Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Herd Reduction Looms For Shenandoah National Park Whitetails

Future Uncertain For Whitetail Deer
It seems there is no good news these days if ones' primary interest is big game photography--especially whitetail deer photography.  Here in Pennsylvania there have been several cases of CWD and three DMAs (Disease Managment Areas) have been established.    So far the Pennsylvania Game Commission has been fairly conservative in dealing with the disease. On the other hand,  The National Park Service is planning to launch a severe response to the disease once  certain triggering thresholds are met.

We first reported on this in the October 26, 2012 post: "Shenandoah Whitetails Under Assault"  At that time the Park had fitted  a large number of deer with ear tags and/or radio collars and were conducting a whitetail deer study geared to charting deer movements.  In conjunction with this a certain number of deer were to be live tested for CWD. Almost overnight they destroyed the world class whitetail photography at Big Meadows which until that time was one of the best areas to observe and photograph whitetail deer in the United States. 

Mature Buck at SNP 2011
 Last week  fellow retired PGC employee Billie Cromwell traveled to SNP to photograph the deer and returned home after two discouraging days.  He called me to ask if I had been there and advised me to cancel any plans I had to visit the park this fall. I had already decided to avoid the park this year due to my disappointing summer trip this year so this meant no change in plans, but it did re-in-force my sense of discouragement about the situation at the Park.  Billie reported that he saw only a handful of deer in the Big Meadows Area.  Places where they were once seen in plenty now were either empty or there was only a deer or two.  He did report seeing a buck or two that was collared last year, but now were wearing none. Soon after talking to Billie, well known Virginia wildlife photographer, Larry W. Brown, contacted me to tell me that the assault on the whitetails of Shenandoah was not over.

Following the links that he sent me, I found that on November 10, the Park released its' CWD Response Plan Amendment/Environmental Assessment plan , which amends the 2013 CWD Detection and Assessment Plan.  To read about CWD and an overview of the  amended plan click Here.

To read the plan in its' entirety or to comment-Click Here:

While the original 2013 plan allows lethal sampling of deer to detect CWD, the proposed amendment allows deer population reduction by lethal means in front country areas of the park to manage the disease.  This would attempt to bring the herd at areas such as Big Meadows in line with  deer numbers in back country areas of the park and in areas outside the park in an attempt to minimize disease transmission.

Big Meadows is listed as the area in the park with the highest deer density/square mile.  Under this amendment 77-81% of the deer would be removed to equal the density of surrounding areas.

If the proposed plan is approved, it will be implemented when two or more positive CWD cases are found within 5 miles of the park boundary or if detected inside the park.  According to the news release this could happen fairly soon (1-3) years or it could be many years away, but it is expected to happen sooner or later.

Also of importance to photographers is that there will be no protection for the mature bucks and all adult deer will be targeted equally.  When it comes to killing deer for CWD testing, the bucks will receive priority in targeting as bucks 2 years of age or older are more likely to have CWD and as they roam over a wider range are supposedly more likely to spread the disease.

Mature Bucks To Be Targeted
Herd reduction will most likely be done at night, from November-March. Specific nighttime area closures may be necessary from November - March in the Central District of the Park so that deer way be shot at areas such as Skyland and Big Meadows.

Public comments may be made either online or by mail.
Comments should be posted online at
Or, send to: Superintendent, Shenandoah National Park, Attn: CWD Response Amendment/EA, 3655 US Highway, 211 East, Luray, VA 22835. 

Public Meetings
Public meetings are scheduled on November 17 (Crozet Public Library, 2020 Library Avenue, Crozet, VA), November 18 (Elkton Community Center, 20593 Blue and Gold Dr, Elkton, VA). All meetings start at 7:00 PM. 

Look for more commentary on this and the situation in the Pennsylvania Elk Range within the near future.  

