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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
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.
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.
At the Landscape workshop I attended there was of course a lot of technical talk of composition, light, exposure and post processing tricks and tips. The single most important take away for me was not any of that, but rather the importance of seizing opportunities. I know that seems simple and basic common sense but I needed to hear it. The photographer who taught the class talked of spending weeks in exotic far flung locations to get that one shot that was worth keeping. As he talked about the work and time that went into each beautiful photo he showed us I felt the enlightenment creeping in. Looking at beautiful landscape photography I would always think why can’t I take photos like that? Why do my photos turn out dull and ordinary? Now I knew.
Being honest with myself was the first step. Not getting out of bed to get there for the best light; done that a million times. Not staying late enough for the best light because I did not want to drive or walk out of a place in the dark, done that too many times to count. Hearing the rain in the middle of the night means I should get up and get ready to go at 3:00 AM or seeing the weather report predicting a storm should signal that I need to prepare to be out in it or soon after. That is when the light and clouds will help produce a great photograph. It is too tempting to snuggle into the covers or sit with a hot cup of tea and look out at the weather and think I will go later. Later is too late. You have to go when it isn’t pleasant to go to be where you need to be for those great shots.
Simple right? All of you great landscape photographers already knew this. I guess I knew it but now I will live by it. Yesterday was a perfect example. We got a rainstorm in the night and I thought no, it will be too overcast. Sun came up and the clouds broke beautifully for what would have been great light and drama if I had got myself out in it. Didn’t. I did take advantage of the afternoon evening to take these pictures of the Black Rock Desert with pretty good light and cloud drama but I had to motivate myself to get out there. Obviously it is a lesson I will have to keep learning.
P.S. My luck with wild horses held and got to see two very colorful wild paint horses in the desert.