Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Photo of the Day - White-tailed Buck

Today's photo actually is from today, which is a real rarity (I usually take about twelve years to get to editing my shots). I found this monster buck off Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country.  He's easily one of the largest guys I've ever seen in the Rockies, where our deer usually aren't very big.

A huge white-tailed buck along Highway 40 this afternoon

This shot was taken at 1/800th of a second, f5, ISO 2000 with my Canon 1D Mark IV and 500mm f4 lens off of a beanbag on my driver's side window.

Happy shooting!

John

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thirty Feet from a Wild Wolf

When is it too cold to photograph?  Not at a mere -34 degrees Celsius (-41 C/F with the wind chill), apparently.  For the eleventh straight day, I got up at 6:30 in the dark and managed to massage my car's stiff old bod to life, then hit the roads and trails for a day of ... pure, frozen joy.  Today was one of those glorious days in the Rockies where it's so cold that the only things out there moving about were the animals and the one crazy photographer.  I went hours without even seeing another car, let alone another person walking around in the woods.  And that, to me, is as good as it gets!

I spent the morning photographing a cow and calf moose near Lake Louise, the afternoon chasing wolves on the Kootenay Parkway (and finding them!). And while it nearly cost me a few fingers (on the morning shoot I lost all feeling in my two little fingers and my ring finger and my face was so frozen that I was barely able to talk), it was well worth it.

By far the highlight of my day was getting within thirty feet of wild wolves on foot without them being aware of my presence. It happened entirely by accident and I had to extricate myself from the situation without disturbing them, which was an adventure on its own!

I had found a series of wolf tracks crossing and recrossing the highway on a steep embankment, tracks that didn't look any more than a day old.  So I had decided to follow them to see what the wolves had been up to and where they'd travelled to.

I had on my Sorel boots and heavy-duty -40 socks, three pairs of long johns (long underwear) including a fleece pair, my camouflage pants, two undershirts, three fleece jackets including a camouflage fleece jacket, a toque, fleece gloves, and a camouflage face mask.  I grabbed bear spray (I just photographed a grizzly three days ago in -20!) and my binocs and hit the trail.   

When I track things, I'm usually paying close attention to my surroundings to ensure I don't stumble upon something like a carcass, which could be dangerous.  I also tend to move very quietly and stop often to listen to what's around me.  The whole point of walking in the woods is to try to see things and to get an idea of the travel patterns the wolves used in this area so that if I ever see them in the area again, I'll have a good reference point for where they may head to and what they might do.

After about twenty minutes of walking slowly along the wolf tracks, I had noticed that there seemed to be more and more tracks converging into the area and that the tracks were getting closer to the highway.  I could now hear traffic going by occasionally, which made it difficult to hear as I walked through the bush.  As one big truck rolled by in the distance, I thought I could hear ravens nearby, but as the truck's sounds faded into the distance I was left standing there in silence again.

I continued following the tracks, but then very clearly heard ravens calling from what seemed like no more than a hundred feet away.  I stopped and listened, and saw several ravens and a magpie fly by at close range.  Something was going on, so I paused and looked around me carefully. My heart was pounding, but I couldn't see or hear anything else.  I was suddenly quite sure that I was near a kill, but I wasn't at all sure how to get myself out of the situation as quickly and quietly as possible.  As much as I was curious about what was dead, I was also very cognizant of the fact that there could be a grizzly or wolves nearby and I had no desire to disturb either from a cold day's meal.

After several minutes of standing there perfectly still, I could hear another big truck going by on the highway in the distance and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to move, hoping the truck's engine would mask my sounds.

As I stepped off to my left, five or six ravens exploded out of the bush right in front of me.  I froze and peered through the forest, trying to make out what was up ahead.  Very slowly, I pulled my binoculars up to my face to check out a large dark lump I could make out about fifty feet in front of me.  Dead moose.  Only half eaten.  Uh oh.

My adrenlin kicked into high gear and I quickly did a full scan with first my naked eye, then the binoculars, to determine if there was a bear nearby.  Nothing.  Whew.  But then on my second scan with my naked eye, I caught movement behind the carcass.  Something black...a wolf!  And it was walking right towards me, completely unaware of my presence!

