A Thousand Words – Hiking the Subway (Zion NP)

It’s been a decade or more since I last hiked into the Subway, a curving slot canyon a bit more than 4 miles from the North Creek Trailhead parking lot. Prior to that last hike I had done the journey about a dozen times with a variety of friends and fellow photographers, and a variety of cameras – from medium-format 120mm film, to 35mm film, to digital. There were no restrictions on the hike back then like there are today. We would typically hit the trail in the dark of morning in late October or early November, taking about 2.5 hours to hike in – shooting while we hiked – and then about 3.5 hours hiking out, shooting anything we had missed or bypassed. Photographing the Subway itself, to do it thoroughly, would take another hour depending on the the size of my group, and whether others had beat us in. That is a basic description, but there was so much more to the actual hike. Here is my anchor image.

This image is from the front of the Subway looking back into the chamber. It is my favorite view because it shows the wrap-around eroded rock feature that gives the Subway it’s name, as well as the step-down pools inside. The Subway can also be reached from above, coming down the Wildcat Canyon Trail and descending into the Subway via ropes and some technical climbing. Since I’ve never been into technical climbing I chose to hike up.

Back in the late 1980’s, when I did most of my trips in, the trail was only intermittent at best – being washed out each spring due to flooding. The trail begins easy enough, following the top of the bluff for a quarter mile before suddenly dumping you at the top of a high ridge face that you must descend. I don’t know how far down you go, maybe 600 feet to the river – possibly more, but only previous hikers boot tracks and some thin dirt trails give you some sort of map to follow down. Once at the river you begin to hike upstream, sometimes on sandy trails, sometimes over boulders and logs, and many times it was easiest to go straight up the creek – wet boots and all.

There are dozens of little pools and waterfalls as the canyon around you gets narrower the farther you go. There are times when the canyon walls pinch in, forcing you to climb up and around impassable boulders and deep pools. After a couple of miles, but still short of the Subway, the marvels of soft rock (Navajo Sandstone) erosion are all around you. The first couple of times through it was difficult for me to pass these amazing natural formations knowing something better was at the end of my journey. One location stands out, Archangel Cascades – and it is impossible to pass without shooting. The Left Fork of North Creek comes down stair-stepping waterfalls for about 35 yards, and since the only way by is to hike right over it, I always stopped to shoot it. (below)

Knowing the weather the previous day and at the time of my hike was critical, since making a mistake could cost me my life. Sudden thunderstorms, especially during the monsoon season in late summer, would send torrents of water down the creek giving hikers little time to get to high ground. Lives have been lost on the Subway hike, and there is no “escape” from the tight canyon once you begin to get close to the Subway – other than going straight up the side canyon walls.

Once I hiked it in the middle of a hot southern Utah July day with a friend of mine (1988). Being young (29) and mostly swimming back down the creek to keep cool saved us – but it was a near thing. Going in the fall usually means the weather is cool, the leaves are changing colors adding another element to the images, and the creek is low – revealing all the little twists, turns, and pools along the creek. But I’m not the only one who knows that, and in recent decades an online sign-up to limit entry is now in place making it difficult to get a permit at certain times – like October/November.

This is the view from inside the Subway, out. There are some photography skills you need to have to properly photograph the Subway and the Left Fork of North Creek. (1) It is dark inside the Subway, and along much of the trail due to the high ridges blocking the sun – so shooting with a steady, sturdy tripod is an absolute necessity. As an example, the anchor image was a 30 second exposure – and Archangel Cascades (above) was a full second. You can’t hand-hold at those slow speeds given a quality iso of 100. I don’t shoot for the album, I shoot for the wall – so quality is what it’s all about.

(2) Proper use of a polarizing filter is important to knock down the water reflections that would normally ruin these types of reflective images. The polarizer is usually a 2-stop loss in shutter-speed and requires you to continually check it by rotating the outer glass to make sure the correct angle is being used for each different composition. (3) Because these are slow shutter-speeds, using your camera’s self-timer (I use 2 seconds) eliminates the need to lock the mirror up to reduce vibrations. (4) While I’ve shot perfect exposures using a hand-held meter like a my Sekonic light meter and a gray card, bracketing is probably the safest way to guarantee yourself a near perfect exposure with each composition. Due to the darkness inside the Subway, I normally bracketed around -1. That keeps the shadows where they should be and doesn’t turn the image into a neutral gray (dull) image with no shadows.  A test image can help.

Looking back on my images I’ve found myself at peace in knowing I’ve done a decent job of photographing this unique geologic feature – and that I will probably never have to hike into it again.

