Use Tracking Skills to Find & Photograph Elusive Wildlife: An Interview with David Moskowitz
How do you get those epic images of hard-to-find animals? Knowing how to read the landscape is a huge help. Join David Moskowitz, an expert in track and sign and a pro conservation photographer, as he reveals how these skills have provided amazing photo opportunities in the field.
Question: How do you get incredible images of elusive animals?
Answer: Wildlife tracking skills!
At least that’s how David Moskowitz does it. A talented conservation photographer and a master tracker, David used his skills to track and photograph the highly endangered Mountain Caribou in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, and published a beautifully photographed book called Caribou Rainforest.
If you are driven to go beyond snapshots and get an insider look at the lives of the species you're documenting, are you ready to make wildlife tracking the next thing on your must-learn to-do list?
You'll be inspired to make it top priority after listening to this episode and learn from David about tracking skills and how they've played into his conservation photography work. And yes, we will definitely dive in more into that amazing species, the Mountain Caribou.
- How wildlife tracking can help unravel stories
- The fascinating premise of Caribou Rainforest
- The delicate balance of ethics in wildlife research and photography
- Tips to start learning wildlife tracking
Resources & Links Mentioned
- David Moskowitz
- Caribou Rainforest: From Heartbreak to Hope
- Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species (2nd Edition)
- Practical Tracking: A Guide to Following Footprints and Finding Animals
- Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest: Tracking and Identifying Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates
This episode is sponsored by:
Our episode sponsor is Wild Idea Lab, my membership community where conservation visual storytellers find creativity, community and support for their wildest work. Wild Idea Lab is designed specifically for emerging and established photographers, filmmakers, and artists working in conservation and science communication.
With monthly masterclasses, live events, community engagement and so much more, members from around the world accelerate their growth as creatives and find their place in a network of colleagues and friends. Whether just starting out or you’ve been a pro for years, Wild Idea Lab has the resources you need to do more, and go farther with your work.
Subscribe & Review
Are you subscribed to the podcast? If not, I’m excited to invite you to subscribe today. Not only do I unroll new episodes weekly, but I also add in a ton of bonus episodes. If you’re not subscribed, you’ll probably miss out on those great bonuses and I don't want you to miss a thing!
If you love listening to the podcast, I’ll be so grateful if you leave me a review on iTunes. The reviews help others find me, and I also just love to hear from you! Just pop onto the show in your mobile device, scroll down to “Ratings & Reviews” and tap “Write a Review” Then, you’re off to the races! Let me know what you like best about the podcast. Thank you so much!
Use Tracking Skills to Find & Photograph Elusive Wildlife – An Interview with David Moskowitz
SEE THE SHOW NOTES AT JaymiH.com/43
A while back, I got really interested in learning how to track wildlife, so I signed up for a tracker certification program that was happening nearby, it's this two-day workshop-like event where you get put to the test and instructors evaluate how much you know about wildlife track and sign and you learn so much. So, the event was so much fun and the instructor leading it was this incredibly knowledgeable, very nice guy. Well, when I left that event, I was even more excited about expanding my knowledge on wildlife tracking, so I signed up for a nine-month intensive. Well, it turns out that the same instructor from that certification program was also instructing several of the workshops during this intensive.
That instructor is David Moskowitz. Not only is he an incredibly skilled and knowledgeable tracker, he's also a talented conservation photographer. He's put his tracking skills to work in order to get images of incredibly elusive animals. Not only is David a published author of several field guides but he's also the author of a beautifully photographed book called Caribou Rainforest. He spent years tracking and photographing the highly elusive and endangered Mountain Caribou, which live in the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. Now, I already knew that tracking skills would boost my wild by photography, but in seeing what David has been able to accomplish that could not have been done without these amazing skills, it's abundantly clear that at least having a baseline level of recognizing tracks and sign is practically essential to wildlife photographers who wanna go beyond snapshots and get an insider look at the lives of the species that you most want to document. David's joining us today to talk about tracking skills and how they've played into his conservation photography work, and yes, we will definitely dive in more into that amazing species, the Mountain Caribou. I have no doubt that at the end of this episode, you are going to be excited and ready to make wildlife track and sign the next thing on your must-learn to-do list.
Welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch and if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business, to marketing, and everything in between, this podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
Hello and welcome to this episode of Impact. Thank you so much for listening. Back when I was first getting started in conservation photography, I found it really difficult to find community, to find other people working inside of this niche so that I could talk about the work or brainstorm ideas with people who really get it, and especially it was hard to find educational resources that would teach me how to actually use my images in a way that was effective for conservation.
I know that my journey to where I am now, it would have been a lot smoother and a lot speedier if I had had one place to go where I could meet other people working in this realm and importantly get at those educational resources that would walk me through the different things that I need to know in order to do this work well. And as I advanced into working professionally as a conservation photographer, I've noticed that there are some very specific needs for those who are trying to earn a living as a conservation creative. It was time to build a resource where everyone with the drive to use their art photography and films to benefit conservation could get what they needed and to be able to network easily with other people in this field.
So, Wild Idea Lab was born. Wild Idea Lab is where conservation visual storytellers find creativity, community and support for your wildest work with monthly master classes, live video hangouts, live Q & A sessions with editors and experts, curated resources like a successful pitch samples database, and of course, an amazing community of like-minded and talented people, Wild Idea Lab is truly a one-of-a-kind resource. No more feeling isolated in your work or wondering how to do things. This community is built for you, no matter where you are in your journey as a conservation visual storyteller. If conservation photography, filmmaking, or artistry is a passionate hobby, and you're looking for ways to better serve local conservation organizations or if you're excited to find your path into professional conservation visual storytelling, and you're trying to figure out exactly how to do that, or if you're already a professional in this field and you're trying to figure out how to streamline your business, or how to market yourself, or how to get your work out in a bigger way, Wild Idea Lab has what you need. I invite you to visit join.wildidealab.com to learn about all the many benefits of becoming a member. That's join.wildidealab.com. I Hope to see you in the lab and now, let's dig into this episode.
JH: Welcome to the podcast, David. Thank you so much for being here with us.
David Moskowitz: Yeah, my pleasure. It's good to be with you.
JH: So, I already mentioned in the introduction of the podcast how we met, and I'm really excited to talk about more in-depth about how your tracking skills have played into your conservation photography, 'cause since we've met, some of the projects that you're working on are just incredible and I can't imagine you being able to pull them off without these skills.
DM: Yeah, happy to chat about that. For me, my interest in photography actually followed my interest in wildlife rather than vice versa. So, but yeah, happy to share a little bit about my background there.
JH: Awesome, so actually, let's start at the beginning. When did you first get serious about tracking?
DM: Well, I first got interested in wildlife in general and the outdoors as a teenager when I moved from Northeast Ohio to California, and just like, my world was kind of shifted by seeing the wild places in California and the Sierras, and I just got really interested in all sorts of natural history stuff. And then I think many folks, mammals and large mammals in particular have a special fascination. I got really interested in wildlife, but you can't really observe wildlife very easily, a lot of types of wildlife, they make their living trying to stay hidden. It's like they're nocturnal, they're cryptically colored, they don't wanna be around people. So, I got really interested in wildlife tracks 'cause I got out on hikes and I wouldn't see animals, but I find all these interesting footprints, and so I started learning about wildlife through that. My first field guide was the Olaus Murie book, the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks and Signs.
JH: Oh, yeah. That one's in my library.
DM: Exactly, yeah. So, I dragged that out in the field, and of course, Olaus, has all these amazing stories about being out in the field and there. He was a really old school scientist and naturalist, where it was not work that was done on a computer, it was him going out and finding animals and observing them, and all of his tracking stories and experience came out of that. So that was a big inspiration for me.
JH: That's really interesting that your love of it came about in that you would never see the animals but you'd see signs of them. So, when you started to put the skills into practice, what was kind of a moment or an event where you finally started to see that wildlife?
