I got really excited when I came upon my first American Bison or Buffalo in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. It was around the next bend from the elk herd I talked about earlier this week. He was down in a ravine all by himself. If there where others with him, they kept out of view. Leaving the warmth of the car, I walked across the road to take some photographs and observe.
This is when I first saw how the bison find their food in deep snow. He lifted his head to the right and, using his head as a plow, he moved it to the left while burying it into the snow. This exposed a wide swath of grass which he proceeded to munch on for several minutes before moving a bit forward and repeating the snow removal process. I watched him do this for awhile but the sub-zero temperatures won out and I returned to the car to continue my quest and warm my feet. Though I had found a buffalo, I wanted to see more.
Now I knew what to look for in the snow. When a bison herd stops to graze, they clear off large areas. I could see many places where herds had been in the fields, hills and valleys I was passing. Yet, no animals. I was getting a bit discouraged as I was coming to the end of the park road which had turned from pavement to gravel.
I was listening to the tires going over the mix of snow and stones when I came upon a herd of some twenty American Bison who has the duplicity scientific name of Bison bison. I slowly came to a stop and opened the passenger side window as they were off the right hand side of the road (while we Americans drive on the left side of our vehicles). Using my longest and heaviest lens, the Nikon 80-400 VR, I started photographing from the drivers seat. As they were about 100 yards (91 meters) away from me I was using the full 400mm setting on my 1.5x cropped Nikon D70 which amounts to 600mm on a full frame camera body. I began with earnest to photograph the herd and its individuals. This proved very uncomfortable as I kept stretching over to the passenger side over the car’s center console. I didn’t want to get out and make noise moving either. The herd of bison were very busy feeding themselves and I did not want to disturb such an important process. They had a long winter ahead of them and would need all the nourishment they could get.
After a time, I figured they were not going anywhere and drove up and over the next hill out of their sight. I turned around and returned. Parking on the far left of the road in the opposite direction, I settled in to comfortably photograph the herd from the drivers seat for the next two hours.
There were three large males keeping their distance from me. No doubt that is how they survive us tourists invading their home. The largest (pictured above) would have been a prized trophy back in Theodore Roosevelt’s time of the late 1800’s. Today, he is safe inside the park’s boundaries named after the former President of the United States who was also an avid hunter. Unlike the large males, the other males, females and young calves kept getting closer and closer to my location. I changed from getting “look what I saw” type of photos to being able to compose photographs and portraits of the bison. At one time there were a half dozen individuals within ten feet of me. Zoom lenses are not as sharp as prime lenses, however, using one on this day proved very fortunate as I was able to zoom from 80 to 400mm and get lots of different photographs of the brown and shaggy beasts.
Though they looked peaceful, the bison kept an eye on me. Being a national park, I am sure they are used to cars stopping and people gawking at them. Some with equipment like mine. I was nothing new to them. I know they could hear my camera clicking as I could hear them breathing the cold air and eating the browse they continued to uncover. Their snow masked faces making it hard to see their eyes until they got near me.
It was getting close to the time I needed to return to pick up my daughter from work, four of the bison (3 adults and a young calf) came up on the road in front of me and completely blocked it. I wondered if they wanted to keep me here and how was I going to get past them. The car I was in was no match for them if they decided to hold their ground. A passing Park Ranger truck showed me how by slowing down and never stopping, the bison gave way without a fuss. After a few more minutes, it was time for me to leave. I bid them goodbye and safe journey through a long winter knowing I had a long one of my own the next day.
Photographing wildlife in their home from the smallest birds and insects to these large American Bison on a winter’s day brings to me excitement, wonder and hope. We share our precious planet Earth with billions of creatures who can not withstand humankind. However, a planet without them would be barren and sad to live in.