I realize that many of the safaris I do are subject oriented – like bobcat safaris, bird safaris, or safaris to Yellowstone or the Tetons, or Zion – but in reality I look for the best photography that can be done during any of these safaris. There are no confining safari parameters – just a chase for the best images. Now, I do photograph bobcats on a bobcat safari, but there is always so much more to tell the story of that day in the field. Such was the case yesterday in Sequoia National Park. I had a planned portrait workshop at San Simeon that got shifted to a bear safari up to the park. Clients who had to reschedule caused me to offer a bear safari to others … and off we went.
Wake up calls come early on safari days, and I don’t know how many times a year I’m up at 4am or earlier, but yesterday, August 12th, 2014 was a typical early rise. We got into Sequoia about 6:15am and climbed the General’s Highway through the maze of switchbacks. Construction is a never-ending process on park roads these days, but we sailed through unopposed. There were no tourist vehicles on the road that early as we began a creeping surveillance of the road to Crescent Meadows.
At 7:09am a dark shadow disappeared behind a large Sugar pine trunk about 50 yards off the road in the dim forest interior – and the bear safari was on. Speed in setting up the camera and tripod and getting into position is the key in that first minute of an encounter, because it could be your only minute, but in this case we got to maneuver. The bear moved through the forest chewing up sugar pine cones and finally stopped long enough to get a clean image – even if it was at ISO 5000, my typical go to ISO in dark conditions.
Up and over rocks and fallen pines the bear led us around, at each pine cone stop we attempted to improve our position, trying to get around distracting branches and bushes. After spending some time with him we moved back several hundred yards to my vehicle and were just setting the cameras down when we spotted another bear on the other side of the road, and somewhat below us. This cinnamon black bear had a more pronounced color in his mane. As the bear moved towards the road we took up a position to get him crossing through some small pine saplings.
After he crossed the road we followed him back up into the same area where we had photographed the first bear. With the possibility of a bear vs bear encounter we stuck with him, but never relocated the first bear. This bear worked the cones on the forest floor and gave us some good images. He was a good bear and allowed us reasonable approaches for the images we were trying to get, never exhibiting any signs of being stressed.
Those two encounters led to us not getting into the Crescent Meadows parking lot until about 9:30am. We headed out along the Crescent Meadows trail and set up at a good location to do some bird photography. I’m always surprised by the number of birds in this area, and there always seems to be one or two I’ve never photographed before.
Identifying some birds is tough – the white-headed woodpecker was easy, the pacific-slope flycatcher (right) was hard. For only the second time I had a Northern Goshawk land 30 yards from me near the trail, but it departed quickly. I realized a few minutes later why it had left.
While standing in Crescent Meadows attempting to shoot the little birds fluttering around in the flowers and pines, a shadow passed by in the out-of-focus forest in the background as I was looking through the camera lens. I took my eye away from the camera and put my glasses back on … nothing. With the glasses off I refocused the camera to the dark forest in the background and spotted two ears and a nose behind a fallen sequoia, maybe 120 yards away. (I hate glasses!) Bears 3 and 4. Without hesitation I moved towards the bear that had disappeared behind the giant fallen sequoia, its roots now vertical. Just as I got into a reasonable position about 40 yards away the bear, now with a cub, walked out carrying a large California Ground Squirrel – and just as suddenly the Goshawk did a close fly-by. I realized the bear had somehow stolen the goshawks breakfast.
With the bears occupied I moved closer and tried to get in a better position. The forest floor was completely shadowed and barren, some ferns near the sequoia trunk the only green around. At one point the cub snatched the squirrel from the sow, only to receive a lesson in power as she yanked back the squirrel and through the cub a few feet through the air. I missed the throw but caught the landing, as the cub skidded to a stop – still holding onto the tail.
There was a day when my heart would have been pounding out of my chest just witnessing this, much less shooting coherently. And while it was exciting to see (bears doing bear stuff) I concentrated on focus, composition, exposure compensation, changing to vertical shooting – and back, changing focusing grid points, and stabilizing my tripod in the soft, spongy pine straw on the forest floor. When this moment ended I realized that sometime over the past 30 years I had polished my photography techniques to a point where I could make critical, immediate, and calm adjustments to the camera while detaching somewhat from the excitement of the moment.
