The upcoming rut season brings mixed feelings. I’m definitely looking forward to shooting the brutes in a couple months or so, but I also know they’ll be trying their best to rub on my establishing trees and bushes in the yard. I have most everything protected but still have some trunks that I need to cover before the first of September when they’ll begin rubbing the velvet off of their antlers. We lost a flowering dogwood to one of them last year and hope not to have that repeated.
Here are some photos that I took on an outing with Miguel last autumn. All images were taken with a 500 mm lens.
On a crisp and beautiful autumn morning this past Halloween, the WGNSS Nature Photo Group group enjoyed the rare occasion of visiting a relatively close St. Louis County location. Part of the St. Louis County Park system, Lone Elk Park has contained herds of elk and bison in some fashion since the original introduction in 1948. This is a beloved park that offers visitors up close looks at bison, elk, deer and other wildlife. Because of the constant visitors, the animals have no fear of humans and, therefore, are an easy subject for the nature photographer.
Due to the cooperative nature of these subjects, a long telephoto lens, typically needed for wildlife photography is not required here. However, it is a good idea to give these animals their space and use common sense to keep the proper safe distance or remain in your vehicle while photographing here. Always be aware of your surroundings and photograph in a group when possible.
I recommend a mid-range telephoto focal length – a zoom lens in the neighborhood of 100-400 mm is an ideal choice. Depending on available light, a support like a tripod or monopod may be needed. However, with modern cameras and their ability to provide acceptable results at high sensitivities, handholding is usually a viable option.
Because this is a nearby location, Lone Elk Park is a great spot to practice with wildlife while building a portfolio of a variety of images. Plan to visit during every season to include the greens of summer, the warm backgrounds associated with autumn and the snows (when available) of winter. Multiple visits will allow for photographing these animals at different life stages, such as when bull elk are in velvet in the summer or while bugling during the autumn rut. From time to time photographers have also been able to capture birthing of bison and elk and the subsequent play of the growing young. I hope to visit this location more frequently in the future.
The rut of 2020 turned out pretty well for me. I was able to get to my favorite place for this type of photography five or six times. I tried for a few more days, but weather and flooding caused me to change plans. I didn’t get any high action shots, but I am happy with the portraits I got of some of the larger bucks in this herd.
Tonight I’m finishing off the neighborhood deer photos from 2020. This buck pictured in the first two photos was a bit odd. Not just because of the aberrant antlers, but he also did not mind my close approach or my following him as he browsed.
A few more white-taileds from August. Have a look at the next three images. I’m hoping someone with some knowledge in the genetics of these guys might have some idea what is going on with the buck on the right. With his rack and size, he obviously has the genes, but he looks so different from what I think we would agree is a more typical buck next to him. In addition to the shapes of their heads and faces, their coats are vastly different as well. Thanks for sending any thoughts you might have about what these difference might be caused by.
2020 was a decent year for me in finding and photographing white-tailed deer. It started in the summer a I walked the high-voltage line cuts that run through our neighborhood. These turf fields, the wood lots and scrub fields that run along this area and our yards are home to a good size population of these deer. As I get more into landscaping our yard with native plants, I’m sure I’ll develop issues with these guys, but they are a lot of fun to watch and photograph.
Typically, summer bucks in velvet are not easy to see in the daytime. They typically stick to a small area, eat the abundant greenery and try not to damage their sensitive new headwear. Suburban bucks are different. In fact, I had much easier times finding bucks this summer in the neighborhood than I did during the rut season when they are typically easier to find and get close to.
That’s all for this set. Stay tuned and check back later to see more from the neighborhood this summer as well as images I took during the rut.
This post is a modified article that was originally published in the Webster Groves Nature Study Society’s journal, Nature Notes (February, 2020, Vol. 92, No. 2).
The alarm on the phone sounds off at 4:00 am. You have a quick, light breakfast but no coffee. Making moves required during the act of recycling that coffee would be detrimental to your goals this morning. You’ve packed the car the night before, so you simply need to wash your face and throw on the required number of layers it will take to stay warm enough during your several hours sit. This requires some critical thought as morning temperatures during the rut can often be in the teens or twenties.
You arrive at the site by 5:30 am and are under cover at your pre-scouted location by 6:15 am — first light. Sunrise and the golden-hour will come in about 30 minutes. You picked this location due to heavy deer traffic signified by sign such as tracks and scat, scrapes and rubs. You put your back to the rising sun to take advantage of the beautiful golden-hour light that will be splashed across the scene. You also considered the potential background for your photos. You made sure there is plenty of space between your subjects and a natural, potentially autumn-colored background to get that creamy, out of focus quality that helps your magnificent subject stand out. Remember, the key to improving your nature photography is to make the photo, not simply take the photo. Previsualization and planning are often critical!
