As I sat and watched moose gathering the other morning, I was thinking about the paths of life that led me to this spot in the mountains and I came to the realization that in many ways I was like my father.
My father was an avid hunter. He spent most of his life living in Kentucky and while I was growing up, one of his favorite pass-times was squirrel hunting. It’s a hillbilly way of life, but for him, getting out into the woods for those morning walks searching for squirrels was a constant thought and motivation.
As his health deteriorated following his cancer diagnosis, one of his wishes was to get back out to the woods just one more time before he died. In a small way, that thought kept him going. He managed to recover from surgery long enough to achieve that wish.
I came to the realization that I had inherited a similar passion. Hunting moose photographs in the mountains. I wish he could have lived longer and that I could have shared my world with him. He would have loved it. Fleeting thoughts, brought on by the joy of being out in the wilderness. Experiencing a connection with nature that many never get to experience while I rationalized my past life experiences and the parallels to my place in the world these days.
My thoughts were interrupted by a moose walking along the road directly towards me. A young bull, on his own path and mission to get to some unknown destination somewhere along the road into the woods behind me, he showed no concern for my presence in his path. As he approached, I followed him with my camera and was able to catch a satisfying sequence of photographs. Once he walked past me, I started the engine and moved on up the trail from which he came.
A bit up that road, about a quarter of a mile, I noticed a pickup truck parked along side the road near a lake where the moose were gathering. A few feet from that truck stood a man, my age, maybe older, and with him was a small dog on a leash. He was simply staring off into the woods at the moose and enjoying the scenery, 10 miles from the nearest paved road.
I pulled to the side of the dirt road near the man and stepped out to exchange a few thoughts about the scene we were both witnessing together alone in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to alert him to the presence of many moose and about being cautious with where he walked his dog, as moose consider dogs to be wolves, their mortal enemy.
As we spoke, he said to me. “This is my favorite place on earth. My father and I used to come to this place all the time.” His memories of past times were strong and had never left him. Within a few moments of us striking a conversation, he began tearing up and became emotional. “I wish he could be here with me to see this today.” he said. I told him that I understood the feeling and shared the same reverence for this spot in the mountains. He tried to continue the conversation, but I could tell that I caught him at a moment of silent contemplation and that his emotions had taken hold of him. I was intruding.
He was slightly embarrassed and apologized for crying about his memories. I shook his hand and gave him a big smile. “Brother, I fully understand. I love this place too and it’s those fond memories of the past that help keep things in perspective.” I said.
I wished him well and apologized for intruding into his private thoughts along that isolated mountain road.
I smiled with understanding when he said “It’s okay, I just get emotional when I come out here. I miss sharing this with my dad. Pay no mind to me.”
It was time to wrap up the morning adventure so I kept driving along the road towards the highway. Within a short distance, my thoughts drifted back to my father and the kinship the stranger and I shared in that moment. Profound thoughts concerning the encounter overwhelmed me. My eyes moistened up and I had to pull off the road long enough to clear the slow forming tears from my eyes. Sharing that moment with the man in the wilderness had overwhelmed him and me both.
The beauty and serenity of being alone in the wilderness in what has to be one of the most magnificent places in the world has a way of taking hold of your thoughts. For a few brief moments that morning my long deceased father sat with me in that truck. The awesomeness of the experience can’t be measured, it’s too profound.
I’ve been hosting wildlife photography workshops in Colorado for over 13 years. I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned over the years. Pointers on how to have a better wildlife photography experience while shooting from a vehicle.
Your personal behavior is going to have a direct effect on your results. Someone else being stupid isn’t a license to be stupid. Always show respect to other photographers and tourists who may be in the same location you are working.
Respect the animals you are going to photograph. Don’t harass or chum or try to personally interact with them. Most animals are going to be aware of your presence. If the animals you are photographing change their behavior to compensate for your actions, you’ve gone to far. Animals have body language that is fairly easy to read. The most immediate clue large animals will give you is they turn their butts towards you. If you see a herd of deer or a small group of elk and all their butts are pointed at you, guess what their next action is? They are going to move away from you. Animal butts are a good sign you need to move on. Never approach a wild animal, even if they are friendly and habituated to human activity.
