Just like everyone else, I’m looking for things to do while the this quarantine/social distancing drags on. Going through photos is an activity I’ve been enjoying. I took a lot of photos of Ospreys fishing last year. They look angelic to me against the soft summer sky.
You can see that the Osprey is intently studying the water below.
After the Osprey sees a fish near the surface it starts the dive.
These photos don’t capture the speed that this all takes place at. I had to take a lot of photos to get it done. 🙂
Even though our world is anything but routine right now, nature’s rhythms continue to turn on the rotation of our planet. The northern desert is awakening from it’s winter slumber. Tiny flowers poke through our most recent snow and animals follow their inner clocks and begin their spring activities. For larger mammals it is nearing time for females to give birth. For birds, courtship and nesting are about to jump into full swing. In the high desert, on healthy sage brush steppes, the Sage Grouse have begun their ancient courtship ritual of Lekking.
the practice by males in certain species of birds and mammals of engaging in a communal display during the breeding season on a patch of ground known as a lek.
“from 5,000 to 50,000 males may congregate during lekking”
(of males in certain species of birds and mammals) engaging in a communal display during the breeding season on a patch of ground known as a lek.
“in comparison to other lekking animals, the great snipe show very little sexual dimorphism”
Weather permitting, I try to visit several Leks in northern Nevada and California in the Spring. It has become a Spring time ritual for me observe and photograph these amazing courtship displays. It takes some dedication as the dirt roads can be iffy with mud and snow. Couple that with needing to be at the Lek well before it gets light in often 20 degree or less temperatures, it isn’t for everyone.
Sage Grouse start lekking the end of February and will continue until the first week in May. They meet on the Lek where the males dance and strut for several hours before the sun comes up. About an hour after sun up, they all fly off. The responsible observer gets there well before they do and hides in a blind or stays quiet in the vehicle until the birds have left. Disturbing them may cause them to abandon the lek forever. Many of these leks have been in use for thousands of years.
Short-eared Owls are easier to find this time of year. They are unusual for owls as they can be active while it is light enough to photograph them. I find plenty of sleepy Great Horned owls early in the morning getting their naps on and while I am grateful for the opportunity to take their picture its exciting to see owls going about their owl business hunting and eating.
In the flat fields of the Sierra Valley, I’ve been lucky enough to find quite a few Short-eared owls congregating in the late afternoons. They have been pretty cooperative posers, not too flighty or scared as I shoot them from my truck.
These owls love open fields and grasslands as they hunt small mammals like mice and voles.
Short-eared owls are widely distributed occurring on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They are not threatened and seem to be doing well as a species.
My habit is to get obsessed with a particular species. For awhile, I chase that species in what I hope is a compulsive but healthy manner, until I have a collection of images that I like. In the pursuit I learn a lot about the animal or bird, where to find, good methods to get close to them, general habits and knowledge to aid in the quest.
A friend of mine was commenting that he wanted to get some photos of Kestrels. I told him we have many in the area and general places he could find them. He kept expressing, with some frustration, that he was not able to find them and that was all it took to awaken the species challenge in me.
These are beautiful little birds that are relatively easy to find and photograph. They are widespread across North America and are doing well, not threatened or endangered and fun to watch. They like open fields and border areas. They use trees, power lines, fences and rocks to perch on. They hover over an area to hunt and then dive onto their prey. They eat insects, lizards, small birds and mammals.
Kestrels are the smallest bird in the Falcon family and the only Kestrel in America. They are unusual in the Falcon family as the male and female differ subtly in colors.
I was at a cocktail party/gathering last night and was chatting with folks about my camping trip this week in the desert. The discussion turned to photography and how I had got the nice coyote shots. Without thinking I started telling about finding a dead mule deer, most likely a mountain lion kill, and dragging the carcass to a better spot in good light and hunkering down in the sagebrush to take photos of what ever showed up to eat it. I was thinking Golden Eagle as I had scared one off the deer when hiking up the canyon but this coyote showed up and I snapped away. I then realized I had lost everyone at the dragging the carcass part.
I never stopped to think that my behavior is out of the norm but the expressions on folks faces kind of told me that it is. I have to smile I guess.
Thank goodness I have people in my life who put up with my weird behavior for the sake of a photo.
This year I have started venturing further off the beaten track in search of wild places and wilder animals. I am working on overcoming a lifelong fear of the dark and have been camping out alone. So far so good but I do wish the little critters would not make so much noise at night trying to get into my food. My imagination runs a bit at 2:00 AM.
On this trip I visited Upper High Rock Canyon. Added a new bird to my life list with this Long-eared Owl. I couldn’t get a better shot of it as it was in thick trees but it was a thrill to see one. The coyote, I have mentioned. It got pretty close before the camera shutter sound scared it off. Isn’t amazing how well they blend in to their surroundings?
After having such an extraordinary experience last week, I just had to go back. I found that the Antelope/Pronghorn were well into their rut and small groups have formed into large herds. The action was fast paced as big bucks were chasing does around and fighting with each other for the females.
Lots of photos to edit, but here are a few of my favorites so far.
I was able to spend a few days this past week up on the vast and lonely Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of my favorite places on the planet. It is the fourth largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 at 573,504-acres. You pretty much have the place to yourself on most days. In the three days I spent there I saw a total of 5 people. Two were in a car, two on touring motorcycles and Paul who is the acting camp host at Virgin Valley, distributing toilet paper to the few primitive pit toilets found at the scattered campgrounds throughout the Refuge. The brief chat Paul and I had was my only conversation.
