Lead photo: Common loon © William Botka @will_b_wildlife
Close encounters of the wild kind
Photographers share their most exciting wildlife experiences…
By Elizabeth Ouimet
Originally published in Ducks Unlimited Canada’s Conservator magazine, autumn 2022.
Wildlife photography is a pursuit of passion. Photographers invest countless hours honing their craft and learning about wildlife to capture moments in nature that take our breath away. These images connect us with fascinating creatures that we may not normally see. And they remind us of the reasons we must conserve wild spaces for animals, plants and insects to survive and thrive.
Even the most well-planned wildlife photography mission can take unexpected turns, as wildlife and weather have their own schedule.
I invited some talented photographers that I’ve connected with while managing DUC’s Instagram account (@ducksunlimitedcanada) to share their most exciting or challenging wildlife photography moments. Their stories range from bright and playful to reflective — portraying the wildlife photography experience beautifully.
The trip of a lifetime
📍 Mont-Tremblant National Park, Quebec
I live a good two hours away from the nearest lake where common loons reside, making them difficult to photograph. So when my friend Stephanie said she reserved a camp spot in Mont-Tremblant National Park —known for its large loon population—she didn’t have to ask me twice to join her.
The morning we walked to the water’s edge where our kayaks stayed overnight, there was a thick fog on the lake. After about 10 minutes of paddling in an absolute white-out, I saw a single black speck develop. The speck turned into two, and then three. Before I knew it, I heard the classic yodel. I felt a warm feeling rush through my body. The family of loons swam feet away from our boats and passed by unbothered. I couldn’t believe it.
Fast forward an hour or so, and we stumbled upon another family with much smaller chicks. They were wary, but with time they warmed up to us and resumed fishing. What was even more extraordinary was they were using us and our kayaks as cover from a bald eagle hunting in the area. What an amazing trip!
📍 Elliston, Bonavista Peninsula, Newfoundland
I always thought puffins were the most adorable little birds, but I had never seen one in person. I was looking at some local professional photographers’ captures of puffins and said to myself, “I am going to take photos of them one day.”
I knew from seeing photos the place to go to see puffins was Elliston; so I set my plan in motion. I bought a good camera and 150-600mm telephoto lens, and a heavy-duty tripod. The day arrived and I was so excited. I got to the viewing spot and set my camera on the tripod. I couldn’t believe how many of them there were, but they were quite a distance away. Then someone tapped me on the back and said, “I really don’t think you need that big lens, just turn around.”
My heart was racing … the little beauties flew to within 10 feet of me! I was tripping over my tripod trying to disconnect from it and change lenses. I spent hours watching them and taking lots of photos.
February feeding frenzy
📍 Southern Ontario
It’s the end of February, and the large bodies of water in southern Ontario that would usually hold thousands of divers have well frozen over. Many ducks choose to go south but others find themselves staging in rivers close by that aren’t quite frozen. I made my way in search of divers eating fish during the staging weeks. On the shore, I tucked myself into the large snow-covered rocks. As the sun rose, the wind gusts crept to 50 km/h and the wet snow started to build up on me and my gear. After 45 minutes of not seeing any birds, I worried that I chose the wrong area.
Then, a roost full of redheads, canvasbacks and bluebills filled the horizon and skimmed the water’s surface, kicking their feet out and landing within 30 yards of me. I watched thousands of divers push schools of shad to shore, diving one after another, successfully catching their breakfast. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in my photography career so far.
In search of a buck
📍 Algonquin Highlands, Ontario
I set out to get photos of a buck in full velvet, so I decided to stalk a well-used game trail in the Algonquin Highlands. After a few hours and no deer, I gave up and started back to my car. I heard movement in the bushes ahead. I crept forward, camera ready, searching for a vantage point where I could snap a quick photo if a buck popped out. I found a spot in a small stand of trees where I could see in both directions. Everything was quiet. Nothing moved. With the sun going down, I decided to write the day off as another walk in the woods with my camera. As I stood, a flash of movement caught my eye. There, on top of a rock cut, was an Algonquin wolf.
I had no time to think about composition or camera settings but got off a quick burst. It’s rare to get even a glimpse of those beautiful animals, but my luck hadn’t run out quite yet. As I stood in awe of my good fortune, the wolf ran up the shoulder of the road toward me, until it was about 50 metres away. It paused before crossing the road, stopping one final moment to glance back, then disappearing into the forest. Of all the wildlife experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have, this one sticks with me as both the most memorable and unexpected.
Winter on the Prairies
📍 South Saskatchewan River, Saskatchewan
The first thing you notice is the cold. It’s Saskatchewan in winter after all. I’ve spent countless hours driving and hiking the river hills of the South Saskatchewan River in the dead of winter. The wildlife encounters are spectacular. On this day in December, I’m hoping to get a good photo of a white-tailed buck.
There are lots of white-tailed and mule deer in this area of the province, but often they’re seen at a distance. I choose a spot beside a deer trail at the top of the ridge of a large valley. I settle on the side of the hill and try to ignore the bitter -25°C cold. A porcupine wanders through the stubble field behind me. A fox appears not long after; perhaps following the scent of the porcupine.
It’s my hearing that provides the first clue there are deer in the valley. I hear the crunch of branches breaking and my heart starts racing. Then, a glimpse of movement; a brown ghost not so silently moving through the trees below. After what seems like an eternity, he suddenly appears on the trail in front of me. Adrenaline pumping, I start shooting, praying I’ve got my settings right. He pauses at the top of the trail and turns back towards me… and gives me The Pose. I exhale and smile.
My journey begins
📍 Jacques-Cartier Provincial Park, Quebec
Here’s the story of how I became a wildlife photographer. In 2018, though an avid nature and photography enthusiast, I owned only a kit lens. I’d walked this trail in Jacques-Cartier Provincial Park several times and had been amazed by the variety of wildlife each time. I rented a zoom lens one weekend and headed to the park. The day seemed quieter than usual. Disappointing for a newbie with a loaner!
On my way back, I stopped at this beautiful hidden pond off the main path to watch the golden hour light. I saw a gorgeous bird on a log, preening and splashing marble beads in the air, with white bits on the water forming a backdrop of stardust. I got down to eye level and started scrambling with camera settings. I used the (very few) photography tricks that I knew: minimum ISO to reduce noise, a high shutter speed to avoid blur. I only took a few shots before she slid off the driftwood and into the water. I sat by the pond until dark, reliving the meditative moment. Something had clicked … I was hooked!
To this day, it is one of my favourite photos. Every time I see it in the frame above my desk, I am reminded of that encounter: the pristine pond and the hooded merganser with a sunlit tiara, perching on her throne.
Click with us!
These photos and stories are just a sampling of the beauty there is to behold in Canada’s wild spaces. Do you have a wildlife photo and story you’d like to share with our supporters? Submit up to 10 photos and your story to @ducksunlimitedcanada on Instagram by tagging us and using #DUCWildPhotos. Everyone who submits a story will be entered to win one of three DUC Gear™ YETI® Rambler bottles! We will feature some of our favourites on our Ducks Unlimited Canada Instagram feed. Winners will be drawn on December 1, 2022.