I had hoped to spend many days with a couple different populations but the monsoon rains coming early spoiled my plans. I still may try in August. I say that because the best time to get desert bighorn shots is during the hot summer when they are forced to come to water. I have 2 places I like to go, one a river the other a lake where I can cover a lot of territory in a boat. It's just too hot and I'm too old to try and go chase them through bighorn habitat with all that gear and temps in the 120's near the rocks these guys live in. As usual, I've got some bighorn natural history on the captions on the photos below. I hope you enjoy the images and the information.
Because of family illnesses and loss I had to put photography on the back burner from December to May. However I was able to get away in mid April for a Colorado Chicken Photo Tour with Tropical Birding. The trip advertised visiting both prairie chicken lek sites and sharp-tailed and sage Grouse with possibilities for other species as well. A lek site is an area where males display or dance and females visit eventually choosing a mate. I had always dreamed of visiting and photographing just one species lek site so I didn't want to pass on the chance to visit all 4 prairie species. We met in Denver and our first stop was a small lesser prairie chicken lek less than 6 miles from the NE border. I was surprised we were even able to visit the site since the species has just been listed as Threatened just 2 months before the trip. Although the birds were some what timid and stayed a distance away we were still treated to a great show as the pictures below indicate. Just after we were done we were stopped by the Colorado Division of Wildlife that asked our guide not to get that close in the future because of the recent designation so we were quite lucky.
The next stop was a private ranch in northern Colorado for greater prairie chickens. This rancher opens his ranch to many birder type trips and all he asks is that he meet everyone and give his side of ranching and how he perceives conservation. It was an interesting presentation and from the photos on his wall I was quite excited for the next morning. When we arrived the lek the next morning we first saw activity from the van headlights. However, as light increased so did the wind and we endured up to 50 mph gusts. The birds were still there in numbers and were seemingly unconcerned about us but strong winds affect all animals. I only saw males and the lack of females reduced the display activity. We were still able to get some good shots but not some of the displays we had seen the day before. I'm sure a visit on a less windy day would have been great. The birds were there in large numbers.
Again we hit the road after the lek activity and drove another couple hundred miles with a couple stops for some other Colorado birds. This time our quarry was sharp tailed grouse which proved the be the show of the tour. We were actually allowed on reclaimed strip mine land by the mine and I was quite impressed with their reclamation process. We also saw elk, deer, and pronghorn there along with numerous other species. Given the number of awards the mine has been given I wasn't the only biologist impressed with their reclamation. We had a couple blinds and soon as we had them up we were surrounded by sharp-tailed males dancing even before first light. The pictures below give an indication of just how good it was, but it was better.
Our last stop was the one I was most looking forward too, sage grouse. I had seen many in the years I lived in Wyoming but never a lek. The fact that sage grouse populations have drastically reduced even heightened my interest in this large lek area. As with every morning, we arrived well before first light and we were treated to quite a show acoustically and then in low light. My conservative count of "booming males" was 50 but I'm sure there were more as a blind limits visibility. I was super excited and took a few shots even in the low light. Glad I did because right as the sun was about to rise 2 Golden Eagles zoomed through the lek causing all the birds to flush, never to return. If sage grouse are disturbed they normally don't return and this group followed that rule. A few males returned to see if any action was going to start and we were able to photograph a couple of them from close range but none of the booming we had seen before it was light enough to shoot. Although disappointing it's hard to pout over 2 golden eagles breaking up the action. That's nature and photography. I will have to be happy with what I got below and the guide, Andrew, gave me the GPS location of the lek so it looks like a trip to Colorado may be in the cards next April.
I have no problem recommending any one interested going on the this trip with Tropical Birding. (http://www.tropicalbirding.com/us-and-canada-birding-tours/colorado-photo-journey/) I thought the guide Andrew Spencer was extremely knowledgeable about his home state and even more about the birds. I was also able to shoot other species such as the white tailed ptarmigan we were able to find at Loveland Pass. This trip has a marathon like pace as you are up well before the sun and normally have a couple hundred miles of travel that day at least. I thought the trip was some what similar to mine in that Andrew shared quite a bit of expertise on birds but little about photography but every one on this tour knew what they were doing and didn't ask for advice. I thought the price was reasonable especially since it includes your guide, travel, all lodging, AND food which I didn't expect. If you go you will come home tired but excited as you will get to see and photograph some of nature's most interesting behavior in a short period. Good luck.
