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.
As I've mentioned before in this blog, my luck with chasing birds for a good image is little to none. I may get a photo or 2, but not where I want, with the background I want, nor the perch I want the bird to be on. (The only exception I know is shore birds, but that's a different blog subject) The best way I know to get a lot of good images is to go to a place where some one feeds and waters them and it has a blind or hide you can use (please see my blogs on elephant head pond above). But for reasons such as distance, the inability to book a spot, or that the bird (s) you want to photograph do not eat from feeders (insectivores) or are not found in the habitats where such areas are you are up to your own devices. My methods for photographing these birds is audio calling them to perches I have already set up. I'm either in a blind or my vehicle and waiting.
I'm not going to go into here on what methods I use because there are already a couple of definitive sources out there, both by the same author. Noted bird photographer Alan Murphy has produced 2 audio cd books and I am completely impressed with the methods in both. I have used over 50% of the many methods he discusses in both with better than expected results. I'm not going to duplicate his efforts here but instead I urge you to purchase one if not both of these cd's. To order these cds please see Alan's website (http://www.alanmurphyphotography.com/ebook.htm) and order yours. NOTE: I have never met Alan, talked to him on the phone, etc. and get no kickback from his sales, I just think his products are that good to highly recommend them. If I do meet him I'll certainly shake his hand with a sincere thanks.
After I read both of these cd's I started calling and I'm still learning about our birds here in Arizona. You will find each species has a time that it works best to call them, usually a week or 2 week long period when they are just setting up territories. Some that you can call in late February will not respond in April and visa versa. I just came back from the Catalina's where I hoped to attract red-faced warblers with an off chance I might see a yellow eyed junco based on what a friend told me. What I found was the opposite, the yellow eyed juncos landed right in front of me and I was lucky to get a red faced warbler into range. If you want to know when to go I recommend purchasing a in depth bird guide in your area. Here in Arizona I read the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas (http://www.amazon.com/Arizona-Breeding-Bird-Atlas-Corman/dp/0826333796/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1368900962&sr=8-1&keywords=arizona+state+breeding+bird+atlas) to get the best information I could on some different species.
So far I've found I have to tweek some of Alan's methods which he recommends, and that's half the fun. It's your creativity and thoughts against the cautious instincts that every species has, You will "lose" some as the birds won't respond as hoped to your great idea. It sure happened to me but keep it up and success will taste that much better.
A concern biologists have on using bird calls is their overuse (long periods of calling the same bird) causing stress on the bird and/or pair bond, and some research indicates this concern is well founded. The Sibley bird guides has an excellent synthesis of what NOT to do and what is considered ethical. Some people do not like the use of audio at all but research has not found a negative effect when used properly. I strongly urge you to visit this site and follow their guidelines as close as possible. Murphy's "The photographer's guide to attracting birds" has a good overview as well in his extensive section on using audio.
Below I've posted a subset of the many images I took this spring, all with the use of audio and using my own perches. My goal was always to get as close to a full frame image as possible with an attractive perch and an uncluttered, preferably light green background. Unlike some bird photographers some times I opt for more of the habitat/plant as well, guess that's the biologist in me. I started in late February in the lower desert and worked my way up. When I started in the desert my goals were the "silver dollar" birds because that's there size (verdins and black-tailed gnatcatchers) and gilded flickers. As I noted what was around me I tried to call them as well, some times with success and sometimes not. Cactus wrens and curve billed thrashers are some of the most aggressive, thus easiest to call. Abert's towhees are very timid, and orioles are just hard to find but call in fairly easily. Unlike visiting a feeding area, I find when calling I have one of 2 species I'm hoping for. If I do and do too much I don't get any good images. As the weather got hotter and desert birds began to stop responding I went up in elevation, still with specific birds as targets such as vermillion flycatchers and kingbirds. As of today, May 18, it's still a great time in higher elevations but due to an upcoming trip of a lifetime (6 weeks in South Africa) I've had to postpone calling until spring of next year. I hope you enjoy the images, I sure enjoyed taking them.
In mid March I decided to try to photograph birds during one of our snow storms in the high country. I was able to get permission to photograph at a private residence outside of Prescott where the owner vigorously fed birds and lived on the the USFS boundary. By setting up my blind, more for protection of my equipment as it was snowing hard I was able to get a few hard to photograph species with different backgrounds than the norm. I was happy with some of my bridled titmouse, dark-eyed junco, ruby crowned kinglet, hairy woodpecker, spotted towhee, and western scrub jay photos. I was really hoping for a nice stellar's jay but the snow was so wet that the crests of all the jays I photographed were droopy. Just gives me an excuse to go back next year in the same conditions.
If you are fond of photographing birds I strongly recommend you find ways of photographing them such that they come to you. My first 2 years of bird photography were "chasing" birds in some popular bird photography areas like Gilbert Riparian and the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden. Both are good spots and I return to the areas a different times of the year. However, I found that the number of species you could photograph well at either area was limited. If I wanted more perching birds I would have to find new areas.
I now concentrate at feeding areas such as this private residence, my favorite is a place discussed before, Elephant Head Pond, and you can go there by contacting owner Bill Forbes at Phototrap.com. I also use bird calls frequently and find this method very successful. I will be discussing some of my method for calling species in future blogs. Although I love the calling, it's hard to get near the species you will at a popular feeding area though.
White House Ruins from the south rim overlook in Canyon de Chelly.
For our Anniversary, my wife Lori and I travelled to the Navajo Reservation for 3 days of sightseeing and photography. Our first destination was Canyon de Chelly and we stayed at the Quality Inn in Chinle. The accommodations were excellent but I will warn you that if you stay out for the sunset your dinner dining opportunities are extremely limited. The restaurants close very early in Chinle. Next time we are bringing food with us. We took a very informative jeep tour with Francene from Canyon de Chelly Tours and were able to photograph many of the ruins and petroglyphs as close as you can legally get. Bring at least a 200 mm lens if you want to get nice close shots of the pictographs and petroglyphs. Unfortunately it was cloudy most of the time so we could not get the colors we had hoped for. Plus it was a little early and the Cottonwoods had not leafed out yet in Mid March. My next trip will be in October-November when the Cottonwoods are in fall colors.
From Chinle we went to Kayenta and met with our guide Shea from Monument Valley Safaris. Shea was excellent and we really enjoyed the campout and scenery from Hunt's Mesa. From there you can see all of the spires located in the Navajo's tribal park. Unfortunately there were 30 mph gusts and our visibility was limited. We enjoyed it enough and the scenery was good enough I hope to get back soon and after a few more trips offer a photo workshop with Monument Valley Safaris. (http://monumentvalleysafari.com)