Northern Desert Photography

Living on the Edge of the Sagebrush Ocean

Wild Burros

The American West is home to Mustangs, feral horses and the less glamorous wild Burro. These Burros came to North America with the Spanish explorers, miners and settlers and like the wild horses, some escaped or were let loose. Over the course of time they thrived and multiplied. They don’t get as much attention or press as wild horses do. They don’t have the Hollywood looks and appeal that horses have.

I run across them from time to time and the foals are about as cute an animal as you will ever see. They are very fuzzy and look like a plush stuffed animal. Driving back from Alturas, California a few weeks ago, I spotted this small band close to the highway so I took a detour to photograph them.

They were pretty spooky, or at least the Stallion was. He tried to intimidate me and drive his mares off but everyone settled down fairly quickly and I was able to complete a short session. The Stallion is the big dark colored burro and actually I think he is quite handsome.

While Burros are not native to North America they have done very well here and current wild populations are estimated at about 20,000. They are a desert animal so the arid west is a natural place for them to live. They do need water, just not as much as other animals. Wild Burros can lose as much as 30% of their body weight through dehydration, and replace it in only 5 minutes drinking. (Humans require medical attention if 10% of body weight is lost to dehydration and require a full day of intermittent drinking to replenish this loss.) They do need to have a water source within 10 miles.

Hopefully I can find a band this spring with a foal and update with a photo of one of the cute little ones.

Northern Harriers

As I work on bird in flight photography, I am having a bit of a love affair with Northern Harriers. They are as hawks go, fairly accommodating for the photographer. Their habit of gliding low to the ground over marsh land makes them much easier to photograph than say a high flying Red-tailed hawk.

I discovered that the Swan Lake nature study/refuge area north of town is a favorite haunt of these birds. The refuge is just under 2000 acres and surrounded by warehouses and neighborhoods. They built a long dock-walkway out into the middle of the marsh and standing on this puts you right in the middle of the action for Harriers as they hunt.

Northern Harriers are easy to identify. They have an owl shaped face. This shape helps funnel the noises of voles and mice to them which are their principal prey. The females are brown in color and the males are grey to white.

There are quite a few of these hawks frequenting the swamp. I hope the action continues through the year. They are fun to practice flight photography on and beautiful to watch.

Kiger Mustangs

I spent a few days at Frenchglen Oregon this last week and paid a visit to the Kiger Mountain BLM Herd Management area to get a look at the famous Kiger Mustangs that reside there. These horses are unique in that they are true Mustangs descended from the Spanish Barb horses brought to North America in the 17th century. I don’t use the word Mustang in relation to the wild or feral horses I usually take photos of because they are not truly Mustangs but rather a mix of domestic stock that one way or another has over the years become wild and proliferated all over the West.

The Kiger herd was discovered in roundups in the 1970s, the horses have distinct characteristics that set them apart from other horse types. They were genetically tested and their DNA proved that they were Mustangs; a bloodline that was thought to have disappeared from America’s wild herds. These horses are carefully managed and protected to preserve our heritage. They are kept separate from other feral horses to keep the bloodlines pure. They are fenced in two very large management areas and are still truly wild.

I had to use a lot of patience to get close to them. The Stallion was especially protective and he charged out aggressively when he saw me to make sure that I was not a threat to his band. Very slowly and in a roundabout way I worked my way up to them. Once I was among them they relaxed like most of the feral horses I photograph and did not pay much attention to me other than some curious looks with pricked up ears which makes for good pictures.

I had heard these horses were different, very beautiful and they are! They are mostly a dun color though other colors are allowed, there was a grulla mare in the band I found, (mouse gray) and I saw in this little herd, most of the identifying characteristics that set them apart. They have primitive markings like a dorsal stripe down the back, some zebra striping on the legs, some have two colors in their manes and black points. They are fine boned and refined looking. They have nice heads and are short backed, overall good confirmation with an athletic look. Looking at the photos I think you will readily see the difference in the Kigers from other feral horses. The Kiger horses were used as inspiration for the animated film that DreamWorks created, “Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, made in 2002. The stallion in the band I observed looked very much like the animated character, Spirit.