With the squirrel finished an odd thing happened, the sow disciplined the cub with a quick bite to his backside. Another light bulb went off. On a safari to Sequoia three weeks ago I was shooting a sow with two cubs (the bear shredding trees for ant larvae) when the sow suddenly turned on one cub, grabbed it by the ear, and drug it about ten feet before releasing it. This was the same sow, minus one cub. The cub scampered back to the tree and climbed partially up, then came back down almost immediately – as if he had missed the que to climb the tree and the sow let him know it.
During this whole event there was a great deal of growling and snapping. The sow was aggressive with the cub (from a human point of view, of course) and smacked him/her a number times besides the toss and the bite.
While only about 50% of cubs survive to adulthood, I naturally assumed that was because in places like Yellowstone, which has lots of grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, etc – they were taken by predators. It occurred to me that maybe some just didn’t survive their parents tough discipline.
But the fun and games with these two cinnamon black bears with the love-hate relationship weren’t over yet. After the cub came back down he seemed a bit whipped and rested near the base of the tree. The sow walked back to my right to the giant fallen sequoia and actually walked into a burned out, hollowed out area of the trunk. Oddly, I knew this particular tree well. I had been hired by Sequoia National Park to shoot sequoia seedlings (and other stuff) immediately following a fire in the area in 2010. I remembered it so well because I had actually walked through this hollowed out area so I wouldn’t have to climb over it to get to the other side. In the sow went … I was amazed.
After a few moments the sow exited the sequoia trunk and walked towards us, moving through the ferns and seedling pines. She moved slowly, the cub still up by the tree, but her intention to push us back was clear. There was no bluff charges, no huffing, no bow-legged walking, no teeth clicking, no raised hackle hair – just a methodical walk towards us. We retreated back to the main trail.
The sow and cub reversed course and headed away from us, parallel to the trail, over a small hill. With the bears out of sight we had to carefully negotiate our way along the trail, which twisted through some 4 foot high shrubs and ferns, all the time being careful not to meet the bears face-to-face. After getting around the hill I saw the bears crossing Crescent Meadows about 70 yards away, walking down the spine of a huge fallen sequoia, never having to get into the damp grass of the meadow.
We spent the next few hours driving some dirt backroads in Sequoia National Forest, just outside the park boundary – checking a large area of berries (snowberries, sierra currents, chokecherries, elderberries) for bear sign. Pile after pile on the road indicated that the bears were active here, but this time we came back to the highway empty handed.
After lunch we drove back towards Crescent Meadows, stopping at Dorst Creek to check the meadows for bears. No luck, though this has been a good spot in the spring for bears. However, we did encounter a spotted mule deer fawn that worked with us for a few minutes of photos – before trotting off.
Headed south we re-entered the Crescent Meadows road, now teaming with tourist vehicles and park buses. More eyes for the search. After a few minutes Bear #5 appeared below the road, staying clear of the traffic jam above. We decided not to photograph him and, instead, continued along.
We hiked out past the Dead Giant to Huckleberry Meadow and spent some time shooting golden-bellied marmots and butterflies. The meadow is still thick with summer flowers and bear activity in the area was still very obvious in the form of bear piles. I chased a dozen different species of butterflies – monarchs, swallowtails, admirals, zerene fritillaries, sulfers, checkerspots and some blues. It was wet in the meadow and I hadn’t worn my plumber’s knee pads so my efforts were pretty tame and dry. Butterflies are amazingly beautiful and I treat them as just as important a subject to be photographed as bears. Out of the 800+ species in north America, I’ve photographed about 90 – so I have a long way to go.
I was pretty worn. It was closing in on 4pm and my feet were beginning to ache some in my trail boots. But there was no stopping the bears. Bear #6 appeared below the road a minute or two after we had started back. This bear was easily the biggest of the day and we spent some time working positions trying to get the best shot of him as he worked the cones across a sparse area of forest and burned logs. A dozen or more tourists followed us, staying sufficiently behind us and not interfering.
What a day. 3300 photos, 66 gigabytes of images – and a worn out photographer. I’m going back August 26. Come along for the ride.