Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bull Elk At Long Range-The Panasonic GH4 and Canon 500mm f 4.5

It doesn't seem possible, but it has been over a month since the last activity on this blog.  There were so many things I wanted to write about, but what with being preoccupied with photographing the whitetail rut and other things I have let things slide. I intended to write an article or a review long before this about how the new parking and viewing areas worked out on Dewey Road in Pennsylvania Elk Country  but that has not happened as of yet. Hopefully I will get to this soon.

To prepare for the article, I spent two weekend evenings there during the peak of the rut, documenting how humans and elk adapted to the new situation. While doing this on Friday evening, September 25th, I noticed a large 7x7 or 7x8 bull come into the food plot near the log cabin on the hill.  ( I  give these details as many if not most blog readers will know exactly where I mean) At that point I was behind the stone wall at the upper end of the upper Gilbert Farm meadow and took a photo with the full frame Canon 5D MK III and the 24-105mm F4 lens at 105mm. I have never been certain how far this is as my Bushnell range finder will not read that far.  I can usually get accurate readings with it in ideal conditions to somewhere between 300 to 400 yards so I would assume it is further than this and perhaps quite a bit further.  We can safely say as the old mountain men did that the bull was, "a right fur piece away".

Elk are barely visible on hillside in front of campers and cabin with 105mm on full frame camera
Since this was the most impressive bull I had yet seen here this year I broke out my tool of choice for extreme long range filming, which is a Panasonic GH4 fitted with an old Canon 500mm f4.5 FD lens and I walked to the edge of the new parking lot near the entrance from Dewey Road and set the rig up and filmed several clips of the action.

For me the main attractions of the GH4 are that it films in 4K mode and also features an ETC mode, which basically reads a 1080P or Full HD frame from the center of the sensor so that it has a crop factor of 5.2. This gives the 500mm a 35mm full frame equivalent of  2,600mm. There is some controversy about this figure and it varies with the source, but suffice it to say that it is powerful enough to be an extremely effective long range tool.  Many ask why one wants to shoot in 4K when 4K displays are not yet the standard or even commonly available.  The long and short is that it enables one to crop extensively in post-production and still have a high resolution image.  Is it better to use the ETC mode or is it better to crop to an equivalent size? I don't know for sure, but I often prefer to shoot in ETC as it gives a dramatic up and close image in the finder.
 I only use this rig in certain specialized situations as in many cases it is too powerful to easily find the subject.  While it is very good for filming small birds, it is difficult to locate them in the finder  unless they are perched conspicuously on a branch in the open..  The same is true of flying birds such as waterfowl, eagles, etc., so for general purpose, medium to long range use, I much prefer to use the old model Canon 100-400mm L lens.  With it one can quickly zoom wide to locate the subject and then slam the zoom back to the composition that you want to film.  Since I use an external monitor and manual focus with these lenses, I can begin focusing as soon as I stop zooming, while with the new model 100-400 you must shift your grip from the zoom ring to the focus ring.

Cheap adapters are available to mount the Canon EOS lenses to Micro 4/3 cameras, but they do not control the aperture so they are of very limited use for video. I use either a Metabones Smart Adapter or Metabones Speed Booster to attach the EOS lenses to the camera These adapters allow the Panasonic cameras to control the aperture, utilize  the image stabilization of the Canon lenses ,and permit auto-focus. I do not use the auto-focus: however, as it does not perform  acceptably well--at least with my rig.

With the Smart Adapter the focal length retains the full crop factor of the Micro 4/3 sensor of the GH4, and f stop value remains the same as the lens on a Canon body which is f4.5--f5.6 with a 100-400mm.  With the Speed Booster the crop factor is reduced, but one gains low light performance with the lens becoming a f3.2--f4.0 and it has the same equivalent focal length as when it is mounted on a Canon APS-C crop sensor camera such as the 7D MKII.

The Canon FD lenses were made back in manual focus and manual exposure days and they have aperture rings to select the f stop.  This makes them naturals for adapting to a wide variety of modern cameras for special purpose use, without having to invest in a complicated electronic controlled adapter.  In the case of the GH4 and the 500mm I use a Fotodiox Lens Mount Adapter, which is available from for a bit over $20.00. While the Canon FD lenses have not been manufactured for many years, most of the reputable internet dealers such as Adorama, B&H, and Keh usually have a good selection of these lenses in their used department. Although these are usually the smaller fixed power and zoom lenses, 500mm and 600mm lenses are available from time to time.

