Charismatic Megafauna

Although the title of this post would make a great name for a rock band, it’s a phrase used around here to describe my favorite kind of fauna – big furry bears. Whales would also fall into the megafauna category, but I can’t say that they share the same expressiveness that bears have. Sorry whales, you’re awesome, but not what I would call compellingly cute.

So where have we been, and why has been almost exactly a YEAR since I last posted? There’s no big secret – we’ve just been super busy. We’re fine. Nothing bad happened, and I hadn’t planned to stop blogging. I just ended up with a huge pile of photos and videos that became overwhelming, then we got back to town and had to get the boat ready for winter, and we did a little traveling, and then the holidays, and then… well, you get the idea. And still, that big pile of photos needs weeding out and editing. In addition, I really want to re-format the blog to a more contemporary style, and I need to fix the email notification subscription thing since the old service went away… but all that takes lots of time to work out, and time is the one thing I’m perpetually short of.

Lately I’ve been working hard just to keep up with what I’m shooting this summer, and the June trip to Glacier Bay is still a work in progress. Living in a rainforest has its advantages, since pouring-down-rainy days are perfect for long sessions working on photos. But this summer has been pretty dry, which means I’m out taking photos instead of dealing with them. So that’s our story…. now, back to bears.

Cubs fighting

We were up at Pack Creek on Admiralty Island a few weeks ago, visiting our favorite rangers and watching for bears. The fish hadn’t come into the streams yet, but the bears were clamming at low tide and eating berries in the forest the rest of the time. Little cubs were brawling in the tall grass. Once high tide passed and the water started to ebb, bears would come to the stream to check for fish – so seeing them was very hit-and-miss, though persistence pays off. We hiked the trail to the observation tower and encountered bears in the woods – a sow and her skittish little first-year cub, and the two sub-adult sisters – the brats.

This is the brattier of the two sisters (above). We had been calling out “hey bear” as we were hiking, as one does in bear country – best not to surprise them. We stopped and heard rustling in the brush just off the trail, and got cameras ready. This gal walked out to the trail, pretended to sniff at something else, then turned towards us. She’s a sub-adult – a teenager – who wanted to test us to see if she could push us around. We had to say “NO bear!!” loudly a few times, and didn’t budge when she took a step towards us. She finally figured out that she wasn’t going to get her way, and went back into the brush for more berries. A moment later her sister came out, looked at us, and when we said “NO!” she went back into the brush without a fuss. “Good Bear!” we told them.

Many of the places we go to see bears are areas where they’re habituated to humans, to some degree. Humans stay in the human areas, and that leaves the rest for the bears. If we respect them and their space, there’s no problem. It’s all about ethical bear viewing that many of us practice… and groups like National Geographic absolutely don’t! I’ve seen irresponsible behavior by all their boats up here. They bring gigantic groups of people ashore to a bear stream, stand in bear trails, and effectively chase all the feeding bears away until they leave. Local guides try to educate them, but they ignore and disrespect them. The bears only have the summer to pack on the pounds they need to survive the winter, so depriving them of their prime food source (fish) with crowds of tourists is shameful. We feel pretty strongly about respecting our wildlife around here.

The curious first-year cub in the photo above is a great example of the reward for ethical bear viewing behavior. About 90 minutes after one of the obnoxious NatGeo groups left, the bears started returning to the stream to feed. This little first-year cub paused to look at me and a guide with her small group – we were sitting quietly in a tight bunch. The sow had just walked right past us, along with the cub’s sibling. But this one pretended to take a great interest in a clump of grass so it could get a better look at us. Breathtaking!

In other places where bears are not accustomed to seeing many humans, they’re very shy and harder to photograph. I spotted this good looking bear in Takatz Bay, and was able to photograph it from the kayak. Once the bear saw me, it was a little more cautious, so I backed away to give it more space, and then it ignored me.

Eventually the bear got tired of fishing on that side of the creek, and jumped in to cross the frigid water, climbing on the bank and heading up the waterfall, out of sight.

We’re having a good summer so far, and it’s evaporating quickly! The days are growing noticeably shorter, and it’s dark enough at night to see stars. The rainy, foggy, more windy fall weather pattern is starting to appear, with fronts coming off the Gulf of Alaska. We got spoiled with very light winds we’ve enjoyed for most of the summer so far!

I’m still conflicted about what to do with this blog. Does anyone read it anymore? Is it worth the effort to maintain, or should I just post photos on Instagram? Opinions are welcome. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep it up for a while and see how it goes.

More Glacier Bay Treats

The glaciers that give this National Park its name are in the north end of the bay, but there is so much to see on the journey up to the ice!