DM: Yeah. Well, so that's interesting, there's wildlife tracking, there's kinda two components of it. One is you learn about the animals through the indirect evidence, the signs they leave behind but then of course, wildlife tracking is a super powerful tool to actually find the animals themselves. So, I distinctly remember going out for a walk on Mount Diablo, which is a mountain in Central California, it was right by where I used to live and it just rained the night before, and I went out and I found fresh deer tracks on the Spire Road in the mud, and I was like, “Well, these are fresh, this animal is close by.” And then I saw these coyote tracks enter the road as well, and all of the tracks just became a jumble and all sorts of, I was like, “Woah!” And then out of the melee, there's the tracks of… There's actually two deer that had been down the road, and out of that, out of the melee was the tracks of one running deer and one coyote. And I was like, “Well, what happen here?” So, I started stalking down forward, following these coyote tracks and I went a little ways and then I stopped and I heard some movement off in the bushes, and I just carefully creeped up where I could get a view, and I saw this coyote starting to consume a fawn that it had drug off and so I was like, “That's amazing.” [chuckle]
DM: I was kind of in disbelief where I didn't think that I would be able to see or do something like that, I was still… I was probably 16 at the time, but there I was and if I hadn't been paying attention to the footprints I might have just cruised by the whole story and missed the whole scene, and even if I had heard the movement in the bushes and looked and seen the coyote, which would have been amazing, I wouldn't have known what had happened, it was the whole story of the interpretation that led up to it.
JH: Yeah. Actually, I'd love to dig into that a little bit with you because that was one of the big things that I learned right away when I started to get curious about wildlife tracking and what it meant to dig into this practice. And it is that you unravel stories. And I think that as you start to pay attention to that, especially as a photographer, you learn so much about what you're hoping to photograph and the life of what you're hoping to photograph, which I would assume inspires a ton of images.
DM: Yeah, absolutely. I think not just the images but my approach to storytelling, which is kind of unraveling mysteries or solving problems, or a lot of times as a journalist or photojournalist, as you know, the story isn't clear when you begin, it's the same of a background of scientist as well, so this is basic science as well. You start with a few observations and then you wanna start piecing together what's the story of what's going on here or maybe you have an idea of what's going on and then you need to go and ground-truth it or fact-check it by looking at the evidence on the ground. So, for me, all of these different parts of my work are very intimately related and wildlife tracking is a great training ground for critical thinking skills and problem solving and very detailed observations, and then taking a bigger picture story and cutting it into little pieces that help tell the story for sure.
JH: One of the first stories that I ever saw you photograph was Caribou Rainforest. That was the first time that I knew about you other than a field guide author, but as a conservation photographer and the images inside of that are phenomenal, but even more so is kind of the story of how you got some of these images because it's such an elusive, such a rare creature. So, would you mind telling us about what Caribou Rainforest is and what that was like to dig into that story as a photographer?
DM: Sure, yeah. So, the Caribou Rainforest is an actual place. It's a rainforest, it's the inland temperate rainforest to the Pacific Northwest that goes from the interior of Washington, the Panhandle of Idaho, Northwest Montana, North, halfway up to the polk province of British Columbia, and it's one of the most globally unique rainforests on the planet. And one of the iconic species of that reinforce is the mountain Caribou, which is just about everybody knows Caribou can be found all over the Northern hemisphere, but it's a very specific endemic eco-type of Caribou that live in this rainforest that are uniquely adapted to the very steep topography and huge amount of precipitation that falls in this rain forest as a mix of rain and snow. And these Caribou are extremely endangered, and their lifestyle, their survival strategy is just intimately tied to old growth stands of rainforest trees. And the reason that these Caribou are endangered is because of what we've done to their habitat and so, that conservation project really revolved around telling the story of these Caribou and the rainforest which they co-evolved with.
JH: Got it. And so, what did it take to get some of the shots that are in the book? ‘Cause there's some really amazing camera trap shots and then I assume also some taken with telephoto?
DM: Yeah, so, gosh. Mountain Caribou, I was talking about how there's a lot of mammals that their survival strategy is to hide from people. Well, Mountain Caribou are the penultimate example of that. Their whole survival strategy is to not be found. So, just starting with that as your premise that you have an animal that in general doesn't wanna be found and then you realize it's an extremely low numbers because it's in danger. This was a very daunting task and it took years to get all of the images in the book, and we employed so many different strategies, and really the first year of the project was just going through some kind of classic strategies and realizing, “Oh, these don't work.” We'd go out we'd get a tip on where Caribou would be and we'd just go out, and look for them, and go on a mountain side and try to find places where you could look at a distance and see them, and because it's a rainforest, there's hardly any open terrain, so you could be in a lot of places, 100 meters from them and have no idea.
