Using Your Car As A “Photo Blind”

A couple days ago, a friend of mine shared a link to a blog post by Ron Dudley on Facebook.  The post is a plea for respect for burrowing owls.  Check it out.  In that post, Ron Dudley mentioned that

It’s not unusual for Burrowing Owls to nest close to roads and when they do they become accustomed to traffic.  If you stay in your vehicle and are patient with them they will go about their normal, natural business without being unduly disturbed.

Ron’s point about burrowing owls can be applied to a great many species.  I have often advised people to use their car as a photo blind.  Many animals regard cars as part of the landscape but people as cause for concern.  You can roll up alongside them and take photos out your car window while they go on about their business undisturbed.  The instant that you open a car door, their behavior changes or they bolt or fly off.  In other cases, it might simply be more prudent, due to an animal’s proximity, to remain in your car.

This bear in Yellowstone, which I surmised, based upon its obvious discomfort around people, to be a back-country bear not habituated to people (as opposed to roadside bears that are accustomed to being the object of the attention of dozens or even hundreds of people), was less stressed before people exited their cars (I remained in mine).

This black bear exhibits “pursed lips” of a bear that is stressed or agitated.

Black bear with ears laid back – a sign of stress

He skedaddled off into the trees quite promptly.  Being uncomfortable roadside, perhaps he would have done so anyway, but people exiting their cars certainly added to the stress he experienced and perhaps hastened his rapid departure.

In the case of the photo below, my sister and I had parked at the end of Rainy Lake (Yellowstone Park) near where we expected a black bear traveling toward Rainy Lake to emerge from the trees.  We were told by a Ranger that he was a bear of habit and would emerge even closer than we had anticipated, and that, thus, we would have to remain in the car for safety.  Remaining in the car did not preclude taking photos.

I’ve recently posted photos of western meadowlarks on Facebook that have elicited comments about how hard it is to get close to them.  That’s not necessarily so if you roll up and don’t exit the car.

I know that great blue herons are less spooky in other areas, but around here, if you get within 50 yards of one, and open a car door, it’s gone, but you can roll up next to them and shoot out the window and they don’t even seem to notice.

Just a couple days ago I came upon a nursery herd of elk along Highway 93 north of Victor, MT.  I stopped on the shoulder of the road and remained in my car watching them, and taking photos, hoping to get a few good photos of calves.  Unfortunately, another car stopped about a hundred yards down the road and the people exited the car and walked back along the road, spooking the elk, and causing them to bolt across the Bitterroot River and into the cover of trees.  Had the people simply stayed in their car, we all would have enjoyed watching the elk for longer, I might have been able to get good calf photos, and the elk would have have experienced distress.

If not causing unnecessary stress to wildlife isn’t enough motivation to encourage remaining in your car at times (certainly not all the time), perhaps knowing that by doing so you increase your chances of getting photos or being afforded more time to enjoy watching them will encourage you to stay in your car around animals that are spooky around people or possibly dangerous to people on foot.

This should go without saying, but when photographing wildlife from your car, do make sure that your car is not blocking a driving lane.   Don’t create a hazard.  However, there are many places where pulling out of driving lanes can be accomplished (with varying degrees of ease or difficulty) or where it’s not an issue.  Of course, don’t forget to take your camera for walks, too.  I’m not advocating that we remain in our cars all the time, only that we do so when it is advantageous — either to the photographer/observer, or to the animal.


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