Close Encounter

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Bill Ferris
Bill Ferris Veteran Member • Posts: 8,677
Close Encounter

Yesterday, I revisited a favorite wildlife spot I'd been allowing to cool down for a few weeks. I hadn't been near it since mid-June. I got there Saturday afternoon a good two-plus hours before sunset hoping to do some photography. As soon as I'd gotten seated and started scanning the forest with binoculars, I saw seven pronghorn - five mature does and two fawns - all checking me out. They were about 50 meters distant and in that moment I was thinking, "They know I'm here and there's no point in getting beneath my canvas photographer's hide." So, I set up the gimbal head tripod and camera and waited to see what they were going to do. Pronghorn are curious by nature and they spent a good 10 minutes watching, grazing, watching, and grazing. They didn't come any closer but did eventually meander off.

Nikon D500 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO 400

It was embarrassing. I'd been outed by pronghorn. I started writing a post on Facebook and was about a paragraph into it when I heard movement off to my right. Elk were coming out of the forest into the clearing. I was sitting next to a downed Ponderosa Pine on a camp stool. The only shelter I had was a 3-foot high stack of downed branches I'd gathered as a makeshift hide, earlier this summer.

The elk were enough out that I figured they wouldn't notice me but close enough that, if I started unfurling and draping the canvas hide over my head, they might notice the movement. So, I slowly panned the camera to my right, framed a calf who was grazing and waited for the cutie to raise its head. The calf was focused on dinner and not looking up. Another elk walked through the shot and was clearly much nearer than the yearling.

Looking away from the viewfinder, I glanced to my right to see about 100 elk - mostly cows and calves - walking through the clearing. They were coming towards me. They were going to pass right in front of me.

I lowered my head, froze in that position, and waited as the herd walked by. I could hear their hooves clicking against the rocks, the wet munching of grass in their mouths, their breathing. Every 30-seconds or so, I'd glance up or to one side. Many passed within 20 feet of me. Some were closer...much closer. I thought, certainly one of these animals is going to see me, or smell me, or hear the pounding of my heart in my throat.

No member of the herd saw me or, if they did, they didn't recognize me as a human; as a threat. I think a few got a whiff of me but couldn't pinpoint the source of the odor. If any heard my heart palpitations, again, they didn't recognize it as a human heartbeat. I've never felt so exposed while out doing wildlife viewing or photography. There was a genuine feeling of elation when I realized the herd was going to pass without recognizing me or getting spooked.

One of the last animals to pass was this calf. Being a photographer, I had to grab at least one shot. This is an uncropped photo made at 290mm with my Nikon D500.

Nikon D500 w/ Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 290mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO 400

I hung out in that spot for another hour. Most of the elk continued off the mesa, down through the forest, and into Lower Lake Mary for an evening graze. A few settled in for the night amongst some nearby trees. When late-day shadows filled the clearing, I used the fallen pine as cover to sneak off to the north and then off the east side of the mesa into the forest.

For all I know, the elk are still there. Shhh, they might hear you

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Bill Ferris Photography
Flagstaff, AZ

 Bill Ferris's gear list:Bill Ferris's gear list
Nikon D610 Nikon D500 Fujifilm X-T20 Nikon AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm F4G ED VR Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR +4 more
Nikon 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR Nikon D500
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