If you already have an EOS telephoto, it may be best to  buy the Metabones adapters as the current 500mm and 600mm lenses are f 4.0 vs the f 4.5 of the FD, and you are able to gain this long range ability with only the cost of the adapter,  but if you are solely a Panasonic user and own no EOS lenses, the FD lenses may be worth considering as both the adapter and the FD lenses will be much cheaper than buying the new EOS lenses and Metabones adapters.  I bought my 500mm FD because the Metabones adapters were not yet on the market and the adapter I was using with my EOS lenses left a lot to be desired. Would I buy it today if I had it to do over again?  Probably not since I already have the EOS lenses and the Metabones  adapters, but I have never been sorry that I got the lens and I continue to use it regularly for long range filming.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Images From The Whitetail Rut

Mature Whitetail Buck
The area where I do most of my wildlife photography is home to a substantial herd of whitetail deer, but it is not usually good summer range for the bachelor groups of mature bucks. Most of the deer are the does and fawns and the yearling and occasional two year old bucks that are still traveling with the family groups.

In many years buck sighting pick up in early October and the full-blown  rut gets underway during the last week.  But this year things were very slow and I became impatient as it seemed the rut would never start. That changed in the middle of last week and I have been able to photograph several bucks since then and will share some images  of this activity today.

Photos of bucks lip-curling as they search for does in heat often make dramatic photographs. The buck in the photo below tried to breed a doe shortly after the photo was taken, but she ran from him.

Scenting For Does
Whitetail bucks do have serious fights from time to time, but what I usually capture are only desultory sparring matches, which are not violent, but still make for good photo opportunities.

Sparring Match
Other favorite photo opportunities are to capture them making scrapes, checking their scrape lines, and chasing does.

Checking A Scrape

6 Point Erupts From Woods After Doe
Chasing Does
Although the rut will soon peak if it has not all ready, good activity should continue for the next two weeks before it comes to a crashing end because of rifle deer season.

Cameras used were the 5D MK III and the Canon 7D Mark II.  while the lenses were the Canon 300mm f2.8 and the Canon 600mm F4.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Coyote Attack

It was nearing 5:30 on a mid-August evening and I was watching a meadow where a herd of whitetail does and fawns were feeding along with two spike bucks. Suddenly a large coyote came into the meadow.  The Panasonic GH4 was sitting on the tripod nearby with the Canon 100-400mm IS L lens attached by means of the Metabones Speed Booster. I carefully moved into position behind it and began filming.  As I filmed I alternated between filming in 4K and the special ETC mode which this camera features.  With it a 1080P frame is read from the central portion of the sensor, which results in greatly increased ability to shoot at long ranges and still get frame filling  footage.

This was a large animal with wolf-like features. Some , including many  PGC officials, consider the coyotes in our area to actually be Eastern Brush Wolves as they bear more of a resemblance to small wolves than they do to the western coyotes.

The coyote showed no inclination to attack the large extended family group of deer as it slowly stalked through the meadow , but as it neared the tree line at the far edge of the meadow it sniffed the air and picked up the scent of a small spike buck that was feeding out of sight over a rise in the meadow.  The coyote trotted toward the spike and as it came over the rise it launched an attack on the deer, but then aborted it at the last moment before contact.  I can only speculate that it began the incident with the intention of driving home the attack if it was a fawn, but after getting close, realized there was no chance of successfully killing a deer that large and broke off the attack.

I am perhaps my own worst critic and I was extremely disgusted that I bobbled the camera at the crucial moment of the attack, but it was easy to fall into the pitfall which caused the problem.  As it was I was filming in the ETC mode because the coyote was far enough away that he did not look impressive on the monitor screen, so at the moment of the attack I had too much magnification and too narrow of a field of view to follow the action and smoothly film the happening.  As soon as the coyote broke off the attack I shifted to 4K in case he followed up on the attack, but instead he went into the woods.  In retrospect I would have been better off had I filmed the entire segment in 4K and then cropped the footage in post production, or once I was committed to ETC mode I should not have changed the camera to 4K after the attack as had things continued I would have missed a lot of the action as it takes awhile for the camera to be ready to shoot after making this change (because of the external monitor). This is only a few seconds , but that can cover a lot when things are moving quickly.  It would have been better to have stayed in ETC and simply zoomed out a bit, but that is the mistakes one makes.

