Classic Moments: Vermilion Flycatchers

On a recent safari to Morongo Valley this past April my group had an amazing experience. Like everywhere else in California spring had come a couple of weeks early – even to these desert Vermilion Flycatchers.  As we moved through Covington Park, next to Big Morongo State Park, I was looking for the Vermilion’s nest I had photographed successfully for many years, usually located in the lower branches of one of the cottonwood trees.  After a few minutes with no success we walked out through some of the bordering trees and brush and within seconds spotted both the adult Vermilion’s feeding their fledglings on low, open branches.  And while it doesn’t happen often enough – we had the morning sun directly behind us and a fair amount of wind whipping through trees.

The blowing wind created an elegant ballet that the flycatchers had to negotiate as they hunted, caught, and fed their fledglings.  The tree limbs dipped and rose as the fledglings balanced on different branches, forcing the adults to perform acrobatic maneuvers to bring them food.  It also allowed the flycatchers to hover for seconds at a time – allowing me to lock focus on them and fire off as many shots as I could.  It was definitely a fast and furious shoot-out.

The male Vermilion Flycatcher maneuvers through the wind hunting for insects.

The male Vermilion Flycatcher maneuvers through the wind while hunting for insects.

The adult Vermilions would land on the top of small shrubs, and sometimes perch on the lowest tree branches, picking off small insects with ease – both flying and crawling.  The female Vermilion would land next to the fledglings to feed them, but not the male.  He would return to the fledglings with a beak loaded with food and literally ram it down their throats without landing – kind of a fly-by feeding.  I was amazed at what I was seeing and recognized how rare an opportunity this was.  While the other photographers wandered away photographing the other birds, Chris Gardner and I spent at least two hours jockeying for position as the birds positions moved.

Leaning into the wind, the male Vermilion hunted non-stop for his fledglings.

Leaning into the wind, the male Vermilion hunted non-stop for his fledglings, as a bug in his beak indicates.

Once the male Vermilion made his first aerial pass feeding his fledglings we knew what to look for in the moments leading up to the passing of the food.  These flycatchers are incredibly fast and can vanish from sight in a few brief seconds, but the fledglings from their higher perch could see them coming at greater distances.  As the parents would approach, the fledglings would open their mouths wide – begging to be feed.  All I had to do was lock focus on the fledgling and wait for the adult to flash into the scene.  I typically got about 8 shots off from the adult’s first appearance through their exit.  After that first hour the male began to land next to the fledglings after feeding them – no doubt to rest for a few seconds before heading off again.

This is one of my first attempts, though I was blocked by the adult  on this pass (faces are important!)

This is one of my first attempts, though I was blocked by the adult on this pass (faces are important!)

Even though I had great light and could have shot at a relatively low ISO (like 200) I chose to guarantee high shutter-speeds (ss) for these incredibly quick feeding passes.  From past experience I knew I needed a minimum ss of 1/1500 second – preferably around 1/4000 second to 1/6000 second.  This was my first safari with my new dx-sensored Nikon D7200 and I changed settings often looking for the correct balance of depth-of-field (dof) and movement-stopping ss.  I shot most of these images at ISO 800 and depending on the fledglings position (so I knew if the adult would approach parallel or fly past me) I chose to shoot from f4.8 to f8 with my Nikon 500mm lens.   Some images, like the one above, were shot at f8 to maximize dof.  Dof is always narrow when shooting a large telephoto lens.  We were shooting at about 25 feet, which meant less than an inch of dof at f4, and about three inches of dof at f8.

The male Vermilion Flycatcher does a fly-by feeding of one of his fledglings.

The male Vermilion Flycatcher does a fly-by feeding of one of his fledglings.

The moment of feeding.  This image was shot at 1/6000 second at f4.8 at ISO 800.

The moment of feeding. This image was shot at 1/6000 second at f4.8 at ISO 800, on an Indura tripod.

Again, and again, the adults made feeding passes for the fledglings giving us many opportunities to photograph these amazing moments.  I shot about 1200 images in those approximately two hours of shooting the Vermilions – of which 206 made the final cut into my stock library.  I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the images.

The male Vermilion comes in fast to his begging fledgling.

The male Vermilion comes in banking hard against the wind with food for his begging fledglings.

Perched on some dried out plants, this male Vermilion keeps a lookout for his fledglings next meal.

Perched on some dried out plants, this male Vermilion keeps a lookout for his fledglings next meal.

This was one of those wildlife photography experiences where everything worked as advertised.  The D7200 had an improved focusing system (over the D7100) in continuous focus mode … which worked perfectly.  Panning with the tripod made focusing that much smoother and quicker.  In crop mode the motordrive shoots a bit faster – at 7 fps.  When I got out of the truck that morning I almost put my pro body fx-sensored D3s on the big lens, but the light was great and I didn’t think I would need to be shooting at any high ISO’s or even high fps rates – so I figured this would be a great time to run the 24mp D7200 through its paces.  Everything worked to perfection, including these little flycatchers.  Thanks for some great moments! BRP

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2015 Spring Wildlife Yellowstone Safaris

Driving north on I-15 the countryside slowly changed hues, from brown to green, to vibrant green.  Through Utah, and then through southeastern Idaho into Montana the green only deepened, the grass was longer, the air crisper.  By the time we got to Yellowstone a fresh, thick green carpet covered every meadow, valley, and mountainside.  Nearly everyday thunderstorms built in mid-afternoon and washed and watered the park with rain.  By early evening the storms broke and calm had returned.

I spent 11 days shooting in Yellowstone this spring – the day before the safaris started, two back-to-back four day safaris, another day with my wife, and one last day with two of my sons and their wives and families.  By the time I left that final morning from Island Park, ID, to head home to California my spirit was certainly refreshed and my cameras had shot just over 11k images.

Over the decades of shooting in YNP I’ve learned to identify the common scenes quickly, scenes that will present themselves nearly everyday that can be passed by with little worry of not seeing it again, and anticipate the uncommon photo opportunities.  We had some tremendous uncommon opportunities on this set of safaris, opportunities that I probably won’t photograph in such depth again.  The pika images at the Hellroaring Trailhead, the harlequin duck in Soda Butte Creek, mallard ducklings in Lamar Valley, newborn pronghorn fawns in Little America, the sheer volume of black bears and cubs in the Tower area, the great gray owl in Island Park – to name a few.

A pika downing a dandelion at Hellroaring Trailhead.

A pika downing a dandelion at Hellroaring Trailhead.

A drake Harlequin duck along Soda Butte Creek.

A drake Harlequin duck along Soda Butte Creek.

A mallard hen and her ducklings in Lamar Valley.

A mallard hen and her ducklings in Lamar Valley.

Newborn twin pronghorn fawns stay close to mom in Little America.

Newborn twin pronghorn fawns stay close to mom in Little America.

One of three 2 year old black bear cubs from near Tower.

One of three 2 year old black bear cubs, covered in dew, from near Tower.

This great gray owl was photographed just 200 yards from our cabin in Island Park.

This great gray owl was photographed just 200 yards from our cabin in Island Park.

The traditional subjects were all there, though we struck out on Badgers (extinct according to Gary) and saw and photographed few grizzlies.  We shot traveling red foxes, mousing coyotes, and gray wolves on a bison kill, as well as spotted baby elk, excited red dogs (baby calf bison), and the always entertaining great horned owls around Mammoth.  The trees were full of cavity nesting birds, like tree swallows and red-naped sapsuckers, and we saw grouse but never had a good opportunity to photograph them.

A red fox traveling by us near Roosevelt Junction.

A red fox traveling by us near Roosevelt Junction.

A coyote performs a mousing jump in Lamar Valley.

A coyote performs a mousing jump in Lamar Valley.


A group of bison charge (tails up) after a gray wolf in Lamar Valley at about 600 yards.

A spotted elk fawn charges blackbirds as it learns the world around it.

A spotted elk fawn charges blackbirds as it learns the world around it near Mammoth Hot Springs.

Red dogs play on a cool, brisk morning in Little America in YNP.

Red dogs play on a cool, brisk morning in Little America in YNP.

This adult great horned owl keeps watch on its fledglings in a nearby tree in Mammoth Hot Springs.

This adult great horned owl keeps watch on its fledglings in a nearby tree in Mammoth.

A red-naped sapsucker cleans out wood shavings from its cavity nest.

A red-naped sapsucker cleans out wood shavings from its cavity nest.

These images give you a taste of what we photographed over all those days in Yellowstone.  I would like to thank Gary, Ron, Dave, Clay and Jody, Chris, and Box for their enthusiastic attitudes.  We spend a lot of time chasing for those moments, we start very early each morning with sleep at a premium, and all of you really performed well.  Also, thanks to old friends Butch, Karen, and Steve for spending some time with our safari groups as well.

We did have one experience that taught us all something about grizzly mace.  In one of the vehicles a can was punctured by a power seat moving over it, leaking mace that caused quite a danger in that vehicle.  While lots of water, towels, and some helping hands kept the incident from getting out of hand, it still incapacitated one safari member enough that they missed a couple days recovering.  So for those of you with mace, especially the more powerful grizzly mace, take extra precautions in their storage.

Here are some more image from the Spring Yellowstone Wildlife Safari:

A white-tailed deer fawn near Petrified Tree.

A white-tailed deer fawn near Petrified Tree.