DM: So that was kind of for the most part a failure. And then even going out and trying to find places where they commonly go and then setting up a blind, and waiting for them, again, it was like, I did a bunch of time and a blind and I was like, “Well, I got nothing.” And I talked to other folks that had gotten some content that way but pretty hard to do because they're just not reliably showing up in the same spot again and again, except in a few odd instances. So, then we turned to camera trapping, became probably the most successful way of getting really interesting and engaging images of Caribou and that involved identifying places where Caribou frequent, and then going out in the field and actually looking at how they're using the landscape, and figuring out, where we could set cameras on the landscape that the Caribou would travel naturally.
DM: We didn't use any attractants, we didn't use… We weren't manipulating their behavior in any way, there's just setting up cameras to capture the activities of these animals. And once we did that, over the course of two summers, two spring to falls, we were able to pull together a bunch of the images so that was critical. And I just fell involved with camera trapping because who doesn't want to photograph wildlife? You always say, if you want a better picture, get closer to what you're photographing, especially with wildlife, and obviously there's exceptions to that, but to be able to photograph wildlife with a 16 to 35 lens rather than a 400, it just changes, and to be able to set up your shot so you're below eye level of the animal or at eye level, really just changes the nature of what you can do.
JH: Yeah. Definitely some of the most intimate photos from the book, I feel, come from those wide angle camera traps because you feel like you're right there with them.
DM: Yeah, exactly. We were able to get… And then the other way that I got images is with the long lens was going to places, there's a few spots, a few times a year, that Caribou are a little bit more conspicuous from relatively easy to access locations. And so I would plan, I did the research in terms of contacting folks that know those animals researchers and so forth, and figuring out locations and times a year, would plan trips out there and where you could watch them, and the animals were fairly tolerant of folks around, and I was able to capture some parts of their annual life cycle through more classic wildlife photography.
JH: You mentioned something earlier that I would love to get into, which is going out to the field and figuring out where they are, and then how to place a camera trap, because I know from everyone who tries to set up a camera trap, you really have to understand the animal and the movement in order to be able to set up in a place that's gonna be successful. So, can you take us into kind of a journey of you figuring out what you're looking at in terms of track and sign, to know where to set up that trap?
DM: Yeah. So, for camera trapping, for me, and again, I started with a background in wildlife biology and wildlife tracking, so I don't know how folks that start on the photography end of things do this, but I know there's a bunch of successful camera trappers, and I'm sure if you asked them, you might get different answers to this, but for me, it starts with a ton of research and that's both in the field and out of the field. And so I wanna do as much research out of the field as I can to figure out the best location, general locations like, “Oh, this section of this mountain range at this time of year is a spot where this animal tends to frequent.” And then I wanna read all about their behavior like this is their primary food this time of year, this is the type of refuge habitat they like, this is the types of places they like to bed.
DM: And sometimes you can find that information and sometimes you can't, but I'll do as much background research as I can, interviews with biologists, experts, other folks that have worked on that species in one way or another and then that is followed by ground work. And so it would be not uncommon for me to plan four or five days of field work to go and just scour a landscape of an area to look for the best spots to set up cameras. So the first three or four days, I might not even bring camera trap equipment out, I was just going out and looking at the landscape and trying to find sign of the animals and seeing where there's lots, not just one set at tracks of an animal or a little bit of sign, but repeated use in an area, things like that, to really be like, “Oh, this is a hot spot for this species.” And it looks like it's doing the behavior that I wanna document. So, maybe in the spring they're feeding on lichen that's falling out of the trees, that's on the ground, so you need to find places where there's Caribou and where it looks like they're actually doing that behavior. And then after all of that, then I would come back with my camera equipment and we'd start working on how do you set the trap in the spot where we think the animals are gonna come, that's gonna be aesthetically pleasing and all that.
DM: The other thing I'd say is that sometimes I would set little trail cameras and let those run. I actually – I had a summer where I just put out a bunch of trail cameras to see what I got for the summer. And then based on what I got off of those and I'd come back the following year, and set more sophisticated camera traps knowing that I'm now narrowing down the possible places that I could track with that first year of research. So it's tracking, and then maybe the camera traps and immediately you're tracking and then trail cameras and then camp out.
JH: Got it. And I really like that you point out that you're looking for maybe a behavior or something that you wanna document and then looking for sign of that happening. Has there have been situations where you've gone out expecting to find sign of a certain behavior or something happening, and you've been really surprised at what you actually saw playing out?
