Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cranky Bear Updates, 2012

KLK and I made our annual journey to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in mid-June this summer, and as we have come to learn from our many, many (but never enough!) visits to the area, no two visits are alike. Each brings at least one, and usually multiple, unique experiences, sights, sensations, and adventures. You can read about our 2011 experiences that were special to that year, for example. 
Among other things, 2012 stood out, alas, as Not the Year of Bears. Bears are high on the list of favorite wildlife-watching subjects, and I have been lucky many times to get in some fantastic observation with photographic documentation; I blogged about the thrills of being in bear country about a year ago. In 2012, there was plenty of bear activity, it's just that, due to the luck of the draw, all of our sightings this year were of what we call "bear dots" - distant, or fleeting, or both. 
But one far-away sighting revealed bear behaviors that we had never before witnessed.  Last year, in Yellowstone's magnificent Hayden Valley, we enjoyed watching grizzly sow known as "Cranky Bear." I understand she got that moniker when she huffed at some photographers that were crowding her. Those photographers were lucky she didn't do anything more than that, as one of the other grizzly sows in the same vicinity killed one and ate part of another person before being captured and euthanized last year. 
Here's a photo of Cranky Bear and her two nice looking Cubs-of-the-Year (COYs) from June of 2011 (click to enlarge and see what magnificent animals they are:
One day on this trip, as we entered Hayden Valley from the south, we could see that a pullout-parking area on a high overlook was full of people with spotting scopes and binoculars aimed at the slopes across the Yellowstone River. Hayden is one of the world's richest areas for watching grizzly bears, bison, and wolves, among many other interesting animals, pawed, clawed or hoofed, furred or feathered. So we too stopped to scan the far high treeline, maybe a half mile distant, where there was a herd of elk cows, doubtless with their new spring calves bedded down invisibly in the sage. Many of the elk had their heads up, ears and eyes on alert, while, as usual, others calmly grazed. I said to KLK, "oh, it's just a bunch of elk, doesn't look like much else is going on" thinking we should get back in the car and move along in case we were missing something big happening elsewhere. 
But then, very suddenly, a big sow grizzly bear, with two kids in a line behind her charged out of the trees and into the midst of the elk, scattering the poor animals in all directions. We were gasping in anticipation (and my heart was pounding) that she would within seconds nail a helpless elk calf right before our (binocular-ed) eyes. As it turned out, she wasn't serious as she didn't bother to pursue the easy prey.  Apparently satisfied with her lesson to her cubs on how to terrify elk, she led her big babies gradually down the hill, nibbling at vegetation and grubbing for insects and small rodents as they made their way down to the river edge while the distraught elk retreated into the safety of the thick trees at the top of the ridge.
When the bears reached bottom, I could see that Mama Bear wanted to come across the river in our direction. She disappeared into low ground for a few minutes, only to reappear in the middle of the river, her big head floating above water, turned backwards to keep an eye on the cubs about 50 feet behind her, two basketball-like brown heads bobbing northwards in the current. Mama picked a safe spot to get out of the water on our side; I couldn't quite see them get out of the river, I would have loved to watch them shake off, like enormous dogs. But they soon re-appeared in the sage, making their way southward. If you click to enlarge the images you will recognize Cranky Bear and her now 2-year old cubs, back in the same territory they reigned over a year ago.
They continued moving steadily to our right, while also gradually coming closer to the assembled audience. 
As they neared, it all at once dawned on the people standing out on the edge of the rise that it would take the bears only a few seconds to get up that ridge should they decide to do so. Everyone started en masse back to the relative safety of the paved overlook, except for the couple of people who apparently thought discretion was the better part of valor and ran for their cars. As all this unfolded, with the bears paying absolutely no attention what-so-ever, a pale-coated coyote wandered along. KLK, whose angle of view was different from mine, said that the coyote's attention was instantly drawn to the runners. It stopped and stared, as if considering whether a tourist might be fun to chase, or perhaps even be worth a serious attempt at hunting down.
Coyotes are a wise dogs though, and it quickly determined it would be better to return to whatever its original agenda was and move on. The fleeing bear-watchers never noticed the coyote.

Returning our attention to bear-watching, we guessed the grizzlies, now out of our sight, would come out closer to a nearby geothermal area known as Mud Volcano (rather than coming up the ridge at the crowd), so we hopped in the car and headed that way. Bingo! 
These closer bear dot photos were taken from the car under terrible photography conditions, as by the time we got into a position to shoot there were massive numbers of cars stopped all over the road, doors flung and left hanging open, pedestrians all over the place with cameras glued to their eyes in an attempt to snap the photo of a lifetime. Fortunately, Cranky Bear was a model of a calm, fully focused on bulking up on the nice grass (though grizzlies are omnivores and need plenty of animal protein and fat from elk calves, for example, their most easily acquired calories are from plant matter), with her kids following suit. It was one of those terribly dangerous, classic Yellowstone situations where neither drivers nor pedestrians were paying any attention to anything other than the mother and baby bears by the road. 
Here is a bit of a blurry crop of one of Cranky Bear's beautiful children. I hope next year I can post more and better bear photos, especially if next year's photos can also illustrate  exciting wildlife behaviors!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, you hit the bear jackpot! We often see bears in YNP, but never have I got shots like yours. Awesome. Luckily, griz almost never attack larger groups of people. But you wouldn't want to be on the edge of that coulee with just one or two other people...