A Loner’s Life

Photograph of a bull moose in the forest
Bull Moose – North Park, Colorado

For the most part, wildlife photography is a loner’s journey.

The physical connection between the wildlife photographer and photographic subject is symbiotic in many ways. One must learn to adapt to that relationship too.

Moose are social animals but seem to prefer their own company to that of others. Moose are unique subjects. They will hang out together at times. Good feeding conditions, breeding and some type of kinship with others of their type are gathering factors but they are more likely to be found on the move and alone. For the wildlife photographer, the same holds true. I enjoy the company of others but for the most part, I prefer to work alone.

My wife is quite supportive of my photography efforts but she’s not really into the “nature photography” thing with the same enthusiasm as I. If you’re a photographer, you’ve probably experienced this yourself. The travel companion is more often than not quickly bored with the adventure. Sitting alone in a vehicle without an internet connection or phone signal could be a factor. Perhaps it’s not enjoyable to watch some old guy trudging across the field in the rain. It’s a rare person who is willing to sacrifice their sleep and worldly conveniences to trek out into the wilderness with a photographer who is focused primarily on finding critters in the early morning mist.

Most times it’s just better to share the fruits of our labor. I imagine that a typical construction worker has to deal with the same thing. I’ve never heard of a carpenter taking their wife or girlfriend to work to watch them measuring and cutting lumber. It’s boring.

Moose on the other hand seem to like boring, so the photographer must learn to be bored in the same fashion as the loner animal. Other things factor in to this equation though.

The wildlife photographer’s work doesn’t hinge on the hard to alter habits of other humans when heading out into the field. Most of the adaptation comes from the photographer, not from the travel companion. While we still have to account for the presence of other people from time to time, to a large degree the other humans that are present are typically loners too. Our paths are simply crossing at a certain time and place.

Being of retirement age, I have the time to roam around alone in the back woods and mountain tops. My travel and photography plans are for the most part kept to weekdays and not weekends. For those still working a real job, their commitments in life relegate them to getting out on weekends. Though I will get out on a weekend, it’s not an option I give priority. As a matter of fact, I avoid weekends specifically to avoid the folks getting out on weekends. Too many people disrupt the shooting environment and the experience of being alone with the subject.

More than a few of my friends who are my age and older find their photographic comradery within the confines of camera and nature clubs. I’m not a group outing kind of guy though, I’m like a loner moose. My best photos come from working alone or with one other equally enthusiastic photographer. It’s never a personal thing when hatching a plan doesn’t work. We all have different needs and desires. Finding folks who are on the same wavelength isn’t an easy task.

So, I’m incubating another egg that will hatch into a lone adventure in the near future and there will be more after that. Like that lone moose, you may see me pass by from time to time, on my mission to get to some remote spot that I find delightful. But only if you get up early. I’ll typically be done working by 10:00 am and taking a nap by noon. I’ll share the photos with those who prefer to sleep in at a later time.

Being a loner isn’t lonely at all.

More Moose

Moose in the woods of Northern Colorado
Decisions Decisions

 

One of the odd-ball shots from last Friday morning.

It’s hard to take your finger off the shutter button while there is still room in the camera buffer.

It’s Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry

Photograph of a young bull moose on a forest road.
Young bull moose truck’n along a Northern Colorado forest road

 

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 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 to 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.

It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

In The Field

Photograph of a Bull Moose in Colorado by Gary Gray Bull Moose On The March

I’ve been enjoying the Holiday with family in Red Feathers and have finally found a few moments for a blog entry.

My first good photography outing in several weeks has been about, what else? Moose. This past Friday morning was my kickoff to actually hitting the dusty trails in search of moose, fult-tilt boogie wise that is.

I laugh at my own habits some times, particularly, the little mind games I play on myself when moving around. I always think I’m going to find very little, and then, BOOM! I land on a great scene with nice, photographable moose.

Early this past Friday, I stumbled upon 7 bull moose and a cow with a calf. All within a 1 mile radius. Many were too far away for any really exceptional photos, but I knew that all I needed to do was position myself and be patient. Moose would eventually come to me and I’m pre-configured to get the shots I want to get.

Well, blaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrp. The moose do what they want to do and not what I want them to do. I’m watching a scattered group from 100 meters away waiting for them to move closer and two huge mature bulls come walking towards me directly to my right. They were on the move and not at all concerned with me, though they had me in their eyes the whole time. Using my SUV for cover, they actually walked past me from about 10 feet away. I just kept moving around the Explorer to keep it between me and them.

Thus the subject of today’s image. The Bull Moose Woods Profile thing. I have a preconceived image in my head that I constantly look for in the field. This was one of those situations. The moose walking parallel to me with a profile through the woods.

The idea is to track the moose with the camera as it moves across my visual horizon and catch revealing profiles as he’s on the march. When it looks interesting through the view finder, I fire off a burst of shots.

For this composition I made a decision to not get the entire moose in the shot. I wanted the antlers but I sacrificed its hooves, except for the one off the ground. Same with his flanks. I wanted part of him obscured.  I call this cramping the frame. Photography critics will tell you to never amputate a limb, particularly at a joint. That’s good advice if you want your photos to look the same all the time, which I don’t.

The argument is basically “you cut his feet off, it’s too distracting, disturbing, doesn’t follow the rules” or something in that vein. That’s camera club advice.

Many professional portrait photographers use this technique all the time. They’ll chop off a portion of the persons face for the effect. Why? Because it gets the attention of the viewer and creates photographic tension, which is a highly ambiguous but accurate phrase.

The idea is to tell a story and one way to push that along is to create tension in the image.

As for the moose, you know he has hooves, you can see one in the air. It’s doesn’t require a lot of thinking, but I does make you think for a second. “Well, he is moving right along isn’t he?”, which in turn spurs other questions. You end up with a story, all thought out in just a few seconds.