DM: Well, yeah. One of the things I love about wildlife tracking is that you get to learn directly from the animals. And so I remembered… You read about stuff in the literature about what animals do, and then when you go out in the field, you'd be like, “Well, nobody's talked about this.” Or Martin's a great example, a lot of the literature says, Well, they'll never go more than 100 meters from closed forest canopy but then you got to follow their tracks in the winter and they're running all over out in the open and snow-covered talus fields and stuff like that. And so you're like, “I guess these animals didn't read the literature about how they were supposed to behave.”
JH: How has surprises like that informed what you wanna photograph as a conservation photographer?
DM: Well, I think for me, my goal as a photographer has always been to portray the world as I actually experience it, and so this is a very basic premise of documentary photography is you're not manipulating your photos or doing things like that, but I'm really working on creating images that tell the story of what's actually happening out there and that's in part because I've realized that showing those images of how animals are actually behaving, what they're actually doing is a vital way that we're learning and teaching each other as humans about these animals and there's insights, it's basically, it's like a direct way of communicating information from these animals to the viewer. And so we just wanna be as accurate as possible and avoid recreating images that just perpetuate, say, some sort of a trope about the vicious carnivore, things like that.
DM: I've got a set of photos from a previous project on wolves where there's these two wolves playing on the beach, playing with seaweed where one of them would grab this chunk of seaweed and run off with it, and the other wolf would chase them, it was like, I could have been watching two dogs on the beach playing, and one of the stories you hear about wolves is that they're like very efficient, wild animals are very efficient, they just do what they need to do for survival, it's a very tight energy budget, and I was looking at that, I was like, “Wow, that is two wolves playing on the beach.” And that's an important part of the life of those animals and it's an important window for humans to have into their lives, and for us to show that these animals are complicated, socially complicated species just like us, it's just like humans. And so for me to… I wanna celebrate and highlight that kind of unique behavior there, other than just focus on we're gonna get pictures of them tearing apart this marine mammal carcass, which is more fitting for the story that we generally think about it.
JH: Right. Well, and one species that is that major carnivore but who's also kinda misunderstood and mysterious is the wolverine, and I know that you've been working on documenting wolverine research. Can you talk a little bit about that project?
DM: Sure. Well, so after I got done with the Caribou project and I had built this entire fleet of camera traps, I was casting about for what I wanted to work on next, and I realized in my own backyard, I live here in the North Cascades, we have a very small population of wolverines that we don't know a ton about that wolverines are being reviewed for listing as an endangered species. And so I partnered up with a friend and colleague of mine, Steph Williams, to start a new project that was a mix of conservation science and conservation storytelling. So, we're doing monitoring work, we were setting out research stations that involve hanging bait from a tree and then setting up a trail camera to document the animals that come to it and a hair snagging device to try to get a genetic sample which is the standard way to monitor for wolverines in the mountains around here.
DM: So, we're setting those up and then I'm setting up DSLR cameras on them as well to get more engaging images of them. And the products from the project are both monitoring data that we share with our collaborators, the state and federal government and conservation organizations, and then also photographs that we're using to engage the public, and then also actually engage them, not just in education, but recruiting them to be community scientists and submit their observations of wolverine tracks and observations from this mountains.
JH: That is such a cool project. I love the combination of conservation science and conservation storytelling, 'cause that's really getting at what we do, right?
DM: Yeah, ideally. And it's an interesting line to walk 'cause when, obviously, as a researcher, you don't want to skew your results based on your assumptions about how things should be but the whole field of conservation science is predicated on this notion of protecting, restoring, caring for a species. It's kind of an applied science in that way, as opposed to your classic just straight wildlife biology, which is we're gonna be these objective observers that learn about an animal without having any influence on it and the results of what we study have no practical value, potentially, it's just this pure science. And honestly, I think that's a kind of a misnomer of Western civilization which sees humans as separate from the natural world but the reality of it is we're intimately connected to the things that we study and actually, in many ways, depend on.
JH: One of the things that I would love to ask about is that kind of mix between… So you mentioned baiting and there is this difference between using bait for scientific purposes, because you need to be able to bring in an animal to do things like getting a genetic sample but then on the flip side, you don't wanna use any baiting in conservation photography because of ethical practices and I know that you're an extremely ethical photographer, you already have talked about how when you set up camera traps for the Caribou, you didn't use any attractants or anything like that. How do you balance that in the wolverine work?