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Iconic Pennsylavania Elk Killed In 2014 Elk Season

Today I received news that the most famous and likely the most photographed  mature bull elk in Pennsylvania was shot and killed on the second day of elk season by a young hunter from Erie.  This was the bull known as "Limpy" which I filmed and photographed  for the first time in 2009 when he was already a mature 7x7 bull. The 2014 elk season began on Monday November 3rd and will continue through Saturday November 8 with an extended season in certain areas on November 10--15th.

"Limpy" 2009
 He became known as "Limpy" in 2010 when he was injured and walked with a limp thereafter.  My Brother Coy of Country Captures photographed him silhouetted against a dramatic sunset that year and I used that for the cover photo on my documentary film, "Running Wild In Pennsylvania Elk Country", which was released in 2012.

"Limpy" 2010
He had a smaller rack in 2011.  This was probably because of the  effects of the injury.

"Limpy" 2011
 He rebounded from his injury in 2012, and grew an impressive rack.

Limpy: 2012

Through the years I filmed and photographed him and always expected that each year would be his last, but somehow he survived.  I suspected that he spent elk season on posted ground and likely quite close to someone's home or cabin as this bull was completely acclimated to humans and had no fear of them whatsoever.

Limpy: 2013
The Pennsylvania Game Commission Calendar has featured photos of  "Limpy"taken by my brother Coy in  the 2014 and 2015 Calendars.  One thing is certain, he will not be featured again unless photographs from the past are used.

Limpy: 2014 The Final Year
There are a lot of elk in Pennsylvania with many  bulls of respectable size out there. This should continue for the foreseeable future, but the death of this animal marks the passing of a time on Winslow Hill when one could follow the life and development  of a bull through the years and brings a final conclusion to a definitive era of elk watching and photography on Winslow Hill and we are the worse for its' passing

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fall Color and The Whitetail Rut

It is hard to believe that two weeks have past since I last posted here. I still maintain a heavy shooting schedule on mornings and evenings, but have been involved in other projects in mid-day and evenings, which has made it difficult to keep up with the posting and video editing.

Even though I have spent a lot of time outdoors I took very little photos or video of the fall color this year.  Fall color was a bit late in arriving and I held off shooting a lot in hopes that it would intensity, but then a rainy period arrived. When it was over many of the leaves that had bright scarlet and yellow colors such as maple were gone, so we never had a period in which most of the leaves were at their peak and the weather was ideal for capturing them in their glory.  In spite of this, I was able to capture a bit of fall color on the evening of October 19th.

Autumn Stream: Panasonic GH4-LUMIX- 14-140/F4.0-5.8@ 17mm-ISO 200-1/60 Sec. f 10

Autumn Color: Panasonic GH4-LUMIX- 14-140/F4.0-5.8@ 17mm/F4.0-5.8 -ISO 200-1/320 Sec. f 10
Throughout the summer one usually sees the same family groups of does and  fawns with the one-year old bucks still usually traveling with them. Occasionally a two-year old buck is still with the extended family group too, but this situation usually changes sometime after the velvet is shed and the pre-rut begins.  At this point many of the yearling bucks and most, if not all, of the remaining two-year old bucks disperse . The mature bucks spend the summers alone or in bachelor groups and they ordinarily travel over a  large area searching for food, while the extended family groups usually remain in the same general area throughout the year. With the onset of the pre-rut and the rut, the bachelor groups fragment, and the bucks become much more visible as they travel about looking for does in heat.

Where I usually hang out is not the best spot for seeing bachelor groups in the summer, but it has a good population of does, fawns and young bucks. Buck sightings usually increase dramatically once the pre-rut begins and especially once the full-blown rut gets underway.  Some of the bucks only visit once or twice, while others are seen with varying degrees of frequency throughout the rut.

This year the first strange bucks arrived on October 9th and one peered from the edge of the meadow while another checked out the resident doe herd.

