Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

January-February 2005

Tip of the Month

Carry Your Gear!

"We'll have them all day if we find them. There will be plenty of time to come back for the gear then." The advice of my guide sounded fine at the time, for I had walked the undulating, and sometimes steep hillsides for several days without luck, and the prospect of carrying a 600mm and camera was not inviting. So Mary and I, and our guide, left our gear in our vehicle and began hiking, searching for the third day in a row for the elusive puma.
Mary had started out ahead while I checked another spot with the vehicle and almost immediately she thought she had spotted a cat lying beside a boulder several hundred yards away. She radioed me to join her, where my 18X binoculars could confirm a sighting. Nearly a half hour later I found her - amidst the canyons and buttes of our South American location a lone figure is hard to find! - but the cat proved to be a bush.
Our guide had stayed back at the car, ready to start transporting gear if we had spotted the cat. Proving a false alarm, he headed out for his own cross-country scouting, and Mary and I proceeded in our separate directions. About a half hour later I rounded a steep rise and decided to survey the surrounding cliffs and hillsides - or rest, really. As I sat and eyeballed and glassed the rocks I spotted, naked-eye, a pair of ears, big ears. From my distance, nearly 200 yards away, I wasn't sure if I had ears or not, if the shape was a head with ears or just my eyes playing tricks on me. Binoculars confirmed it was a real head, and, to my amazement, that it belonged to a puma!
The cat moved up the rock and sat surveying the countryside, and me, below it. I quickly radioed Mary, talking her to a spot where she could see me, but nearly 300 yards further away she couldn't make out the cat. Our plan had been that if anyone had spotted a cat he, or she, were to stay with the cat while the others went for the gear and returned. The lookout would follow the cat if necessary, so I stayed, and Mary left, heading downhill to the eventual rendezvous with our guide and tracker.
For an hour I sat watching the cat, 200 yards away, as it lay on a rock just on the tip of the horizon. While I waited, with a spectacular mountain background visible nearby, I wondered how I could approach this very exposed cat and get a mountain background, too, with the 600mm I would be using. While I watched, the cat yawned, stretched, and got up, and walked slowly out of sight! Mary, our guide, and our tracker - with all of our camera gear - were no where in sight!
I ran up the hillside to attempt to find the cat, and as I neared the top and rounded a slight rise, I was shocked to see the cat just 60 yards away, stretched like a house cat on a window sill! The puma hunkered down, flattening when it saw me, but I immediately stopped and the cat relaxed. Over the next 30 minutes the cat alternately slept, watched me, groomed, sat up and scratched, slept, surveyed the surroundings, and slept - all within, at most, 80 yards of my position, and in full, direct sunlight!
Eventually my guide and tracker came back into radio contact and I could direct them to my position, urging them to get here as fast as they could. That was easier said than done, as my guide was carrying a full pack with equipment, food, and a tripod, and my poor tracker was carrying my awkward-to-carry 600 with a camera attached. The tracker was in incredible shape but he twisted his ankle and was slowed. I waited, watched, and writhed on the rock in agony as I waited. Waiting can kill ya!
I was torn with the desire to run down the hill and relieve my tracker of the pack, but I worried about getting my eyes off the cat. So I stayed. As it were, when my guide appeared, I joined him for a few minutes and, WITH MY EYES OFF THE CAT, it slipped away. From a perfect position in clear view, within easy full-frame range with my 600, in perfect light, for 30 minutes or more, the cat had disappeared!

