Where the wild things are…
The European Brown Bear conjours up many images in our history; in Medieval times he was hunted & outlawed as a dangerous beast, bear-baited, made to dance & entertain the public, and yet in recent times he’s been turned into a soft toy that we all cherish. His territory extended right across Europe, now all but disappeared due to habitat pressure. It was therefore with great anticipation that I journeyed to Finland in June with fellow Natures Images’ photographers to find Europe’s finest & magnificent predator.
The best area to photograph the European Brown Bear is in the Kainuu wilderness in Finland, at a place called Martinselkosen. We have been running trips here for many years and know the area very well, and the photographic opportunities that it can provide. After flights from Heathrow to Helsinki, an internal flight to Kajaani and a 2 hour transfer to Martinselkosen, we checked into our rooms and started the process of adapting our body clocks. We had a day to adjust before going into our hides the following evening in search of the wild Brown Bear.
The site has three habitat areas (forest, pond & swamp) and we had exclusive use of the two-man pro hides, each location offering very different images. As a group, we would split up every night and rotate the locations, which meant that every one of us photographed at least once at each location. We would then all meet for a well-earnt breakfast and catch up, invariably with a lot of laughter about the previous night’s photography and antics. We would spend 14 hours every night in the hides and joked that a flexible photography partner, preferably with a sense of humour was a good idea!
The following images were taken from the pond hide on my first night. This location is best for habitat and reflection images, and these images were taken between 5pm and midnight. In June it never really gets dark, there was just twilight from midnight until about 3.30am. It is of course known as the land of the midnight sun. There was a beautiful female who appeared several times, followed in hot pursuit by a brute of a male with severe scarring on his muzzle. We naturally nicknamed him ‘Scarface’.
The swamp location was an open area which provided good image opportunities for Brown Bears in cottongrass. Over the course of the trip, we all witnessed many bears walking through this area, predominantly males or females with adolescent cubs. One night we were treated to the adolescents play-fighting which was really entertaining.
I was really hoping that we would see young cubs this year, in fact I had my fingers crossed that it would happen for us. I’d heard before we travelled to Finland that cubs had been spotted, but you never know until you’re there. We were really lucky to see a number of females with small cubs, the year’s new cute recruits. To watch them play and be able to photograph them was the icing on the cake. One little guy didn’t know what to do with his foot, he just rolled around, paw in the air. It was hard not to laugh at his antics.
June is prime mating season, and several dominant males were roaming their territories on the hunt for females. This behaviour sent shock waves into the docile creche. Mothers kept young cubs in the safe confines of the forest because a tree was a place of refuge for the cub to climb, just in case a dominant male appeared. Infanticide of cubs is a big risk, and females will often stay away from the choicest feeding grounds when they have small cubs to avoid running into males. The tension in the forest area one particular night was palpable, and we photographed the activity continuously for seven hours. Males appeared, the playing stopped, young cubs scampered up the nearest tree, and mothers & adolescents watched fearfully while keeping their distance. These images were taken in the forest hide with a 500mm, and a second body with a 70-200mm worked well for one particular male that walked right in front of our hide. Once the males were out of sight, calmness returned and the females and cubs went back to what they did best; forage, play and bask in the midnight sun. Photographing the cubs and the interaction between the youngsters and their mothers were the highlights of the trip for me.
Whenever I’m photographing bears, I’m always amazed at their ability to sit down, have a scratch and look as though they are contemplating life. A bit of anthropomorphism but it does make you wonder! As a group, we took such a wide range of images over the course of four nights in the hides. We returned to the UK tired but happy, with many great memories of the moments that we had shared. It was a privilege to photograph these beautiful wild bears, in a habitat where the ‘wild things are’.
I will be leading a trip to Martinselkosen again next June with Natures Images and Sylwia will be leading one too. If you’re interested in joining me check out the trip page. Given the amount of mating activity that we saw, I’m sure there will be young cubs again next year!
Before I go, I would like to share one final image of this beautiful creature. Many thanks to the group whose company I enjoyed immensely – Rob & Sue, John, Sandra, Simon, Greg & Marlene, and also to our Finnish friends at Martinselkosen. And many thanks for reading, I hope you have enjoyed the images as much as I did taking them.
EllieBack to news index