Archive for Elk Country

Pennsylvania Elk Photography Experience #7 – Fall Rut

Posted in Bull, Pennsylvania Elk, Pennsylvania Elk Photography Experience, Photo Tips, Rut, Wildlife Photography, Winslow Hill with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2012 by bobshank

The last week of September greeted us with spectacular fall-like weather. The temperature was cool and the elk were clearly in the heat of the annual rut. The breeding season for the Pennsylvania can run from mid-September through mid-October. The last week of September is generally near the peak of the action and we were there, ready with our cameras and lenses to capture the action!

The first day was the only clear day. The clouds and rain took over but this did not hinder the elk action at all. It was a very active week and we saw plenty of elk to photograph. Several fights broke out as the bulls were vying for dominance among the cows. I absolutely love this time of year and the fall rut is always filled with action and many photographic opportunities! There is no better time to be in elk country in my humble opinion, and I prefer to be no where else at this time of year!

This was our seventh Pennsylvania Elk Photography Experience. John arrived on Monday evening and we started with a basic wildlife photo workshop. This is always a good start so we can dial in our camera settings to more adequately and more easily capture the beauty of these elk. The next morning started with a real early breakfast and out to find the elk just as light was beginning to make its headway into the day. Elk, like most mammals, are most active at dawn and dusk, so we always are out in the mountains at these times. The light tends to be best at these times of day as well. Many times the activity slows down sometime between 9am and 11am. So we break for lunch and a short rest before heading back out of the early evening opportunities. I just cannot get enough time with these amazing animals! They are fascinating!

The Pennsylvania Elk Photography Experience has several goals we have in mind for all participants:

  • Provide an exciting experience with the Pennsylvania elk
  • Teach basic and advanced photography techniques to capture the action of the wildlife
  • Create breath-taking wildlife photographs that capture the essence of this experience
  • Learn from each other
  • Have fun

This fall trip was exceptional in terms of the rutting and elk action. I think it is fair to say that we accomplished all five goals on this trip.

I can’t wait to be back in elk country again!

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Amazing Encounter in Elk Country Pennsylvania – Part 2

Posted in Black Bear, Elk Country, Elk County, PA Wilds, Pennsylvania Elk, Wildlife Photography, Zoom Lens with tags , , , , , , on May 27, 2012 by bobshank

So the elk were on full alert and now I was, too!

A black bear was coming my way–directly toward me!

