Trail cameras allow bears to be bears

Using trail cameras to research bears allows us to gain an up close and personal view of their day to day lives without the impact of constantly being viewed. They allow bears to be bears, which is the stuff we find really interesting to capture on film! This year was my first full field season using Bushnell HD video camera traps and, despite some design flaws, I don’t think I’ll be switching back to still image capture in the future.

GoPro Grizzly Bear Footage

Did everyone see the GoPro footage of a grizzly bear in the news recently? It was captured by my colleague John Kitchin and features a young grizzly bear picking up a GoPro camera in its mouth and examining it while its mother and sibling watch on. It is an excellent example of their handiness, mental capacity and inquisitive nature. I am actually in the video as John was interviewing me on the bridge when it happened.

Film courtesy of John Kitchin (kitchinsink.com/youmebear.com)

Update

Unfortunately I was not able to post live from the field this year as intended. However, I will be sharing with you some of my experiences, images and research findings from this past field season over the next few months. Stay tuned…

Collecting bear scent!

There has been lots of action on the camera traps over the past few days. The mating season has officially began, and we’ve seen two female grizzly bears pursuing one male out in the estuary. The mating season is always an exciting time, both for viewing bear behaviour and for collecting data! I’ve been out daily to my camera traps and have been taking scent samples when I’ve found evidence that scent marking has taken place. Examining the chemical constituents of bear scent will allow use to understand the chemical messages passed on through this behaviour. Can grizzly bears recognise individuals through scent? Can bears identify age and sex through scent? What about the estrus state of females? These are all questions we hope to address through this project.

Paper accepted to be published!

Happy to announce that our third paper from the bear scent communication project has been accepted for publication in the journal Animal Behaviour! The title of the paper is Scent marking investment and motor patterns are affected by the age and sex of wild brown bears. 

Old faces?

Today I went out to check the camera traps that I set up yesterday and scope out some locations for future monitoring. As I approached the first trail on which I have a camera, I stopped the vehicle and called out “Hey bear!” a few times. To stay safe in bear country it is always a good idea to make noise! It sounds like unusual behaviour around wildlife, but creating noise and letting bears know that you are in the area reduces your chances of spooking a bear and gives them enough time to move away if they wish. Calling out to bears in a low, calm voice also distinguishes us from hunters, who would want to remain unseen and unheard. Once I’d called out a few times and listened for any response (i.e. fallen branches breaking, indicating movement), I was just about to leave the vehicle when something caught my eye on the opposite side of the trail. It was a subadult grizzly bear who had been sleeping and had awoken at the sound of my voice and/or the vehicle noise. I watched as it stood up and very slowly and calmly started to move further up the hillside to a slightly higher vantage point, where it then lay down again. One thing that struck me was the silence as it moved up the hillside, no branches broke under its feet at all. Bears can be very silent or very noisy as they move through the forest, depending on the situation. I’ve even heard accounts of bears purposefully stepping on fallen branches to make noise and presumably make themselves sound like a larger bear. After a moment or so I noticed that the bear yawned, which may have been because it had just woken up, but can also be a visual signal of anxiety, so I decided to move on to my next trail. I will check that camera trap tomorrow.

Throughout my years in Glendale Cove, I have tried to keep track of the different individuals that we regularly see. This particular subadult looked familiar, and could possibly be a young bear named Peanut. Peanut was the first cub that Lenore (see previous posts) raised to independence. He was born in 2009 and split from Lenore in 2011. Peanut is quite a special bear to us at Knight Inlet Lodge, as we saw him and Lenore almost every day from 2009-2011 and were lucky enough to watch as he grew in size and personality towards independence. At 3 years old, he left the area (typical behaviour for young male bears) and we lost track of him. Bears can change so much in their appearance between seasons and over years, particularly at this young ‘teenage’ age before they reach maturity. So I’m hoping to see more of this bear over the next few days, and try to reach an opinion on whether it could be Peanut.

I also spent a few hours today touring the estuary in a small boat, looking for bears. I managed to see one young adult female grizzly bear. Surprisingly she also looked familiar. I suspect she could be a bear that we last saw in 2009/2010 named Bonnie. If it is her she would be approximately 10 years old now and, as she was not accompanied by cubs, could be in breeding condition. The breeding season for grizzly bears is usually mid May – mid July, so we may have some males in the area soon as they roam around at this time of year, looking for estrus females.

Hoping to see both bears again over the next few days and take some clearer photographs to make a more positive ID.

What a difference a day makes!

Glendale Cove

It was a much brighter day here in Glendale Cove today. This morning I set up 4 camera traps in the forest, with more planned to go up tomorrow. There were at least 7 bears out in the back of the estuary this afternoon, but unfortunately due to a falling tide I couldn’t get close enough to make a positive ID.

The 2014 research season has begun

The research season for 2014 has officially started. Yesterday, I arrived at Knight Inlet Lodge (my field site base) and have spent the first day and a half unpacking and sorting out research kit. For the next 5 months, I will be in Knight Inlet, BC studying the grizzly bears and taking out groups of guests to view bears and learn about more them. As we flew in yesterday we saw two family groups of bears from the float plane, one group had two cubs that were wrestling in the sedge meadows. This morning one of the resident female bears in the area, named Lenore,  made her way up the shoreline towards the lodge with her two cubs and spent some time feeding in the intertidal zone. Lenore is very tolerant of people and appeared comfortable feeding and investigating the area for about 10 minutes, before she caught the scent of something back down the shoreline and slowly made her way back. When bears choose to feed close to the lodge like this we remain quiet and respectful while observing them. While females with cubs will always remain vigilant to a certain degree, behaving predictably around these bears allows them to feed in front of us in this manner without showing any visible signs of stress or anxiety. We have a visual barrier between us, water (we are on a floating lodge), but this would in no way be a physical barrier for bears, they are excellent  swimmers. Instead they choose not to swim over, but to maintain a respectful distance for their own safety; further reiterating the fact that bears do not want to come into conflict with people and will avoid it if possible to protect themselves.

Lenore is regularly sighted in the area and we believe she is approximately 12-years-old. We believe she may have been born in this area and probably dens on a nearby mountain as she is always one of the first bears that is seen in the spring. Its going to be an exciting year for Lenore and her two female cubs, they are old and big enough to soon separate from her and become independent, termed ‘family breakup’. This will usually take place when a male comes into the area and Lenore will choose to leave her cubs and mate. I have witnessed this with Lenore in one previous season (2011), when in the space of a few hours she went from being side-by-side with her 2-year-old male cub, to leaving him to follow an adult male bear. From then on, when her male cub tried to approach, she would charge at him and chase him away. This may seem extreme but she needed to teach him that it was his time to be independent and her time to concentrate on feeding herself and preparing her body for her next litter of cubs. We still do not fully understand how hormones regulate this change in behaviour from maternal to mating, or even what type of association a mother would have with her cubs after family breakup.

Why study scent marking in grizzly bears?

I am often asked why I chose to research chemical signalling (aka scent marking behaviour) in grizzly bears. Well, one of the main reasons is that we still know so very little about how bears use odours to communicate! There have only been a handful of published studies which have looked at the behaviour in detail, and therefore we understand very little on the importance of this behaviour to bears. The implications of this lack in knowledge then has implications for the conservation and management of bears. If we don’t fully understand the ecological and social pressures which affect bears in their day-to-day lives, how can we expect to succeed in managing populations appropriately. Through our research, we aim to bridge this gap in knowledge using sound science conducted on wild populations.