These horses were very alert especially the Stallion. While watching them I saw them notice some antelope in the far distance and they were very interested in their movements. After I had spent some time with them, the stallion charged up the hill after something he had seen ready to do battle. I never saw what he saw, maybe a coyote, but the herd followed him and I let them go at that point and hiked back to my car.

Canyon Wren

I made a quick trip up to the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge this week and as usual it was teeming with photo opportunities. I met a friend from the Medford area there Wednesday morning and we had a great time driving the roads, hiking and taking pictures like mad women.

While we did find the usual, bald eagles, coyotes and massive rafts of snow geese, I was really captivated by this tiny bird I have never seen before; the Canyon Wren. We visited Petroglyph Point, and sheer walled cliff area on the refuge famous for, you guessed it, petroglyphs. There are a lot of nesting raptors in the walls of the cliff but it was this tiny wren with a powerful song that I was determined to get a photo of.

These wrens live all over the West but somehow I have never run across it. I will be seeking it out locally here over the next few weeks. We must have them somewhere nearer to me than Klamath. I don’t think I have ever heard it’s distinctive song before. Anyway, they like to live in sheer walled cliffs and rocky areas are fairly widespread across the Western U.S. They have a very long bill as you can see and they find their prey by poking into the rocks and cracks. They find and eat spiders and insects. Anything that rids the world of spiders is an ally of mine!

Amazing New Lens

After months of researching, saving and trading in old equipment, I was able to cobble enough money together to buy the Tamron 150-600 telephoto zoom lens. It arrived on Monday and I have been able to take it out a few times and I am impressed. I probably could never save up for a Canon prime 500 or 600 lens or justify spending that kind of money so I was praying that this Tamron would be an answer for me. I have it paired with the Canon 7dMark II.

All wildlife and bird photographers want more reach. You always want to get closer and fill the frame with your subject. Birds especially are challenging as they are so small in the frame if you don’t get close enough.

This morning I tried it out on one of the tiniest of birds I know, the Bushtit, and I am very happy with the results. These birds are so small and fast moving that to get a good photo of them is very difficult or at least I have always found it so. They are lively little things and flock in large noisy social groups and I think I have several good photos here that demonstrate how sharp this lens is. All of these were taken at 600mm.

I took a pretty good photo of a Mountain Bluebird sitting on a bird house yesterday also at 600mm. I don’t see any softness with these photos at 600mm. The Mourning dove was on my fence in the backyard and was also taken at 600mm hand held.

I took this in flight photo of a Northern Harrier which is not sharp but that was operator error. The Tamron is so light at just over 4 pounds that you can hand hold it for bird in flight photos. Someone let me take some photos with their Canon 600mm prime once and I think without a tripod I could not take any photos at all.

Can’t wait to take this new lens up to Klamath and on a Sage Grouse trip I have planned for next month.

Winter in the Klamath Basin

The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge is a large complex of refuges on the California/Oregon border. Every winter over 500 Bald Eagles choose to winter here because of the abundance of wintering snow geese and tundra swans that use the refuge through the winter. A couple of years ago I made several trips up there to photograph wildlife but never made it back in 2014. I got a new lens and could not think of a better place to try it out so I made a quick trip up there last week. I think I got a pretty good representation of the wildlife you can find on the refuge in the photographs I took.

Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Bald Eagles
Mule Deer
Coyote
Red-tailed Hawk

Highway 50, America’s Loneliest Road

I drove east today as the clouds looked like they might be interesting for landscape photos. East is highway 50, known as the loneliest road in America. It is remote and lightly traveled but it is always my route of choice if I am driving east. I have actually never crossed Nevada on I-80. I try to avoid the interstates if I can and travel on back roads. As I am usually on my way somewhere when driving this road and have never stopped to take photos. On my way back from Moab this fall I looked at the scenery with fresh eyes and saw a lot to like.

