wildlife photography

A Thanksgiving Get Together

The day before Thanksgiving we took a short drive hoping to see some bighorn sheep. Maybe it was because we were already in holiday mode, maybe it was just nice to lie in bed on a cold morning. Whatever the reason, we ended up sleeping in and eating a leisurely breakfast. By the time we made it to the Waterton Canyon trailhead it was already 11 a.m., and we had a couple of miles to walk—not exactly the behavior we endorse in our wildlife photography lectures. Do as we say, not as we do.

Bighorn sheep mating behavior

However, even though the sun was high and we didn’t expect to come home with any great shots, it was nice to get out and walk. About 21/2 miles up the road we spotted the sheep feeding on a hillside. We climbed about 100 feet above the road, trying to guess which direction the sheep were feeding, and then we sat and waited. Sometimes the magic works. In less than 20 minutes, the sheep fed their way right past where we were sitting. And even though the light wasn’t great, we congratulated ourselves on being accepted so close to the herd.

Bighorn sheep herd

We thought our day with the bighorns was pretty much over, but by the time we picked our way back down the hill to the road, the animals were standing beside it only 1/4 mile away. We worked our way up to the herd, shooting as we went, and stopping when they looked up at us. Before we knew it we were a part of the herd. We worried a bit about disturbing them, that is until they walked right up to me as I was kneeling beside the road. To top things off, the light changed. Heavy clouds, the forerunners of a Thanksgiving snowstorm, swallowed the sun, giving us even light with very little contrast.

Bighorn sheep & photographer

For more than an hour we had bighorn sheep on all sides of us, sometimes close enough to touch. The rams were touching noses with the ewes and checking to see who was ready to mate. The ewes were concentrating on eating for the most part, although a couple of them were flashing encouraging glances at the rams—probably just teasing. The lambs of the year seemed caught up in the overall excitement, trotting back and forth from one group to another. Rodney Dangerfield once said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to a group that would have me as a member.” Even though we were obviously the deficient members, it was incredible to be accepted, even as only honorary members, by a group like this. When we turned to walk away, we had bighorns walking all around us for the first 50 feet or so, as if they actually enjoyed our company. Most likely we were so unimportant they were just ignoring us, but it’s nice to pretend.

Young bighorn sheep

It ended up being the most productive bighorn shoot we’ve ever had, but that was secondary. It was the experience, the unlikely opportunity to be an uncoordinated member of the herd, that was so special. The most important thing the cameras did was drag us out of the house, giving us a chance to see something so wondrous. I want to reiterate that we advocate getting up early and trying to capture your subject in that golden sunrise light. However, sleeping in apparently works for us…no, no, no. That’s not the lesson here. The lesson here is that if you can only get away in the middle of the day, go then. You never know what treasures are waiting for you.

Bighorn sheep mating behavior

Don't Worry, Be Happy

“Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway.”

—Tom Petty

Another sleepless night, tossing and turning, worrying about a seemingly endless supply of uncontrollable factors. Will the weather cooperate with our group of photographers? Are we going to have an aurora? Is a spirit bear going to show up? Will the filling in my right, rear molar last until my next visit to the dentist? The list goes on and on. Why do we worry so much about a future we cannot control? Why is it so hard to simply prepare as best we can, leave the future in the hands of the fates, and sleep as if we had no cares in the world? Sometimes having a big brain is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Orca spyhopping

While photographing orcas along British Columbia’s Inside Passage we happened upon a pod of transients. Transient orcas survive by eating other marine mammals, and the pod needs to average one or two kills each day, depending on the size of their prey. Usually transients are always on the move, making them difficult to keep up with and photograph. However, this particular pod was loafing in the same area for the entire morning and early afternoon. These orcas had just made a kill that morning and they were in high spirits, especially the two juveniles. We watched them for almost five hours as they rubbed against each other, spyhopped, tail-lobbed, breached and rolled on their backs. Sometimes they would approach right up to our boat or to a researcher’s zodiac (a researcher was usually with the whales), and it looked like these intelligent creatures were showing off. Many times they would leap out of the water and then poke their heads up to make sure we had seen what they did.

Orca tail

It’s understandable that the orcas were jubilant after having fed well, and were able to keep flesh and spirit together for another day or so. But what about tomorrow? Tomorrow meant another patient stalk in pursuit of seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises and small whales, all of which are wary, hard-to-catch prey. Shouldn’t they be worried about making it through tomorrow…and the day after that, ad infinitum? Or just maybe the orcas have it right, and humans need to learn to lighten up.

