Questions and Actions: Digging Deeper

Questions & Actions

You talk a lot in emails and issues of the Journal of how important it is to understand the biology and ecology of animals if you want to be a successful wildlife photographer. What resources exist for learning this information? Take mule deer for instance. When is the peak of the rut, what do they eat, where do they give birth? The information I find on animals like this is very generic and seems to differ between each person writing about animals. Where do I find in depth details like you discuss? – Lee Varland, Wyoming.

Disclaimer: the above is paraphrased from Lee’s original question to make it more user friendly for this article.

This is a question I get a lot. Honestly, it’s one of the most poignant questions I get, and it may just happen to be the most important one a person can ask about wildlife photography once they have moved past the basics of things like exposure theory and autofocus systems.

Knowledge. Is. Power.

In a nutshell, this is why I created the Journal of Wildlife Photography to begin with. Nobody was discussing this stuff. And the results were thousands of excited photographers wandering about with heads full of technical stuff but with little to no knowledge of finding animals outside of driving around in circles within national parks.

So, let’s get to this shall we?

Lee specifically referenced mule deer, and so I’m going to use that species as my example here. But don’t let this species-specific response deter you from reading on. Just because you don’t have mule deer in your area doesn’t mean that the information here isn’t applicable to nearly every species on the planet.

For those of you not familiar with mule deer, this is a very large species of deer that live across the Rocky Mountains. They are the biproduct of the last ice age and hybridization between the Pacific black-tail deer and the whitetail. Big, burly, with massive ears that may be more useful for regulating body temp than hearing, and antlers that seem to rival that of the Rocky Mountain elk at times, “mulies” as many of us call them, are a favorite of many “western” wildlife photographers.

When it comes to big animals like mule deer, or what academia generally calls charismatic megafauna, there is no limit to the sheer quantity of information out there on their biology and ecology. Big sexy animals attract people in ways that insects and snakes just don’t. But when it comes to truly understanding the biography of such species we need to go beyond the “blogs” and web articles that over generalize for a 4th grade reading level.

My suggestion here is two-fold:

1. Mule Deer Country, by Valerius Geist. Geist is one of the world’s preeminent ungulate (hooved mammal) biologists and a prolific writer. Personally, I have every single book this man has written and find them absolutely invaluable. He writes for a general audience as opposed to wildlife managers and other researchers, which makes his stuff very accessible to someone who doesn’t have a background in bio-nerd. And especially regarding North American species, Geist has a book for nearly every species of ungulate on this continent: mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, etc.

2. Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates, Mathew Kaufman, Et al. As the name implies, this is an analysis of all the big animals who undergo big migrations in Wyoming (home of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, as well as Lee Varland himself).

By choosing these two resources as a place to begin I am doing two things:

First, I am looking for an in-depth monograph by a wildlife biologist. A monograph is a detailed written study of a single specialized subject. In this case, that subject is mule deer. And as I mentioned above, Valerius Geist has been producing the most accessible monographs of animals like this for a more generalized audience for decades. This sort of thing isn’t limited to just mule deer, of course. Monographs are a foundation of wildlife biology. Most species have them in some form. The big animals, the charismatic megafauna, often have them in book form available on Amazon. And the same can be said for other species that evoke emotion and interest in the general population like great gray owls, for instance. If you are looking for a book like this for species other than mule deer, add the word “ecology” to the search term in order to help narrow things down. For instance, “great gray owl ecology.”

The second thing I did here was select a book that dove into a more “regional” perspective. Lee lives in Wyoming. The book Wild Migrations is all about mule deer and other animals in Wyoming. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate why THAT is very helpful.

One of the challenges that you will face if you start diving into wildlife monographs and the geek speak of researchers is that the vast majority of these people are not writers. Now add the fact that this stuff is extremely jargon heavy, pedantic, obsessive with citing of sources, and you might want to be prepared with a big glass of wine or bourbon to help ease the brain melt that may follow. In other words, don’t expect to find information written like my articles in the Journal. I have been writing for magazines since I was a sophomore in college. Taking complex information and distilling it down in such a way so that it is digestible is my superpower. Researchers are not often so gentle.

Another option is to reach out to us at the Journal of Wildlife Photography and let us know what sort of species you are interested in learning more about. Braiding together natural history and photography instruction is my wheelhouse here. For instance, I am currently working on an article about understanding, finding, and photographing great gray owls by learning how to “see” the world through their eyes.


From the Journal of Wildlife Photography. www.journalofwildlifephotography.com

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