Over the years I have seen a few white-tailed deer in YNP, but never very many.  So I was surprised when this spotted white-tailed fawn and its mother appeared suddenly in the meadow near the Petrified Tree road.  After a few shots the mother laid the fawn down in some heavy grass and it literally disappeared from view.


Two of four coyote pups at a den near Phantom Lakes.

Two of four coyote pups at a den near Phantom Lakes.

For 9 days I looked hard to find an active coyote (and badger) den.  Like needles in a haystack, at times they seem impossible to find – until you literally step on one.  I found this coyote den on the last day near the Phantom Lakes, about 150 yards uphill from the road.  There were four puppies playing and wrestling around the long grass and dirt pile, but never at once and never in the open very much.

A bald eagle take-off from the Slough Creek area.

A bald eagle take-off from the Slough Creek area.

We saw many eagles, including one Golden Eagle, as well as osprey in our travels around the park.  One bald eagle flew by with a large trout in its claws, though I didn’t see it in time for images.  And like all eagles and osprey, getting close is much more difficult than you would expect.  These fish eaters are active throughout the park and along all the rivers and ponds.


A grizzly charges across Swan Flats one morning before sunrise.

A grizzly charges across Swan Flats one before sunrise.

Swan Flats, just south of Mammoth Hot Springs, is one of my favorite grizzly search locations because if you do see one they are usually pretty close.  It is also the area where I photographed the quad cubs from 2010 extensively.  We spotted this bear before sunrise a few hundred yards off the road -by the time we stopped and got set up he was moving across the flats and crossed the road on a run


A pika takes a look at us at Hellroaring Trailhead.

A pika at Hellroaring Trailhead.

We had four different opportunities to photograph the elusive and beautiful Pika, a chinchilla sized animal – the smallest member of the rabbit family.  They love the piled up rocks on talus slopes, and one of the best piles of talus is found next to the Hellroaring Trailhead.  On two of those encounters we had completely cooperative pika who didn’t seem to care that we were standing 15 feet away, photographing the heck out of them.  We came to calling the slightly larger male pika – the “bull” pika.  He ran around more, called out warnings to the other pika more, and seemed a bit more reticent.  At one point the pika ate a dandelion (top photo of this article), slowly sucking it down like a piece of spaghetti – and providing us with one of the unique photo opportunities we had

A Harlequin duck at Le Hardy Rapids.

A Harlequin duck at Le Hardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River.

Probably the finest flight image I've taken of a Great Gray Owl, in Island Park, ID.

Probably the finest flight image I’ve taken of a Great Gray Owl, in Island Park, ID.

As you can see from the images, we had some great wildlife moments.  During the slower afternoons we shot landscapes, wildflowers, mushrooms, and chased songbirds.  I did miss one spectacular morning light scene at the south end of Swan Flats while looking for grizzly bears on our first morning out.  Layers of mist were rising up from the flats as the sun began to break the horizon line, shafts of light filtered through the mist turning it shades of gold and yellow, and a solitary cow elk stood silhouetted a hundred yards off the road right in the middle of it … and I kept driving looking for grizzlies … arghhhh.  My bad.

My next safari to Yellowstone is October 1-4 for the fall wildlife and bugling bull elk during the annual rut.  That safari is preceded by my southwestern Colorado Landscape Safari in the San Juan Mountains from September 27-29.  Come on along for some great adventures, and moments never to be seen again.  BRP

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2015 Southern Utah Spring Safari

The thunderstorms that swept up into Southern Utah in early May provided our safari group with the towering cloud formations that landscape photographers dream of.  That was the good news.  The bad news was a bit too much rain came with those clouds, and the number of closed roads on BLM land leading to Sidestep Canyon in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument.  We worked around the weather, but were stymied by the BLM road closures.

BRP_9241-webThe Saturday night (May 2) before the safari started, after settling into our hotel room in Hurricane (pronounced Hurricun for those not accustomed to Utah speech patterns), we headed up to Gooseberry Mesa, directly south of the southern border of Zion National Park.  This twilight image (above) shows Smithsonian Butte (bottom right in image) getting the last few rays of a fast disappearing sun.

All the back-roads and scenic byways we traveled during the safari reminded me of the years I lived in St. George (1985-1990) and countless hours I spent discovering a new country of red rock and desert wildlife.  Those early formative years were filled with photography experiences that built a foundation of knowledge for me that I’ve drawn from ever since.

On our first full day afield found us spending the morning in Zion National Park (ZNP) chasing images of desert bighorn ewes and lambs of the year.  Unlike bighorn lambs in Yellowstone – born in May, these little desert lambs were probably born in March and had already grown into strong and sure rock climbers.

D72_3383-webIn this image (above) five of these lambs of the year follow each other across steep Navajo sandstone gradients.  Many times they were a bit too close to us as we tried to stay in front of them.  A lamb easily leaps up to another level (below) of the rocks, the other playful lambs following after him.

D72_3534-webI call the area above the long tunnel, heading east towards the east entrance, the “roof” of Zion.  It’s amid these amazing rock monoliths that the desert bighorn sheep have flourished.  Prickly pear cactus was blossoming in a multitude of colors, there was blooming agave, and many colorful wildflowers – not to mention the massive distraction of huge mountains of solid rock.  There were photography subjects in every direction.

The Beehives at sunrise.

The Beehives at sunrise.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus

As the morning wore on we drove the short distance to Bryce Canyon National Park (BCNP) traveling to the far end of the park – to Rainbow Point.  Brilliant rays of light danced through the clouds, filtering through the rock formations while off in the distance dark, powerful thunderheads built to the north and east.  Rainbow Point is just over 9000 feet in elevation, and temps had certainly dropped into the low 40’s – and with the wind the cold was bone chilling.

We stopped to photograph the Utah Prairie Dog village near the intersection of the highway and the Sunset Point Road.  There were about a dozen out moving around – I’m sure the cold and wind keeping many of them, including the babies, deep inside their warm burrows.


View north from Rainbow Point.

A light rain began to fall as we headed in to eat lunch at Bryce Canyon Lodge.  I usually stop at Ruby’s Inn near the BCNP entrance, but I had never eaten at the Lodge so we gave it a try, and discovered we should have eaten at Ruby’s Inn….

Back in ZNP we continued photographing sheep, cactus, and wildflowers.  For sunset we drove up the Kolob Terrace road out of Virgin, UT, past the North Creek Trailhead that leads hikers to the Subway slot canyon, to the meadows where scenes were shot for the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.  The views back southeast to the West Temple were obscured by dust from the winds and mist from the lowering clouds.

On day 2 we headed for one of my favorite bird, butterfly, and wildflower locations – Leeds Creek.  The road rises from the town of Leeds on I-15, goes north through the upscale community of Silver Reef (an old silver mining town), then continues as a dirt road north about 6 miles to the Oak Grove Campground at the base of towering Pine Valley Mountain. Those six miles and about 3000 vertical feet take you through a number of life zones. From cactus and yucca, to oaks and lupines, and finally to pines and monkeyflowers.  I wrote an article a decade or two ago for the Deseret News (in SLC, Utah) about the amazing selection of butterflies along this stretch of road called “Jewels on the Wind”.

Virginia Warbler

Virginia Warbler

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

We got near the end of the road at Oak Grove Campground and found the gate locked … with just 500 yards to go.  Up in the pine/oak forest surrounding the campground I usually photograph tanagers, woodpeckers, orioles, etc.  In the thick Gambel’s Oak woodlands we made the best of it.  To my surprise we got a whole new assortment of songbirds that I hadn’t photographed along the road before.  We shot Virginia’s Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Plumbeous Vireos, House Wrens, Northern Flickers, and other woodpeckers.  We pulled into a small campsite just off the road, but inside the 20 foot tall thin Gambel’s Oak forest the bird song was deafening.

Plumbeous Vireo on nest.

Plumbeous Vireo on nest.

For a few hours we were shooting song birds almost non-stop – especially the house wren, which showed no lack of courage in fluttering around our heads and landing just a few feet away – forcing me to back up again and again.

Singing House Wren.

Singing House Wren.

Prairie Clover

Prairie Clover

Eventually the birds quieted down and we began shooting wildflowers and cactus.  It was probably too cool for reptiles to be out, though I have shot many varieties of snakes and lizards on this road in the past.

After lunch we headed back to ZNP.  We had more sheep encounters, shot landscapes, and when the wind wasn’t blowing as hard I shot a number of wildflowers I hadn’t shot in the park before.  There were tourists around but the park certainly wasn’t crowded.  The road into Zion Canyon had just been closed the week before, and the bus service is great for tourists but not for photographers – so we skipped the canyon.

We ended the day in a light drizzle back in Hurricane for the night.  The following morning we were out the door about 4am for the long drive out to the Tuweep section of Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP).  This amazing overlook in GCNP is about 62 miles directly south, cutting across the Arizona Strip, from Hwy 9, near Pipe Springs National Monument – on a dirt road.  It’s a well maintained dirt road, even to the ranger station, but the last mile is tough – and not for those afraid of banging the bottom of their vehicle.  My truck has pretty high clearance and I nailed rock ledges twice.

It was a bit overcast and cool, which didn’t detour the guys from shooting overlook images along the canyon’s rim.  No trails, no protective fences – just straight down 3000 feet to the Colorado River far below.  I shot some videos of the moving storm clouds and of the “tanks” which were all full of rainwater.  Tanks are rock pools, eroded down through thousands of years, which provide water to desert wildlife in this sparse country.

