Animal Stories: Favorite Wildlife Locations

Insight and tips about where to go and what you’ll see at some of the most famous locations for wildlife photography in North America

Part of what makes wildlife photography so alluring is the challenge of learning the behavior and movement of a particular species, exploring the region and climate it calls home, while expanding your photographic skills to capture each animal’s story. Professional wildlife photographers share their tips about the regions and animals in which they specialize.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Photo by Robert OToole.

Located on 57,331 acres along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the winter home to as many as 14,000 sandhill cranes, 32,000 snow geese and Ross’s geese, dozens of bald eagles, and many other species of birds. The spectacle of the sunset fly-in and dawn fly-out, in addition to the extensive wetlands, farmlands, riparian forests, arid foothills and mesas, and multicolored mountains, offers endless photographic opportunities.

“The quality of the light is always the most important element to a successful photograph at Bosque, so anytime the light is good is the best time to shoot! When you get extreme weather at Bosque, like thunderstorms, hail or snowstorms, most photographers and tour groups stop shooting and retreat, but these conditions can produce some of the very best situations, with magic light and perfect winds for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Learn as much as you can about your subjects, and pay close attention to the weather forecasts to put the odds in your favor. Don’t just follow other photographers and photograph at the most popular spots since many of the all-time best photo sessions happen with only a few other photographers around.” —Robert OToole,

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Photo by Arthur Morris.

“The snow goose—both the blue and the white morphs, and its smaller cousin, Ross’s goose—is my favorite species to photograph. The morning goose fly-ins and fly-outs—best accompanied by a brilliant red sunrise—can be spectacular. And the goose blastoffs, where 3,000 to 10,000 geese take flight almost instantly in a huge wave, often reminiscent of a tsunami, can be jaw-dropping. Those are best on the rare cloudy days. But when working on bright sunny days, use a Singh-Ray 3- or 5-stop neutral-density filter or a warming circular polarizer to get down to the slow shutter speeds that are needed to create pleasingly blurred images. The blend-blur effect softens the harsh light on clear days. Also, one of the great things about Bosque is that you can create a great image with any lens that you own, from ultrawide-angle to supertelephoto. I’ve used a Canon 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS II, 600mm ƒ/4L IS II, 500mm ƒ/4L IS II, 100-400mm, 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS, 24-105mm, 24-70mm II, 16-35mm IS, 15mm fisheye and 8-15mm fisheye.” —Arthur Morris,

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Photo by John Shaw.

“Watching hundreds of geese lift off all at once is always a thrill. But Bosque offers other subjects to photograph, other species of birds, mammals, including deer, peccaries and rabbits, plus landscape possibilities. This great variety within a small area makes Bosque special; there’s always something to photograph. But the magic of Bosque isn’t just getting a photo. One of my best experiences there happened when I was standing by myself in a dense early-morning fog, listening to all the geese and cranes, which I couldn’t see.” —John Shaw,

Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Photo by Dennis Fast.

Located on the remote southwestern shores of Hudson Bay, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, is well known for being the polar bear capital of the world, a beluga whale-watching hot spot, a birder’s paradise and one of the best spots to catch the aurora borealis. There are no roads to Churchill, so the only way in or out is by air or rail, but once there, the Arctic scenery and variety of migrating wildlife make it a photographer’s dream destination.

“Polar bears are the iconic symbols of the North and of the threats posed by the changing northern climate. Part of what makes polar bears so appealing is the fact that, though they’re powerful carnivores, they manage to maintain an air of regal aloofness; sometimes, they just appear to be overgrown, playful puppies. I never find polar bears boring and can spend hours simply watching them sleep! Having said that, however, there’s nothing quite like watching them wrestle. The best time to view and photograph that behavior is in October and November. Part of what makes the wrestling action so fascinating is the sheer power that the bears exhibit. But, to me, the equal fascination is with the restraint they show. With plenty of opportunities to hurt each other seriously, they always seem to know when enough is enough. I usually prefocus on the bears, especially when they’re facing off and about to begin a match. As soon as one of them so much as lifts a paw that indicates a shove or stand-up push is imminent, I keep the camera in high-speed mode and fire as many shots as I can.

