What is the animal sighting that tops many visitors’ wishlists in Yellowstone, Canada, or Alaska? You might think the answer is straightforward: grizzly bears. Wolves. Bison. The answer, however, is moose!
Males carry a huge rack of antlers on their heads. Female moose, who don’t have antlers, with young successfully fight off grizzly bears and other predators. So how can you as a mortal and perhaps slightly out-of-shape human get good images of moose and avoid yourself and your gear getting trampled in the process?
Where Do Moose Live?
First things first, where can you go find moose? Unfortunately for us, moose like the cold. In fact, they love the cold. Think places like Alaska, Canada, Northern Europe, the Northeastern U.S., and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Moose are well adapted to the cold thanks to two layers of fur: hollow hairs cover a soft undercoat. Their long legs help them get around in snow up to 36 inches deep. Being the largest member of the deer family also helps them deal with the extreme cold as the ratio of their exposed outer body surface is small compared to their overall body mass. They are so well adapted to the cold, in fact, that they start panting when the temperature reaches 62°F (17°C)!
So, even though the occasional enterprising moose is spotted all the way south exploring a place like New Mexico, your best bet is to go to a cold place. While Denali National Park in Alaska is known for its monster-sized moose, my favorite place for photographing moose is Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, home to the smallest subspecies of moose in North America, the “Shiras” moose.
Why Travel to Grand Teton National Park to Photograph Moose?
Short answer, its population of moose and their rack sizes.
The GYE (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) is home to an estimated 800 moose, most of which live in the valley known as “Jackson Hole”, home to Grand Teton National Park.
Living in the relatively protected environment offered by a National Park, the bull moose here are typically fairly tolerant of people. That helps a great deal if you want to take their picture.
Plus, they live a lot longer than in an area with heavy hunting pressure. As is the case with wildlife photographers, most hunters tend to go for the animals with the biggest rack of antlers, effectively reducing your chances of finding and photographing a big bull in its prime. Whereas a bull moose has an average life expectancy of up to 7 or 8 years in heavily hunted places like Sweden or Canada, the bulls in the Tetons live up to 25 years old, growing a bigger rack every year.
In fact, the biggest bulls with the biggest racks in the Tetons get so well known among photographers and tourists alike that they are given names: once you visit, you’re bound to hear about the majestic “Shoshone”, “Hoback” or “Fremont.”
Best Places to Find Moose in the Tetons
Perhaps the best tip: look for moose near water. The park has several riparian areas around rivers and lakes that provide great habitats.
Moose-Wilson road. This road connects the towns of Moose and Wilson. Prime moose habitat borders the small road. Look for moose especially in the last mile towards Moose when the forest opens up into wet areas.
Snake river. The Snake river meanders through the park from Jackson Lake towards the towns of Wilson and Jackson. Overlooks and pull-outs along the park roads provide great spots to get out your binoculars or strap on your hiking boots. Moose hot spots include “Oxbow Bend”, “Schwabacher Landing” and “Blacktail Ponds.”
Gros Ventre river. This river, which begins high in the wilderness, flows into the National Park and drains into the Snake river. Along the way, the river provides for great moose habitat and the area is an excellent place to go for a hike in search of moose. One thing to note is that you are not allowed to cross the river on foot: the area south of the river is known as the “National Elk Refuge” where hiking is not allowed. Nothing so frustrating as finding a big bull along the Gros Ventre who then decides to cross out of sight into the refuge!
Taggart lake. Another moose favorite, I look for moose here mainly during calving season.
Respect the Animal
While you never want to get too close to a moose (the park imposes a minimum 25-yard distance), they are especially unpredictable during mating season, which runs from September into October. Bull moose are typically on the move looking for cows in heat this time of the year. When they find a cow that piques their interest, they spar with other interested bulls, which makes for great photographic opportunities.
During this time, both the bull and the cow can suddenly decide to run so you better not be caught reviewing your images on the back of your camera when that happens!
