I started taking pictures of animals because I liked animals, not because I liked taking pictures. I wanted to see them more clearly and to freeze the action so I could get a better look at them. Because of this I had taken more than year’s worth of photos of shorebirds before I ever saw a real photograph of a shorebird taken by someone else. It was a photo of a sanderling I saw on the web somewhere. I sadly can’t remember the name of the photographer, but remember clearly being blown away by how intimate and personal it was compared to my photos. Looking at the picture, I felt as if I were holding the sanderling in my hand and petting it. I never saw a sanderling so clearly before. Looking back, it was nothing special, but it was the first real wildlife photo I ever took the time to look at and it made an impression.
I immediately emailed the photographer and asked how he did that. He kindly responded, telling me that he used a really big lens. But he then went on to tell me I should not rush out and buy a really big lens. He told me I should use whatever equipment I had and work on my “stalking” skills first. He told me the real art was learning about animals, how to behave around animals, and how to get close to animals. He said a big lens would do very little for someone who did not know how to hang around animals without scaring them off. He advised me to get out there and start stalking! He said once I had mastered stalking stuff, I would then have earned the big lens.
And that’s the story of how I became a total stalker! Sounds creepy, huh? It kind of is. He was totally right that creeping around and stalking animals effectively is a big part of wildlife observation and photography. The instincts required are almost predatory in nature, and is probably at least part of the reason we feel such a strong sense of communion with the wild when we are out there creeping around. I am not a hunter, and was never exposed to hunting culture through friends or family while growing up, so I never understood it. But now, I totally get it. I imagine many of the skills, the thrills, and experiences are very similar in wildlife photography and hunting. I also believe fishing and photography are almost the same hobby, but that is another story.
Stalking is a valuable skill but its value can be overstated, and over-practiced. Good skills are a must, but there is a point at which we aren’t fooling any animal. This is particularly true with large raptors, especially those with incredible telescopic vision like snow owls. The mystery of how these animals experience the world is endlessly fascinating to consider. To see the beach through their eyes for even just on moment would probably be a (very disorienting) religious experience and cause us to question the entire nature of reality. Whatever the case, what we can know is that these animals are far more in tune with the physical world around them than we are at most times. They have the advantage.
On the beach, I love to use the snow owls as alarms to alert me to the presence of bald eagles and peregrine falcons. It requires that you stay far enough away that you are not too heavy on the owl’s radar, and also that you know a bit about owl behavior and body language, but if you do, they will tell you when a bald eagle or other large raptor is in the area, usually long before you could even see it. I remain baffled by the actual mechanisms behind these abilities, as I have had several experiences where I am certain the owl could not have known through eyesight alone that a bald eagle was incoming; yet it did. Compared to our limited senses, I find snow owls to be supernatural. Our massive brains probably do us a disservice here, as do our cellphones, along with all of the other distractions we suffer and the owls lack.
While good skills in approaching animals are unquestionably valuable, it is a simple fact that if we can see a snow owl, it most assuredly can see us. And once it does, it is incredibly conscious of our presence and everything that we are doing. The owl would probably stare directly at us the entire time (awesome!) if it was not so busy with various other mental loops it is engaged with at the time. And so it sizes us up, adds us to its task list, prioritizes us as a threat, and proceeds with trying to stay alive. From that point forward “stalking” becomes less effective than just being cool, and being aware. Just by being there we are hogging some of the owls precious attention. The game is to keep that distraction to a minimum and not elevate the percentage of you in the owl’s total awareness to the point it needs to change its behavior (fly away) to feel in control. A common boast photographers make is something like, “I had that owl all to myself, and it didn’t mind, at all.” It is only if we are 100% out-of-sight when the “at all” part becomes the truth. Otherwise, we are on the owl’s radar and it is a matter of degree. Curiously, in one instance I witnessed, it is entirely possible that a snow owl actually used a group of well-behaved photographers who gathered daily near one of its roosts , sort of symbiotically, when it realized the photographers kept away the peregrine falcons that had been terrorizing for days before the photographers started showing up.
