Photographing Caribou (Rangifer tarandus)
Featuring a new song "Hangin with the Caribou"
by Robert and Donna Berdan
Bull caribou with back light on the tundra near Peterson's Point lake Lodge, NWT (300 mm f/2.8 lens)
If you want to photograph caribou you have to go where they roam and even then it's not so easy to find them. I photographed my first caribou in Denali national park about 2 decades ago along side the road into the park. Closer to my home in Calgary I have photographed Mountain caribou in the Tonquin valley in Jasper National Park. The herd of mountain caribou was small but they conveniently grazed near our cabins and were easy to approach. For the past 5 years I have been photographing caribou on the tundra in the Northwest Territories where each autumn I lead a workshop in partnership with Peterson's Point Lake lodge. The lodge is located about 250 km north of Yellowknife and is reached by floatplane. Peterson's lodge offers comfortable accommodation, gourmet food and experienced guides that help us track and find caribou on the tundra. In autumn the tundra is painted a fiery red and yellow colour that makes an incredible backdrop for the caribou. Caribou are not difficult to photograph once you find them, but we do have to work at getting close to them. In autumn the light can vary from bright sunshine to fog and sleet. However, if we dress properly for trekking on the tundra it can make for some beautiful photos of these majestic animals. In this article I share some of my favorite photos and also feature a new song written by wife Donna after she saw my photographs of caribou on the tundra.
Silhouette of a caribou with the Aurora borealis in the background (composite image) - Caribou and the aurora have in common that they both can appear suddenly and then disappear with no trace. Also we tend to find caribou and the Aurora in the more northerly regions of North America I wonder if somehow the aurora and caribou behavior might be linked in some way - maybe the first occurrence of the aurora in August represents one of the triggers that start the migration south - just speculation on my part. The aurora first becomes visible in the north after about mid august when it once again begins to get dark enough to view it clearly. Regardless in autumn photographers have three things they can admire and photograph: caribou, the changing colors on the tundra and the Aurora borealis. We occasionally get an opportunity to see and photograph wolves, grizzly bears, wolverine, arctic ground squirrels and birfds migrating south. The tundra also hosts a wide variety of plants and lichens for those like to take macro-photographs.
Autumn is the best time to photograph caribou because their fur coats are in good condition, the bulls are shedding their velvet and the caribou start to aggregate and migrate south. The tundra is on fire with color which makes for a colourful backdrop. At Peterson's point lake lodge, sometimes the caribou walk right past our cabins and may even walk through camp. Most of the time we head out on foot to try and get close to them or we may take small boats and head up or down the lake and spot them along the shore. We always have a guide with us to ensure our safety, and the guides are also trained hunters and show us how to approach the caribou. Sometimes caribou will run as soon as they see us, other times they will move toward us as if to be curious as to what we are.
Tundra habitat - Esker bay of Point Lake, NWT.
Caribou bay off Point Lake, NWT
Bull caribou on the barrens
A photographer sits patiently atop an esker waiting for caribou or other wildlife to wander into view.
This spring I spotted a caribou resting in Gros Morne National Park near the highway. I pulled out my camera and tripod and to my surprise the caribou got up and walked straight toward me until he was about 20 yards away and then he veered off.
Young caribou in Gros Morne National Park approached me when I set up my tripod beside the highway.
Caribou photographed in mid June in Gros Morne National Park Newfoundland. At this time they are shedding their fur and are not as photogenic as they are in autumn. This animal was laying down resting when I spotted him from the road. I set up my tripod beside the highway and to my surprise the caribou got up and walked right towards me veering away at the last moment.
Woodland caribou in Newfoundland have fallen in number over the past decade from 85,000 animals to about 32,000. The loss in numbers is believed to be due to habitat loss which makes the calves more vulnerable to predators such as bears and coyotes.
Trail created by caribou on the tundra - there are numerous hoof prints in the sand. The caribou trails can be easily seen crisscrossing the tundra when viewed from an airplane or from on top of Eskers and hillsides in the tundra.
Caribou foot print in the sand - note the marks from the dewclawss on the right.
Caribou have concave hoofs comprised of two large crescent shaped toes and two rear dewclaws When walking through deep snow caribou can walk on their toes which spread out and act like snowshoes. In the fall their feet grow harder and develop sharp edges that can be used to search for food below ice covered snow. Their feet also act as paddles for swimming and ice picks when navigating steep rocky or icy mountain sides (Hummel & Ray, 2008).
Equipment to Photograph Caribou
Provided you can find a caribou in most cases you will need a telephoto lens and most of the time a longer more powerful lens is usually the best. The smallest telephoto lens that is useful is a 70-200 mm with a teleconverter 1.4 or 2X. Longer zoom lenses like Nikons' 80-400 mm lens or Canon's 100-400 zoom lens are also excellent for hiking and photograping wildlife on the tundra.
