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 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.
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.
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 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!
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.