Searching for Moose, or, Searching for “The Shot”

I have wanted to photograph an adult bull moose for some time.  Yes, I did that years ago with film, in Yellowstone and the Tetons, Banff-Jasper, and in Alaska.  But those photos are now not mine (through divorce), and I wanted this subject as digital files.  I’ve camped in North Park (or near it, near Gould, CO), haunted the Long Draw Reservoir road, checked the Colorado State Forest, and hung around Cameron Pass.  Yes, I did see moose…….but not that my 200mm lens limitation could handle.  Since then I have added some millimeters to my focal length arsenal.  I have had to be content to watch female moose and their partly-grown calves.  Even dogsledding in the Michigan River area in winter had only netted moose tracks and fresh droppings!  I drove the Vasquez Creek Road in Winter Park last fall, hoping to find moose during the rut.  I did find them (the first big-antlered bull I’d ever seen in Colorado!), but they dashed into deep timber and were gone in a flash.  I was a moose-photographing dud!

Moose are often seen on the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park, and yes, I’d seen them:  females.  Once I managed to photograph a bull moose at some distance across a pond near the Kawauneechee Visitor Center.  This moose’s budding antlers were tiny, but I was definitely thrilled to get this shot!  He was near a cabin with a sign that proclaimed:  “Moose Crossing”…….and how prophetic.  But still not quite what I wanted.

For years, my only bull moose capture

That’s not to say the above photo wasn’t a thrill.  It truly was.  It’s just that I was certainly not satiated by this experience.  I went back time-after-time, summer and fall, and never again caught this fellow around this spot.  The sign remained, so I assume I was merely unlucky.

Earlier in the summer, a friend and I had planned a trip to the Grand Tetons and a wildlife photographing tour.  We were outfitted and ready, and then I was laid off my day job.  Would I ever get an opportunity to do the moose photography I’d hoped for?

Since their introduction in the late 1970’s, moose have thrived in Colorado.  They are most common near North Park in the north central part of the state, but they have infiltrated their niche in many places throughout Colorado from the northern mountains to the San Juans.  They have even crossed the Continental Divide and are found in suitable habitats on the east side of the mountains!  I was talking to a wildlife photographer friend last week who mentioned seeing moose in the Indian Peaks during the month of August.  I suddenly was determined to see and photograph that elusive bull moose without the outlay of money a trip to more sure opportunities would cost.  A friend and I decided to try an evening jaunt where we had heard up to seven moose were seen in the willows near a popular recreational lake.  It would be a dream come true!  But……it turns out our trip was on the very first day in August the moose failed to appear at this popular watching spot!  I couldn’t believe it!  I was determined to try early in the morning.

The very next weekend, another friend and I left here at 4 a.m. to make the two hour trip to try for moose photography.  We planned to go hiking in case of a no-show and went with no real expectations.  We were lucky!  Not seven, but a nice three bull moose were munching on willows around the lake, and we joined about twelve other photographers in the early morning light to get some very nice photographs:

Bull moose in velvet, early morning light

The first moose we encountered were feeding near one another:  a younger bull with a beautiful, lighter-colored male, still with velvet on his antlers:

Moose buddies in the willows

We spent some time photographing these guys from the top of my friend’s mini-van.  Moose have very long legs for a reason.  The willows they feed on are high, and tough to navigate.  Those long legs help in the effort of feeding.

Reaching for the tidbits

We traveled over to the end of the lake, where most of the photographers were set up, photographing a big guy, whose antlers were huge, and bare of velvet.  This rather wary big guy enjoyed keeping his hind end toward us, but keeping a blood-shot eye in our direction:

Note that blood-shot eye. . .

Eventually, the big guy moved deep into the willows, and we decided to return to the first two moose we had encountered.  We knew they would eat only until their stomachs were full, and then they would move from the willows to cross the road to chew their cuds in peace, somewhere deep in the forest.  We wanted to be by the roadside when they crossed to see the total immense size of this largest member of the deer family.

As this moose prepared to cross, he hesitated near the edge of the willows to give us some good looks……at almost too close a range.

Munching tools: moose teeth exposed

We sure did get some close-ups as the moose got close to the road, about to emerge from the willow sea!  I stayed on top of the car, but several photographers gathered on the road to watch the moose cross.  Had I been alone, I might have been more prone to get close.  As weird as that might sound, I feel that a respectful distance kept by a lone photographer has got to be a lot less stress on the wildlife than a group of oglers all crowding too close…..I felt pretty secure on the car and was determined to photograph any “action” the moose might provide on his crossing.

Excitement was responsible for my not getting the bottom of the moose’s feet in this emergence shot…..(considered a grave no-no in wildlife photography). It happens.

It was time for all the boys to retreat to the woods…..and I wanted to get the big guy doing it.  He obliged, making his way from the end of the lake, to cross near where his fellows had crossed.  To do this, he had to travel out in the open, and afforded the best shots of the day……a full body shot with nice environmental background.

Our big guy making his get away…

I’ve spent a lot of space telling my moose story, but there are some photographing tips I’d like to impart concerning moose photography.  The first is always respect for the animal.  If you don’t have a long enough lens to properly keep your distance, do not try for photographs of moose eyes or close up portrait shots.  Be content to get in the environment.  Utilize your car as a blind, to get higher, to keep the wildlife from feeling cornered or stressed.  Most wildlife will ignore a car, but show panic when an upright, two-legged animal stalks them.  Moose are very dark.  They may end up as black blobs in your photograph.  You might need to use some photo editing to make your shot work.  If you meter off the dark moose part of the scene, your camera’s aperture may open to to expose for the moose and over-expose your scene.  Go for a variety of shots:  feeding behavior, long legs, telephoto close ups, long shots showing the scene, etc. as long as your subject cooperates.  Never force these things.  Generally, you won’t have the opportunity if you force things, anyway, and you might just have an animal “encounter” on your hands if you do that.  To end, my two favorite shots show a couple of things:  the first is just how big moose are compared to humans.  When our moose finally crossed the road, I was photographing at about 300mm.  Some of the photographers, opposite of us were down to very short focal lengths. . .

Some had lenses too long to even attempt a shot at their distance to the moose. I was all ready to pick up an “encounter” shot! Thankfully, there was none.

The day’s prize, for me, was this final shot:  Mountains and lake behind, with a big bull in his element.  It might have been better in low light, with a reflection in a large sample of lake, but I was pleased, none-the-less!

Categories: Wildlife Photography | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Searching for Moose, or, Searching for “The Shot”

  1. Greg Boreham

    Donna, congrats on finally capturing those elusive bulls! Wow – what a rack on the big guy. We love reading your story and the pictures are fantastic! And thanks for pointing out the finer points of moose/wildlife etiquette in the field.

    My wife and I have had the same issue in trying to find moose to photograph. We always seem to pull up to a moose sighting just when everyone else is heading back to their cars, shouting “Did you see that huge moose?” – sadly NO! Several trips to Yellowstone and Alaska have yielded only females or young bulls. I’m still hoping to have an encounter like you just had.


  2. Jody

    Oh, my goodness Donna! What an interesting, sad, frustrating, in-the-end wonderful, happy story. Thank you for taking the time to include the wealth of experience, information and all of the delightful images. Each one is fascinating, a joy by itself and enmass.


  3. Willy Thomas

    What a cool story.I love that you included tips to photograph wildlife. I have been thankful for your photos and that you are sharing these great creatures with the rest of us. Thanks again, Willy


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