Longer heavier lenses such as a 300 mm f/2.8, 400 mm f/2.8, 500 mm f/4 or 600 mm/f/4 are ideal if you don't mind carrying them. A tripod offers the best support, but often a mono pod can provide sufficient support and also serve as a walking stick. I usually use an ISO speed setting of 400 and push the ISO speed higher if it's cloudy or foggy in order to get a shutter speed of about 1\500 of a second or faster. When I am searching for caribou or other wildlife on the tundra I always take my biggest lens (300 mm f/2.8, 1.7X teleconverter and a digital camera with a crop factor of 1.5X to get even more magnification. Next year I plan to bring a 500 mm f/4 lens with me. If you can't afford a big lens you can always rent one from various camera shops (e.g. www.lensrentalscanada.com or try your local camera store).
Once we get close to the caribou its fairly easy to capture them with a camera so long as they are not running away. Caribou are colour blind so you don't need to wear camo clothing. They seem to respond mostly to movement. On some close encounters I simply froze and the caribou continued to stare at me. Other instances we walked straight at the caribou and they continued to feed. In my experience animals vary in their response to seeing humans, some will runaway, others will act as if we are not there and others may even approach us to investigate. My recommendation is that you start taking photos as you see them and then gradually try to work yourself into a closer position using what ever cover you can find.
Backlighting creates a rim around the caribou and their antlers that I find aesthetically pleasing. All photos taken on the tundra a short walking distance from Peterson's Point Lake Lodge - approx 250 Km north of Yellowknife.
My favorite light for photographing Caribou is back or sidelight that creates a "rim ligh" or glow that surrounds the animal and the antlers. However, even on foggy, wet days I have been able to capture some moody images of caribou in softer light. Usually I have to increase the ISO speed under these conditions, but the colors appear pastel in tone (see below).
Soft overcast light creates pastel colours. Even fog can add a sense of mood or mystery to some of the photographs.
All of the above photographs were taken around Peterson's Point Lake lodge in the Northwest Territories during the past four years. If you would like to join us next Autumn - click here for more information or to register.
Discarded caribou antlers, caribou skulls, jaws, teeth and other bones are commonly found on the tundra.
Caribou antlers in Point lake at sunrise.
Caribou jaw and teeth surrounded by bear berry leaves on the tundra.
Discarded antlers with Peterson's Point Lake lodge visible in the distance.
HANGIN WITH THE CARIBOU - lyrics and music © by Donna Berdan
I'm a reindeer
But I don't fly or pull a magic sleigh
Get to know me
and you'll find I'm special in a different way
I travel north for miles and miles
and there I plan to stay awhile
I have to roam
Want to get back home
Run for miles that's what I do
I'm just hangin with the caribou
The tundra's where I really want to be
It's getting harder
To get there than it ever use to be
My habitat is going fast
You cut the trees and I won't last
I have to roam
Want to get back home
Together we'd agree
There has to be more to this life
than money and strife
Seems there's fewer of us every year
I hope it changes
That things will stay the same's my biggest fear
They blame the wolves but that's not true
The cause of all my trouble's you
I have to roam
Want to get back home
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Caribou are ungulates "hoofed mammals" belonging to the group Artiodactyla - or even toed (cloven) animals which also include: deer, bison, goats, sheep and swine. Caribou are also part of the deer family which include: moose, elk, black-tailed deer, mule deer and white-tailed deer. They are separated from most other deer by choice of habitat and diet. Caribou readily feed on lichens and flourish in high-elevation and tundra habitats. Caribou also produce a distinct clicking sound when walking caused by tendons slipping over the bones of its feet. Domestic Reindeer and Caribou are the same species. They characteristically have brown coats, cream white manes and white bellies and rumps. The woodland and mountain caribou don't have the white bellies as you can see from the photos below. In general coat colour is quite variable. Most females (97-99%) also have antlers. Caribou can run up to 50-80 km/hr making them one of the fastest animals in the world behind the cheetah and prong horn antelope. Caribou often have their heads down scanning for the best plants which they quickly bite off and swallow and when they rest they often re-chew the vegetation and re-swallow it.
One of the most unique features of caribou are the shape of their antlers that are curved, partly palmate with finger like projections. The front can often have smaller antlers over their head called a shovel which are thought to protect their eyes during the rut. Caribou also have very large nostrils and females have long eyelashes. Their eyes are black. Males begin to regrow their antlers in spring, females start to regrow their antlers after giving birth. Caribou spend most of their lives trying to avoid being eaten.
