Friday, August 14, 2009

Feeding Frenzy (Alaska, USA)

If looks could kill! Scratch, a solo black bear and long time visitor to Anan Creek Wildlife Reserve, and sporting a savage scar across his nose, stands in the cascading falls for over half an hour, plunging his head into the frigid water and coming up empty.

Elegant Mom, strolls down to the river for the second time, enthusiastic youngsters waddling behind and leans into the water from the bank, plucking a writhing salmon from the creek in seconds. A few drops of water drip from her neck, a spray of water from the struggling salmon. She strolls off to a quiet spot under the tree to continue the family picnic. The cubs follow in anticipation with even more spring in their step as they assuredly traverse the slippery rocks.

Nearby, four black bears, stand in a protective rock cave, out of the main current of the waterfall. This is the prime fishing spot and these giant bears have mortgaged these locations for years. Their swelling bellies almost rub they are so near each other, but apart from a bit of light-fingered thieving from each other, most get on with the job of gorging on the salmon.

Keen-eyes bald eagles and gulls await any leftover salmon. After all, bears are not the tidiest of eaters and the better fishermen among them satisfy themselves with just the eggs and part of the salmon head. The flesh is ignored, and makes for a welcome meal for the waiting birds. It is ironic, as the prime fillets of salmon is something we would gladly pay generously for in fish shops, yet at peak fishing time, the bears happily discard this in favour of the most protein-rich portions.

The action is manic. Over 25 black bears are stationed at their favourite locations near and in the cascades, fishing their primary summer meal. Some are extraordinarily efficient catching salmon at will – others take a fair bit more work. Young bear cubs watch intently, soaking in the lessons from their mother. After all, they will have to fend for themselves in a summer or two (and bears that can’t fish in this area won’t survive the winter).

Suddenly there is a disturbance. A single imposing brown bear strolls towards the main fishing grounds, the black bears clearing the path as if royalty is in attendance. These are traditional enemies and it is only at such prime feeding locations as Anan Creek that they will venture so close. Most black bears wander into the relative safety of the surrounding forest while one quickly shoots up a large tree. The ever-protective mothers ensure that their cubs are safe with the instinctive cubs treasuring protective cover from their parent.

But this brown isn’t chasing black bears. She is a champion fisher and in just a few minutes catches and gulps down the egg sac from three pink salmon. An eagle eagerly lines up for the remains from an overhanging branch but lacks the courage to interrupt this marauding diner. A brown bear family restfully watches on from a nearby log, unimpressed by all the activity.

Soon enough the big brown bear has had enough and wanders on. The black bears start sheepishly returning to their favorite spots and resume their feeding. And the normal mayhem of feeding returns to Anan Creek.


Heather Dugan ("Footsteps") said...

You're a terrific storyteller, Mark! Anan Creek seems a prime spot for observing and getting some great photos!

eunice said...

hey that 1st pic has been ur profile pic all the while! very interesting shots, not everyone has the chance to capture these special moments of the bears.

Mark H said...

@heather: Thank you

@eunice: Indeed - one of my favourite photos for the contented and relaxed look on the bear.

Shantanu said...

Hey, very cool. Nice post. Reminds me of a show I saw on Nat Geo on salmon that swim upriver to spawn. The bears try to fish in a pretty impressive manner, in some cases catching the fish in midair as they 'fly' to cross rocks.

Mark H said...

@shantanu: The salmon weren't caught midair at Anan Creek but I have seen that too on Nat Geo. The bears are amazingly adept at catching their dinner.

Kirsty Wilson said...

This is a great post Mark and the photos (I'm assuming are yours?) are amazing. How did you manage to get so close to this sort of activity? I would be in awe to see a sight like bears fishing for salmon in their natural habitat. I think that may have to be added to the 'bucket list'!! ;-)

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