The Mearn's quail, otherwise known as the Harlequin and Montezuma quail is a species I thought I'd probably never get a clear photo of. The reason why is this primarily tropical species lives in grass, tall grass, associated with Arizona's Pine Oak woodlands also referred to as Madrean woodlands. I've been fortunate enough to see them several times in various sky islands in SE Arizona all the way up to the Mogollon rim. But always in at least knee high thick grass and my only view was their back side as they flew away. From the pictures you can see they are quite an attractive species and sought after by both birders and hunters. The distribution map below shows they are also found in some pockets in West Texas and into New Mexico, but the bulk of their population is south into Mexico.
As a quail species they are highly prized by quail hunters. Because of their secretive nature it takes a really dedicated hunter with an excellent pointing dog or three to find them. This characteristic tends to bring out the best of the quail hunters that often end up very taken with the species. So much so they have often forced the Arizona Game and Fish Department to lower limits and seasons even when the data biologist collect show that the harvest is minimal. I know for those of you that don't hunt this may be hard to understand but hunters often become very fond of their prey and hold a deep respect for them. They can become the best conservationists as they are willing to put a great deal of volunteer time and money into preserving and enhancing the species and it's habitat. Mearn's quail hunters are some of the best in my opinion when it comes to concern for the species and it's habitat.
Mearn's quail are different from Gambel's and scaled quail in that their reproduction is dependent on summer rains, not the winter. They are paired up now (June) but won't start nesting until after the first of the monsoon rains in July. Several studies have shown that the amount of summer rain is the most important factor influencing the population, good rain - good populations and visa versa. That's assuming the habitat stays in good condition. Two factors found to negatively influence the habitat, thus bird numbers, is overgrazing by cattle and over harvesting of oak by fuelwood cutters. A reduction in grass height or tree density tends to increase the amount of predation. Since those 2 factors were identified by earlier studies (60's and 70's) the AZGFD and the Coronado National Forest have done a good job of protecting the habitat and the population is stable, but fluctuates a bit depending on the rainfall.
The only reason I was able to get this photo is a friend of mine alerted me to a small guest ranch outside of Sierra Vista where several pairs are coming into water. I sat in a blind at the water source and was able to get some great shots. I'm hoping the birds will keep coming and the access with continue. You do have to pay a fee to enter the property though. Contact me if you are interested.
Until then, Good Shooing!
My visit to Ramsey Canyon today was to photograph Coues (pronounced Cows) Whitetail Deer bucks in rut chasing does. So up the canyon I went walking slowly hoping to find the "good" buck a visitor had claimed to see earlier. I was fortunate to find a couple fairly quickly and then spotted a smaller but respectable 4 x 4 buck following 2 does. With some luck I might get him out in the open with some decent late afternoon light. But, like most of my photo quests, the animals were not cooperative and within minutes the doe the buck was interested in lay down, so the buck did as well some 50 yards behind her. No photo opps for a bit. I found a high spot where I could see them both and sat down as well. Within minutes both were "chewing their cud", what biologists call ruminating, which helps the breakdown of hard to digest plants. So with nothing to do for a while my mind started to wander. Since I was just watching the chewing motion, I began to ruminate on what I consider one of the most fascinating symbiotic relationships in nature; the process that allows those deer (all deer, elk, sheep, cattle, pronghorn, and other antelopes worldwide) to actually get energy from the plants on the surrounding hill side. I was hungry, but I couldn't eat the acorns and oak twigs these 2 were browsing on. In reality, without a lot of help from other species, neither could they and that takes some explaining.
To lay some ecological ground rules I'll start by stating that every calorie of energy on this planet was originally converted from sunlight by plants (or algae). So even if you are eating meat, the calories you ingest came from the plants that animal ate that had converted energy from the sun using chlorophyll in a process known as photosynthesis. So all animals need plants and we benefit from their ability to convert sunlight to an energy form we can use. The problem is, plants don't normally want to be eaten (there are exceptions but that's in another chapter). Plants don't have a brain to think about it, but it's not hard to imagine that a plant that is indigestible (so avoided by animals) would probably produce more seeds that grow to adult forms versus one that is digestible. So in each generation of plants, a mutation that makes them more indigestible will probably become more common and more and more plants will become difficult to digest. Give plants a few 100 million years and they are pretty good at preserving their energy and nutrients. Case in point…as I sit surrounded by millions of calories that I can't digest. Herbivores have to keep up with these changes and mutations that make them more efficient at digesting plants will become more common over time as well. The chief defense in most of the plant kingdom is a tough cell wall known as cellulose. Many animals, certainly you and I, do not have a digestive system that can cut through most plant species cellulose walls to get at the glucose (energy) and nutrients. I could chew all the acorns I wanted and not get enough energy to survive because of the cellulose. The deer seemingly has no problem, but actually the cellulose is indigestible to them as well so they need help.
