Have you ever heard that saying, “chance favors the prepared mind?”
I think you would be hard pressed to come up with a better maxim for wildlife photography.
In so many ways, wildlife photography is heavily reliant on chance. I think about this all the time, especially when I am working in a national park like Yellowstone. The place is 2.2 million acres. A vast and sprawling ecosystem. And in the winter months, we are confined to very specific roads, that when viewed on a map, are as thin as a hair.
When an encounter with a wolf occurs, for instance, everything about my day, and everything about her day, all had to line up just right for our paths to cross at that exact moment.
That stop earlier to refill my coffee played a role in the photograph. Pausing to fruitlessly glass a distant hillside with my binoculars an hour before, ensured I was here at this moment. Those tourists that left their car parked in the middle of the road, all four doors wide open, no one inside, to selfishly make a selfie, brought me to this spot at this time right when a wolf stepped out of the trees.
When viewed from this perspective, the universe really must smile upon us every time when chance across an animal in this fashion.
But let me stop short of following a metaphysical thread of thinking here, because this isn’t the point that I am trying to make.
It would be incredibly difficult for me to make a living as a wildlife photographer if I relied upon chance encounters such as the one I describe above. Although so much of wildlife photography can, at times, feel like just good old fashion “dumb luck,” to be successful at this, to keep the debt collectors at bay, I need more than just chance, I need more than dumb luck, I need more than chaos theory.
This is why I like the phrase, “chance favors the PREPARED mind.”
And for me, being prepared means knowing the animals I am searching for.
It’s no secret that I like bears. As a wildlife photographer based in North America, I could spend every day of my life seeking encounters with bears and it would be a life well spent. But to do this, to have such encounters, to create the opportunities to be in the presence of wild bears, it’s important to understand them and their unique biographies. And when it comes to black bears in particular, it’s all about understanding their relationship with specific species of trees.
Northern Minnesota is one of my favorite places in the lower 48 states. It’s remote. It’s largely devoid of my own species. I can lose myself for days on end along dirt roads and trails in the boreal forest. And most importantly, it harbors 2,700 wolves (not a typo), 4,000 moose, 2,000 bobcats, and about 15,000 black bears.
But here is the thing about all those black bears: there is both rhyme and reason to where they live and go about their days. Black bears in this region have a direct association with one very particular type of tree that makes up only two percent of the forest in that area – the white pine.
White pines (Pinus strobus), which should not be confused with the whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) that grizzly bears have such a deep association with, is a magnificent tree to behold. Achieving heights of 200 feet, with a canopy that extends out as wide as city bus, these were once the redwoods of the Great Lakes region, or what the American chestnut was to the Appalachian Mountains. Although it’s not technically a boreal species, in northern Minnesota the white pine and boreal forest overlap with each other.
White pines once covered 3.5 million acres of Minnesota. But today, there’s a total of only 67,000 acres of these great trees left there. It’s the typical story. As soon as we commodify something in nature, rest assure we will do our best to try and drive it to extinction. Growing tall and straight, these native trees were in high demand the world over for use as masts on ships. After the complete collapse of the longleaf pine forest across the American southeast (considered the largest manmade ecological disaster to have taken place in the recorded history of the world), industry set its sights on the white pine of the Northeast and Great Lakes region.
As for black bears in the region, it’s not so much that the white pines provide food as they do hearth and home. Studies in northern Minnesota have shown that black bear mothers with cubs make use of old white pines for over 90% of their spring beds, and 88% of summer beds. Even once the cubs begin following their mom out on foraging trips, a sow will march her family several miles each day through the forest to return back to old white pines. And bears aren’t alone in this preference. A 30 yearlong study also showed that roughly 80% of all bald eagle and osprey pairs in the region prefer to build their nests in these trees as well.
White pines are completely unlike any other tree in that region. A tree that can grow 200 feet in height must be built to withstand the very worst that nature can throw at it. Strong and heavy limbs that can support an entire family of black bears resting safely from predators 50 feet above the forest. Deeply furloughed bark that makes climbing significantly easier for cubs than the smooth bark of firs, aspens, spruce, and birches. And large diameters that, when dead and hollow, can support a mother and 3 or 4 cubs as a den with enough insulation to protect against the deep negatives that Jack Frost, mass murderer of winter, sends to northern Minnesota that time of the year.
But here is the irony of all this: black bears actually avoid white pine communities. Meaning, where white pines are the primary species of tree (think: monoculture tree farm), bears steer clear. Instead, it’s the old growth forests, where diversity begets diversity, and white pines intermix with other species, creating the supercanopy in the forest, that we find the direct association between black bears and this species of tree.
A supercanopy, for the record, is created by only certain species of trees that can rise above and tower over the surrounding forest – which a white pine can do.
So, what does all this mean for us wildlife photographers? If you are in Great Lakes region and want to find and photograph black bears, find the big old growth white pines in the forest.
Regardless of what part of North America you find yourself in, if there are black bears in the region, rest assured those bears have a unique and direct association with one or two species of trees in your forest.
This is knowing your subject. This is the knowledge base we use as wildlife photographers to be able to predictably find and photograph animals. And this is how chance favors the prepared mind.