Arctic Blast

Day 2 of the 7 day Photo Challenge
Arctic Blast
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
A red fox braces against the wind during a Manitoba blizzard. The high winds kicked up a lot of snow and decreased the visibility. To make this photo, I stopped down the lens to increase the depth of field, in case an errantsnowflake threw the autofocus off and waited for a lull in the gusts for a clear shot. The intensity of the winds can be observed by the horizontal streaks cutting across the frame. The fox’s bushy tail behaved more like a sail, and would catch the wind, altering its trajectory, making it move kind of sideways across the tundra. Note the beautiful lichens growing on the exposed part of the rock.
Canon EOS 1DX, Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM, handheld
1/200s; f/10; 600mm; ISO1600

On my second day I nominate Meril Darees ofMnmwow – Wildlife Photography. Meril is a world class wildlife photographer and one of my closest friends. I have spent thousands of hours shooting with him in the field: Churchill, Yellowstone, Canadian Rockies, California, Svalbard, and 5+ trips to Alaska. Over all these trips I have learned a lot from him, and significantly improved as a photographer. Please check out his work and give his page a like!

I was nominated by Barrett Hedges of BearHead Photography
Day 1- Jack Cunningham

Polar Hide and Polar Seek

7 Day Nature Photo Challenge: Day 1
My friend Barrett of BearHead Photography nominated me for the Nature Photo Challenge. Barrett is an incredible photographer, and intimately in tune with nature. His beautiful work reflects this perfectly. Thanks for the nomination! Let’s see if I am able to keep up with this….the goal is to post one photo for the next seven days, all while nominating a new person each day.

Polar Hide and Polar Seek
Spotting wildlife is never guaranteed. In fact, at times it feels like Mother Nature is actively advising her creatures to hide from me. But every now and then, she surprises you with a scene that goes beyond your wildest dreams. This was the case for these courting polar bears in the high arctic.

On the final full day of my 11 day Svalbard expedition, we sailed to a location not typically known for hosting polar bears. I was sad that, in all likelihood, I had already seen the trip’s last polar bear. But it had been a good trip for bears; with 20 or so sightings around the archipelago, and the weather on this day was great. The low angle polar sun provided perfect photographic conditions. Lots of light, blue sky, and puffy clouds. We manned the zodiacs with the goal of bird photography. I observed these two bears and the agenda quickly shifted….

In this scene, a large adult male bear is following an adult female. The sexual dimorphism between them is striking. But despite his substantial size advantage, the male behaved like a nervous teenager that lacks the courage to ask for a date. The female played it cool. Mostly ignoring him as she sniffed the beach, occasionally giving him a playful glance back. This ballet went on for over 2 hours. These bears had each other’s full attention; my zodiac and I weren’t given a passing glance. At one point the female slipped behind this lichen covered rock, as if to hide from her suitor. With the line of sight on his target temporarily obstructed, he froze in his tracks, and waited for her to reappear. I was able to capture this moment, complete with his reaction.

The famous polar bear warning signs posted in Svalbard have the Norwegian words: “Gjelder hele Svalbard” and the image of a polar bear. Which means “Polar Bears to be found all over Svalbard”. The sweetest words in the Norwegian language!

I was nominated by Barrett Hedges of BearHead, and will nominate my friend and fellow polar bear photographer Jack Cunningham. Jack and I met shooting brown bears in Alaska and have traveled to Churchill for polar bears. Check out his website here

Eye to Eye: American Marten

I am proud to announce that I received Highly Honored in the Wildlife category of the 2015 Windland Smith Rice International Awards Photo Contest by Nature’s Best Photography. This photo of an American Marten is one that I am particularly proud of capturing; and to receive this distinction makes the experience even more special to me. On top of that, getting this news is a great way to celebrate my 32nd birthday!
Please read the description below for more details behind how this photo was created:
Eye to Eye: American Marten
Eye to Eye: American Marten
American Marten
Martes americana
Yellowstone National Park, USA

By Tim Auer
Mountain View, California, USA

The story:
Look closely into this marten’s eyes. If you look carefully, you can see the reflection of the forest scene before it.

A curious and playful species, the american marten is not an easy animal to photograph. It is small and fast with an ability to vanish as quickly as it appeared, and certainly won’t wait for you to switch to your telephoto lens. If a wildlife photographer wishes to capture this species in its natural habitat, s/he needs to be prepared upon encounter..

