Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

NOT a Tree Swallow!

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In the Field

NOT a Tree Swallow! Findlay Creek (East Kootenays), BC, Canada. July 12, 2014.

This shot is a text-book case of coming back from a morning of local wildlife shooting with something FAR different than what you were expecting...

On a recent clear July morning I went out to photograph some nesting Tree Swallows that were just about to fledge a successful brood of young on our property in the East Kootenays. After getting set up near their nest box the swallows were using I began hearing "munching/chewing" sounds as well as very quiet and light footsteps coming from just over the rise I was on. The area I was in is only sparsely treed, but is thick with native grasses and bushes of buffaloberry. And, it's exceptionally common to see mule or white-tailed deer in the exact region where I was hearing the sounds coming from. It was so quiet right then that every sound was amplified, so I thought there was even a possibility that what I was hearing was a busy squirrel or even a chipmunk.

While waiting for the adult swallows to show up over the next half hour or so I repeatedly heard those same munching and walking noises separated by minutes of complete quiet. I kept one eye on the area the sounds were coming from (maybe it was an elk with a newborn calf!) but still couldn't see anything. Then - just as the first rays of the morning sun began kissing the ridge - a bush about 20 meters away from me began shaking. "Great," I thought "now I get to see what's there!" And then, to my complete surprise, an adult grizzly walked into plain sight! We live in an area that to some would seem very remote (to the west you have to go over 100 km over several ranges of mountains before finding a navigable road) and we regularly have black bears, coyotes, cougars, and even wolves on our property. And, while I know grizzlies pass through, I've never seen one on our land before! So, seeing a grizzly calming munching on berries this close to my home - and this close to ME - was still a bit of a surprise.

Even though the bear had been foraging on natural foods quite close to me for a good half hour I wasn't sure the bear knew I was there. So I began talking to it quietly, but loud enough so that I was sure it would hear me. It continued to forage and didn't even give me a sideways glance. So I decided it knew I was there, it seemed like it could care less, and I might as well capture a few images of it. When my shutter first went off the bear looked up and turned in my direction. At that point I captured the image you see above. The bear seemed a little curious, but was definitely still quite calm. Now bear in mind (pardon the pun) that I was standing behind a tripod and looking at the bear from behind a super-telephoto lens. So...odds are that to the bear I didn't REALLY look like a normal human right then. So...the bear decided I needed more investigation...which meant coming in closer and give me a good look. At the same time I thought it would be prudent to clearly show the bear who/what I was AND to quit shooting and completely focus on the situation - after all, I didn't know this bear or its personality/disposition from Adam! So I slowly stepped out from behind my tripod and kept talking to the bear in a quiet, low voice. At its closest approach the bear stood up on its hind legs to give me a real good look (no, I didn't get a shot of it standing up looking at me). And then, after a few seconds of close scrutiny of its two-legged neighbor, it went back down on all fours and returned to "berry picking". I guess the bear approved of what he or she saw!

I watched the bear intently for a few minutes (all the while talking to it in a low voice) and decided to try to capture a few more shots of it. But the deep grass and patches of bushes (and, by then, strong backlighting) wasn't conducive to getting any decent shots. So after a few frames I quit shooting and just watched the bear calmly forage. I remained stationary and let the bear approach me or retreat from me as it went from buffaloberry bush to buffaloberry bush, seemingly completely unconcerned by my presence. And I slowly began to think how cool it was that this was happening in my "backyard" - and also how special it was to be there amicably sharing this patch of land with a grizzly that clearly had no issue with me being there - almost as tho' the bear was saying "dude, you just do your thing and I'll do mine."

After another ten minutes or so of watching the bear I decided it was time to head home for breakfast. The trail back took me reasonably close to the bear, but I ensured it was well aware of my presence and as I passed it lifted its head, gave me a quick look, and then just went back to munching. And I thought "this is the way it should be...and could be...with bears."

When I arrived back at the cabin my partner asked me how the swallows were. I smiled and said "you know, I kinda got distracted and sort of forgot about the - I'll show you." Her one-word response? "Cool!" Yes, I'm a very fortunate person.

A Necessary Postscript:

When I shot this image I WAS carrying bear (or pepper) spray. We ALWAYS carry bear spray when in the woods. I highly recommend when anyone else ventures into bear country that they too carry bear spray. It's more effective than a gun in deterring a bear, causes no permanent physical damage, AND it often gives the bearer (not the bear) enough confidence to remain calm during a bear encounter, which is exceptionally critical to how any bear encounter will turn out. When I stepped out from behind my tripod to show myself in full to the bear, the bear spray went from being in a holster on my hip to in my hand, with the plastic "safety" tap removed.