Working from a vehicle
Be quiet. Don’t have conversations with those around you. Don’t stomp around through the woods or along paths, snapping sticks and twigs or crunching gravel. Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints. If you are working from a vehicle, turn the stereo/radio off. Turn the ringer off on your mobile phone.
Be still. Once you’ve positioned yourself, don’t move around. Don’t pick up your gear and head out into a field to get closer. No sudden movements. Try to avoid direct or prolonged eye contact with the animals. If you are innocuous, there’s a good possibility that the wildlife will lose interest in you and meander closer.
Never try to chum wildlife with food. Wild animals don’t eat potato chips or ham sandwiches. Moldy bread can be fatal to ducks. Be smart and let them feed themselves. Your food is only going to create a greater risk to their survival. Don’t use artificial sounds to lure wildlife to you.
Every photographer I know has iBird on their smart phone. Don’t play bird sounds in hopes of attracting birds. Leave the elk calls at home.
Remember that you are not in charge of what others do. It’s not your responsibility to make sure everyone you see around wildlife is behaving properly. I’ve seen many obnoxious tourists and photographers ignoring everything and everyone in a quest to get a photo. They have the right to be there. Keep your temper in check and don’t let things escalate into a conflict with others. I normally just move somewhere else so I don’t have to interact with obnoxious people.
Most of my wildlife photography is done from a vehicle. There’s a lot of wilderness and many forest roads to explore in Colorado and the vehicle offers me the best opportunity to get closer to animals because moose, elk, deer, bighorn, and mountain goats don’t consider automobiles to be a threat. At least not until they see a person.
When exploring an area, always make a second pass. I have routes I travel all the time and I always do a couple of laps at least. Animals move frequently and you may not have seen anything on one trip through, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t something there.
Always check your six. I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven through an area only to look in the rear view mirror and see something crossing the road 50 yards behind me. It’s like they were waiting for me to pass before crossing.
Have your camera ready and with you before you see the animals. When entering a wildlife search area, having that camera ready to go can make the difference between getting a shot and watching a critter disappear into the woods. Often times you’ll only have a couple of seconds to get a quick shot out the window. Speaking of windows, keep the window down when on patrol. Even if it’s cold. Otherwise you could easily be too late as the animal is gone before the window is down. Don’t smoke in the vehicle. That smoke can waif through the windows directly in front of your lens.
When you are on patrol and spot animals, don’t slam on your brakes and jump out of the car. That’s a sure fire way to scare an animal off. If you can’t shoot from the window and must exit the vehicle. Creep to a halt before the animal is reacting to you. When you exit, get out of the vehicle on the blind side using the car as a visual obstacle. Don’t walk out from behind the car into the open. Peek around the car and try to get shots from a covered position. If you are on the side of the vehicle that faces the animals, stay in the vehicle and shoot from the window.
Don’t shoot from a moving vehicle, your shots will be blurry. Don’t shoot through the window glass, your shots will be blurry. When stopped, turn the engine off in your vehicle. Exhaust can waif in front of your lens and create convection distortion and you’ll also eliminate the vibration caused by the engine running. Never rest your lens on the top of the window with the engine running. Be still. don’t wiggle around in the vehicle. Ask others in the vehicle to be still as well.
You’ll often be alerted to the presence of animals by a group of cars pulled off the road ahead of you. Don’t drive directly into the group, and jump out. Try to get shots through the window only after you’ve made a silent and unobtrusive approach to the scene. You don’t need to aggravate those who got there first by scaring off their subjects. Never slam the door. Slowly close it without making noise. Also, don’t leave your car door hanging wide open when you walk away from the vehicle. Push it closed gently. If the driver needs to move the vehicle that closed door is going to help them move quickly and silently. Take the keys out of the ignition before you exit the vehicle. There’s nothing more annoying than your car beeping away like a garbage truck in reverse while you’re trying to get a photograph without being noticed.
If you are traveling with three people in a vehicle, pick the back seat. You can shoot from both windows. The driver and other front seat passenger are going to be stuck with only one direction to shoot.
Never put your camera on the dashboard. If you forget it’s there and move the vehicle, it will roll off onto the floorboard and, well, that could be disastrous for a lens or the camera.