“Although most people come to Churchill to see polar bears, there are a lot of other animals to keep your attention while waiting for bears to move. Caribou frequent the area in winter, especially near Seal River Lodge, and I’ve seen as many as 10,000 in the area. Arctic foxes come and go with the fluctuations of the lemming population and are almost as much fun to watch as polar bears. I’ve seen as many as 30 and more on a given day. Increasingly, red foxes and their color phases of cross fox and silver fox seem to be moving northward at a steady pace. Red foxes are considerably larger than their Arctic cousins and have been known to kill and eat them. However, I’ve also seen both species only five or six feet apart with no apparent anxiety on anyone’s part! Arctic hares are regular in the region, as are snowy owls early in the season. The summer flowers and nesting birds of the Churchill region in June and July are legendary. Sitting quietly near a tundra pond may provide many opportunities for dramatic bird photos.” —Dennis Fast,

Everglades National Park, Florida

Everglades National Park, Florida. Photo by Mac Stone.

Everglades National Park is located within a massive watershed that extends from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay and was established to preserve the southern one-fifth of the Everglades ecosystem as wildlife habitat. The Everglades is the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles coexist, and is the subtropical refuge to the endangered manatee and Florida panther, plus snakes, sea turtles, numerous bird species and other rare wildlife.

“Within the boundaries of the park, you’re only limited by your own grit and imagination. You can run the gamut of ecosystems, from pine uplands to cypress domes to freshwater dwarf mangrove to the 850-square-mile Florida Bay. We have to rewire our brains to not expect the sweeping and obvious vistas we’re used to out West and to find the beauty in the chaos of a subtropical swamp. I love reptiles. Snakes, gators and turtles are some of my favorite subjects. They’re often misunderstood and hated by many; they’re the freshwater equivalent to sharks. Alligators are essential to maintaining the diversity of life we enjoy in South Florida. My favorite time of year to photograph alligators is during the height of the dry season, which typically occurs between February and March. There are certain places, deep in the backcountry, where alligators are known to congregate by the hundreds. These landscape features are called gator holes. As the water draws down, alligators come from every corner of the Everglades to stay wet and eat in the last remaining water holes. As fish are concentrated in these areas, alligators will launch out of the water to crash down on the trapped prey with incredible force. It’s an incredible spectacle to see.” —Mac Stone,

Everglades National Park, Florida. Photo by Denise Ippolito.

“I’m absolutely in love with the double-crested cormorants. Their green-jeweled eyes are a special treat to see and photograph. Anhinga Trail in the Everglades is one of the best places that I know of to get extremely close to them and create tight head portraits. They spend hours perched on the railings preening and drying their wings. When they’re in the water fishing, you can usually capture some exciting behaviors, as they will often squabble over the fish. I usually visit during the month of February, but as early as mid-January can be good. If you come too early, there won’t be many birds hanging out. If you come later than February, you’ll likely run into too many mosquitoes.” —Denise Ippolito,

Channel Islands National Park, California

Channel Islands National Park, California. Photo by Jason Bradley.

Channel Islands National Park encompasses five of the eight California Channel Islands, but its surrounding one mile of ocean is where the real treasures can be found. With marine life ranging from microscopic plankton to the blue whale, the Channel Islands are home to over 2,000 plant and animal species, of which 145 are found nowhere else in the world. The park is only accessible by boat or plane, and offers no lodging, food stores or gear rental services, making it one of the least visited national parks in the U.S. But this isolation has allowed for the protection and preservation of an abundance of natural and cultural resources.

“As you prepare to shoot in the Channel Islands, think versatility and be prepared for anything. There are tiny animals like sea slugs and giant animals like whales. One of the reasons I fell in love with the Channel Islands National Park, and why it feels most like home to me, is that it offers so much. One of the big mantras of the underwater photographer is to get close, and then get closer. Said in another way, don’t keep your distance from scenes and subjects underwater—even if they’re big, toothy sharks. I tend to stick to macro lenses or fisheye lenses, as both can keep me close to what I’m shooting.”
—Jason Bradley

Channel Islands National Park, California. Photo by Joseph Dovala.

