Day 7 was half a day in the field and yet, between all of us, we still managed to achieve three dens, several scats and day beds. We wrapped up the field research by a local beauty spot, where everyone met up for cake, soup, tea and coffee to celebrate our achievements by a fire, reflecting on a week that has flown by.
Back at base, we entered data gathered into a laptop and started to clear up. Andrea gave a ten-minute presentation summing up how we have helped her research and thanked us for this. Here’s the final tally: We documented all 24 dens of the study site, collected over 100 bear scats – which was well beyond Andrea’s target – recorded 30 day beds, 8 carcasses and a multitude of other interesting events such as gnawed antlers, encounters with moose, fox, owls and other animals. Andrea’s words of gratitude were not just a polite ‘thanks’. She explained to us how she absolutely relies on our citizen science contributions to carry out significant parts of her work on brown bear ecology in a changing world of climate change and forestry. Essentially, if we were not here to do it, it would probably not get done.
We in turn want to return the gratitude and say thank you very much to Andrea for being so welcoming and patient with us, and letting us be part of her world for an all too short summer week here in Sweden. In the words of Neil: “We’ll be back”.
This is Roland, the assistant expedition leader, taking over from Matthias after being shown the ropes and finding my feet.
It is day 6 of our Sweden bear conservation project and we have now settled into the rhythm of each day of brown bear conservation research. Each day proceeds with quiet confident efficiency. We get up early, gather our research tools, are given our tasks for the day by our chief scientist Dr Andrea, and set off in three teams armed with a list of locations to reach. We get as close as possible by vehicle along remote forest tracks and then it’s on foot after that, negotiating bogs, boulders, tree stumps, steep slopes and forests of varying degrees of impregnability to navigate our way to very specific locations. The location of a hibernation den is indicated by a constant, immovable GPS signal that a bear with a GPS collar left all last winter, unknowingly transmitting its co-ordinates – and usually a range of biometric data too – to Andrea via the mobile phone network. A cluster site is simply a place where the GPS data tell us that a bear has recently spent at least a few hours in one small area. Why? We enjoy the detective work needed to answer this question. It may be where the bear killed and ate a moose calf or simply lay down for a rest for a while – a hollow in the ground and flattened vegetation indicates such a ‘day bed’. Above all, a cluster site gives us the best chance of finding bear scat, which is prized by Andrea for its research value.
So our days are filled with the hunt for clusters and dens – and a myriad of other signs of bears in the landscape, all carefully documented according to Andrea’s research protocols. At the time of writing, we have located and surveyed 17 dens, recorded 23 day beds and bagged up 65 samples of bear scats: all in all a major contribution to the long-term brown bear research project. And we haven’t quite finished yet.
And along the way we have had daily encounters with wildlife: we have spotted owls, capercaillies, a glimpse of an eagle, a friendly fox and occasionally a moose or two wandering through the wetlands.
The final cluster site visited today by Team Christiane/Neil/Roland took little detective work to reveal why the tracked bear had spent five hours there. The massive decaying carcass of an adult moose lay unapologetically scattered in a hollow.
Today is our last day in the field. Half day, actually, because we will spend the other half entering the data we gathered into computers so that Andrea can analyse them – another piece of the puzzle of effective brown bear conservation in Sweden.
As I rise before seven in my cabin, the morning chorus is in full swing. The wood creaks a little from the sun shining on it, fairly high in the sky already. The grass outside is a soft green carpet that caresses my feet as I wander over to the shower block. Fellow citizen scientists greet me sleepy-eyed on the way. A young red squirrel sits on the steps, seemingly unperturbed by all of us around. A crane flies in and settles on the meadow for a morning graze. The sky is blue and white, full of promise of a good day ahead.
The smell of coffee greets me as I walk into the main house and kitchen, busy with the team having breakfast and making their lunch packs for the day out. Before eight we gather round the map that ominously fills one entire wall, showing how large the study site is and how many bears it can hold in this landscape of forest and water. Andrea, our scientist, has prepared our maps and tasks, a sheet of lines and numbers that would have meant nothing to me only three days ago. Now it holds the keys to my day ahead. Andrea explains where each group should go and briefs them all individually. We then work out the best route to drive there to get us as close as possible to our target sites. Today we have a bear den and a few bear position clusters on our list. The den positions are know den sites that need to be documented. The clusters show where a bear has spent some time in one place. It is our job to find out why it has spent time there. It could be a good feeding site (for example a carcass the bear can feed on). It could be a day bed for a rest. Or something else.
Today the drive to our first site is about one hour, mainly along a very smooth gravel road and past pretty lakes, waterfalls and seemingly endless forest.
Once at the site, we do two things. First, mark the car position in the GPS so that we can easily find it again. And second – where necessary – check there is no bear at the site. This is done by radio telemetry. If there was a bear nearby, I would hear a clicking beep in the receiver. No sound, so off we go.
It’s only 363 m to the den by the GPS. But that can take a while as the going is usually slow over pathless and broken terrain. Today it’s especially tricky as this site has recently been logged, so there are logs, stones, roots and all sorts of other things strewn over the ground. You have to place every footstep carefully and be patient. Actually, I find this meditative, relaxing and mentally taxing at the same time. Once you hit a slow rhythm it’s not bad at all and we get there after 20 minutes or so.
When the GPS beeps to tell us we have reached our target spot, we need to look around the find the den. Sometimes it’s right there and obvious; other times you have to look for it for a while. This one’s easy today. It’s right there, a nest in the ground, shaded and hidden by two small pines.
