What is rare

August 11, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Often, photographing wildlife reminds me of these lines from William Meredith's "Sonnet on Rare Animals":

"It is this way with verse and animals
And love, that when you point you lose them all.
Startled or on a signal, what is rare
Is off before you have it anywhere."

And therein lies an ethical problem for photographers: how close, and in what manner, should we approach animals in the wild? Species tolerate different proximity to humans, but wildlife managers often offer this simple guideline: if the animal stops its normal behavior and attends to your presence (e.g., watches you warily, adopts a defensive stance), you are too close. However, all sorts of situations complicate that rule, as I recently discovered when making this photograph of a Trumpeter Swan, taken at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan's Upper Peninsula:

Trumpeter Swan, Seney National Wildlife RefugeTrumpeter Swan, Seney National Wildlife RefugeTrumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator), Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Michigan. I don't own a "wildlife" lens (e.g., 500mm+ focal length), so I rarely am able to fill the frame with a truly wild animal (I know that category is open to interpretation), even one the size of an adult swan. Prior to taking this shot, we had driven around Seney's Marshland Wildlife Drive and observed many Trumpeter Swans and several Common Loons, all of whom kept their distance from shore. Stopping for lunch at a picnic area on the Refuge's eastern edge, we were surprised to find a pair of swans swimming placidly toward us as we walked a trail along the bank of a pond. A short distance from shore, the swans stopped to feed, dabbling for aquatic vegetation, then groomed themselves for several minutes, this one right on the edge of the pond, close to where I stood. After I made the image, I withdrew and the swans swam off to the far shore.

We puzzled over this close encounter until we saw a sign posted further down the shore imploring visitors not to feed the swans. Sadly, I suspect these swans had become accustomed to people doing just that. I was grateful for the opportunity to observe the swans at close quarters, but reminded that we need to keep wildlife wild.


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