• Alyce Bender

Autumn in Alaska - Part 1: Wildlife

Updated: Oct 25


A willow ptarmigan transitioning from summer to winter plumage in Denali National Park and Preserve autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
The Alaska State Bird: Willow Ptarmigan

It can be quite hard to visualize how vast Alaska is if you have not been there before. And with the large numbers of photographers who go to Alaska and return home with tons of images, it can be hard to understand that bears are not just “waving from the side of the highway” when you get there. As with all true wildlife photography, some days are better than others. Some locations have tons of action while others can be almost void of the megafauna most visit the Last Frontier state to see.


Photography tip: If going on your own, especially for the first time, limit your expectations and understand it will most likely take much longer for you to find quality wildlife observation/photography opportunities than you anticipate. Planning and preparation go a long way, but luck does play a part in the wildlife photography equation, more so than in landscapes.


A quick overview of my trip to Alaska: I spent twenty-one days in the state. That was broken up into visiting essentially three areas – the Kenai Peninsula, Denali National Park and Preserve, and a wide swath above the arctic circle based out of the tiny town of Wiseman, AK. Each area I ended up spending about a week, with my time in Denali being the most fragmented. Flying in and out of Fairbanks, I stopped in Denali for a couple days on either side of the other two “legs,” meaning that Denali was my first stop heading towards the Kenai, then again when heading back north from the Kenai to Wiseman, and a final round in the park after Wiseman before departing for the lower 48. In my next article on my Alaskan trip, I will go more into detail on how doing it this way was actually really great and gave me a chance to witness the autumn changes in the tundra. However, here I want to get into the wildlife.


As Denali was my first stop we will start there when it comes to the animals. Like Alaska itself, Denali is a vast national park and because so much of it is considered wilderness, there is very limited access and even fewer trails. It's an experience that one can either embrace the feeling of suddenly being small and at the mercy of Mother Nature or you can stay on the bus. When I say bus, what I am talking about is the fleet of National Park Services (NPS) buses that shuttle people and gear beyond the 14th mile of road in the park. That is where the Savage River is crossed, where the pavement ends, and where personal vehicles are no longer allowed (with very rare exceptions).


Some of these buses are tour buses in which case you get a full narration during the drive with background on the park’s conception, some biology and ecology, and a look into what the rangers who patrol the park have to endure, especially during winter. These are tan colored buses. The other types of buses that run the road are the transit and camper. They are green and a third of the price. These drivers don’t give full narration but, and this is a big but, you are able to at any point ask them to stop and they will let you off the bus to explore. Some caveats to that are they can’t let you off within a half mile of a bear sighting and there are a handful of areas where you are only allowed to walk the road, rather than forge a path across the wilderness.


Since the road closed last year (2021) at mile 43 due to an ever-hastening landslide created by melting permafrost, if you stay on the bus, the round trip takes about five hours. If you depart the bus at some point, you can prolong your day as much as you like as long as you catch the last bus out. So be aware of that timing depending on where you are along the road.


But why bother getting off the bus at all if they stop for wildlife sightings (which they do) anyways? Well here is a great example and probably one of the animal encounters I am most excited about from my trip. We spotted, from the bus, a male spruce grouse seemingly performing, with posturing and feathers out, even though it was fall. Not breeding time at all. Such an unusual sighting, especially for this time of year, I knew I wanted a closer look and to observe it longer. Thankfully I was on a transit bus and asked to get off. Next thing I knew, my friend and fellow photographer who joined me on this segment of my Alaskan adventure, Andrew Peschong and I were standing there on the side of the dirt road with nothing but the smell of spruce and the sound of the breeze broken by a quiet cluck from the grouse. In hushed tones we roughly planned our goals to photograph the grouse and then quickly ducked into the woods.


A male spruce grouse spreads tail feathers in the spruce forest of Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Male Spruce Grouse Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/640 | ISO 6400

The lower 48 photographer in me was still worried that if we stood by the road too long, we would draw attention to the area from any passing “others” and I have found it is much easier to work with wildlife when it is not surrounded by large groups of people which is why my tours are run with such small groups of no more than five participants.