After lunch in Kanab we headed for Sidestep Canyon in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  That was disappointing.  The BLM, which manages the national monument, closed off the roads leading to the canyon to restrict visitation.  While I had photographed Sidestep Canyon a half dozen times, I was disappointed for the guys – disappointed they wouldn’t see this amazing spot.  We passed on hiking the final two miles in with all our gear and settled for wildflowers.  We got into Monument Valley late that afternoon amid thunderstorms and wind – and got a good look at where we would spend the morning.

The West Mitten and the East Mitten at Sunrise.

The West Mitten and the East Mitten at Sunrise.

The clouds were perfect for our final day.  We shot the famous rock monoliths in Monument Valley throughout the morning, only getting around the road twice.  We had spotted wild horses (all wild horses in North America are actually Feral horses, escaped from the Spanish, or the Mexicans, or the pioneers or farmers who first colonized these areas after the Native American Indians) the night before and were determined to find them again to shoot them among the dunes and desert scenes along this area of the Utah-Arizona border.

View north with Yucca's in bloom.

View north with Yucca’s in bloom.

We wanted to get into some of the locked off areas that require an Indian Guide but were unable to come to an equitable arrangement.  The fees to go into these areas, like the totem poles, is steep.  I always find it kind of commercial that “sacred” ground has a price to make it accessible.



Mare and Foal.

Mare and Foal.

We spent a couple of hours working these horses in the Monument Valley sand dunes.  Until I saw desert bighorn in ZNP eating yucca spines I didn’t think they were edible, but these horses all ate the sharp spines on the available yuccas as well.  We worked our way back across southern Utah and entered ZNP for one more crack at the desert bighorn sheep.  For all our success on the previous days we were shut out this time.  The small herds of sheep had vanished from the areas we had photographed them in just days before.  The rams, so much more visible in the fall (November) when the rut begins in Zion – also escaped from our lenses.

My F-150 Truck.

My F-150 Truck in Monument Valley.

The Group - Brent, James, Rick, and Marv.

The Group – Brent, James, Rick, and Marv.

I’m glad to say that my new truck worked as I intended it.  I had the shell customized so the side windows flip up, and then in late April I customized (with Bob Sutton) the truck bed interior with shelves and storage.  The windows on the side open and we built shelves just inside for cameras, tripods, and stuff so we would have quick access. All our suitcases and camera bags fit easily into the center area for storage, with room for more. After returning from the trip I found a little dust had entered the shell around the tailgate so I bought insulation tape and hopefully solved that.

Even with four in the truck and all our stuff it was comfortable to drive and still averaged about 20mpg – going anywhere we needed it to go.

I shot just over 4200 images for the 4 day safari.  Normally we shoot about 75% landscapes and 25% wildlife, but with all the songbirds and desert bighorn we had encounters with, I would say the numbers were exactly opposite.  Everyday there was some driving to be done but everyone had fun – and I enjoyed the photographers that came along.  All have gone on safaris in the past with me and all of them are just good guys, easy to travel with, excited to see and photograph new subjects – and they made this a great experience for me – I hope I made it a great experience for them.  BRP

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My 25 Favorite Images of 2014

The end of 2014 has come quickly and it’s time to pick my favorite shots.  A slew of bobcat safaris and an extended trip out to Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico and to Laredo in South Texas have made the month of December fly by.  This has been a tremendous year for me as a photographer.  I’ve had great experiences in the field – thanks to many of you who have both participated in the photo safaris and directed me towards some great wildlife locations!  I know that while many of you shooting next to me have the same images – photography is a shared experience from which we all benefit.

93 Safari days
144 Bobcat encounters on 19 bobcat safaris (7.6 bobcats per safari)
140 Black Bear encounters in Sequoia NP
45,000 miles driven (383,000 on my 4Runner now)
27 New bird species added to my stock library
28 Magazine photo credits (2 Covers: Outdoor California, Yosemite Visitor’s Guide)

Here are my favorite images from 2014, with a short description of each.  I hope you enjoy viewing these as much as I did taking them.

#1BisonA brief moment that I anticipated coming.  This calf bison was moving up the other side of its mother when it crossed, protectively, underneath her chin and glanced out.  So many times before I had envisioned this image without the calf following through … always so close to crossing under – but this time the calf did, and mom struck a stern pose.  Two seconds later it was over but I had my shot.
Spring Yellowstone Safari – June.

#2BlackBear-5The black bear sow and her cub were moving around this old sequoia log with this large burned out window when I thought there was a chance she would go in.  I moved up closer and got into position if she did.  I was practically screaming at her (with my mouth closed, of course) to go in when she hesitated, turned around, and walked into the dark interior.  I dialed in -1 eV of compensation to offset the dark interior and waited for her to reappear.  After twenty seconds she moved back out to the window and posed for me … I guess mental screaming worked.
Sequoia Bear Safari – August.

#3BRP_1262-webAll I can say is I was lucky … again.  This bobcat was isolated in a meadow, hunting squirrels, away from heavy cover and decided on its own to go up the nearest oak tree.  Thank you.  The Italian safari group I was guiding followed me over the barbed wire fence, waded across a shallow creek, and got the point-blank bobcat shoot of their lives for fifteen precious minutes.
Italian Photo Tour Bobcat Safari – October.

Summer Tanagers are just plain difficult to photograph, and getting a male and a female to sit and talk back and forth was just amazing.  I had played my Summer Tanager call from my Sibley (full version) App, linked to a louder blue-tooth speaker – and the male answered immediately.  Then the female (yellow) moved up through the cottonwood and began to scold the male (red) … at least it appeared that way.  I can only imagine the conversation … “you will stay right here!”
Morongo Valley Bird Safari – April.

SandhillCranes-2I was lucky enough to shoot Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico twice this year, once in early January and then again here in December.  Bosque is a target rich environment where you have to control your desire to just hold the shutter release button down with the motordrive set to scream speed!  Afternoon light and a partially disc’d cornfield provided the perfect backdrop for these Sandhill Cranes to come gliding into.  Your skills at panning are really perfected here.
Bosque del Apache NWR Safari – January.

AllensHummer-3I love this male Allen’s Hummingbird image because it is so clean, and close.  I shot a bunch of images as it scanned left, then right, trying to get the gorget feathers glowing just right in the overcast light.  Incredible detail and color make this image pop.  Personal Safari with my friend Dave Collins.
Sepulveda Basin Bird Safari – March.

SJKitFox-3Another friend of mine, Allen Round – a ret’d game warden from Wyoming, has put me on location for this den of endangered San Joaquin Kit Foxes for the past three years.  The difference this year is the parents were around, especially the vixen.  Laying down on my stomach in the dirt I got this image, hand-held (a rarity for me) of the vixen just moments after the sun rose, and between her chores of cleaning and tending to each of her three kits.  Photographed east of Bakersfield.
Custom Kit Fox Safari – June.

D71_6931-webI was headed over to Cambria in the early morning to do a Photo Walk along Moonstone Beach when, as I turned north onto Highway 1 from Highway 46, this hunting male bobcat came into full view.  Like shadow boxers we moved back and forth through openings in the trees next to the road … there wasn’t a minute he didn’t know I was there.  But while he caught a large vole, which I got images of, this is the image I have liked so much.  It is just a classic bobcat “I’ve been seen” belly crawling away pose.
Lucky Bobcat Encounter – April.

AllensHummingbirdAnother male Allen’s Hummingbird, this time in flight hovering near a feeder.  I never get tired of shooting these brilliantly colored and feathered little birds.  Friends Steve and Debra Cummings have allowed me to bring photo groups to their Avocado Ranch to shoot the dozens and dozens of hummers that call their bushes and trees home.  Long lenses, short lenses, flash, no flash, tripod, or no tripod – it is exciting and I love this no-flash image.
Hummingbird Safari – March.

This large male bobcat hunts across a maze of squirrel holes looking for its next meal.  This image has become one of my favorite bobcat images because it shows the tomcat in its preferred habitat.  Taken on the first nice day following several days of storms, I set a new personal record of 13 bobcat encounters in one day, photographing 11 of them.
Bobcat Safari – November.

PacificWavesI took this image on the Moonstone Beach photo walk, just up the coast a few miles near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.  I love to get out on a bluff sticking out in the ocean so the waves have to go by me, allowing me to shoot inside the curl as it passes by.  This isn’t a big wave, just an ideal curl that my 500mm lens captured perfectly.  You never know what subject will present itself on a safari.
Moonstone Beach Photo Walk – April.

BlackBear-3What a story this cub could tell.  On a bear safari to Sequoia we encountered a black sow and two cubs.  When a nearby male bear approached and charged at the cub, who ran up this broken pine tree, the sow took off after the male.  I got no sharp images of that, but the cub stayed at the top (about 20 feet up) of the tree for a bit before climbing down and rejoining its mother and sibling.
Sequoia Bear Safari – August.

BlackBear-6This is the same cinnamon black bear as the sow shown in image #10.  I love this image because its showing behavior I had never seen before from a bear.  The sow, with the cubs nearby but out of frame, stood up against this pine stump and began to tear into it – the early morning light highlighting it perfectly.  The smell of termites or ants was just too irresistible for her to pass up.  The sows claws were the right tool to penetrate deep into the stump in seconds.
Sequoia Bear Safari – August.