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A Thousand Words – Last Rays on a Bighorn Ram

For several years shooting in Yellowstone I had trouble finding the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Rams that others seemed to photograph often. I would find sheep on Mt Washburn, sometimes down the mountain at Dunraven Pass, around the Golden Gate, and on winter trips in the cliffs near the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. A few other spots were hit and miss.

One day while driving the dirt road between Mammoth and the park gate at Gardiner (I think it’s called the Old Gardiner Road, but I call it the Pronghorn Road after previous photo encounters there) I saw movement a mile east, on the ridge that leads up to Mt. Everts.  Mt. Everts borders the Gardiner River on the east side, opposite Mammoth Hot Springs, and rises several thousand feet, with mostly rugged looking bluffs along the river – nearly to Lava Falls.  I was at the top of the the dirt road leading from Mammoth, which gives you a level view directly across the Gardiner Canyon to the slopes of Mt. Everts. There is a large bench that rises about 50 feet above the Gardiner River, right across the river from the parking area at the 45th parallel, called the McMinn Bench. On the bench a large group of bighorn ewes and lambs of the year were milling about.

With the help of binoculars I could just make out a number of small groups of rams moving up and down the ridges that lead to the top of the mountain – some were feeding and some were bedded down, chewing their cud. Along with my friend Bob Sutton, of Apple Valley, CA – we saw what appeared to be a possible, but steep, approach up the mountain that would lead close to the rams. We got back on the highway next to the entrance station and drove a half mile towards Mammoth to the small pullout. We crossed the bridge at Rescue Creek and climbed up to the flats, then began a long walk east across the meadow to the foot of the steep slope leading up the mountain.

Climbing the initial 300-400 vertical feet wasn’t too bad, but then the feeder ridge we were following began a very steep ascent … very steep. The kind of steep that you can only go 30-40 steps at a time between breaks. We had our tripod mounted 500mm lenses and cameras over our shoulders, a photo vest with film (hey, this was about 1996) and water. I was shooting the finest 35mm camera ever made, the Nikon F5, but it was a heavy beast and I was paying for that weight now. After about an hour we were closing in on the long rounded ridge coming down the mountain that we were aiming for. The grade of that ridge was less steep, and thirty minutes later we struggled up to it. Though it was September the grass was still thick and green, the result of afternoon thunderstorms we had seen nearly every day. When we reached the long ridge I had sweated through my shirt and vest, cooled down a couple of times, only to sweat through them again and again. The weather was crisp and clear, and breezy – the sun getting lower in the western sky.

Now we headed slowly up the long ridge, not able to see the rams, but knowing they were above us. Angling southeast and climbing, Bob about 100 feet away going up on the north side, hiking parallel to me, while I was hiking up the south side – giving us a broad view of both slopes. I can still remember the wind whipping up the mountain from the Gardiner River, maybe 1500 feet below.  Parked in the small parking area just off the highway my vehicle was just a speck.

I knew from the wind direction there would be no surprising the rams – they had to smell us coming even if they didn’t see or hear us. After a few minutes we came to a small acre-sized level spot on the north side of the ridge, out of view of the road we had used to spot the rams.  There in the small meadow were a dozen rams, all looking at us instantly. We sat on some nearby rocks shooting our initial images – just in case they ran.  Over time we caught our breath and they got used to us being 40-50 yards away – and the whine of our cameras.

The biggest ram had a large, dark body and a full curl set of horns. He was my target. At that time I was shooting freelance for hunting magazines – so small rams, ewes, and lambs were just not on my subject list. I remembered reading once that you should never get above animals that climb to escape their enemies – so we stayed either at eye level or just below them on the mountain. Slowly we moved closer, 10 steps at a time, angling slightly past them so as to not make a direct (predatory) approach. They seemed unconcerned, though they were certainly alert.

Finally, I moved to a position directly west of them, the late afternoon sun casting its light directly on them from over my shoulder – a perfect shooting position. The big ram kept his head down a lot, feeding, moving slowly, glancing at the other rams in his bachelor herd – but never looking directly at us. Having climbed that far we were going to be as patient as we had to be. As they moved slowly uphill I stayed parallel to them, not allowing them to get above me too much, not wanting my background to be the rising mountain behind them.

Then it happened. The big full-curl ram changed direction and crossed behind us to the western side of the ridge, in full light. I ripped through that roll of Kodachrome 64 in 4.5 seconds – 8 frames per second. Then 2 seconds to rewind, 4 seconds to change film canisters, 2 seconds to auto-advance the next roll, then another blur of images.

I got the shot.