On some occasions, even the 25-yard limit isn’t far enough. What are things to look out for to discern if a moose does not appreciate you being there? The first sign is prolonged eye contact. Then, when you notice the hairs on the back of the moose’s neck and shoulders (‘hackles’) stand up, back away as this usually indicates that a charge is imminent!
No matter how far I am from the moose that I’m photographing, I always like to have a tree between us: a great place to hide behind (or climb into).
When to Photograph Moose
Let’s start with when not to go: January through April. Bull moose shed their antlers every year around the end of December. Moose photography starts to get interesting in late spring of each year during calving season. After an 8-month gestation period, cow moose give birth to a moose calf and, of course, few things beat a picture of a cute baby animal!
This, however, is also one of the most dangerous times of the year to be out in the field with moose: momma moose does not appreciate the safety of her calf being threatened. Never approach a cow with a calf. Even the 25-yard mark is cutting it close, not only for your own safety but also not to disturb the cow and calf. They have enough to worry about with hungry grizzlies and wolves walking around the park. That means bringing a long focal length lens into the field with you.
Fall is peak time for moose photography. Late August marks the antlers being fully grown and covered in velvet.
Pictures of bull moose rubbing their antlers against bushes and trees are only possible this time of the year. Bulls rub their antlers in order to get rid of the velvet and expose the hard bone underneath. While they get rid of the velvet, their antlers pretty much become a bloody mess with strands of velvet hanging down over their face.
Once the rut is over in October and the first snow starts falling, moose become easier to find. While the leaves are on the trees during the summer and early fall months, moose spend most of their time hidden in the forests, close to their food. Moose are browsers, not grazers like your typical deer, which means they prefer leaves, bark, and twigs over grasses.
Once the leaves fall off in October, moose change their diet and move out into the open sagebrush flats, eating things like bitterbrush. The bulls still have their antlers so this makes for great photo opportunities!
Moose Behaviors to Look Out For
One of the prime behaviors to capture is the sparring of the bulls. How to go about photographing this?
Find a cow moose during mating season, wait for a bull to show up, wait for another bull to come challenge him, and action! Trust me, it’s much easier this way than to go chasing bull moose around who are on the move. In between cows, bulls are on a mission to get to the next cow. Good luck keeping up!
Another favorite behavior to photograph is called the “Flehmen response.” It looks like a bull moose lifting up its head and curling back its upper lip.
What the bull moose is actually doing with this behavior is helping scents and pheromones into an organ – “Jacobson’s organ” – located in its mouth. They do this to interpret “odor messages” between animals. One of the most common “messages” is whether a nearby cow moose is ready for mating and sexually receptive to the bull’s advances!
Gear and Camera Settings
Moose are large animals. You’re not shooting a tiny bird, so you don’t need all that much lens when you’re only standing 25 yards away. A focal length from 70mm to 400mm allows you to go for the close-up as well as the environment shot.
Unless the bulls are sparring, you can get away with a fairly slow shutter speed, which helps in keeping the ISO setting as low as possible depending on your lens aperture. Since moose tend to be most active at dusk and dawn, the more important aspect of your lens is its maximum aperture: I prefer to bring the largest aperture available, ideally f/2.8.
As usual, I like to go down to eye level and focus on the animal’s eyes for the biggest impact. One word of advice, however, when it comes to completely relying on your mirrorless camera’s eye-detection autofocus system: these tend to work amazingly well on a human or on an animal that is well-contrasted with well-defined eyes. A moose is typically black, standing in a dark forest, with dark eyes. As a result, Eye AF doesn’t work well on moose in many instances. Since moose are not hyperactive like a small bird, I tend to rely on single-point AF where I move the focus point around onto the eye.
Protect Your Gear and Clothing from Water
And, finally, moose love water. That means you and your gear have a high likelihood of getting wet! The usual strategies will keep you dry: waterproof shoes or boots and a raincoat for your camera and lens. Waders may be needed to get some of the most desired shots of moose standing in a deep river or lake.
Good luck out there and happy shooting!
About the author: Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven is a freelance wildlife and conservation photographer based in New Mexico. You can find more of Vangoidtsenhoven’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.
Image credits: Photographs by Jorn Vangoidtsenhoven.