Natural Observations-Approaching wildlife

The Fish Lake swan family-photo by Robin Song

The Fish Lake swan family-photo by Robin Song

A letter from Robin Song to the community:

Recently it was brought to my attention that a listener to my story about trumpeter swans on Fish Lake, aired over KTNA, was upset. She was concerned that wording I had used in my story could be interpreted to mean that I was deliberately approaching the swans close enough to stress them into flying.

I was startled to think that people could interpret my words that way, but when I looked at it from that point of view, I had to admit that she was right. So I am writing this to assure my audience that I do not promote stressing wildlife when observing them. I also admit that I have difficulty judging distances- what may seem sixty feet away from me can easily be eighty or more.

My father was an amateur naturalist, and when I was growing up he would put his art projects aside and take my family for a walk several times a week. During these walks he would teach my brother and me how to read animal tracks, and turn over rocks so we could see the creatures which lived under them, etc. He and my mother lectured us about respecting all life, acknowledging how every creature is of value to the whole. Included in our nightly reading hour after dinner, Dad read the complete works of Gerald Durrell, celebrated environmental educator.

I spent my youth biking to and hiking deer trails winding through the canyons of  Belmont, northern California. When I was 12 my parents rescued a mustang and put it in my care, adding 5 more rescued horses within the next 3 months. The horses gave me unbelievable freedom to explore the Hetch Hetchy Game Reserve, and I often took along my binoculars so I could observe hawks, deer, skunks, raccoons, etc. from horseback. My parents also gifted me my first camera when I was 10, and I have been a photographer ever since.

I came to Alaska in August of 1980, falling in love with this wild land during the ferry trip from Seattle to Haines. When I saw my first bald eagles perched atop spruce where the forests met the shoreline of the Inside Passage, I knew I wanted Alaska to be my permanent home.

My awe and love of this north country’s wild lands and the animals and birds which inhabit them has only deepened over the years. When researching for artwork, I have studied other photographer’s photos, as they always had the superior equipment to get much better photos than I. Then, in 2005, a birder friend in California sent me my first digital camera. I was instantly hooked. He sent me an upgrade a year later, and another the following year. I thought the 7.1 megapixel camera was amazing. But when I showed my photos to a couple who buys photos for various magazines, they told me my camera didn’t have high enough megapixels to be competitive. This spring a friend loaned me a Sony with 14.2 megapixels and 10x zoom. I have been using the camera almost everyday, learning its complicated features, and honing my skills. The beauty of this camera is that I don’t have to get close to my subjects. So when I write about getting closer to the animals and birds I’m observing, it’s a relative statement. My photos may look like I’m right on top of them, but the 10x zoom allows me to stay back and still have good details when I’m at maximum zoom. The higher pixels mean my photos hold their resolution even when cropped tight and enlarged.

Long years of studying and observing wildlife has taught me to be sensitive to their body language. When I traveled the Kenna Peninsula this spring, I collected various fliers and booklets put out for visitors. In one was advise about traveling in bear and moose country. There were the usual cautions about looking for signs such as tracks and scat, and to make noise so as not to startle animals. “If you encounter a moose, move away. Maintain a space of 75 feet or more between yourself and a moose. Watch for body language. If the moose lowers its head and ears, and the hair on its back and neck stands up, back off. If a moose charges, retreat behind a large tree or rock. Most moose charges are bluffs and getting behind something solid offers important protection from their sharp, powerful hooves. Remember, keeping your distance from moose is the best way to avoid a negative encounter.”

While these are good basics to remember, there are many variables to consider when you are actually face to face with a moose, or any other animal. Experience is the best teacher. A mother with young is very protective, and during the fall rut animals are extra-unpredictable. Weather, terrain, the presence of predators, and other factors figure into the observer’s equation.

