A Photographers Guide to Wildlife Photography in Princeton BC
Article and Photos by Wildlife Photographer - Danny Coyne
Princeton BC is in the heart of the Similkameen Valley, set on the edge of the Cascade Mountain Range which makes it the ideal place for wildlife photography. Due to its unique and diverse landscapes, from alpine mountain ranges to vast grasslands, this area is home to a wide variety of wildlife. Only a short drive from Vancouver, Princeton offers wildlife viewing opportunities that photographers dream about. So, charge your camera batteries, pack extra SD cards and let’s get you prepared for a wildlife photography trip like no other!
Before heading out to capture that wildlife photo of a lifetime it’s important to consider a few safety points. Wildlife are not domesticated animals, they are exactly that; “WILD”. They can be unpredictable and can cause injury if they are not treated appropriately and respected. It’s vital to recognize that we are in the animal’s home when out in the wilderness, and so we must make sure to allow for a respectful distance when taking photos.
Here are a few safety tips when viewing wildlife:
- Keep your distance and use a zoom lens. If you can’t safely zoom in close for a profile picture of the animal, consider a scenic environmental picture of the animal in its natural habitat instead.
- Never feed or touch a wild animal. It is illegal to feed wildlife and it can be dangerous for both the animal and you.
- Carry bear spray and make sure it is easily accessible.
- If you spot an animal near a road, make sure you pull over enough to allow for passing traffic. If you are going to get out of the vehicle to take photos make sure you are wearing high visible clothing so oncoming traffic can see you. Many times, when spotting wildlife, it will be in low light conditions.
The Princeton area is surrounded with private land, and it is important to respect private landowners. Before venturing off into the wilderness be sure to check private land boundaries first. There will be a lot of times that you will spot wildlife not far off a back road or in a farmer’s field. Under no circumstance should you enter private land without permission from the landowner. One excellent smart phone app you can use to help identify these private land boundaries is called iHunter. It will show you all the private land, first nation reserves and park boundaries in BC. This will give you a peace of mind that you are not intruding in an area that your shouldn’t be in.
When and Where to See Wildlife
The great thing about wildlife photography in Princeton is that it can be done all year round! Each season presents its own wildlife viewing opportunities which is unique to each animal. The following is an outline on what you can expect for each popular wildlife species and the viewing prospects throughout the year.
One of the most abundant wildlife species around the Princeton area is the Mule Deer. These beautiful ungulates have become an icon for Princeton’s wilderness. For photographers, they provide incredible opportunities for wildlife photos. The most desirable times to pursue Mule Deer with a camera is spring and fall, but they can be found year-round.
In the spring you can expect the deer to be a lot less skittish, as they are focused on browsing food to replace lost calories from the long winter months. May to June is an excellent time to capture a buck with velvet antlers and, if you’re lucky, you may even see a doe with its new fawn. A word of caution; if you encounter a doe and her fawn keep back and do not touch the fawn. Instead, use a telephoto lens and enjoy them from afar.
Mule Deer rut is in the late fall between November through to December. During this time the bucks are so concentrated on pursuing the does that they come out of hiding during all times of the day. This is a great time to capture photos of a grand antlered buck in all his glory!
Whitetail Deer are not as easy to find as Mule Deer, but they do also reside within the Princeton area. Unlike Mule Deer, which usually stop and provide excellent photo opportunities, Whitetail are extremely skittish! They tend not to show themselves in the daylight as they retreat to thick forest areas in the day. The best time to pursue these deer is early morning or later in the evening. You need to be ready with camera in hand to capture these illusive critters! The challenge to photographing Whitetail is you will most likely be shooting in low light conditions and using fast shutter speeds to capture them before they run off. Low aperture and high ISO settings are the name of the game to succeed in these conditions.
The deer move further into the bottom of the Similkameen Valley during the winter months for their food needs. January to April is some of the best months to find Whitetail. A few great areas around Princeton that hold Whitetail are Allenby, Chain and Osprey Lake, the Old Hedley Road, and Hwy 5A near the community of Aspen Grove.
Elk are one of the most sought-after wildlife species by photographers in North America. Being one of the largest members of the deer family, they draw attention due to their huge, majestic appearance. Even though they are large in size and move in herds, Elk can be extremely wary of humans and are difficult to find.
During the rut season in September, Elk migrate to the deepest backcountry areas due to human pressure. If you are in the backcountry during this period, you may hear the unmistakable roaring sound of a Bull Elk bugle. Unlike in Canada’s National Parks, it will be extremely difficult to capture photos of Elk during the rut on regular public land. The best time of year to see Elk in Princeton is during the winter months.
Between January and early April, the Elk favour the large hay fields and grasslands that surround the Similkameen Valley. You can find Elk grazing these areas during the first and last hours of light. Don’t put the camera away once the sun drops behind the mountains; wait until up to complete darkness. Sometimes it’s the last 5 minutes of “blue hour” that the Elk will show themselves. The use of a high focal length lens of 400mm or greater is highly recommended as most of the time you’ll be shooting from a distance. Due to the low light conditions, using a tripod is an excellent idea; this will allow you to shoot with slower shutter speeds, wide open apertures and high ISO. Some good places to find Elk are the Nature’s Trust Land Reserve (North of the airport), China Creek, Jura Mountain, Wipsaw and the Old Hedley Rd.
