When it comes to wildlife, how close is too close?
We’ve all heard about the clueless tourists who want to snap a selfie with the bear or moose. All too often, someone ends up getting hurt. But you and I are sensible people who do not want to be spitted by a bull elk, or gored by a buffalo. So, how close should we approach these potentially dangerous animals?
Or, consider the raptor perched on the telephone pole. We want a decent picture, with the bird occupying more than a speck in the viewfinder, so we try to slowly sidle closer. But we don’t want to get too close, because the bird will fly away.
Knowing how close to approach wildlife is an important part of viewing and photographing them—or simply making special memories. It’s not just a balance between getting the shot and being attacked. Disturbing wild animals forces them to use energy, whether they decide to flee or fight. In severe weather, or in years when food is scarce, that energy is desperately needed just to sustain life. And if that animal is a nesting bird, it could also endanger the young. Furthermore, predators are smart. Your mere presence can alert a fox or coyote to a nest it might have otherwise overlooked.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) has published a set of guidelines that ensure the safety of both wildlife and humans. I quote them here:
- Wildlife should be viewed/photographed from a safe and respectful distance.
- Use binoculars, spotting scopes, [telephoto] lenses, and viewing blinds to avoid disturbing species.
- Avoid getting close to nests or dens—your presence can disturb breeding and alert predators to nest/den locations.
- Stay on trails and roads, tread lightly, and leave plants and animals where you find them.
- Do not use recorded animal calls when viewing or photographing wildlife. [It’s a bit more complicated than that—see my post on “Pishing, Hooting, Playing a Recording.”]
- If an animal shows any sign of stress, move away.
- Keep pets on leash at all times.
- Do not feed wildlife [even adorable chipmunks].
I can add a few more comments from my own experience:
- Don’t try to fill the frame. You can always crop a bit. In fact, since photos often have to fit a particular size frame or space online, it allows more flexibility to zoom out a bit and give your subject some margins.
- To approach animals without frightening them, pretend you are prey. In other words, don’t stare at your subject—predators do that. Don’t try to sneak. Don’t make sudden moves. Rather, approach at an angle. As my friend Debbie suggests, pretend you are a grazing cow!
- Learn the signs of stress in the various species you want to view or photograph. Deer stop grazing. Birds stop preening, and they often “lighten the load” by defecating before they fly. Animals become agitated in the same way we do.
- I take a “guarantee” shot as soon as I arrive, and more as I move somewhat closer. Then, if I inadvertently flush the bird or frighten the deer, at least I have something. It takes the pressure off, and allows me to heed an animal’s warning signs.
- Never chase wildlife. If an animal wants to move away from you, let it go. We make it a point to never flush a bird more than once, if at all.
Of course, sometimes, the animal approaches you! I had an up-close-and-personal encounter with some elk last year at Rocky Mountain National Park. We were perched on a large rock formation at the end of a trail when a huge herd of elk wandered up the valley and surrounded us, completely blocking the trail and marooning us on our rock. They obviously felt completely comfortable coming within a few feet of us humans. I was very glad I was safely out of reach over their heads!
CPW also includes a list of “Recommended distances for viewing or photographing nesting or roosting raptors.” Different species have different “personal space” preferences, which is why distances vary from 50 meters for American Kestrels and Burrowing Owls to 800 meters for Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Northern Goshawks, and Peregrine and Prairie Falcons.