Walking with Black Bears: Spring Cubs

June 21, 2014  •  Leave a Comment


After the first two days of the trip I could not believe that it could get any better. I had traveled over 800 miles to the north country, met a wonderful group of passionate photographers and wildlife lovers, and had come face to face with 10+ bears of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The first days had pushed my photographic craft further than it had been pushed in the past two years. The amount of information and tutelage I received was helping me to become a better photographer. If the trip would have ended, I would have walked away a happy photographer.


Day three began like all of the others; a cup of black coffee, a pre-packaged danish, talk of the previous days photos, and packing the cars for the day. We arrived ind the woods and began the daily ritual of gear preparation. Lenses were cleaned, tripods mounted, and bug dope was applied.

The day started like the others, surveying the woods and the open field, finding a location that looked promising. We waited, not for long, for our first visitor and diligently began photographing. I could tell that I was already taking less photographs. Either my shutter finger had cramped from shooting 600+ photos the previous day, or I was learning to be patient. Patience for good composition, correct exposure, and for the subject were becoming more important than ever.

I consider myself a patient person. At times I can feel that patience escape when an exciting photographic opportunity presents itself. The pressure of trying to frame the scene, expose properly, choose a shutter speed that works, all while minding the light can be anxiety inducing for many! When this situation presents itself I tend to forget about all I learned and start firing away, as if the sheer amount of shots may result in a few keepers. Today was different though…I practiced patience. It took self-control but it improved my photography more than I could have thought. Taking a few extra seconds, making sure everything was properly set and choosing my shots wisely. This made all the difference on day three, and it could not have come at a better time.

At the end of the day, with about two hours of sunlight left, magic struck. From deep within the forest emerged a mother bear and close behind, three spring cubs. The cubs were no more than 4 months old, and looked the part. They were more skittish than any animal I had encountered before. Before we could move into position the three young ones were up a tree. The agility and quickness of cubs that small is astounding. Before we could set up tripods they were nearly 30 feet up birch trees, resting anxiously in the branches. Then we saw the origin of the disturbance; a juvenile bear had wandered into the area and mom got busy chasing it away while the cubs waited and we photographed, and boy did we photograph!


One of the cubs was higher than the others and had found what looked like a comfortable spot to wait out the action. At first the cub was nervous, looking around, eagerly waiting for mom to give the all clear. When that did not happen, it began to get visibly tired. It would stretch its arms and legs, yawn, and nestle closer to the tree, eventually closing its eyes. The two siblings began climbing higher, toward the sleepy cub, themselves growing tired and finding a comfortable spot to rest.

For almost two hours I got to sit, photograph, and wonder at three small cubs, peacefully asleep in the trees. The female foraged at the base, all the while protecting her progeny. I will never forget this encounter with wild bear cubs. Encounters like these will always be remembered, even if there is no photo to show for it. 

Walking with Black Bears

June 10, 2014  •  1 Comment

The north woods of Minnesota are filled with beauty. The late arrival of spring has left a chill in the air and the trees have yet to cast their green shade over the land. Just south of the Canadian line, I have spent the last week photographing wild black bears in the woods near Orr, Minnesota. Orr boasts the largest concentration of black bear in North America and May is the perfect time to view bears. During this season they have a voracious appetite. They have spent the last 9 months or so "hibernating" (there is debate in the field whether bears can be considered true hibernators, most agree that when bears are denning they are not actually hibernating but share many characteristics with true hibernators) and when they emerge they need to start gaining the weight that had been lost while denning. This time of year is also exciting because female bears are emerging from dens with their spring cubs in tow. I came to Minnesota looking to not only photograph black bears but to also improve my photographic abilities. Under the tutelage of Charles 'Chas' Glatzer and his company, Shoot the Light, I was lucky enough to join a workshop on black bear photography. Chas has been visiting this area for the past decade and has an intimate knowledge of bear behavior and a knack for teaching the photographic process that proved valuable during the last week. 

I arrived to the north country and checked into the hotel and met with the rest of the group. We were a diverse bunch coming from all over the country. After a safety briefing and lesson on the difficulties photographing black bears (the color of black bears makes it very difficult to correctly expose a photograph and bring out the detail in an all black body) we went to bed, anticipating the next morning.  