Regardless of the mistakes and less than perfect filming, I still got some decent footage, and the memory of the event is one that I will treasure for a lifetime. At the end of the day that is really what it is all about anyway.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Mid-October At Middle Creek WMA

Sunrise at Middle Creel Lake
Most  recent posts have been devoted to Pennsylvania elk, with the  issues concerning the new viewing areas on Winslow Hill  and documentation of  elk rut activity during a two week trip in late September being the main subjects..

With the end of that trip my attention shifted to wildlife closer to home, which mostly involved keeping a close eye on the local deer herd,  but I took a break from this for several days when I visited Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area from the afternoon of Saturday, October 10 until late morning on the 14th. for several days of filming and photographing the waterfowl and other wildlife that may be found there.

A favorite way  to start a day at Middle Creek is  to photograph the sunrise from the area where Hopeland Road passes close to the lake.  The sunrise was especially fiery and vivid on the last day of the trip, which is the one featured at the beginning of the post, while the one on Monday was not as vivid due to a heavy fog, but was just as dramatic in its' own way, if not more so.

Foggy Morning Sunrise
I saw several species of ducks such as Mallards,Coot,  Pintails, Grebes, Black ducks, and Ring-necked ducks, but they were there in limited numbers and mostly far enough away that I did not photograph them, but filmed them with the video camera instead as it gives more satisfactory results at long range.  The most commonly seen species by far was the Canada Geese.

A modest flock of them could be seen most mornings and evenings where Hopeland Road passes along the lake.

Morning At Middle Creek
Great Blue Herons were seen in this area, as well as a few Great Egrets.

Great Blue Heron Watching For Fish
The pothole across Hopeland Road from the lake is also an excellent spot and it was here that I got a few photos of the Great Egrets and of Canada Geese landing.

Great Egret
Canada Goose Landing
Great Egret Looking For Fish
Although this trip  lacked the intensity of the spring migration with the vast numbers of Snow Geese that make such spectacular sights, it was nonetheless a very rewarding experience.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

River Encounters

Another September has come and gone and I am back home after nearly two weeks in Pennsylvania elk country .  Many years ago a photographer remarked that each year is different from the others.This is often because the best food sources will vary depending on what is planted in certain areas or if there is a good mast crop in a particular year, which will cause the elk to spend more time in the woods.  Whatever the cause, this was a very different year than most in the recent past, as this was the first time in many years that there were very few elk in The Saddle area during the time that I was there.

Resting In The Woods
Although elk were seen consistently along Dewey Road it was not as good as in most recent years and consequently I spent more time in other areas.  In twenty years of photographing elk I have spent little time along the streams in elk country, but that changed this year when I spent a few afternoons along Bennett's Branch.  One day I arrived a short time after an impressive dominance fight had occurred and found several  photographers discussing the events.. The largest bull involved in the fight was the one in the photo directly below.

7x8 The Day Before The River Fight
Even though the fight was over, the air rang with bugles as satellite bulls drifted back and forth across the stream, pausing to drink and to bugle.

River Crossing
6x6 Pauses To Drink
Bugling In The River
I have had many exciting times in elk country, but  this afternoon stood out from many of them because this was the first time I had photographed bulls during the rut in this type of setting.

All photos were taken with the Canon 5D MKIII and the Canon 600mm f4.0 IS L lens.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Non-Typical Bull And A Fight

I have been photographing and filming in Pennsylvania Elk Country this week, but have spent little time on Winslow Hill because of the changes to the Dewey Road and Saddle Area.  I did photograph this large non-typical bull, which many call The U Bull  shortly after dawn on Monday morning on Winslow Hill.

The U Bull
I spent most of the week traveling about and sometimes opportunities were few and far between.  Many mornings are foggy this time of year, which makes photography difficult if it is too thick. One morning there was little fog, but the light was dim and drab. I was watching cows and calves feeding when a fine 8x8 bull arrived and bugled. The light was still dim enough that I had to use an ISO setting of 2000 with the 5D MK III and 100-400mm IS II lens to get sufficient shutter speed to stop motion..

