One Day Photo Love Affair with a Pine Marten

Last week I fell in love with a pine marten.

I had spent the weekend in Jasper in the Canadian Rockies driving and hiking around hoping to find a photogenic bear, but had been skunked. On my drive back down through the Canadian Rockies to my home in Banff, I had taken my usual route along the Bow Valley Parkway between Banff and Lake Louise.

I had gotten so desperate to get something out of the trip that I stopped to photograph a ground squirrel sitting on top of its burrow in a splash of sunshine. I set up my tripod low to the ground, put on my big lens and lay down twenty feet from the burrow, ready to photograph the little head I expected to see pop up in front of me.

That’s when I first saw the pine marten, bounding through the forest in the distance, oblivious to my presence.

Since my camera, lens and tripod were assembled and ready, I stood up slowly and crept towards the marten which was still dutifully hunting from tree to tree. When it first spotted me, it furiously leapt up into a tree and glared at me just long enough to let me pop off four quick shots.

For the next few minutes, the marten raced from tree to tree and hopped up onto each trunk to stare at me. I followed along and tried to take photos, but was foiled each time by the marten’s quick movements. Then suddenly, as if a decision had been made that I no longer existed, the marten began to hunt again right in front of me.

It was the beginning of one of the most incredible wildlife experiences of my life. For the next five hours, this little marten and I traipsed through the forest together, doing what a marten does best.

I watched and photographed it as it stalked, caught and ate three mice and a vole, missing countless others in blurred flurries of action that I didn’t even bother trying to photograph. It lay about and soaked in the sunshine on top of logs, climbed trees for no apparent reason and sniffed everything in sight, including my tripod legs. At one point, the little marten sat and stared at me for a while, slowly closing it’s eyes periodically as if to say, “Can’t you do anything more exciting than take my picture?”

I sat fifteen feet from the marten when it took its’ first nap under a spruce tree. I was in the sunshine and so was it, so for an hour and fifteen minutes we basked in the warm sun together and I thought to myself over and over again that life didn’t get any better. Photography became secondary and I felt like I was sharing a moment that few others ever get to experience.

At that point, duty invaded as I realized that I had a meeting to attend to in Banff. I reluctantly raised myself up and slowly walked back to my car to leave, but the marten didn’t even budge, it just glanced up briefly to see where I was going.

I may as well have missed my meeting, because I didn’t hear a word anyone said. I was preoccupied wondering if the pine marten was still sleeping under that tree. As soon as the meeting ended, I was off down the Parkway again to see if I could find my new sweetheart.

It was two hours later and there was no sign of the marten under the spruce tree. I began to walk in a big circle through the forest to see if I could find it again and as soon as I started talking (which I had been doing for most of our first encounter), it came bounding towards me from out of the distance like a faithful dog. The experience was so unbelievable that I can’t even put it into words. If it were at all possible, I would swear that the marten had missed not having me around.

For another hour, we stayed together and it caught and ate another vole, then curled up into a ball and slowly nodded off, less than ten feet from where I sat.

I backed up to take a few final pictures, then said my sad goodbyes and headed home for good.

I have been back to that spot four more times since, but haven’t had any luck finding my little marten. Then again, I think that maybe that’s how it was supposed to be all along between us…a one day love affair between a photographer and a pine marten.


Technical Photo Details

Photographing a pine marten is no piece of cake! They are shaped just like every other weasel, which means they are low to the ground and often in the middle of sticks and grasses and other objects that can easily ruin a photograph if protruding over an eye or nose.

I photographed this marten using a Canon EOS A2E body set on manual focus. I rarely use autofocus for anything, but in this case, even if I had wanted to use it, I would not have been able to. The autofocus would have had an extremely difficult time focusing on an object as small as the marten’s eye without switching to the equally small blades of grass and branches in behind the animal or in front of it.

I used two different lenses while I photographed. For the majority of the time, to ensure that I wasn’t intruding too much on the marten’s space, I used a Canon EOS 500mm f4.5 lens set up on a Slik 4 Pro tripod with an Arca-Swiss ballhead (the tripod was set at its lowest height, which is six inches from the ground, enabling me to get low enough to get the glint of light in the eye that I was looking for in most of the photos). However, when the marten got really close and/or was moving along quickly while hunting, I switched to the Canon EOS 100-400mm Image Stabilizer lens, which allowed me to follow along without my tripod and zoom out when the marten came close to me.

Almost all of the film I shot was Fuji Provia slide film pushed one full stop to 200, though occasionally, when the sun was shining through onto the forest floor, I was able to shoot the Provia at its normal speed, 100.

By John Marriott

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