BRP_5995-webI’ve added thousands of bobcat images to my stock library this year.  This has been the year of the bobcat (and black bear!) for me, that’s for sure.  This big male bobcat tree’d itself with it’s California Ground Squirrel lunch firmly in its jaws.  As my safari group jumped the fence and maneuvered for position around the oak tree, the cat took its time eating the squirrel – a moment we all captured in great detail on the backroads near Pinnacles National Park.
Bobcat Safari – December.

BRP_6772-webGiant sequoias are a difficult subject to photograph.  The trees climb so high that to capture it all removes it from the forest.  I was fortunate to shoot this image on an overcast day where the lush greens of spring dominated the foreground, and the tree trunks just rose out of the image.  The light colored spots in the lower middle of the image are dogwood blossoms.
Sequoia Spring Safari – May.

BRP_4626-webI’ve seen Harris Hawks before I shot this image, but I never had a image that showed as much feather detail and energy as this landing image does.  The overcast light helped evenly light the hawk, instead of the usual blue sky shadows.  I have to thank my friend Butch Ramirez in Laredo, TX for guiding my safari group to some great photography locations in his area, including on his own ranch.
Texas Wildlife Safari – December.

BRP_3593-webThere are times when you are at the right place, at the right time, armed with the right photo equipment to capture stunning images.  This shot, just north of Silverton, CO was one of those amazing moments.  We had already spent hours driving forest backroads shooting everything we saw when, heading to Ouray for lunch, this colorful scene opened up before us, right off the highway.  An amazing mountain of autumn aspens, blue sky, and puffy clouds.
SW Colorado Safari – September.

This little black bear cub game me one more look as it’s family of bears headed up the paved trail and eventually into the forest at Crescent Meadows.  This cub stopped to watch me again and again – never getting too far behind mom.  The image was shot early in the morning before the sun began to angle through the trees.
Sequoia Bear Safari – July.

BRP_4725-webThis image takes me back to my beginnings as a wildlife photographer, back to the 1980’s when I was doing image submissions to big-game magazines – and chasing bull elk like this.  There is something primal about an elk bugle, a challenge to all bulls willing to battle for breeding rights, reverberating around the mountains – answered within moments by other bulls.
Autumn Yellowstone Wildlife Safari – October.

ZereneFritillaryWhen I lived in St. George, UT back in the late 1980’s I spent a lot of time honing my butterfly photography skills.  Over the years I’ve shot nearly a hundred different species (of the 850 found in North America) and had an article published that I titled “Jewels on the Wind”.  This Zerene Fritillary shot in Sequoia National Park combines great color, sharp spotted eyes, and an active tongue as it sips nectar among the bright yellow California Coneflowers.
Bears and Butterflies Safari – July.

CaliforniaHarebell I stumbled upon these tiny flowers, California Harebells, while I was photographing much larger lupines on the Crescent Meadows road in Sequoia NP, in between bear encounters.  The delicate flowers have a soft purple/blue color and, of course, are found in moist areas of the forest close to the ground where the light is very low.  While I’m a believer in tripods this image was handheld.
Bears and Butterflies Safari – July.

CommonYellowsthroat-2I added several dozen new birds to my stock library this year, including this beautiful Common Yellowthroat doing a balancing act in the brush.  Small bird photography is tough and aggravating – with countless near misses and many almost successful stalks.  It seems like successful images like this are few and far between, and only come after many hours of chasing them.
Sepulveda Basin Bird Safari – March.

BlackBear-10I got a toothy smile from this black bear as he stripped berries off this raspberry bush in Sequoia National Park.  The bears don’t want to wait for the berries to get fully ripe, maybe thinking other critters would come along and eat them first.  We were very close to this bear – but he was calm and hungry, and unconcerned with us or our cameras.
Bears and Butterflies Safari – July.

BRP_2678-webAnother image from south Texas.  This huge whitetail buck, by far the biggest I’ve ever photographed, appeared before dawn for just a few minutes, wandering among does and other bucks about a hundred yards away, before heading back into the thick mesquite brush.  At ISO 3200 and a slow shutter-speed of 1/80 second, I shot a lot of frames to get a few sharp ones.  The noise of the motordrive kept him from getting closer.
Texas Wildlife Safari – December.

Lazuli Bunting-2A male Lazuli Bunting stops to rest for a few seconds in some wild mustard plants.  These birds seem to have an unlimited amount of energy – flitting from one bush to another, one perch to another.  This trip into the hills between Ventura and Ojai proved to be a “blue” bird safari – with Lazuli Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, and Western Bluebirds – among the many species we photographed that day.
Custom Songbird Safari – May.

I hope you enjoyed my Best of 2014 images.  I look forward to 2015 and the adventures it will bring in the field.

One nice thing about photography is that you only get better as your experiences grow.  You shoot a little quicker, compose a little better, practice better processing skills and techniques, improve your equipment, learn new locations, learn more about your subjects  – and just become a better photographer.

And lastly, thanks to everyone who took a day or more to shoot with me, I’m a better photographer for our adventures together.



Posted in Photo Safaris, Stories from the Field | Tagged | 6 Comments

A Sequoia Bear Safari

I realize that many of the safaris I do are subject oriented – like bobcat safaris, bird safaris, or safaris to Yellowstone or the Tetons, or Zion – but in reality I look for the best photography that can be done during any of these safaris.  There are no confining safari parameters – just a chase for the best images.  Now, I do photograph bobcats on a bobcat safari, but there is always so much more to tell the story of that day in the field.  Such was the case yesterday in Sequoia National Park.  I had a planned portrait workshop at San Simeon that got shifted to a bear safari up to the park.  Clients who had to reschedule caused me to offer a bear safari to others … and off we went.

Wake up calls come early on safari days, and I don’t know how many times a year I’m up at 4am or earlier, but yesterday, August 12th, 2014 was a typical early rise.  We got into Sequoia about 6:15am and climbed the General’s Highway through the maze of switchbacks.  Construction is a never-ending process on park roads these days, but we sailed through unopposed.  There were no tourist vehicles on the road that early as we began a creeping surveillance of the road to Crescent Meadows.

At 7:09am a dark shadow disappeared behind a large Sugar pine trunk about 50 yards off the road in the dim forest interior – and the bear safari was on.  Speed in setting up the camera and tripod and getting into position is the key in that first minute of an encounter, because it could be your only minute, but in this case we got to maneuver.  The bear moved through the forest chewing up sugar pine cones and finally stopped long enough to get a clean image – even if it was at ISO 5000, my typical go to ISO in dark conditions.

Black Bear with Sugar Pine cone.

A black bear grabs a sugar pine cone during a morning searching for breakfast.


Back and forth the black bear went searching for pine cones on the forest floor.

Up and over rocks and fallen pines the bear led us around, at each pine cone stop we attempted to improve our position, trying to get around distracting branches and bushes.  After spending some time with him we moved back several hundred yards to my vehicle and were just setting the cameras down when we spotted another bear on the other side of the road, and somewhat below us.  This cinnamon black bear had a more pronounced color in his mane.  As the bear moved towards the road we took up a position to get him crossing through some small pine saplings.

Like the first bear, this cinnamon black bear was hunting pine cones.

Like the first bear, this cinnamon black bear was hunting pine cones.


After he crossed the road we followed him back up into the same area where we had photographed the first bear.  With the possibility of a bear vs bear encounter we stuck with him, but never relocated the first bear.  This bear worked the cones on the forest floor and gave us some good images.  He was a good bear and allowed us reasonable approaches for the images we were trying to get, never exhibiting any signs of being stressed.

Another shot of the second black bear - the remains of a pine cone on his paws.

Another shot of the second black bear – the remains of a pine cone on his paws.

Those two encounters led to us not getting into the Crescent Meadows parking lot until about 9:30am.  We headed out along the Crescent Meadows trail and set up at a good location to do some bird photography.  I’m always surprised by the number of birds in this area, and there always seems to be one or two I’ve never photographed before.

White-headed Woodpecker

White-headed Woodpecker


Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Identifying some birds is tough – the white-headed woodpecker was easy, the pacific-slope flycatcher (right) was hard.  For only the second time I had a Northern Goshawk land 30 yards from me near the trail, but it departed quickly.  I realized a few minutes later why it had left.

A California Gray Squirrel hangs upside down on a Sugar Pine trunk.

A California Gray Squirrel hangs upside down on a Sugar Pine trunk.

While standing in Crescent Meadows attempting to shoot the little birds fluttering around in the flowers and pines, a shadow passed by in the out-of-focus forest in the background as I was looking through the camera lens.  I took my eye away from the camera and put my glasses back on … nothing.  With the glasses off I refocused the camera to the dark forest in the background and spotted two ears and a nose behind a fallen sequoia, maybe 120 yards away.  (I hate glasses!) Bears 3 and 4.  Without hesitation I moved towards the bear that had disappeared behind the giant fallen sequoia, its roots now vertical.  Just as I got into a reasonable position about 40 yards away the bear, now with a cub, walked out carrying a large California Ground Squirrel – and just as suddenly the Goshawk did a close fly-by.  I realized the bear had somehow stolen the goshawks breakfast.

The cub gets thrown as the mother yanks the squirrel back from him/her.

The cub gets thrown as the mother yanks the squirrel back from him/her.

The sow black bear turning the gray squirrel into a popsicle.

The sow cinnamon black bear turning the squirrel into a popsicle.