8x8 Bugles
In a few moments a larger bull appeared and challenged him and soon they were locked in combat. I boosted the ISO to 4000 so I could get an even higher shutter-speed of 1/400 sec. to try to stop the action better.

Bulls Fighting
The fight lasted for awhile and the bulls broke contact several times before returning to the struggle.

Bulls Pause From Fighting
After awhile I reached for the Panasonic FZ1000 camera and filmed them in 4K video, but they broke contact soon after I began.  I will try and get this on Vimeo at some point, but it may be awhile.

It seemed that activity was much better in the mornings, although the elk were usually went in the woods soon after sunrise and it seemed that most evenings were very dead as they often did not come into the meadows again until it was too dark for the best photography.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Late Summer Whitetails-Pre-rut Begins

With all the coverage of the changes coming to Winslow Hill, I have not posted anything but elk related material since mid-August.  I like photographing whitetail deer as much or more than I do elk and spend far more time around deer than any other species.  With that being said, most of the bucks in my area are not exceptionally large so I have to travel to find the truly large racks. For many years Shenandoah National Park was my favorite destination for that purpose, but that abruptly ended in 2012 when most of the bucks at Big Meadows were collared and several of the mature bucks vanished.

I only took one trip to SNP this summer, which was in late August, just before the velvet was shed.  We saw a few spikes and does, but deer were very scarce.  The trip was made worthwhile; however, by an encounter with a beautiful buck that had thirteen points if you go by the Boone and Crockett 1" rule, or fourteen if you count any protrusion.

Superb 13-Point: Canon 5D MK III-Canon 100-400mm L IS II@349mm-ISO 400-1/400 sec. f 6.3
Even this buck had not escaped the heavy hand of man as he was fitted with a small ear tag, which was easily removed in Photoshop. Yes, I plead quilty-- I have no compunction at all about cloning out an object on wildlife which should never have been there in the first place.

In the old days I would have returned and attempted to photograph him shedding the velvet, but I stayed home this year and the local bucks were difficult to see. I only filmed a small spike that was in the process of shedding his velvet, but one should not pass up an opportunity just because an animal is young and small. Spikes can make large bucks in later years if they survive.  "Once a spike-always a spike" is simply a statement that is not true in many if not most cases.

Yearling Buck Sheds Velvet: Canon 5D MK III-Canon 100-400mm L IS II@ 300mm-ISO 640-1/320 sec. f  5.0
On a beautiful, cool morning earlier this week I photographed an eight-point that had shed his velvet completely.

8-Point Buck: Canon 5D MK III-Canon 100-400mm L IS II@300mm-ISO 1000-1/125 sec. f 5.0
Pre-rut activity is underway and movement patterns are changing.  I filmed this buck with the GH4 making a scrape and horning tress soon after I took the photo above and have filmed one other buck doing this as well.

The pre-rut will intensify through October until the full-blown rut erupts in late October or early November.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

PGC Discusses Plans For Woodring Farm

Woodring House: Photo by W.Hill
After the dedication of the new viewing area last Friday, the Pennsylvania Game Commission invited attendees to a press briefing at the Woodring Farm, which was purchased last year by The PGC. Commission with substantial financial assistance from The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

At the briefing,  PGC Northcentral Regional Director, Barry Zaffuto set forth the plans for the property, which include a headquarters building, roadside elk viewing, and a The Woodring Farm Hiking Trail, a 1/4 mile trail, which officially opened that day.  The Trail is just past the Woodring House to the left and leads to a scenic overlook 1/4 mile away.

Woodring Farm Hiking Trail: Photo by W. Hill
Below is the video of Regional Director Zaffuto's speech.

NCR Director Zaffuto Speaks At Woodring Farm from Willard C. Hill on Vimeo.

