Nervous Cow Elk, Yellowstone National Park

Photo of a cow elk.

“Nervous Nellie”

As I was driving from Mammoth to Tower shortly after sunrise one morning I spotted this lone cow elk looking at me.  She seemed very nervous.  She looks like she may be pregnant and I assume she was close to giving birth.  When cow elk are close to giving birth they go off by themselves for the birthing.    The calf is kept hidden for about a week.  The cow moves her calf (or calves) several times a day during that seven days and they stay motionless until their mom comes back to feed and move them.  Even so, predators find a lot of them.

The lighting was very bad for this photo.  You can see from the rim lighting around the elk’s body that the sun was coming from behind it.  The number one rule in outdoor photography is keep the sun at your back.  Well, you can’t always follow the rules in wildlife photography.  Elk aren’t models you can move around.  I did what I could at the time which was to compensate some by overexposing a bit and then compensated some more in Photoshop.  In the film days one could do, or attempt to do, the same thing in printing by dodging and burning, but the methods then were somewhat crude compared to what Photoshop allows one to do to mitigate exposure problems.   In this case I used the adjustment brush in Adobe Camera Raw to lighten the face and neck and then further refined the lighting/exposure using Shadows/Highlights and Curves.

Photo of underexposed elk.

Backlit Cow Elk

Here is what the image would have looked like, but for the adjustments described above in camera and Photoshop.  (The other difference from the top image is that I didn’t bother to crop this image.)


About Jim Coda

I am a nature photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I specialize in photos of birds, mammals, and landscapes.
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2 Responses to Nervous Cow Elk, Yellowstone National Park

  1. John Wall says:

    Wow, you did a great job on the save. She was worth it though. Interesting that they go off by themselves to have their calf. It doesn’t seem entirely obvious why that’s a better strategy than staying with the herd, but it must be.

    • Jim Coda says:

      Thanks John. It may be that it is as much the herd leaving an individual cow as that cow leaving the herd. I’m just speculating, but I think the cow just looks for a spot that looks good to her to drop her calf. The herd is really just some other cows, some of whom are pregnant, and yearlings and they move around as they see fit. But they don’t go far. They are in and around areas where cows give birth year after year. By the first week in June I’ve seen early calves moving with their moms in herds of cows/yearlings. I’ve read that by the first or second week in July they’re no more vulnerable than the other elk in terms of being able to run really well.

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