With the bears occupied I moved closer and tried to get in a better position.  The forest floor was completely shadowed and barren, some ferns near the sequoia trunk the only green around.  At one point the cub snatched the squirrel from the sow, only to receive a lesson in power as she yanked back the squirrel and through the cub a few feet through the air.  I missed the throw but caught the landing, as the cub skidded to a stop – still holding onto the tail.

The sow black bear and her cub pose for a few seconds.

The sow black bear and her cub pose for a few seconds.

There was a day when my heart would have been pounding out of my chest just witnessing this, much less shooting coherently.  And while it was exciting to see (bears doing bear stuff) I concentrated on focus, composition, exposure compensation, changing to vertical shooting – and back, changing focusing grid points, and stabilizing my tripod in the soft, spongy pine straw on the forest floor.  When this moment ended I realized that sometime over the past 30 years I had polished my photography techniques to a point where I could make critical, immediate, and calm  adjustments to the camera while detaching somewhat from the excitement of the moment.

With the squirrel finished an odd thing happened, the sow disciplined the cub with a quick bite to his backside.  Another light bulb went off.  On a safari to Sequoia three weeks ago I was shooting a sow with two cubs (the bear shredding trees for ant larvae) when the sow suddenly turned on one cub, grabbed it by the ear, and drug it about ten feet before releasing it.  This was the same sow, minus one cub.  The cub scampered back to the tree and climbed partially up, then came back down almost immediately – as if he had missed the que to climb the tree and the sow let him know it.

The sow suddenly turns on the cub.

The sow suddenly turns on the cub.

And delivers a bite to the cub's rear.

And delivers a bite to the cub’s rear.

During this whole event there was a great deal of growling and snapping.  The sow was aggressive with the cub (from a human point of view, of course) and smacked him/her a number times besides the toss and the bite.

While only about 50% of cubs survive to adulthood, I naturally assumed that was because in places like Yellowstone, which has lots of grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, etc – they were taken by predators.  It occurred to me that maybe some just didn’t survive their parents tough discipline.

Up the tree and away from mom.

Up the tree and away from mom.





But the fun and games with these two cinnamon black bears with the love-hate relationship weren’t over yet.  After the cub came back down he seemed a bit whipped and rested near the base of the tree.  The sow walked back to my right to the giant fallen sequoia and actually walked into a burned out, hollowed out area of the trunk.  Oddly, I knew this particular tree well.  I had been hired by Sequoia National Park to shoot sequoia seedlings (and other stuff) immediately following a fire in the area in 2010.  I remembered it so well because I had actually walked through this hollowed out area so I wouldn’t have to climb over it to get to the other side.  In the sow went … I was amazed.


The sow starts to come back out of the hollow in the sequoia trunk.


After leaving the sequoia the sow moved resolutely towards us.


A look back by the sow was all it took to bring the cub to her.

After a few moments the sow exited the sequoia trunk and walked towards us, moving through the ferns and seedling pines.  She moved slowly, the cub still up by the tree, but her intention to push us back was clear.  There was no bluff charges, no huffing, no bow-legged walking, no teeth clicking, no raised hackle hair – just a methodical walk towards us.  We retreated back to the main trail.

The sow and cub  reversed course and headed away from us, parallel to the trail, over a small hill.  With the bears out of sight we had to carefully negotiate our way along the trail, which twisted through some 4 foot high shrubs and ferns, all the time being careful not to meet the bears face-to-face.  After getting around the hill I saw the bears crossing Crescent Meadows about 70 yards away, walking down the spine of a huge fallen sequoia, never having to get into the damp grass of the meadow.

A quick exit from the forest, across the giant sequoia trunk - and the bears were gone.

A quick exit from the forest, across the giant sequoia trunk – and the bears were gone.

We spent the next few hours driving some dirt backroads in Sequoia National Forest, just outside the park boundary – checking a large area of berries (snowberries, sierra currents, chokecherries, elderberries) for bear sign.  Pile after pile on the road indicated that the bears were active here, but this time we came back to the highway empty handed.

After lunch we drove back towards Crescent Meadows, stopping at Dorst Creek to check the meadows for bears.  No luck, though this has been a good spot in the spring for bears.  However, we did encounter a spotted mule deer fawn that worked with us for a few minutes of photos – before trotting off.

A mule deer fawn at Dorst Creek.

A mule deer fawn at Dorst Creek.

Headed south we re-entered the Crescent Meadows road, now teaming with tourist vehicles and park buses.  More eyes for the search.  After a few minutes Bear #5 appeared below the road, staying clear of the traffic jam above.  We decided not to photograph him and, instead, continued along.

We hiked out past the Dead Giant to Huckleberry Meadow and spent some time shooting golden-bellied marmots and butterflies.  The meadow is still thick with summer flowers and bear activity in the area was still very obvious in the form of bear piles.  I chased a dozen different species of butterflies – monarchs, swallowtails, admirals, zerene fritillaries, sulfers, checkerspots and some blues.  It was wet in the meadow and I hadn’t worn my plumber’s knee pads so my efforts were pretty tame and dry.  Butterflies are amazingly beautiful and I treat them as just as important a subject to be photographed as bears.  Out of the 800+ species in north America, I’ve photographed about 90 – so I have a long way to go.

A yellow-bellied marmot kept its eyes on us in Huckleberry Meadow.

A yellow-bellied marmot kept its eyes on us in Huckleberry Meadow, a sequoia in the background.

Monarch butterfly sipping nectar from some type of senecio flower.

Monarch butterfly sipping nectar from some type of senecio flower.


This bear had a belly and some heavy muscle, easily the biggest of the day.


I moved in as close as I felt I could for this tight shot of pine cone shredding.

I was pretty worn.  It was closing in on 4pm and my feet were beginning to ache some in my trail boots.  But there was no stopping the bears.  Bear #6 appeared below the road a minute or two after we had started back.  This bear was easily the biggest of the day and we spent some time working positions trying to get the best shot of him as he worked the cones across a sparse area of forest and burned logs.  A dozen or more tourists followed us, staying sufficiently behind us and not interfering.

What a day.  3300 photos, 66 gigabytes of images – and a worn out photographer.  I’m going back August 26.  Come along for the ride.

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The First 15 Seconds

People are slow, and photographers seem to be slower.  Slow to identify a subject, slow to stop and explore, slow to retrieve their tripod, slow to anticipate exposure changes, and most importantly – slow to start shooting.  There have been thousands of times when I have been on a photo safari and was the first, sometimes the only, photographer to get images.  Lets talk about the steps needed to prepare for those first 15 seconds with a wild subject – sometimes you only get 15 seconds.

You need to anticipate the correct camera and exposure settings you might find your subjects in … before you find them.  Thus, the first step is to know your camera.  I’m going to make reference to the two camera bodies I normally shoot – the pro-build Nikon D3s body ($5200) with an Fx sensor, and the intermediate build Dx sensored Nikon D7100 ($1200).  Why two cameras?  The simple reason is financial: I don’t want to burn up my expensive D3s body when the situation doesn’t warrant it’s unique characteristics.

Gray Wolves

Shot at ISO 9000 with the Nikon D3s, this pre-dawn image wouldn’t have been possible with any other camera body. Exposure was 1/250 at f4 in near full darkness.  Careful sharpening and noise reduction produced a useful image of these gray wolves crossing Swan Flats in Yellowstone National Park.

The D3s with its large 8.4 micron pixels, 12.4 mp total, is the top performing camera body in the world when it comes to low light (high ISO) photography.  It’s better than the Nikon D4, and better than the Canon 1Dx.  If I’m heading out in the early morning on a bobcat safari where some of my imaging will no doubt be done in low light, then I’m prepared with the D3s – a camera that performs miraculously at ISO’s up to 9,000 in extreme low light conditions, and can shoot publishable quality images, fine art quality, at ISO 3200.  At shooting speeds of 9 fps in raw mode and a large buffer – this camera simply performs.

The D7100 performs well in average-to-good light conditions where I’m not pushing the ISO above 800, and preferably 400 or lower.  It shoots a 24 mp Dx sensor which multiplies my 500mm f4 lens into a 750mm f4 lens (great for small or distant subjects) but a reasonable 6 fps is hamstrung by a puny buffer … which holds just 6 raw files.  So that 6 fps can only be maintained for 1 second.  It has newer, faster technology that gives it quick, accurate focusing and file processing/saving, better than the D3s.  I bought this body because it is clearly the best Dx sensored camera Nikon offers.  My old D2x, another pro body Nikon D-SLR with a Dx sensor, had a poor high ISO rating less than half as good as the D7100.


Shot with the Nikon D7100 body, this image was taken in great light, on a tripod, at ISO 400, where the camera body performs well with quick AF and quick image-to-card downloading. The exposure was 1/1500 second at f6.7.

Given these two bodies, I always have the right camera on the lens for the best results.  Maybe some folks can have multiple long telephotos with bodies ready, but I have to think about the right body given the light conditions of the safari.