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A Thousand Words – The Wild Urban San Joaquin Kit Fox

When I lived in southern Utah in the late 1980’s I spent a lot of very early mornings driving out across the Beaver Dam Slope to photograph at the Lytle Ranch Nature Preserve. On nearly every drive I would encounter Kit Fox wandering through my headlights. After moving back to California I read about the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox living in the valley, from Bakersfield north to Merced, or thereabouts. Finally, a photo safari client and friend, Allen – a retired (to Bakersfield) Wyoming Game Warden, spotted a den near his home on one of his early morning walks – and called me. This is my key image to this article.
What I found out about these beautiful little foxes is that while other animals have failed to adapt to the encroaching human environment, they have developed a unique urban aspect to their lives that has allowed them to, while maybe not flourish, continue to survive and successfully raise their young.  The last article I read, published by CF&G, said their was about 7000 of these foxes living in the San Joaquin Valley. While their natural habitat has shrunk due to the valley being an agricultural oasis, they have adapted their behavior to fit into their evolving environment.

While their predators, mainly coyotes, but historically bobcats, mountain lions, golden eagles, and bears have had their habitats reduced and their populations more isolated to the rugged parts of California – the San Joaquin Kit Fox has remained in much of its historic territory, right amid the orange groves, grape vineyards, and dairy cattle of the San Joaquin Valley.

So after Allen called me I immediately set up a date to meet the following morning, well before sunrise, at his home east of Bakersfield. We walked to a spot not far from his home where, even in the dim 5am light, I could see young fox kits strolling around, waiting for their parents to arrive with their next meal.

I find photographing predators, especially ones I hadn’t previously photographed, to be an exhilarating experience – and I felt that way each of the dozen or so mornings over the next couple of years I had opportunities to photograph them. Each time Allen spotted a den or area where they were visible, usually in June, I was their the next morning – and then each morning until they vanished to a new densite. The parents seemed to move them often, but the amazing thing was how the parents chose their den sites. Time and again the foxes were living in water pipes, some housing and some irrigation, as well as light pole standards, unused concrete sewer lines, etc.  There behavior was unique.  After all, it’s not like a hawk building a nest in a tree and it just happens to be in a park or along a road – the hawk is still using a tree. These foxes were using man-made holes to den in where their natural holes would have been covered by orchards, vineyards, or other crops. There they would have run afoul of farmers, and I’m sure many did – thus their ability to adapt and remain in their historic ranges is remarkable.
Arriving early in the morning and being quiet, moving little, it seemed that the foxes became quickly used to our presence.  It was clear from the area of the den that some of the local gardeners might have been feeding them when they arrived early for work – and while I don’t condone feeding wildlife, clearly these foxes were a mix of wild and urban – well adapted to humans as a possible source of food, and to the manicured lawns and gardens of housing developments that seemed overrun with squirrels and cottontails. It must have seemed an equitable trade-off to the wild foxes to use the humans, who had encroached on their historic grounds, as a source of food and shelter, which enabled their continued survival.

As we photographed the foxes, usually before sunrise, I was grateful to being shooting a camera that excelled at low light photography, the fx sensored Nikon D3s.  The main image (top) appears to be taken after sunrise, but it wasn’t. The bright light in the fox’s eye is actually the brightening sky to the east, prior to sunrise. Many of my images were shot in the iso 1600 to iso 6000 range before the sun came up, and usually iso 400 to 800 as the sun rose in the sky. I went back and checked my images and I never had the foxes in the sun (if at all) for more than 30-40 minutes – then they would disappear into their holes for a daytime of sleep after a long night of activity.

This image, above, shows an adult fox watching us from the safety of an unused sewer pipe. Sometimes left above ground for years between construction projects, concrete pipes like this, as well as irrigation pipes and steel light standards, shown below, provide protection from predators, temporary homes, and cover from the extreme heat that blankets the San Joaquin Valley in the summer.
Over the years I’ve seen kit foxes along Interstate 5, Highway 99 and 178 – and 223 along the north side of the Tehachapi Mountains, Highway 58, and inside of Bakersfield and Delano. I’ve never seen a fox, other than these in the early morning, during the day.  They are nocturnal but still active for a few minutes after sunrise. These foxes are opportunistic and relatively fearless of people, this probably accounts for the den on the UC Bakersfield campus, and other dens I’ve heard of in heavily traveled urban areas.

Over the years I’ve shot thousands of kit fox images, and been able to do very limited photo safaris (1 or 2 people at a time) when dens are discovered by Allen. They always seem to be on the periphery of developments, at least giving me a chance at wild looking images, not shot on lawns or with building backgrounds.  But I have to say, I admire these foxes for their ability to adapt and survive.  BRP

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A Thousand Words – Mesquite Dunes / Death Valley

Of all the colorful locations within Death Valley National Park to photograph, none gets me more excited than a hike into Mesquite Dunes, either at dawn or sunset. Because Mesquite Dunes is such a park attraction, most visitors spend at least some time out tromping around in the sand, taking some photos, maybe sliding down the dunes on a piece of cardboard or plastic. I’ve heard the dunes called many things – Stovepipe Dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, etc.