When I attempted to make a film about people interacting with snow owls in the winter of 2014 I had an interesting experience with all of this. It took me a while to find the sweet spot where I could watch people interact with the owls without alerting them to my presence. It turns out people behave almost exactly like snow owls once they have seen you and realize you are filming them. It was very awkward. Once someone noticed me there, he or she would have to kind-of check over the shoulder every few minutes to keep an eye on what I was doing. I imagined it to be quite distracting, so kept backing up. But it certainly was never lost on me, the cosmic humor or it all… the photographer cast as the snow owl, casting occasional paranoid glances at the strange being staring at it obsessively as it tried to go about its business! The similarities in terms of the subject’s behavior between filming a photographer shooting a snow owl and just filming a snow owl are uncanny. Snow owls and humans behave almost exactly the same when they are being stalked and stared at. Ever since this experience I enjoy imagining a really creepy version of myself mirrored behind me, doing exactly what I do, only focused on me, whenever I’m taking pictures of an animal. The more you can imagine this, the more you can feel it viscerally, and it is very, very thought provoking. And creepy. Highly recommended!
The first big lesson I learned attempting to make that film is that there are good days, and bad days, and little we can do to change that. On the bad days, it is easy to become desperate and make things worse by trespassing, flushing, and otherwise behaving our worst. But what about those good days? Unfortunately, we seem to be quite good at making good days creepy by over-playing our stalking skills.
The question of how close one should get to a snow owl is debatable. Even if you have a strong opinion on the subject, join a crowded group watching a snow owl and bring up the issue. You’ll encounter debate. The question of how close you can get is a very different question and has a clear answer: pretty darn close! While some individuals are skittish, snow owls generally are large, mellow animals and it takes a lot of effort to make one fly. Which is why it is a special kind of bummer that they get flushed so often.
Most people only know how close they can get to a snow owl because they have flushed one. Obviously, you don’t know where the line is until you cross it. Yet beyond first experiences and such, even skilled, experienced observers flush owls, often repeatedly and contrary to their own self-interest. Why we do this is simple. We do this because we are greedy people. And as usual, our greed usually destroys a good opportunity and becomes our downfall. Our greed tempts us with visions of photos we could get if we get just a little bit closer. But most often it is an evil mirage that not only does not deliver on its promises, but destroys the good thing we had going when it tempted us.
All wildlife observers have had this experience of pushing that one step too far, and immediately regretting it. It is oh, so painful. Yet many of us seem doomed to repeating our mistakes and just never seem to learn. We can suppose it is a little like gambling; some know when to fold ’em, while others double-down until they are bankrupt. But at least in gambling, somebody (the house) wins. When we continually and repeatedly flush our subjects, everybody loses. When you watch this phenomenon from a distance, it is very painful and embarrassing. It is obviously awful to watch an animal repeatedly harassed, but it also quite sad to watch a photographers destroy their own shoots. And a big part of the problem is an overconfidence in our stalking skills, and too much belief in their actual value.
Getting close to snow owls is easy. Knowing when to stop getting close is the more challenging part and the real art. How close we should be getting, especially in groups, is a really important question and one that we all have an interest in finding an acceptable answer to. But before we can evolve our understanding as the dominant species on this planet, we have to get past the very basic issues of illegal trespassing and self-defeating, greedy over-pushing. Creeping up on snow owls we are already very close to is the number one failed strategy we just don’t seem to let go of, even though we can clearly see it failing over and over again wherever wildlife fans gather to observe the animals they love.
Watching someone keep creeping slowly forward towards an owl every few minutes, especially when they are already in a great position, you can be assured of the ultimate end game: the owl will fly. And the photographer will lose an incredible opportunity for a ton of amazing photos, and instead get only one or two photos which are only marginally better than the ones he or she already got. A big part of the problem is our misplaced faith in the stalking skills that we worked so hard to learn, but which have no real value when we are in line of site with an animal whose telescopic vision is so powerful they can’t even see their own babies in the nest, and need to use their whiskers instead to feel them. Stalking is a hunter’s skill. It is a predatory skill. It is meant to prepare us for a final moment when we will lunge, and kill, and end the tension. So that’s what we get. But it’s not what we want in wildlife observation & photography.
What we need more of is not the ability to creep around, but to stand still, more aware, with a much broader view of our behavior, of our subject’s behavior, and of the habitat around us. What will really inform our experience and our photography is backing up and observing more closely and more completely; not pressing forward more narrowly and intensely and being more creepy.
Someday, when I am an older man, a wiser man, and a better photographer, a young photographer might find my photos on the internet, and write me to ask “How did you take that picture?” I can’t wait to tell this probably-unborn person that I use a big lens. Then share the first advice I was ever given: that before you get a big lens, you first have to practice your stalking.
But then I’ll add to it what I’m learning through my own personal experience, and from watching others: “And once you’ve learned how to stalk, you need to learn the most important lesson: when to stop creeping. You need to unlearn your stalking. And once you’ve done that, well… then you’ve earned your big lens!”