Wildlife Hotspot: The Rockies (Summer in Review Pt 1)
Summer in Review
And we’re back.
After more than two months of being on the road and living out of a tent, we’ve returned to conference calls, suits and the endless noise of Toronto’s latest condo being built. Wolf howls and loon calls it is not, though being able to shower and do laundry whenever we want is something we’ll never fail to appreciate.
But our forth summer in the Rockies together was as exceptional as ever. Best ever, as my dad would ask? We’ll let you decide.
For starters, we drove more than 17,000 kilometres – and by we drove, I mean Jill drove and I expertly navigated us without a single wrong turn (seriously, not one).
While we didn’t go to Alaska this year, our total amount of driving was up from past years, largely because we spent far more time patrolling for wildlife than sitting in one place waiting for animals to come to us (our preference). Why?
Though it was a harsh winter, it was an incredibly warm spring – the heavy snow pack that should have lasted late into the summer was erased by the unusual spring heat. The consequence was wildlife patterns thrown into disarray and fewer offspring than we’ve found in previous years. And no young means animals will travel.
But just in time for our arrival in the high country, winter returned. We spent two weeks chiselling our way out of the ice-covered tent in the morning (no joke) and on a few occasions, had to dig our car out from under a feet of snow.
Though snow at 4:30 in the morning wasn’t Jill’s favourite way to start the day, while popping out of a tent, it was perfect for me as it meant the bears would stay at a lower – more accessible – elevation. And for two weeks we had non-stop grizzly bear action. Then summer returned and we hardly saw a grizzly again.
Overall, we saw 78 unique bears. Yes, that’s a large number, though not a record. What was disappointing was that of those 78 bears, only 19 were grizzlies – way down from previous years. Yet of the grizzlies we saw, we were able to document mating, nursing, running, standing and eating…inside of a bison chest cavity.
Otters at Yellowstone’s Trout Lake were all but invisible (though we did have some luck and we know many photographers who struck out completely this year), which was shocking.
Then again, we had our best ever encounters with badgers, foxes, great horned-owls and wolves.
We even found a weasel den. With actual weasels. And got photos of the weasels. In focus photos. (If you don’t know why this is a big deal, you’ll have to wait for the story. Or ask any wildlife photographer.)
Of course we saw old friends like Spock Fox…
As usual, we had to hike to many of our photo shoots. Though we didn’t get to hike at all for the first few weeks due to snow, we still ended up hiking more than 500 km. If you add all of the hikes together, our elevation gain was one and a half times the height of Mt. Everest.
But for the vast majority of our photos, we had to get up early. 4:30am early. And while the morning is always good for wildlife, this year – more than any other – it was the only time for wildlife. Three quarters of the images we captured happened before 7am and just under half before 6am.
Unlike other years, weather was a mixed bag.
Clouds are certainly a photographers friend, but I must have whispered a bit too much into the ears of weather Gods. Clouds – and fog – often were low and unrelenting, which is excellent in the mid-afternoon, but not so much at 5am. The result was the use of much higher ISO settings (thus grainier images) than ever before, including this grizzly, shot with an aperture of 2.8, a shutter speed of 1/400 and an ISO of 2500…at 9am! Come on!!
And what about those wildlife hotspots?
Sedge Bay in Yellowstone was phenomenal as ever. Better than ever, in fact. Glacier’s Logan Pass was its ever reliable self. We spent no time on Grand Teton’s Pilgrim Creek Road (long story for another day). But Jasper’s Maligne Lake Road all but skunked us on black bears for the first time in 25 years (though it was good for other animals). And Kananaskis’s Highwood Pass also failed to deliver a grizzly for the first time in 20 years. How much was bad luck, and how much was changing animal patterns remains to be seen, but we’ll keep you informed.
I admit, this wasn’t the normal “Wildlife Hotspot” column we feature every month. But you have to bear with me. The worst part of taking 25,000 images is the sorting. And the editing. And the uploading. As I have been voluntold that this is my job to enjoy, I’m going to spend the next few weeks offering up a summer in review while I slowly work my way through the mountain of images.
Wish me luck – and my thanks for your patience.
Tags: ghost bear photography, national parks, nature, nikon, outdoors, photography, simon jackson, waterton, wildlife, wildlife hotspots, yellowstone