The first day and a half I did what most people do and drove around looking for antelope and what other animals I could find to look at and take photos of. It is not my favorite way to interact with a place but the landscape can be a bit daunting as you look out as far as the eye can see across windswept sagebrush steppe. I had limited success and more importantly was not enjoying the lack of intimacy with my surroundings so I decided to try my luck with my blind.
I set up as it was getting light near a water source in the shadow of an old round rock corner post. Out here, where the ground is rocky, hard and wood hard to come by, they use horse fence shaped into a barrel filled with rock to build stability into fences. Cattle were removed from the Refuge in the early 1990s and all the wire removed in the last decade, but some of these relics of ranching are still around.
I barely got the blind draped around me and the action started hot and heavy. There were about 25 sage-grouse across the small water hole from me. Then almost immediately the antelope started coming in for their morning drink in singles, doubles and larger groups. Most did not even glance my way. One or two can be seen looking at the camera as the clicks alerted them that something was not quite right but even those who were suspicious took their drink. While I did not see them, I was serenaded by coyotes fairly close several times that morning.
Deer came to drink in several groups. The females with fawns in one group and big bucks hanging out like frat boys in another. One bachelor bunch made up of three big guys, big three and 4 points; had a small two point tagging along with them. I am sure this was his first year away from mom. As they finished drinking and made their way back up the slope the big boys all took turns poking two point in the butt as if to say, “hurry along there son.”
It is breeding time for antelope so it was fun to watch the big bucks chase off the youngsters. They would spot each other from quite a distance and charge off at great speed.
As the morning wore on, Northern Harriers started dive bombing the sage-grouse. They do kill and eat sage-grouse but I think mostly younger birds. I did not see them take a grouse in this instance. I have some photos of the harassment I will share in another post.
At times I hardly knew where to point the camera there was so much going on! It was amazing to watch animals behaving naturally and feeling like I was truly getting a peak into their lives.
I have been hearing rumors about a white coyote for the last couple of months out near where I work. My work place sits on a sagebrush bench about 2 miles above the river. There is a gas station food mart nearer the river and rumor has it the white coyote hangs out there along with normal colored coyotes, being fed by truck drivers and other patrons. It is a very bad idea to feed wildlife by the way. We have sadly had to deal with aggressive coyotes this summer, who have attacked co-workers in our parking lot in search of a hand out. This problem is a direct result of being fed by people. They have lost their fear of people and look to humans as a food source. Fortunately no persons have been hurt but we have had to contact Wildlife officials to deal with the coyote issue.
On to the puzzle. I had not seen the legendary white coyote until this morning. I set up my blind at a pond near the river to attempt to take heron and egret photos. No birds obliged me this morning but this normal colored coyote popped out of the brush and I got a few shots of him. As I was walking back to the car I heard something crashing through the brush and got a glimpse of something white. My curiosity aroused I ventured in and scared Whitey out into the open. He or she was with a plain coyote.
I submit the following photos with the question; do you think this is a white coyote? Nature does produce such anomalies. Or is it a dog-coyote mix? I looked closely at the photos and I think it is a coyote. If it has dog in it can only be a trace. The body, ears, muzzle and eyes all look classically coyote to me. I am not a wildlife biologist though, hence the seeking of opinions. Thanks in advance for weighing in!
**note – fencing seen in one of the photos is to protect the trees from beavers. The animal is not in an enclosure.
I did not realize how long it has been since I posted anything! Summer is a tough time. It is hot out and it is not my favorite time of the year to be stumping around looking for animals. Combine that with some family visits and other distractions, makes for a two month absence.
I have been hanging out in my backyard with my camera and favorite summer obsession; Hummingbirds.
Last fall I replaced a lot of my shrubs with plants guaranteed to attract hummingbirds and waited anxiously all winter and spring to, one, see if they survived and thrived, two, if they really attracted the tiny birds. Yes and yes to all questions. I have a plethora of birds buzzing, eating and fighting in my backyard.
I planted Agastache Blue Blazes, Agastache Desert Solstice and Monarda Bee Balm. The Hummers love them all.
I had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the Sheldon Antelope Refuge in the extreme northwest corner of Nevada this last week. The Refuge is a half a million acres of pristine sagebrush steppe that is one of the most remote areas in the lower 48. No light pollution here and not much else in the way modern conveniences. Livestock were removed and ranching ended on the Refuge in the mid 1990s. All but 14 wild horses who escaped the round ups were removed last year. They will be rounding up these horses soon to allow the refuge to fully recover and return to native grasses and shrubs.
The refuge represents what is best about Nevada; big, windswept, empty places that are starkly beautiful and dangerous for the ill prepared. Visiting some of the abandoned ranches was a highlight for me. We had a lot of rain and roads into some of these areas were almost impassable. Not sure I would want to drive them in dry weather either. Good 4WD and tough tires are a must.
These photos are of the IXL ranch which is way off the beaten path. I am not sure when it was abandoned but the remoteness of the area and difficulty in getting to it has kept it in relatively good condition. It must have been a busy, lively place at one time. Now it sits silent, fading into the sage.