Once you know the best equipment for the situation, setting up the camera’s exposure parameters is the next order of business.  For this calculation I keep in mind many long-held beliefs in ISO, shutter-speed, and f-stop synergies.  Ideally, even shooting early morning high ISO settings, I want my shutter-speed to be close to the length of my lens.  In other words I want a 1/500 second shutter-speed when I’m using my 500mm lens.  I will sacrifice shutter-speed by a stop (lowering it to 1/250) to shoot at a one stop better quality ISO setting (1600 vs 3200 on my D3s body).  Well built lenses will shoot sharp images at wide-open f-steps (like f4 on my 500mm telephoto lens), while less expensive lenses might need some stopping down, say to f5.6 or f8 to perform equally as well.  Also, as ISO climbs images become slightly over-exposed, and this allows me to regain some of that lost shutter-speed by dialing in a -1/2 stop exposure compensation setting.  This, of course, increases the shutter-speed by 1/2 stop, going from 1/250 to 1/400 second approximately).  So, when I’m out looking for bobcats in pre-dawn light, my exposure setting on my D3s body is ISO 3200, f4, with a -1/2 stop of exposure compensation.  In Aperture Priority, where I shoot, I usually end up with a shutter-speed around 1/200 to 1/400 of a second.


Shot under low light conditions, pre-dawn, with the Nikon D3s and 500mm f4 lens with an exposure setting in Aperture Priority Mode of ISO 3200, f4, 1/400 second, -.5 eV (exposure compensation).

Now that the equipment is ready to shoot my next consideration is bracing the camera.  Wildlife subjects like bobcats don’t allow for any type of personal close encounter, and will turn and flee (which they do many times anyway) should you exit the vehicle or attempt to set up a tripod.  So shooting out the window is your best option 90% of the time.  This is where shooting tactics come into play.  First, I like to drive with my window down, both for feeling more connected to the environment by listening to outside vehicle sounds, like birds and chirping squirrels – but also because it takes precious seconds to lower the window in the case of a close encounter.  Second, I don’t use a bean bag or window mount because of the time it takes to correctly position it – I simply lay my left arm across the window sill and lay my lens across my arm, raising or lowering my arm as needed for the correct angle on the subject.  Third, if there are two photographers in my vehicle we sit in tandem – me in the front seat driving, and the second person sitting behind me.  By both shooting out the same side of the vehicle there will be 50% fewer reasons I need to turn the car around to gain shooting position.  If the bobcat is on the other side, we casually drive by and turn around when out-of-sight, creeping back.  That usually works.


When the light improves I trade bodies on the 500 lens to the D7100. This relaxing bobcat thought I hadn’t seen him camouflaged against the oak tree trunk in late afternoon light. Heavy backlighting forced me to add some light to the basic exposure.  Nikon D7100 body, 500mm f4 lens, ISO 400, 1/1000 second at f4, +.5 eV, window rest.  Raw converted to jpg.

 Now, with your equipment ready and your shooting tactics refined a bit, getting off those first shots should be easier, and quicker.  If you are able to use a tripod, then keeping the legs extended in the backseat or trunk greatly speeds you up getting into action.  I use to have snow ski racks on my vehicle and I would use them to store my tripod while driving.  Another trick I find useful is to not stop where the animal is, but where the animal is heading – again, giving you extra seconds to get the camera on the tripod and get into shooting position for the oncoming subject.

Three final points.  First, in early mornings or cool weather, have a decent pair of shooting gloves on your hands (because the window’s down) or close by.  I’ve used many different kinds but recently I’ve been wearing Mechanic’s Gloves found at Lowe’s for about $15.

The second point is to drive slowly.  I spot a lot more wildlife at 25-30 mph than I do at 35-40 mph.  Check your mirror often and let faster traffic by, but go as slow as possible.

The third point is to refine your animal spotting skills.  I try not to look farther than 50-70 yards off the road.  Why? Because any bobcat that far away or farther is a bad subject.  I want to find bobcats (or birds, etc) close to the road within reasonable shooting distance.  You usually spot bobcats (and others) based on one of three methods: (1) you spot it via motion, (2) you spot if via a color change in the environment (gray bobcat on yellow grass), or (3) you see a change in pattern or contrast (rough grass, smooth furry bobcat).

Bobcat.  Yokohl Valley on March 31, 2012.

Motion helped me spot this bobcat.


A color shift helped me spot this bobcat in a field of yellow flowers.

Bobcat in Yokohl Valley

A change in pattern and contrast made this bobcat easy to spot.

Whatever tactics you might glean from this article, combined with the tactics you currently use in the field – 15 seconds is all you usually have to get the camera going, subject in-frame and focused, and composing for effect.  Good shooting.

Posted in Photo Safaris, Photography Skills | Leave a comment

Adding a Signature to Photos

I have this question asked a lot, and I actually thought I had blogged or written about this previously, but I can’t find it – so here we go.

1.  Take a sheaf of copy paper and with a bold, black, Sharpie marker practice your signature until you have the one you want to use.  It took me about twenty pages to get it the way I wanted.  Carefully darken in any light areas of the signature.

2.  Scan your signature with a standard flat bed scanner creating a jpg file.

3.  Open the file in Adobe Photoshop Elements or CS and crop out extra space, leaving just a little around your signature.  See the example below.

4.  Using a selection tool, like the Quick Selection Tool or the Magic Wand Tool, select the black signature (or select the white paper and inverse your selection  Select>>Inverse to the signature).  Make sure you have selected all of it, get all the serifs and edges of each letter.

SIG-Signiture Only5.  Take the Paintbrush Tool, choose Black at 100% Opacity, and further darken in your signature until there are no spots or light dots inside the selection.

6.  Inverse your selection (Select > Inverse) so the white background is selected.  Choose the Eraser Tool at 100% Opacity and erase the entire white background so it shows the gray/white boxes (like in the example above) which signify that there is nothing there and the background is transparent.

7.  Create a new layer copy of the black signature (Ctrl + J for a PC or Cmd + J for a Mac).  Double click on the layer title and rename the original layer “Black”, rename the new layer “White”.  See the example below.

SIG-Layers Box8.  With the black signature still selected (and the “White” layer active – as shown at left) choose the paintbrush tool again and choose the color white.  Paint over the black signature to produce a white copy of it.  Hit Ctrl + D to deselect everything.

9.  If you want to add a website or other contact information just enlarge your canvas below your signature by going to Image > Canvas and increase the height amount as needed, and in the square with the arrows select the top square so the arrows point down, indicating the extra size will be added below the existing canvas.

SIG-Canvas SizeSee the example at left where I increased the size to 6 and touched the top square (with the dot) to add to the canvas area below.

10.  Choose the Text Tool, decide on a font and size (like 8 or so), click in the image location you want to add the text and type it out.  Adjust letter size and font as needed to give you the look you want.  TIP – Less is more…….

11.  Copy the text layer (Ctrl + J) and change the color so that you have a black text layer and a white text layer to go with the black and white signature layers.  Drag the black text layer to below the black signature layer, do the same with the white.

SIG-Text12.  Now simply merge down the Signature Layer to the Text Layer of the same color below it – select the signature and layer and go to Layer > Merge Down.  Do the same with the other two color layers.  Make sure they are named for their colors – white and black.  You should now have two layers with both the signature and any other info you choose to add.

13.  Save this file as a photoshop file (.psd) so the layers are saved with their transparent backgrounds.  Call this file your Signature-Master.psd file.

14.  Now comes the tricky part.  Change the size of the file so it is appropriate for the size of the images it is going on.  Do not use a signature file for a printed copy of the photo – it looks stupid and cheesy.  Use the signature file only for images meant to be shared on the web, or on Facebook, or Flickr, etc.  In my case, 150 px by 60 px is the final size, as shown here in the example below.

SIG-Final Size

15.  Now, rename this file: Signature-Web.psd   This is the file you will open in order to drag the needed color (black signature for lighter images, white for darker images) signature onto your image.

16.  TO USE:  Open both the image that’s been prepared for the web (72dpi) and the signature-web file.  With the signature-web image selected and it’s two layers appearing in the Layer’s Dialog Box, drag the black or white layer from the Layers dialog box on to the image you want the signature on.  You will see a new layer added to that image and your signature will appear.  With the Move Tool (letter V to select) or keyboard arrow keys adjust the location of the signature to your liking.  Merge the two layers (Layer > Merge Down or Ctrl + E) and save your image with the -web.jpg descriptor at the end so you know the image has the signature already added.

SIG-Final Image

The two photos are side by side here – the signature file and the bobcat image.  Just drag the black signature layer onto the bobcat image.

You can also tweak other aspects of the signature layer as you place it on the real image.  If neither the black or white signature stand out enough because of the tones, right click on the signature layer after you added it and select Blending Options.  Go in an add a Drop Shadow, and manipulate the settings to brighten or darken the transparent background of the layer so the text stands out more.  Fun.

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Dark to Dark: Oct 18th, 2013 Bobcat Safari

The safari day started as it usually does, very dark outside.  I left my home at 5:20am for the drive to Harris Ranch, meeting the folks on my safari, and heading into the foothills with Pinnacles National Park as my final destination.  After leaving Harris Ranch the moon was just setting over the western horizon, the first rays of light hitting the thin clouds high in the sky.  The Coalinga area is pretty ugly, oil derricks and cattle worn pastures with no grass – but the mountains to the west are a treasure trove of wildlife.  At 7:01am the first bobcat appeared in the dim light beneath an oak tree.  Even at ISO 1600 the shutter-speed was just 1/20 second – I should have gone higher but the moment came and went in about 6 frames, then the cat took off in a blur and vanished.


Bobcat at 7:01am

As the split second with the cat ended, I cranked up the ISO to 3200 in hopes that the next bobcat would be in better light – and he was.  Traveling down the road we saw a couple of coyotes out hunting, then at 7:40 we found our next bobcat, again stationed near an oak tree anticipating a squirrel hunt I imagine.  The light was a bit brighter and I was getting reasonable shutter speeds.  The cat didn’t run like so many others, but kind of sauntered along, giving me time to back-up and continue to compose images of him.