As is typical of special wildlife photos, this image is the result of preparation, and a bit of luck. While snowmobiling through Yellowstone, I stopped for a break near the Swan Lake Flat. Fortunately, my camera setup was optimal for such an encounter: 600mm F/4 +1.4x Extender, giving 840mm focal length. I had driven the snowmobile with this camera+lens on my lap all day, which, given the size of this kit, is no easy task to do while handling a snowmobile. But having it immediately available during the few brief seconds the marten was in sight made this shot possible. The marten bounded with ease on top of the 4 ft/1.5m deep powder snow, and appeared to play peek­a­boo from behind trees, while I post­holed clumsily behind it, keeping the lens barrel above my head to keep snow out. It was not easy to get into shooting position with such deep snow, in fact it was exhausting. But as I crouched deep in the snow, at eye level with the marten while flakes of powder snow fell softly, I clicked this sharp result.

The American Marten is classified as a furbearer by most of the state wildlife agencies in its distribution, but fortunately, several of the states it calls home do not have a trapping season for it. Still its presence is an important indicator of the overall health of its forest ecosystem. It requires a rather large home range for a mammal of its size, and its home range has been shown to vary as a function of prey abundance (Thompson and Colgan 1987) and habitat type (Soutiere 1979). In clearcut areas it requires 63% more area than it does in uncut or sustainably harvested forest land.

Outside of those in the fur trade, not many people are familiar with this member of the weasel family. In fact, many people, when they see this photo, have confused it with a baby fox. I hope by showing this snow-moustached portrait of the American Marten in gentle natural lighting, people will begin to recognize the species in a new light.

Soutiere, E.C. 1979. Effects of timber harvesting on marten in Maine. J. Wildl. Manage. 43:850-860.

Thompson, I.D. and P.W. Colgan. 1987. Numerical responses of martens to a food shortage in northcentral Ontario. J. Wildl. Manage. 51:824-835.

Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, Canon EF 600mm f/4 L IS II USM, Canon Extender EF1.4× III

1/160s; f/5.6; 840mm; ISO200
Post Processing done using Lightroom 5.7.1
Feb. 8 2014

Svalbard: Lilliehook Glacier

The first morning out….August 20, 2015, Svalbard.

After a rough night sailing through stormy arctic seas (motion sickness medicine was a lifesaver).  The ship, Sea Spirit, made its way through the Krossfjord and King’s Bay, finally entering Lilliehöökfjorden. We dropped anchor and manned the zodiacs to explore the Lilliehöök Glacier. We faced a horseshoe shaped wall of ice. 7 km across, 80m tall, and stretching to the horizon with jagged peaks poking through the ice and clouds.  

Arctic, beluga, birds, glacier, ice, icebergs, Krossfjord, lilliehook, Spitsbergen, svalbard, whales, wildlife
Lilliehook Fjord, massive glacier bay with mountains poking into the clouds, and ice stretching as far as the eye can see.

The only place ice didn’t meet the sea was where a mountain stood instead. In-between these mountains, glaciers spilled out into the fjord.  At least 14 glaciers!  This was the biggest glacier bay I had ever been in.  Of course, this “accomplishment” would soon be “defeated” by other, more massive fjords of Svalbard, it doesn’t detract from the impression this fjord made on me.

The green-blue water was silky smooth and looked thick with glacial silt.  The underwater housing was working, but the  “thickness” of the glacial water limited visibility. Nonetheless, I practiced using this new piece of equipment.  Afterall, this was my first time doing underwater photography in the field!  A bearded seal swam lazily around the smooth water, coming close to a zodiac that I was not in.  Shortly after spotting the seal, a pod of beluga whales surfaced for a few minutes, before diving deep and moving on. 

In terms of photography, the stop in Lilliehöök provided a gentle warm up session to get into that “photo-mindset”. Not all the zodiac expeditions would be nearly as smooth and easy.  In fact, many times the arctic sea conditions were not conducive to producing interesting photography, that is, unless the photographer was adequately prepared and exercised sound judgement in the field….For me the learning process never ends. and the conditions I experienced in Svalbard forced me to re-evaluate and adjust some of my preparations.