Easing into the moss-carpeted undergrowth, my mind cleared to only focus on the task at hand, paying attention to the light and the subject and putting myself in the best position for both. This was mid-afternoon on a bright, clear sky day so I did contend with some mixed hot spots as the the male and a small flock of hens with older fledglings foraged. The male, confused because the sunlight this time of year at this elevation mimics the spring light during breeding season, continued to parade around, spreading his tail feathers and posturing with an elongated neck at times, even as the females ignored him.


A male spruce grouse spreads tail feathers in the spruce forest of Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/1000 | ISO 4000
A male spruce grouse spreads tail feathers in the spruce forest of Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/5.6 | 1/800 | ISO 800
A male spruce grouse calls out in the spruce forest of Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/500 | ISO 8000
A female spruce grouse portrait in the spruce forest of Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Female spruce grouse Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/800 | ISO 4000
A male spruce grouse spreads tail feathers in the spruce forest of Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/640 | ISO 6400

Staying, or at least riding the bus the full length of the current road can add to the opportunities to view and photograph wildlife in the park. Upon catching the next outbound bus (literally you stand on the side of the road and either wave with purpose or put your thumb out to catch the next green bus after exiting your initial one), we rode to the end of the line without much fuss. Shortly after the bus started making its way back towards the front country, we came to a full stop. Our driver angled the bus as slowly and carefully as she could (shout out to Darlene, who would shuttle me several more times during my Denali visits) before turning it off. To the awe, wonder, and over-the-top excitement, the entire bus descended into almost absolute silence, as everyone shuffled and jockeyed for position to photograph the light gray wolf that was meandering along the edge, hunting arctic ground squirrels. I will be ever so grateful to the photographer from South Africa who was willing to adjust his position so I could capture several clear shots of this lone wolf.


A wild grey wolf walks through fireweed in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Wild gray wolf Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/1250 | ISO 3200

Wolves are one species I don’t put on my shot lists when traveling into the field. They are always a special subject that I look at as a gift from Nature and not something to be expected. Denali National Park and Preserve only has about 95 individual wolves within the park. That is slightly more than Yellowstone after this past winter’s massacre. Yet the wolf density is much thinner in Denali than Yellowstone considering that Denali covers 6 million acres versus Yellowstone’s 2.2 million.


A wild grey wolf walks through fireweed in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/1250 | ISO 3200

Yes, people see them. But please keep expectations reasonable and know that this is one species you either need to dedicate a ton of time, money, and effort to seeing or you need to be lucky. I was lucky and was able to capitalize on that luck through planning and preparation beforehand in putting myself in an area where this could happen and knowing my gear well enough to not fumble when luck granted us a wild wolf walking directly towards us for a few minutes.


A wild grey wolf glances up as it walks through fireweed in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/1250 | ISO 3200

Denali, unlike some of the more southern wildlife viewing locations in Alaska, is home to caribou. After my first visit in 2020 when I found them in the park, they have quickly become one of my favorites to look for when there. We had several opportunities to see them, though it was fewer than I had initially envisioned. But still, a good showing for sure.

A bull caribou stands among fall colors in the tundra of Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Barren ground caribou Sony A1 | Tamron 18-300mm | f/6.3 | 1/3200 | ISO 8000
A young male caribou rubs velvet off his antlers with a small sapling among fall tundra colors in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Caribou rubbing velvet off with a sapling Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1000 | ISO 8000
A bull caribou stands looking towards the camera surrounded by fall colors foliage of the tundra in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 18-300mm | f/7.1 | 1/500 | ISO 4000
A bull caribou stands looking towards the camera surrounded by fall colors foliage of the tundra in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/500 | ISO 4000

Additionally, the park was originally created to protect the Dall sheep from over-hunting. The only true wild white sheep in the world, these high climbers are typically found above the treeline on the rocky ledges and slopes of the alpine ecosystem.


