August 2013: Grizzly Bears
My friend Marcy wanted to see a moose – when I have a friend who wants to see a moose, well that’s my call to action! I picked her up at 6 am on August 10, 2013 and we set out west with high hopes of fulfilling Marcy’s ungulate-viewing aspirations. Shortly after arriving in moose territory, we spotted a very patient cow and her calf. They were beautiful, and we were fortunate enough to spent a good 15 or 20 minutes observing and photographing them (in great light!). But I promised Marcy I would get her home by 11, so just before 9am we turned around and headed back towards Calgary. I should have known better than to make such a promise – wildlife does not seem to care about the city-folk deadlines, and we were heading towards another amazing encounter…
Just after we left the moose, we found a couple of cars pulled over on the side of the road – often a good indication that there might be something afoot. It’s interesting – I love the solitude of driving or walking around looking for wildlife, but it’s actually pushed me to get over my natural shyness and strike up conversations with complete strangers (or potential wildlife enthusiasts). Virtually everyone I’ve talked to is more than happy to share experiences on what they’ve seen. So, whether in the car or on foot, I usually ask people if they have seen anything exciting and it often pays off (as it did in this case). The people in the cars informed us they had seen a grizzly mom and two cubs just up the road. Yes!
We excitedly drove up a few hundred meters – found nothing, turned around and drove back a few hundred meters – still found nothing. I asked Marcy how important her 11am timeline was and she said she had a bit of a buffer. So, we pulled over and waited. About 15 minutes later, we figured we missed the opportunity. Just as I was about to pull back on the road, a flash of movement grabbed our attention. A dark, brown grizzly bear cub (Brownie) lumbered across the road and started munching on the vegetation on the other side. We inched close enough to grab a few shots before he crossed back to the other side. Then we spotted a lighter blond grizzly cub (Blondie), nuzzling through the bushes on the other side of the road. A significantly larger figure, that could only be mama grizzly, emerged from the trees shortly after. For a good 15 minutes we were treated to an amazing show. This Grizzly bear family was on a mission, feeding on buffalo berries and various other types of vegetation in preparation for the winter.
What a treat! We were able to follow them slowly in the car as they worked their way along the bank. Not only were we ridiculously close as times, the light was actually in our favor with the sun directly behind us. Blondie was never too far behind from mom’s side, but Brownie was much more bold, roaming far behind on his own. I don’t actually know if Brownie is male – it just seemed like he was the brother and Blondie was the sister. What an amazing Grizzly bear encounter, and that was only the third time I had even seen grizzly bears in the wild. How do I beat that?
About a week later, I was out in that same area again, this time with Turbo. It was fairly early in the morning and we rounded a corner to see the figure of a bear in the distance and a young bull moose with a broken antler running towards us. A bear and a moose in one field of view!
We captured a few shots of the moose as he ran, then headed towards the bear. He stood up on his hind legs, sniffed the air, then walked out onto the road in front of us with a mouth full of grass. Then he turned, went back in the direction he came and disappeared into the trees.
A few kilometers down the road, another bear was eating berries on the side of the road. For this one, Turbo stopped so I could get into the back of the truck for a better vantage point as we drove closer. We got a chance to watch him eat berries for a minute or two before he went back into the trees. It was turning into a great day!
We decided to do another pass through moose/grizzly bear area, and at around 1pm, it was looking like our luck was running out. We hadn’t seen anything in about two hours and mid-afternoon is not exactly prime bear or moose time. Just as we were commenting on how unlikely it would be to find anything else, the last grizzly encounter of the day materialized. This time, a sow and a cub. We saw them working their way through a bushy clearing, but too fast and concealed for any pictures.
We pulled forward to the next clearing in the direction they were headed, and waited. Sure enough, they appeared shortly after we stopped, and this time we got a bit more of a view before they disappeared again. Again, we pulled ahead to the next clearing, and they emerged again, crossed the road right in front of us, walked for a bit along the tree-less edge of the road, then moved off into the bush.
August was a great grizzly bear month for me, with a total of 7 on these two days. Prior to this, I had only had two grizzly encounters – one in June 2012 (a sow and three cubs) and one in June 2013 (one female – I think).
Grizzly Bears vs. Black Bears
I also saw many Black Bears in 2013, mostly in Waterton, but those experiences will have to wait for a another post. I did however want to make few comments on how to tell a black bear from a grizzly. One key feature of grizzly bears is a large hump between their shoulders. However, if you are viewing the bear head on (as opposed to a profile), it can be a bit hard to tell. Size and color are not good indicators because they both vary depending on sex, ago, etc. Grizzlies also have more of a sloping snout and black bears have a smoother face profile. I also have noticed, while there are similarities in color, the texture of the grizzly bear coat is more wiry than black bears.
View more bear images in my mammal gallery and watch for my next post: September 2013: The Pika.