Throwing in a little more self-critique.

The photo is a little busy from a camera club critique point of view, but most people blow past that because the busy background is consistent and in context. The moose stands out even though it fits right in to the environment.

I’m fairly happy with this one.

Munching Moose Monday

Photograph of a moose feeding in a lake.
Shiras Bull Moose in a Colorado Mountain Lake

 

For a few years I was lucky enough to find a boat-load of moose hanging out in a particular lake in Northern Colorado. This was one of the first images I made after that discovery.

When moose find a good grassy bottom water hole, they munch like mad. The grass in his mouth and the water dripping from his head make for a perfect combination.

Moose activity is heating up. After the July 4th holiday, I begin working full swing. With any luck, I’ll find more moose in this lake this July and August.

 

Why Did The Moose Cross The Road?

Cow and calf strolling through the woods. Shiras Moose – Red Feather Lakes, Colorado

 

Life these days are about finding simple pleasures.

Earlier this week I ventured out to find the local moose at sunrise, as I normally do when I’m at the cabin. The primary activity lately has been from a couple of cows and their calves. There’s one cow that has twins and she keeps them fairly tucked away in the woods. Closer to the village, a mother and her single calf have been frequenting the woods near my place and it hasn’t been difficult to find them in short order.

Still sipping coffee, I made a quick run to the two areas I felt most likely to find the critters, and after about 10 minutes of poking around with no luck, I elected to go to a third location on the other side of the village in hopes they might be lingering in the open.

Much to my surprise, I’m driving along the road towards my place when I spot the obvious silhouette of the mother moose standing in the middle of the road at the intersection of my street and the main highway. She was standing in the road looking back over her shoulder off to my right at the side of the road where her calf was trying to get over a fence to join her.

Moose Cow and Calf crossing a highway.
Leading her calf across the road near my cabin.

I could almost hear her talking to the calf. “Come on, just jump over the fence and lets get going”  The calf was anxious and made it through the fence with little effort. Momma moose then proceeds across the road with calf in tow, into the field near my house, where they stop to browse the bushes for a quick breakfast snack.  I pulled off to the side of the dirt road leading to my cabin and sat and watched. The sun still wasn’t up but it was getting lighter by the moment. The dawn sunshine hit the field beyond the pair and began its slow creep toward the two. A few moments of browsing and they were done. Mother moose decided to take the calf into the woods in the direction of my cabin so I pulled the SUV off the roadside and drove on down the road running parallel to them. By now they had vanished into the woods. I know those woods quite well and there’s a marshy pond on the far side of the woods they were moving through so I figured I’d just drive on down the road to where that pond was and see if they were anywhere to be found.

As I crept along the dirt road near the pond, the two were coming through the woods directly towards me. I stopped and fired off a few frames from the Nikon D810 as they crested the small hill above the pond, almost directly in front of me.

Mother moose didn’t blink and eye and she led her calf right to me and across the road into the woods behind my cabin.  The end result, I got a good 30-40 minutes of early morning camera time in close proximity to these two lovely neighbors.

Why did the moose cross the road?

So I could get photos.

The Watering Hole

Moose calf at a watering hole near Red Feather Lakes, CO
Shiras Moose Calf – Red Feather Lakes

I’ve been photographing a moose cow and calf most of this Spring and early Summer in the area around the village. There’s a particular water-hole near the village where all manner of wild creatures come to slurp and it’s a good place to watch for activity.

It’s difficult for the moose to find good habitat east of the village, as the area begins transforming from mountain forest to open brush and range land. Moose will move through but they are seldom found in numbers. This makes the forest surrounding the village a good congregation point. The moose come in to the area, browse around. The cows and calves have a good range of feeding in a non hostile environment. The bulls are a different story. They seem to have more of a wandering spirit. They move into the area but seem to eventually move back to the higher country to the west where there is a lot more forest to explore.

The Youngsters Look Healthy

Moose photography by Gary Gray
Twin Moose Calves

More good fortune. Yesterday morning shortly after sunrise I came across a moose cow with twins. Mother moose wasn’t too concerned with my presence, however, the calves were quite curious. Embedded in a aspen grove, they were not exactly in the most photographic of spots but I managed a few frames. Turns out, I got this photo and a couple of others.

Moose twins are one of the more rare events to see in the wild. It takes quite a bit of energy for a female cow to birth and raise two babies, but this cow was in pretty good shape and the youngsters look healthy.

 

Mother and Child

Photograph of a nursing moose calf
Mother Moose Feeding Her Baby

I went out looking for moose around the village yesterday evening just before sunset.

Was fortunate enough to wind up on this pair, mother and child, moving along the edge of the woods near the cabin.

It’s rare that I find a perfect setup for a nursing calf. Last night was good.

Misty Moose

Shiras Moose in Colorado by Gary Gray
Two moose buddies hanging out in a lake.

This photo from 2014 was taken before sunrise in a Northern Colorado lake.

It’s rare to find two large bulls hanging out together in a good photographic situation. The light was quite low and flat, but moose are seldom found in perfect light. The mist wafting from the lake’s surface gives a nice feel to the shot.

I’m still amazed at the images I made using the old, defunct, Canon EOS 7D. An APS-C camera that was probably the best affordable wildlife camera on the market for several years. It wasn’t much use above ISO 1600. This shot was at ISO 3200, pushing the limits of the sensor but with a little post processing in DXO PhotoLab Pro, I managed to milk a little more out of the old camera.  The lens was a Canon 400mm prime with a 1.4x teleconverter. I don’t use teleconverters very often, they tend to degrade the image quality a bit but these guys were on the far side of the lake and getting a nice framing required it.  No complaints.

As the old saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you.