This kind of attention leads to the human factor being present in just about every section of the dunes. It seems that no dune is without it’s hiker, or hikers, becoming ever present moving monuments on top of the sand – like gargoyles on a tall building, it is hard to hide them. This essay is about Mesquite Dunes, and the photo below is my anchor image for this article.
It’s not a perfect image, none usually are, but it minimizes some issues of human traffic without having to spend a lot of time copying them out of the image. People love the park, especially in the spring when temperatures are moderate and inviting and there is a chance of wildflowers.  The dunes, however, are ever present at anytime of the year – making them an attractive target.

The first few safaris I did to Death Valley brought me to the dunes near sunset, when the receding sun cast off warmer and warmer light. The golden glow of the light created an intense color in the dunes.  The lower the sun sunk the greater glow, the greater the color – until it reached a point of total saturation.  If I was judging an image like this on its merits I would probably score an image like this down for the photographer adding too much color, too much saturation … just too much intensity.  The colors overcome the subject and become the subject.

Here is the original image, with the color fully shown and not reduced at all.
Scroll up and down and look at the two images.  First, ask yourself which image grabs your attention the quickest.  Second, ask yourself why.  These are subjective questions – and most people will probably like one or the other – and they might have a number of reasons to support their opinions.  All those reasons are valid, that’s photography. But there are reasons why I prefer the black-and-white version over the color version and I want to go over some of those reasons.

First, there is a starkness to the bw version. It seems more foreboding, more dangerous, maybe more wild. There might even be a twinge of nostalgia, taking us (who are older) back to the days of black-and-white movies and TV, back when Tri-X was the dominant film in photography.  The color version is a variation on the thousands of other images that I have seen of Mesquite Dunes. I don’t get the same feelings by viewing it. It seems a more common vista, easy to look at and not really examine.

Second, the darker shadows in the bw version seem to start at the mountains and come down into the shadow side of the dunes – almost like a continuous tone going vertically through the image.  In the color version there is blue in the sky, and a blue/gray color in the mountains. The colorful dunes seem to caste a bit blacker shadow behind them than the tones in the background mountains and sky. None of that was done intentionally – it is just how it looked in the final jpg image after being converted from the original raw file.

Third, when I first looked at both images my eye spent more time examining the texture of the dunes in the foreground. I looked quicker at the color version before looking away. Our minds are extremely powerful, taking time to examine details and texture in one image, while overlooking (…the “I’ve seen it before” judgement) those same details in another image. I noticed right away how much longer I looked at the bw version.

Clearly, you can see how subjective my view is, and how your view could be different.  Or, you might agree on all three points – but still like the color version better. There is another important principle that I have only touched on – and that is timing.  Those first few spring safaris to Death Valley saw me in the dunes towards dusk, and I knew what to expect: intense light (given a clear sky), some wind and blowing sand, human tracks, and dunes marred by human gargoyles. (LOL) Thus, I came prepared to build on the images I had previously taken.

In 2010 I broke with my traditional timing and hiked out into the dunes before sunrise, mainly because I was frustrated by all the people.  During that night the winds had scoured the dunes clean of human tracks, every ripple and wave in the dunes seemed to stand out in tremendous contrast – all the signs of human beings were gone.  Campers at the parking lot indicated to me it wouldn’t be long before others entered the dunes as well – so I didn’t waste any time finding my subject and shooting series after series of images through the sunrise.

To be honest, I was surprised by how the dunes looked at sunrise.  The gold hue of the dunes during the day and into dusk was changed, noticeably, to a whiter tone.  The golden hue wasn’t completely gone, but it was considerably minimized. The dunes were pure in the sense that all the vestiges of man were gone. I thought this is how the dunes must have looked to the local Indians, hard rock miners, or pioneers crossing Death Valley for the first time – on horseback, in wagons, or walking – always in the cool of morning, climbing either Towne Pass or WildRose Pass to head into beautiful California.

I hope this will inspire you to challenge your favorite destinations at a new time – in order to see with new eyes.