To my astonishment, a second wolf appeared to my left and began to wander in towards the kill.  I watched out of the corner of my eyes as it sauntered past me less than thirty feet away, oblivious to the fact that a human was standing so close by.

I had now been standing still long enough in the cold that my feet were beginning to go numb, so while I couldn't believe what was going on around me, I also knew that I had to get out of there and that I had to try to do it without the wolves hearing or seeing me.  If wolves get disturbed on a kill, they often abandon it.  I never approach an active kill on purpose, and now that I had stumbled into this situation, I didn't know whether to thank my lucky stars or curse myself for my stupidity.

I had been standing there frozen in place for at least five minutes when I heard a sound I really wanted to hear: yet another big truck was chugging up the hill towards us on the highway.  The wolves were both facing away from me, so as the truck's noise reached a crescendo, I began to quickly move backwards, one eye on where I was going, the other on the wolves.  Within seconds I was out of sight, and as the big truck's engine noise faded into the distance, I stepped out of the trees and raced up onto the highway.  I had done it!  The wolves hadn't seen me leave and at last glance had still been fully occupied by the moose carcass.

And while I didn't have my camera with me (I rarely take it along on my tracking sessions), having those two wolves wander around the forest in front of me without knowing I was there may be one of my most memorable wildlife experiences ever.

To top it off, I later spotted three wolves playing in a small meadow a few hundred metres from where the carcass was!

Anyways, thought I should share this story while it's still fresh in my mind.  Hope you enjoyed it, even without pictures.

John

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Photos from the Vault - Polar Bear Family

Today's photo is from a trip to Churchill I organized in 2008 before I had started my Canadian Wildlife Photography Tours company. 

A polar bear family cuddled up on the shores of Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba

I rented out my own tundra buggy and invited a bunch of friends along, and each day we'd go out in the dark and come back in the dark, spending all day on the tundra.  This photo was taken right at the end of the day as the sun was setting, so the light was very low and the shady spots were quite cyan-tinted.  I took this with a 500mm lens at 1/400th of a second, f4, ISO 1250 and removed a bit of the blue cast in post-processing.

I'm still trying to organize some polar bear trips for next year, so watch www.canwildphototours.com if you're interested in joining me in Churchill or in one of the other destinations I'm looking at for polar bear photography.

Happy shooting!

John

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Photo of the Day - Black Wolf

Since my wife jokingly chastised me last night for yesterday's 'Photo of the Day' being a spring photograph of an avocet, I am reverting to fall/winter shots for the next little while to appease her.  Today's photo celebrates our first big dump of snow here in the Rockies (10 cm last night!), which usually means I'm out looking for wolves somewhere or other.  This year has been particularly tough so far and I'm a weak 0-for, as in 0 for 11 in going out searching for wolves.  But that's pretty typical for wolf photography, you can go out for 20 straight days and see nothing, but that one magical day may be the 21st, so you head right back out and try again!

Faith, the female leader of the Pipestone wolf pack in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks

Last year I spent more than forty days in the field looking for wolves and had just two good days of photography.  This image above was from one of those days; this is Faith, the leading female of the Pipestone wolf family from about 20 km north of Herbert Lake on the Icefields Parkway.

Hope you enjoy the photo!

John

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Photo of the Day - American Avocet

Each spring when I'm done photographing bears in the Rockies, I usually pack up the car and head southeast into the glorious piece of prairie that I described in my recent article in Outdoor Photography Canada. And while I'm often in search of the more exotic prairie species like swift fox and burrowing owls, I do also stop to smell the flowers and take pictures of things like this beautiful avocet.

American avocet in a prairie slough near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border

These guys are tough to photograph, as they never sit still.  It's back, forth, over, to the side, back a foot, dip the head, quick shake, squat, over, back...it's hilarious to watch, but not so hilarious to attempt to photograph.  I set my camera to Servo mode to deal with the constant movement, then, using center point focus, I tracked the avocet's head and fired off a series of shots whenever the bird turned sideways to me with a full reflection.

Hope you enjoy the photo!

John

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Photo of the Day - Humpback Whale

I had heard of humpback whales bubble-netting to capture krill, but had never actually seen or photographed it until last year along the West Coast near Prince Rupert.

