He looked up from his meal of green grass and wildflowers. Noise from the metal beasts passing by was mildly annoying. One of the small two-legged predators was standing just across the hard rock trail, pointing a shiny white stick his way. What did this predator think he was doing? Was he a challenge?
Find Jasper Wildlife
One of the highlights of any Canadian trip is Jasper National Park, with its craggy snow-capped mountains and abundant wildlife. As we finished an excellent dinner at Evil Dave’s Grill in the town of Jasper, our server asked what we wanted to see next. I mentioned wildlife photography, and he pointed us to Alberta Highway 16 towards Edmonton. “Drive up that way. There’s always something along that road.”
Alberta Highway 16, Jasper National Park
So off we went. With sunsets near 9 PM, there was was plenty of soft, warm evening light left.
Stopped Cars = Wildlife
Reminding me a little of bear jams in Yellowstone, stopped cars showed where animals were feeding along the highway. First up were a pair of elk bulls with antlers so new, they had blunt tips and fresh velvet. I hopped out with the 400mm lens, and walked to within 40 feet of them on my side of the highway. Well outside the fall rut when bulls are aggressive, I felt fairly safe. They seemed more interested in grazing, chewing at itches, and watching the forest for predators. After getting the best shots I could, I hopped back in and we drove on.
Elk bull in velvet, Jasper National Park, Alberta
He looked like a furry brown lump from far away. As we drove closer, the lump resolved into a grizzly bear – shoulder hump, grizzled fur tips, and dished face. He looked well-fed and healthy, and was more interested in eating insects, wildflowers and fresh grass than cars stopping nearby. I got out and slowly approached, again to within 40 feet on my side of the highway. As I photographed, I could see this was an ID-collared bear. I followed his movements from across the highway to get the best shots. He never looked directly at me, but kept to his food hunt.
Grizzly, Jasper National Park
Then again, looking directly at another predator can be seen as aggressive behavior by a bear. Maybe he respected my presence – certainly more than I should have respected his.
Looking at my pictures later, I noticed a show of teeth with the grass hanging out of his mouth. Teeth display can mean a nervous animal, though there were no other indications.
I realized how close I had been – too close. Photographing wildlife along a highway doesn’t cause more distraction than cars already slowing down and passing by. It’s certainly safer than a backcountry encounter. But grizzlies (and elk) are unpredictably wild. Even well-fed animals outside their normal mating season and without young to protect can become annoyed or provoked. A little caution is in order – more than I exercised.
On our way into the Park’s Whistlers Campground, an elk cow was grazing all by herself in a field. I got out with the 400mm and stalked to within 40 feet, looking for a border of blurred grass and a low hoof-level view. This was a good ending for the day, and much safer than the earlier encounters.
Elk cow, Whistlers Campground, Jasper National Park
He was always hungry, and there was a lot of good food here. So he kept eating, and ignored the noisy metal beasts and two-legged predators. He was bigger than they were anyway, and they posed no threat.
I need to contain my enthusiasm for unusual subjects in great light and remember my First Responder’s assessment – scene safety comes first. If there’s risk to me and others, I should be much more careful in my approach, or just stay in the vehicle. I was lucky this time.
I also need to avoid disturbing wildlife. This wasn’t really a factor beside a busy highway, but it is almost anywhere else. Wildlife feeling threatened or disturbed may abandon young or attack to defend themselves. Especially with birds, parents may abandon nestlings if there’s too much disturbance near the nest.
I used a 400mm f/4 DO IS on a full-frame EOS 5D mk II dSLR for the wildlife pictures. When I earlier tried the 400mm on a crop-sensor EOS 7D, I couldn’t get an entire elk in the frame. So I switched to full-frame. The elk bulls were backlit with rim highlights, so I used 1/3 stop overexposure to brighten shadows in aperture priority. I needed ISO 2000 to get hand-holdable shutter speeds, and shot at f/8 to insure I had sharpness on the elk but limited depth of field. No special stealth, stalking or waiting in place was needed or advised – all subjects were more concerned with eating, and habituated to auto traffic on the highway. I don’t want to surprise large mammals anyway – that’s dangerous.
With the grizzly pictures especially, I would take the time to remove the stray grass in the foreground for publication. This enhances the picture without disturbing the integrity of the animal representation.
One final caveat – don’t try to get this close without more instruction and a trained guide. Nothing written here is intended as guidelines for conduct near dangerous wildlife.