Winter Wonderlands: Dispatches from a Wildlife Photographer
Longtime contributing photographer Donald M. Jones shares the stories behind some of his favorite shots from last fall and winter
GROWING UP in Chicago, if Don Jones wanted to see deer, moose, or bighorn sheep, he had to go hunting for them in the pages of Field & Stream or Outdoor Life. “There weren’t a whole lot of places to see wildlife,” he says. Jones left the Windy City in 1982, and since then has ventured to the most spectacular places in North America to observe and admire wild critters in wild places—and photograph them for the same magazines whose pages inspired him as a kid.
This past fall and winter, Jones traveled across his home state of Montana, as well as to Alberta, the Yukon, and Alaska, to document upland birds, waterfowl, and just about every big-game rut imaginable. When he came home, he sent us an album of some of his favorite shots. “People always ask me, ‘What’s your favorite image,’” Jones says. “I tell them, ‘I haven’t taken it yet. I’m still looking.’”
Each photo in this collection was more stunning than the next, so we decided to swap the order of operations for a change: Instead of Jones taking photos that would fit within a story we had in the works, we would build a story around the photos Jones had already taken.
Because this is a Field & Stream story, you’ll plenty of hunting scenes—shots of deer, moose, and mountain sheep. But you’ll also see images that, on the surface, don’t seem to have much to do with hunting at all. And yet, they’re the kind of scenes that most hunters would kill to witness in the wild—moments that can enrich, elevate, and bring new life to the story of a hunt.
“My sons, my best friend, everybody I know that hunts—they come back with stories, and they aren’t always about a big-game animal,” Jones says. “It’s about sitting in a tree stand and having a barred owl land 3 feet from them, or seeing an ermine while they’re in the ground blind coming to visit them. If it was all about the horns and antlers, something would certainly be lost.”
Here are the scenes—and stories, in Jones’s own words—that have come from his most recent outings in his ongoing hunt for his favorite photograph.
“Here’s a bison that I photographed on an Indian reservation in Montana. He’s a young bull, but I can tell by the way he had his tail up that he was a little upset with me being there, but I wasn’t pushing him. I didn’t advance any closer. He moved to the right with this great stride of his legs—then he turned his head and gave me this look. It all just came together for one great image.
“When I look at this shot, the emotion I feel is power—just the power of this animal, even if he is a young bull. And when I took this shot, I remember thinking, You’ve got a long winter ahead of you. These bison, I don’t know how they do it.”
“On my way back home from a Dall sheep photo shoot in the Yukon, I scheduled a couple of days in Alaska—during the late chum run on the Chilkat River—to work eagles, which I love to do. I mean, why wouldn’t you love photographing something like this?
“The water level this time was a little high, which meant the run wasn’t as opportunistic for the birds. They had to work a little harder to eat. I noticed that the first thing they ate in the mornings was whatever the brown bears left behind. But for much of the day, the adult eagles would let the juveniles do the hard work of grabbing a salmon and pulling it out of the water. Then, as soon as there was a fish on the sandbar, all hell would break loose, and the older bird would come in and try to steal the fish.
“I can’t help but look at this shot, where the talon is in the other eagle’s chest, and think, How is that bird not dead? It was quite the thump. This was one of those images where I shoot it and I go, ‘Oh, please, please, please…’ Then I take a look on the camera, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I think I got it!'”
Home Sweet Home
“He’s not a giant buck, but he’s a handsome buck—a mature buck. Thing is, five minutes earlier, I wouldn’t have gotten this shot. But what made me pause for a moment was when I noticed the fog beginning to lift, showing the mountains. Without that in the background, this is just another prairie shot. But with the mountains peeking up like that, then it becomes a Western Montana shot.
“When I see this photo, I think of home. I grew up in Chicago, but I’ve lived in Montana for 41 years, and I still pinch myself that this is home. Whenever I see these mountains with a subject, I get excited. I never, ever, ever get tired of seeing these mountains.”
Peace of Mind
“Here’s a peaceful scene. This rough-legged hawk was hunting voles, and I just liked the way he was sitting in that juniper tree. It was cold that day—nearly zero degrees—and I had this negative space, which is a theme I gravitate to often in my work. I love the expression he gave me. I took a couple of shots, then just left him be. I really enjoy shooting in winter. Again, there’s just something very peaceful about the season.”