Dall's sheep rest on a distant ridge line in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Dall's Sheep Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/1250 | ISO 2000
Dall's sheep graze on a distant tundra slop full of fall colors in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/500 | ISO 1600

Photographing them can be a challenge due to where they like to live. However, some park visitors get lucky, as I did with the wolf, and are able to find them closer to the roads, off of their high peaks, at other times of the year. Visiting in late August/early September, it's mixed if they will be coming down the slopes yet or not. During my visit, it was still warm for that time of year and they were firmly embedded higher up the mountains.


Another Denali denizen that many visit the park to see is the interior grizzly bear. Terminology wise, Alaska has four types of bears: brown bear, black bear, grizzly, and polar bear. Frequently brown bear and grizzly are used interchangeably however, those in the interior are considered to be grizzlies, where up to 80 percent of their diet is made up of vegetation, while the coastal bears seen eating salmon along the rivers and lakes are considered brown bears.


Most Denali grizzlies are seen from afar. Like really far. No more than a small brown dot moving among the rolling slopes of reds, yellows, and greens. For me, those are nice observations but they rarely lead to any quality images. We had one encounter where a grizzly was foraging about 300 yards from the road. When we stopped to observe it I was able to focus on creating a more environmental image rather than focus on the bear itself. At that range it would have been impossible to create a pleasing image so thinking beyond the portrait shot increases the number of images I come home with and allows me to tell a more varied story.


A toklat blond interior grizzly brown bear grazes on late season berries and roots in the fall foliage tundra of Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Toklat Grizzly Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/1250 | ISO 1600

Moose are the last of the big fauna in Denali National Park that most visitors come to see, especially this time of year. Just off the pavement within the first fourteen miles of the park road, there is an area that has been an historic rutting location for moose. During the rut, which takes place in September, the moose come from miles around and gather in this couple mile stretch to fight and fornicate.


Unfortunately, last winter, the central Alaska area was hit with abnormal and harsher conditions where there was deep snow early in the season followed by an icing rain storm. This created a thick crust of ice over deep snow. Moose, as large as they are, had a very hard time getting around. Punching through the ice with every step opened wounds up to their chests and they expended a ton of energy without having ample food sources available. Late snow storms kept food at a distance even into spring calving. In the park, moose were calving in the gravel shoulders of the park roads as they had no other place to go. Many calves were underweight and there was more than one instance of a cow dying during calving because she herself had not been able to eat enough during the winter to sustain the process.


This issue was only compounded by the fact that their most common predator, the wolf, was light enough to skate by on top of the ice. They feasted this past winter and had the pups to prove it.


A portrait of a female moose in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Moose cow Sony A1 | Tamron 18-300mm | f/7.1 | 1/1000 | ISO 800
A portrait of a female moose surrounded by fall foliage in Denali National Park and Preserve Alaska Autumn 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Different moose, same area, three weeks apart. Note the color change! Sony A1 | Tamron 18-300mm | f/6.3 | 1/640 | ISO 8000

Overall, the moose population in Alaska really struggled this year and the below average sightings are a reflection of that. We did end up seeing a few, but not nearly the quantity that one would expect this time of year. Only time will tell how long it takes for them to bounce back.


Moving south from Denali, Andrew and I picked up three other photographer friends (Nancy, Teri, and Janine) in Anchorage before heading down to the Kenai Peninsula. Billed as Alaska’s playground, I have to agree there is a ton that can be done when based out of the Kenai. It has multiple ports such as Whittier, Seward, and Homer, with glaciers, rivers, mountains, oceans, and beaches that are home to wildlife from bears and puffins to salmon and sea lions.


Spending a week based out of Cooper’s Landing, we crisscrossed the peninsula to see as much as we could. This meant taking chartered boats out multiple times since much of the wildlife here is found in, on, or near the water. Our first boat was out of Homer where we had a private charter with Mako Tours. Big bonus : the captain had his four legged first mate with him! Such a good dog!



