2nd December 2013
Winter in Churchill .........
During November I spent some time in the small town of Churchill which is situated along the western shore of the Hudson Bay in Canada. Churchill is famous for the high concentration of Polar Bears that head to the area each autumn. The reason they head to Churchill is because it is the first place along the shore of the Hudson Bay that freezes over. The Bears have spent all summer waiting for this winter freeze so they can head out onto the ice to hunt their favourite prey, Ringed Seals. It is a location I have been aware off from when I first started out and it has took me a long time to finally visit. My main target was the Polar Bears, which I have photographed before in Svalbard but Churchill is different and gives you much more scope. I had planned this trip nearly three years ago and I was so excited to be finally here.
I first spoke about this trip in 2010 with a friend called Gary Kramer. I was is Varanger in northern Norway and we were both there photographing King Eider and clearly both had a passion for the far north. Gary had mentioned Churchill and my ears pricked up as it was a place I had always wanted to go to. I was all ears when he said it was possible to rent our own tundra buggy for a small group of people and also rent 4x4 vehicles in Churchill so you could extend your stay and look for other subjects. So we kept in touch and planned a trip. Fast forward three years and finally we were here. What excited me about this trip was the flexibility of having the two forms of transport which would hopefully produce many opportunities. It didn't disappoint in that respect.
So together with Gary and Natures Images we put a trip together and then had the task of selling the places. Travelling to the Canadian arctic is expensive and so it was going to be difficult to do a recce trip. So I would really like to thank the guys that came with me on this trip and for having the faith and trusting me that the combination would work, without you guys I wouldn't be writing this. Our first night was spent in the town of Winnipeg which we didn't get to see after a long flight from London which arrived at night. The following morning it was an early flight to Churchill and so the trip could seriously begin. I hate long flights but have to do it; thankfully the flight from Winnipeg to Churchill is not too bad.
For the first couple of days we had hired the 4x4 vehicles so we could explore the tundra around the town. On that first day we never really saw anything and didn't take any pictures so I did question whether this was a good move. I didn't need to worry though because the following morning we came across an extremely tame Red Fox just on the outskirts of town. He was in beautiful condition sporting his superb winter coat. We spotted him walking in a purposeful manner and then he stopped to settle down for a rest. Our group then all got out of the vehicles and slowly we edged our way towards his resting place. He seemed very relaxed in our presence but just kept one eye on us for most of the time.
After an hour or so he casually got up which offered us some different perspectives. It is always good to get something in the bag early in a trip and our little encounter with this beautiful Fox certainly gave us that. It also justified the hiring of the 4x4's. That afternoon we also came across a female Polar Bear and her young cub. It wasn't a great setting for photography and the light was poor but none the less it was certainly nice to see our first bear. The following day we did our first day on the tundra buggy.
We had booked the Tundra Buggy trip through Frontiers North. I have used many companies over the years but I have to say these guys were really good. The organisation was spot on and the drivers of the buggies were great, very friendly and helpful. The Tundra Buggy is a very special vehicle and basically it can go over most terrains. It is a unique way of seeing the wildlife of the Arctic Tundra especially Polar Bears. Now seeing Polar Bears around the Churchill area is usually guaranteed before the Ice starts to form on the Hudson Bay. The pattern of the ice forming over the last few years has been much later and has been around early December. Not so this year as a major storm on the 10th November, followed by some really cold temperatures saw the bay freeze much earlier. This was great news for the Bears because every day counts and they need all the help they can get. What it meant for us though was low numbers of bears. So that first day out on the buggy was nerve wracking for me. What am I going to do if we don't see one?
Again I needn't had worried because we came across a lovely scene with a mother and her young cub. We got to spend most of the day with her and were rewarded by the cub’s antics throughout. Usually the Tundra Buggies take up to forty people but our group of twelve had the vehicle to ourselves, so lots of room but also we could dictate how long we stayed with our subject. This was really important to us and no doubt helped in our encounter with this female. It meant long periods just waiting whilst they were sleeping but once they woke up they certainly put on a show. I loved watching him play with this willow branch.
So our first day on the tundra in the buggy was a great success and in total we had four days. The next couple of days were hard going and we had to cover some big distances to find bears. The hard work was worth it though as we had some great encounters with some very impressive males. Because the bay had frozen over the setting was perfect and we managed to find a couple of males patrolling this fresh ice cover.