Then the work begins: measuring the den, looking for scats, assessing the vegetation around, how well hidden the den is etc. We have a manual to take us through each step – in case we have forgotten bits of our training – and a datasheet to fill in one field at a time. It takes us about 45 minutes to document everything.
Then it’s back to the car and the next site. Another 350 m into the forest. This one’s a cluster site, so we search for clues as to why the bear would have spent time here. We find animal remains. Some bones and moose antlers, chewed down by the bear, probably for its minerals, but nobody is quite sure. A scat that is snowy white and full of bone material. Again we document everything and move on.
By the time we get to site 3, the day is already well advanced and we have to hurry. We find scat, bag it quickly for Andrea and get back to the car. An hour’s drive back. A beautiful owl encounter on the way. A quick dip in that lake that beckoned in the morning and we’re back at base, tired but happy. Andrea is happy too, looks at our haul, the datasheets, asks questions and lets us off the hook for a quick shower before the group debrief session, where every group talks the others through their day and results. These are marked on the big map and scored. Ulli and Karin: 8 scats, 9 (!) day beds, 3 carcasses. Pat and Neil: 12 (!) scats and 1 den. Chris & Evelyn: 6 scats, 1 den, 3 chewed antlers and 1 carcass. There are tall tales, much laughter and excellent results. Andrea is happy and that is the point.
Then off to a delicious dinner of chilly sin carne, lovingly prepared by Roland and Pat, and some well-deserved down-time until we start all over again the next day. It’s not easy being a citizen scientist, but someone’s got to do it 😉
Take a handful of people from all walks of life and from all over Europe (e.g. Germany, UK, Belgium), transfer them from the assembly point to the expedition base (Mora to a fairly remote cottage in the forest), then throw them in at the deep end (background and methodology lectures, new equipment, datasheets, expedition survival and other rules) and – e voilà – as I type this, they are in the forest happily getting drizzled on, using a GPS to find a bear den in the middle of nowhere (first by car and then walking), crawling into it to measure it, collecting little presents the bear has left outside – and then doing it all over again until the day is done and they return to dinner by an open fire.
Well done all of you. Under the guidance of our scientist Andrea and a very capable new (assistant) leader, you have mastered a multitude of new gadgets and techniques in a day and a half and you have earned your new title as citizen scientists. Pat like a gazelle over rough terrain, Neil on his umpteenth expedition overcoming complications, Karin & Ulli finding their keys and feet in English with a gateau on top, Chris geared up to the nines in Swedish plaits, Evelyn dutifully keeping the compass away from the densiometer, Roland mastering the relascope and expedition leading. And they know what these things are, because they are now citizen scientists, helping Andrea with her bear research, her enthusiasm palpable, with a big, grateful smile welcoming the arrival of her new helpers. She is happy in the field, showing us her trade, and so are we.
Tomorrow, after graduation at dinner, they will venture out on their own in twos and threes – no supervision, no mollycoddling – just qualified citizen scientists going about their business in remote corners of the forest, sent there by Andrea with instructions to go find a den, a bear cluster or whatever else Andrea needs us to do.
And Sweden, oh Sweden, does the rest. The endless forests of orange, green and white, the lakes beckoning intrepid swimmers, the bogs lurking behind the trees and rocks, the picture-perfect red cottages with their white window sashes, the moose ambling through the lichen, the silent solitude, the cool wind, the presence of the bear evident all around us – if you know what to look for, the Scandinavian beauty of it all that will stay with us long after we have gone, just like the data we have collected for Andrea will stay with her. A small legacy for the bears, the project, the planet. And that, in a nutshell, is what it’s all about.
After a lot of driving, a bit of shopping and a night on the road, the advance team for our bear volunteer expedition to Sweden is now on site. The site is and the last 450 km of the drive were as beautiful as ever. However, the weather for our expedition won’t be able to keep up (overcast, chilly). The good news in this kind of weather is that the mosquitoes will by and large be too chilly to go out to make a living.
Unfortunately one person has tested positive at home and can’t come and another one could not get a visa in time, so we are down to a smaller crew, which will have to work twice as hard to make up 😉 More details about how when you get here.
Much has happened since we had to postpone Azores 2020 due to Covid. Biosphere Expeditions itself was able to survive due to the generosity of many private donors and help from the governments of Ireland, Germany and the UK. Thank you to all for this.
We also used the pandemic to get rid of our fleet of cars and now only use car share, car hire and private vehicles of expeditioners. The first and the last are relevant to this expedition and I would also like to thank those expeditioners who will make their cars available for the expedition.
I am in a car share in the UK at the moment and will collect rookie expedition leader Roland in a few hours in Harwich, before we take the night ferry to the Continent. Roland will assist me on this expedition and learn the ropes. Tomorrow we will drive through the Netherlands and Germany, where we will also do some food shopping. We should make it to our expedition base in Sweden by Tuesday night or Wednesday morning (it’s about 2000 km) and I will be in touch with more news and a weather update then.
Talking about cars and food, the first honourable mention of the expedition goes to Pat, a dear and true expedition addict, who will also be driving to Sweden in a car full of equipment and food for all of us. Thank you for this Pat!
And now for some expedition admin: We will be using Finnish Tracker App on this expedition (with water resistant phones for each group), for navigation, data entry, tracking etc. If you want to have a look at / play with the app, there is a 10 day trial version you can download via https://tracker.fi/en/frontpage/ .
Enough for now. We’re on our way. You will be soon too. Safe travels. We will see you all in Mora and be in touch via this diary before. Thank you for giving up your time and funds to become bear conservation volunteers with us.