Your safety and the safety of the wildlife should always be a prime consideration. Don’t put your passengers or yourself at risk by trying to shoot from the side of a busy highway. Don’t put your vehicle in a situation that it can’t handle. Muddy roads with deep puddles can often be much more hazardous than they appear to be. When I know I’m going to be on some rough terrain, I always take my 4×4 pickup truck with off road tires. The last thing you want is to break down in the middle of nowhere with ten thousand dollars worth of camera gear left in your car while you hike 10 miles to get help.
Drive slowly when on the back roads. You’ll see more action that way and it keeps the dust down. If traffic begins stacking up behind you, be polite, pull over and let them pass. If you’re behind someone driving slow, keep some distance until you can pass without being obnoxious about it. It’s not rush hour in the city. Don’t be a road hazard and always assume somebody behind you is going to be impatient with your slow driving. Driving slowly also reduces the risk to wildlife which can run in front of you without notice. You don’t want to run into a moose going 40 miles per hour. It will kill the moose, it could kill you or your passengers and it would definitely do damage to your vehicle.
Never follow behind animals moving along the road. If you get behind them and move with them, they’ll panic and could hurt themselves trying to flee. Just pull over and wait a couple of minutes. They’ll probably be off the road by the time you see them again and if not, pull over and wait some more.
Today’s bird photo of a Common Myna was taken on the Big Island of Hawaii during a trip we made in 2012. The beach front hotel where we were staying had a very large, manicured lawn with water inlets and lots of habitat for the local birds. I could walk to the lava rock shore each morning and photograph a wide variety of wildlife. The Mynas were living there in numbers and I managed to get pretty close to them by laying on the ground with my camera at the ready as they fed in the manicured grass just feet away from me.
I’ve always enjoyed my travels to the Hawaiian Islands, due in large part to the diverse wildlife species that one will never see in the mainland US. Nice weather and beautiful scenery is the icing on the cake there. We’ve traveled to most of the islands in the chain, multiple times. When things mellow out with the pandemic, I’m certain we’ll be returning to the most remote place on earth. Hawaii.
Most likely, I’ve explored the San Juan Mountains of Colorado more than any other part of the state.
Today’s photo was taken during a two week long trip to the San Juan Mountains in October of 2011. I was traveling with friend Andy Long and we were stuck on the highway south of Telluride during a blizzard after a tractor-trailer truck flipped over on the highway. We pulled the car over and explored the woods near the road as the snow was blanketing the mountains. We found this pond and spent about 30-40 minutes composing images.
We would have never found this scene if it wasn’t for the traffic jam, which goes to show you that great scenes are sometimes just a few yards away from you, all you have to do is look for them.
2020 may be the strangest moose photography season I’ve experienced.
Based on my observations, the moose are thriving in Colorado. I don’t know if there is an accurate estimate of how many moose are living in stable breeding populations in the state. Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates the population to be around 3,000, personally, I think the number could be higher than that, based on the density and frequency I’ve seen in Northern Colorado, but, I’ve done no scientific study. Over the past 10 years, I’ve frequently seen moose in areas of the state where I had never seen them before, leading me to believe that they are migrating to a lot of new areas across the state.
In the summer of 2020, the influx of humans into the wilderness areas of Colorado has definitely impacted their normal habitat. I’ve seen more hikers, campers and anglers in moose habitat areas in 2020, probably due to the pandemic and people needing to get outdoors, and the moose responded by changing their movement patterns into areas of greater isolation and away from human activity. The worsening wildfire situation is almost certain to further alter their habitat, with a large scale destruction of prime moose habitat occurring in the Rawah and Comanche Peaks wilderness areas.
Over the past several years, a typical day for me would include sighting around 20-25 different moose in my normal photography locations. This year the numbers were down to about one third of that. In those same areas, human activity picked up to three times a normal level, from what I’ve observed. The moose were out there, but they were staying away from humans, which is probably a natural self-preservation response from these animals. Health wise, the moose I’ve found this year all seemed to be in good health, eating well, and breeding successfully. The cows and calves were in higher than normal quantities this past summer but many of the larger and mature bulls were absent from my normal areas of photography. The questions is, where did they go? Moose are known as wanderers and I have a few ideas on where they are moving and where to find them, but the premature halt to photography season forced me to abandon my quest to find out more. I hope to figure out the answer to that question in 2021.
We are back to our normal hunkering down here in Denver. Catching up on recorded television shows, lounging on the porch, watching the bunny rabbits and squirrels preparing for Winter.
