One of the experiences I truly enjoy when photographing wildlife is that brief moment when you and the animal make knowing eye contact and you know, that they know, that you know, they see you. Those next few seconds are always curious and exciting for me. I feel like there is an unspoken conversation going on. (ok, maybe I am spending too much time in the woods…) Will they allow the shutter to click without moving, or will they bolt at the first shift of my arm? Sometimes these instances happen by accident, as with the raccoon, as I didn’t have my camera ready when he made an appearance. He didn’t seem too bothered, although he kept a close eye and he didn’t fully expose himself. He slowly wandered off making sure to stay in thick brush.
With deer and antelope there is usually a still stare-down which I try to enjoy because I know as soon as I move my eye behind the lens, they pivot and run. Birds are less predictable. I have had owls just stare down at me and follow me wherever I move, crunching dead branches, seemingly nonplussed, while bluejays hardly let you breathe without branch jumping. Cape buffalos have my favorite dopey stare. Giant eyes and a big, wet nose follow your every move and the moment they feel threatened they turn and trot, but you can generally snap off a few nice shots-from the safety of a truck.
Warthogs are the jumpiest–as soon as you kill the ignition they sprint off with their little f-you tail in the air. My closest encounter and certainly most dramatic was with a large bull elephant in Tanzania. We stopped close-by while he was grazing. He didn’t really acknowledge us for the first few minutes, which is quite common with wild elephants. He slowly moved closer, then suddenly turned and looked straight at us, flapped his enormous ears, delivered an body-shaking trumpet and took three or four very large steps towards us. The Range Rover suddenly felt like a Yaris. Then he stood still, ears out and waited for us to move. After a calming moment we did. As long as those ears were out we knew he was just posturing. An elephant intent on charging will tuck them back and he won’t stop at three steps. Still, you wonder if all elephants know that?! It remains one of the most exciting wildlife encounters I have had. From the biggest to the smallest though, there is something very magical about sharing a moment of eye contact and uncertainly with a wild animal.