McNeil River: An Overview

Introducing McNeil River
NOTE: All photos posted here were taken in Katmai NP
McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Preserve is internationally recognized as being the world’s premier brown bear viewing destination because of its uniquely high concentration of bears living within their natural environment (Sellers and Aumiller 1993).  

Created in 1967, this game sanctuary, managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, has the stated goal to “provide permanent protection for brown bears and other fish and wildlife populations and their habitats, so that these resources may be preserved for scientific, aesthetic, and educational purposes” (Schempf and Meehan 2008:3).  

In other words, in McNeil the bears come first. Period.Katmai: Green Fog Bear

This mission statement is consistent with the mission statements of other ecologically significant parks across North America (such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Canadian Rockies, and even Katmai). For example mission of Glacier NP is stated as follows:

To provide opportunities to experience, understand and enjoy the park consistent with the preservation of resources in a state of nature” –

A difference between parks like Yellowstone and Glacier and McNeil River is that the management responsible for McNeil River has taken drastic steps to enforce their vision.  In 1973 it was determined that human visitation to the preserve was adversely impacting the bear population.  In response, the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game established a strict permit lottery to limit human visitation (Faro and Eide 1974).  The bears have responded positively, and the lottery has become more and more competitive each summer. 

At any given time, only ten visitors are allowed in the viewing areas of McNeil River Preserve, which has an area of 6000 mi^2 and is 500 mi^2 larger than the state of Connecticut. 

10 people, dropped in the Alaskan bush by float plane, spend 5 days in tKatmai: Bear Screamhe midst of thousands of coastal brown bears.

Over the entire season the preserve will host only around 200 people.  Applicants may have less than a 4% chance of winning a permit. There is a limit of three people per application, and each group specifies their preferred date blocks, according to a schedule.  If you do win a permit, you may not enter the lottery the following year, so I cannot apply in 2016.  In January 2015, when I sent in my lottery application, I was not holding my breath that I would win.  McNeil River is a big deal in Alaska and an even bigger deal in the world of wildlife viewing.

The Peninsula of Bears

On the Alaska Peninsula, McNeil River State Game Preserve shares a border with Katmai National Park (I have made 3 trips to Katmai over the last 2 years).  Both parks boast high densities of brown bears. This is no coincidence, the two parks have been instrumental in the other’s success (Sellers, R., and Aumiller, L.).  The wildlife conservation efforts of the Alaska Dept. Fish & Game and NPS are to be commended. Katmai: Stroll along river

While I have not yet been to McNeil River; my knowledge is limited to the academic journals describing the region.  Based on my research, it is fascinating how divergent the bear behavior can be between McNeil and Katmai. I am eager to explore this new region on the Alaska Peninsula, and document the behaviors of the brown bears that call it home.

More to come in next blog post (time permitting):
 – Site Description – Food: sedges, chum, sockeye
 – Bear Behavior
 – Preparation
 – Goals
 – Post Trip Follow up

Literature Cited:

FARO, J.B., AND S.H. EIDE. 1974. Management of McNeil River State Game Sanctuary for nonconsumptive use of Alaskan brown bears. Proceedings of the Western Association of State Fish and Game Commissioners 54:113–118.

PEIRCE, J., et al. 2013. Interactions between brown bears and chum salmon at McNeil River, Alaska. Ursus Journal 24(1):42–53.

SELLERS, R.A., AND L.D. AUMILLER. 1993. Brown bear population characteristics at McNeil River, Alaska. International Conference on Bear Research and Management 9(1):283–293.

SCHEMPF, J.H., AND J. MEEHAN. 2008. McNeil River State Game Refuge and State Game Sanctuary management plan. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Special Publication No. 08-01, Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

Memorial Day: California Bears, Sequoia National Park

Memorial Day weekend 2015

As I am apt to do before a big trip, I try to get into the right mindset and hone my skills as much as possible.

With an Alaska trip centered around brown bear photography at McNeil River State Park set for early June (less than two weeks away), it is important to ensure you are in top condition for bear photography.   Additionally, it was Jenna’s first time seeing a bear in the wild AND doing bear photography.   The single day trip to Sequoia National Park was wildly successful. Not only did we see bears, but we were able to get close to bears, and photograph them doing what bears do.  It was wonderful practice for McNeil River.

And while the american black bear is a different species from what we will see in McNeil, and has different behaviors and environments, it is still a bear, and within the genus ursus. 

