Musk Ox photography, Roy Mangersnes (12.03.2014)
Roy Mangersnes is a trained behavioral ecologist, a conservationist and professional wildlife photographer living in Sandnes, in southwestern Norway. Roy is a Nikon ambassador and is considered among the most influential nature photographers in Norway today. He has published several books, as well as won multiple international. In 2013 Roy was awarded the prestigious title "Arctic Photographer of the Year" in the great Russian contest Global Arctic Awards. One of his winning images shows a large bull Musk Ox shaking off excess snow after a heavy blizzard swiping across the Dovrefjell mountains in Norway.
Besides his career as a photographer Roy is partner and professional photographic host in WildPhoto Travel. As a host he is doing assignments around the world, ranging from the Arctic to the Antarctic, also visiting destinations in Africa and the Galapagos Islands.
History of the Musk Ox in Norway
The idea of a reintroduction of Musk Oxen in Dovrefjell National Park in Norway occurred after the findings of fossils during construction of a local railway in 1913. Less than 20 years later, the first animals captured on Greenland were released. However, World War II claimed all these animals. The German occupants could only be blamed for a couple of the killings. The rest of the animals probably ended their lives in hungry Norwegian stomachs. During the first ten years after the war, 21 new calves were introduced to the same area. The population has been growing steadily ever since, and is today counting about 300 animals. Some of these have even crossed vast areas and settled elsewhere.
The Dovrefjell National Park population has been struggling in the last couple of years with warmer and wetter climates. Many animals have died during the last couple of summers from various deceases. Hopefully they will make it through and we will have these magnificent creatures roaming the mountains for many more years.
Musk Ox photography
Every year a lot of people travel to Dovrefjell to photograph the Musk Oxen living here. The animals are not very difficult to find and with a local guide you can quite easily get some nice picture. However, like with all photography, by spending more time you can also get better light, come closer and learn more about the subject. This will also give you much more interesting images. I never go to Dovrefjell without spending at least 4-5 days, or maybe even a week.
When you work with one subject over a period of time, you will also see other types of wildlife sharing the same habitat. In Dovrefjell National Park there is a great variety of animals and birds. You are likely to see Wild Reindeer and Red Fox, and if you are extremely lucky you can find Arctic Foxes or even Wolverines. The most accessible bird species are Willow Grouse, Ptarmigan, Dottrel, Golden Plover and passerines like the beautiful Bluethroat and Snow Bunting. Being so approachable they make for great photo opportunities. Though very difficult to photograph, you are also quite likely to see both Golden Eagle and Gyrfalcon.
As with all wildlife photography the main focus should be the wellbeing of the animals. It is, however, of great importance to consider your own safety when working with Musk Oxen. These tremendous beasts are usually calm grazers and will not attack unless provoked. If they feel threatened they will tell you to move away in a civilised manner, and you should. The signals include shaking of the head, kicking and puffing. They can also try a mock attack, but you should be long gone before this ever happens. Musk Oxen might appear sluggish, but will reach speeds of 50 kilometres per hour quite rapidly. There have been accidents involving humans in Norway, and people have been badly injured or even killed. Remember that these representatives of an ancient time are not in any way domestic. It has been over 60 years since they were reintroduced into the country, and they are truly wild. The only reason they don't flee when approached by humans is their lack of fear for these weak looking two-legs. Musk Oxen usually stand their ground, and will rather fight than run if they feel threatened. Therefore it should be clear to all why there is a recommended safety distance to the Musk Ox of 200 metres.
With this in mind it will obviously be of great advantage to bring a long lens to the mountain for those closer portraits. However, there is already a lot of great close-ups of Musk Oxen, but fewer images showing these extraordinary animals in their own habitat. Living in one of the most beautiful and pristine national parks in Norway it will be very wise to include the landscape when photographing the animals. Single animals or a small heard in a big autumn coloured or snow covered mountain terrain tells a much greater story then just another portrait.
Shooting in the winter
I prefer to shot wildlife during winter, with cold and pristine sceneries and fresh air. Being on the mountain in the winter can be challenging as the weather changes extremely rapid and a clear blue sky can turn into a terrifying blizzard in minutes. Therefore it is very important to make the best preparations possible. Makes sure you are ready for the worst even if the sun is shining and there is no wind.
I have experienced horrible weather in the winter mountains on several occasions, and to be honest it can be quite frightening. However, these are also the times when you get the extraordinary images. When everyone else is sitting at home in front of the warming fireplace, I love to be out and get the shots that no one else gets.
For me it has also been very important to portray the Musk Ox as the ice-age giant that it really is. This creature does not show itself properly in calm conditions, but when the wind is howling and the snow is flying you realize what amazing animal the Musk Ox is. That is the animal I like to photograph.
The winning shot
The awarded Musk Ox picture in the Global Arctic Awards was taken during a film shoot in the Dovrefjell first week of January. Alongside a cameraman and an assistant I spent one week in the field to make a promo on my work as a wildlife photographer. Our purpose was to document the Musk Ox in its winter habitat and to show how these prehistoric giants not only survive, but thrive in an extreme environment. We were only producing five to ten minutes of film but set aside one week to make sure we got the rough conditions we needed. In the end we ended up having six days with gale force winds and minus 20-25 degrees - just what we were after. It sure took its toll, but it was all worth it. I love spending time with my subjects and I really enjoyed spending this week with a group of 18 Musk Ox, this bull being the largest of them all.
Since 2008 I have used Nikon for all my photography. For this shoot I used the 2 D3s cameras and also a D3x. Luckily I brought the spare D3s because the wind caught my tripod and both the camera and my 70-200mm lens broke on the icy moss. My preferred lenses on this kind of photography are the 500mm f/4, 70-200mm f/2,8, 28-70mm f/28 and also the 14-24mm f/2,8.