Some bears came really close to the buggy which was an amazing experience and for some members of our group quite emotional too.
On our last day on the tundra buggy we had a difficult day with very poor weather conditions and no bear sightings. We did manage to find some Willow Grouse and then came across this beautiful Arctic Fox resting during the blizzard. This was a real highlight of the trip for me as I have always wanted to photograph Arctic Foxes in their winter coat.
I have only photographed wild Arctic Foxes during the summer months and to do so during the winter whilst sporting their winter coats has been at the top of my list. On our days in the Tundra Buggies we saw quite a few foxes and it was clearly going to be a very good opportunity to get images of them. It had been a Lemming year around Churchill during the summer and so the local Arctic Foxes had a very successful breeding season, taking advantage of this overabundance of this little rodent.
Our last two days on the trip were going to be making use of the 4x4 vehicles again and so we really concentrated our efforts on photographing this beautiful mammal. The weather conditions had improved dramatically too and so cold, clear and crisp days were a huge blessing.
Some of the light we got to work in was sublime and it is a photographers dream to get to work in this lovely pastel pink light, especially with such a beautiful subject.
I have done some amazing subjects over the years but this really has been one of the highlights for me. It is such a beautiful animal and to work in this beautiful arctic light is a dream. It was cold at minus -35 and that caused problems with camera equipment and of course the danger of frostbite which one or two of the group were very lucky to get away with.
After a few successful sesions with the Foxes we then headed out of town in search of one last sighting of Polar Bear. We got lucky and came across this large male. It was amazing to get a low angle to shoot from and these final images are certainly different from our images from the Tundra Buggy.
So there you go I was hoping to show a few images from this beautiful place but ended up showing more so sorry if you have got bored. It is such an amazing place and experience and one that I would love to do again. I remember speaking about Churchill to a famous photographer called Norbert Rosing and he once told me that when you get the Churchill bug you will go back thats for sure. Well I am planning on going back and I am starting to organise a trip in November 2015. If you would like to put your name down for this experience then please email or call me for more information. I will finish off with a couple of my favourite bear shots from the trip.
Also check out Ben Pages blog from the trip www.benpage.co.uk
25th October 2013
Red Deer Rut ........
Well it's been that time of the year again with the annual Red and Fallow Deer Rut. My local patch is Bradgate Park in Leicestershire and I have been photographing this spectacular event for 23 years now and I have to say I am not bored with it one bit, well maybe I have a slight moan at the beginning of October but I soon get over it. The Red Deer rut is what really gets me going though and it is such a thrill to photograph this beautiful animal. This year's Rut has been testing at times what with the nature of it and the bloody awful weather. In the end though I have been pleased with some of my images.
When I first went up in early October I knew it was going to be a tough one because there has been a bumper acorn crop this year. This happened five years ago and so the pattern of the female Red Deer was exactly the same. They love acorns and so don't need to come out of the sanctuary to feed in the hills or meadows. This makes certain images difficult to capture and certain times of the day can be very slow. Still images can be had but you just have to work that little bit harder and walk that little bit farther. As the females were concentrated in this small part of the park there have only really been two dominant stags and they have kept the females to themselves. Other Stags have tried to muscle in but they have just not been strong or aggresive enough.
After photographing Red Deer for that long you would have thought that I had covered most aspects but I still manage to improve images from year to year. Early in October I had some great conditions to work in one morning. A large Stag was in front of the ruins and a small band of mist was clinging to the meadow. The sun was not quite up but the colours were fantastic and I managed to capture one of my favourite images. Maybe even one of my best from the park.
When you mainly work with a large lens the temptation is to fill the frame with your subject but I think the best images always include some of the habitat. The subtle browns and overall sepia tone make this image and of course the Stag roaring was the icing on the cake. I eventually got closer to him on this morning and captured a number of images.
That morning was by far the best and those kinds of conditions never repeated themselves. To be honest I haven't had many conditions like this over the years anyway as it is so rare. I have had some good opportunities for getting close up shots of the Stags in the bracken too this year and I am really pleased with some of these as well.