“Swimming in a healthy kelp forest is like flying through a terrestrial forest with scores of life-forms living on, in and under the giant algae. Mostly, I shoot upward and as close to the subject as possible to get good contrast and minimize water-robbing sharpness. If you’re going to shoot topside only, spring after a decent rainy season is the best, for the islands erupt in color. Underwater, you need to have patience and revisit areas over and over, for you never know when someone special is going to swim on by. And, get close.” —Joseph Dovala,

Channel Islands National Park, California. Photo by Matthew Meier.

“One of my favorite species to shoot at the Channel Islands is the endemic Garibaldi fish, essentially a larger cousin to the clown fish. Garibaldis are bright orange in color, and the juveniles are covered in radiant blue spots. The males will challenge anything or anyone that gets too close to their eggs, regardless of size, and they keep a constant vigil by regularly swimming patrol patterns around their territory. While it’s fun to shoot the male Garibaldi tending to its eggs, I prefer to use their protective behavior to set up a shot nearby and wait for them to patrol into my frame. This allows me to compose a nice underwater scene and then take a photo every time the Garibaldi swims in front of my lens, adding a pop of color to the final image.

“The Channel Islands taught me that sharks are more afraid of us than we are of them. I’ve spent numerous dives waiting/hiding in the kelp, hoping a soupfin shark would swim close enough to me to photograph. The problem is, they’re afraid of the noise of our bubbles when we breathe in and out through our scuba regulators. So, to successfully photograph them, they must swim close enough while you’re between breaths, not making any noise, or they will startle and swim away.” —Matthew Meier

Alaska: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge And Barrow

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge And Barrow. Photo by Matthew Studebaker.

A visit to Denali National Park & Preserve and the tallest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley, is on the top of the list for many tourists when visiting the great state of Alaska. But for wildlife photographers, the more remote destinations to the north provide an experience unlike any other. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) covers approximately 19.64-million acres of land and water in northeastern Alaska, and contains the largest area of designated wilderness within the National Wildlife Refuge System. With an Arctic and a sub-Arctic landscape, ANWR is known for migratory wildlife behavior. Northwest of ANWR is the northernmost American city, Barrow, Alaska, which receives 24-hour daylight between May 10 and August 2. Located on the Arctic Ocean, Barrow is only accessible by air or sea travel. It’s home to giant snowy owls, whales, seals, walrus, caribou, moose, and hundreds of other rare and endangered species.

“I seek out three migrations in ANWR: 1) loons, eiders and other Arctic birds in mid-June near the Dalton Highway just south of Deadhorse; 2) polar bears in the Barter Island region during August through early October; and 3) caribou herds during mid- to late October just north of the Brooks Range mountains and just off the Dalton Highway. I can fairly accurately predict the timing and reliability of the birds and bears, but the caribou take much more luck and persistence.

“ANWR is beautiful, but brutal. I find myself alone with landscapes that are seldom seen and photographed. If this is your first time to ANWR or your first time photographing north of the 66th parallel, consider meeting up with a guide who has experience and can make your trip worthwhile.” —Matthew Studebaker

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge And Barrow. Photo by Paul Bannick.

“Ptarmigans are a study in changing color to blend into your habitat. Two species can be found around Barrow, the willow ptarmigan and the rock ptarmigan. Both species become pure white around November, gradually adding brown pigments to their plumage as the snow melts. This process allows them to always match to the ground around them. The birds seem conscious of the color of their plumage and will move quickly over the ground when their plumage doesn’t match, while slowing down and remaining motionless when they blend in again. Snowy owls can be abundant when lemming populations peak and are difficult to find in other years. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you might even witness an encounter between snowy owls and foxes.

“I typically bring my longest lens (600mm ƒ/4), my longest zoom (70-200mm ƒ/2.8) and my shortest zoom (24-70mm ƒ/2.8) to Barrow. I almost always use a tripod when shooting with the longest lens, except when I’m shooting from the window of my car using a beanbag.” —Paul Bannick,