Studying the Colorado Prairie
Searching for Moose, or, Searching for “The Shot”
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
The Goats of Summer
I love to go up the Mt. Evans road in summer! Besides being the highest paved road (to just shy of 14,264 feet in elevation) in the United States, it is what is found on the mountain’s slopes that make it special. The drive ascends through climate zones much as you would driving north to the arctic. The destination is the alpine tundra, but getting there you traverse switchbacks from the montane at Echo Lake, to the subalpine and timberline at Mt. Goliath, where bristlecone pines grace the slopes. Beyond is the land I love: the high rarified air of the alpine tundra: land above the trees. Here rock gardens bloom with tiny vibrant flowers hugging between the rocky landscape. Also here are well-developed alpine meadows of alpine aven, nodding sky-pilot, green leaf chiming bells and dwarf clovers, all combining to create a colorful scene on the slopes. Here also is the home of my favorite animal species: white-tailed ptarmigan, long-tailed and least weasels, pikas, and marmots. Even more spectacular are the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and Rocky Mountain Goats found going about making their living at elevation, residing on the cliffs, and foraging in the meadows.
In early summer the nannies and ewes stay hidden away with their newborns in nurseries of meadows with protective cliffs above and below. About mid-June, the ewes and nannies appear with their babies, climbing the slopes along the Mt. Evans roadside and to the summit. There they seem to create a social scene for their babies to meet the babies of other nannies, and ewes, and to eat the minerals found in the rocky soil, and perhaps the salt spread on the roads early in the season when road-opening and spring storms sometimes come together. Here they also meet US, and their young become of tolerant of the two-legged gawkers who watch them, photograph, and sometimes interfere with their passage.
Wildlife photography is renowned on Mt. Evans. Nearly any day of the week photographers toting huge lenses, tripods and cameras search out the alpine wildlife to photograph. Because of their long lenses, they can hold their distance from the animals, and do not disturb their movements and their habits. However, I have been dismayed and sometimes annoyed by people with pocket cameras and cell phones trying to get close up photos of the sheep and goats. Both species are extremely tolerant of humans, but they are not tame pets. They don’t beg for food, and they prefer respect in the form of the distance humans keep. They prefer a quiet group who makes no sudden movements, and quiet sounds. They will continue their normal behaviors and display immensely satisfying antics, if not crowded. In more remote places on the mountain, I have been able to sit on the ground where the goats and sheep will actually approach me. Sitting is not as threatening, and the animals’ innate curiosity will often allow a close encounter. I’ve often hiked to the goats and sheep, and I’ve had wonderful opportunities to observe and photograph the intimate moments of their lives. If you don’t own a telephoto lens, do be content to include the environmental surroundings of the animal as a highlight to the landscape. Enjoy the animals with respect, and you will be rewarded with some amazing moments!
Back from Minnesota
I’d planned to write every day I was in Minnesota, but I am too A.D.D., I guess, to settle down and write about my day….probably why I’m not much of a journal writer. I was also a little bit conflicted about what I was doing……going to Minnesota on a Wildlife Photography seminar…..at a captive wildlife facility. I haven’t photographed captives before, unless you count photographing the animals that appeared in a feature film my sled dog team was in. This was a new experience for me. I needed to ruminate on the experience before blogging about it.
As it happens, though, I am gathering shots for a photographic art showing, and I wanted well-lit photos that were art quality. I’ve been able to accomplish that with some of the wildlife I photograph, but I wanted more variety. I also sell image rights to a wildlife artist who uses my shots as research for his oil paintings, and I needed quality images. Then, there is the fox book I’ve been working on…..and the opportunity to photograph both gray fox and arctic fox as examples of these species.
I was a bit unsure of what I’d find at this facility, but I can report that it was wonderful. Having trained numerous sled dogs, and having run a fairly large kennel, I knew something about what I was seeing. It was encouraging. The photography type is controversial, and certainly not my first choice, but it was still a great experience.
That said, I think the animal/human bond exhibited by the head trainer and his animals was of awesome quality. This is a family business, and the animals are well cared for. I loved watching the owner’s daughter handling many of the animals. She really has a knack with them, and she truly communicates with them. Since the wildlife in my neighborhood are around people a lot, I know they can live side-by-side with us, if only we understand, appreciate, and allow them to do so. Yes, wild animals do belong in the wild to come and go as they need. However, I have never felt zoos to be unethical. I feel similarly about facilities like this one, when well run. There are all kinds of animal rights-type articles on the internet decrying wildlife farms, but an article I found, written by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III (whom I had the honor of meeting many years ago) guru of wildlife photography, was the one that struck a chord with me and my “see-all- sides-of-an-issue” mentality. If interested, find it at: http://www.vividlight.com/articles/1805.htm
The raccoon babies were really fun. The first day we were there, the heavens poured (we saw very little sun these four days), but this day was the worst. We spent our time getting to know the animals, and we got to feed some of the babies by bottle. I really enjoyed feeding the ‘coons. They were noisy when hungry, ate with vigor, and then settled right down to be snuggled. Except for the one I had that decided to let go all over me! Pee and poop, both! We all laughed, but I got a free laundering service right there in the beautiful log house that is headquarters and family home. The Midnight Marauders owed me a good photo, and I believe I might have been only one of two of our group to get all three little faces looking at the camera.
The animals we photographed all live in the North Woods of Minnesota, as well as in the Rocky Mountain West. The bright green deciduous vegetation & different geology were the only things that differed much from the habitats I am used to. (By the way, I have families of raccoons who visit my deck every night in summer, looking for bird feeders I may have forgotten to bring in). I rarely see them in the day time, though, so having light to work with was another bonus.
A word about photographing the wildlife: at least at this facility, the animals are brought in and encouraged with treats to stay in a photographic area. The areas are huge, though, and while the animals “sort of” came in when called, a lot of the photographic opportunities were up to us, though we stayed together and didn’t roam around on our own. Many of the animals were very quick, and the light low, so photography was fairly challenging, though definitely more successful than many chance encounter sessions I’ve had in the wild.
I’d planned a trip to the Vince Shute Black Bear Sanctuary and to the International Wolf Center, both near Ely, MN, while on this trip, but a series of circumstances prevented my getting that far north. Getting a chance to photograph both species at the facility helped me get over the disappointment of missing the Centers……that will be for my next trip north.
It’s not easy work, this Wildlife Farming. The trainers set their clocks for every three hours for feedings of the young ones, 24/7. The roads department calls all hours of the day or night when there is road-killed deer, and the trainers drop what they are doing to bring in fresh meat for their predators. Government regulations must be met. It’s not a snap living, but this family is dedicated and have run the wildlife farm for going on three generations.
I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences and some of my photos in the coming days!