Bobcat at 7:40am.

Bobcat #2 at 7:40am.

The first rays of sun had penetrated the canyon and were actually lighting up the cat just a little bit for me and the photographer sitting behind me.  This was a pretty stocky bobcat that I assumed was a male.  Many of the largest bobcats I’ve photographed didn’t seem to run as quickly as the smaller bobcats I’ve encountered.  Also, the spot pattern between the first and second bobcats was striking, with the first animal heavily spotted.

Bobcat-2bThe cat never stopped looking at me, but he had moved out of the light unfortunately.  He kept moving along the treeline, giving us many opportunities to photograph him.  It was a cool 40 degrees when we shot this guy, and only 37 degrees for the first bobcat.

Bobcat-2aJust before finally moving up the hill and into the brush, this was a nice clean look framed by some pine boughs above his head.  As we moved along the sun finally shone brightly on the trees and shrubs.  The California buckwheat was bright red, and the sycamores, cottonwoods, and poison oak were all various shades of red, yellow, and gold.

When we reached Pinnacles we toured the usual areas, chasing quail and songbirds before finally finding the resident Red-shouldered Hawks – one near the entrance station and one farther west about 3/4 of a mile.  He was nice enough to land right above the vehicle and give us fairly clean shots.  In the past I’ve got good flight images, but I still haven’t got a image of one after a successful hunt.

Red-shouldered Hawk
We made several passes along the parks roads, with some near misses on animals.  The mule deer are entering the rut and were very active.  Over the course of the day I counted 85 mule deer – which tells me that one day this is where I will encounter a mountain lion.  Where there are mule deer in numbers there are mountain lions – and the time is coming.  The last mountain lion I saw had killed an elk in the winter in Yellowstone and I watched him through my spotting scope from about 450 yards – too far for images.  I spend a lot of hours driving the back roads here in California and feel I’m due for a good, close, wild mountain lion photography encounter.  I just want to be on top of my game when it happens.

The day had warmed up into the low ’80’s.  We stopped for lunch and relaxed for awhile – it had been a busy morning.  A couple of hours later we found ourselves under a thick pine tree only about a hundred feet from the car.  Up in the branches of that pine were three Long-eared Owls were peering down at us.  It was my first encounter with these owls that migrate south into these mountains to spend the winter.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

It was a lousy shooting situation with the pine branches twisting through the owl at just about every spot.  We worked in circles trying to find a hole – and this was about the best I could do with one of the owls.  Of course, they were sleeping initially, which doesn’t make for good portraits, but stomping my boots on the ground livened them up and they took some time to look us over.  They are medium sized owls, smaller than great horned owls, but bigger than a burrowing or screech owl.  Their ears give them their unique look and name.  On the ground below the pine tree were about a dozen coughed up owl pellets, visual evidence to their hunting abilities.  I look forward to shooting them again, but in a better place.

As the afternoon wore on we began our drive back towards Coalinga.  At 3:48pm with the temp at 82 degrees we found our third bobcat, a gorgeous animal out in the full sun and on our side of the road (the drivers side with a photographer behind me) and close.  Instead of running like so many do, it just stared at us for about 45 seconds, more than enough time to rip off about a hundred images.  The grass and weeds were just back far enough to blur into a soft background, making the bobcat pop with sharpness.  It’s eyes just glowed in the light – I don’t know if bobcats can squint, but I’m glad it didn’t.  Also a good sized cat, like bobcat #2, and probably a male.  Last year I saw over 80 bobcats, this year with fewer bobcat safaris my count stands at 44, but I still have 6 weeks and at least 3 more trips left – so we will see.  It was hot when we stopped to shoot this cat, nullifying the belief that with a fur coat bobcats are mostly nocturnal – well, maybe some days, but here in the full sun and 82 degrees this cat was active and hunting.

Bobcat #3 at 3:48pm and 82 degrees.

Bobcat #3 at 3:48pm and 82 degrees.

The road winds along the San Benito River (really a creek, with only occasional water) and there is a spot where the road comes up to the edge of the bank and the river is only about 30 feet below and about 20 yards in, so I had a downward angle.  There were cottonwoods along the bank that partially blocked my vision, but I could clearly see ripples in a pool ahead.  We slowed and crept up to the edge of the embankment.  Below us 8 large wild pigs were in the water, splashing around, and rolling in the mud.  All of them were 200 pound pigs, and a number of them had small tusks.  It took them several minutes to figure out that the idling engine and crunching of acorns wasn’t their doing – and when the did, they made a mad dash up the hill and onto the plateau level with the road – and it was nothing but muddy pig butts after.

Wild Pig along the San Benito River.

Wild Pig along the San Benito River.

FWildPig-2aces only a mother could love.   The creek bank adjacent to the water was turned into a muddy bog as the pigs rooted and rolled in it.  The pig, at left, had tusks sticking out from under his jowls and another pig had bigger tusks but he didn’t stare up at me like this guy did.  The pigs were very stocky and would have proved a tough kill for any predator – and I think only a mountain lion or a large black bear would even have a chance at one of these pigs, and even then maybe only at a small one.  The largest pig I’ve seen was about 300 pounds and it was huge, and I hear they get even bigger.  They moved surprisingly fast once they realized  that we were there.  This was the third group of pigs we had seen, and the only group we had a shot at getting some decent images of.

Again, we moved on down the road at slow speed, just trying to blend in and make as little engine noise as possible.  For many of you who know my vehicle, even at 335,000 miles it is dead quiet on a smooth road, and has got me very close to animals that were surprised by my sudden appearance.  The shadows in this back road canyon were getting longer now, and temps were starting to come down.  We cruised along scanning the brush and hill sides for a movement, a shape that didn’t belong, a color that didn’t belong – just anything out of the ordinary.  Three weeks ago on a similar safari we saw 7 bobcats, but never got a good shot at any of them – many were running when we saw them.  At 4:50pm a shape jumped out at me, a dark silhouette next to a wide, round bush – we had found bobcat #4.

Bobcat #4 at 4:50pm and 75 degrees.

Bobcat #4 at 4:50pm and 75 degrees.

It was a small bobcat, and not very close, maybe 40 yards away.  That silhouette is typical of a bobcat find, just something the wrong color, the wrong shape, and out of place.  I pulled over and shot some images, including this one.  She (I think its a she) didn’t move, just maintained a steady gaze.  I thought we might wait her out and see if she started hunting in the meadow but she wouldn’t cooperate, eventually laying down next to the bush.  She won the staring contest and we drove on.

She was our last cat of the day.  We did not see a single cat that was running away as we drove up – all four held their ground – at least momentarily.  Not a single cat on a hillside or jogging across a meadow – I thought that was odd.

By the time I was re-approaching Harris Ranch the sun had just gone down behind the mountains and the moon rose right in front of me – it was 6:25pm.  The moon that was in my face this morning before the sun rose and was in my face again tonight as I drove Highway 198 east to Highway 99 and then south to home, arriving at 7:30pm – a 14 hour day for me.  Sometimes these shooting days blend together and I can’t remember who was with me for which bobcats or hawks, which owls or which bears I might have photographed – all I know is the images come home with me – and the grand experiences are never to be forgotten because they live on in the images.  BRP

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A Chorus of Bugles

The majestic bugle of a bull elk has a primal, guttural scream to it that instantly grabs your attention, even from a mile away or more.  It is rips through the clean, crisp air and reverberates through the meadows high on the Yellowstone Plateau.  I always look in that direction wondering if the bugler is on his way, willing to engage in possible mortal combat with other bulls – all for the right to pass his genes on to another generation.  I wrote a blog article for Black Star Rising not too long ago that talked about what we could learn from the sounds of nature, and the ethereal bugle of a rutting bull elk was first on my list.  Even as far back as the fall of 1979 when I heard my first elk bugle, high in the Gallatin Mountains outside of Bozeman, Montana, it struck an emotional chord with me, it was like nothing I had ever heard before.

A bull elk bugles along the Madison River.

A bull elk bugles along the Madison River.

On a fall safari to Yellowstone in 2001 I had a rare experience.  My friend Jed Packer and I were heading south out of Mammoth Hot Springs before dawn looking for bull elk to photograph.  His father, Bryce, and another friend of mine, Bob Sutton, were riding in the vehicle behind us as we slowly moved south, first past Swan Flats, and then south past the Norris intersection.  It was a frigid late September morning with a low ground fog around Norris, but no snow on the ground.  When I’m out chasing like this I keep the music off and the window down, and the heater on low to keep us warm – because I want to hear what’s going on outside the vehicle.  We climbed the low hill south of Norris and headed towards Elk Park.

The sunrise catches a large bull bugling a challenge in Norris Meadows.

The sunrise catches a large bull bugling a challenge in Norris Meadows.

Suddenly out of the dark and mist a huge bull elk stood in the middle of my lane, gazing into my oncoming headlights.  I stomped on the brakes and stopped in time, and we watched him let out a mighty bugle.  For a few seconds he paused, then he finished crossing the road, going north, back towards Norris.  We immediately pulled over and parked.  Bob and Bryce didn’t want to head off into the dark so they continued down to the Madison Valley to look for the resident bulls that were easier to find – while Jed and I headed off into the dark trailing the bull.  Now, I don’t believe in pursuing animals to take photographs, they can move quicker through the countryside than we can and cross rivers with ease, and rear-end shots aren’t my favorite – but this bull was huge, and his continued bugling was beyond me resisting.  He had immediately vanished into the foggy darkness and left us behind.  As we stood at the trunk of my vehicle he ripped off another long, soulful bugle, maybe 100 yards away.  Ok, I thought, maybe we can get a distant shot of him if we parallel him – maybe crossing the Gibbon River would slow him down some.