The weather has been pretty poor for large chunks of my time in Bradgate but on the odd occasion I have had some really beautiful light to work in to.
The Red Deer Rut started earlier this year but the Fallow Rut has been somewhat later and has only just kicked in over this past week. There is some cracking Bucks this year and the activity has been great in the mornings near the ruins.
Usually the activity is pretty good up in the hills during the day but this year it has been very quiet. I have still gone up though because you can find some of the younger Stags up here trying to stay away from the big boys. I liked these couple of shots from this sequence.
So there you go just a small selection of images from this year's rut. I have been up there for most of October and on all of the days I have had people with me as I was running workshops. I would like to thank you all for coming and you were great company during the long days in the park. Some of you got really lucky with the right conditions and for others it was a challenge but I hope you enjoyed the experience. These days fill up fast and I am hoping to run them again next year so keep an eye on the website for the dates. I will leave you with an image of this year's top dog, he must be spent by now but he has really been impressive.
30th September 2013
Yellowstone Fall ..........
After my Alaskan adventure I then went down to Yellowstone National Park with my friend Kev Bedford to experience the fall colours but also to try and capture the dramatic annual Elk rut. I have been to Yellowstone before but my visits have always been during the winter months. It is a fantastic location for photography during the winter but I wanted to increase my portfolio of this location at other times of the year. My main target during this trip was the Elk rut. I have been photographing the Red Deer rut for many years here in the UK and I was keen to witness the American equivalent as the two species are so similar.
My time was short in Yellowstone as I only had 6 days to try and capture images of this iconic species. I based myself in the town of West Yellowstone which was perfect for exploring the Madison River. The Madison River attracts small numbers of female Elk during the Autumn as they feed in the meadows during the night and early morning. The Madison is also the perfect location for encountering the Elk because it really is a stunning location. Like most river courses in Yellowstone the river is heated by the geothermal activity and if the conditions are right at dawn the mist just hangs over the river, producing an ethereal backdrop.
These conditions was what attracted me to the Madison river basin and on our first morning we got lucky. A small herd of female Elk was feeding in a meadow and was being shadowed by a large Bull Elk. They were the wrong side of the river so it was difficult to get into a position to shoot towards the rising sun. Then a young pretender walked out of the forest and headed straight towards the herd. The sun was just rising over the horizon and bathed the whole scene in the glorious red light of dawn. It only lasted a couple of minutes but the timing was absolutely spot on and I managed to grab the images that I had in my mind. I thought then it was going to be easy but the following five days never produced the same opportunity. What a start though.
After a couple of minutes the intense colour was over and so I switched to the more conventional images. The large Bull had by now noticed the young pretender and had risen to challenge. Bulls have a loud vocalization consisting of screams known as bugling, which can be heard for miles. This call is one of the most evocative sounds to be heard in Yellowstone. The Bull came over to warn this young male and so gave me opportunity to capture this behaviour. He was really impressive and much bigger than the Red Deer Stags that I encounter at home.
After a couple of hours the females would then head into the forest and of course the male would follow. They would then return in the afternoon and so the show would start all over again. Over the next few days I followed the same pattern. I was desperate for the misty conditions again but alas it never materialised.
Once the Elk started to wander off into the forest I then headed out into Yellowstone to look for other subjects to photograph. Driving along the Madison river we encountered Osprey's and the iconic Bald Eagles which perch in the trees looking out for a fish along the river.
I was really hoping to encounter Pronghorn too on this trip. The Pronghorn are mainly found in the Lamar or Hayden Valleys which meant a long drive from West Yellowstone. Pronghorn are exceptionally fast, it is often cited as the second-fastest land animal, second only to the cheetah. It can, however, sustain high speeds longer than cheetahs over a greater distance. I had photographed this species before during one of my winter trips but that encounter was brief so I was hoping to spend more time doing so on this one. These next few shots were taken in the Lamar valley. We had been driving for most of the day and never even spotted one. We started to question whether they were here when we spotted a male by the side of the road. At first he wandered off keeping a safe distance. I got low to the ground to get a better angle and this kind of intrigued him because I must have just disappeared. He just kept coming back for a closer look which was great for getting a series of intimate portraits.