DM: Yeah, that's a great question. We get a lot of questions about and think a lot about too. The ethics that guide wildlife research are different than those that guide wildlife photography and in general, I think it's fair to say that there's a bunch of wildlife research methods that are far more invasive than anything that would be considered ethical from a photographer's perspective. And as a researcher, you always want your methods… The ethics there involves like, what is the value of the data that we're gonna get from this sort of method and so, we wanna use the research method that's as minimally invasive as possible to get the data that we need. So, sometimes we'll use… Ideally, we'll have an attractant to bring something like a wolverine that the wolverine can't actually get to. So, you might suspend the bait from a cable that's run between two trees, so the scent of it brings the animal in but they can't actually get it. They don't get a food reward for coming in but they've kind of been tricked to come to this trap so that we can take their picture, get a hair sample from them.
DM: But other research methods just say strap the bait to the tree, let the animal come and get a reward, and then we're gonna get a genetic sample and photographs from it. For me, I would never do that just for the photography, for the photo version of it, but if we're gonna set up a station like that, our researchers are gonna set up a station like that, then adding a camera trap to it to do photography is really just adding to the data or the information or the value of that station to begin with. So, for me, that's kind of a no-brainer. If this research is going on and is justified through the merits of the value of the data that it's getting, and it's only one more thing that we can do in that process. I don't know if that answered that?
JH: Yeah. That was actually a really clear and concise and very balanced way to explain that because I know that, especially for new photographers who are kind getting into conservation, storytelling and working with researchers, that is part of the conundrum is like, “Okay, but what's ethical and I'm not sure to balance it.” And you just really laid out with such clarity that difference.
DM: Yeah, that's great. I think the far end of the spectrum is, there's some research methods that involve trapping, sedating and putting a collar on these animals, how invasive is that? It's basically an alien abduction, and my background as a wildlife biologist has been actually I'm really keen on non-invasive survey methods, methods where you don't ever have to handle the animal or see it directly, very minimally stressful. And that's great, but the data you can get from a GPS collar on an animal and be huge.
DM: In order to get a research permit for something like that, there's an ethics review board that looks at the merits of the research and whether that research is valuable enough to justify that sort of invasive techniques. And in general, if we can get the information in a non-invasive way, then that's the way I wanna do it, and as a photographer, that's very much the same with something like wolverines or mountain caribou, if I can get these photos without ever disturbing or stressing this animal, that's what I wanna do. And as a wildlife photographer, if I feel like my presence is creating an undue stress on this animal that I'm actually interested in and protecting, that's a problem, and I need to figure out a new way to go about doing whatever it is I'm trying to do.
JH: Right. Can you talk a little bit about how your tracking skills have allowed you that freedom to be basically a non-invasive photographer and still get shots?
DM: Well, I wish I could say that I'm a completely non-invasive photographer, but the reality of it is if there are humans on the landscape, we all have our presence, and so I try to be as minimally invasive as possible for sure and to avoid things that are obviously very invasive, But I think it comes down to understanding the lives and the life cycle and the needs of the animals that you're photographing. So, if you have no idea about the life history of an animal, then it's very hard to understand how you're gonna impact it by your actions and whereas if you have a more detailed understanding of, what does it look like when this animal is feeling stressed? What are the consequences of this animal feeling stressed in terms of its chances of survival? And how do I read whether or not this animal is comfortable or not, both from looking at it, but then even from it's tracks? Classic example is, I'll be following the trail of an animal and I'll see that it gets spooked and starts running and then it's like, “Did I just spook it? Did something else on the landscape spook it, and if I spooked it, what did I do wrong?”
DM: Because obviously, I'm not really interested in taking pictures of the tail end of an animal running away from me, it's not a very exciting photo and I don't wanna stress out that animal. It's much rarer for me to just follow the trail of an animal to find it and then photograph it, much more common for me to go out on the landscape and try to interpret the sign I'm reading on the landscape to understand how the animal's using that place and then figuring out how I can set up my camera in such a way that the animal will come back to that spot and I'll be there waiting for it rather than me going out and finding it, that could be in a blind or it could be a camera trap or it could be a spot where I can come back and be in the evening right from the road, close to my car and just hope the animals come out and they're used to the presence of people in that particular scenario, lots of different ways that could work out.
JH: I'm so glad you mentioned that because I've recorded and released a episode that's specifically about shooting reactively versus proactively, and when you are shooting proactively, it's about knowing enough to be able to get out in front of that action and already be in position to get it and so that research really comes into play to be able to do that.