I was practically screaming with frustration. I couldn't believe the luck, and I mentally bashed myself for taking my attention off the cat for even a minute. As soon as my guide appeared I grabbed my gear, and the three of us spread out, hoping to find the cat. As it was, I headed straight to where the cat had been, and rounding the rock ledge she had been perched on I spotted her, sitting in some vegetation just feet below where she had been perched! Unfortunately, I was now only 60 feet from the cat, and I worried that I was too close, too fast, for her comfort.
I started shooting, she moved to another spot further uphill and settled again. Mary, burdened with her gear and bad knees, was still climbing, and as she got close the cat moved again, this time going up and over the cliff. My tracker and I set off after her to keep her in sight, but she disappeared. When Mary arrived, fortunately, the cat reappeared for a brief 5 second glimpse as it trotted to some trees far below our cliff. Our encounter was over.
In all I watched the cat for nearly 2 hours. I was within 60- yards, maybe even less, for almost a half hour, when the cat provided poses that I'd die for. My shooting lasted ten minutes at best.
Afterwards I vowed to Mary, never again would I hike that country without my gear. I certainly can't blame or fault my guide for his advice - chances are, none of us were going to spot the cat and if we had, past history said the cat would stay around. Carrying a big lens over the rough country would certainly impact upon my ability to move about, and upon my energy level, so it made sense to travel light.
I use a Kinesis long lens pack with an expandable hood, so my 600mm with the hood mounted, my 1.4X, and a camera can all be carried. Carrying the camera/lens/hood attached makes for a 30 inch tall package which is very awkward to carry. To date, the Kinesis system, and long lens bag, has proved the best to use when carrying big lenses set up and ready to go, but when covering ground, prospecting, having gear ready-to-go isn't a vital requirement.
After that experience, as I scouted for more puma, I broke my equipment down, reversed my lens hood, and removed the camera, which made carrying the equipment much, much easier. But I got smart too late, we didn't spot another puma.
I got nice shots, but my elation was tempered by the fact that I missed really outstanding images, fantasy-type shots, had I had only 5 more minutes before the cat had moved from the rocky ledge. Had I kept my eye on the cat when my guide appeared perhaps it would not have moved - animals often slink to cover when they know they are not being watched. And I was really disappointed that Mary had only a fleeting glimpse, and after all that hard work - hiking to the car, returning with her gear, she missed getting shots by just a few minutes.
Oh well, that's the story and that's the Tip - Carry your gear! Hopefully, next year I'll get another chance, but you can be sure that, no matter what, I'll be carrying my equipment every time I hike the backcountry looking for a South American puma!

PS One of the problems in carrying gear while scouting is the weight, which certainly tires one out over time. Another is the rather uncomfortable nature of carrying gear. I'll be addressing that issue in a later Tip of the Month.


Our Past Photo Tips of the Month:


  DIGITAL- Digital Birding

 DIGITAL -Shoot for the Future

DIGITAL-Shoot for the Future, Part II

 DIGITAL Photographing scenes with extreme exposure values

 NPN- Nature Photography Network - a digital forum for nature photography

 Digital Pro Image Management Software

 Watch Your Backgrounds
The potential of composites or shooting in RAW format

 A Great Website for Information - the Singapore Nature Photography Society

 Save Your Equipment from Crashing!

 The L-Bracket, the ultimate camera bumper

 Backing Up Your Digital Files - you'll need more than you think

 Ask Questions
Before You Go

 Seize the Moment!

Geared Focusing Rail for Macro Work 

 Protecting your long lens from SAND, the pleasures of beach photography

 How do we protect our gear from dust, and carry our gear when on safari

 The Ultimate Flash Bracket
Padding Your Wimberley
Tripod Head

  Specular highlights and the flashing frog
 Using TTL flash with Hummingbirds  Testing your Flash's Aim
Maximum Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance - they're not the same thing!  If you see it, it's too late -- a lesson in anticipation  How do you shoot the Moon?
  Low level tripod work  A great depth of field guide  Wimberley 400 and 600mm IS plate

 Sigma's 120-300mm F2.8 APO HSM zoom lens

 Using The Wimberley Gimbal head with a camera body

 Sigma's 120-300 f2.8 APO
zoom telephoto lens

 Custom Function 4-1 for Nikon and Canon shooters

 Sighting in a very, very long lens
 The Nature Photography Network - a super website for images and information
  Take a Workshop First   Luck, what is it?  Don't take in baby wild animals

  Airline Carry-On Luggage -Let your concerns be heard!

 Disconnect -- travel precautions

Photograph America Newsletter
 Wildlife Portraiture

 Obey the Rules
The Ti Chi Stalk
Photographing Critically Endangered Sites Bushnell Night Vision Optics  Adobe Photoshop 7 for $300

 The Sibley Bird Guides

 Removing Cactus Spines

 Drying out boots with newspaper

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