Although we live on the East slope of the Rockies in Alberta we are suffering badly from smoke pollution drifting over the mountains from the extensive BC wildfires. The last two days have been particularly bad, in fact this morning the the AQI (Air Quality Index) in Canmore was at 502, the highest I have seen it so far which was 140 times the WHO recommended exposure. As I write this it is still rated at 337, which is considered hazardous.
Normal view over Bow River toward mount Rundle
Although meaningful photography is pretty meaningless in these conditions I wanted to show a couple of examples of just how bad it is.
Normal view toward the Old Engine Bridge over the Bow River
We are forecast for rain later today, everyone here is praying it comes and is extensive, and here’s hoping it makes it’s way over the mountains into British Columbia to assist with the firefighting efforts there.
My new home of Canmore is situated right on the edge of both Banff National Park (the first National Park created in Canada) and Kanananaskis Country. Within 10 minutes of here I can be out in bear country, and there are lot’s about. In fact, I don’t even need to go that far, while walking the dogs along the trail beside the Bow river right on the edge of town there was a sudden splash and a young black bear we had startled leapt out and disappeared into the bush. Pretty much all the locals walk around with bear spray on their belts – those that don’t are generally the unsuspecting tourists, not realizing how near they might be to the local wildlife!
Learning about bears
Are bears dangerous? Well, yes and no. It depends entirely on the circumstances, and your own knowledge. Get between a mother and her cubs and you are asking for trouble. Get inside a bears comfort zone – yep that’s dangerous. Ride a mountain bike full tilt down a mountain path and startle a bear, asking for trouble. Sit quietly watching a bear who is completely aware you are there and showing no signs of agitation, I do it safely all the time. Stay in your car for bears near the road, no one has been injured doing that.
Do you want to know more facts about bears? Stop watching When Bears Attack etc. on TV. Mostly sensationalist nonsense to attract viewers. There are dozens of bear books out there, but, in my opinion, one stands out above all others. ‘What Bears Teach us’ by local author Sarah Elmeligi and illustrated by photographer John E. Marriot. Available on Amazon and other online book stores. In my opinion this should be compulsory reading for anyone venturing out into bear country!
Bears are among my all time favourite subjects. Mostly they are active early mornings and late evenings so get out accordingly. (During the fall they can be more active during the full day as they feed up for hibernation) To get great photos the bears need to be relaxed and you need to be safe. Observe what the bear is doing. Long lenses are the order of the day. If you don’t have a long enough lens don’t approach within a bears comfort zone, simply shoot environmental images of bears in the landscape, they are just as effective. If a bear stops what it is doing and looks wary, you are too close or it huffs, pops it’s jaws, or flattens it’s ears you are ay too close!
Long lenses require good support. A bean bag resting on a car window frame works very well when shooting from a vehicle. Use a tripod when outside the car.
Be careful with exposure, especially when shooting darker bears. It is often necessary to open up between one and two stops to get detail into the fur of a dark furred black bear. Note, not all black bears are black, and not all brown bears (grizzly bears) are brown. Both species come in a variety of shades.
Be respectful of bears to ensure both you and they remain safe
Always follow warning signs and advice given by guides and park rangers
Don’t stop on the road when it’s unsafe to do so, bear jams are a major headache in National Parks
Never carry food on your person or in your vehicle when in bear country, bears have amazing sense of smell. Remember, a fed bear is a dead bear!
Carry bear spray, and know how to use it. That can of bear spray needs to be where you can get at it, if it’s in your backpack it’s useless!
To see more of my bear images and other wildlife click here
P.S. As I write this a glance out of my window shows the visibility is down to less than 100 yards, the air being thick with smoke from the BC forest fires, just the other side of the Rocky Mountains. My thoughts are with those fighting these fires, those who have lost property in the devastation, and the wildlife who have lost their lives and whose habitat has been destroyed.No wildlife photography today!
A recent article in The Calgary Herald mentioned a big influx of Bald Eagles along the Bow River in Calgary, with as many as 20 being viewed on some days. This is probably due to less freeze up occurring on the Bow in the City itself, keeping open water available for waterfowl, the eagles main prey.
Since the beginning of December I have been closely following two of these eagles as they build their nest in a tall cottonwood tree situated on a small island in the Bow,
Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens on Gitzo tripod with Flexshooter head, 1/1600 sec @ f5.6, ISO 500. Exposure set manually with auto ISO selected
Baldies are among the first birds to begin the nesting process each year, often adding layer upon layer to nests from previous years until the nest can become too big for the tree to support.
Although regarded as a top predator, in fact bald eagles are an opportunistic hunter, regularly stealing prey from other birds, feeding on old carcasses. Scavenging roadkill, can prove disastrous as many are subsequently hit by passing traffic.
Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens with TC 14 converter (effective length 700mm) on Gitzo tripod with Flexshooter head, 1/3200 sec @ f6.3, ISO 400. Exposure set manually with auto ISO selected
Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens with TC 14 converter (effective length 700mm) on Gitzo tripod with Flexshooter head, 1/3200 sec @ f5.6, ISO 500. Exposure set manually with auto ISO selected
It is evident from sightings reported to e.bird.org run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that numbers of bald eagles are on the increase, a far cry from being placed on the endangered species list in 1973 due to illegal hunting,, habitat destruction and the disastrous effects of DDT which caused the birds to lay non-viable eggs due to very this shells, a problem associated with the decline of many birds of prey around the same time.
Long may then continue to increase in numbers as it is always a thrill to see these birds soaring along the rivers and lakes of Canada.
Only adult bald eagles have the white head – forming in their third year. The big difference in dynamic range between the white head and the dark body means it is essential to get your exposure correct so as not to blow out the highlights on the white feathers. I generally choose to set the exposure manually but use auto ISO to compensate for changing light conditions. I generally set my auto IOS to go no higher than 2000 as this is the level at which the D850 begins to exhibit more noise than I find acceptable. Lower resolution cameras can tolerate much higher ISO
Bald eagles are big birds, which fly relatively slowly, making flight images quite easy. However a few things to be aware of. Because they are big they have a huge wingspan, (between 6′ to 7.5′) so watch your depth of field, it is very easy to get the wing tips out of focus so close down a stop or two to add that little bit of depth.
Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f4 lens with TC 14 converter (effective length 700mm) on Gitzo tripod with Flexshooter head, 1/2000 sec @ f6.3, ISO 250. Exposure set manually with auto ISO selected
Even though they are relatively slow you still need fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of flight. I recommend at least 1/2000sec. Make sure you pick up your subject as early as possible to lock the autofocus and pan quickly. I use a tripod and Flexshooter head for most of my birds in flight images, unless I can get really close to use a shorter lens.
For autofocus I generally use dynamic area AF set to 9 or 25 AF points. For static birds I tend to switch to single point AF so that I can lock the single point on the subjects eye.
In October 1998 I, along with my wife Jean, emigrated to Canada from our previous home in France, and settled in Calgary. In great part our decision to come to Calgary was pre-ordained as we had been attending one of the world’s major equestrian events, The Masters Showjumping, at Spruce Meadows, for many years before we decided to make Calgary our new home.
A lot has happened in the years between 1998 and today. We spent three years in Calgary before the yearning to have a bit more land took hold and we headed on to Courtenay in British Columbia. From there it was Florida USA, back to British Columbia, a couple of years in Toronto, again a return to BC, Lake Chapala Mexico, Nova Scotia and now, as I sit typing this from a hotel room in Banff, we are waiting to move into our new home back in Calgary.
When we drove back into Alberta, and particularly over the past few days revisiting some our old haunts in Banff National Park, (despite the restrictions caused by covid) it has felt like we have come home, full circle!
I will now have the opportunity to spend time in the mountains and prairies photographing wildlife and also get back into shooting some major sport. That’s assuming that covid 19 is ever mastered to the point of having a major sporting program.
This year has hit many sports photographers really hard. I myself should have just returned from working six weeks at the Tokyo Olympics and we all know how that turned out. Who knows if we will be in Tokyo in 2021? Without an effective vaccine it looks a slim possibility.
So, as soon as we are settled into our new home I will concentrate on the wildlife side of my work while I wait for the sports world to get back to some sort of normality. Look out for new daily images on Instagram, (my feed has been very quiet while we have been in the process of moving).
Workshops and field trips
I will also soon be announcing my workshop series for 2021. This will include some software workshops concentrating on improving photographers workflow and processing images using Capture One. More details on these will be posted shortly. Capture One is now the only software I use for processing RAW files. Occasionally a file will get passed to Photoshop for some final work but this is a rarity.
I will also be organizing some field trips for photographers starting in Spring 2021. Out of Covid 19 necessity these will be locally based around Southern Alberta. Until the situation eases I will not be organizing any non-Canadian workshops.
I was out working our local Osprey nest (while sitting in my car to ensure I adhered to our social distancing rules) and photographed an Osprey behaviour I had never seen before.
The male Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) retuned to the nest with a fish that it had taken head off. While the female remains at the nest the male will bring fish to her and the young, but invariably feeds first by eating the head.
Very unusually this bird seems to be taking an extra nibble while flying. Normally Ospreys do not eat on the wing but take their prey to a perch before consuming it.
While the coronavirus restrictions remain in place I am doing my photography either from the car window or here in my own back yard. Fortunately there is still a few subjects worth shooting. Hopefully we will get out of this mess soon and life can begin to return to some sort of normality, although I think that normal will be very different to what it was before.