I am back home for a brief four day break and am excited to report one of the best Julys I have ever experienced in my 12 years guiding grizzly viewing trips on the Katmai Coast. Beautiful weather set the stage for hundreds of exciting encounters with all of the usual residents of the wilderness. The last 3 weeks are so packed with memories that I would need to write a small book to tell all of the stories, but here is a brief summary of the highlights.
Bears were as plentiful as ever, and although mothers with spring cubs (born last Christmas) have been scarce, I have spent plenty of quality time with several other females with second and third summer cubs whom I remember from the last few summers. I was most excited to see a very special bear I named after my wife Melissa who had two spring cubs in 2009. She only has one male cub left named Scout, and around the 1st of July she kicked the little guy off on his own. Many females in Katmai will keep their cubs the entire 3rd summer, and sometimes into the 4th summer, so it’s a little early, but so far he has kept out of trouble. I have been able to locate him each time I visit his home range, and he looks pretty lonely, but very healthy and growing by the day, If he makes it through this crucial summer I am sure he will grow to be a giant, dominant male in ten to fifteen years.
The last few years have been utterly remarkable for wolf sightings, and this year has been the best so far. I know of a spot tucked away in the back of a sedge meadow where a beautiful pair of white wolves have denned for the past three summers. Unlike almost every wolf in Alaska, these wolves and their growing pack have realized that humans are not a threat deep in this protected national park. Around the 10th of July the first group of Natural Habitat travelers watched the alpha male and one of his teenage male sons playing with four new pups! This is a rare spectacle, especially while on foot from twenty yards away! The pups seem very healthy so far, and hardly even gave us a second glance as they ran past us. Just the other night the Alpha Male snuck up behind our group to within 15 feet to check us out. Here are some images taken by Ann Littlejohn who was quick with her camera (to see more of her work go to http://www.annlittlejohnphotography.com/.
The wolves on the Katmai Coast are relative newcomers. Ten years ago wolves were all but nonexistent on this coast, but I believe an exploratory pack arrived from the caribou grounds on the other side of the Aleutian Range and have learned to thrive from the bounty of the sea, much like the bears. I have seen them feed on a huge variety of prey including beaver, bear cubs, salmon, voles and other rodents, moose, flounder, clams, sandlance (small minnows trapped in intertidal pools) and this year even bird eggs from an island a mile offshore!
I know of a hidden gravel bar deep in a glacial fjord where the same family of oystercatchers returns each summer to raise a family. Over the years these birds have gradually become acclimated to me and my small groups of wildlife viewers. If you have seen black oystercatchers before you may have noticed that are not overly fond of human visitors, especially near their nest site. Not so with these guys! They are so comfortable with us that when we sit on the shore they will bring their chicks right past us, and feed them only 20 feet away. I have never actually met anyone who has seen an oystercatcher chick as they are free roaming after they hatch and hide in tall grass or under logs at the slightest hint of distant danger. This summer we enjoyed watching the pair care for their three adorable chicks many times.
We have been fortunate to rack up pretty solid lists of birds on each trip. Some of the birds we see regularly include the following; horned and tufted puffins, countless bald eagles, pigeon guillemots, kittlitz’s murrelets, black turnstones, parakeet auklets, black-legged kittiwakes, arctic terns, common eiders, harlequin ducks, common mergansers, greater yellowlegs, semipalmated plovers, northern harriers and short eared owls. We have also had excellent luck with sea otters, harbor seals, Dall’s porpoise, humpback whales, and river otters. Below is a image by Nicki Geigert, check out more of her photos at www.picturephotoart.com.
I am home for a few days and will try to post some video clips of our bear and wolf encounters, and those amazing little oystercatchers. On the 26th I return to Katmai for another Natural Habitat Grizzlies trip, and will be joined by head naturalist Eric Rock! This should be a really amazing trip.