After Mr. Zaffuto spoke I&E Supervisor, Doty McDowell  announced the PGC fall schedule of events for the viewing areas and mentioned that on Saturdays there will be organized trail hikes on The Woodring Farm Hiking Trail.. He went on to mention that a web cam was installed to view the elk.  He would not reveal the exact location--except that it was nearby.  You may view the Elk Cam by going to the PGC Website and click on Elk Country Live Stream

At this point Mr. McDowell asked if there were any questions and LMO Colleen Shannon spoke up saying, "Representative Gabler just asked a question and it is very important to understand--this is still State Game Lands, so this is all land that can be hunted, there's nothing special about this as far as being restricted to hunting". McDowell then took over answering Representative Gabler's concerns and pointed out that the trail hikes stop on October 3rd this year, which is the first day of archery season.  He went on to state, "this land was purchased for the sole purpose of hunting and trapping so we want to keep that at foremost".  Below s the video.

NCR I&E Supervisor McDowell Explains Woodring Property Is Open To Hunting from Willard C. Hill on Vimeo.

In the clip below Mr. McDowell goes on to explain that it is only organized trail hikes that will end.  You will still be permitted to walk the trail during hunting season.

Clarification Of Trail Use During Hunting Season from Willard C. Hill on Vimeo.

After the presentation, were  were invited to follow Game Commission Officers to the scenic overlook.

Overlook At Woodring Farm: Photo by W. Hill
It seems that this area is being developed to divert attention somewhat away from the Dewey Road area, but it is unclear just how well some of this is going to work. Some are predicting this will result in this area becoming tightly restricted also. It will be interesting to see how things shake out as the peak of elk viewing season arrives.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Northcentral Regional Director, Barry Zaffuto Explains PGC Vision For Winslow Viewing Area

Today we will continue with coverage of the dedication ceremony at the Winslow Hill/Gilbert Farm Viewing Area by presenting the speech given by the Director of  The Northcentral Region of The Pennsylvania Game Commission, Barry Zaffuto.

PGC Northcentral Region Director: Barry Zaffuto
First I will present an overview of his speech and then follow with some exact quotes from Mr. Zaffuto, which will be followed by a video of the entire speech which is just over four minutes in length.

He began by discussing how elk viewing in this area began and I personally recall this period of time well as I began going there in 1995. At that time The Gilbert Farm was private property and people pulled to the side of the road and watched elk in the meadows. The photo below is a frame-grab from video shot in September of 1995.

Gilbert Farm In 1995 Taken From Saddle-Video Still Capture
 This was the same general area in September of 2013, with the area where the buildings once stood being just off the right lower corner of the photo.

Gilbert Farm 2013 Taken From Saddle
Zaffuto tells how that after the PGC acquired the property, the viewing area was developed in response to people arriving and included widening the shoulder of the road and dumping stone, etc. to make it more stable.  He points out that DCNR established several viewing areas, the most important of which was Elk Country Visitor Center, . This resulted in drastically increased visitation to the area and the Dewey Road area became unacceptably congested.

Mr. Zaffuto became regional director three years ago and was extremely interested in the elk herd.  He visited the hill not wearing a uniform and circulated among the public, observing the situation, and chatting with the public.He mentions that some of the major concerns were the congestion, with it sometimes taking over and hour to get off of the hill during peak use times, elk viewers by the roadside having to listen to idling diesel engines, and people stopping in front of houses and yards and parking in yards.

At this point I will post a direct quote from Zaffuto's speech, which explains very clearly the goals of the PGC for this area.

“This Location where we are continued to be the heart of elk viewing, where the herd is most viewed, and people are coming—something had to be done, The other big thought was there was too much interaction between elk and people, too many people were getting close they were following them around, too much habituation. So while we provide for the visitors we had to account for the interaction between people and elk so last year many of you know we started with the trail system and the horses and the bikes and the hikers and the restricted areas and we got that started to try and make that separation, the elk will get used to seeing people at the viewing areas and on the roads, but if you step off of the road we want them to raise their heads and say why are you where you are not supposed to be”

I am hesitant to post video as it can be off-putting for those with a relatively slow internet connection ( I am one of those) as the video will frequently hang on the first viewing--it helps to view it in SD, but then the quality suffers severely.  For that reason I have enabled viewers to download the video by following the link to the Vimeo page where it is posted.  For best viewing experience I recommend that you download it in 1080p or 720p.  The 1080p version is over 400MB in size and requires awhile to download, while the 720p is a good compromise, as it still gives good quality, and the download size is about 75MB and takes much less time to download.  Save it to your computer and then view it in either Windows Media Player or Apple Quicktime Player.  For whatever reason it is a bit dark in Windows Media Player and looks better in Quick Time, but enough of the technical talk--here is the video.