 
Call me stupid, but I thought it was pretty neat that this bear was walking straight toward me. I remember another day when I had Lydia  and James with me in my favorite field near our camp. We were enjoying my most favorite spot when a black bear came out of the woods below us and was headed straight in our direction. Little Lydia looked at me and asked, “Daddy, shouldn’t we be afraid?” “No,” I replied, “black bears are more scared of us than we are of them.” About that time a four-wheeler came up the dirt road, illegally I might add, and scared off the bear and that was that.
This time, I was alone in the middle of a field, with a black bear coming straight toward me but much, much closer! Still, I thought it was cool. After all, isn’t this a wildlife photographer’s dream come true to see and photograph a black bear in the wild up close like this? I even talked to the bear, as I do with most of the wildlife I photograph. I wasn’t sure it heard me though because it kept coming in my direction.
Just look at those claws! This was most certainly a dream come true for me. I’ve seen several black bears in my day and even photographed one fairly close before. But that one had an ear tag and was on a dumpster, literally. That will be a story for another blog post on another day. This bear was just coming through the field and it appeared to have already ravaged a tree or something with the telltale signs of white tree splinters all over its fur and even on its head. This bear simply seemed to be out for an evening stroll. However, he was coming closer and closer and straight at me!
Then it turned broadside to me and I thought okay, this is good. I’ll keep clicking off photographs of this special encounter. Just look at this bear, I thought to myself. It’s beautiful!
On another evening in this same field, my son, James, and I saw a sow and three little cubs. That was quite a sight and an awesome father/son moment, too!
Then all of a sudden I noticed my flash card was full. So I had to make the switch to put in a new, fresh card. I’ve done this countless times before and it’s really no big deal. Even with a black bear standing in the field with me, I was reloading pretty calmly when the bear started coming toward me again–closer and closer! Now, I will readily admit, my heart began to beat a little faster and my mind went into full gear. I suddenly realized that at this distance and my with my location in the middle of that field, I was a sitting duck with no escape plan! Dumb! Would this now be a fatal mistake?
This was now turning into a serious dilemma so I did what any seasoned wildlife photography would do–I yelled! Yep, I yelled, not quite at the top of my lungs but loud enough that this time the bear heard me. I think I scared the bear at least as half as much as I was scared, and it turned around on a dime and began to run back in the direction it came.
 The bear trotted off directly away from me and I kept clicking photos. It was a beautiful and amazing sight. It then turned to follow the edge of the field and was headed in a direction where I figured it was going to cross the road ahead of me. So I quickly moved down the road to get into a better position to click a few more photos. By now my fear had subsided and I knew I was safe. The bear was just about to cross the road when it looked back at me as if to say, “Goodbye.”
 Then the bear trotted across the road.
 Just look at those rear paw pads. Aren’t they beautiful?
The show wasn’t over yet. Not at all. The bear then went to a tree, seemed to study it carefully and then looked in my direction again.
Then it stood up on its hind legs and rubbed its back against the tree. I think it was indicating in no uncertain terms that this was his territory and not mine! I just wish I was on the other side of that tree to see his face when he did this!
Then he trotted off into the woods to cross the stream below. The elk were looking on, a bit more relaxed now, but still attentively.
And with that, the amazing encounter was over. Wow! What an incredible experience!
In hindsight, I believe I did the right thing when I yelled at the bear in the moment I was exchanging the flash card in my camera. I didn’t want the bear to stumble right up on me and be completely surprised or things could have gotten much more serious. Also, please note that I had a 200-400mm lens on my camera and I was maxed out most of the time at 400mm during this encounter. I in no way want to encourage any of you readers to try to get so close to a wild animal. Having and using the right equipment is a must for wildlife photography. As a matter of fact, I saved up for 3 1/2 years for this big lens and it is paying off in tremendous ways already. I would never have stayed in my position with a shorter lens. My experience with the wild animals of Pennsylvania and the information I learned from studying them, matched with paying close attention to the experiences of others, helped me make mostly good decisions in this encounter. In fact, I might have panicked a little too soon when I yelled because in reality it wasn’t really all that close to me. The zoom lens just makes it look that way. Nevertheless, respect for these wild animals is prudent and must be followed at all times.
I took a few more photos of the elk who remained in the field, but as the light was beginning to wane, I placed the tripod over my shoulder and walked back out of the field with a huge smile on my face. This is what the Pennsylvania Wilds have to offer for those who are patient and lucky enough to experience an amazing encounter like this. I was blessed to see and photograph a Pennsylvania Black Bear! What an amazing encounter in Elk Country Pennsylvania!

Amazing Encounter in Elk Country Pennsylvania

Posted in Black Bear, Dick McCreight, Elk Country, Lennie Rue III, Light, Moose Peterson, Pennsylvania Elk, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pennsylvania Game News, Wildlife Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2012 by bobshank

This week I had the privilege of being in the Elk Country of Pennsylvania with my good friend and fellow photographer, Dick McCreight, of Bluestem Photography. Dick is an amazing photographer and I always enjoy our photo times together as we learn and stretch one another. This week was a prime example of this collaborative learning experience.

We saw and photographed a lot of elk over the past four days. Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from joining Dick on the first day, so he had a nice head start on me. It is always difficult to hear about and see photographs that are captured in your absence! I was encouraged that Dick was seeing and photographing elk and I hoped it might continue. It did!

Dick had to leave a little earlier than me, so we said our goodbyes. There was still about an hour of useable daylight, so I headed back out to try my luck.

Light is a funny thing and unpredictable at that. One moment the light stinks and then the next it is absolutely gorgeous! This evening out on Winslow’s Hill was no exception. The day was mostly overcast but as the sun began to make its way to the horizon, some of the clouds parted, creating streaks of sunlight onto the scene I was photographing. It didn’t take long for me to get into the right position, and as you can see in these first two photos, the elk cooperated as well! The first photo is my favorite so far, but I still have more photos to sift through and edit. By the way, all these photos here are completely unedited and straight out of the camera. The light was so good!

I also need to thank Moose Peterson who through his book, “Captured,” and his magazine, “BT Journal,” is teaching me to see the light! Sorry for the bad pun; but since my family is tired of me trying to be funny, I thought I’d try it here! Anyway, I am learning from Moose about the different qualities of light and how to use light in my photographs. Thank you Moose, I think these photographs show that I am learning from you!