Puffins were our first priority for this trip as I knew that this part of Kachemak Bay was ideal for observing and photographing puffins this time of year. The puffins that call this area home are the tufted puffin and horned puffin. The horned puffins are the rarer of the two and while we did see a few, none were cooperative enough to capture a quality image of, unfortunately. On the other hand, we had a couple tufted puffins that were very generous with their time and allowed us to get really close to them. This allowed for these portrait images. While I wish I had been able to get more on eye level with the bird, that is just me looking for ways to further improve future shots of the species.


Tufted puffin in Kachemak Bay Alaska with Mako Tours Taxi August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Tufted Puffin Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 5000
Tufted puffin in Kachemak Bay Alaska with Mako Tours Taxi August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/2000 | ISO 5000
Tufted puffin spreads its wings after preening in Prince William Sound Alaska while on charter boat with Lazy Otter Tours Whittier August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 3200

As we approached Bird Island where many species of sea and shorebirds nest this time of year, we had a brief opportunity to catch a glimpse of one of my favorite shorebirds, the black oystercatcher. To know more about this species and my special connection with it, check out these previous articles. Further, there were more puffins standing outside their burrows and along some of the island's rocky cliffs. Between having very little light due to heavy overcast skies and the upward angle that photographing these burrows and birds from the boat (say that three times fast) required, it was great to see but very challenging to capture what I consider usable images.


Moving on from the birds, our second most wanted species was the adorable northern sea otter. A wary species in Alaska due to still being hunted by First Nation subsistence hunters, it can take a bit to find a subject that is accepting of a cautious approach. The last thing we want to do is cause them stress, especially since it is against federal law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.


We did find one who was just waking from a nap and was showcasing the extreme attention to detail these animals pay to their coats. I mean if I didn't have any fat and relied solely on my coat for protection against the frigid waters of the north Pacific, I would be emphatic about grooming as well.


A northern sea otter grooms its coat in the cold waters off Homer Alaska with Mako Tour Taxi August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Northern sea otter Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 2500

Further along in the trip we also came across a raft of otters on the move. This was a collection of females and their pups. We stayed further from them to reduce any stress our presence might have on them and they continued to glide through the water on a mission, regardless of how the pups complained.


A female northern sea otter with pup in the waters off Homer Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 1600
A female northern sea otter with pup in the waters off Homer Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1600 | ISO 1600

Back on land, we spent a bit of time looking for bears. The area I most frequently visit for them was temporarily closed this year for road maintenance. That did not mean I was without other locations however. Rolling through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, we were able to view and photograph a handful of black bears including a sow with two coy (cubs of the year). These bears were foraging the last remaining forbs and grazing on clover.


A young black bear cub lies amongst a clove patch in the forests of the Kenai Peninsula Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
One of two COY black bear cubs Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/400 | ISO 8000
A large black bear forages for forbs on a grassy slop on the Kenai Peninsula Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Adult black bear Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/5.6 | 1/200 | ISO 6400

The other place we were able to witness black bears filling their bellies before winter sets in was actually from another boat. This one was out of Whittier and we found a handful of black bears gorging on salmon just outside one of the fisheries. Literally fish in a barrel, or in this case a net, these bears didn’t have to work too hard before the next fish boiled up into their paws and jaws.


A black bear stands on the rocky coast of Prince William Sound Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/640 | ISO 8000
A black bear catches salmon off the rocky coast of Prince William Sound Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/640 | ISO 10,000
A black bear stands on the rocky coast of Prince William Sound with a salmon in its mouth and fish bodies at its feet Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/640 | ISO 6400

And they were not the only ones taking advantage of this captive feast. The sea lions were here in force. Cruising along, slipping over the net barrier to grab a fish before launching themselves back into the “open” water, the sea lions made it look easy. Now these are Steller sea lions which dwarf the Californian sea lions we encounter in places like Monterey. Yet, it is hard to appreciate their full size until you see them out of the water.