PGC Northcentral Director Barry Zaffuto Speaks At Dedication Of New Winslow Hill Viewing Area from Willard C. Hill on Vimeo.

Feel free to share the video.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Importan Questions Answered About Gilbert Farm Viewing Area

PGC Northcentrail Information & Education Supervisor Doty McDowell  Speaks At Dedication
Yesterday morning as I traveled to Benezette to attend the dedication ceremony for the new viewing area on Winslow Hill,  I pondered the issues facing the agencies that control the vast public lands that comprise much of the elk range and how the attempt to resolve these issues effect persons such as I who view the situation from the perspective of a serious wildlife photographer and student of nature. This was foremost in my mind today as I would soon be attending the dedication of facilities that will significantly change wildlife viewing at the most popular elk viewing destination in Pennsylvania, an area where I have spent the vast majority of my time in elk country. As I drove I mentally compiled a list of several questions and concerns I  have heard from other photographers in face to face discussions, and commentary on the internet..

Land Management Officer Colleen Shannon was on the scene when I arrived.  As she is the supervisor of the crew that maintains the game lands on Winslow Hill I approached her with my concerns.

Land Management Officer Colleen Shannon
Many have expressed concern that the designated viewing area just off of the new parking lot is not large enough to hold the number of people that usually watch the area during the peak of the rut.  We were initially assured at a meeting with the PGC in early April that one would still be allowed to park along the old portion of Dewey Road and to stand there and photograph wildlife in the meadow, but as the project progressed it became clear that this was not likely the case so I asked LMO Shannon to address this.  She firmly stated that no parking or standing by the roadside will be permitted in this area of Dewey Road and that the signs have been ordered to post this restriction. According to her, the new viewing area provides a much better view of the area (from now on when I refer to viewing area in reference to this particular spot it is the area behind the stones in the photo below).  A primary goal of the project is to  isolate the public from the elk for safety reasons and to prevent habituation. The elimination of parking and standing along Dewey Road is part of the drive to end close-up elk viewing and to further encourage visitors to view from a distance.

Viewing Area
I asked if it would be permissible to stand outside the stones if that area is the viewing station is full  and it seemed one will be permitted to stand on the grass as long as they  are on the correct side of the Restricted signs, but I would not count on doing so until we see how things shake out during the peak period of the rut.

I also hoped to identify exactly who was responsible for the actual location of the boundaries of the restricted area in the saddle and asked Officer Shannon if she would clarify whether the boundaries were set at the state level (Harrisburg) l, the regional level (Jersey Shore) or the land management group level.  The answer as I understood it was that she and the elk biologist, Jeremy Banfield,  set the boundary lines working in conjunction with the Northcentral regional office of the PGC.

The purpose of this question was to determine if there was a possibility that a group of photographers could work together with the PGC in adjusting the boundaries to make The Saddle more usable to them while still conforming to the PGCs overall goals for the area.  I pointed out as an example the designated trail that goes into The Saddle and back to the area where the last pile of earth was before reclamation was complete. Naturally the road makes a convenient boundary, but allowing users to step a few  yards out of the road to the north would enable them to see the ridge to the north, which they cannot do at present. Shannon responded that," The Saddle is for elk and not for people", and went on to explain that the main concerns in setting up the restricted zone were safety and the habituation of elk. She further explained that on two instances last fall they had seen bulls chasing cows through groups of people and this could not be tolerated.   She went on to say that they didn't want people on top of the hill in The Saddle at the scenic lookout as there is often a lot of elk there and they don't want people interacting with them and don't want the people at the viewing area at the Gilbert Farm having to see all of the people on top of The Saddle.

I asked if we could expect the restricted areas to increase in size in the next few years and the answer was that if the current restrictions do not solve the problem there will be more.  She also told me that the original proposal was for a larger area to be restricted, but this was not adopted.

The official program began at 1:00 and featured a variety of speakers including, PGC Executive Director Matt Hough, and Northcentral Region Director, Barry Zaffuto.