A humpback whale bubble-netting on the B.C. West Coast

It was actually remarkably easy to figure out where the whale was going to come up, because you could see the circle of bubbles rise to the surface and sure enough, the whale would pop out right in the middle of those bubbles.  In fact, if you look closely in the bottom right side of this image, you can see the remnants of the bubble circle.  And looking closely, you can also see the hallmark of photography on the British Columbia coast: rain.  On this particular trip, it rained...and rained...and rained.  Five straight days at one point, but that still didn't stop us from getting lots of great shots of whales and spirit bears.

Watch my Canadian Wildlife Photography Tours website next week for the official announcement of my spirit bear and whale watching tour dates for 2011.

Happy shooting!

John

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Best of Jasper Wildlife Photos - Part II

The second and final round of my clients' stunning selection of photos from the Jasper Wildlife Photography Workshop in October 2010.  Check the bottom of the page for my favourites! And definitely feel free to let me know which ones are your own favourites from today's photos (below) or from yesterday's Best of Jasper Wildlife photos.

Thanks once again to Don, Marc, Michael, and Nathalie for providing their beautiful images.

Two big rams © Marc Laberge

Bull Moose in a crowd (none of our group) © Don Surphlis

Mountain goat © Michael Sonea

Bighorn Eye © Nathalie Fortier

Young Bull Elk © Michael Sonea

Big Bull © Marc Laberge

Screaming Pika © Nathalie Fortier

Huge Ram © Don Surphlis

In Among the Rams © Don Surphlis

Bighorn Sheep Rut © Don Surphlis

More of the Sheep Rut © Marc Laberge

The Pika Playground © Don Surphlis

Cracking Skulls © Nathalie Fortier

Raven Silhouette © Michael Sonea

Leap of Faith © Nathalie Fortier

Check out my Canadian Wildlife Photography Tours website for information about my next Jasper Wildlife Photography Workshop if you want to get some great images like the October participants did!

Happy shooting, everyone.

John

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Best of the Jasper Wildlife Photography Workshop - Part I

From October 12th-17th this year I hosted my first Jasper Wildlife Photography Workshop and we had a fantastic week, with five very eager photographers from Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Montreal joining me for some great adventures along the Maligne Lake Road, the Icefields Parkway, and beyond.  We had all sorts of interesting photo encounters, including a close run-in with a giant bull moose (the largest I've ever seen in the Rockies - see below) and a surprise sighting of eleven mountain goats near the Columbia Icefields that had my group running about in a frenzy trying to decide which goats to photograph.

However, there were two real highlights of the trip for me:  the blizzard and the bighorn rut.

The blizzard was a typical Rockies' 'storm-outta-nowhere' that caught us high in an alpine pass while we were trying to approach two bighorn rams above us on a ridge near the Icefields.

The hike started off innocently enough that morning with the trees and hills enveloped in a light fog, temperatures hovering just below freezing, and a forecast that called for sunshine in the late morning and afternoon.  Sure enough, within an hour of departing the parking lot, we had climbed out of the fog and were greeted by a stunning open sky over the icefields and the surrounding mountains.  It looked like a perfect day to chase bighorn.

And it was...for about five more minutes.  That's when I noticed what looked like clouds from the Storm of '53 hovering on the horizon.  Another five minutes later and they had blotted out the sun and a slight wind had begun.  But it was at that point that I spotted two huge rams up above us in a very reachable spot, so despite the ominous-looking clouds, we kept moving onwards and upwards, cameras and backpacks in tow.

By the time we got within half a kilometre of the rams, it had started snowing.  Just lightly at first, then more and more forcefully, accompanied by a howling, frigid wind that began to eat at us on the open alpine tundra.  As visibility got poorer, I finally made the decision to split the group.  The hardcore easterners (used to long, cold, windy winters, apparently!) took off like a rifleshot with our hiking guide, Trevor, and made a beeline for the rams, or at least for the spot in the blizzard where we had last seen the rams.  Meanwhile, I turned my back to the wind and started a quick descent with the two westerners, who were both content in knowing that they lived close enough to try again when the snow wasn't blowing sideways.