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A Thousand Words – The Quad Grizzly Cubs

The world that most wildlife live in is not a particularly forgiving environment. There are many factors that come into play in an animals survival – quality of food, parental care and upbringing, environment, and luck.  There are others as well, but luck plays a huge role. In 2010 I was fortunate to have several encounters with a grizzly sow and her four cubs in Yellowstone National Park.  Over the next 7 years I photographed either the cubs, the sow, her adult cubs, or the sow with her new cubs.  This is the main photo for my thousand word essay.
I can still recall the first encounter as if it was yesterday. I had 2 vehicles of photographers following me one morning at the end of May 2010.  We had driven out of Mammoth Hot Springs, past the Golden Gate, and out onto Swan Flats heading south. I’ve photographed many bears in this area so I wasn’t surprised to see a large grizzly heading down the hill east of the road, 300 yards out, just past the pull-out near Swan Lake.  We pulled over and set up to await the bear heading directly towards us. At a little over 100 yards we began to see the grizzly cubs running through the sagebrush following their mother. I don’t know about everyone else but my heartbeat and blood pressure rose immediately.

At about 40 yards she moved towards some fallen trees to our right.  That is the moment I took the photo, shown above. For a brief millisecond all four cubs stood up to watch their mother, just out-of-frame to the right, but before I could get the camera going one crouched back down – an opportunity lost.  Still, the resulting image is one of my personal favorites – and has sold as a fine art image as well as a stock image. We had two more encounters with the sow and infamous quad cubs on that safari, but not to the degree of the first encounter.

In 2011 I had heard that the sow lost two cubs (of the four) towards the end of 2010, one to a wolf, the other died in hibernation. Of these four shown in the image above, the two cubs on the left survived, the two on the right did not. Again, we started up to check Swan Flats in 2011 and encountered the sow with her two surviving quad cubs very close to the road – so close that we had to remain vigilant to her every move.
She and the cubs worked their way to us digging roots, before the sow stepped into the road stopping traffic, then waited for the cubs to cross – just like a crossing guard would do at an elementary school. A few days later we found them again, just after sunrise, working the west side meadow of sagebrush. While we saw the grizzlies digging roots, the sow was also very aware of the elk cows roaming just a hundred yards away – they were no doubt paying attention to how close these grizzlies were getting to their newborn calves, bedded down somewhere in the sea of sagebrush. Grizzlies find calf elk delicious.
In 2012, now with the cubs in their third year, I knew that they would be kicked loose by their mother when she went into breeding season. We happened upon the whole family in Swan Flats once again – on a wintry, wet, cold spring morning in early June when the clouds were at about sagebrush level and we were driving in heavy mist.

Bears, like people, have their favorite places to eat, to sleep, to drink, and to live out their lives.  Swan Flats was in the middle of this sows world and as long as she is alive she would return to this area over and over-again. Spring grasses must be succulent here, summer probably takes her to higher elevations for nutritious food, while autumn brings a smorgasbord of ripe berries, insects, and pine nuts – all that a bear needs (along with wolf-killed elk carcasses) to fatten up for a successful hibernation.

Anyway, about a hundred yards out into the heavy mist I saw dark shadows moving through the sagebrush. We pulled over to check it out.  It was the grizzlies yet again. This time we were in for a point-blank encounter that for a few moments forced us back into our vehicles. The sow and cubs mischievously moved close to the vehicles, one cub standing up to tear down the dangerous bear sign right in front of my vehicle. Without time to change lenses I had to shoot it with my 500mm lens. It then stood up tall, balancing itself with its muddy claws on the hood of a sedan one car over from me. The driver was clearly terrified and didn’t see the humor of his situation. Photographing his face in the car was a missed opportunity that just didn’t occur to me until later.  Darn!

The bears moved off, playing grab ass with their mother who swatted at them over and over again.  I knew this would be the end for this family, as June begins the breading season for bears – but we got this last opportunity with them.

The following year, 2013, we ran across the two cubs, still together, still working the areas their mother had taught them were good sources of food. You might think it’s difficult to tell bears apart, but it isn’t. Fur color, light chest patches, scars – all make identifying them easier.  In that brief 2013 encounter I got this final shot of both the surviving cubs.
I possibly saw one cub in 2014, it was hard tell.  The sow showed up in 2016 with two brand new cubs for us to photograph – and in 2017 we ran across them again, this time on the slopes descending Swan Flats into Mammoth Hot Springs. This shot of the sow grizzly, in 2016, with cubs just out of frame, is my favorite. The fresh forehead wound was from defending her cubs from an attacking boar grizzly – apparently she won the fight.

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A Thousand Words – Deer Mouse Extraordinaire

For quite awhile I’ve considered writing essays based on the English idiom “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” – and then selecting an image of a subject that might have some innate quality, something unique … maybe not in the photo itself, but in the story surrounding the image.  And it is with the lowly deer mouse that I begin. The key image is the deer mouse below, but there are other images to illustrate behavior.

Living at the bottom of the food chain can’t be a pleasant experience. Birthing large numbers of young is their only defense against the short, violent life most of these critters have to endure. Only the ungulates (deer, elk, etc) don’t prey upon mice, and even they probably cause the deaths of thousands of these little guys, via their feet, in their travels through meadows and sagebrush.  How many mice die under the pounding hooves of a herd of elk being chased by a pack of wolves in Yellowstone?  Over the course of a year the number is probably substantial.