Regional Director Zaffuto dealt with the history of how the viewing area on Dewey Road evolved over the years and went on to discuss in detail PGC concerns and goals in reference to the habituation of elk, which will hopefully be the subject of another post in the near future.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

New Winslow Hill Viewing Area To Be Dedicated

New Winslow Hill Viewing Area-Gilbert Farm
Regular readers of this blog are well aware of the changes to the elk viewing areas on Dewey Road and it seems likely that by this time many will have traveled there to view them personally. At any rate, on Thursday August 27th I received the following Pennsylvania Game Commission News Advisory pertaining to the dedication of the new facilities.

PA Game Commission News Advisory
For Immediate Release
August 27, 2015

New Elk and Wildlife Viewing Area to be Dedicated

The Pennsylvania Game Commission will dedicate the new Winslow Hill Viewing Area at a ceremony to be held on site Friday, Sept. 4 starting at 1 p.m.

Following the dedication, Game Commission representatives will kick off the fall viewing season by announcing plans for additional public facilities, as well as their fall program schedule centering on elk and wildlife viewing. Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough said the facilities and activities underscore the tremendous and growing interest in viewing wildlife, particularly elk.

In 2014, over 400,000 wildlife enthusiasts came to the Winslow Hill portion of State Game Lands 311 and the nearby Elk Country Visitor Center to view elk. This was a higher number of visitors than anyone predicted, and well more than existing facilities were designed to accommodate. Due to a need for improved viewing platforms, additional parking and safer traffic patterns, the Game Commission contracted the Larson Design Group, of Williamsport, to design a safer and more efficient wildlife viewing area.

From state Route 555 in Benezette, turn onto Front Street, then turn right onto Winslow Hill Road. Follow Winslow Hill Road approximately 2.5 miles. The dedication will take at the Winslow Hill Viewing Area off Dewey Road.
For the remainder of today's post I will share some photos and a bit of analysis of the situation. Of course this is written from the perspective of a serious wildlife photographer and most of the input I have heard is from others of a similar bent.

In the past, large numbers of elk enthusiasts parked in the pull-off along the edge of Dewey Road that stretched from the end of the tree line that ran along the right of the road to the site where the Gilbert house and barn used to stand. Many set up lawn chairs, cameras, spotting scopes, etc and spent an entire morning of evening there as the photos below show.

Elk Viewing Dewey Road-2009

The Gilbert Meadow-Taken From Road-bank
Most I have talked to are concerned that visitors will be required to stand in the gravel covered area behind the stones shown in the first photo, which would not be sufficient to contain a large number of people-- especially those with tripods, etc. set up. The photo below is taken from standing in the viewing area and looking down Dewey Road on August 18th and shows what happened to the area where the vehicles are parked in the photos above. 

Former Parking Area-From New Viewing Area
At the time there were not any No Parking Signs along Dewey Road in that area, but the roadway is only just possibly wide enough for a single line of vehicles to park along the field and if that is allowed there would be little room to maneuver around them on foot. There is a berm or bank that runs the entire length of the road in this area that ranges from about knee to waist-high, if I recall correctly. One could stand there with a camera and tripod and successfully photograph elk in the meadow, but the big question remains if this will be allowed. It only takes a short time for No Parking or No Standing signs to be erected and they could well be there even as I am writing this, or at any time in the future. Even if one can stand here, the days when one could pull-in and set up a lawn chair with a good view of the meadow seems to be a thing of the past which is especially devastating to those with physical infirmities that could not handily walk to the viewing “platform”.

There is either a parking area or a turn-around spot where the Gilbert house used to stand (no actual parking area signs were there on the 18th, but there was an informational kiosk such as usually erected in parking lots). Restricted signs are posted around this in such a manner that one cannot, however, see into the field without walking up the hill along Dewey Road to do so.

Parking Lot-Turn-around At Gilbert House Site
It will be interesting to see how the area is posted and the rules are enforced for the peak period of the September rut. I will wait until I see how this shakes out before forming a definite opinion, but at this point I can't help but think this appears to have been designed for casual tourism where the visitor stops by Elk Country Visitor Center, then drives up the hill or travels by tour bus, walks to the viewing area, snaps a few photos with their cell phone camera, then turns and walks away. There seems to have been little to no consideration for the needs of the serious wildlife enthusiast.