For about 15 minutes we walked in the dark and fog, only having his bugles to guide our direction.  The Gibbon River meanders through Elk Park and that did slow him down as he waded through each switchback of the river.  We kept to the east side of the river, never crossing, and as the morning got lighter, the fog began to burn off.  Again and again his bugle kept us moving in the right direction.  Finally, he must have hesitated some because we caught up to him about a half mile north of the car.  The fog was melting rapidly as the rising sun began to burn through.  We continued to follow him, but he was moving slower now and stopping to browse.  Jed and I moved ahead of him a short distance, getting between the sun and the bullelk – in perfect position to photograph him from.

My foggy morning bull elk crosses the Gibbon River.

My foggy morning bull elk crosses the Gibbon River.

I began to shoot short sequences of shots as he moved towards us, first feeding – then bugling to some distant bull.  This was back in the days of film and I did my best to manage my shots, trying not to repeat shots of every motion and movement.  Back then I was shooting a Nikon F5 body and it could rip through a roll of 36 exposure Provia in just 4.5 seconds.  Rewinding took only a couple of seconds, insert a new film canister, power advance to the first frame in a second or so – and begin shooting again.  My gloved fingers moved through the motions with practiced expertise, and the exposed rolls of film began to pile up in my vest pocket.

The bull had moved directly across from us when he re-entered the twisting Gibbon, the cool water rising past his belly, and as if on que the moment we had been hoping for occurred.  He turned and glared at us, bugled, heard a bugle in reply, and then took to tearing up the river bank with his antlers, throwing chunks of mud into the air, all the while continuing to bugle.  Again and again his head swayed back and forth as he vented his aggressions, tossing mud and thrashing the bank.  It was a glorious moment to not only see and witness, but to capture on film.  For many years a matted and framed 20”x30” print of that moment hung on my studio wall – until it was bought by a client.

A frosty, rutting bull elk moves around his cows in the Madison River Valley.

A frosty, rutting bull elk moves around his cows in the Madison River Valley.

Like most wildlife photographers I have always been drawn to large bull elk.  Harem bulls are fearless in defense of their cows and they never seem to tire as they continually circle the cows, pushing them in one direction or another, pushing back the satellite bulls that are always lurking about hoping to drive off a cow or two.  Many of my first few hundred publication credits were of dominant bugling bull elk, bachelor herds with antlers still in velvet, cows and calf herds, and even a few individual calf images.  Two of my first magazine covers were in BUGLE Magazine, published by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, of big bulls.  One of the covers still remains my largest bull elk, an 8×10 point monster standing in the Yellowstone River at sunrise.  For a number of years I had credits in nearly every issue.

Monarch Bull (8x10 pts)in velvet antlers at sunrise.  The stars lined up.

A 10×8 bull elk in velvet escapes the summer mosquitoes in the Yellowstone River.  One of two BUGLE covers.

In 2006 I found myself cruising the south end of Swan Flats one cool September morning.  Elk activity had been slow so I parked and headed out east into the forest, angling towards a distant meadow I could see through binoculars.  Hiking in a Yellowstone pine forest isn’t so much hiking, it was more hopping and scrambling around fallen trees while trying to balance the big telephoto lens and tripod on first one shoulder, then the other – a habit that now causes me to roll from side-to-side when sleeping (or it could have been all the years of youth and school sports …) because my shoulders get sore now.  I don’t normally go hiking into the forests or valleys of Yellowstone alone, but my desire to find some elk got the better of me – and I had my grizzly mace on my hip.  When I was about a mile into the forest and nearing the meadow, but having lost sight of the Swan Flats meadows, I began to hear my first elk bugles.

A harem bull elk escorts cows back to the main group.   Swan Flats.

A harem bull elk bugles as he escorts cows back to the main group.  Swan Flats.

At first they were pretty distant, drifting through the trees to reach my ears every minute or two – but then the sounds picked up.  I was on a slight rise in a mid-forest clearing, and to my north I could see the top of Brunsen Peak through pine branches – it was a good spot for a break and some water.  I set up my tripod next to some rocks and found a flat one to sit on.  I had sweated through my jacket and photo vest so I took them off, and after a couple of minutes I began to cool down some.  The bugling got louder.  Not only did the bugling get louder, but closer – and closer still.  The small clearing was maybe fifty feet across, with the close trees creating a filtered light effect as they blended into darker trees farther back in the forest.  I was only a couple of hundred yards from the meadow I was aiming for, and I knew Swan Flats was a distance to my left, I could see Brunsen Peak – I was comfortable in knowing where I was.

The forest hides a bull elk as the snow begins to fall.

The forest hides a bull elk as the rain turns to snow.

When you spend time in the mountains certain smells draw your attention abruptly, and if you’ve photographed a fair number of wild bears, or been around them much, you come to find the smell of a bear to be an obvious odor.  It reeks with a pungent stench that screams bear to an experienced set of nostrils.  I can identify that smell at distance if the breeze favors me.  At first it was a faint smell that caused me to look up and glance into the trees, not really knowing why … but with the second breath I knew why I had alerted – there was a bear nearby, somewhere out in the trees, outside of my vision, and I could only assume the bear was getting closer.

A large bull elk moves through timber during the rut.

A large bull elk moves through timber during the rut.

I wasn’t really worried, just alert.  The bugling was still getting closer, and the number of bugles from different bulls had increased.  After a few more minutes a roaring bull elk bugle pierced the forest, seemingly directed right at me.  I put my coat and vest back on and got behind the camera, waiting to see if a bull elk would enter my small clearing – giving me a head shot if he did.  Within seconds another deafening bugle came from directly behind me.  I spun around and could only faintly see a bull elk run though the trees, angling past me.  Then a small group of cow elk ran past the edge of the clearing, and then another, the vibrations passing through the ground and entering my feet.  Now I could feel, see, and hear the elk, while still smelling the bear – taste was the only missing sensation.  It was too murky inside the forest to shoot anything, and the elk were moving too quickly anyway.

A bull elk moving through heavy timber near Norris Meadows.

A bull elk moving through heavy timber near Norris Meadows.

The bugling was all around me, and the rutting bull elk seemed to be chasing each other around just outside my clearing.  They flashed by but never stopped.  I never took a single photograph.  The cacophony of elk bugles reached a crescendo, and then began to fade as the herd of cows and bulls moved farther west, back towards the road and Swan Flats.  It was only seconds later that I got another full whiff of bear, the hair on the back of my neck rising as I strained to look deep into the forest.  I took the safety release off my grizzly mace but left the can in its nylon holster – it was time to get out of that pine forest.

A bugling bull in a fire damaged section of forest.

A bugling bull in a fire damaged section of forest.

Obviously, I made it safely back to my vehicle, the trip out of the forest being far more exciting than the hike into it.  Maybe the close proximity of a bear had startled the elk; then again maybe the elk ignored the bear and were just in a rutting frenzy.  Either way, for a few seconds – maybe a minute, I was at the epicenter of the Yellowstone elk rut.  I will never forget the thick forest of pines, the volume of elk bugles reverberating through the trees, the thundering cows charging past my small clearing, me looking first in one direction only to spin back to look in another – all the time the smell of bear hanging in the forest around me.

An aggressive bull elk moves towards a rival.

An aggressive bull elk moves towards a rival.

For 27 years I’ve returned to those meadows in autumn, always anxious to hear the first bugle, always excited to shoot those first images.  Over the decades there have been changes to the elk rut in the park.  The re-introduction of the gray wolves in the winter of 1995-96 began a slow decline in elk numbers back towards historical populations.  The carrying capacity of the park, in terms of elk, had been exceeded for a long time, and many species had suffered.  Not only has the overall park forage improved, but the additional elk carcasses on the ground have fed countless predators – and one effect of that was raising the birth rate of park bears.  In the mid 1980’s photographing a bear, any bear, was a great day – now if I don’t see a half dozen bears in a day it’s been slow.  These days I see more red fox, more mule deer, and more beavers – while I see fewer coyotes.  The big dog of Yellowstone has changed.

A winter bull, antlers already shed, seeks safety in the Soda Butte river after being attacked by wolves.

A winter bull, antlers already shed, seeks safety in the Soda Butte river after being attacked by wolves.

Fewer elk have meant fewer encounters to take great images, but each year brings different opportunities.  I don’t worry about elk numbers, they will fluctuate over time and the park will continue to see changes as it works out its wild population.  The gravy days of every single meadow having bugling bull elk are over, and it was great while it lasted (for us elk photographers) – but there are still meadows, active harem bulls, and that ever resounding bugle still echoes through the Madison River Valley and across Swan Flats.  It isn’t the blazing aspens and cottonwoods of the Rocky Mountains that tell me autumn is upon us – it is that singular ethereal note, and the grunt that follows, that tells me the seasons are changing.

A harem bull elk crosses the Madison on a cold, crisp autumn morning.

A harem bull elk crosses the Madison River on a cold, crisp autumn morning.


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