I have learned over the years as a wildlife photographer it also helps to become somewhat of an amateur biologist. I spend a lot of time looking up the Latin names for various flora and fauna while labeling slides.
Since I'm already looking up each species, I always read the information in my various field guides for each subject. I watch a lot of wildlife documentaries to learn about animal behavior. I even video- tape some to review the information from time to time.
One of the first lessons you'll learn, is the earlier the start, the better. It took me a while to learn that the earlier in the morning you get going, the better chance you have of seeing something. Also, the more hours you put in the better chance you have.
When I'm in the bush I'm up at the crack of dawn, or even pre-dawn. I don't even stop to make a cup of coffee. I get on the road immediately. In the summer it is not uncommon for me to be up at 5 A.M., go until I stop for breakfast around 9:30 or 10, then head out again. I'll eat lunch on the fly, and stop again around 4:30 for supper. I head out again until around dusk (about 10 P.M.). I'll snooze for a couple of hours, then get up around midnight to shoot star-trails for a couple of hours. Then, hopefully, get a couple more hours of sleep until dawn.
I wouldn't, or couldn't, work these kind hours for anyone else. But for my photography, I do this.
When I'm on one of my photo outings, I'm there to do one thing, enjoy the outdoors and take pictures. ( yes it's one thing!)
I had a rather embarrassing situation on one of my many trips up to Riding Mountain National Park, a few years ago. I had had a pretty lucky morning, with quite a few sightings, and photo ops of moose and elk.
I was on my way back to town for breakfast, when I met a group of photographers at one of my favorite landscape stops. I noticed that the group was being led by one of my retail customers, also an avid outdoor photographer.
While we chatted about our morning's events, it turned out his group had just got going after sleeping in and a leisurely breakfast. I had already been out for hours and had amassed quite a list of sightings.
I noticed his group listening with concern since they had only photographed a couple of streams so far that morning.
By chance we met again the next day at breakfast. Again we exchanged our list of sightings, and again, I had had another good morning with lots of wildlife sightings. It turns out they had been up until after midnight, tipping back a few cold ones, and were again just getting started.
The group was noticeably concerned that maybe they were with the wrong guide. It wasn't my intent to show up their guide, it's just that I have different priorities when it comes to my photography.
After this many years I have developed a pretty good feel for when and where to find wildlife. I have also learned to anticipate an animal's movements.
I had an incident just last fall in Jasper National Park in Alberta, when I joined the ranks of a large group of people stopped along the highway to watch a bull elk on the opposite side of the river beside the road.
This was the rutting (mating) season and the bull was showing signs of aggression. He was raking the trees with his rack (antlers). This is a sign of excitement or frustration, common among undulates ( moose, elk, deer etc.) during rutting season. This time of year, these animals can be unpredictable and even somewhat dangerous.
First I watched in horror as a foolhardy (A.K.A. stupid) young man approached the bull to take a snapshot with his 35-70mm all-in-one camera, too far from his car and way too close for the time of year. He was lucky that the bull was keeping himself occupied with the trees instead of the much slower human.
The young man retreated intact and the bull started to head into the bush. The crowd that had gathered gave up quickly and most left, but I just had this feeling that he was going to come back out. Sure enough, a few minutes later the bull came back out of the bush and began to walk along the river paralleling the highway.
Before another crowd gathered, I headed up the highway to where the river abruptly came to a "T". I just felt that he was going to at least come this far. When he got to the "T", he could either turn back into the bush, or head up the river away from me and disappear, or, stay on his present heading and cross the river parallel to the road, or even better, cross the river towards me. Either of the last two choices I was ready for.
I almost held my breath as he did indeed approach the "T" and hesitate at the river. He then turned towards me and proceeded to cross the river directly to where I was waiting. Needless to say, I was the one who got the great shots of him crossing the river.
As I said before, it pays to know your subject.
I have learned to read an animal's behavior. I can usually tell if my subject, such as a bull elk, or bull moose, or bear are displaying threatening behavior. I can usually tell when it's time to retreat.
Even still, it can get exciting. As I said before they can be rather unpredictable during rutting season. Two years ago I was photographing a large bull elk right in Jasper town-site, when things suddenly got "exciting".
