On my worst day in the field, chasing a particular animal that I can’t find (usually bobcats), I am rewarded a number of different ways. First, I’m spending an entire day out in nature. Every day that I spend out in the country makes me a better wildlife photographer. You might wonder how I’m a better wildlife photographer if I haven’t found the target animal? Fair enough. I’m better because the intensity of the search increases as the day goes on, I’m looking harder and covering more ground. Sometimes it leads me to areas I don’t shoot often – and that broadens my understanding of the species, it’s range, activity habits, and general areas of success. That day becomes a data point in my memory to learn from, and there are thousands of those data points just for bobcat safaris.
2019 was a year of great successes, photographically speaking, but it was also a year when I had a number of difficult safaris that didn’t pan out like other safaris (at the same time) in previous years. January 2019 brought my biggest single day for bobcats (12) for the entire year. When November and December have always been peak months during my bobcat season (Sept to early March) it was January that brought the high day for bobcats. Yet, my second January Safari into Yellowstone in 2019 was disappointing as a near-continuous line of snowstorms brought animal activity to a standstill. The first January 2019 Safari in Yellowstone was amazing, with lots of wolves and red foxes, but two weeks later things had stalled under an avalanche of snow.
Second, slow days afield cause me to reflect more on past safaris weather (good safaris and slow safaris) as I try to formulate a successful day. A dry January and February in 2020 led to some very slow bobcat safari days, while lots of rain and storms in 2019 led to many very good days. While that might seem like a trend to seriously consider, a very dry 2014 (the California drought was in full swing) didn’t stop from providing me with 9 bobcat safari days of 10 bobcats or higher – and my all-time high day of 16 cats. So, while the weather can be a factor in bobcat safari success, plainly, sometimes it’s not.
Besides weather, there are other factors that play upon the success of any particular wildlife safari. Animal populations have highs and lows, expanding when conditions are perfect, and contracting when they are not. The population roller-coaster is an undefined parameter of wildlife photographer success. Some year’s birth rates are up, other years they are down – and in some years older animals leave the population, sometimes due to illness or disease, or just due to an aging population. None of these factors can be anticipated, nor factored into a wildlife safari. Except in the case of animal populations being closely monitored (like gray wolves in Yellowstone), the likely hood of information about these factors being made public is extremely low. No matter the information, I am going anyway.
Third, and possibly the most important thing to learn from a bad day in the field – you have to pay your dues. Unlike all other types of nature photography, wildlife photography is never a sure thing. Other than in some locations, like Yellowstone, where particular animals can be counted on regularly – wildlife photography success comes after countless hours are spent in the chase. After leaving Yellowstone on the January Winter Safari we headed down to Jackson for the 3 days in Grand Teton National Park – and hardly got out of Jackson due to the mountain lion on a hillside next to our hotel. That was an opportunity that doesn’t come around often … like never it seems. On the first January 2019 Safari in Yellowstone we photographed a mountain lion, now this January we photographed another one. What are the odds of that happening?
Lastly, by spending a day chasing you give yourself an opportunity to come across a completely unexpected encounter. Besides the mountain lion encounters mentioned previously, the list of unexpected encounters is long and dramatic. On the September 2014 Colorado Fall Landscape Safari we photographed a lynx mother and her two kittens. On the same safari, in 2016, we ran across the largest mule deer buck I have ever photographed in Mesa Verde National Park. In the Winter 2005 Yellowstone Safari, I had an encounter with a black wolf and a pregnant gray female. Interactions between the male black wolf and the coyotes is one of my all-time favorites. Later, in the fall 2008 Yellowstone Safari came the encounter with the Canyon Pack wolves eating on an elk they had killed.
The 2018 Klamath Safari led to a mink encounter, the 2019 Utah Raptor Safari led to an amazing ermine encounter and more daylight hunting barn owls than you could count – while warm weather in 2020 wrecked the Utah Raptor Safari. I do all these safaris, always refining dates and specific locations, with the knowledge that in a high majority of the days we are on a specific safari – we will have some tremendous successes. I’m not afraid to call my bobcat safaris “Bobcat Safaris” instead of something more general, like “Wildlife Safaris in Bobcat Country”. I want my clients to know what my Number One target is.
What stands wildlife photography alone at the top of Nature Photography is the level of difficulty involved. To capture an amazing encounter can be as simple as being in the right place at the right time – by accident, or that amazing encounter can be the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of data points of information gleaned from a lifetime in the field. That information leads to hundreds, maybe thousands, of amazing encounters – while luck only leads to a few.
Lastly, I would like to say there is no coronavirus in nature. While the virus spreads through our population like the flu, only more virulent, and practicing social distancing seems to be the current catchphrase – the virus is not out chasing photographers chasing wildlife images, stay safe and shoot. BRP