Black Bears Part I: A Basic Background

March 16, 2009

Note: This series is based on personal experience, but it is important to note that any wild animal is capable of being extremely dangerous. Seek expert guidance if you are interested in serious photography or research ventures.

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are a nearly constant presence in temperate climates, but retreat into hibernation between mid-fall and early winter, making use of pits, hollowed trees or anything else of convenience. Black bears are also more easily roused during hibernation than their cousin, the brown bear (Ursus arctos). As warmer temperatures return, black bears, some with new cubs born during the winter, emerge between February and March.

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In my experience, the visible presence of this species increases throughout the summer, peaking around July or August, corresponding with the mating season. Initially, I had the most success finding bears to photograph in the few hours around dusk or dawn. As the summer and fall dragged on and food sources dwindled, I began finding bears at all hours of the day.

In my typical shooting area in Virginia around the Appalachian Mountains, black bears are the only bear species. Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) live on the other side of the country. I am thankful for that for a number of reasons:

  1. By comparison, black bears are significantly smaller than grizzly bears.
  2. Black bears favor fruits, berries and insects while grizzly bears are more likely to choose large animal prey.
  3. I have a personal belief that I would stand a better chance of frightening or defending myself from a black bear than a brown bear.

Although I would like to learn more about grizzly bears in the future, I am glad to currently work in an environment where a bear is always a black bear.

I have come to know and respect these animals while photographing a collection of images for Wildlife: A Photographic Record of the Shenandoah Valley. This series is intended to detail some of my observations regarding the species, as well as my preparations and experiences in the field.

Tune in tomorrow for the next segment, “The Signs.”

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