Friday, 14 October 2016

What a howler!

The aim of this trip to Canada was to photograph Grizzly Bears, and if we were lucky, Wolves, though we knew the latter would require a huge slice of luck to see, let alone photograph. Having spent a few days in the Bella Coola valley photographing Grizzly and Black Bears, we headed across to the Rockies. Here we started in the south at Banff National Park for three days, visiting likely spots where the three resident packs were known to favour, with no success. Moving north to Jasper National Park for another three days, we again searched for potential sites where wolves may be found but with time running out and with no useful information locally or from the web, our hopes of finding wolves were fading fast and we pretty much resigned ourselves to failure.

On our last evening, we revisited a spot where we had seen Coyote, Elk and Bighorn Sheep a couple of days earlier to try for photographs of these species in the freshly fallen snow.  As we arrived in the area, we noticed the few sheep that were present were halfway up a hillside and not looking particularly photogenic and so pressed on to look for the Elk and Coyotes. Not more than a few seconds down the road, Toni suddenly shouted "Coyote!" as we approached the spot where we had seen a couple of coyotes previously. Looking where she was pointing further down the road, I saw four dark figures running up a hillside away from the road and quickly correcting her said, "They're wolves!!" and quickly slammed the brakes on. Toni managed to compose herself to grab the camera and take some record shots through the windscreen as the four black wolves disappeared into the trees, and lost to view.

We drove down the road to where they had run up the field, their footprints fresh in the deep snow and parked for a few moments in the hope they may reappear, but after a few minutes it was clear they had carried on into the trees. We drove back up the road to see if we could get a better angle on potential areas where they could reemerge out of the back of the wood but nothing presented itself so spun the car round and headed back down the road. We had hardly passed the spot where we had just been parked when I noticed a path of footprints in the snow across a hillside on the opposite side of the road and said "something obviously uses that path", and almost immediately saw a black wolf running along the hillside through some sparse trees alongside the car and along that very same path. Slamming the brakes on again, we both grabbed our cameras and rattled a load of shots off then raced to get ahead of it, hoping it would reappear on the clear area below the tree line and right on cue it appeared not 40m from the car, running through the snow, stopping briefly to give a locator howl to try to find the rest of its pack, before carrying on along the hillside and disappearing into the tree line.

While we were both looking at the images on the back of the camera in a state of complete disbelief at what we had just seen, another mostly black with some obvious silver wolf appeared in the exactly the same place as the black one had and followed the same path across the hill, again we quickly grabbed a series of photographs of it before it disappeared into the trees.

We stayed in the same spot, which had a good view of a nearby hill where a ram Bighorn Sheep and a group of Elk were looking nervous, not far from where the original four wolves had gone. It was soon obvious why they looked nervous as two black wolves trotted distantly along the hillside, though seemed more intent on finding their comrades than hunting. As we were watching these, me having decided the open sunroof, despite the falling snow, was the best vantage point, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye and looked round as a grey wolf emerged from the trees where the previous two had and followed the same path, clearly scenting and stopping to howl to relocate the others before again heading into the trees.

With the light beginning to fail, the sound of howling echoed around the hills as the two black wolves were joined by a third that crossed the road behind us, scaring the life out of a buck White-tailed Deer that exploded out of a small copse, though thankfully for it, but maybe not us photographers, the wolves didn't pursue it.

From the locations and timings of the sightings, we estimated there were 6 wolves in total, 5 black (which apparently predominate in that part of Alberta) and the single grey. In total, we were probably in that spot for two hours of the most exciting and exhilarating wildlife photography we have ever experienced of one of the most charismatic species imaginable, and one that will last long in the memory.

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