We humans don’t eat mice (at least I don’t, and nobody I know … but there are always crazies out there somewhere) and at times the deer mouse can be a target if we find them in our homes. However, the lowly deer mouse can cause human deaths with the diseases it can carry, such as the hantavirus. Approximately 12% of deer mice carry this virus. Yosemite National Park received unpleasant notoriety a few years ago when many cases of hantavirus originated from there and active measures were taken to reduce deer mouse populations and educate the public. There are simple precautions to take: sleep on a cot and not on the ground, avoid sleeping near obvious “mousy” areas, try not to breathe in dusty air in areas with mice, and so on.

In Yellowstone National Park deer mice feed most of the park’s carnivores. The great gray and great horned owls actively hunt them, coyotes and foxes would prefer Uinta Squirrels as a larger meal – but won’t pass up an available mouse, while wolves and bears treat them like an annoyingly small treat – something they will eat if nothing better is available. And then we come to the amazing mouse killers – great blue herons, snakes, weasels, badgers, and the rest of the raptor world.  Once when I was fishing for bass in California as a teenager I saw a mouse suddenly appear in the pond, swimming from the cattails. It made it about two feet before a largemouth bass swallowed it up in an explosion of water. Yes, the deer mouse’s enemies are numerous.

While the deer mouse itself is a pretty normal looking critter, what it causes other animals to do in capturing it is unique. The term “mousing” is a uniquely predator term, describing the behavioral antics predators go through to catch mice.  Some raptors hover, like white-tailed kites (an awesome mouse predator) while others perch (like owls and some hawks). The dog world (mostly foxes and coyotes) performs an artistic leap, spanning the distance via an arching, silent, aerial attack after triangulating the unfortunate mouses exact location via its squeaks and scratches in the grass. Since a ground approach through grass would warn the mouse danger was near, the stealthy “mousing” leap is key to success

While predatory “mousing” is relatively silent, owls hunt in complete silence, and usually in complete darkness, out of the prying eyes of my camera. This great gray owl image (above) I shot last fall in Yellowstone is the best hunting owl image that I have taken. The image (below) shows the same owl seconds earlier while it was hovering, trying to pinpoint the slight sounds it had heard.

Bobcats are also included in that list of animals that perform aerobatic leaps to surprise the wily deer mouse. To be honest, it’s the behavior of these predatory animals and birds that has always drawn me – not so much their target. Deer mice are tiny little critters weighing tenths of an ounce and hardly seem worth the bother to a thirty pound coyote. But in reality, there are hundreds of pounds of these mice per acre, year-around. And while the mice are more difficult to hunt in winter blasted snow country, they are still active and still actively hunted.

This red fox took a really magnificent leap 6-7 feet in the air and hammered its nose and face through at least 16″-24″ of winter snow to capture a much needed meal.  When it’s -30 degrees below zero at night even the smallest meal could be a lifesaver. This past winter was my first opportunity in the digital photo age to capture this unique, and beautiful, fox behavior.  Shot tons of winter (think snow) red foxes in the past few years, but getting these dramatic images was exciting.

Finally, the story surrounding the deer mouse image. While driving through Soda Butte Valley this past winter safari in Yellowstone we stopped to question other photographers about sightings. While talking, a white short-tailed weasel (ermine) suddenly appeared. It hunted through the sagebrush, going down holes in the snow and popping up in a different locations. While waiting for the ermine to return to the surface from its sub-snow mouse hunt we were surprised to find a deer mouse sunning itself in the gravel of the parking area where we were standing. It seemed unconcerned, maybe not knowing about the nearby weasel – a vicious killer of mice. After a few minutes it returned to the snowbank carved out next to the pullout by the snow plow. The snowbank had compacted during the sunny days, but the mouse moved visibly through tiny tunnels. I could watch it’s dark furry body easily moving through the snowbank that I had just jumped off of a few minutes earlier.  Wasting no time, I backed away to my 500mm lens’ minimum focus distance, dialed in +1 compensation, and fired away. It happily moved into full view, creating a great deer mouse encounter.

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My 25 Favorite Images from 2016

This is always my favorite blog post of the year.  I realize I don’t do enough blogging, but this is a one I look forward to do at this time of the year.  I hope everyone had a great year shooting in the field.  My year was highlighted by bobcats, great gray owls, various songbirds and bears – safaris to Morongo Valley, Yellowstone, Colorado, and Glacier Park. For the several hundred of you that were along on these adventures, thanks so much for making 2016 a great year of photography.

