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.
These are a few of my favorite photos so far.
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.
I have spent the last few years learning as much as I can about Hummingbirds. They are fascinating to watch and provide all the entertainment we need in our backyard every summer. I have the schedule down now. The Anna’s and Black-chinned show up the first week of May here. They may be around earlier but that is the earliest I have seen them. We put out the feeders at this time. We carefully tend those making sure they are clean and fungus free changing the water often. The little birds seem to really need it this week as we have had very cold weather and it may snow tonight. They have been visiting often.
In mid-July we get hordes of rampaging Rufous Hummingbirds. They fight over the flowers and feeders non-stop. I don’t see many of the other types once the Rufous take over. I replaced many of my shrubs and perennials with plants that attract Hummingbirds last fall and I am anxiously awaiting bloom and boom time with the hummers.
I took these photos using my new blind which works quite nicely in the backyard. I set it up draped over my tripod near this birds favorite perch for several hours and then ducked under it late this afternoon. It did not seem to care or notice me in it.
For many months of the year there is not a lot going on with wild horses to make for good photos. Horses grazing quietly don’t make for dynamic or interesting photos in my opinion. This time of year we have a crop of new foals which are fun to photograph and fighting stallions which are my absolute favorite subject.
After a mare foals, if everything had gone alright, she is ready to breed again in a week or two. So the herd stallions and bachelors are on the hunt for a mare who is receptive. That naturally puts the males in competition.
In this series of photos, the Roan Stallion is the herd stallion. He comes charging up the hill when he sees that a handsome young bay bachelor is making time with one of his mares. She coyly greets the bachelor with arched neck and they are getting to know one another when the Roan inserts himself in between them. They all sniff noses for a few minutes and then the bay presses his attention which results in a fight. The mare slips off while these two settle it.
The Bay bachelor is rebuffed and leaves to try his luck somewhere else.
This morning I arrived at the pond where the wild horses drink to hoping to get more stallion fighting shots. I do have some recent ones. That will be the teaser. Not much action from the horses today but there were a lot of birds to watch at the pond. White-faced Ibis, Dunlins, Avocets, and Long-billed Dowitchers and Black-necked Stilts.
The Black-necked stilts provided the drama much to my surprise. Two Stilts, and it is easy to see how they got their names on those impossibly long legs, were peacefully probing the mud flats for their breakfast when this other male flew noisily in and started attacking one of the other males. It really was quite a show. When I got home and started editing the photos I saw how truly violent this episode was. If you look closely you can see that one of the Stilts has pierced the other’s neck with his long sharp beak. Ouch!
I recently bought a new photographer drape from Naturescapes and put it to the test today. It is ideal for photographers and is well designed for taking wildlife pictures. It is made with Camouflage material and has an opening for your lens to poke out. Camo netting allows you to look out over your lens and see everywhere except directly behind you. There is ample material for covering you and your tripod mounted camera standing or sitting. I have been anxiously awaiting a chance to try it out.
I arrived at a Sage grouse Lek this morning well before dawn and set it up. I was a little too far from the grouse for great pictures but something else happened that saved my day.
As it began to get light I saw larger flashes of white in the distance and soon was able to make out that they were Pronghorn or antelope. They have amazing vision and they picked out from a distance my blind because I had to move in it, and were spooked and ran off at first. I settled in to take photos of the birds which is what I came for anyway. Then the good stuff happened.
The birds never caught on to my presence and they strutted and danced on the Lek for several hours. The antelope circled back not once but four times and actually approached me and the blind coming in very close. The sound of the camera clicks, and I did have to swivel the lens from time to time, alerted them that something unusual was up but I believe that because they did not see a human shape they were more curious than alarmed. They were extremely curious and I was surprised how many passes they made by the blind. At one point they marched right through the strutting Sage grouse neither party taking much notice of the other.
This was a thrilling experience for me as antelope are difficult to get close to. You can take photos of them from your car fairly often but it does not have the same thrill as being up close to them in their environment. Looking forward to trying this out on more antelope and other species soon.
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.
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.