Tag Archive: brown bear


Another day of watching the brown bears fish at Brooks Falls at Katmai National Park, on the live bearcam they have set up there. As I’ve mentioned before, this bearcam is set up at the same location as a wooden platform that is physically available for visitors of the park to stand and watch the bears fish live in person. This image, taken from the Google maps photo uploads, shows exactly how close the platform is to the falls, and how close the park visitors can get to where the bears are fishing:

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The visitor’s platform at Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park

This leads me to wonder how this proximity to humans might affect the food-gathering/fishing habits of the bears here at Brooks falls. As I’ve wondered in a previous post, it’s possible that bears less comfortable with the human presence might stay in the far pool to fish, or indeed, may not come to these falls to fish at all, but might prefer other, less desirable fishing spots along the river that are less likely to be visited by humans. I’ve noticed, when the sound is working on the cameras, that the visiting humans will tend to cheer when a bear catches a fish, similar to spectators watching s sports match. This could be distracting to the bears, or intimidating to them, or affect them in some other way. Bears more comfortable with the human presence might be more likely (or more able) to fish at the spots on the falls that are closer to the visitor’s platform, namely at the lip or the jacuzzi spots. These also seem to be the spots where bears are more likely to catch fish, in my observations. I have seen more bears catch fish (or bears catch more fish) at these locations than bears at the far pool or in the space between the jacuzzi and the far pool.

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While the Brooks Falls webcam at Katmai National Park is more popular and seems to have a great deal more activity on a daily basis in terms of brown bear-watching, I was determined to find some bears at the other cam, downriver at the mouth of Brooks River, at the Lower River webcam. After several days of checking in there, I finally caught a glimpse of a bear there for enough time to feel like it was worth including here. Following my previous conventions, I’ll refer to this bear as Bear G.

First, a note about the Lower River webcam. While the Brooks Falls webcam seems to focus almost exclusively on the Falls themselves, with an occasional pan to the right to see downstream a bit, the Lower River webcam covers a much wider area near the mouth of the Brooks River. It seems to pan across an almost 360-degree space, including the mouth of the river, a pedestrian bridge crossing the river, and a somewhat marshy-looking area of the river banks with taller grasses, a bit farther upriver from the mouth. Depending on the time of day and the amount of activity in each spot, the camera could be focused on any of these areas, or somewhere in between. There definitely seems to be an “operator” of some kind who monitors the camera, panning and zooming based on when there are bears or other interesting things present, and moving the camera to different views of the river from time to time.

So… around 1:15pm local time today, I saw Bear G near the mouth of the Brooks River, walking across a small strip of land at the farthest point near the river’s mouth. Bear G is light brown to dark blonde in color, with a roundish-dish-shaped face, darker fur on its legs and chest, and a darker patch of fur on the back of its neck. It seems to have a slightly short, perhaps upturned snout, and seems a bit thinner and smaller than some of the other bears I’ve seen. No other distinguishing marks were visible due to the distance. Bear G walked along the narrow strip of land, sat at the end of the point of land for a moment or two, looked around, scratched itself behind the ear in much the way you would see a domestic dog scratch itself, then turned, walked back a bit, and went into the water away from the camera and began to swim off to the left. It would stop every so often and sort of get into a standing posture, look around, then go back into a swimming posture. After swimming off diagonally to the left a bit, it turned, swam directly right back toward the land, where it eventually came out of the water further to the right from where it had gone in, and began to walk back off to the right, off camera.

It wasn’t entirely clear to me what behavior the bear was demonstrating here. It may have been foraging for fish (though it did not catch any if it was fishing), may have been looking for another bear, may have been performing some kind of recreational activity (just swimming for fun), or something else.

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After my last post, later that same evening, I was able to witness a bit more fishing activity at Brooks Falls, again at the Brooks Falls Live Cam. I only watched for a short time, and while there were two bears present, I focused on one, witnessing some interesting behavior in terms of the way it handled the fish it caught. Following my pattern, I will refer to this bear as Bear F. Bear F is of a dark blonde to light brown color throughout most of its coat, with lighter blonde on the ears and a darker brown on the legs. It seems to have a somewhat more pronounced brow than some of the other bears I have seen, a roughly average-length snout, and some possible scarring on the left front shoulder (difficult to tell given the resolution of the video).