#1  Boar Black Bear bluff charging my group – on my first Black Bear Safari in May in Sequoia National Park.01-blackbear
#2  Great Gray Owl in hover-attack mode – on the Autumn Yellowstone Wildlife Safari in October in Yellowstone National Park.
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#3  Great Gray Owl crossing meadow towards me – on the Spring Yellowstone Wildlife Safari in June in Yellowstone National Park.
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#4  A Wilson’s Warbler demonstrating to females – on an Explore! Safari to Oso Flaco Lake in California.
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#5  A Great Horned Owl in flight in desert cottonwoods near its nest – on an Explore! Safari at Butterbredt Springs in California.
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#6  Rocky Mountain Billy Goat just before beginning to shed his winter coat – on the Spring Yellowstone Wildlife Safari in May in Yellowstone National Park.
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#7  Crystal Mill on the Crystal River – on the Colorado Fall Colors Safari near Marble, Colorado.
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#8  Golden Eagle on the hunt zooming a mountainside – on a Bobcat Safari near Highway 25 in San Benito County, California.
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#9  The biggest muley buck I’ve ever photographed at 6×8 points -in September on the Colorado Fall Colors Safari in Mesa Verde National Park.09-mdbuck

#10  The quad sow (of 2010 fame) wounded in battle protecting her two cubs – on the Spring Yellowstone Wildlife Safari in May in Yellowstone National Park.
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#11  Snowy Plover fledgling working the smooth sandy beach – on an Explore! Safari near Ventura, California.
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#12  Tiger Swallowtail pollinating a Leopard Lily – on a Black Bear Safari in Sequoia National Park.
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#13  Black Rock Falls on the Explore! Safari in September in the Mineral King section of Sequoia National Park.
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#14  Least Bittern peering from the reeds at Oso Flaco Lake on an Explore! Safari in March.
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#15  Bobcat relaxing on a fallen oak log waiting for the wet grass to dry – on a Bobcat Safari in January.
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#16  Male Bushtit calling – on the Morongo Valley Bird Safari at the end of April.
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#17  A mountainside of  fireweed in Glacier National Park – on the Glacier National Park Safari in August.
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#18  Lesser Goldfinch maneuvering through the dry weed stalks – on the Morongo Valley Bird Safari in May.
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#19  Gambel’s Oak and Rocky Mountain Maple leaves in a knot-hole on a oak trunk – on the Southern Utah Fall Safari in November.
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#20  Red-shouldered Hawk doing a close fly-by – on a Bobcat Safari in Pinnacles National Park in January.
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#21  Macro shot of a Desert 5 Spot wildflower – on the amazing Death Valley Spring Safari in March during the “super bloom”.
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#22  Run up a cottonwood tree by a coyote, this bobcat begins descending the tree with a California Quail in its mouth – on a Bobcat Safari in January.
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#23  Red Admiral butterfly takes flight from American Bistort wildflowers – on a Black Bear Safari in Sequoia National Park in July.
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#24  Twin spotted mule deer fawns in predawn light – on a Black Bear Safari in Sequoia National Park in May.
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#25  A grizzly cub stands up against his mother (again, the famous Quad sow of 2010) to get a better look at the growing crowd – on the Spring Yellowstone Wildlife Safari in May.
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There were fourteen other images that made it into the final group, but these 25 had some element that elevated them to me – made them better, stronger images.  These images all have a driving element – such as action, color, emotion, energy, or danger.

I just updated my photo safaris through June 2017.  (LINK)  This year included new locations that will become regular stops on my safari tours, as well as many new species of birds and wildflowers.  Every year photography gets a little better – new locations and new opportunities at some old and new species.  Our equipment gets better, our tactics in the field get better, our overall knowledge gets greater – and each trip out seems to build on the previous safaris.  There is no better place to be a nature photographer than the American West.

My book called “How I Photograph California Bobcats” will be up for sale for another week or so.  Prepping this book for Amazon (books with lots photos anyway) is no small or easy task.  You can still buy it at PayPal for $12 plus tax (LINK), but remember, I send you the copy, not PayPal.

I hope we all have a great 2017 in the field.

Posted in Photo Safaris, Stories from the Field | 2 Comments

Safari Report: 2016 Yellowstone Spring Safari

Wow.  That is the only word I could come up with to describe the 9 shooting days of safaris this spring, from May 29 to June 6 in Yellowstone National Park (YNP).  The weather continually shifted from cold, wet, and blustery to warm, dry, and severe clear.  As usual YNP provided the normal number of babies (elk, pronghorn, bison, coyotes, etc), but with a sprinkling of mature animals making cameo appearances.  On the first full day, Sunday, May 29 we started off with a large billy goat (Rocky Mountain Goat) and transitioned straight to a grizzly sow and two cubs.  On the last full day, Sunday, June 5 we hiked into a wet, muddy, mosquito infested set of meadows and had the finest photography encounter I’ve ever had with a great gray owl.  I will caption the images, and I think they tell the story.