The Similkameen Valley’s raw landscapes, which are made up of rugged mountain valleys, river bottoms and grasslands, is the perfect habitat for Mountain Goats. Mountain Goats can be found scattered down the Similkameen Valley from Princeton all the way to Keremeos. These majestic mountain animals are magnificent to watch as they navigate the steeps cliffs and shale slides of the valley they call home. Mountain Goats haven’t always thrived in the Princeton area; it wasn’t until the last 15 years the goats have rebounded thanks to conservation efforts and habitat management.
The goats can be found throughout the year, but the best time for photo opportunities is from the late winter into later spring. During February and March, the goats can be found on the lower bluffs along the Similkameen River due to food availability and heavy snow levels at higher elevation. From the end of May into June, the Nannies give birth to their Kids. During this time the goats disperse throughout the most rugged cliffs that tower over the valley. They do this to keep their kids safe from lurking predators.
The best way to locate the goats is to park along the Highway 3 and use binoculars to search the hillsides for white specs on the cliffs. The goat’s white coats will pop out from the rocks. Once spotted, use a large zoom lens such as a 600mm to capture the goats in their rocky natural habitat.
California Bighorn Sheep
Further down the Similkameen Valley, between the community of Hedley and Keremeos, there is a smaller herd of California Bighorn Sheep. These wild sheep blend in very well with the rocky shale slides, sage, and grassy valley bottoms.
There are designated wildlife viewing pull outs after Hedley that make for prime viewing areas. I highly recommend bringing a set of binoculars to scan these areas for the slightest movements. The sheep blend in so well with their natural habitat that it takes a conditioned eye to find them. The sheep are in these areas throughout the year, however during the spring lambing season they retreat to the higher bluffs. They are extremely active in October and November as this is the rut season.
If Bears are your thing, then Princeton is a good place to find them! Black bears are abundant throughout the area and can be found from May to October. Manning Park is a good place to find Black Bears off the side of the highway, up on the south facing hillsides in the spring. During the spring, not only do you have the opportunity to see a bear with her cubs, but it is also the breeding season for Black Bears. On a number of occasions, you’ll see two bears together on grassy hillsides. The boar (male) will be pursuing the sow (female).
This is a sight to see, as the boar will follow the sow everywhere she goes. Your best chance to see a bear during the summer months is in the high country, during the morning and evening. Princeton’s summer climate is too warm for these black furry critters. Some good areas to find bears in the summer are Manning Park, Pike Mountain, the Cascade Rec Area west of Tulameen, and Copper Mountain Road. Bears really enjoy wild berry patches and dandelions; find these types of foliage and your odds of finding a bear will improve!
During the fall, the bears are more active as they put on weight for the winter. You can usually find them in cut blocks alongside logging roads. Due to human pressure, Black Bears in the Similkameen Valley are very wary. A lot of times you’ll see the bear running away before you even have a chance to put the camera to your eye. Expect to get more pictures of bears in their habitat rather than a close-up profile picture. Regardless, with Princeton’s beautiful mountain and wildflower vistas, these wildlife nature shots make for some incredible experience’s worth bringing home!
Princeton’s landscapes are not only made up of mountainous panoramas and a rugged river valley, but it is surrounded by grasslands and hay fields. This makes for the perfect habitat for Coyotes as it provides them with prime hunting grounds. In the winter months it is much easier to spot Coyotes as they comb the grasslands and fields hunting for field mice under the snow. If one is lucky, you may even capture a shot of a Coyote pouncing in the air and diving into the snow headfirst to capture its prey.
Coyotes breeding season starts in late December and can go into mid-March. During the breeding season you can witness playful gestures between the male and female which makes for remarkable pictures. The pups arrive in the spring traditionally during the same time when the balsamroot sunflowers come into bloom.
Coyotes make their dens in rocky crevices, dense thickets and sometimes the dens of other animals, so keep your eye open for these areas. Coyotes tend to be nocturnal but can be very active during early mornings and in the evenings. Some excellent areas to find Coyotes are the Natures Trust Reserve north of the airport, Swan Lake Wildlife Refuge, ranch lands along Hwy 5A & The Princeton-Summerland Rd.
In the higher forested areas that surround Princeton you have the opportunity to find the largest member of the deer family which is the moose. Moose prefer high country wetlands, such as lakes, muskegs and streams. Moose are primary browsers that feed on woody plants like willows, aspens, as well as some aquatic plants. They are a common animal to see in the Similkameen region.
The best time to see a moose is in early morning and in the evening hours. Due to their large size and insulating fur, moose prefer cooler temperatures. Look for high country areas with valley bottoms that provide connecting wetlands. The spring months tend to be the most common time to find a moose which can be a real treat! During the spring the bulls will have velvet antlers and the cows will have their calves which make for excellent photo opportunities!
Logging roads that spur off the Princeton-Summerland Road are some great options to locate moose.
Wildlife photography in Princeton can be extremely rewarding and awe-inspiring. Unlike the large National parks, you will rarely have to fight crowds for your turn to take a photo of an animal. Instead, you will find yourself relishing an intimate encounter with a wild animal in the most beautiful, natural surrounding that makes the Similkameen Valley such a special place. It will leave you wanting to come back again and again for that next perfect shot!
Article and Photos by Wildlife Photographer - Danny Coyne