All Creatures Great and Small

May 10, 2021

I am sitting on a rock, with the tripod set so that the camera is at eye-height, remaining motionless as I watch and wait. I saw him scurrying around just a few minutes ago, so I am hoping that by sitting still long enough he will come out to forage again. I am hoping to capture photos of a collared pika (Ochotona collaris) in a pile of rocks on a mountainside, the result of some long-past rock slide, in Hatcher Pass north of Palmer, Alaska.

The collared pika is toward the bottom end of the mammalian food chain in Alaska, just a bit bigger than the Northern Red backed vole. The only species of pika in Alaska, they are territorial and will mate only with other nearby pika, making them functionally monogamous – but not by intent. They give birth about once a year, achieve adult size in 40-50 days, but do not hibernate. Their habitat tends toward rocky outcrops at higher elevation, and have already been shown to be forced out of habitat to higher elevations in the Lower 48 due to climate change.

Being at the bottom of the food chain, there are a variety of things that rely on pika for food: ermine, marten, hawks, eagles and owls. Given that pika are territorial, if you come to know about where pika live and observe and photograph them, you may also get a chance to photograph the many critters who rely on pika for food. That creates even more photo opportunities. But my primary reason in photographing pika is that they are fun to watch and absolutely adorable. They are very entertaining to watch, and equally a pleasure to photograph as they become comfortable with your presence and get closer and closer to you, requiring even the addition of extension tubes as the subject gets within the focal distance of my lens.

Foraging Pika
Alaska offers many creatures great and small for viewing and photographing, from its massive polar bears to small rodents. One of my favorites is the Collared Pika, which can be found along rock slides and piles in alpine areas. Hatcher Pass State Recreation Area, Alaska.

And then there is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), the largest predator in Alaska. An adult male can reach up to 1,500 pounds. Unlike the other species of bear in Alaska, the polar bear is actually a marine mammal, managed in the United States by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and cooperatively managed across international borders with the five Arctic nations where they occur: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States. It is an animal built for the cold, from its fur to its paws, and thrives in a world of ice. They rely upon sea ice to hunt their primary prey – seals – and are consequently greatly impacted by climate change. One of the two most imperiled of the 19 populations of polar bears in the world is the Beaufort Sea population found near the village of Kaktovik in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Two male polar bears spar in the waters of Kaktovik Lagoon.

I am in a very different place creatively and philosophically when I photograph polar bears as compared to something smaller like the collared pika. Polar bears are massive, impressive animals that justifiably command combined feelings of fear, wonder, and awe. The fear is not the kind that immobilizes, but requires a heightened sense of situational awareness when in polar bear country. You don’t go for nighttime walks, for example. When watching and photographing them from a safe place like a boat (which I do in Kaktovik), you observe in awe as they do anything from the simple act of lying on the beach to the more vigorous activity of sparring with other bears in the water. And while there may be some “cute” factor like the pika, they are more about observing and contemplating the power of a massive, wild beast that is perhaps the most predatory of the bear species, having evolved quickly to be efficient seal hunters and lacking any geographic feature to use for a defensive posture. It is often hard to consider their potential threat when observing them playing with each other like dogs in the back yard. This is not a quiet place where I have to be still in order to photograph my subject; rather, I am constantly moving and shifting with the action, and sometimes there is a lot of it!

Why I photograph both of these animals bears a strong connection with my purpose as a nature photographer. I am trying to understand all aspects of a location, to make a connection with it. This means understanding how the seasons shape the land, where and when to be for certain events, and how the wildlife move through the terrain. If I am going to photograph that wildlife, I need to understand it better, be aware of its habits, its motivations. I need to be a naturalist. And this goes for any nature subject, whether it is a flower or a canyon. Understanding the life cycle of a flower or the geology behind a colorful rock formation. If you know the subject, you can better photograph it, better identify it (in captions) and better present it to your audience.

When I am photographing pika and polar bear, I have to be physically in very different places – from alpine slopes in southcentral Alaska to the high, treeless Arctic coast. For the pika, I have to hike in the mountains, explore around a bit, observe the landscape, and watch and wait patiently. I am in a much quieter, contemplative place. But with polar bears, it is much more like photographing a sport. Sure, there are sometimes long periods of low activity (as they stroll along or lounge on the beach) but those are interrupted by often sustained periods of energy and action. And being up in the high Arctic, I am observing a world much more foreign, more raw, more exposed. I love the diversity of the encounter I get from photographing this incredibly distant and different animals.

And photographing them also connects me to another aspect that is increasingly part of the role of the nature photographer, and that is the impact of climate change on the world around us. Both of these animals have habitats that are threatened by climate change. For the pika, they can only go so much higher in elevation to escape the warming trend of the Earth before they encounter areas with unsuitable habitat. There was already one aberrant mid-winter warming incident in the Yukon Territory that caused 90 percent mortality in a collard pika population that also happens to be the only long-term monitored population. And while the overall population of polar bears worldwide has remained relatively stable, the dramatically-shrinking sea ice (30% loss since 1972) will eventually catch up with the polar bear because of the impacts on their ability to hunt and to reproduce.

I could never be content in photographing just one kind of wildlife, because exploring various species gives me exposure to a broad range of habitats and landscapes. It simply helps me to make a deeper connection to the broader world around me.

Bald eagle with a pair of chicks in nest, Kukak Bay, Katmai National Park & Preserve.

Bald eagle with a pair of chicks in nest, Kukak Bay, Katmai National Park & Preserve.

Posted in Alaska, Commentary.