Day 1

Waking up at 5 o'clock is usually a nuisance, but when you are waking up to go track and photograph black bears, it is no burden at all! After a half hour ride to our shoot location we disembarked, assembled equipment, set up tripods, cleaned lenses, and used copious amounts of bug dope to combat ticks. Within in the first 30 minutes of being on our shoot we encountered our first bear...then another...then another...and before we could figure out our settings we had about 5 bears in front of us! Shutters clicked and sounded like machine gun fire as we watched in awe of bears coming out of the woods. We were then greeted by a mother and 5 yearling cubs. They stayed close to mom but are gaining independence and will soon be independent. I scrambled to adjust my setting with the changing light and all the while we had Chaz teaching us about how to use the light to our advantage, how to expose properly for bears, and challenging us to use the camera as a tool.


Bears came and went and while they disappeared into the woods we were greeted by many birds. Rosy-breasted grosbeaks, american goldfinches, yellow-headed black birds, downy woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and many more came into the area and were great subjects to practice our bird photography. After nearly 5 hours of photographing we headed to Orr to have some lunch. I was grinning ear to ear from the experience! Then it was back to hotel for a download dash and clearing of cards for the afternoon session.

The afternoon session did not disappoint and we had more bears then we knew what to do with! As the sun faded the call of a barred owl pierced the northern air and we departed the woods ecstatic with our day of photography. At the end of the day our bear count was up to 15 yearling cubs, 4 or so females, and 2 big males in the area. If this was any indication of the week to come, I was in for some of the best photography of my life... 






Awaiting the Migration

April 22, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

As the long winter comes to an end and we are greeted with warmer weather, the spring migration of beautiful passerines is just around the corner! It is still early for the masses of warblers and other migrants to come through, but the nice weather has allowed me to get out and do some birding. This last week I took a break from writing papers, creating presentations, and making posters (ah, the life of a grad student) and grabbed my gear and headed to the Arboretum. The Nichols Arboretum here at the University of Michigan is a birding hotspot in southeast Michigan and over 178 species have been recorded here! It is well known for the warblers that come through in the spring migration, which should only be weeks away. In preparation I thought I should get out and brush up on my identification skills and see what species I could see, and hopefully photograph in an afternoon. 

I started my adventure at the western entrance to the arb, walking through the peony garden and heading toward the river. There are still no buds out and it could easily be confused with fall, but there were still birds to be seen! The northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinals) were making their distinctive calls and one male came down to say hello.

The recent controlled burns of some of the meadow areas made spotting birds a bit easier as they were foraging for food in the burnt patches. I heard the call of the chipping sparrow (Spizella passerine) and finally managed to track it down, puffed up to keep warm from the chilly winds. 

Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)

In the commotion of trying to photograph the sparrows I recognized a call but could not put my finger on it. I looked up above me and there was a beautiful eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis). I never tire of seeing these strikingly colored birds. I was lucky enough to get a few photographs before it flew off to something more riveting than staring at my camera lens.

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

I then moved down to the Huron River and walked alongside it for about a half a mile or so. In the trees opposite it I could hear cardinals calling back and forth, a sound that I love. I crossed the river and headed toward a string of lakes on the northern side. On my way there I saw a tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor). In North America, the species represented in this family, paridae, that have crests are called titmice while those lacking a crest are chickadees. I did spot a pair of black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) as well, here you can see the lack of a crest on the chickadee.  

Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)


Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)

I then made it to one of the ponds and was excited to see some waterfowl. I was actually hoping to see a common loon as I had heard reports of them being seen in the past few weeks but no luck. I spent a good amount of time with the mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and just love photographing the males and females with their striking difference in colors. 

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)


Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)


The last one on the list for the day were the mute swans (Cygnus olor). Mute swans are beautiful birds with regal white plumage but have been a species of concern for biologists. They are native to Europe but have been introduced or escaped all over the world. Free-living populations can now be found in scattered locations in temperate and coastal areas of North America. 

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

It was a great day to get out and have some time to photograph some of the avian life nearby, dust off the binoculars and get ready for migration season. More updates to come...as the semester winds down, hopefully I will have some more time to get out and add some species to my life list and take some more photographs!

First Trip to the Sabi Sands

May 26, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Sabi Sands, nestled adjacent to the Kruger National Park, combines the legend of Kruger Park with unrivaled luxury and some of the best wildlife sightings in the lowveld.  Since my first trip to South Africa in 2007 I had always been enchanted by the Sabi Sands and what photographic and wildlife experience it had to offer.  Now, after living in the lowveld for the past two years my chance to visit the legendary Sands arrived!