The light was tricky this afternoon but I took a few images I can share. Sand Mountain is the giant sand dune in one of the photos. It is a singing sand dune two miles long and six hundred feet high. From my vantage point I could see some ATV riders that looked like very small insects speeding up and down the dune. I was standing next to the ruins of one of the old Pony Express stations to take photos of the dunes. It was aptly named Sand Pass station and all that is left are these tumbled down rock walls.

Next on my list was to try to get some photos of Chalk Mountain. It is an interesting stark white peak sitting by itself just west of the Clan Alpine range. I finished up at sunset taking some photos of Fairview peak.

All of these sites are just a few miles from one another just off 50. I saw many more places I would like to photograph. I will be busy out there the next few months.

The Challenger

I took my new 7dmarkII out for its second test run Saturday and got lucky with some action at the water hole. In spite of the wet, cold, weather we have been having, the wild horses are still frequenting the pond. It started out boring with just one lonely bachelor hanging around but soon got very interesting. This young stallion had decided he was ready to take on the big boys and he challenged each stallion who showed up escorting his mares to drink.

Some of the skirmishes were short and it didn’t seem as if the older horses were taking the challenger too seriously. One stallion was not in the mood for the young bachelor and they had several encounters that were interesting to watch.

Most of these fights take a predictable path. The herd stallion runs out to meet the threat, any sexually mature male, they usually sniff noses followed by squealing or roaring and some hoof play and or nipping. Often that’s it and the bachelor runs off; end of drama.

The challenger, I will call White Socks as he has four white socks, was not running off. He was particularly vexing for this bay stallion who was not amused at his nonsense. They mixed it up several times without anyone getting hurt and no lost mares for the Bay.

The bay displayed most of the classic herd stallion behaviors. He moved his mares off and then turned to meet White Socks. In the photo with his head down he is “snaking” the mares out of the way.

Not all the pictures are in good focus. I need to work on that. Still getting to know the camera. The 7dII by the way is able to handle all the fast action without pausing. I will have to watch that. The editing was a real chore. 😉

Fear and Trust

Over the years I have spent a considerable amount of time around wild horse bands photographing them and observing them. I am by no means any kind of horse expert. I grew up riding and owning horses but not delving into their psychology or behavior puzzles. I love horses, their beauty, power and social structure are endlessly fascinating to me now and I know I am not alone in this interest. Horses have elicited that feeling in humans probably from the beginning of time.
One aspect of their behavior has proven both alarming but ultimately gratifying for me. That is when they switch from fearful animals exhibiting all the behaviors you would expect from prey animals to trusting, curious beings that want to get to know me better. This switch happens so quickly that I can imagine how our ancient ancestors made that mental leap to tame these beasts.
It happens a little differently each time depending on the band make up and the individuals in it. Bachelor bands have always been the most bold. These bands are made up of young stallions who have not formed their own family yet by stealing another stallions mares. They roam around together like most adolescent males looking for trouble, harassing each other, play fighting, making half- hearted attempts to challenge herd stallions they encounter and getting chased off. They are fun to watch.
They usually approach me slowly gathering courage from each other. I have to back away and sometimes shoo them off as I do not want them too close. I am very aware of how I could be hurt or my equipment damaged. I have the lessons and yes, scars, from encounters with domestic horses to temper any sentimentality I may feel. I never forget these are wild animals.
Herd stallions protecting his band of mares and offspring need special care. They can be aggressive and you must be on your guard. I watch his body language carefully and gauge my movements based on his reactions. The horses I usually photograph have seen a lot of people so there is not too much to be worried about.
I visit a stretch of the river that the Nature Conservancy has set aside a lot, and recently a small band of wild horses has taken to frequenting this area. It consists of a flaxen chestnut stallion I am going to call Arod. I don’t usually name the horses I encounter but a friend suggested that name from the Lord of the Rings after seeing photos of him. There are three mares, one is a seal brown, I have named Broken Star for the star on her forehead that is broken in two, and two bay mares without any distinguishing marks. There are two young horses with the band. A colt that looks just like his dad and a bay with a big white star on his or her face. Arod’s Son seems an apt name for the colt. He is devoted to the stallion. He follows him everywhere and copies his behavior. They seem to have a close bond.
Anyway, I took photos of this band on Thanksgiving and I ran into them again yesterday in more open terrain. The stallion was alarmed to see me. I think the camo I wear confuses them and adds to their wary behavior. He charged out of the group toward me in a wide arch coming at me from an angle. I took a few photos and decided to back off and continue on my way.
After a fruitless search for deer I decided to take pictures of the horses on the hike out. I approached carefully making a wide angle around them and sat down on a fallen tree to set up to take pictures. Arod and son came charging out together followed more slowly by Broken Star. At first the body language is highly alert and aggressive and I am on notice as well prepared to do what I need to do to fend him off if need be. Waving my arms and shouting have always been enough in these situations in the past. He eventually slows down and stands off in the distance for awhile. Broken Star joins him and the colt. Arod moves ever closer to me now with a different attitude. The wide eyed, whites showing look is gone. He holds his body and head differently. He seems to want to interact with me up close and personal. He keeps walking in so close that at times my long lens is rendered useless. I wave my arms gently and speak to him and the others in low tones telling them that they are close enough. I can’t risk them getting into my space. They seem to understand that. I have had this happen countless times.
They then relaxed into a family grooming session that illustrates how very relaxed they had become. This sequence of events never fails to amaze and please me. They seem to know they can trust me.