My next destination was to head down to Grand Teton National Park. I am running a trip here next year which incorporates the two parks and I wanted to check out some of the locations. Grand Tetons is a landscape photographers haven and so we headed to some of the more classic locations to try and capture the beauty of the place. Now I have never confessed to being any good at landscapes but I tried my best and hopefully you get a feel for the place.
This first location is Oxbow Bend and it was good to incorporate the moon into the image. I also preferred the shots before the sun actually bathed the scene. The second shot is of the Morman Barns in the south of the park, again another classic location.
Tetons is famous for the Autumn colours but like everywhere else everything is slightly late this year, so we were just a tad early for capturing the glorious colours. I was also mainly looking for Moose and like the Elk it is their rutting season. It was much harder to find Moose than Elk but during my five days here I did get one or two encounters. We came across an area which was popular with a couple of females so we staked it out for most of the time whilst here. This is probably the best way in finding the ultimate target, a large male.
After the first three days are only sighting was of females so I was getting anxious of seeing a male. This animal is so impressive and I have wanted to photograph a large bull for many years. Eventually our strategy of staking a certain area paid of as we finally got the sighting we were after.
It was an amazing experience seeing one of these impressive males. Although the pictures are not great it was still a nice feeling to capture them. From photographing the largest animal to one of the smallest in the park as there was opportunities for seeing other species. Chipmunk's were great fun and I also managed a few images of the elusive Beavers. This animal is very easier to spot the signs but it only usually comes out at dusk.
We also had a bit of luck as someone mentioned an opportunity of seeing Grizzlies. A dead moose was close to an off road track and had attracted the attention of three young Grizzly Bears. These were siblings that had been abandoned by their mother and were still hanging around each other. It was good to see a Grizzly here as it is quite a rare sighting.
So after my short duration in the Grand Tetons it was then a case of heading back up to the Madison River in West Yellowstone. I was hoping for another early misty morning like the first one I encountered and on my last morning before flying out I got lucky. This time a large Bull Elk was in the distance and it nice to incorporate him in the context of his environment.
So there you go just a small selection of my stint in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons national parks during the Autumn. I was a little bit early for the colours but the Elk proved to be very productive, especially along the Madison. It is not any easy place to work and is very different from the winter. There are more people around thats for sure and at some places it was borderline silly but it is such a big place you can find your own spot. It was a trip that has been on my mind for a long time and I am looking forward to going back next year. Hopefully it will be a normal year and I get to witness the colours. I am now just gearing up for the annual Red Deer Rut at my local place and I am looking forward to spending the whole of October at home, I am not sure Liz is though. Anyway I will leave you with my favourite image of the large Bull Elk.
24th September 2013
Alaskan Grizzlies ..........
During the first part of September I was in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. I was leading a trip for Natures Images to this stunning location to see if we could photograph the coastal Grizzlies that descend here each Autumn. We had timed our visit to coincide with the annual Silver Salmon migration back to their spawning grounds of Lake Clark. The Grizzlies have been waiting for this migration too. Alaska is a destination that is on most photographers list and it was no different for me. I was inspired by the images Andy Rouse had took here a few years ago and so just had to go. I have read so much about this northern US state and it was a trip that I planned nearly three years ago and so to be finally here was very exciting. My first stop was a night in Anchorage and the following day we headed to the local airport to catch our small bush plane to Lake Clark.
Flying over this vast wilderness with its countless lakes and never ending forests, you soon realise that Alaska is exactly that, a wilderness. Our flight was only short and before long we were heading to a long stretch of beach to land. Our base was the aptly named Silver Salmon Creek. After a warm welcome we were more or less heading out for an afternoon session with the Coastal Grizzlies. Our timing was good as the Salmon were late heading up the estuaries and creeks this year but the Salmon were starting to run. This delay in the run meant there wasn't too many Bears around as they had moved on to find other areas to feed.
It was not too much of a problem because one female Bear called Crimp Ear turned out to be a star for us and she gave us many opportunities to get some images. She was hunting at the beginning of a creek near to the lodge and the first few days we concentrated our efforts on her. The tides are the key as the Salmon only really run on an incoming tide and so the Bears only really show up during this critical period. It meant a lot of waiting around for the group but the lodge is a good place to wait. We had mixed weather during our stay too with strong winds and heavy constant rain but we also had our fair share of good days too.