Bear F was fishing at the lip at Brooks Falls as I watched. What was most interesting about it’s behavior was that after catching a fish and moving to the nearby flatter rock to eat the fish (a common enough behavior for those bears that fish at this spot), Bear F only seemed to eat part of the fish before going back to the lip to continue fishing, not eating all of the fish. I’m not sure if this is common, but the other bears I’ve seen have largely seemed to eat most or all of the fish they’ve caught before going to catch another. Once Bear F moved back to the lip to catch more fish, some nearby birds arrived almost immediately and began foraging on the fish carcass, eating the meat leftover from Bear F’s catch, until the fish fell over the falls. Bear F caught another fish within a matter of moments and went on to eat that one as well. Perhaps the amount of meat left on the first fish in comparison to the inedible parts of the fish wasn’t worth the time the bear would spend picking apart, in comparison to the time it took to catch another fish. Time was better spent fishing and obtaining the next meaty fish rather than scrounging for every last bit of meat left on the first one? This seems to work out well for the birds, and Bear F didn’t seem to mind the birds swooping in on the fish.

Possible IDs: TBD

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I was excited to start my first day of real “field observation” with the webcams set up along the Brooks River at Katmai National Park, to kick off my brown bear watching project. I had checked out all of the available webcams casually, to make sure they would work, primarily to ensure good enough resolution for me to be able to rely on them for field observation. But I had overlooked the time difference between my home in New Orleans and the “bearcams” in Alaska. So the first time I had set aside for field observations, it was too early in the morning Alaska time for me to see the bears very well. Still, I was able to get a few minutes of bear-watching in before I had to go about the rest of my day.

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 11.12.25 AMThe live feed at Brooks Falls was the only camera with any bear activity at the time I checked in this morning. I saw two bears at the falls, at spots the park refers to as “the far pool” and “the jacuzzi”. Both were there for only a few moments. The one at the far pool (background of this image) was there when I turned on the feed, though it took me time to realize the shape was that of a bear and not a rock, as it wasn’t moving very much. Clearly from this video I was unable to tell if the bears were male or female, or any other distinguishing features, so I will call them Bear A (far pool) and Bear B (jacuzzi). Bear A was standing on top of some of the rocks, not in the water, and turned around a few times toward the falls and then looking downstream, and then turned back again. Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 11.11.53 AM

I then saw the second bear (Bear B) come in from the bottom right side of the screen. Bear B settled at the spot known as the jacuzzi (foreground area, near the base of where the falls hit). The bear kept looking around, including behind/downstream of their location, the entire time, rather than keeping their eyes on the falls. I don’t believe it successfully caught any fish during the time I was watching, and it only stayed in that spot for maybe 5-6 minutes before turning and walking back off-screen, slightly downstream and toward the bank of the river again.

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 11.04.06 AMBear A stayed was at the far pool the entire time, but because of the darkness it was difficult to keep track of it as it moved around in that area, so I was not able to tell if it was able to catch any fish or not.

So far it’s been difficult to capture any real information other than a) this is not the best time of day for me to try to watch the bears via video; and b) the bears seem willing to share some of the space at the falls with other bears, though I don’t have enough information about the bears to know whether they share with members of the same or opposite sex, age differences, or how common this is overall. I also know that the physical observation area for visiting tourists is near or at the same location as the camera, so it is possible that the bear fishing at the far pool is more wary of human interaction than the bear fishing at the jacuzzi.

I found some additional information on the favored fishing spots at Brooks Falls in the Katmai National Park eBook Bears of Brooks River 2015.  They include a helpful diagram including the names of the spots I’ve mentioned, such as the jacuzzi, the far pool, and “the lip”, a spot on the top side of the falls, as favorite spots where the bears will sit to fish.

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To serve as an introduction to the species before I begin logging my own observation notes, here’s a brief overview of the brown bears found in Katmai National Park. Their scientific name is Ursus arctos; they are commonly known as both the brown bear and the grizzly bear. From what I’ve been able to tell so far, the difference between the two is somewhat arbitrary, and has more to do with where they’re found rather than an actual difference in genetics. Those bears found closer to the coasts and relying more heavily on fishing (such as the ones at Katmai), are known as brown bears, while those found further inland, and may have access to mountain goats, sheep, and moose, are more often known as grizzly bears, a subspecies of brown bears (Ursus arctos horribilis).

