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.
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.
This time of year the foals are the show stealers for sure but the stallions always command my attention. The herd stallions have a presence that is captivating and for photographers trying to get close they must be watched carefully. You could put yourself in real danger if you did not pay close attention to what they are doing, their body language and their mood. Sometimes they graze quietly not at all alarmed as you come close, at other times they are in a definitely protective mode and then you had better watch out if they are showing you that they consider you a threat.
Each band of horses has a social structure that includes a stallion, a lead mare, a few mares with foals and half-grown offspring of varying ages that have not left the band yet or been driven off by the Stallion. These bands come fairly close to one another at times and that is when the fighting between the stallions breaks out. They seem to have a tolerance level of about 50 to a hundred yards. Within that zone one of the stallions will feel threatened and charges out to challenge. Sometimes nothing happens, the other stallion will round-up his band and move off, at other times a battle will ensue with roaring and squealing, biting and kicking. These types of photos are exciting to capture but the photographer has to be extremely careful to stay well out-of-the-way. I have been watching some of these stallions for years now and while they are familiar to me I don’t take it for granted that they are truly a wild animal.
Horses seem to me to be special in the animal world in that they know they are beautiful. If ordinary horses know that they are beautiful, then wild stallions know this tenfold. I have included some photos here of herd stallions and one young appaloosa stallion that I saw for the first time a couple of days ago hanging out with his bachelor friend. He is the first appaloosa I have seen in the wild bands. I hope to see him gather some mares in the next few years and pass on his genes. He certainly knows he is beautiful and he is.
This past weekend I attended a well known event in the Carson Valley called Eagles and Agriculture. Every year at this time they celebrate the return of Bald Eagles to the valley and have built a rather successful attraction for wildlife and bird enthusiasts to enjoy each February. At this time of year the cows are calving and the Eagles are attracted to dine on the placentas and some of the calves that inevitably die or are stillborn.
I have never attended anything like this before. It was well organized and I met great people, had good food and overall enjoyed myself. It was not however, a great opportunity to take wildlife photos. The drought we have been having has led to ranchers carrying less cattle on their land; less cattle, less calves, fewer eagles and raptors to see. Also arriving on tour buses with 40 other photographers and birders is not my usual mode of operation. Again, no complaints from me, it was what it was and I made the most of it by taking photos of some of the historical ranches we were allowed to visit and enjoyed meeting people who were interested in wildlife and photography. I probably won’t attend the event again or at least for a few years. I came away with some ideas of places to go on my own to take wildlife photos and an appreciation for the history and beauty of the Carson Valley.
Abandoned places make wonderful subjects for photographers. I am attracted to them like everyone else. Especially the old homesteads that can be found scattered across the Great Basin. As you pick your way through old sites you wonder: Who lived here? What was it like with just the wind and meadowlarks keeping you company day after day? The nearest neighbor might be as far away as forty miles over bad road. What finally happened to make you pick up and leave?
On a recent trip to Eastern Oregon I found two such places and in one case was lucky enough to have some clouds race by for some of the photos. Black and white seems to suit this type of picture. I am not much of a poet but was inspired to write a little poem thinking about these forlorn and lonely places. They stand alone while the elements work on wiping them off the landscape.
This is a Nonet. Only nine lines with the first having nine syllables and subtracting a syllable for each line thereafter. Rhyming is optional too.
Waiting for them to come back as if
They never left you in the wind
and brutal sun to shoulder
Winter’s heavy snows year
after year for them
You wait until
you give in