Deer and the animals I listed above are known as ruminants, which are even toed, hoofed animals with a specialized digestive system, specifically a 4 chambered stomach that allows them to obtain energy from indigestible plant matter. There are just over 150 species of ruminants and it includes wild and domestic species including deer, sheep, goats, cattle, camels, giraffes, yaks, llamas, pronghorn, and the antelopes. They actually don't do the digesting, the quadrillion (that's 15 zeros) of bacteria and protozoa that live in the 4 chambered stomach complete the breakdown of cellulose because they have the ability to break it down. So by providing the microbes a place to live with the proper conditions, the deer get the energy released from the cellulose and hemicellulose in the form of volatile fatty acids (vfas) and from the bacteria themselves. To take advantage of this “deal” they have evolved a complex 4 chambered stomach with conditions almost perfect for the bacteria and protozoa which results in a superior fermentation chamber. A little different than your favorite winery, but similar in nature (excuse the pun).
The 4 chambered stomach has a chamber for each of the following functions, a sorting and filtering chamber for the chewed up vegetation, a fermentation chamber, a water absorption chamber, and a gastric stomach that is not as acidic as you and I have but serves somewhat the same function. The honey combed sorting chamber (ever eaten menudo?) or reticulum is the largest, and the series of folds and villi make sure that only small particles pass through to the bacteria. Larger particles are passed back up to the mouth to be rechewed, hence rumination or cud chewing. The next section, the rumen houses the bacteria. The animal must ensure that conditions are correct for the bacteria which require a warm temperature, a lot of water (saliva), and the opposite pH of our stomach. To keep the area moist and buffered, every ruminant produces an enormous amount of saliva, a cow is estimated to produce 100 – 150 liters a day. Once the bacteria do their job and the particles are small enough, they move into the Omassum where the ruminant tries to get as much water back from both the saliva and any water the plant had in it as it can before the mostly digested food continues on to the gastric stomach, the small intestine, and finally the large intestine. From an energy standpoint, the 3 byproducts of fermentation are the volatile fatty acids, the water soluble vitamins produced by the bacteria, and the superior proteins contained in the bacteria themselves. The vfa's are absorbed into the blood through the rumen wall, most of the vitamins and proteins a little later in the small intestine. As the foods continue to move along the digestive tract some microbes move along with it and food value and nutrients continue to be extracted throughout the small intestine. The large intestine is the chamber where the all the water possible is extracted before the feces is released. So by creating a stomach that has ideal conditions for a microbial population, the whitetail I’m watching can ingest things and get food value from items neither of us can properly digest.
Ruminants aren’t the only animals that take advantage of this symbiotic relationship however, most herbivores do since plants have built up defenses for over 500 million years. Other mammals such as rodents, birds, and even a couple of our lizard species have digestive chambers that evolved to house bacteria so the cellulose and hemi cellulose that protects plant energy and nutrients can be extracted. Most don’t have near the efficient system as the ruminant however. A couple other herbivores I can see as I wait for the deer to move are cottontail rabbits and Arizona gray squirrels. The rabbit doesn't have a 4 chambered stomach, but it does have a cecum located at the end of the small intestine. It's located the same area as our appendix. It's a large chamber (up to 60% of the digestive tract) and it's a most important part of the tract. The cecum is a fermentation chamber that has the same function as the rumen in the whitetail. The rabbit absorbs vfa's produced by the bacteria as they process the grass the rabbit ate. But the big difference between the two species is that the cecum is located at the end of the small intestine, not before it. Because of that, all the proteins and vitamins absorbed by ruminants are not absorbed by rabbits or other herbivores known as “hind gut fermenters”. The rabbit has a special adaptation that other animals do not. It's not appetizing to think about, but it works well. Rabbits actually produce 2 types of feces, a hard fibrous feces and a soft moist one known as cecotropes. To absorb the vitamins and proteins that the whitetail absorbs in the small intestine, rabbits eat the moist soft feces and then the proteins and minerals can be absorbed in the small intestine. Other species will eat their own feces as well, which is known as copraphagy. (Sometimes I need to tell my students to get the copraphagic grin off of their face!) The gray squirrel has a digestive system more like ours. A highly acidic gastric stomach, a long small intestine, and a cecum that is not that large. Their bacteria population is not large enough to digest the cellulose found in many plant parts and species thus their diet is more selective. Without softer berries, nuts, fungi (mushrooms) etc., they would starve. They are better at processing cellulose than you and I, but not that much better. You and I, we need to stick to our soft green beans, corn, lettuce, etc., all plants that have a weak cellulose wall if we want to access that energy. If you want to add Brussels sprouts to that list and eat them, fine. I think I'd rather try acorns.
