Curious Naturalist: The Art of Observation

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle 2014 © Stephen Bruno

Over my many years of nature and wildlife photography in numerous locations, I have become a curious naturalist. I know a lot about birds and animals because I have studied them for years. Whenever I photograph something new, I return home to my study and thoroughly research them.

I find it interesting that frequently people are in such a hurry to walk through the forest, country, and desert that they appear to miss so many opportunities to observe nature and wildlife. Visit my photography website and view a slideshow of my photography. http://www.stephenbrunophotography.com/.

Once I was photographing a large tarantula when an older couple walked by and the man quickly took a twig and scooted the tarantula off the path and into a pile of leaves. The woman glanced at my raised camera and me and asked if I was photographing the tarantula. I lied and told her no, that I was just observing it. It did not seem to matter much to explain how he interfered with my observation and photography.

Another time I was photographing an Osprey that I had tracked around a lake to a tree high above a well-worn path. Just as I had raised my camera with a telephoto lens and was focusing in on the Osprey eating a rainbow trout, a family walked rapidly passed me talking loudly as they neared the large tree with the Osprey. Unfortunately, the bird became nervous and flew to the other side of the lake. Although disappointing that I had missed the opportunity to photograph the bird that I had pursued so vigilantly, I was amazed that the family never even noticed the Osprey.

There is so much to see when we are in nature if we have the patience and presence to observe. Most people now have a cell phone with reasonable photography capability or a compact camera. If you are not a photographer or prefer to draw, sketch the wildlife that you see and note the location.

Walk with someone who can point out things of interest in the field and explain simple, useful identifying characteristics.This is one reason why I offer photography workshops. http://www.stephenbrunophotography.com/Photography-Workshops

People who view my wildlife photography frequently ask how I get so close to photograph wildlife.

Below are a few of my approaches to photographing wildlife close up:

  • Shifting between my vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.
  • Stopping at the nearest desert, forestry office or interpretive center to pick up brochures, trail maps, and wildlife checklists. Asking about any recent wildlife sightings.
  • Following my intuition. If the hair on the back of my neck stands up, wildlife could be near!
  • Being mindful of recent weather and knowing that temperature, sunlight, and precipitation all factor into reading tracks and wildlife behavior.

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Endangered: Western Lowland Gorillas

Female Western Lowland Gorilla 2014 © Stephen Bruno

For many years, I have enjoyed watching and photographing Western Lowland Gorillas.

The Western Lowland Gorilla is not the gorilla featured in the book and movie Gorillas in the Mist. That is the Mountain Gorilla which is one of the subspecies of eastern gorilla.

With the benefit of a super telephoto lens, I have learned much about their behavior.

When I have had the wonderful opportunity for closer observation, I value the intelligent interaction we share.

Western lowland gorillas are distinguished from other gorilla subspecies by their slightly smaller size, their brown-grey coats and auburn chests. They also have wider skulls with more pronounced brow ridges and smaller ears. Hands, faces, feet and chests are black and hairless.

Males are twice as large as females, often weighing over 350 pounds, and they have longer canine teeth. Females weigh about 180 – 200 pounds. On two feet, they may stand up to six feet tall.

Noses are the most distinguishing features on gorillas and are as individualized as fingerprints. Their eyes are small and reddish brown. Ears are small and set close to the head. Gorillas cannot swim and may drown in relatively shallow water

The males have a broad, silvery-white saddle as they mature, and are then, called “silverbacks.” Western Lowland Gorillas have many vocalizations, from hooting to pig grunting. They beat their chest and break vegetation as a defensive display against outsiders. They also communicate through facial expressions. Western Lowland Gorillas live about 30 to 40 years in the wild. They live about 40 to 60 years in captivity.

All gorillas are endangered. Western Lowland Gorillas are critically endangered. This is the highest threat category for a species. Illegal hunting of gorillas by humans, mainly for their bushmeat, poaching, mining, slash-and-burn agriculture, and war threaten the Western Lowland Gorillas. In addition, zoos and research organizations purchase some young captured gorillas.

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Cougars at Lake Powell

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Mountain Lion 2014 © Stephen Bruno

One summer during a spiritual and personal growth houseboat retreat, I was teaching at Lake Powell, Page, Arizona, I anchored a 50-foot houseboat near the sandy beach far into the lake at an isolated cove. Our group of 16 participants observed one very large pair of Cougar paw prints about 4 inches wide. This is about the width of an adult hand. There also were two sets of small kitten prints imbedded in the soft wet sand.

In the late afternoon, I was jogging at the top of a steep cliff and as I rounded a curve, I saw a large 100lb female Cougar sitting at the top off a bluff. Her torso was a cinnamon buff-colored contrasted by a white belly. She had two kittens with brownish-black irregular spots on the body and dark rings on the short tail.

I had read that they can jump as far as 40 feet in one leap and as high as 15 feet from the ground. This was disconcerting as I was only about 45 feet away below her. I figured one leap would bring us together.

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Black Bear Family

Black Bear 2014 © Stephen Bruno

At age seven, I encountered my first bears in the wild, in Yosemite National Park. I hiked away from my family’s canvas tent cabin at the Curry Village campground and walked down toward one of the many cold rapid moving rivers in the beautiful valley. I became lost that morning in the splendor of the Giant Sequoia trees and the lush green meadows in the valley floor.

I easily recall that when four adult Black Bears (actually more cinnamon) and three cubs strolled by me when I wandered off the path I was so captivated that I completely forgot about being lost. The bears were friendly, and remained comfortable in my presence. It never occurred to me to be concerned about my safety, or theirs.

I talked quietly to each of the bears, watching their curious expressions as they responded with grunts, and followed them the entire day through the countless blooming flowers and tall green grass. I watched the frequent Gray Squirrels running about and the occasional Mule Deer roaming near the riverbed of the roaring Merced River.

Sometimes I watched as the cubs were wrestling, falling, and nipping each other. They were very playful and seemed curious about me. When the family of bears ate huckleberries, blueberries, or other berries, I ate berries. When they rested, I rested. When they looked for other areas to forage at wet meadows along creeks and river, I walked along with them.

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