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 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 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!