Power of the Old Beast | Photographing Plains Bison Part II

by on November 6, 2011

To continue my mini-series on photographing Plains Bison, I thought I’d showcase some images of which truly illustrate the incredible muscle, strength and mobility of these giant ungulates. They are always so interesting to observe, but one of the most fascinating behavioral practices to witness and photograph is when any member of the bison society wallow. Wallowing is an effective method of protection (biting insects, rain and adding warmth), a powerful tool to display dominance with other bison, as well as a most unique method of garnering attraction and attention from bison cows during the annual rutting season (more on this in another post). I have countless images taken over the years of wallowing bison. Below are some of my favorites …

When bison wallow:


Plains bison bull (bison bison bison) wallows during the annual bison rut at Elk Island National Park, Alberta wildlife behavioural and environmental portrait, extirpated species.

What I find so intriguing is the way they can move these large, heavy, and powerful bodies around so easily. If only we were so lucky!

Plains bison bull (bison bison bison) is wallowing, kicking up a dust storm towards the end of the annual bison rut at Elk Island National Park, Alberta wildlife behaviour portrait.

It’s always best to keep a fair distance when photographing any wildlife, and bison, though often appearing docile and almost gentle to some, are anything but. These large, ridiculously fast (they can run up to 35mph!) and surprising agile giants can only tolerate so much attention from us pesky humans. Without going too deep into their behaviour patterns, they have what is referred to as awareness, escape and fight zones. Time spent in the field observing bison, combined with much research, have taught me to be much more cautious around these animals than I definitely was in the 90s. Even with the best intentions, there are times I have come too close to bison, usually a lone bull, when on a short hike on one of the trails or even along the main parkway. When they feel threatened, all wild animals have an instinct to either fight or flight, so I have to make the best decision when I come across these animals, especially unexpectedly. We all do.

Even then, I don’t always make the best choice, but I try my very best and learn from past mistakes or missteps.

Part of the challenge of photographing these wonderful creatures is to remain safe while being able to capture them in their natural habitat. I’ve had a couple of close calls myself (while alone) and I’ll describe them in the final post in this mini series. Outside of safety, I’d say the biggest challenge photographing wildlife which are accessible to many is not only to capture something with your camera that’s not identical to everyone else, but to be able to photograph these animals without crowds surrounding you and your target species. This is something all wildlife photographers have to contend with, especially when in and around a national park. Too many folks not only put the animal in potential danger, but yourself as well. It can be frustrating, but there are ways to get around this and limit the run-ins with those whom may not be as educated about wildlife and wildlife behaviour.

Enjoy the images and please remember to stay safe when observing and enjoying all wildlife.

Plains bison cow (bison bison bison) pauses whilst scratching and rubbing against trees as he checks out his surroundings during an early autumn morning at Elk Island National Park. Alberta wildlife environmental portrait.


See you in the field!


Update: I was asked where part 3 is; unfortunately I believe I 86’d the post in error when cleaning things up behind the scenes. I’ll repost when I can. Whoopsie daisy.



Photographer. Podcaster on hiatus. Edmonton Oilers lovah. Cinematic Star Wars fan. Fond of wildlife conservation, animal rescue orgs, and all things Johnny Cash. Gen X. 

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