One of the first signs of aggression is the ears drop, then the head drops. Now you had better start to back away, if you haven't already.
Well, this bull skipped the ear thing and went straight to "CHARGE". The last shot I got of him was with his head dropping to the charge position. I turned and ran for the truck, with him on my tail all the way. When I got in and closed the door I looked in the rear view mirror and there he was looking back at me through the rear window.
When I got the slides processed and had them on the light table to edit them, Angela was looking over my shoulder and asked me " Why does it look like that bull was about to charge"?
I know Angela worries about me being alone in the bush doing what I do, so I am always reassuring her that I'm safe because I know what I'm doing. Unfortunately, this was a reminder that even with experience, sometimes stuff happens.
You do have to be careful out there. I could be miles out in the middle of nowhere, and have an encounter, so I do have to be aware of my subject and my surroundings.
Fall 1999, I had a freak occurrence, in a very unlikely spot.
A couple of years ago, I had had a very close encounter with a huge bull moose in, of all places, one of the campgrounds up at Riding Mountain. That time of year ( early October) the campgrounds are pretty much deserted. Since bulls tend to be territorial during the rut, I took a chance that he may have returned again this year. Throughout the summer and into the fall I had heard of people seeing a large bull around the area, so I thought that it might be him.
I had no sooner pulled into the campground when there he was, standing right on the road, as if he had been waiting for me. He walked into the bush so I started to "call" him. This is where watching the documentaries paid off. Moose use a variety of calls to attract a mate, or challenge a rival. Hunters have "called" moose for years, by imitating the call of a challenger or the call of a responsive female. It is a very handy tool to be able to call moose out of the bush.
So I called him. This can be a very slow process. The animal, will usually do a lot of grunting and do the aggressive display of raking his rack through the trees, sometimes every few steps. He was walking through the bush paralleling the road. It took me about 45 minutes to get him to finally step out of the bush and show himself. Several times he had come out close to the road, but just wouldn't take the last couple of steps into the clearing. But now he was coming.
Suddenly, as he was just about to step out of the bush, I heard a second grunt behind me. I turned and there was another huge bull approaching from behind me.
I stood there as my first bull finally stepped out of the bush about 30 feet in front of me. At almost the exact same moment, the second bull stepped out of the bush about 30 feet back and to my left. I knew that this was getting interesting.
There I was, between over 3000 lbs. of very excited moose. The first big bull started toward the second. He passed within 20 feet of me en route to the other bull.
The two got closer and closer. Grunting and snorting at each other. Rocking their huge racks back and forth in an intimidation display. At the very last second, both heads down, racks almost touching, it was like they were reaching out to each other with just the tips of their antlers, all in slow motion.
The second that they touched, it was like someone hit the "on" button. They suddenly lunged at each other and they were at it.
The sound of the two sets of antlers crashing together, driven by these two behemoths, was amazing. Now, keeping in mind, this is happening on a paved surface in the parking lot of the campground, so not only were their antlers clacking together, but, their hooves were clattering on the pavement.
Their feet were not designed for this hard surface, so neither animal could get a good foothold to gain any kind of power advantage. I think this actually prolonged the battle since the superior animal couldn't make a decisive push.
There I was, no more than 30 feet from them. I was down on one knee from the second the encounter had begun, with the drive on continuous. The battle continued for quite some time as I finished the first roll, rewound it, loaded a second roll and continued shooting. It seemed like they actually had the courtesy to take a short break while the film rewound, then, as if on cue, started up again.
As I was watching them through the viewfinder, I suddenly realized that I had to keep zooming out to keep them in the frame. Then I realized that they were skittering across the pavement coming right towards me. 30 feet, 25 feet, 20 feet ! By this time, even at 80mm, (Nikon 80-200mm f2.8) they wouldn't both fit in the frame. They would have run right over me if I hadn't moved quickly.
Then, just as suddenly as it began, the battle was over. The apparent victor let out a rather satisfied grunt, (so did I ) and both bulls headed back into the bush.
I do not recommend that anyone try any close encounters with wildlife unless you've done your research.