If you gave me a pair of binoculars and said go watch a bird for a day, I know which one I’d pick immediately. The reddish egret. Not the prettiest like some North American warblers or tropical trogons, not majestic like an eagle, not an Olympian flyer like a Peregrine, or a long distance migratory marathoner like an Arctic Tern. In fact they are hard to find as recent estimates put them at only 2000 pairs in North America, still trying to recover from near extinction during the feather hunting era in the early 1900’s. But for sheer fun to watch, the foraging antics of the reddish egret has to bring a smile to your face and you can’t help but wonder what he/she will do next.
Reddish egrets will stand like other egrets as above, but that’s not when they are actually hunting. That’s most often a rest break. Although all egrets will involve some action (running, flapping wings, jumping etc) to try and entice fish to move so they can see them and grab them, no other egret puts the work into it that a reddish egret. They jump, fly circles, spin 360’s, fly 20 feet then fly or run back, flap wings, twirl 180 to 360 degrees and this can last 20 to 30 seconds before the bird catches a fish, or until the bird just decides to stand stationary again until the next round. I could try and describe it but the short video I posted here will do a better job.
If you are looking for one in the US, the Florida or Texas coast would be your best bet (Click here is you want to see their range map http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/reddish_egret/id). The AZ bird breeding bird atlas lists them as rare. There is a population just over our border in California in the Salton Sea so that’s probably where we get our visitors from. Most of my experience with them was on the Texas coast and that’s where these photos and video come from. There are actually 2 morphs (color phases), the dark you see here and a pure white morph and they are one of 6 species in their family (Ardeidae) to have a white form. The dark form you see here is the most common as only an estimated 6% of the species are white and most of those are in Florida.
So next time you’re out near the sea shore or a salt marsh and you’re lucky enough to see one of these guys, pull up a stump or a piece of beach and watch. It’s more fun with a camera but be sure and take the time to enjoy what you are seeing as well.
Two years ago I enrolled as a volunteer at Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior; it’s an Arizona State Park and a 300-acre collection of towering trees, cactus gardens and paths -- fall foliage each November, and colorful wildflowers in March-April. All that vegetation means lots of habitat for "camera-ready" small animals - and the park boasts an impressive bird list. I’ve found it a good place for bird photography, some small mammals, and I finally got some shots at a couple of the foxes I know lived in the area.
If you go, the following is a suggestion from my go to friend at the Arboretum Paul Wolterbeek. “Get to know the groundkeepers and park staff; they're a friendly crew, welcoming to photographers, and usually quick to share insiders' tips about places and times to see and photograph animals and birds. When you pay your admission in the gift shop ($10-a-day, or $50-a-year to be a member), ask if Becky or Gonzalo are on duty that day, and if they'd have a minute to speak with you. Ask for Ricky, or Ruben or Chris Spencer -- each a knowl edgeable outdoorsman who knows the gardens and the animals which live there, knows their habits and what fruit trees they're feeding under this week!”
Paul alerted me this week about the Gray Fox, a tough species for anyone to photograph. He pointed out that the foxes have been seen daily - gobbling up the fallen fruit beneath the palm trees. They're also being seen climbing up in to the large, shrubby myrtle that overhangs the main trail just past the "pumphouse" (that's on your trail map), between the suspension bridge and the "catwalk" (that's not on your map - but any BTA staffer can point out the location. Fox are excellent climbers and will venture into trees after fruit, to raid nests for bird eggs, or just to nap on a limb. It wasn’t easy to find them but persistence and walking back and forth paid off.