Geography & Habitat

Brown bears occur throughout Alaska except on islands south of Frederick Sound in southeast Alaska, west of Unimak in the Aleutian Chain, and Bering Sea islands. They also occur in Russia, northern China, northern Japan, Europe, western Canada, and in limited portions of the northwestern United States. (Source: Alaska Department of Fish & Game)

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Image Source: Alaska Department of Fish & Game

Physical Description

Katmai’s brown bears are some of the largest bears in the world. They can stand 3-5 feet (.9-1.5 m) at the shoulder and measure 7-10 (2.1-3 m) feet in length. Most adult males typically weigh 600-900 pounds (272-408 kg) in mid-summer. By October and November, large adult males can weigh well over 1000 pounds (454 kg). Adult females average about 1/3 less in weight than adult males. (Source: National Park Service)

Brown bears in the wild can live for 20 to 30 years, although most brown bears die in their first few years of life. In captivity, brown bears have been known to live up to 50 years. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Fur is usually dark brown, but varies from cream and light blonde to almost black. Individuals in the Rocky Mountains have long hairs along the shoulders and back which are frosted with white, giving a grizzled appearance, hence the common name grizzly bear in that region. Brown bears are extremely strong and have good endurance; they can kill a cow with one blow, outrun a horse, outswim an Olympian, and drag a dead elk uphill.(Source: Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology)

Mating & Reproduction

Brown bears mature sexually between 4-6 years of age, but continue growing until 10-11 years old. Bears have been known to live and reproduce in Yellowstone Park at 25 years of age, and potential lifespan in captivity is as great as 50 years. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Female brown bears copulate with multiple males during estrus, which lasts 10 to 30 days. Males may fight over females and guard them for 1 to 3 weeks. Female receptivity is probably communicated by scent marking throughout her territory. (Wilson and Ruff, 1999

The brown bear mating system is polygynandrous (promiscuous), and takes place from May to July. Fertilized eggs develop to the blastocyst stage, after which implantation in the uterus is delayed. The blastocyst becomes implanted approximately 5 months after mating, usually in November when the female has entered her winter sleep. A 6 to 8 week gestation follows, with births occurring from January to March (usually while the female is still in hibernation). Total gestation time, including pre-implantation, ranges from 180 to 266 days. Females remain in estrus throughout the breeding season until mating occurs and do not ovulate again for at least 2 (usually 3 or 4) years after giving birth. Two to three offspring are generally born per litter. (Source: Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology)

Cubs are born in the den during January and February. Twins are most common, but litter sizes can range from 1 to 4. When the cubs emerge in June, they may weigh up to 15 lbs (7 kg) and they actively explore their world under the constant supervision of their mothers. Mothers can be furiously protective of cubs, however less than half of the cubs survive. Families typically stay together for 2 or 3 years and after separation female cubs tend to stay near where they were raised while males go farther afield. Most brown bears are sexually mature at 5 years old; however females often do not successfully produce a litter until later. The mating season is in the spring (May to July) and they are serial monogamous (have one mate at a time, but several each year). The oldest brown bear in Alaska was a 39 year old female, while the oldest male was 38. (Source: Alaska Department of Fish & Game)

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Image Source: National Park Service

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The brown bears I’m observing for my field notes assignment are found in Katmai National Park & Reserve in Alaska, USA. According to the Katmai website, there are approximately 2,200 brown bears inhabiting the Park, and, in their words: “As many bear populations around the world decline, Katmai provides some of the few remaining unaltered habitats for these amazing creatures. At Katmai, scientists are able to study bears in their natural habitat, visitors are able to enjoy unparalleled viewing opportunities, and the bears are able to continue their life cycle largely undisturbed.”

For a geographical context, here’s a series of sequentially more zoomed-in maps (via Google Maps) of the location of Katmai National Park & Reserve in Alaska, the Brooks River & Falls, and the corresponding live webcams which allow for Internet-wide viewing of brown bears at Katmai.

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