Looking for unique animal behavior is an important part of capturing great wildlife images. I’m getting to the point where I don’t just want to see an animal, I want to see it doing something cool. I crave encounters that not only allow me a glimpse of the animal itself, but some insight into its way of life, how it thrives in an environment governed by forces that the average human cannot understand. And I don’t think I’m alone – I believe most wildlife photographers strive to capture new and unique perspectives on animal behavior. Whether it’s hunting or eating, protecting their young, attracting a mate, defending their territories, learning to fly, playing with siblings – the list goes on – getting a chance to observe and photograph the behaviors of animals is awe-inspiring.
In mid June, I took a 16 hour, 934 kilometer trek through the mountains west of Calgary. Considering the distance and time spent in the field, I didn’t actually see a lot volume-wise, but the handful of encounters I did have were all remarkable examples of interesting animal behavior…
The ‘ruffed-up’ Ruffed Grouse
My first encounter happened early in the day, at about 6 am. The lighting conditions were less than ideal, so I initially mistook the ruffed-up ruffed grouse for roadside debris. All I could see was a round-ish outline of the grouse’s collar in front of the black band on the tip of the tail feathers. When I realized it was actually a male ruffed grouse in full presentation mode, I swung around and pulled up beside him. Male ruffed grouse flare their tail feathers and the blue-ish collar around their necks as a display to attract females. He strutted around in the ditch for a couple of minutes, allowing me a few shots, then walked off into the trees. I did not see the female he was trying to attract, but I assume she was close by and I’d like to think he was successful. He sure impressed me.
The Grizzly Bear eating dandelions and scratching
Shortly after the grouse, I found my first (and only) grizzly of the day in a clearing on the side of the road. A grizzly bear eating dandelions is not an uncommon sight – they love dandelions, and these flowers (weeds?) happen to be quite abundant at the moment. So I’ve been after a ‘grizzly eating dandelion’ shot for quite some time. I was on the dark side of the valley, so again – not great light, but I was able to pull over to the side of the road, stabilize my camera on the car window, and observe this bear for about 15 minutes. She did not seem bothered my presence, so I was confident I was not causing her any stress. She just lumbered around the clearing, vacuuming up dandelion after dandelion, trying to consume as much as she could. A couple of times she stopped, sat down, and gave herself a nice little scratch. It was an amazing sight. I left her to her feeding and continued along my way.
The Common Loon wing-flap
Next, I came upon a common loon that seemed to be in full preening mode, nestling his beak into the feathers on his back, stretching his feet backwards and shaking his head. I thought, this should be a perfect chance to get the iconic loon wing flap, and I was right. I moved to the shore, crouched down and watched as the loon continued to preen, then flap his wings a series of five times over a couple of minutes. It is quite the sight. The loon bends his head back, then raises it, juts out his chest and flaps the wings forward and back in a fast sweeping motion. It is hard to see clearly with the naked eye, but when a camera shutter stops the action, the loon appears to be conducting an orchestra as the soft spray of water siphons off the tips of his wings. This is a behavior I always hope to see when I find a loon, and this encounter provided me with my best set of loon images.
The Dancing Elk
My last note-worthy encounter of the day occurred about 14 hours after I left the loon. It had been a long day of driving and I was exhausted. However, when I see a herd of elk against the back drop of a green valley, I can’t not stop – even though the light was fading and a thunder storm was brewing in the distance. I pulled over, walked into the ditch and rested my camera on the fence post. It was already a beautiful sight – 15 to 20 elk slowly raising from a day of rest, preparing for an evening of foraging in the valley. The males were sporting their newly growing antlers, covered with a fuzzy overlay of fine hair. They are beautiful creatures. Then I saw two elk rise onto their hind legs and engage with each other in what I can only describe as a dance. I thought initially it was two male elk fighting, then I realized it was a male and female. So I wondered, is it a courting display? But mating season for ungulates is not until the fall. I learned later (through someone on the Alberta Wildlife Facebook group) that elk and deer will commonly engage with each other in this way to establish dominance among their herds. It was the perfect end to an amazing day.
In terms of wildlife encounters, the more unique behaviors I get to see, the more I want to see. It is a never-ending journey filled with endless possibilities. I might be slightly addicted to finding and photographing wildlife, but I am completely at peace with that 🙂