When I was a pre-teen, my favorite animals were the wolverines and the cougars. I am still awed by these amazing predators. Why? Read on…
As a typical boy, I thought incredible strength and fearless attitude in a small package was impressive. This 35 pound animal will sometimes intimidate cougars and bears away from their kills. They’ve attacked animals as large as caribou and moose if the snow is deep enough or if the animal is sick. That seems pretty brave, but if you look closely at the bottom of the photo above, you can see massive paws armed with large, sharp claws. I read once that they can quickly bite through a two-inch rope with their teeth. So it has the weapons to back up it’s aggressive attitude.
Wolverines patrol territories which can be over 300 square miles. I had an area that big to patrol, even with a dirt bike, it would feel hopelessly huge! This little guy has short legs and no wheels, but it’s just normal for him.
Wildlife photography is not my specialty, and my longest lens is 200mm. But thanks to Northwest Trek, where I took these photos, I can get some great photos of these predators in a natural environment. I loved reading about these animals as a pre-teen and early-teen, and now I can take photos of the real critters as an adult.
I was lucky to get a sharp shot here. 1/60th of a second is way too slow for 200mm, but pressing my camera against the side of a post helped stabilize it. I think tracking a moving animal with a long lens on a tripod would be very tricky and require some practice.
This was a dim, drizzly day, and the cougar was moving around more, instead of hiding out of sight as usual. Cloudy skies also helped avoid harsh shadows. Turns out I got better pictures on a rainy day.
Cougars are cool because, while they slouch around like a lazy house cat most of the time, they can jump 18 feet up from flat ground, and they can cover 40 feet in a horizontal leap. They can be very stealthy and see very well in the dark. So if you’re a deer, good luck getting away from a hungry cougar! I just think they are beautiful animals.
Last month I was walking along a local nature trail with my Dad, and we heard a growling, snarling, barking commotion in the woods across the narrow bay. I took it for a bunch of dogs fighting at first, and there were obviously dogs involved. But I kept hearing this mid-range snarling that was pretty loud for a dog that far away. I said to my dad, “Do you think that could be a cougar?” Just a few seconds later we hard a half-snarl, half-scream that left no doubt. That cougar was getting fed up with the dogs! We got back to our car and drove away, so I have no idea how that showdown ended. My dad didn’t want to walk over into those woods to find out. Can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want to get close to an angry cougar. He he!
I went to Northwest Trek near Eatonville, Washington. I’ve been there many times, but I got some great photos this time, for several reasons.
– First of all, it was raining off and on, which meant fewer people and the animals were more active in the cool weather. It also meant the deep shadows and blown highlights of a bright, sunny day were exchanged for nice, even and diffused light, even if it was a little dim.
– I had an EOS 7D body this time, which replaced the old 10D I’ve had since 2004. The new technology certainly counts for something, as I’ve seen in my photos.
– And then there’s the matter of me learning from my past mistakes. I was too afraid to shoot at faster speeds before, like ISO 800 or 1200, for fear of grainy/pixelated images. But I learned the hard way that shooting at ISO 100 all the time with my slower lenses gets me smooth, high quality images with blurred subjects. Better to have a little digital noise and keep my shutter speed high enough for sharp pictures. Most of these were shot at ISO 1200, or 1000 if that allowed fast enough shutter speeds.
I learned a rule which has worked out very well for me so far. The rule says your shutter speed should be at least your focal length. On this particular day, I was shooting with a 70-200mm f4L lens, so I was trying to keep my shutter speed higher than 1/200th of a second if possible. Didn’t always happen, and as long as the subject has paused or is not moving, that’s okay. If the subject is moving very fast (think sports photography), then this rule won’t guarantee you sharp images, and you probably need shutter speeds of 1/500 or higher.
The cougar is probably my favorite animal at Northwest Trek, but they are usually shy and lazy during the day, and because of the large enclosures (compared to a zoo) sometimes you never see them. These are the best pics I’ve ever taken of them. Again, they are more active in cooler weather, and overcast skies created much better lighting.
There is also a family of coyotes. They are fun to watch sometimes. A group of children started howling at them, and to my surprise, they actually responded by breaking out into their own yip-yapping howling.
One thing to note here: shooting at ISO 1200 seems to wash out the color a bit. At least it’s not as rich or vibrant as it is at ISO 100. I did not adjust the color balance (warmer/cooler) at all because I thought it was very true to what I saw at the time, but I did try to put some color back in.
Now here is a quick shot of an owl I grabbed while a staff member was feeding it. The shutter speed was a bit too slow and the owl’s head was a little soft from slight motion blur. I thought it was still a good picture, so I applied an oil painting effect to it in an attempt to salvage it.