“I knew there were ducks over there, because I’d seen the mallards coming and landing in the silage corn. So I kind of wandered that way—but unbeknownst to me, as I was walking toward them, a few of the ducks were walking toward me, out of the corn. They started to freak out seeing me there and began to flush. And once a few flush, boom! They all go. They were just pouring out of the corn.
“I wasn’t expecting this scene, but I’m glad I was prepared for the shot—because it didn’t last long. The two mallards in the upper-left corner make the shot for me. Along with the other two on the upper right-hand side, they kind of frame everything that’s going on. Thankfully, there wasn’t one random duck coming across the middle and—what do they call it?—photo-bombing the whole thing.”
“This little guy is a northern pygmy owl and was actually photographed about 20 feet from my office window. I have an area in the backyard where I’ll put seed for the birds—but the seeds also bring in mice, and the mice attract the pygmy owls. They’re really small, about the size of a tennis ball with a golf ball-size head. Unlike most owls, they’re diurnal—they’re daylight hunters. They’re fearless; they’ll eat a bird twice their size. I’ve been photographing pygmy owls forever. They’re one of my favorite subjects—all owls are—and the fact that these guys come to visit me at my house is fun.”
“Some animals look ugly when they do a flehmen response. Like bighorn sheep. You couldn’t ask for an uglier animal in that moment, because they show all of their terrible dental work. Same thing with antelope. Now, whitetail deer, elk—they look good. And moose look really good, because they throw their head so far back—like this Canadian bull is doing—and that just accentuates their rack. This was a really powerful moment. Moose are such big critters, and they’re a lot of fun to work with. They’ve been very good to me over the years.”
“I shot these huns in the same area as that rough-legged hawk was. There were also prairie falcons flying around, so these guys were on the lookout. When a falcon is near, they will hold tight and not move for anything; you could almost pick one up. They just hunker tight because they’re so vulnerable.
“I was working this group, and they just started moving off. My presence might have had something to do with it. I actually shot this from a window mount on my vehicle. Just having this guy turn around and look back at me made the shot. I mean, if it was four butts, no way. But having him turn back—he’s the tailgunner, and the rest are moving off.”
“I was in the car with a friend of mine, and he was driving, which is rare because I’m always the one who drives. All of the sudden he sees something and goes, ‘What’s that?’ He stopped and backed up. There, sitting on a fence post was this long-eared owl. Unlike the pygmy owl, this bird is nocturnal—but here he was, actively hunting at noon.
“I watched him fly into this juniper tree, and I was able to get a few photos before he took off. Long-eared owls are very prevalent in this area, but whenever I see them they’re always deep in a bush, sleeping, so I never get very good photos of them. But seeing this guy out in daylight in these conditions was perfect. They have such pretty faces.”
“Here is one of my favorite images of that whole shoot. The rams sequester the ewes in steep, rocky places like this. The way they’d run around those rocks—like was nothing. This, to me, is a real wild scene. This isn’t just off a road. This is just wild.”
“This was a difficult snow to shoot in. For the most part, the snow was good—but at times it wasn’t. I’d get some great shots, but then there’d be a big, white snowflake across the coyote’s face.
“I watched this guy eat 12 or 15 voles in about 10 minutes. It was like no problem for him. He’d just move to another spot, look around, pounce, and eat one—just chuck it away.
“There’s a lot that comes together in this image. I like the way the snow stuck to his coat, and on his forehead. And there’s the right balance: You see the canines and the vole caught in the coyote’s jaws—but no entrails hanging out of the mouth; nothing too gruesome or over the top. Which is what makes this a sellable image.”
“A little anecdote on this one: This was the last shot on the card. I remember shooting, and all of a sudden, my camera said card full. I’m like, ‘Oh, shit.’
“I’ve always had this practice on shoots—even when I shot on film all those years ago—whenever I’m changing film or a card, I look down and refuse to look up until I have a new card ready to go. By the time I put a new card in this time, the sheep had moved—they were behind me. I would have liked to have had the composition on this one be a little better—more room on the peak of that mountain—but the scene never presented itself again.
“This was such an exciting shoot, to spend that day out there with those sheep—but it’s frustrating that I ran out of card space—and I can’t help but keep seeing that frustration in this image. Like, Crap, what it could have been? That’s what I see. If I’d had more card space, what else could I have gotten?”
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