Arriving prior to first light brings the best potential for being unnoticed in your blind. However, deer are often just as active at night and sometimes you may find your spot is already occupied by your subjects! Don’t worry too much; you may spook those deer out of the area, but there are plenty of others who will likely visit these hangouts before the morning is over. Where you choose to photograph will be important in this respect. Take advantage of photographing in areas that are closed to hunting, like parks and sanctuaries. Here the deer are very accustomed to people and our scents, showing little fear. Often, during the rut, younger bucks may be curious and will move closer to you. You will typically need to work harder to get closer to the wearier does and old, veteran bucks who have been around the block a few times. In non-hunting areas, you can often get close enough to your subjects to make meaningful photographs by simply having an early-morning walk around with a longer telephoto lens (e.g. 300-600 mm focal length).
Like clockwork, at 6:30 am every morning, large flocks of blackbirds move overhead from the west, chasing the rising sun in search of feeding grounds. Photographing the rut is very similar to hunting. Deer hunters in our area typically use tree stands. This higher elevation provides advantages in being able to see greater distances, being out of direct eye-line of the deer and aids in dispersing your scent, which is frequently a give away of the pursuer. When hunting with a camera and lens, you need to stay on level ground and shoot the deer at eye level or lower.
A method Miguel Acosta and I like to use is hiding in a blind (we like the portability of ‘throw-blinds’) along well-established deer trail or nearby communal rub or scrape areas. This will require using camouflage, blinds or similar methods to break up the human form. In the types of areas described above, you need not worry too much about your scent. Deer have very strong sense of smell and in the middle of an unpopulated forest, your odors can very easily give you away. But, in areas like parks where people and deer are often found in close proximity, your own scent is less likely to alarm the deer and thereby allow you to get much closer.
Around mid-morning a Red-shouldered Hawk, perched above our location, vocalizes and a mixed-species flock of songbirds moves into our copse of trees. Since we have our large lenses, we try our hands at photographing Chickadees and Titmouse. Although scent and wind direction may not play an important role in this setting, being quiet is important for getting those close and intimate shots. I recommend doing everything you can to keep your noise to a minimum. Try and chose gear without Velcro or other noisy fasteners. Keep your voices to a minimum and try not to move frequently. If available on your camera, choose the “silent shutter” setting. Many dSLR cameras have this setting that lowers the volume of the mirror flapping. Consequently, this will lower the frame rate of the camera, but this is preferable to spooking your subjects before you get your shots. New mirrorless cameras lack the mirror box of their older brethren and can shoot very quietly at high frame rates.
Later in the morning I awake from a nap to the sound of Wild Turkeys vocalizing. I quickly realize that a small flock have wandered near our location and Miguel is offering them some verbal enticement to come a little closer to our shooting lane. It didn’t work, but the fact they were within ten yards of our location offers further proof that our blinds and technique work to get us closer to wild animals. Until recently, I had never given our North American game species much thought as a subject of natural history study. I’m sure that not growing up as a hunter or outdoorsman has had an influence on this. Over the past couple of years, I have fallen hook, line and sinker into learning everything I can about white-tailed deer and finding ways to best capture them with the camera. Miguel and I have much to learn and we are eager in making more photographs, capturing their different behaviors and at different times of the year.
For recommended reading about the rut and other aspects of the lives of white-tailed deer, I recommend reading any books you can find by authors Leonard Lee Rue III and Mark Raycroft.
Until this autumn, I never considered targeting our abundant white-tailed deer as a photo subject. When my friend, Miguel, brought up the idea along with a place with a lot of potential, I asked him to lead the way. We set up in a copse of trees located near the center of a scrub field in an area that does not allow hunting and Miguel’s predictions of worry-free males still on the hunt came to fruition.
Although I cam ill-prepared, leaving my tripod and any other means of support at home, the light was just sweet enough to allow for proper hand-holding the big 500mm. Once I took off the unnecessary teleconverter, it worked even better.
We counted at least two larger bucks that patrolled the area, but found this young spike buck as well. He was not quite as confident as the other two.
Females walked the area as well, but were more skittish. The bucks were more curious when they first heard the sounds of our shutters slapping and picked up our sent in the light morning breeze. The does, however, tended to trot away at first sign that something different lurked in our copse.
This spot turned out to be quite nice. With the rising sun to our backs, the trees at the far edge of the field provides for a nice backdrop for that warm light to hit against. These guys have probably, or will soon be dropping these nice racks. With any luck we can try more of this next year.