One of our 70’s vintage Bose 501 speakers has finally pooped out, giving us a distinct rattle at low frequency when watching movies on the home theatre system. Bummer. We ordered a Harman/Kardon soundbar from Crutchfield, which arrived dead out of the box. Well, not completely dead. It powered up but wouldn’t connect to anything and wouldn’t pass any type of signal to the television nor connect to any device. The lights came on though. We sent it back for a refund and abandoned the idea of using a soundbar. We ended up scavenging a set of Pioneer speakers from the cabin and while not quite as spiffy as the old Bose speakers, they sound quite good. It was a good opportunity to clean up the television area as the dust and wire nest behind the receiver was getting a little squirrely anyway. Bob’s your uncle.
Still waiting on our Lexus vehicle registration from the County. The temp plates expire soon and the pandemic has created a serious backlog at the DMV, so off we go on Monday to get another temporary registration. Normally, we’d have received the registration within a couple of weeks of buying the car. Things aren’t normal these days.
Our neighbors from Red Feather Lakes are staying with us for a while as the Cameron Peak wildfire continues burning about 7 miles from the village. There doesn’t seem to be a direct and immanent threat to our homes, but we’re avoiding the area for the most part. If the wind shifts, it could be pretty difficult to breath there. It’s hard to plan any leisure activity at the cabin right now, but a sudden change of weather has dropped quite a bit of snow and cooler temps on the fire, so one never knows. We normally shut the cabin down for the Winter by mid-October. Maybe we’ll squeeze one more trip in.
Happy Thought Inventory
I’m still chomping at the bit to get out for this years Autumn photography. I keep wavering on where my photography location will be this year. The pandemic has put a serious crimp on my options. The sudden blast of Winter weather this past week may well destroy the normal color transition in the mountains, so I’m keeping a close eye on things and will probably decide where I’ll be working at the last minute. The good news is my wife is going to ride with me to the Collegiate Range next week for a scouting trip. A good way to get out of the house for the day and a nice opportunity to enjoy a road trip in the new car. That Lexus is a pleasure to ride in.
I haven’t been out much this past week so there haven’t been many interactions with the general public.
Photo of the Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City, California. Taken on a road trip along the Pacific Coast in 2013.
We rented a car to drive the coast from San Francisco to Seattle, stopping to photograph all the lighthouses along the Pacific Coast. I still need to make the trip from San Francisco south to Mexico. One of these days.
As is normal this time each year, I begin planning for a photography trip for Autumn color.
With the pandemic in full tilt boogie, I’ll be working solo. This year I figured I’d work a little closer to home and travel to Buena Vista, Colorado to explore the Collegiate Mountain Range. The Collegiate range is ripe with mountain peaks over 14,000 feet and there are many lakes, rivers and streams, providing a plethora of scenic compositions. The most important thing though, is the color in the Aspen trees.
Predicting peak fall foliage is a hit and miss proposition some years. I typically plan my Colorado Autumn photo trips for the last week of September and the first week of October. What throws a wrench into the picture is the unpredictable nature of Colorado weather. Adding to the normal unpredictability of weather conditions in Autumn are the effects of global climate change. I’m no weather scientist, but I can say with absolute certainty that the past 3 years have been out of the norm. Autumn 2020 is shaping up to be out of the norm as well. Perhaps, the new normal is that nothing will be normal.
After a near record breaking Summer of hot dry days and drought, Colorado was slammed with an Arctic cold wave on September 8th, which dumped large amounts of snow in the high country and on the Northern front range. The temperatures dropped from the upper 90’s to the lower 20’s in less than 24 hours. This type of dramatic change in weather plays havoc with the trees and foliage in the mountains.
With this drastic weather landing on much of the state, the prediction is for the trees to quickly change color and drop their leaves. In my experience, a hard freeze and temperature drop before peak color usually destroys the vibrancy of the normal color change. Right now, it’s a big unknown. It’s possible that I’ll have to change my plans as the color shift begins over the next couple of weeks. The Collegiate Range was hit especially hard during by the Winter blast, so I’ll be keeping a close eye on the effects and results and I’m very concerned that I’ll simply abandon my Autumn photography for this year. It’s not worth risking being infected by being forced to eat in restaurants for several days and then have lousy scenery to enjoy.
2020, the lost year. I’m already dreaming of the future.