I started this post saying I had signed-up as a volunteer, and here's an invite to meet me and learn why. Dec. 22 (Sunday) I'll be at BTA giving a lecture about bears, and showing a slideshow of recent photos. That's in the morning at 10am, and included with daily admission. That afternoon I'm giving a talk to the BTA Photo Club; that's not a public event, but you can attend if you're a BTA annual member and you're into photography. This is the 3rd time I've been involved with the BTA photo club - last year Lisa Langell and I offered a "tag team" presentation on wildlife photography, and then guided a walk into the gardens to demonstrate a few of the camera techniques we'd been discussing. Meet me at BTA on Dec. 22! As an added bonus, after the event at the Arboretum my family and I are heading over to one of my favorite Christmastime events in AZ, the once-a-year "festival of lights" up at the Besh Ba Gowah archaeological park in Globe, another 45-minutes drive east of BTA. The event is free, and lures photographers from across the valley. Read more & check out photos:
The number of high quality images both my clients and myself took in the first week of August 2013 continues to stun me, in a good way. Every time I open Lightroom to go over the images I keep finding another keeper that I need to process. Spending 2 full days at my favorite creek (I will share it with you when you book a trip) was the ticket for success on action shots. Here I just wanted to post a small slideshow of charging/diving bears. I estimate I have over 40 publishable images in excellent focus with great action. One of the benefits of this creek is we line up on one bank, and the bears are right across from us on the other. Luckily the fish are in between allowing us to get great shots, often coming right at us, as the bears dive for fish. It also allows for great "broadside" action if the bears are up or down river from us. Next year I'm bringing some tilers knee pads as I found the best POV was when I was kneeling in the water; good thing the lodge provides chest waders. This is just a few and hope you enjoy.
Well, both my clients and I had some wonderful bear shooting in Katmai National Park from August 1 through August 4 this year. We visited 3 different locations, Little Koo, Margot Creek, and we went to Morraine Creek twice. All had bears, the most activity was at Morraine but Margot has beautiful backgrounds to enhance your images. The weather was typical SW Alaska weather, highs in the upper 50’s low 60’s with some wind and rain. Cloudy every day; some day I will photograph bears in the sun in SW AK but not in the last 3 years. We did not visit Brooks this year as I planned the trip for later. By August 1 there were only a couple bears left which is what I expected. Brooks is still a fantastic place to go but timing is everything when it comes to fish running and the bears that follow. Both Rex and Ginna Short, and Clay and Carla Smith were happy enough with their images they were willing to share them with me for this site. So my first post will just include a couple of my images but many more of theirs. I attend workshops and training myself, and I thought you might be even more interested in what the attendees took than I so have a look at these wonderful shots from the brown bear capital of the world, Katmai National Park. All of the photos in the slide show below are from my guests. I'll be posting more of mine later and on my facebook page.
Just back from spending 47 wonder packed days in the "Dark Continent". My purpose of being there was threefold, to enjoy a late honeymoon with my wife, Lori; to inspect and develop the curriculum for a University study abroad class I will be leading next year; and to investigate areas for future photo tours. For an animal/photography nut it was like being in the world's largest amusement park, animals and landscapes every where to photograph. I spent about 2 weeks in the Kruger area south to Kwazulu-natal and and an equal amount of time in the East Cape of South Africa. I was also able to get over to Namibia for 8 days. For the purpose of future photo tours I stayed at 3 separate lodges. Two luxury lodges run by And Beyond, Kirkman's Kamp in Sabi Sands, and Phinda where I stayed in both the forest and mountain lodges. I have never seen such service and the photography opportunities were above my expectations. We saw leapords on 7 of 8 game drives at Kirkman's, and at Phinda I photographed 15 different cheetahs which we saw each time we went out. I also stayed at Tshukudu Lodge near Hoedspruit outside of Kruger which offers some different venues for photography with habituated and captive animals along with numerous completely wild animals. It is frequented by photography tours monthly due to their unique facilities. I want to visit some more areas before I put a photo tour together so I'm hoping to visit some areas in Botswana next year before my class comes over. By then I should have a good "feel" for the southern Africa area and be able to lead an excellent tour in 2015. I will be keep posting photos both here and on my facebook site, and have over 8000 I still need to sort through as I just got back 2 days ago. I've only found time to process a few but below is a represenative of the Big 5, which I was fortunate to see all 5 on 4 different days.
I just finished a book on Blurb for Dave Coray at Silver Salmon Lodge entitled "Answers to Questions about Brown Bears". Dave and I came up with the idea when I worked there in 2012 for a couple weeks developing educational materials for his lodge.http://www.silversalmoncreek.com/about.php
It's a 30 page "coffee table" book that answers the questions David and his guides are most often asked. I greatly enjoyed researching for it and much of the text is found her on this blog. Please feel free to preview at http://www.blurb.com/b/4331110-answers-to-questions-about-brown-bears#promote-pane
Just click on the link then click on preview. I'm not sure how I'm going to like the images published and I won't know that until I return from South Africa in July. The published versions are going straight to Dave's lodge now.