Happy Thanksgiving

It has become a tradition for me to make sure I spend Thanksgiving morning out enjoying nature as being able to immerse myself in the natural world is an aspect of life I am most grateful for. I had an awesome morning. The mule deer rut is in full swing so I donned all my camo and got out to the river before it got light. I included a couple of photos of me in my camo as some folks have asked to see it. It is far from flattering or fashionable attire but I think you can get an idea how effective it is when seen against a sagebrush backdrop. I bathe in scent killing soap, wash my camo in scent neutralizer and use scent elimination spray before heading into the brush. It certainly worked this morning.

I passed a band of wild horses feeding in a meadow by the water as I made my way deeper into the river bottom. Noting their location I was reassured that no matter what happened I wouldn’t get skunked for photo ops today.

I had not seen any deer as of yet and the woods were quiet. I wondered if I was going to see any deer. I was setting up my tripod and deciding where I should plant myself at the intersection of deer trails and all of the sudden the area was alive with deer. I had a spike and a small two point walking through a small grove of cottonwoods and heard more deer crashing around in the high grass about 75 yards to my left. I could see the large rack of a 4 point over the tops of the grass as he was chasing some does around but could never get a clear photo of him. Meanwhile the two smaller bucks just ignored me as I stood still and shot away at them. The two point heard the camera clicks and was alert to something amiss and never showed himself fully but the spike eventually lay down in the grass close to me but not where I could photograph him.

Something startled all of them at one point and they all ran away. It wasn’t me. Maybe a coyote or another hiker along the trail I hadn’t seen. I sat down in the sagebrush to wait for everything to calm down. A few minutes later a doe came charging through the brush and almost collided with me. We were both startled! Behind her a smaller 4 point came into the clearing so close I couldn’t get a photo. He saw me but couldn’t quite figure me out. He ran off and I got the slightly blurry photo of him as he scrambled off.

I decided to walk through the woods toward the place I had seen the horses. Looked into a thicket of young cottonwoods and saw a sleepy Great Horned Owl. Was able to take a few photos without disturbing him and moved on to the horses.

I have seen this band before and the herd stallion is a particularly good looking flaxen chestnut. He has passed his coloration on to his son complete with white blaze. The other looker in the band is a seal brown mare with a broken star on her face. I got some mediocre photos of the horses the grasses were in the way of some of the shots but all in all a very good day.

A perfectly happy Thanksgiving morning for me.

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