Orca breaching

Granted, as intelligent as they are, killer whales have nowhere near the brain power humans do, and rather than being a handicap, this seems to give them an advantage in the worry-free nights department. It’s another example of humans using their brains for the wrong purposes. A lack of genius has allowed orcas, and by extension every wild thing, to stumble upon the enlightened path, something spiritual humans have been seeking for millennia. The answer we’ve been searching for appears to be the fact that every day on this side of the dirt is a day for celebration. Any day that finds you looking at the natural world through a viewfinder should be greeted with spyhops and breaches.

Orca checking out researcher's boat

How Close Is Too Close

The May/June issue of Audubon had an article on photographers getting too close their subjects and adversely affecting those subjects. In that piece, Arthur Morris was quoted as saying that wildlife researchers impact their subjects a whole lot more than photographers do. As someone with a degree in Wildlife Biology, I can say that Artie’s not wrong, although there is the question of motives. Since that article was released I’ve heard wildlife photographers coming down on both sides of the issue. Heck, I’ve been on both sides of the issue myself.

High Island rookery & photographers
These photographers are only about 30 feet from this rookery, but there is water between them so the birds feel safe.

There is no doubt that there are photographers out there who, through ignorance or lack of consideration, are willing to put their subjects at risk just so they can get the shot. I maintain their numbers are relatively small, and that the vast majority of us care deeply about the wild things in front of our lenses.

Photographer & wild horse

Some places definitely have more tolerant animals. This is a wild horse, and it also happened to be a bit of a photography buff.

There is also no doubt that our government does not want us anywhere near wild critters. We had a national park employee throw rocks at a coyote we were photographing from the car, saying, and I quote, “Photographing the animals is a bad as feeding them.” I’m not kidding. I thought Cathy’s head was going to explode. In their defense, they have to manage the resource for a whole bunch of idiots, idiots who are liable to sue them if they are hurt by a wild animal, or who might endanger the animal. So who is right, the government that sets limits for how close we can be to the wildlife, or the photographer who maintains that the animal could just leave if it was that bothered?

Grizzly bear & photographers

How close is too close? If the animal has not altered its behavior, you’re probably OK.

Of course, there is no answer that will be correct in every situation. One of the things that makes it tough to come up with one right answer is that animals are all individuals. One might tolerate photographers at point blank range, while its sibling may attack or take off running in the same situation. Back in the film days we were photographing a pair of whooping cranes in Florida, and we were shooting at extreme distances with long lenses and teleconverters--that is until one of the locals called them by name and they walked up to take almonds out of his hand. I’ve got pictures of Cathy feeding almonds to a wild whooping crane. We probably cannot plan on doing this with any other whooping crane we happen to find.

Whooping Crane Eating Almonds

All animals are individuals. This is one of two wild whooping cranes in the world that you could feed by hand.

It has become relatively easy for people to obtain the gear necessary for capturing wildlife images, but learning about your subjects still takes time and effort. Consequently there is an ever growing number of enthusiasts out there who want those great shots, and they’ve seen them taken by other photographers, but they don’t realize what was involved in obtaining those images. It’s a lot easier to buy the gear than it is to learn about your subject. Many of them do not know how to properly approach a wild subject.

Bald eagle & photographer

Sometimes the animals don’t pay any attention the distance limits. This eagle landed too close to photograph with a big lens.

Here’s the synopsis: Ideally you don’t approach the subject, you allow it to approach you. If you do need to move, move slowly. Zig-zag toward the animal, and don’t make eye contact. Smaller is better (Cathy can often get closer than I can unless I get down on my knees). If the subject alters its behavior, you’re probably too close.

Mountain goat & photographer

Sometimes the animals will trust you more if you’re close to ground.

The real bummer is that after you’ve allowed the animals to come close, or after you’ve successfully stalked it, some moron will come by, see you close to the creature, and walk right up to it, scaring it away. The park rangers will also not differentiate between whether you walked up to the animal or it walked up to you. If you are closer than the limits they set, too bad.

Tri-colored heron & visitors

If you want to get close to animals, visit the places where the animals are tolerant of people.

What we need is more people involved with wildlife, whether it’s with a camera, spotting scope, or radio collars, so they know the creatures intimately. Get enough people closely involved with our wild neighbors and there would be more places to photograph, more protected land and more protected species. That’s my 2 cents worth.