The Prodigal Son Returns

Horses actually evolved on this continent. They made their way to Asia over the Bering Land Bridge as the first humans were walking the other way into the Americas. These first human immigrants may have had something to do with the extinction of horses here. However, when these animals returned with the conquering Europeans, they had circumnavigated the globe, an extreme case of the prodigal son returning. They were also much larger and more impressive than the dog-sized creatures that evolved here. There's a line in a John Denver song, "I had a vision of eagles and horses, high on a ridge in a race with the wind," and this kept running through my mind for 4 days. We didn't see a lot of eagles, but there were hundreds of wild horses thundering across the grassland. One band after another would come running past us, kicking up clouds of dust. If the scene sounds incredible, it was. In fact, it was photographically magical. The problems, such as they were, arose when the wind blew the dust our way.

Wild horse herd running across dusty prairie

Wild Horses in a Hurry

This part of Northern Utah was once the bed of an enormous inland sea, and the resulting soil forms a deep, talcum powder-like dust. A lone person walking through it creates a knee-high haboob. Our parking spot at the hotel looked like the chalk outline from a crime scene, and a herd of horses can create an almost impenetrable dirty fog that cameras could rarely focus through. The horses themselves were often dim silhouettes, even when the sound of drumming hooves was loud in our ears.

Wild horse herd & sunrise color

Breakfast With a View

Cathy and I have photographed wild horses many times in several different locations, but never have we had opportunities like we did here. For one thing, the numerous bands all stayed fairly close together, creating an enormous herd. Sometimes it took a bit of looking, but when you found the herd, the photography lasted for a long time. And, because there were so many horses clustered together, there was a lot of behavior, including fights. Most of the fights were short, only a couple of kicks, and afterwards the combatants would nuzzle each other like best buds. A couple of the fights however, went on long enough to obscure the battle behind a dust screen, making it almost impossible to tell the color of the fighting horses.

Wild horse stallions fighting

Kicking Up Some Dust

Our first experience with the horses was at a waterhole, and we were photographing from telephoto range to keep from disturbing them as they drank. We were a bit surprised to see them walking towards us after they had finished their drink, and they kept coming closer and closer until they were in wide-angle range unless you wanted face shots. We found that if we waited for the horses to approach us, they would continue right past, often feeding next to us without lifting their heads. I don't know what the horses were thinking. We obviously were not horses because we were far too slow and clumsy and we didn't smell quite right either (that was an understatement after days in the heat).

Wild horse herd

Checking Out The New Guy

Because the horses were so tolerant, we could often position ourselves to take full advantage of the sun and the scenery. A couple of times we were able to incorporate sunrises and sunset clouds with pieces of the herd. Listening to their soft neighs and whinnies as they munched the dry grass, made me want to respond in their own language, but I could only give thanks I was even privy to the conversation. It’s not something many people can say, and the magic didn’t stop there. The horses and the wild landscape took us back in time more than a century, and we were able to capture scenes from a West that disappeared long ago.

Wild horses & sunset clouds

Sunset Trail

Few creatures are the center of such intense debate as wild horses, but these rugged western landscapes would come up lacking without the thundering herds high on a ridge in a race with the wind.

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.