Unfortunately for the hardcores, by the time they got up to where the rams had been sitting, there was nothing to see.  Literally.  So they waited it out for another ten minutes and got a clear break in the weather for a bit and realized that they were alone up there...the smarter of the two species had abandoned the exposed ridge and had likely descended into the trees below, so they followed suit.

It was a crazy day, but karma paid us all back for our efforts two days later on our final night of the workshop.  We had gone four straight days at that point without seeing a single bighorn sheep ram any closer than "see that brown speck beside the other speck?" and I was getting antsy.  The usual spots just weren't producing. It had gotten to the point where the off-time I gave to the photographers on the final afternoon to prepare some images for an evening critique was instead used by some of them to wander through the Jasper Park Lodge parking lot taking pictures of the decals on every Dodge Ram truck they could find, just so they could say they had shots of a Ram!

Don's magnificent Ram © Don Surphlis

Anyways, that final evening we drove out to one of my aforementioned 'usual' spots and lo and behold, there were some sheep out on the ridge.  I got out the binocs and took a look.  Ewe, lamb, ewe, ewe, ewe, lamb...DAMN, not a single ram to be seen.  I walked down a sidetrail a bit for a better vantage point. Ewe, ewe, more ewes, lamb, and...a RAM!  Wait a second, LOTS of rams, an entire giant herd of them, tucked up under the dark shadow of the ridgeline near the trees.  I raced back to the vehicles and shouted out (yes, I actually did shout in a moment of glee), "Get your gear!  We've got rams!!"

After a short, but strenuous hike, we found ourselves looking at a group of 15-20 bighorn rams, including one absolute monster ram that dwarfed the other big rams.  And for the next three hours, until we were all too cold to hold our cameras any longer, we waded in amongst the sheep and took photo after photo after photo. 

The icing on the cake?  After two hours of taking images, one of the photographers decided that it was time to head back to the car and take a break.  So he started off with his camera and big lens and tripod and began hiking back.  An hour later, he had made it exactly ten feet from where he had started.  Just as he had finished packing up and was ready to sling his tripod over his shoulder, two rams in the herd suddenly reared up on their hind legs and charged into each other, beginning an hour's worth of the best bighorn rutting I have ever seen.  It was so incredible that I almost forgave myself for only taking my 70-200 and a backup camera body up there with me...almost

So without further ado, here are some samples of images (view the second set of Jasper wildlife workshop images here) from my photographers.  Thanks to Don, Michael, Marc, and Nathalie for providing their images and for easily being one of my Top Four groups of the year (I told them on Day 5 they were Top Four and they asked how many groups I had had so far, and I replied, "Four.").

The giant bull moose © Nathalie Fortier

Bighorn sheep silhouette © Michael Sonea

My car and a herd of bighorn ewes © Don Surphlis

One of the beasts © Marc Laberge

The terrible view from the ram ridgeline © Marc Laberge

Bighorn silhouette © Michael Sonea

Goat Nanny and Kid © Michael Sonea

White-tailed buck © Don Surphlis

Pika © Michael Sonea

Bighorn rams fighting © Nathalie Fortier

Bighorn Lamb © Nathalie Fortier

Slippery Descent © Nathalie Fortier

Young Ram © Don Surphlis

Athabasca River Valley © Don Surphlis

Maligne Lake Boathouse © Marc Laberge

Ice Patterns © Michael Sonea

Stay tuned tomorrow for the best of their Jasper wildlife images - Part Deux (II).  Including several more great shots of the bighorn rut!

Happy shooting,

John

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Can You Find the Animal?

Another one from this past spring, though this shot certainly wouldn't stand out in a crowd.  But that's exactly the point...can you see what's in this photo?  Hint: it's not a sasquatch.

Camo cat in Jasper National Park, Spring 2010

So did you spot it?  Crazily enough, I took this shot with a 70-200mm lens.  I was only about 20 feet from the lynx (just in case you did not spot it, the lynx is in the dead center, its head poking up by that light-coloured twig).

And did you spot the second lynx in the back right?  Now that's amazing camouflage!!

You may wonder why I've even kept images like this on file.  Well, there are two reasons behind it.  One, I love images that tell a story or inspire a story.  How exactly did I spot this?  Is there really a second lynx in the background?  And do you think you would have spotted this as you walked by it?  Doesn't it make you wonder just how many lynx or cougar or bobcat you've probably walked and driven by over the years, all well hidden, watching calmly from the shadows?