Originally Published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Shedding Of The Velvet-2015

Ready To Shed Velvet
The last two weeks have been a period of change in Pennsylvania Elk Country, as the bull elk shed the velvet. The new velvet covered antlers begin growing soon after the previous years rack is shed in late winter and early spring. with new antler growth beginning almost immediately. The new antlers are covered with "velvet" which is composed of a soft velvety feeling tissue, which contains a network of blood vessels that carry nourishment to the developing antlers. The antlers reach their full size during July and by early August the velvet begins to dry and crack and eventually peel away, exposing the hard bone like antlers that the animal will carry throughout the autumn and winter.

The bull in the photo below is starting the process with small bits of loose velvet hanging from the antlers and bloody areas with patches of the underlying antler structure showing through.

 Starting To Shed
When the velvet is completely ready to be shed, the animals hasten the process along by aggressively horning trees, saplings, and the ground. At this point it is common to see the velvet hanging from the antlers in long, loose strips.

Shedding Almost Completed
The process  is usually completed in a day or so and the bull is left with the hard, bone like antlers that he  will carry throughout the autumn and winter.

Shedding Completed
Now that the velvet is gone sparring intensifies as the first stirrings of the pre-rut sweep through the herd. While I prefer to photograph elk in a natural setting, it seems that many of the bulls were hanging close to cabins and houses this week and on Wednesday morning I photographed two fine bulls sparring close to a cabin.

 Sparring Beside A Camp
By late August or early September the full-blown rut will get underway and thousands will travel to Benezette to experience the exciting sights and sounds of the rut.  The rut should be very intense by mid-September and should peak late in the month, or in early October.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mid-Summer Wildlife

It seems that most of my recent posts have been about Pennsylvania Elk and the new construction in elk country, but I actually spend most of my time afield observing and photographing whitetail deer so today's post will be mostly about deer and some of the other local wildlife.

Mature Doe
 It is relatively easy for me to get good still photographs of does, fawns, and small bucks as I am around an extended family group of deer almost every day and they have come to tolerate my presence quite well. It is always a special treat to get a close-up look at a fawn or to see a doe and fawn nursing.

Fawn In Late June

Currently no mature bucks are using this area as summer range so I must travel to other areas to look for rack bucks. The ones I see are extremely skittish so it is hard to get close enough for good still photos.  As a result, I concentrate on taking video with the Panasonic GH4 and long lenses. With this rig it is possible to take acceptable video at very long range and it is common to get usable footage at ranges such as 300--400 yards--although it is still better to be close if possible.  At times I also carry a still camera if I am not walking too far and fire a few frames even if the range is long. 

8-Point Buck At Long Range
The photo above was taken with the Canon 5D MK III and the new 100-400mm lens.  I didn't have my range finder along that day, but the buck was somewhere between 150-200 yards away.  This was taken hand-held from sitting position and then cropped at  a 4x5 aspect ratio in Adobe Camera Raw to 2MP., which yields a file capable of printing a 4x5 print at 300 d.p.i.  Of course this is not enough resolution for a large print, but it does make a usable photo for internet purposes.

It adds a lot of interest to an outing to encounter other species of wildlife as well. I frequently see a lot of interesting things that are impossible to get the camera in action to photograph, but sometimes things do work out.  I got the photo below as I was fording a back country stream with the Bronco and noticed a flock of Mergansers perched on rocks in the stream. Fortunately they did not become alarmed and I photographed them with the 7D MK II and the 100-400mm.

Mergansers Resting
While I do not see Eastern Wild Turkey as often in the summer as at other times of year, sometimes a good encounter does occur.

Mature Gobbler Looks For Danger
I have seen several flocks of hens and young turkeys--or perhaps I have seen one or two flocks several times--but I have not been able to get either good video or stills of them.  This usually changes once the farmers have harvested the grain and hay fields which makes the birds much more visible when they are feeding in them.  I did get a photo of a hen with a lone poult one summer evening.

Eastern Wild Turkey Hen With Young
I suspect that she had a larger flock, but the others stayed a bit further away and were hidden in the taller grass.

Soon my attention will be shifting to recording the bull elk and whitetail bucks losing their velvet and the onset of the pre-rut and rut.  Bull elk are shedding their velvet now and the elk  rut will get underway in early September and peak toward the end of the month, while the whitetails will not lose their velvet until late August through mid-September and the whitetail rut will not peak until about mid-November.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.