I have been in close proximity to hundreds of wild grizzly and black bears and never had even a remotely negative interaction with them. The biggest single thing I can advise is to remain calm and indicate to the bear that you're calm. This means moving slowly (think slow motion) and predictably. For reasons I can NOT explain (but I have seen work in calming a bear countless times) it seems to be a good idea to calmly and quietly talk to the bear - perhaps the use of even, soft tones tells the bear you are calm. It is critical to remember that to a bear, humans are extremely unpredictable - they may do an amazing array of things when the bear encounters them - they may yell, they may fall over like they're dead, they may shoot a bear banger at them, they may rush at them with a smartphone, they may try to put a piece of hot metal into them, they may set dogs loose on them, they may run like hell, they get the picture. In this photo the bear is very likely assessing what I'm about to do and if he/she is in danger from ME. Because I remained totally calm, moved exceptionally slowly, did not approach the bear at all, and talked to it in hushed, soft tones, it very quickly decided I was no threat and that I could safely be ignored. Which is exactly what it did - ignored me. But being ignored by a bear does NOT mean you should approach it or pursue it. Let the bear determine his/her comfort distance with you. This ended up being a classic GOOD bear encounter, but could have become the exact opposite if I had forced any change in the situation onto the bear. Always respect bears and show them that you respect them!

Here's a higher resolution (2400 pixel) version of the image. If your monitor is property calibrated you should be able to see that the bear does, in fact, have a right eye!

NOT a Tree Swallow! Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)


1: This image - in all resolutions - is protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of it (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

2. Like all wildlife images on this website, the subject is fully wild and completely unconstrained. Besides the potential impact of my presence, nothing has been done to intentionally alter or affect the ongoing behavior of the subject and, of course, there has been no use of any form of bait or other form of wildlife attractants (including vocalizations).

Behind the Camera

NOT a Tree Swallow! Findlay Creek (East Kootenays), BC, Canada. July 12, 2014.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 220.

Nikon D4s paired with Nikkor AF-S 600mm f4 VR - Tripod mounted (Gitzo 1348 carbon fiber tripod with Wimberley II gimbal head). VR on in Normal mode.

1/500s @ f6.3; -1.0 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

NOT a Tree Swallow! Findlay Creek (East Kootenays), BC, Canada. July 12, 2014.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF, including first-pass/capture sharpening using Phase One's Capture One Pro. Two raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, differing by a total of 0.7 stops in exposure.

Further digital corrections on resulting 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe's Photoshop CC 2014 and Light Crafts Lightzone. Photoshop adjustments included compositing (blending) of the two output files from the raw converter, minor exposure tweaks, and selective sharpening for web output. Final tweaking of tones performed using LightZone's "tonemapper" tool.


NOT a Tree Swallow! Findlay Creek (East Kootenays), BC, Canada. July 12, 2014.

Ten percent of the revenue generated by this image will be donated to Raincoast*.

Species Status in Canada**: Special Concern (May 2002).

While Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos) are not technically listed as "Endangered" in Canada, they have been extirpated from most of their historical range. Grizzly Bears are far more sensitive to intrusion/disturbance in their habitat than are Black Bears and are being increasingly forced into marginal habitat by human encroachment. The Great Bear Rainforest along the central and northern coast of British Columbia is one of the last strongholds of the Grizzly Bear in Canada, and even this population is coming under increasing pressure.

Sadly, because this bear cub resides in BC, there's a very real chance that once grown this bear's life will be ended by a bullet. And, its head will be cut off (leaving the carcass to simply rot) so that it can be mounted and adorn the wall of some fearless trophy hunter (who will, no doubt, be cheered on by all the grasses and sedges that will be saved from being so mercilessly eaten by this fearsome beast). I truly wonder if any sentient human being could stand beside me while I was photographing this cub and still "harvest" it for nothing more than the joy of the kill and the trophy on the wall. Perhaps those who crave for a dividing line between humans and animals are right - I'm yet to see ANY wild animal kill something for the joy of it (or to hang a trophy on the wall of their den).

The debate about the trophy hunting of carnivores can be broken into 3 arguments: the ethical, the economic, and the ecological. The ethical argument for the trophy hunting of grizzlies in BC? On that one - just go back and look at this image and read the paragraph immediately above. The economic argument? Well, it's on even shakier grounds - not only does bear-watching in BC generate 11-15 times as much revenue as bear hunting (and employ 10-15 times as many people), but the revenue generated by bear hunting doesn't even cover the cost to the BC Gov't of managing the hunt itself - it's a net loss to the taxpayers of BC (all studies related to these economic claims can be supplied on request). The ecological argument? Yep, you guessed right - there isn't one. As a matter of fact, an increasing body of sound, peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown how the guild of carnivores at the TOP of the food chain are exceptionally important to the overall health of ecosystems - everything from ensuring continued biodiversity through to maximizing that amount of carbon dioxide the ecosystem can absorb (climate change consequences, anyone?).

So why does the trophy hunting of carnivores (and bears in particular) continue to exist in BC? Good question. Well, it sure isn't because of public support - just under 90% of British Columbians are against it. And many First Nations have banned it in their territories. Sadly, it appears that little more than the fact that a handful of elected officials (MLA's) in a few rural ridings fear the backlash from voters if they stand against trophy hunting is keeping trophy hunting alive.

Those wishing to get active in helping to stop the trophy hunting of carnivores in BC are encouraged to visit this page on Raincoast's website. And please help spread the word!

*The Raincoast Conservation Society (and Foundation) is an effective and efficient organization that has been fighting for protection of this unique habitat. If you are looking for a meaningful way to contribute to the conservation of this amazing ecosystem, Raincoast will provide maximal "bang" for your conservation dollars.

**as determined by COSEWIC: The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada