Thinking like an animal pays off

<p>A mule deer buck in Union County displays the Flehman response. For wildlife photographers to be successful, it helps to learn the particular nuances of your subject. </p>

I guess I’ve been scaring poor, hapless critters with my camera for over 40 years now. I can’t really say I’m an expert on the subject, but I do get a good shot on occasion. I frequently get asked how I get some of my photos, so I thought I might share a few tips with some of you just getting into wildlife photography. Experts may want to pass on this page and thumb over to the classifieds or funny pages. 

If I could claim any success with my hobby, I’d have to say it most certainly isn’t my vast knowledge of photo gadgetry and technology. Almost every time I get out in the field I discover a new button on my camera. I have come to realize that a good many of the bells and whistles that come with our modern cameras today don’t necessarily make or break your success as a wildlife photographer. But I do think a basic understanding of your subject can really improve your odds of getting a good shot.

You need to think like an animal. 

Since I was a young boy, I’ve been literally passionate about wildlife. At 3 years old, I put together a rather substantial collection of bugs in those tiny Folger’s coffee jars. It took me a while to figure out why my jailees kept going to sleep after a couple days without air. At age 8, I got into raising all types of poultry — pigeons, pheasants, waterfowl, chickens and the like. For the next 20 years, I maintained a rather sizable aviary. I also managed to watch nearly every episode of Wild Kingdom on television.

Through all those years I began to understand what makes animals do what they do. Even caged birds and animals share a few basic nuances as their wild cousins. But I spent a good deal of time with the wild critters as well. I became a very avid birdwatcher and hunter — spending many of my summer vacations in such places as Yellowstone, Banff and a good deal of time in Oregon’s backcountry.

So there’s my first suggestion. You don’t necessarily need to be a wildlife nut like myself, but it helps to understand wildlife and their basic biology if you expect to have any real success as a photographer. Spend some time watching wild animals. Pay close attention to what they are doing and what time of year they’re doing it. To get good photos, it will improve your odds if you can learn good areas to find wildlife. 

Take elk for example. In Eastern Oregon, elk are hunted nearly six months out of the year. In truth, you could throw your camera and tripod over your shoulders, take a hike in our Blue Mountains and all you’ll likely photograph is elk butts running through the woods. For good elk shots, you may have to resort to areas where they aren’t as wild, such as national parks or feed sites. A good time to photograph elk is in September, when they’re in the rut. It can even be difficult finding elk in Yellowstone if you don’t get out early in the morning or in late evening. Timing is everything with most wild mammals. 

Look at the photo accompanying this article. With a good knowledge of mule deer, I know mid-November is a good time to find large mule deer bucks. This is their breeding time. I wanted a shot of a buck displaying a Flehmen response to a nearby doe. The bucks curl their lip to allow the doe’s scent to flow over the Jacobsen’s organ in the roof of their mouth, so they can determine her breeding status. Is she in heat yet? The does often lay down to keep the bucks from smelling their rumps. When they arise, they will usually urinate. When she does, the buck will rush over, smell this and immediately throw his head up and curl his lip. Knowing this I already had my camera waiting for the shot. 

Birds can be difficult to photograph. They won’t stand still. A good way to photograph birds is to set up a feeding station near your photo blind. Set up a log or some sticks just above the feed and get prepared. Birds are constantly dodging predators, so they almost always land on a nearby perch and look around before they commit to the feeder. If you have your camera already focused on that landing perch, you can usually get a shot before the subject leaves.

A good photo blind can really be very useful for many photographic endeavors. I’d have to say my best photo blind is my Ford F-250. It may sound a bit silly, but one can get a lot of good wildlife photos right from your vehicle. 

Many critters still haven’t quite figured out that humans are related to cars. They do know the human shape very well. Pull up to a bunch of wild turkeys alongside the road, take a few shots and then get out of your truck. You’ll soon notice a big difference in their response. It’s much the same with other species. 

Of course, in many situations, a successful photographer often has to resort to a ground blind tucked in the weeds and made as inconspicuous as possible. You might figure on all the elements that go with a hide like this — muscle cramps, spiders and skeeters and wild critters that take their own sweet time to pose in front of your window. 

Can wildlife photography be an expensive hobby? It can, but many of today’s cameras offer some great features at pretty reasonable prices. 

As you might figure, most wild animals have a bit of a distance threshold. They’ll usually allow you to get only so close. And this is often just a bit out of range for most standard lenses. But even though you could invest as much in a good lens as a down payment on a small ranch, there are rather good lenses at good prices. And, with some inexpensive photo software, many of your subjects can be brought in much closer through cropping.

 Oregon really has a good many great places to photograph wildlife. We often take it for granted. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has done a super job of acquiring many of these areas and making them available to the public. They’ve done a great job of publicizing these areas through websites, maps and other publications. So for many creatures, you may have some great opportunities right in your community. 

In ending, I’d have to say there is really one most important suggestion I could make regarding your success as a photographer. Don’t leave your camera home when you travel. It took me a while to get the hint. After you miss some great opportunities, you’ll eventually learn as I have. Cursed be the photographer that encounters Sasquatch on a morning drive — and his beloved Nikon is tucked neatly away in his photo drawer at home. 

Jim Ward is an outdoor writer and photographer who lives in La Grande.

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