A Wildlife Sighting Primer from a Pro

I’m often asked how I managed to get a particular shot of a wolf or a bear or some other wild creature in Alaska. People imagine I know of secret locations up trails that can only be accessed by ATV, snowmachine, or packraft, or that require weeks of primitive camping and sewing a coat out of leaves, fur, and pine needles to blend into the environment. That’s rarely the case. I do have a yeti costume, but that’s a different story for another day. In fact, none of my images required me to slather myself in salmon oil or bellow like a moose in heat. At this point in my life, I’m old and lazy, and I prefer to work smart, not hard, to get an image, if I can help it. What I’ve found out? Animals also prefer the path of least resistance—quite literally. Who wants to bushwhack when you can use a road or trail? Not me, and not Mr. Grizz, either. 

My camera lens, so heavy it gives off front-seat airbag warnings, sits in the passenger seat next to me while I drive. On a good-weather day, I put the top down on “Hot Flash,” my old Mini-Cooper convertible, so I can shoot unimpeded—wind in my hair—that sort of thing. As I drive, I keep my eyes open, which I find to be so much safer than closed—looking for people. Yes, that’s right: I’m searching in earnest for people and cars pulled off on the side of the road. Of course, I’m also scanning for wildlife, for any movement in the landscape, but my vision isn’t what it used to be. So, a parked car gets my attention right away. It’s not foolproof though. More than a few times, instead of finding a lynx in the brush, I’ve found a mom with a toddler puking into the fireweed or a man watering the willows. Let’s just say that NatGeo would do a hard pass on any of those.

Off the road in Haines, this second-year brown bear cub chewed up the scenery with cuteness—one dandelion at a time. My son spotted him first, and we spent a good amount of time photographing him from our rental car before he disappeared into the brush.

I’ve gotten better at spotting people who are spotting wildlife by watching for clues. In stalking my prey after its prey, I notice behavioral changes. For example, if two people are together, are they both looking in the same direction? Is anyone pointing? Have they lifted their binoculars or cameras to their eye? Is the window up or down? Does someone have their selfie-stick outside the vehicle? All these precise indicators have been gleaned from years in the field. So, you’re welcome. I mean, why take the time to acquire the unique skillset of identifying scat or paw prints, when you can wait for everyone to burst out of the car in front of you screaming, “Caribou!”

There’s a catch, of course. Many people yell, “caribou,” when they really mean moose, and sometimes they shout, “bear,” when the brown blob in question is a rock. That’s the point where you’ll need to use your own judgment. Or, if you’re like me, and you can’t see that well, just take the photo anyway and zoom in later to reveal the surprise. You never know what can happen when you’re out for a drive, photographing wildlife.   

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