Before we begin, I want to note that you can click on any photo in this series to see it bigger in the lightbox. To return to the story, simply click the small "X" in the upper right corner of the lightbox.
Two weeks ago, realizing that June was well under way and many of natures babies would be starting to make an appearance (if they hadn't already), I decided to take a few days off of work to spend some time in Shenandoah National Park. The plan was to 1. find as many bears as possible, with the stretch goal of finding and photographing some first year cubs, and 2. find a few fawns along the way. Happily, I completed both of these goals...sans that nagging stretch goal.
Monday June 3rd, 2019
Monday, the second day I made the trip to the park (Sunday was mostly bear-less unfortunately), started off a bit slow, but eventually things would take a pleasant turn, when I located this younger black bear, wandering around in some brush. After trying to photograph it for a short time, it disappeared over a ridge. I tried to re-locate it and was initially unsuccessful. Thankfully, another friendly photographer flagged me down as he saw me walking around and pointed out that the little bear was making its way our direction through some ferns. Hoping to get a shot I've been after for a while, I decided to stay and watch for a bit. I sat patiently in some pretty thick brush, ever vigilant, watching for those pesky ticks, as the bear worked its way closer and closer. Eventually I started to wonder if I'd need to try and re-position myself as to not end up in the direct path that the bear was heading. Thankfully, the bear solved this problem for me by climbing up a nearby tree. My initial thought was that maybe the bear had spotted us and was retreating to higher ground for safety. That also turned out to be incorrect. Instead, this adorable little fellow, flopped down on a sturdy branch, and passed out. If you click on this shot to the right, you can even see a large strand of drool that began streaming from its mouth as it drifted off into its slumber.
This humorous display of drowsiness continued over the course of the next 2 hours. I left and returned to the spot a couple times during this period, once quickly running out to find a friend of mine so he could join in on the "excitement" of watching this bear sleep. You can see in this shot above how adorable and slightly terrifying this little fellow looks as it re-adjusted in the tree before dozing off again. You almost want to go cuddle it, until you notice those claws (Note: Don't ever try to cuddle a bear).
I particularly love the shots in this last grouping as they really show the diversity of positions in which a bear can sleep in a tree. We have yawning bear-loaf (see Cat-loaf for similar examples), "tell my your thoughts" position, completely passed out with all four legs dangling, and finally (checking his make-believe watch) "oh crap, what time is it, did I oversleep".
After a long nap, the bear made it's way back down the tree and into the forest. I continued watching it as it made its way through some ferns and flowers, feasting on various flora (and likely grubs) along the way. These two shots, despite the somewhat harsh light, are now some of my favorite bear shots as well, simply because I love the addition of the little yellow flowers surrounding the bear. I've wanted a shot like this for some time.
After taking a break on Tuesday of that week to get some much needed sleep, I returned to the park on Wednesday, but like the first day (Sunday), it was a fairly quiet day with little bear activity. I managed to find one along the drive, but it was in a tough position for photos. Eventually a truck that was a bit on the louder side rumbled past, startling the bear, which hopped into the nearest tree to see what all the ruckus was about. I snapped this shot and a few others, quickly, but that was about it for bear activity on Wednesday.
Having to return to work on Thursday, I thought maybe this would be the end of my story for my week of bears adventure in the park. I wasn't ready to give up on my mission just yet, however. I still hadn't captured any good overcast shots of a bear in the beautiful green ferns that were now blanketing many areas of the park, AND I still hadn't seen any baby bears. I'd have to find the energy to make at least another trip.
Saturday June 8th, 2019
The forecast for Saturday looked incredible. A full day of overcast conditions in the park was on tap...exactly what I was hoping for. Why? You might ask. Photographing bears on a sunny day is probably one of the more challenging feats in wildlife photography, and it is especially difficult in Shenandoah National Park in particular. To start, any sort of sun after the first 30-40 minutes past sunrise, starts causing some weird highlights on bears due to their almost entirely black coats. This can make metering difficult especially when there are highlights and glare happening on surrounding objects. Further, there are tons of shadows to deal with, which makes spotting bears in the woods difficult to begin with.
With the overcast skies, I would have an easy time spotting AND photographing bears. If only I could find them.
Starting that morning at Front Royal before sunrise (around 5:30am), I made my way south to Thornton's Gap (the second entrance). Nothing. On I continued to Big Meadows. Still nothing. At this point I had been driving for a solid 2.5 hours without seeing a single bear. The light was great and of course, I couldn't find a thing. Past Big Meadows, to mile marker 60 and back to Big Meadows. ... Nothing ..
Naturally I was starting to get a little frustrated at this point. Was the day going to be a waste? Then, finally, on a pass down a short road, something caught my eye. I pulled over, and there, in the woods ... IN THE FERNS ... IN OVERCAST. FREAKIN. LIGHT. was a fluffy black bear, just doing its thing.
It's hard to describe the level of excitement you feel when a shot that you've been after for literally years, finally comes together. I think there's an initial rush of adrenaline as you realize what's in front of you. And then there's a slight sinking feeling as you realize this is your chance and there's SO many ways you can mess it up.
I threw on my four ways, grabbed my camera and found a spot where I could line this bear up with a layer of ferns in the backdrop. Click. Click Click Click. Seeing the shots play out in the viewfinder...I was ecstatic. Even after the first burst of ten or so photos, I knew I had the shot I wanted. Naturally, that didn't stop me from snapping a few hundred more...just for good measure.
I've been fortunate enough to photograph a lot of black bears in Shenandoah National Park over the last number of years. For me, these will be hard to beat when it comes to photos of adult or sub-adult bears. I just LOVE the texture and color contrast that the ferns provide.
Following this initial interaction, the bear slowly made its way over a hill, disappearing into the depths of the woods. That wouldn't be the last of it, however. I decided to stick around in the general vicinity, suspicious that the bear may loop back and end up fairly close to where it was initially. My intuitions would prove correct about 30 minutes later. After a short walk around the area, I was making my way back towards my (now parked) car when I once again spotted this little fellow working its through some shrubs. I found a comfy spot nearby, sat down and just watched for another 20 minutes or so, during which time I captured a few more shots that I'm almost equally as happy with.
All in all, the few days that I got to spend in the park looking for bears turned out pretty great. There were many dull hours of driving around, but in the end it was worth the gas and the miles on the car. I'd estimate over the course of the four trips I took that week (Sun, Mon, Wed, Sat), I was probably in the park for close to 24 total hours. I think at the end of the day, that's what really matters when it comes to wildlife photography - being in the environment with your target subjects for as much time as possible. You're bound to eventually get lucky and stumble onto something.
As I made my way out of the park that Saturday, I got to see one more enterprising "little" bear before exiting. Standing along Skyline Drive, up on a rock wall, this bear just watched as park visitors passed underneath it. It would stop every once in a while to look around, amused I'm sure at all the commotion (read: bearjams) it was causing. But then, between glances, it would return to chomping on some grasses or looking for a small rock to flip over in search of grubs - you know - bear things.
For all the wildlife, like this bear that we do spot on trips through the park...it's fun to think about all the animals that are watching us, that we'll never notice. In that lies the gift of National Parks like Shenandoah. No matter how many times you've been there, no matter how well you know the park, every trip has the potential to yield a brand new experience.