Birds have a whole different set of considerations. They can fly away, of course, when one gets too close, or dive underwater. I admit that my enthusiasm for getting a photo has sometimes brought me too close and I’ve crossed that invisible “line” and watched in dismay while my subject suddenly takes wing, or darts off into the underbrush. Sometimes there are other factors coming into play. While I was out in the canoe on Fish Lake, photographing the trumpeter swan family, there were also other people in kayaks and canoes on the lake, and planes taking off and landing. The channel where I entered the lake with the borrowed canoe winds through a marsh. I found that the swans favored staying near this marsh, and I surmised their nest had been hidden therein. Even though the five cygnets were large and  no longer staying at the nest, the birds seemed to see the marsh as their home turf. When I was out on the lake, photographing distant loons, the family headed for the marsh. Heading back to launch point, I had to pass by the swans. The water is shallow and one has to watch for submerged logs and stay in the deepest channel. I went slowly and carefully, but one of the parent swans still took off and flew out a little ways, landing again, in an effort to draw me away from the family. Once past them, I paddled swiftly, to put distance between us. One parent followed me a ways, I think making sure I was heading away.

A few years ago I was privileged to be temporary caretaker at the Saunder’s Crane Sanctuary in Trapper Creek. I got permission to go into the barley fields when the cranes were there. I spent many hours getting the cranes used to me, over the course of several days. One ‘reward’ for my patience happened one evening. I was sitting at the edge of the plowed field, where it joined the acres of barley left untouched from the prior year. A good wind was blowing, and as the cranes walked on the dirt, driving their long beaks into the soft earth to snap up barley seeds, the puffs of dirt they sent into the air were back lit by the sun, making clouds of golden dust around them. A group of eight cranes broke off from the main flock and strode deliberately towards me. As I snapped photos, the birds  walked steadily, not pausing to search for barley seeds in the dirt. When they were just a few feet from me, they stopped, looking at me with first one gold eye, then the other. My dogs were with me, one laying on either side of me. Cranes, dogs and I stared at each other for several long, wonderful moments. Then, curiosity satisfied, the cranes turned and headed back to the flock, leaving me breathless with wonder.

Sometimes, when I had been out with the cranes for a half an hour or more, and they were quite ignoring me, suddenly a crane would give a warning call and the flock would run and launch into the air. The cranes would be looking into the sky and when I followed their gaze I would see an eagle approaching. Reading about cranes, I learned that one of their natural predators is the eagle. A crane is safer in the air than on the ground when an eagle approaches, as the chaos of flapping, circling, calling birds makes for a more difficult target than birds on the ground.

I have found that often when a creature I have been with for awhile and whom has relaxed to my presence, suddenly alerts and takes off,  it is reacting to a predator in the area, and not me. My goal is for an animal or bird to realize that I pose no threat and to relax and go about its natural actions. One cherished memory is from when I was camping, in 2006, with friends near the Gates Of  The Arctic park. One afternoon I took my sketchpad and camera and went alone up a valley. I settled atop a large boulder to do a sketch of the tundra in front of me, the Brooks Range as a backdrop. Suddenly I spotted a blond form in the distance. My binoculars identified it as a large toklat grizzly bear. The wind was in my favor and I watched, entranced, as the bear went about searching for a meal, flipping over boulders with little effort. It was far away and took no notice of me. I smiled as I watched it lope across the tundra, stopping once to drop and roll in the soft lichens. It continued on its way, eventually disappearing over ridge – a wonderful bear in its prime. I felt very privileged to be in this wild animal’s presence, observing its natural behavior.

I send out my sincere apologies to my readers, and those who listen to my radio stories, if they had any alarm that I may be encouraging anyone to approach too close to wildlife, for whatever reason. My passion for wildlife has taken me on countless excursions to observe them, over my several decades on this planet. More often that not my efforts wind up being an outing photographing scenery, any wildlife therein staying hidden from my view. So when I do get to see  birds or an animals, I feel privileged indeed, for here in this vast north country, wildlife has the choice of staying well away from people. May there always be plenty of areas for the wild ones to stay wild. And for the people who share the planet with them to respect them and keep our distance.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *