Wirtz, an expert on the fish communities of this region, tells me that he has seen this fish at depths of 50 cm (these were juveniles) to at least 30 m. He also reports that it is a solitary species. Wirtz et al. (2007) report that this fish is common on hard and soft bottoms at São Tomé and Príncipe (Gulf of Guinea). It is somewhat variable in color, as you can see in the two photos included with this post.

At first blush, it exhibits anatomical similarities to some of the wonderful aquarium serranids from the tropical Western Atlantic. One of my favorites is the semi-social chalk bass (Serranus tortugarum). While related, the Serranus sp. from Africa differs greatly from the chalk bass in disposition. The undescribed Eastern Atlantic serranid is a true hellion! It is both aggressive and highly predatory (it appears to relish any fish or crustacean small enough to swallow whole). So, while you may be tempted to plop one of these beauties into your moderately-peaceful community aquarium, you may want to think again! Sanjay Joshi has one in a huge tank (500 gallons) and it has caused him much consternation attacking and eating its tankmates. While a maximum length has yet to be established, it can get at least 7 cm in total length.

There are other lovely fish from this region that Joe is bringing in to the US market. I hope to feature some more of these in upcoming posts.

References

Wirtz, P., C. Eduardo, L. Ferreira, S. R. Floeter, R. Fricke, J. L. Gasparini, T. Iwamoto, L. Rocha, C. L. S. Sampaio and U.K. Schliewen. 2007. Coastal Fishes of São Tomé and Príncipe islands, Gulf of Guinea (Eastern Atlantic Ocean)—an update. Zootaxa 1523: 1–48.

© Scott W. Michael