The sea otters are some of the most adorable critters, especially when they’re clutching their little pups. But they’re not popular with fishermen since they have no natural predators and they’re voracious eaters. They will eat everything in sight, wiping out the crabs and other bottom creatures, until the food is gone and they move on to another area. At some point, their numbers will overwhelm the available food sources and their population will crash. But yes, they are really cute.

We spotted a number of bears, and because it was early in the season, it was mating time. Males follow females that they’re interested in, and we saw several pairs of persistent males and uninterested females. This male was steadily pursuing his love interest, and she kept trotting and eventually running away from him.

We spotted three different “romantic” couples, as well as one female with a nice big second-year cub.

As we got closer to the glaciers, we started seeing harbor seals resting on floating ice. As it was still early in the season, the seals were giving birth so we needed to keep a big distance from them so we didn’t disturb the fragile new pups.

And finally we arrived up at the main glaciers – the Reid, Lamplugh, Johns Hopkins, Margerie, and the Grand Pacific. We’re lucky enough to be able to anchor by the Reid, giving us time to just look and listen to it for hours and hours.

What’s sad is that we can see more and more of the mountain underneath, and we’ve witnessed the very noticeable changes yearly since our first exciting visit to see it in 2014.

All the glaciers are changing so quickly – it’s like watching old friends decline, and it breaks our hearts.

We had the upper part of the bay all to ourselves one day, and we headed up to see the “show glacier” – the Margerie, that one that the cruise ships spend most of their time visiting. It’s splashy-flashy, as glaciers go, though not as blue as some of the other ones.

A little bit of calving…

We were lucky this time – we heard some cracking like thunder, then silence… then the whoosh of some bits of ice falling. The glaciers are always making noises – they’re rivers of ice that are constantly flowing down the mountain, carrying snow that fell about 200 years ago that’s now compressed into dense ice. This day, the Margerie was more active than we’ve ever seen, eventually gifting us with a nice big calving event. You’ll note that the video is quite short, because we were fairly close to the glacier’s face, and the ice-laden wave was not to be trifled with.

You can hear Jim yelling about the wave, so I had to put the camera down and get the boat moving back and angled to take the wave. Yowza!

Back to Glacier Bay

It’s our 13th trip into Glacier Bay National Park… It’s addictive.

We love the forest…

New growth on spruce trees

…the ponds with buckbean and birds and water lilies…

…and the lupine in bloom.

The music of the bay includes the groaning and barking of Steller’s sea lions (big, loud sausages on the rocks, sleek rockets in the water)…

…and the songs of the whales (having a hydrophone helps).

Two humpbacks, one diving

Gulls and kittiwakes nest on the cliffs…

…as do the puffins! They make a burrow in rock crevices to incubate their eggs, returning to the sea for the rest of the year once their chicks have fledged.

Tufted puffin outside burrow

Pelagic cormorants also like the rocky cliffs, often found near the puffin burrows as well as where we see mountain goats.

Pelagic cormorants

Speaking of mountain goats – we found a few… some relaxing, and a nanny with a kid, demonstrating their climbing prowess.

Mountain goats
“Are you keeping up okay, little one?”

There’s more to show you… Glacier Bay has so much to see, so stay tuned.

Exploring the Inner Channels

I continue to be way behind on blogging, but we continue to be busy exploring and working on projects. The good news is that there’s plenty to share – so far it has been a great summer.

In late May we spent a few days in Red Bluff Bay, on the eastern shore of Baranof Island, because there’s a terrific “bear meadow” that usually has some brown bears eating sedges (a type of grass) at that time of the year. Early wildflowers, like the shooting stars above, are also in bloom, adding to the beauty of the place.

As soon as the anchor was set, I was in the kayak with cameras, and I spotted the four-legged furry things that I love to watch…

The photo above shows typical bear behavior – they’re always scanning to see what’s going on around them, ever watchful for a more dominant bear or a threat. This bear paid particular attention to one area in the nearby forest, though nothing scary ever emerged.

Late one afternoon, two sub-adult bears were eating grass and playing on a shoal, and wrestled and interacted as they swam across to the main meadow – fun to watch since bears are solitary more often than not.

A lone trumpeter swan was in residence, odd to see one this late in the spring since most have migrated farther north by now.

Mergansers are usually pretty shy, but these two let me get fairly close.

As we made our way up to Glacier Bay, we spent a few nights in some favorite anchorages along the way, and finally got to see some good whale action on our way into an anchorage one afternoon. It was a good-sized pod of humpbacks bubble-net feeding!

We watched them through binoculars for a while as we slowed our approach to the anchorage, but the food they were following kept moving them farther away. So that is the end of this tale (tail)… for now…

Next up is Glacier Bay, which never disappoints!