Gowrie Gate, Sabi Sands, South Africa

Kaggie and I left work early and headed to Djuma Private Rest Camp where we were meeting up with some of her friends at the Galago Camp.  After about two hours of driving through small towns, busy streets and endless km's of dirt road we arrived at Gowrie Gate....I felt like I had just made it to heaven!  We paid our conservation fee and headed off to Djuma.  After a few wrong turns and a little cheeky exploring of the Sands we found the camp and were welcomed by our guide, tracker, and housekeeping staff...quite a change of pace from the current house filled with 18 volunteers and 7 staff!  

Dam near Djuma Galago Lodge, Sabi Sands

Djuma Galago is gorgeous, absolutely beautiful.  It is nesteld near a dry river bed with a viewing deck overlooking an open plain.  The rooms and cottages are nestled about 200m away from the main house, which also has additional bedrooms.  The dining room is outside next to the lovely braai pit.  The whole ambience of the place is a combination of comfort and rustic bush chic.  

Djuma pool


Djuma living area


Rooms at Djuma Game Reserve


Game viewing deck by dining room


The true gem of Djuma though is the veld and the wildlife.  Many of the lodges and private reserves in the Sabi Sands are world famous for their wildlife sightings....think Londolozi for leopards.  Djuma offered up some amazing wildlife sightings for us during our stay including several lion sightings, elephants, plenty of plains game and on our last drive....Karula, the 15 year old queen of Djuma.  This female leopard is very well known to both guides and the tourists that have visited.  While were there she had two cubs whom we caught a brief glimpse of in the drainage line.  

Here are some of our amazing sightings!!!

Overall, an amazing experience!  I can happily check this dream off my list and would love someday to return in the future!

One of my better drives...

March 15, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

It has been an exciting week here on Karongwe Private Game Reserve and the whole place has been swarming with activity.  On our reserve we have had two lionesses in a boma (enclosure) to acclimate them to the reserve.  It has been amazing watching our pride of lions sit outside the boma and just watch them, every once and while attempting to assert dominance over the new females by bluff charging the fence and scent marking the outside.  This week we darted the two new lions in the boma so we could put an implant in one (for future tracking/research purposes) and some of the GVI staff team was invited along.  

Then just a few days later a carcass was discovered on the reserve and we knew with a fresh carcass comes predators!  Our coordinator set out a few camera traps and we tried to get some sleep, all anxiously awaiting morning drive, like little kids on christmas eve, to see what predators may show up.  Kaggie was first on the scene and to her dismay nothing much was happening.  I was taking the long way to the carcass and had a quick visual of a young male leopard, most likely the one we call 'Tula' scent marking and vocalizing.  Leopard number one....check.


Then, as we approached the carcass Kaggie called in over the radio visual of a large male leopard, Tsavo had made his presence known!  We hurried toward the carcass but by the time we approached he had slinked off into the bushes so we waited patiently, hoping he would return.  Our patience paid off and after about 30 minutes he sauntered back toward the kill, approaching cautiosly.  This was only the second occasion that I had seen this large male but the stories of how relaxed he is are certainly true.  Sitting only about 20 meters from the carcass we watched in silence as he began to feed on the carcass, the sounds of bones crunching and tearing meat was like music to my ears!

Male leopard feeding, South Africa

We watched and photographed this beautiful cat for nearly 30 minutes before he slowly walked off, scent marking along the way.  We sat and waited for the next two hours to see if he would return but no luck.  Though he did not return we knew he was still in the area as we could hear him vocalizing every few minutes the entire time.  Leopard two....check.  

Male leopard growling, South Africa

After a short lunch break we returned to the carcass hoping again that Tsavo would be hungry and return.  This time though we were greeted by two hyenas!  They approached and pulled apart the rib cage, dragging it away and feasting on it.  Even as they ate we could still hear Tsavo vocalizing, nothing quite like having two large predators only a 100m away while you sit in an open game viewer watching and photographing!

Hyena with a rib-cage from a kill

The hyenas had their fill and we decided to go for a coffee break, the stink of carcass and early morning began to take its toll!!  We came back one more time after an hour or so later and this time something completely different....hundreds and hundreds of vultures!!  As we drove up to the familiar spot the vultures were feasting on the carcass and this was the first time I seen something like this so close!  They surrounded the carcass in the trees, waiting their turn in the hierarchy before descending with massive wing-spans and landing awkwardly next to the carcass.  Then the feeding frenzy truly begins.  

Vultures at a kill



It was amazing to see how quickly and efficiently the vultures dealt with the carcass.  Even more incredible to watch the a carcass from a few days after death and waiting and watching the decomposition process to begin and all the roles the animals play, both big and small.  Nature always amazes me and I can only be grateful for the things I have been able to see here. 


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