Rangifer tarandus includes seven subspecies: Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus), Wild Forest Reindeer (R. tarandus fennicus), and Svalbard Reindeer (R. tarandus platyrhynchus) in Eurasia; and Barren-ground Caribou (R. tarandus groenlandicus), Alaskan Caribou (R. tarandus granti), Peary Caribou (R. tarandus pearyi), and Woodland Caribou (R. tarandus caribou) in North America. Seven of the 12 caribou populations in North America are either threatened (vulnerable in the near future), endangered (at risk of becoming extinct) or of special concern (warrants special protection).
Small caribou herd running on the tundra near Peterson's Point Lake lodge
Reindeer (domesticated caribou in lapland) and wild caribou reside in most areas of the worlds north above the 62nd latitude in Eurasia and 50th latitude in North America. Mountain caribou seek the safety of higher elevations. Their bodies are adapted to the cold in many ways. Their hair is long and hollow allowing air to be trapped keeping them warm and making their bodies bouyant in the water. During cold, dry winters the caribou tend to urinate less in order to conserve water and can recy le urea within their bodies. Their nasal bones offer long passages with relatively large surface areas to warm the air they breathe and to extract moisture when exhaling.
Caribou are fast strong swimmers. I photographed this caribou swimming back to shore from a small island. When it reached land it had several wounds on its hind end and probably escaped the predators (wolves?) by swimming.
Caribou are the only deer species where both males and females have antlers. Bull caribou usually shed their antlers in early winter, younger males in the spring and females later in the spring. Female antlers are thought to provide them with an advantage in that they can be used to protect the craters they make to access food in the winter. Migratory caribou are characterized as belonging to specific herds that are based on the females choice of calving grounds. Only during insect harassment and during the rut are the two sexes found together.
Caribou are selective feeders and have the ability to eat and digest lichens which are plentiful in caribou habitats. A caribou can eat up to 5kg of lichen each day and often favour grey varieties commonly known as caribou moss. They also feed on sedges and shrubs such a dwarf birch and willow - which appear yellow and red in many of my photos. They will also eat mushrooms they find on the tundra.
Aerial view of the Tundra with numerous small lakes and ponds in Autumn
Caribou moss - Cladonia stellaris also called Star-tipped reindeer lichen
Lichen and moss on the tundra provide an important food source for the Caribou.
Large unidentified mushroom growing on the tundra - caribou will eat mushrooms when they find them.
Caribou antler lichen? Nope this is a pile of caribou antlers at Peterson's Point lake lodge. I think it is interesting that the antlers resemble some of the branching lichens that the caribou feed on.
Mountain caribou belong to an ecotype that live in the mountains of Western North America with a few populations residing in eastern Canada. Their habitats include old-growth cedar and hemlock forests, tracts of pine, spruce and fir forests, lush alpine meadows, alpine tundra and glaciers (Hummel and Ray, 2008). When the caribou move from the valleys to the mountains top they essentially experience an equivalent ecological and climate change as the migratory caribou of the north. Predators of mountain caribou include: grizzly bears, wolves, black bears, coyotes, cougars, wolverine, lynx and golden eagles. Mountain caribou may move to upper elevations to feed on arboreal lichens in the sub alpine forests or on terrestrial lichens on wind swept ridges. The also depend on arboreal lichens growing on old forest trees which is why logging is so destructive to these animals.
Mountain caribou in rut
Resting Mountain caribou
Mountain caribou in the Tonquin Valley Jasper National Park, AB
Mountain Caribou, Alaska - this one wondered near the highway.
There are approximately 1,760 Mountain caribou in Denali national park.
Adult female mountain caribou are usually solitary when they give birth, but within a few days females with calves begin to form small groups. It is estimated that more then 50% of young calves die within the first few weeks usually due to predation.
Mountain caribou often gather on snow patches in the summer to avoid heat and seek relief from insects. The rut occurs in late September and early October usually in alpine areas. Alberta has about 600 mountain caribou living on the eastern slopes of the Rockies and are listed as threatened (species that are vulnerable to extinction in the near future). In winter lichens form the caribou's main food source including Bryoria species(hair-like lichens) that grow on old growth trees (see below).
LInks to External Resources
M. Hummel & Justina Ray (2008) Caribou of the North - A Shared Future. Dundurn Press Toronto. ISBN 978-1-55002-839-3.
Barren Ground Caribou of the Northwest Territories, Arcitic Wildlife Sketches. (1984) ISBN 0-7708-7142-9
H.J. Russell (1998) The World of the Caribou. Sierra Club Book. ISBN-57805-021-9.
Karsten Heuer (2008) Being Caribou - Five Months on Foot with a Caribou Herd, ISBN-10: 080279565X
G. Calef (1995) Caribou and the barren-lands. ISBN 1-895565-68-5
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