A Steller's sea lion in the waters of the Prince William Sound Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Steller's Sea Lion Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/ 6.7 | 1/1250 | ISO 1600

Just outside the fishery cove there are several rocky islands that act as rookeries for the sea lions. It is here that you are able to assess the magnitude of these sea mammals. The bulls, with their thick muscle-bound necks, some so large it makes their head look disproportionately small, covered in scars from beachmaster battles, hover on some of the smaller outcrops. This while the largest of them all, the beachmasters, mingle with the sleek females towards the crown of the island. But just because the boys are playing nice doesn't mean there isn't any action. The females can be feisty as well, as we saw on this day between these two.


Two female Steller's sea lions fight for position on a rocky island in Prince William Sound Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
The sea gull here kills me! Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/1250 | ISO 4000
Two female Steller's sea lions fight for position on a rocky island in Prince William Sound Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/1250 | ISO 4000
Two female Steller's sea lions fight for position on a rocky island in Prince William Sound Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/1250 | ISO 4000
Two female Steller's sea lions fight for position on a rocky island in Prince William Sound Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/1250 | ISO 4000

Taking the boat out of Whittier gives visitors and photographers a close look at another large sea bird colony. Here, on these cliffs across the Passage Canal, over 8,000 black-legged kittiwakes next, along with a few pigeon guillemots and glaucous-winged gulls.


Cliff-side colony of kittiwake gulls seen on Bird Island Kachemak Bay Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Black-legged kittiwates Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 5000

Now remember how I said you have to tamp down your expectations when traveling around Alaska as the wildlife is dispersed. This is because, due to Alaska’s climate and ecology, the nutrient density is much more widely spread than say in the lower 48. It is one reason the most biodiverse habitats are typically close to the equator and thin out the closer one gets towards the poles. (Note: I’m not saying the poles don't have biodiversity, just not in the staggering numbers that such places like Central America and Indonesia have reported.)


However, there are a handful of locations, especially in the summer/fall when the salmon are running, that have a nutrient supply dense enough to cause large gatherings of bears. Photographers flock to these locations and come back with a multitude of images that are usually somewhat similar to each other. Access to these locations is much harder to come by as they are frequently fly-in only with a few also accessible by boat.


In places like Brooks Falls in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, photographers photograph the bears fishing salmon at a small-ish waterfall where everyone is on a viewing platform. There are several other locations in the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve that operate lodges specifically for bear watchers/photographers, such as Silver Salmon and Lake Crescent. Nights at the lodges typically start well over $1000 a night and are not budget friendly to say the least.


Yet, if you want a guaranteed sighting of brown bears without much fieldwork, these are the places for you. Thankfully there are some day visit options where you can stay in cheaper lodging on the more transited side of Cook Inlet and take a flight out for half a day into some of these locations. This is the option our group took.


The hazards with this type of option is that the weather can and does impact the ability to get to your final destination. On our first try to visit Silver Salmon, we were able to get over to the beach and land for about 30 minutes before our pilot said we had to go due to weather moving in. We had not seen any bears. They rescheduled our flight for two days later. When we arrived that morning, low fog on our side of the inlet would not allow for take-off. At loose ends and with a van of photographers who really wanted to get over there, we rallied and started making calls to see if any other provider with either a boat or a float plane (they have different flight regulations than traditional 3 wheeled bush planes).


Travel tip: If there is something you really have your heart set on doing, especially with what could be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, give yourself backup options from the start. Be cheap when it comes to things like accommodations or meals, but make sure to invest in those activities that will provide you with the best memories, stories, and images.


We finally found a flight that had an opening for later that afternoon to Lake Crescent. A bit more than the original flight, we were able to get to our location, land, and spend five hours in a John boat circling this lake and the outflow river photographing brown bears at close proximity. It rained on and off those five hours and I was super happy not to have to worry about how my gear would handle it or having to deal with one of those frustrating plastic rain covers.