First Strange Buck: Canon 5D MK III-Canon EF600mm f/4L IS -ISO 400-1/200 Sec. f  4.5
 Buck Checks Out Family Group: Canon 5D MK III-Canon EF600mm f/4L IS -ISO 400-1/400 Sec. f  4.5
Many who write about deer would say that the above bucks are "nice" or even perhaps "small" 1 year old animals, but I feel confident in saying that both are 2 years old.  Bucks may grow larger, sooner in other areas, but in the area I am familiar with the average first year buck's antlers  usually range from small spikes to four and six-points. Over the years I have observed many buck's development from the time that they were fawns through their first year with antlers and I have seen several that remained until they were two years old and I got to see what rack they had at that age.  In one case a buck did not disperse until he was three years old.  The bottom line is that I am talking about deer that I am absolutely certain were the same deer and I knew exactly what rack they grew each year and how old they were when they grew it.

At any rate some of the visiting bucks will be seen only a time or two, while others remain in the general area with some being seen almost every day while others will only swing by once or twice a week looking for hot does.   The small three-point buck below is a non-resident buck that abruptly appeared and began spending most of his time with the resident doe herd.

Young Buck Chasing Does: Canon 5D MK III-Canon EF600mm f/4L IS  -ISO 800-1/200 Sec. f  5.0
The buck below is either an exceptional yearling or more likely a two year old.  He is not a daily visitor, but rather is usually seen once or twice a week.

8 Point: Canon 5D MK III-Canon EF600mm f/4L IS  -ISO 800-1/200 Sec. f  4.5
I have noticed in the past few years  that it is fairly common to see a certain buck for a week or so and then he vanishes, where in the not too distant past this was seldom the case. In an instance like this, it is likely that the buck has either been legally taken with a bow, hit by a vehicle, or killed by poachers.  In most cases it is likely because of  the upswing in bow-hunting hunting pressure brouth about by a longer bow season that coincides with the peak of the rut and the legalization of the cross bow.

With the full-blown rut getting underway, I should have more and more opportunities to photograph the bucks in the next few weeks, but only time will tell if any impressive ones will appear.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Panasonic GH4-Disaster Brings New Method of Shooting

Extreme Long Range Tool: GH4 With Cage- Canon 500 f4.5 FD Lens-Ronsrail Support, Rode VideoMic Pro
Most of the readers of this blog that encountered in Pennsylvania Elk Country this year have already heard the story that I will relate today, but I would like to share it with all blog readers as this is about an experience that changed my approach to filming wildlife.  I only wish that learning this had not been so traumatic or so expensive.

I have mentioned in several posts that I am now using the Panasonic GH4 as my primary video acquisition tool. I got my first one on May 1, 2014 and liked it so well that my Canon 70D was retired from taking video and became a backup still camera to the 5D MK III and the Panasonic GH3 was used only in situations where the GH4 was on the tripod with a long telephoto attached and wildlife got so close that I needed a smaller lens.  An example of this is that when filming spring turkeys from a blind I kept the 14-140mm Lumix  attached to the GH3 and used it if widlife got so close that I could use a short focal length, shoot hand-held and still get stable looking video.

Fast-forward to early July, which is one of my favorite times of year, as the whitetail bucks and  bull elk have substantial size antlers.  A favorite activity is to take a walk in the back country at the crack of dawn and check out meadows where bucks either feed in the cool of early morning or cross the meadows on their way from feeding areas to bedding grounds in the nearby woods.  A major reason I love taking video is that it is easier to get acceptable results with it at long range than it is with still cameras and many of the bucks that I see are very intolerant of humans, which makes long range encounters the norm. On the morning of July 8th I  found a few decent bucks in a meadow complex and got some video of them.

7P At Long Range: GH4 Video Still Capture
There was really nothing all that special about the situation except that the GH4 worked so well for this long range shooting compared to the cameras I had been using.  The LCD was much better than the one on the GH3 and as I reviewed the clips I had filmed I thought about the trip I had planned to elk country that coming Sunday and I felt on top of the world as I thought about the excellent whitetail and elk filming opportunities that the near future offered and what a pleasure it would be to use this camera.