This particular evening was the third time I photographed elk in this same field. I guess they were getting used to me and realized that I was presenting no danger to them. I walked onto the field after spotting the elk, walked down the dirt road toward them and they readily accepted me. You can always tell a lot by the little behavioral signs an elk portrays. Ears, eyes, tails, and general body movement are like reading a book. Every detail is important so the photographer has to pay attention to all this!

My general procedure when photographing the elk of Pennsylvania is to approach slowly and very casually. Lennie Rue III and Len Rue, Jr. taught me to act as unconcerned about the elk as possible, almost like you don’t even care about them. This nonchalant attitude helps the elk realize that we are not hunters who are going to shoot them. Rather, we are photographers who are going to shoot them in a much different way and over and over again! I approach the elk, reading all their signs. Then, as I get closer, I only approach when their heads are down while they are eating. When they look up, I stop, look around and act as causal as possible. This approach and a great deal of patience helps me get closer to the elk.

On this particular evening, the elk readily accepted me. I literally had elk all around me at one point! They were busy eating a new crop of hay and they were feeding in every direction possible. Once in a while, they would look up to study me, but for the most part I was just like another tree to them.

Then something happened.

I was photographing this cow when it started looking intently in a direction beyond me. As you can see in this photograph, the elk is looking in my general direction but somewhere behind me. It took me a while to really notice this, but then, as if on cue, all the elk began to exhibit an uneasiness that I could not explain. It is always amazing to me how wild animals communicate with each other. This time, the warning sign of alert was communicated and every elk stopped eating and was staring in the same direction. Something of interest was happening behind me; but what?

I thought that maybe another elk was coming into the field out of the woods behind me because I observed this earlier in the morning. There was a loud clashing as an elk bumbled onto the scene and the elk in the field looked in her direction when they heard the sound. But this was different. The intent stares of the elk and their body language indicated to me that something was wrong.

I even spoke out loud to the cow I photographed in the above photo, asking, “What’s wrong?” Yeah, I do talk to the animals. They never talk back, but Lennie Rue III teaches that he learned a lot while growing up on a farm. One time he came up behind a horse and surprised it so much that it kicked him square in the chest with both hind feet! He learned an important lesson. Talking to animals in an almost monotone and comforting manner is often helpful, and so I practice this every time I am in the field with the Pennsylvania Elk. “Hi, there. Don’t worry; I’m not going to hurt you.” Call me crazy, but sometimes I even think they understand me!

Something was wrong behind me this evening and every elk in the field knew it and saw it before I did. So after, asking, “What’s wrong?” I turned around to see this:

A black bear!

Now I knew what the elk were so intently looking at and it was obviously cause for great alarm to them. Some of the cows are now on the brink of giving birth to their calves. Black bears in Pennsylvania pose a definite threat to these baby calves. The Pennsylvania Game Commission conducted several elk calf studies over the years. You can read more detailed information about these studies and their findings here: Richardson, Lori D. Pennsylvania Game News November 2007: 31-37.

This recent study revealed that bears are not as big a threat to Pennsylvania Elk as they are to the Rocky Mountain Elk. Some of this is due to the mere numbers of the elk out west compared to the relatively lower numbers here in the east. Whitetail fawns are much more at risk here in our state. Nevertheless, a cow elk will definitely pay attention when it sees a black bear.

So here was the subject which attracted all the attention of these elk. I was the last one to realize it!

Now, I’ve been in the wood and fields of Pennsylvania all my life, so I know full well that predicting the size of a bear is anything but an exact science. I’ve seen the bear check stations where hunters bring in their bears to be weighed and studied by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Seeing is not always believing because what oftentimes looks like a huge bear simply is not. This is particularly true when a bear is by itself with nothing which to compare. I will suffice it to say that this bear was no cub.

I also know enough about bear behavior that black bears pose very little threat to adult humans. Grizzly bears and Polar bears are much different! So, even though I was in the middle of this field and a bear appeared out of the woods on the field’s edge, I was not concerned. I started photographing the bear, overjoyed to be experiencing this amazing encounter in elk country!

But then something happened that caught my attention again!

The black bear started walking right toward me!

(To Be Continued…)