When considering all 50 US states, California probably jumps out to the casual observer as the most “bear proud” state of them all. Their flag brandishes a grizzly, the top state universities’ have grizzly bear mascots, and California’s extremely short-lived independent nation was named the “Bear Republic”.  Given all the love there seems to be for the California grizzly bear, it is somewhat astounding that this subspecies was extirpated by humans.  Hunted completely to extinction, the California Grizzly lives only on the flags and mascots.

But I am not writing about California grizzlies here. I am writing because California still has plenty of bears; albeit the less ferocious and smaller type: the American Black Bear.

When comparing brown vs black bears, many people may shrug off a black bear sighting in a location where both inhabit (such as Yellowstone or Glacier NP), some even consider it as being the less interesting species, unworthy of their attention. The black bear is more common, has wider distribution, and can be a nuisance (especially in the Sierras). The grizzly is rarer, requires a larger range, and is more dangerous.  Given all of my past trips to Alaska devoted to brown bear photography, I am also guilty of this too…but it isn’t for my lack of love for the black bear.  Yes a black bear is more common and more accessible than a brown(grizzly) or polar bear, but the bottom line is that Black Bears are difficult to photograph.

A black bear is not typically a bold animal.  Among all the large north american predators, the black bear is probably only behind the mountain lion in terms of “shyness”.  This species does not like to be seen by humans. This characteristic makes it especially difficult to achieve top quality photos.

The behavior of some of the bears we observed this past past weekend in Sequoia National Park was mixed in terms of typical “flight initiation distance”, but the relative abundance of bears present, and gave good odds of making quality images…

Seven Mile Bridge Bobcat 2015

Seven Mile Bridge Bobcat delivers again in 2015…

…and was quite active today, forcing me to trudge through deep snow to keep up with him as he made his way up and down the opposite river bank. He went after a muskrat 10 minutes before we arrived, splashing into the Madison River. I arrived to see him preening his wet coat, only to be attacked by a coyote, which tree-ed the cat. Then saw him stare down some golden eyes (who saw him and changed their direction), and finally multiple successes in the mousing effort. The warmer temperatures this year made for sharper photography, because there wasn’t as much steam coming off the river to soften the image, but this “heatwave” made things a lot warmer when post-holing. 

Yellowstone National Park, Madison River #7milebridgebobcat #bobcat#yellowstone


Alaska: Kenai Fjords NP

Part 1 Kenai Fjords + Seward

The September Alaska photo expedition began in Anchorage where my parents, who were on their way back from a week in Denali, picked me up. The time here was spent hiking, hunting for wildlife, and taking a boat ride to view Fjords from the sea.

Day 1- Anchorage to Whittier, Portage Glacier hike
Day 2- Seward, Exit Glacier hike. Kenai Fjords National Park
Day 3- Seward, tour of Northwestern glacier and fjord. Kenai Fjords National Park

The definite highlights of this portion of the trip was the Exit Glacier hike to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjord National Park. This is a beautiful, but relatively strenuous, 8-9 mile dayhike with a 3000 foot elevation change. However, the rewards for this trek are plenty.  Wildlife dotted the hillsides, and the view of the Harding Icefield is spectacular.  Ice stretching to the horizon as far as you can see, with mountain peaks poking through. 

The next day was a Kenai Fjord boat tour.   9 hours in length, it leaves Resurrection Bay  and hugs the coastline all the way down to Northwestern Fjord/Glacier. The views afforded from a seaside vantage point were spectacular. This is one place that is best experienced from the water (unless you are an expert glacier traverser).  The only way to improve on this boat experience is to go by kayak, gliding silently between the icebergs and camp on some isolated beach.  Wildlife was also abundant. Wildlife photography from a boat is typically never easy, and when you are using a fixed 600mm lens with 1.4x extender, the challenges are increased even further. But despite this, I was able to get get some decent bird, seal, sea lion, and orca photos. However, my mom was able to capture a couple orca breaches! Very jealous of that!

The Seward area is tucked into a bay surrounded by seaside mountains, therefore there isn’t much sunrise or sunset light getting the ground, save for the highest peaks.  But each night I was take walks and use this period of gentle light to search for eagles in the surrounding areas.  I was even able to use the fiery sunset colors with some eagle “headshots”.