‘How do you find all these animals? I spend lots of time in the mountains camping, hiking, skiing, etc, but I’ve never even seen a bear.’
I’ve had a few people say this to me in various ways over the past few years. And there was a time, in the not so distant past, that I would have said the exact same thing.
Up until my obsession with nature/wildlife photography began, I had never even seen a grizzly bear in the wild, and the last black bear I saw was probably 10 years ago in Montana. And I too had spent a good chunk of time in the wilderness, having always lived close to the wildlife-rich region of SW Alberta.
So have I just gotten extra lucky over recent years? Are certain people more blessed than others when it comes to seeing wildlife? No, absolutely not. I believe the process boils down to a few logical steps mixed with the more ephemeral power of belief.
To describe the logical part, I came up with the three ‘Ls’: Look, Linger, Learn. These simple (some might say ‘obvious’) steps do a great job of summarizing the keys to spotting wildlife.
It’s pretty straightforward – you gotta get out where the wildlife is and look for it. And get out in the prime times, close to sunrise/sunset, as often as you can. Over time, the looking part becomes second-nature – you won’t be able to turn it off. No matter what the purpose of your drive or outing is, once you start looking for wildlife, you’ll never be able to stop.
This is about spending lots of time looking and practicing the art of patience. My wildlife treks are a minimum of 5 hours of driving, but they’ve been as long as 14 hours in a day. And I generally do a trek at least once a week – this adds up to thousands of hours on the road/in the wilderness. In the past, when I was more into outdoor activities like hiking and camping, I would drive quickly to the destination, stay in a relatively localized area, then drive quickly home. Now I linger as much as I can.
The more you practice the look and linger, the more you will learn. Learning from others is important as well, especially when you are new to the game. Even when you get some experience under your belt, there is always someone who will know more about a specific species, location, behavior, etc. Make friends with as many wildlife enthusiasts as possible and learn from them.
The three ‘Ls’ are essential in my opinion, and practicing these alone will significantly increase your chances of finding wildlife.
The less logical (more spiritual) side of wildlife spotting revolves around the power of belief. If you want to find and/or photograph a certain animal, the first step is to develop a steadfast belief that seeing this animal IS a possibility. Or to put it in another way – have faith.
This process is not always as simple as it sounds. Knowing logically that there is an abundance of wildlife in a certain area is not the same as believing you will see it. Don’t allow yourself to say (or more importantly, believe), ‘I’m in the mountains a lot but I never see any wildlife.’
You also need to put yourself in a place where the possibility of a sighting can occur – both physically and mentally. No matter how strong your faith is that you’ll see a moose someday, the moose is not going to show up in your living room in front of the TV. Use the three ‘Ls’ take your strong faith into moose territory.
A good mental place is much more difficult to cultivate than the physical. It is easy to succumb to disappointment when you are looking for something specific and just not finding it. The more disappointed you get, the less likely it is that you will find your subject, and the more your journey just starts to suck.
The key is to let go of the expectations at any given time, but still hold on to the belief that you will be gifted with your vision some day. Letting go of expectations allows you to see the abundant beauty around you, even if it is not what you are looking for. I often go out on a trek with the expectation of wanting to see a specific animal. If I don’t find it, sometimes I do give in to disappointment, but I know the choice is mine. When I am successful at letting go of my expectations, I am able to see things I never could have imagined.
A recent trip to Jasper allowed me to observe this process at play. As a tribute to that trip, I have included a number of images in this post. As you can see, half of them are non-critters.
I had my sights set on two animals: wolves and ptarmigans. The route from Banff to Jasper has ‘good’ potential for both, so I thought I had at least a chance.
I was thinking about them and watching for them the whole time, but I didn’t end up finding either. Despite what might seem like a failure, it was such an amazing trip! Nothing rivals the beauty and diversity of the Icefeild Parkway. The 230 kilometer stretch between Banff and Jasper boasts some of the most amazing mountain vistas in the world. The changes in elevation means there is a huge amount of diversity in the environment, landscape, vegetation and types of wildlife that can be seen at any given point.
Throughout the trip, I was presented with the snowy mountain tops peaking through the low lying clouds, a male spruce grouse strutting his stuff on the side of the highway, a northern hawk owl against the back drop of a rocky slope, leaves and trees glistening with the moisture of the early frost, a gorgeous black bear in his pre-hibernation push to consume as many calories as possible, water droplets reflecting the sun as they cling to the delicate grass, a raven couple cuddling – the list goes on.
When I was observing and photographing these amazing sights, wolves and ptarmigans were the furthest things from my mind. I was simply in the moment.
The belief that I will get to photograph wolves and ptarmigans has not faltered. I know I will see these two creatures someday (along with the many others that are on my list), I just can’t know when or how the sightings will occur.
I believe something bigger than me is allowing me to have these experiences. Whether it’s mother nature, god, the universe, energy, whatever – it doesn’t really matter. I just know it starts with a belief in the possibility.
Until next time, continue loving life and all things wild!