Photography enhances wildlife experience | Adventure

ByDavid M. Conte

Nov 1, 2021

On July 4, 2019, I hiked Penitente Peak for the first time and had the incredible chance to meet four bighorn rams majestically basking on the bald summit amid green grass and clovers roses.

They barely seemed to recognize my presence, allowing me to observe them for about 20 minutes before I felt I might be past my welcome.

Fortunately, it was a day that I had thrown my camera in my backpack, and before I continued down the mountain, I took a photo of two of the rams relaxing on the summit of 12 249 feet with Santa Fe Baldy framed in the background.

If you’ve ever met me on a trail in the Pecos Desert, or pretty much anywhere in public, there’s a good chance you’ve seen this photo before. I can rarely go more than a few minutes without picking up my phone and displaying the image to put the face of a stranger. They usually don’t seem to care; it’s a pretty cool photo, after all.

This is one of my favorite photos I have ever taken, and the experience heightened my interest in wildlife photography.

This is what Aldo Leopold would call a trophy.

In his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There, the renowned environmentalist and conservationist has written about the physical objects and marks of achievement that recreationists look for in their outdoor activities.

These trophies can include a basket of mushrooms, a deer killed by a hunter, or a photo of a great blue heron. It is a certificate, he writes, which “attests that its owner has been somewhere and done something – that he has exercised skill, perseverance or discrimination in the age-old feat of overcoming, foiling or deduct to own. These connotations attached to the trophy generally far exceed its physical value.

Leopold writes that the pleasure that our trophies give us should be “to seek as well as to obtain”. I have found this to be the case in wildlife photography, an activity that is full of rewards even when an outing does not give the images we want.

Only a small fraction of wildlife photography actually involves taking photos. It is mainly about learning animal behavior, studying the habitat over several visits, waiting, waiting some more and hoping that you got to the right place at the right time.

Standing still and watching the light change on the earth, seeing little creatures scurrying around and feeling present in a beautiful natural setting is a joy in itself. If the moment arrives and an animal you have been waiting for finally appears, the feeling of euphoria is intoxicating.

Remember to maintain a safe distance from the subject no matter how tempting it is to approach them. You are at home, and this is their space. The National Park Service generally recommends staying at least 25 meters from most animals and 100 meters from large predators.

Often the best photos come out of pure luck. There is a bear eating berries by the side of the road, or a mother mountain goat and her child drinking from a net in a rock face near a trailhead. All you have to do is pull out your camera, get a good composition, and take the picture. It almost sounds like cheating, but it actually just makes up for past and future unsuccessful trips.

Fall is the season I think about most for photographing wildlife. The elk rut in Valles Caldera National Reserve attracts me with the potential to capture an image of a bugle bull, as captivating sandhill cranes and other migratory birds flock along the mid-Rio Grande valley. .

I have made several trips to Valles Caldera over the past month to hike the backcountry hoping to see a moose up close, an animal that I have never taken a good photo of. I walked in their footsteps, saw tons of their droppings, found their vultures, heard the strange bull’s bugles in the distance, and saw cows running around the lower treeline. They resemble mountain ghosts, a sensation reinforced by the fog that frequently hangs over the valleys at dawn.

I haven’t managed to snap a clear photo of an elk yet, instead settling for photos of dozens of them appearing as tiny dots in the distance in the middle of the Grand Valley. But a trip has never been ruined or my morale has cooled.

Having learned more about their habits and spent time in their habitats, I always feel close to the creatures.

Last winter I made my first trip to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro to see sandhill cranes. Hearing the chorus of thousands of cranes all day long and being mesmerized by the successive waves of elegant birds flying above me has been one of the most fascinating experiences I have had in my life.

I spent a few hours taking photos right after sunrise, then I spent a few more hours watching the birds foraging, frolicking and flying over the cornfields.

If you’re struggling to figure out the allure of birding, you won’t after a trip to Bosque del Apache from November through February.

I haven’t collected a lot of trophies in the years I’ve been photographing animals. I wouldn’t dare call myself a wildlife photographer and I don’t have the expensive long lenses that can get you closer to the subject.

Fortunately, the only expense in hunting for wildlife is the cost of gasoline to get to the desired destination and possibly a fee to enter a park.

The opportunities to seize a privileged moment with a wild animal are fleeting and rare. This rarity adds value to encounters. But it’s being present in the moment, feeling like you’re part of the world around you, and realizing the bountiful gifts of nature that make wildlife photography such a rewarding endeavor.


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