Near where I live, in the heart of the Point Reyes National Seashore, there is an elk preserve. It is thousands of acres and holds somewhere in the vicinity of 400 Tule Elk. Chances are generally quite good that you will see several, sometimes at a distance, but at times quite close. It makes it a nice place to practice wildlife photography, especially if you are newer at the business, as I was several years back.
When I was driving into the heart of the preserve I came across a group of the elk, a small distance from the road. I decided to get out of my truck and see if I could capture some decent shots of them. Grabbing my camera bag and my tripod, I set out. At first I mostly saw females, and they were aware of my presence. I tried to think then of the best way to approach them without alarming them, that I might get more detailed images, when a book I had recently read came to mind.
A photographer had written about traveling in the tundra of Alaska with a guide, and while they were on a hike had seen a herd of caribou. The guide taught the group how to approach the caribou at least a little closer, by working in two person teams and pretending to be a caribou. The person in front would have their arms lifted above their head in the semblance of antlers. They would straighten and bend at the waste, pretending that their upper body was the head of the animal, bending down to graze, the lifting up to look around. The other person would be the back legs, of the beast, and the body. They essentially would lean forward, with their arms holding the other persons torso. The trick was to try and move like a caribou, and hope that their outline would be close enough to reality.
Now I was alone, but I thought I might try to pretend that I was an elk that I might approach more closely. I wasn’t using my tripod yet to take any photos, so it was still rather compact. I spread the legs apart without extending them (so that they were about 40 cm long) and held it upside down on my head with one hand for antlers. I then raised my camera one handed and held it to my eye, pretending it was my long elk snout (I figured it could do double duty- it was disguise and in a position to shoot photos at the same time). I then moved slowly and gracefully as I imagined an elk might, while dipping my antlered head to graze as I went. The result was immediate. They thought I was an elk. Or at least the bull elk did.
Immediately upon seeing my “antlers” the bull became very defensive of his harem, and started to tear up grasses with his antlers, while eyeing me with a semi-crazed look in his eyes. I suddenly realized that a single bull with a whole group of females must mean that it was mating season. And the last thing I wanted to be was a competitor of a half ton animal with very sharp, pointy antlers that evolution had trained it to use on said competitor. I promptly removed the tripod from my head and started edging myself behind the suddenly weak looking scrub bushes that were the only cover around… very insubstantial cover that I imagined a hormone enraged elk could easily burst through.
The females during al of this had not had their eyes clouded by a haze of angry hormones. They’d seen and realized the whole time that I was not an elk, that those were not antlers on my head, and that there would be no mighty battle over them. They decided that they would rather not be around this obviously mentally deficient two-legged thing, and started off in the other direction. They saved me. As they began to stream away, you could see the bull elks eyes shifting. “Destroy” when he glanced at me. Eye shift. A plaintive, imbecile something when he looked towards the females trying to decide why they were leaving him, a big, virile champion. His eyes flicked between me and them more and more quickly, indecision clouding his face… before he ducked his head and docilely followed his reason for being… his harem.
Never since that day have I placed a tripod upon my head, except perhaps in a shielded and private place where no elk could spy me, as I told this story to some young innocent with a camera, and wanted them to always be aware of mating season when shooting much larger, more aggressive animals that could leave us as a mangled, trampled pile of clothes and lens.