And the second reason I've kept this image?  Because somewhere, long in the distant future, I may be doing a book about animal camouflage.  Pretty good chance, actually.  And in that book I'll be trying to keep everyone honest by pointing out things that do exist (one lynx) and things that don't (I was kidding about that second lynx)!

So what is the story behind this image?  Half an hour before the shot was taken, I drove around a corner and spotted a lynx casually strolling across the road.  As I pulled up, it meandered off the road and into the bush, setting off a frenzied attempt by me pacing up and down the roadside and the edge of the bush with my big lens, hoping against hope to get another glimpse of the lynx.  After thirty minutes of lugging the big lens over my shoulder and my smaller 70-200 around my neck, I suddenly spotted the lynx watching me through the undergrowth.  I slowly lifted up my 70-200 and fired off this shot (along with a few others), before setting up the bigger lens and trying to find an angle to get a clearer shot.

That's it for today, hope you all have a great weekend!

John

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Remember this Name: Wayne Simpson

The day I met Wayne Simpson, I remember him blindly following me down into a dense, snow-covered willow thicket in the hopes of finding a good spot to photograph a very large bull moose we had spotted coming our way across the meadow below us.

As the moose began to climb out of the meadow towards us through the willows, I remember thinking, "Geez, it's getting kind of close." Sure enough, when I looked up from behind my camera, the big bull was indeed getting "kind of close" and in fact, was beelining straight for us. Wayne quickly turned around and plowed his way through the willows back towards the car, while I stepped in behind him and went as fast as I could with my camera and big lens in tow. The thrill of being that close to such a big animal was offset at the time by a distinct feeling of nervous energy and fear, yet thankfully the moose veered off at the last second and started munching on twigs less than twenty feet away from us.

I spent about four hours that morning with Wayne, and another photographer I had just met, Lynn Amaral from Vancouver, chatting about photography and photographing several big bulls. There must have been something in the air that morning, for not only did I get a pile of great pictures of the various moose, but I also gained two new friends that I still keep in touch with.

Lynn and Wayne (right) with the big bull moose in Kananaskis Country

When I got home later that day, Wayne emailed me and I remember going and looking at his website and thinking, "Wow, this guy really does some amazing work for someone just getting going in the business."

And in the years since, he's only picked up steam.  As his portfolio expands and his creativity grows, I often find myself wondering if I'm not looking at the work of someone destined to be one of Canada's next great nature and landscape photographers.

Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks highly of Wayne's photography.  Check out the current issue of Outdoor Photography Canada magazine (Fall/Winter 2010) for a 6-page profile of his images.  And better yet, check out the cover, which features a great shot of Wayne's from Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario.

Just 35 years old and based in Calgary, Alberta, Wayne only began photographing eight years ago and had just turned to photography full-time when I first met him chasing that big bull moose in 2007. At this point in his career, Wayne supports himself with a variety of photo work that's not all nature-related. He also does weddings, portraits, and commercial work, as is evidenced on his beautiful website, www.waynesimpsonphotography.com (Wayne does all of his own graphic design and web work, too).

However, his true passion lies in nature photography. And while his wildlife work is sometimes limited a bit by the length of his lenses (his longest lens is a 300mm), his photographic vision is clearly not.  Whether it's the juxtaposition of shapes and textures in a sunburst reflected on a muddy shoreline, or a pine needle resting calmly across the crazy textured pattern on an old piece of driftwood, Wayne Simpson's work simply shines.

I hope you enjoy this brief look at Wayne's amazing photography and take the time to explore more of it on his website.

An elk herd along the Minnewanka Loop in Banff National Park

Subtle dawn colours along the Vermilion Lakes in Banff

A sunburst reflected along a muddy shoreline

Kettle Point, Lake Huron, Ontario

Killarney Provincial Park, Georgian Bay, Ontario

Moonlight at Upper Kananaskis Lake, Alberta

Pine needle on a piece of driftwood
Happy shooting everyone, and remember to contact me if you're interested in becoming the next Remember this Name photographer.

John

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