As it was still fairly early I drove to another spot where fawns are frequently seen and set theGH4 up on the tripod.  A fawn soon appeared and I took some video  footage and then decided to go for a few still frames from my 70D, which was close at hand with the 70-200mm f2.8 attached.  I fired a shot or so from eye level and as the fawn was not spooky I dropped to a kneeling position to get a better perspective and fired a few frames.

Young Fawn: Canon 70D-70-200mm f2.8 L IS II
 When I stood back up, I stumbled a bit, felt a small bump on my back, and glanced over my shoulder. To my dismay, the tripod with the Panasonic GH4 attached was  falling over backwards.  It all seemed to happen in slow motion and before I could turn completely around I heard a sickening crunch as something broke.  I was in denial and didn't even want to look at the camera, which must be whey I took no photos of it after the accident.  I walked up to it and reluctantly assessed the damage.  I had the LCD opened and at a 45 degree angle which is my favorite position for video and the camera fell in such a way that the LCD and mike input jack bore the brunt of the impact.

The Aftermath-Broken LCD Hinge
The LCD was still attached to the camera and the glass was not broken, but the hinge was damaged and it would not display an image. On a positive note the internal electronic viewfinder worked OK and the remote control jack still functioned, but it was very limiting to shoot video this way after the freedom of using the LCD

In one short moment I went from being on top of the world as I thought about the coming summer and shooting 4K video to being faced with the possibility that it would be some time before I could shoot 4K video again.  There several options open to me including going back to the 70D and The GH3 or breaking the XL-H1 out, while the camera was sent to Panasonic for repair. Pursuing this option meant no 4K filming while it was gone, an unknown turn-around time, and even the possibility that Panasonic would simply want to replace the camera at full cost and not repair it.  Another option was to replace the camera with another new body.  The downside to this was the expense and as it turned out it was not possible at the time as they were out of stock everywhere.  This left the option of using the camera with the electronic viewfinder only, but then I realized that I had time to get an external monitor before the trip.

I have considered using an external monitor for years, but never made the step as there was always some other piece of equipment that I felt it was more pressing to obtain. Also there were concerns about the added bulk and complexity of the equipment once a monitor was attached.  Back in the SD days I filmed some performance videos of bands using multi-cameras and a mixer with an output plugged into a TV set for monitoring, but I never used a dedicated on camera monitor while filming wildlife in the field.

Considering the options facing me, I decided to got with a 7" Ikan VK7i Monitor and I got it in time to make a home-made bracket which I used in conjunction with a Zactuo Gorilla Plate, to fit it to the GH4.

GH4 and Ikan Monitor attached by Zacuto Gorilla Plate and home-made bracket
This saved the day and I had a great trip to elk country and continued to enjoy filming whitetail deer, elk, and other wildlife in 4K

Foggy Morning Elk-Video Still Capture
Doe Feeding As Seen On Ikan VK7i
As it turned out I was less than pleased with my homemade bracket and once I was back home, I acquired a GH4 Camera Cage from Amazon and after altering a few minor details I was relatively happy with my setup. Even though I was pleased with this set-up I still missed having the touch-screen on the GH4 and once GH4 bodies were in stock again I got another one and I am using it with the monitor, while the damaged GH4 has so far been relegated to the spot of the camera to use with a small lens for handheld work at close range.

There is always pluses and minuses to any set-up and there are several draw-backs to using an external monitor. The GH4 is a joy to carry--especially with the 14-140mm and 100-300mm lenses, but once a camera cage, external monitor, and microphone are fitted to the camera it is no longer light and compact and with a configuration such as that shown in the first photo, it is very cumbersome indeed, but the offsetting factor is that it is a serious tool for serious long-range work.

Hopefully we will explore this more in the near future including showing more video clips taken with this camera.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.