Every morning we are tasked by Andrea, the expedition scientist and bear expert, to visit bear dens and day beds, at specific locations in this beautiful part of Sweden. The den sites are the locations where bears have been seen to hibernate in winter or where the GPS collars of tracked bears report that they stayed over winter. The day bed sites are simply where a tracked bear stayed for a few hours recently – perhaps only the day before – and which give us a chance to find their scat to collect for later analysis or perhaps evidence of a moose that the bear has hunted or scavenged. Bears are not aggressive and avoid humans, but just to err on the side of caution we also sometimes need to use a directional radio receiver to triangulate the latest position of a bear with a radio collar to make sure it is not still loitering in the location we plan to visit.
Finding a den always brings a thrill. Sometimes, they are obvious – a big old anthill in a forest clearing, exactly where the GPS pin shows it. Other dens need more work to find and we need to spend an hour or so fighting through the undergrowth, climbing through a maze of fallen tree trunks or investigating every rock crevice before we come across the den. Each den is unique. The expedition’s research aims include learning more about how the bears’ choice of den relates to the available habitat, any impacts of climate change and the bears’ condition. This year we have discovered a notably wide variety of bear dens. Dens built in uprooted tree roots, dens dug into the side of a hill, anthills excavated to create a cosy igloo of pine needles, open nests and rocky caves. We categorise and measure each one.
Yesterday we had our first moose sighting: a mother and calf, wandering along the forest edge. We stopped and watched: the mother walked off to a safe distance, the calf took cover in plain sight in a ditch right next to us. It was a special moment.
The first two days of the expedition are dominated by intense training, and this team has hit the ground running. Much of the training is in the practical methods used to collect data at each winter den: from the den measurements through to a methodological approach to defining the habitat around the den, as well as much information to record about bear scats. Research equipment that the team are trained to use range from the specialist densitometer, which measures the extent of tree canopy above a den, to the humble compass (you need to put Fred in the Shed).
We also train the expedition team in how not to get lost. The bear dens and day beds that they are tasked with finding are deep in the woods, often a long way from the road. As adventurer-scientists, the team have to fight their way through some pretty challenging and pathless territory – typically rocky, boggy and/or hard going (usually all three), trying to locate a waypoint on a GPS device, and ideally not losing anyone en route. Finding the way back to the car afterwards can be a difficult task when you look up after an hour of focussed survey work and being confronted with a view of indistinguishable forest in all directions. Fortunately the team are trained in various navigational techniques, complemented by cool heads and common sense, so have successfully failed to get lost so far.
We have already surveyed two winter dens – a beautiful den under a massive boulder and a very different ‘nest’ type den where a bear and her cubs spent winter covered by nothing more than a thick blanket of snow. We have also begun to collect our first bear scats, carefully labelled and stored ready for later analysis to reveal what the bear has been eating before and after hibernation.
The team have taken all this on with little rest and in good spirits. A special mention here to Torsten, who cycled over 1000 km from southern Sweden to join the expedition and immediately threw himself into expedition life without pause.
With the training part of the expedition almost over, the team is ready to devote the next week to exploring the tangled forests of mid-Sweden to record high quality data for the transnational Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project.
Greetings from base camp. I am excited to be back! The Advanced Team have assembled: Louise and I arrived here last night and Andrea, the expedition scientist, joined us today. We have bought the food and supplies for the expedition: there is a lot of it, so I hope you will be hungry.
Base camp is looking glorious in the Swedish spring sunshine. The iconic Swedish red wooden cabins are almost glowing in the morning light, the birch and pine trees are bursting with green vitality and we saw a fox running past the sauna and across the stream when we were out exploring late last night.
The snow has gone, apart from a few patches in forest clearings, revealing the grass at base camp, along with some old moose scat. Our job for the next two days is to get base camp tidy and organised ready for the expedition, and to check and prepare all the research equipment.
Andrea has been a little tense: the tracked bears’ GPS collars often only transmit their entire winter’s data after they have left their winter den and walked into an area with phone signal. Due to the late arrival of spring here, Andrea has been left waiting for these data uploads. Thankfully, as of yesterday, she now has the data and she looks positively happy now!
We are getting excitingly close to the start of the 2023 Sweden Brown Bear expedition, and preparations are going well. I am Roland, your expedition leader, and this will be my second time leading this expedition. I am really looking forward to returning. This year, my partner Louise, a professional events caterer, will also be joining us as expedition cook. It will be interesting to see what that will mean under expedition conditions. We will be working alongside Dr Andrea Friebe, the local expedition scientist who manages a long-term research programme monitoring the brown bear population in this region.
Our daily research tasks will include finding and recording the dens that the bears have been using to hibernate in over winter, as well as their day beds, which we will visit sometimes shortly after they have left them.
Andrea sent an update from the field today saying that 10 cm of snow fell last night and that some of the tracked bears have not yet left their dens, so we may have some interesting challenges coming our way…
As always with Biosphere Expeditions, we will review and adapt our plans according to the conditions we find. The weather forecast for Dalarna province, at least for the first few days of the expedition, predicts warmer conditions – up to 27 C , with some sunny, some cloudy and some rainy days. The best advice is to pack clothing and footwear ready for any and all weather conditions!
The research methodologies we use on this expedition are relatively detailed and specific, especially when it comes to surveying the winter dens. But fear not, we will provide ample training in the methods and using the research equipment in the first two days. I will send another update once Louise and I get to our expedition base, on 24 May. In the meantime, feel free to start getting excited about this expedition – I certainly am!