Cades Cove 2023, Black Bear

July 09, 2023  •  1 Comment

When I go to Cades Cove, Black Bear are my favorite subject to photograph.  Pennsylvania Black Bear are quite a bit more afraid of people and the Cades Cove Black Bear are more acclimated to people.  The result is bears who aren't afraid of me!  They are still quite wild but at least they aren't ducking into the thick woods when seen.

That's what this photo essay is about.  Black Bears I encountered during a late April 2023 visit.  I hope you enjoy the photos, videos, and the stories behind them all.

You can't see it in this photo but this 2-3 year old was chewing on a section of leg bone that looked like it could have come from a deer.  When he looked up, I grabbed a few photos.

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This is the same bear after he stood up, turned around, and laid back down.

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During most of my hikes through the woods, I was accompanied by my travel partner Jake Dingel.  Many times we split up and met at a predefined rendezvous point.  Shortly after meeting at one of our locations, we spotted this bear walking down the hillside towards us.  He stopped to eat along the way. 

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There is quite a story behind this sow.  She and her three cubs hung out in the vicinity of the southern side of Sparks Lane and the Cades Cove Loop Road.  We happened to be driving when a Park Ranger stepped out in front of us and stopped traffic.  They closed Sparks Lane and any forward access to the loop road until she and her cubs crossed.  Since we were first in line, we pulled over and grabbed our gear.

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After a few minutes she allowed her cubs to follow.

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The family crisscrossed the road a couple times.  The Mom spent time eating the vegetation growing along the road while the cubs chased each other and climbed trees, putting on a nice show.

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We were told by the Park Ranger that people have been harassing this bear family by not leaving them alone.  It was getting to the point they were going to begin handing out fines.  The fines can be in the thousands of dollars.  Jake and I decided not to be a part of the problem and did not seek to photograph this family in the following days.  By the end of the week, a local bear expert told us there were a couple people placed in handcuffs and charged with harassment.

Even though some people during the week got lucky and saw this family feeding in the fields, this was the last photo I made during my one-time encounter.

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There is an alternative route out of Cades Cove if you want to take a break from the traffic. Rich Mountain Road is a one-way, 7-mile journey on a twisting gravel road that leads north out of Cades Cove and ends in the town of Townsend. The road winds through quiet forest with steep slopes on both sides.  We only saw one bear on this 7-mile road.  It was sitting on the low side of the road so we stopped and watched from a distance for a while.

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When we leave the road and hike the woods, streams, or meadow edges, we are watching for bear sign.  Usually we find bear droppings but this was a good sign bear were near.

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I think this is the same bear that was chewing on the bone the day before.  Today, eating grass was on his mind.

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We came across this sow and her three cubs in a dense section of the woods.  It was difficult to get a clean shot.  This is the sow standing up to eat leaves.

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She sat next to a tree and one of her cubs came running over.  I was hoping she would nurse them because she happened to sit in the only spot that I had a fairly clear view.  She didn't feed her cubs at this time.

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This two year old was seen a few days in a row in places within 100 yards of each other.  It must like that territory.

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This is a large male (boar) that we found far out in a field.  We took a few photos and moved on.

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Black Bears are omnivorous, meaning they will eat a variety of things, including both plants and meat. Their diet includes roots, berries, meat, fish, insects, larvae, grass, and other succulent plants.  This bear was high in a White Oak tree eating the spring flowers.  It's amazing how comfortable a Black Bear is high in trees.  Nothing bothers them even if the tree sways a lot.  Watch this short video to the end so you don't miss a little bear acrobatics.

Black Bear in White Oak

 

This image was made as the bear climbed the weak tree close to the end of the video.

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Once it climbed down at the end of the video, it continued to eat plants on the ground.

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There weren't as many sows with cubs in Cades Cove this year.  One of the reasons was the presence of at least two very large boars living in Cades Cove. 

Females give birth to cubs in January and the cubs stay with the mother for about 18 months.  She chases them off on their own just in time for mating season, which begins about June.  Unfortunately, females want to breed every two years but males want to breed every year.  Females won't mate if they have first year cubs.  So, male bears try to kill the cubs.  If they are successful, the female may mate.  No wonder male bears don't help raise cubs!

This is one of the large males I spoke about.  We found him grazing in a raspberry vine field.  Since it was April, the grass was still short and the vines haven't leafed out yet.  We wouldn't have this view two months later.

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He stopped eating grass long enough to look up at me.

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Other than the first couple days, the week was cloudy, cool, and wet.  It showered non-stop one day towards the end of our week.  It was nice because fewer people came into the park allowing us to drive around a little without getting stuck in "bear jams".  We found this bear laying on a thick branch about 30-40 feet off the ground.  I made several photos and video of this bear.  You will see more of him in the next video.

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This bear was difficult to spot at first.  It was in a thick part of the forest and it decided to sleep on a log.  Luck was on our side because it chose the only open area to lay down.

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It did wake up and look around a few times but laid its head back down.  After about 30 minutes, it woke up and walked away.

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We found this bear high in a White Oak tree on a rainy day.  It slept a lot and when awake, it was very active grooming itself.  We hoped we would get good photos and video when it finally came down so we waited in the rain about five hours.  It eventually came down and disappeared into the forest.  It was still a great way to spend five hours.

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This video contains clips of the three previous Black Bears you viewed.

Black Bears in Trees

 

This is an example of a sow with yearlings.  They are nearing 16 months old and, at that time, were about two months away from being set free on their own.  This sow had three yearlings with her and they had a lot of cinnamon color in their coat.  They didn't give great photo opportunities but I got a couple shots.

This is one of the yearlings.

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This is another of that yearling.

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This is the sow with her three yearlings in front of her.  How awesome would it have been if they all looked at me at the same time?  That is why we keep going back. Maybe next time I come across a sow with cubs or yearlings, they will give me a nice pose.

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Our last day in the Smokies brought us some sun, clouds, rain, and a rare event that I will never forget.  A large male Black Bear found a dead Wild Hog that was nearly as large as he was. He sat with the hog all day. Wild Hogs are a nuisance in the Smoky Mountains so they are culled by the Park Service or whomever they hire. I don't know the full story.

Anyway, I thought this would be a great opportunity to see some confrontations as other bear or Coyote try to steal a nibble.  I sat on a hillside for nearly nine hours hoping to catch a once in a lifetime confrontation.  It didn't really happen the way I would have scripted it but when was the last time wildlife ever followed a script.  

I put this 5 minute video together showing the events of the day.

Black Bear with Wild Hog

 

That wraps up this photo essay on the Black Bears I found this year in the Great Smoky Mountains.  I hope you enjoyed it.  It's the next best thing to being there.

Until next time,

Dan


Comments

Donna(non-registered)
Loved it, Dan! I got a quick trip to Cades Cove last summer and saw quite a few bear but most weren't anywhere close enough for my camera! Thanks for sharing!
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