DM: Yeah, absolutely. When I started my photography career, actually when I was working on my Field Guide to Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, my goal was to basically get a portrait of an animal. It's like I just need a portrait of each of these animals for a field guide. So it's got all the field marks and everything, and for that you can kinda walk around and if you see a mountain goat, you take a picture of it and you wait till it stands broadside and looks at you and you get a photo of that hopefully. That's not easy in its own right, but when you start getting into a much… You start getting into looking for the behavior of animals or very specific traits of an animal or getting a really engaging composition and lighting and so forth, yeah, then the chances that you're just gonna walk around the woods and stumble into that, are so exceedingly low. I mean, a lot of times I'll be out and see wildlife and I won't even go for my camera 'cause I'm like, “The light's not right, things aren't right but how am I gonna use this information to set myself up to get the photo that I can imagine in my head I wanna make with that.”
JH: I love that. How can I use this information for a future purpose? That's fantastic. So, I'm wondering for people who are listening and they're like, “Oh my gosh, track and sign, I've gotta know this for my photography.” How do you suggest someone get started and learning these skills?
DM: Well, the first, how I got started was with some books, there's get a field guy to wildlife track and science for the area you're in, Mammal Tracks and Signs of North America by Mark Elbroch and Casey McFarland is a great one, it's a huge tome. It covers all of North America, it can be quite daunting, quite honestly, if you're just getting started though, but it's like an encyclopedia, so that's a great one. Of course, I always recommend my book, if you're here in the Pacific Northwest, Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.
JH: That's a staple in my library. I actually, got really excited when I went to learn from you 'cause I'm like, “That's the guy who wrote my Field Guide.”
DM: Yeah, very good, thank you. But there's a bunch of good guidebooks out there. So having a good field guide and then in the same way you study anything, when you find tracks and sign out there, then photograph them when you're on the field, bring those photographs home and then try to figure out what it was, and if you can't figure out what it was, go back and get more information. And then the other thing is, again, proactive versus reactive is something that I talk about in wildlife tracking all the time. If you're interested in a particular animal, study everything you can about their tracks and signs before you go on in the field, and then you know what you're looking for, so it's not just stumbling across something unexpectedly, it's actually going out and being like, “Oh, I'm gonna go to this forest type and look for this type of sign on this type of tree, which will tell me about the behavior of this specific animal.”
DM: So that's one thing. Another good book for finding wildlife is Practical Tracking, it's called Practical Tracking: A Guide to Following Tracks and Finding Animals, I believe. That's by Louis Liebenberg and Adriaan Louw and Mark Elbroch. That's a good staple of these for teaching classes. And then finally, take a workshop. I do tracking certifications for CyberTracker Conservation International. We run two-day field workshops and certifications all over North America and a few days in the field with somebody that is skilled can just really jump start your practice in a huge way. So, I really recommend somehow, whether it's one of those workshops or somebody else in your local community that's good at that, like wildlife tracking, get out in the field with folks that know more or different things than you and that's vital.
JH: Yeah. I'm actually gonna second that last one. I learned so much during two days for that cyber tracker evaluation, it was amazing and it really lit a fire in wanting to learn a whole lot more. I think that that was kind of like a catalyst for me anyway.
DM: Yeah, it's cool. I've seen that in a lot of folks and I still kind of remember that myself when I was getting started, I was like, “Wow, there's all this information, there's all these stories literally written into the landscape all around me that I was just walking past.” And once you get turned on to, it's like you just can't turn it off and the stories are all around.
JH: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for the stories that you tell through your experience, both as a scientist and as a photographer, because you're shining a light on really important conservation stories out there, and you're doing it in such a really beautiful way, like literally beautiful. The images in Caribou Rain Forest are extraordinary and I can't wait to see the next book that you put out.
DM: Awesome. Well, thanks, it's been good to chat with you, Jaymi, and I love the work you're doing as well. So looking forward to a future podcast from you, which I am not speaking in.
JH: Wonderful. Thanks.
JH: Before we wrap up, I would love to ask you to do one quick thing, subscribe to this podcast. As a subscriber, you'll not only know when each week's episode goes live but you'll also get insider goodies like bonus episodes. You might miss them unless you're subscribed and I don't want you to miss out on a thing. So, please tap that subscribe button and I will talk to you next week.