A large brown bear sow steps over a log in the area of Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Alaskan brown bear sow Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 6400

Gear tip: If going to Alaska, prepare for rain. Period. Of the 21 days I was there this year we had rain each and every one of them. Some days it was just a little, others it was absolute downpours. Don’t let weather get in the way of creating and exploring. Invest in the right gear, both from a camera equipment stand point and a clothing stand point.


Below is a selection of images from those hours on the boat with the bears.


A young brown bear wades chest deep in Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 5000
A large brown bear sow  in the area of Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 5000
A large brown bear sow in the area of Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 6400
A large brown bear submerged up to its neck while fishing for salmon in Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 4000
A young brown bear charges out of the water in the area of Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 3200
A large brown bear catches a salmon in Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 4000
A large brown bear looks up with fresh red fish blood on the fur around its mouth in the area of Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
"Lipstick on a Sow" Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/7.1 | 1/1250 | ISO 5000
A large brown bear hunts for fish in the area of Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/1000 | ISO 10,000
A large brown bear chest deep in Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/1250 | ISO 10,000
Close up of a large brown bear hunting fish at the edge of Lake Crescent Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/1250 | ISO 10,000

Photography tip: As camera sensors become more and more advanced, we are being able to optimize images in less than optimal conditions. Notice how high many of these images’ ISO are. Using the Sony Alpha A1 camera body, I am finding I can photograph subjects upwards of 20,000 ISO and achieve usable images as long as the file is properly exposed. This is truly a game changer for us wildlife photographers! I no longer hesitate to use an ISO of 10,000 if that is what it takes to get a proper exposure.


After dropping the women back in Anchorage to fly home, Andrew and I continued north to meet up with David W Shaw, another amazing photographer based out of Fairbanks for much of the year, and an awesome group of photographers who were just as excited as we were to be traveling north of the Arctic Circle. Primarily a landscape trip, the week I spent in the arctic had few wildlife encounters. We did see a grizzly one evening but it ran off before any images could be taken. The two critters I did see and had some time with were a tundra swan and a red squirrel.


The swan flew in and landed on this lake as we were photographing reflections one morning.


A tundra swan floats on a still lake filled with fall foliage color reflections off the Dalton Highway Artic Circle Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Tundra Swan Sony A1 | Tamron 18-300mm | f/7.1 | 1/400 | ISO 500

The red squirrel was my neighbor for the week we were based out of Wiseman. In the mornings it could be found frequently by listening for the sound of pinecones hitting the ground. I had to be careful which foot trail I took from my cabin to the communal dining room so I didn't take a cone to the head before my morning tea. By afternoon, it was done harvesting and would come down and start chowing down on the cones now littering the forest floor. It was one such afternoon, when we had some down time, that I captured this collection of images. #allcreaturesbigandsmall


A red squirrel sits in a spruce tree and chews on a pinecone near Cold Foot Dalton Highway Artic Circle Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
American Red Squirrel Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/160 | ISO 8000
A red squirrel pauses while searching for pinecones near Cold Foot Dalton Highway Artic Circle Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/160 | ISO 5000
A red squirrel sits in a spruce tree and chews on a pinecone near Cold Foot Dalton Highway Artic Circle Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/160 | ISO 8000
A red squirrel sits at the base of spruce trees and chews on a pinecone near Cold Foot Dalton Highway Artic Circle Alaska August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.7 | 1/250 | ISO 8000

Photography tip: Don’t overlook the smaller or “common” animals when in the wild if you are not specializing in a specific species. These types of opportunities allow you to grow your fieldcraft skills, build muscle memory with your gear, increase your creativity, and diversify your wildlife portfolio.


Overall, Alaska can be a phenomenal location for wildlife photographers who are willing to put in the time and effort to find the wildlife they have come to view while overcoming challenges like weather. I cannot wait until my next trip to the Last Frontier state for more adventures and wilderness experiences. Who's coming with me?


A large brown bear chest deep in the waters of Lake Crescent looks over its shoulder August 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
"Leaving so soon?" Sony A1 | Tamron 150-500mm | f/6.3 | 1/1250 | ISO 10,000

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