“Sssshush” was the swift, and abrupt rebuke in reply to my slightly too enthusiastic “Hi”, as the door to the hide opened. They take wildlife watching seriously in Alutaguse, Estonia.
Dusk was rapidly descending outside the shelter, and the other ‘watchers’ were already quietly staring out towards the clearing. All were hoping for a glimpse of a bear, or maybe something even rarer; a pine marten, elk or wolf.
Autumn is a great time for wildlife spotting, especially bears, and other animals which hibernate through the winter months. They are busy fattening up, attempting to pile on the pounds before finding a comfortable spot to sleep out the worst of the winter. It’s a tough life being smarter than the average mammal.
Setting up the camera, on a tripod it was slightly disappointing to realise their was glass separating us from the outside world. I’m sure it meant we’d be slightly warmer, but it would probably spoil the quality of the images I was likely to capture.
Photographing wildlife is usually challenging, animals move, seldom posing long enough to allow slow shutter speeds. A problem, in low light, as the sensor will need enough light, something needs to give. Experimenting with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to get the best results is usually necessary.
The most important thing is to have the camera set up ready, grab the image, and then make any refinements necessary to get it technically correct.
The light was rapidly diminishing, and the glass however clean is nothing like the quality of expensive lenses. Reducing the light hitting the sensor still further, creating noise, and almost certainly causing some chromatic aberration. My suspicions were proved correct, when I later edited the images, cropping the subjects close wasn’t desirable due to these reasons.
However, it remained an adventure, seeing wildlife in their natural habitat is exciting, and the hide provided the perfect viewing platform. It was also warm, and we had beds, so when it became too dark we could just snooze, waking up occasionally to check out if there was any activity.
Initially there was only a lazy fox, which seemed almost dead. Sleeping soundly on a moss-covered log, before getting up to have a sniff around the glade in search for a tasty titbit.
It was soon joined by an inquisitive group of raccoon dogs, which foraged far, and wide around the area, digging, scratching, sniffing at everything, and anything in case it might be food. They were much more active, and playful, so more interesting to watch, sticking their nose where it probably wasn’t sensible to do so.
They generally ignored the fox, but it was certainly more interested in them, skulking around in the background, keeping a close eye on their activity. Possibly hoping that they might uncover some food for him to profit from. These pictures are my favourites, with both animals in the frame, especially with the fox out of focus, as it seems to emphasise it’s voyeuristic nature.
Most inhabitants of the hide, watched avidly, even taking pictures, or video on mobile phones, but a couple took the opportunity to grab a snooze before the hoped for highlight appeared.
In the event, it was me that realised a bear was arriving. The raccoon dogs scattering like bachelors at a paternity hearing, “something is coming” I observed. Sure enough, a large brown bear ambled into the clearing, wandering around at his leisure, the untroubled lord of the glade.
It was already getting quite dark, and before long it was impossible to capture any decent images, so it seemed sensible to just settle down and enjoy the show.
This was my first time spending a night in a hide, and it felt like being part of a natural history documentary. Being in a position to watch brown bears, foxes, and raccoons, with the slight possibility of a wolf, or even a European lynx arriving is very exciting. I was half expecting a commentary to suddenly start-up, the dulcet, and informative tones of an excitedly animated Sir David Attenborough.
Eventually, one by one the wildlife watchers drifted away from the viewing seats, and into their warm, and welcoming beds. I was one of the last to retire, and ventured from my comfortable pit twice during the night to see if there was any further activity, but without anything further to report.
As the sun slowly rose, a well rested, and happy group of wildlife spotters emerged into the crisp, clear autumnal morning. We were treated to the soft glow of an Alutaguse sunrise, as the sun peeked between the trees of the thick wood. I was mortified to discover there were other hides, photography specific ones, without the dreaded glass. Maybe our guide hadn’t noticed the 12 inch lens attached to my camera!
It seems reasonable being offered the option, regardless if another opportunity ever arises, the first question to ask will be “is there a photography hide?” …… painful lesson learned.