I really liked the location the Crimp Ear was fishing because I could get some really nice backgrounds which was the forest along the edge of the beach. One particular session was really rewarding and some of the images are my favourite from the trip. She was hunting in her usual spot but the Salmon were not running. So she crossed the creek and headed over to where we were standing. She looked like she was heading back to the forest to rest for the day but then back tracked and headed straight towards our group. I got as low as I could get to grab these intimate portraits as she walked straight towards me and down the barrel of the lens. It's an exciting moment to say the least when Grizzly walks towards you.
She came so close I was able to grab a couple of tight head shots. She really had a beautiful look to her. It is a bit hairy being this close to a Grizzly as they can be unpredictable but she was very placid with us as she has been used to people all her life. We were in good hands though as our guides Dave and Brian were top notch and really knew their stuff.
In the afternoon we headed further up the beach to another favourite spot as some more bears had been spotted the previous day. We never found the bears hunting along the beach so instead Dave and Brian took us up a small creek that was running through the forest. There was a lot of Salmon in this creek so we were sure to find bears. After a short hike we found a large male that was hunting the Salmon but he had been here a while and was already full. He had settled down on the bank and so we got ourselves into position, ready for him to start hunting again. It was a good hour and we thought that he was going to be here for long time just resting. Then a young female came out of the forest and without warning plunged straight into the creek. Amazing how such a big animal can just appear from no where.
It was great to capture the sequence of a fishing bear and I thought it couldn't get any better but it did. As the sun got lower in the sky, it started to filter between the trees and was casting long shadows in the creek. I under-exposed these next couple of shots to try and produce something a little different, not everyones cup of tea but I quite liked these results.
The sun was still bathing the coast with glorious light so as we headed back to the lodge we stopped off en-route at Crimp Ears favourite spot. At first there was no sign of her but then she appeared and we just managed to get a couple of images of her before the sun disappeared. She looked even more beautiful in this quality of light.
She missed on her first couple of fishing attempts and then stood up to get a better look.
A day as good as that would take some beating and the next couple of days were ruined with heavy rain. This trip has to be undertaken by people with certain frame of mind as there is the potential for a lot of down time. Our group coped well though. We managed some more sessions even in the gloom. One of my favourite shots which is of Crimp Ear sleeping, was taken during the overcast conditions. It is such a nice feeling to be this close to bear that is so relaxed.
There was a young female hanging around the lodge too and every now and then she popped up offering some picture opportunities. She was very thin as she had not mastered the hunting technique of catching fish. Hopefully she will make the winter.
Towards the end of our stay the weather started to improve and we headed back up the coast to see if the bears where fishing the creek again. A female and her two young cubs had been spotted and so we were hoping to get lucky and come across them. Our first encounter was a lone female that was hunting the along the beach. It was good light and so really gave us the best chance of capturing hunting images.
Then our own favourite female Crimp Ear turned up which gave us an indication of just how far these Bears can travel. She then started to hunt the channel in the estuary.
Then another female turned up and so we now had three bears hunting this small stretch of beach. An amazing encounter and experience and to top it off, in good light too. Wildlife photography is a lot about luck and we certainly had it on this day with every ingredient coming together.
Then the female with the two cubs came out of the forest and started to head towards the beach. At first she was nervous but then sensed there was no danger from the other females and came closer with her cubs. Amazingly she left her cubs near to where we were positioned as she felt they were safer with us. These sort of encounters are hard to put into words but you do feel very humble and privileged. The cubs then sat down and watched their mother fish. After a short while they got bored and started to play. You can imagine the amount of images that were taken and the smiling faces.
So there you go, just a small selection from my first experience with Alaska and her famous coastal Bears. It was a fantastic experience and I loved every second. I would like to thank all the guests that joined me on this trip and I would also like to thank Pete Cairns and Terry Slater for guiding me in the right direction on the best place to go. Thanks guys you were spot on. I have booked to go back next September and that trip is already full. If you would like to share this experience with me though I have already started planning for 2015 and so if you would be interested then please drop me an email. After Alaska I then went straight down to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. My main target was to capture the annual rut of the Elk. I was also hoping to capture the fantastic Autumn colours. I will post another blog in the next few days so please drop by.
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