This is probably the finest great gray owl image I’ve ever had an opportunity to photograph.  But for the rest of the safari images, I will go in chronological order.

GGH-2

While the safaris started on May 29th, I arrived in West Yellowstone around noon, but didn’t get into the park until after 1pm on Saturday, May 28th due to the most horrendous line of vehicles coming into the park that I have ever seen.  Gary Kunkel was riding with me and doing all 9 safari days, and we both had flashbacks to driving on the 405 in Los Angeles at rush hour, which, of course, lasts nearly all day long.

DAY 1  May 28

Arriving in YNP is always a moment of high expectations … and anxiety – and my overriding thought is always “game on”.  It wasn’t long before we rolled up on a great moment, two Rocky Mountain Bighorn Rams crossing a ridgeline near the bridge that crosses the Gardiner River, just east of Mammoth Hot Springs.  We had already prepped our equipment and tripods, and we got out and started shooting immediately.

Bighorn Ram

Nearly all the adult animals we photographed were in some state of shedding their winter coats.  In some locations where the bison were present in large numbers their winter coats lied in thick mattes of fur on the ground, or caught among the green sagebrush.  As the afternoon moved along we found a red fox moving quickly through the sagebrush near the road in Little America, close to the Yellowstone Picnic Site.  This has always been a traditional place to find red foxes over the years, though we only came upon two.

Red Fox-2
Red Fox

Past Little America we were headed out to Lamar Valley when we came upon an Osprey nest that a client/friend (Karen Moureaux) had told me to look for in Lamar Canyon, just past the Slough Creek Road.  Nearly every day we would stop by the Osprey nest at least once to see if we could shoot some action images of the parents bringing fish to their nestlings.  Again and again we had great moments.

Osprey-3

DAY 2  May 29

We met up with Box Leangsuksan, another client and friend, who had hired me to lead his group of fellow Thai photographers for four days.  Gary had met Box on last years YNP spring safari and so it was a reunion for us.  This first four day safari started with a bang when we encountered a large billy goat (Rocky Mountain Goat) near the Golden Gate, leading up to Swan Flats.  While I’ve shot goats before, this particular goat put on quite a show for, slowly coming down the cliffs to forage only a short distance away.

RMGoat

The billy goat had a great beard and still wore the heavy fur of a long winter.  I don’t think the photographers from Thailand had anticipated a billy goat, they seemed truly excited at the encounter.  After an hour working the goat we moved up into Swan Flats looking for grizzly bears.  Many folks had seen the quad sow with two cubs (this is the grizzly sow with four cubs I had photographed extensively from 2010 to 2013) recently, so it was our turn to look for her.  No luck.

We headed back down the switchbacks towards Mammoth Hot Springs only to come across her and her cubs near the snowmobile fueling cabin (just above Mammoth Terraces).  The sow put on quite a show destroying the seat of one snowmobile, tearing and biting at the soft material like it was a puppy chew toy.

Grizzly-Snowmobile

She and her cubs put on quite a show for the safari group, crossing the road and working through meadows and forests, the cubs climbing trees and wrestling, the sow just kind of wandering around.  There had been stories she had lost her cubs in a fight with another grizzly, but clearly she had won that fight and saved them.  On her forehead she bore the bloody scar from that fight, a badge honor in protecting her cubs.  While it didn’t appear to affect her right eye, it will leave a scar that will easily identify her in the future.

WoundedGrizzly

In the image above she walks towards the road.  When we first encountered her she was too close for the 500mm lens and D4s body, so I used my 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens on the D7200 (dx sensor) body.  All these grizzly images are handheld, something I only rarely do in situations where I anticipate only having a few seconds to shoot, much like the lynx encounter I had in Colorado last September.  And like that occasion with lynx, I ended up spending far more time with the sow and her cubs than I thought.  That lens not only has shoot-in-the-dark speed (f2.8) but state-of-the-art vibration reduction when being handheld – and it performed on this occasion as well.

Grizzly Cub-1

Like a slinky toy, the photographers (including my group) moved forward and back, side-to-side, as the sow and cubs moved through meadows and woods adjacent to the road. She was as calm as she had been in the 2010 encounters.  While I captured hundreds of images of the grizzly family, the image above is my favorite.  The image shows one of the cubs standing up against it’s mother’s rump, balancing itself for a look ahead, claws glowing in the light.  We photographed 13 bears that day.

DAY 3 and DAY 4

These two days went by in a blur, blending into one another.  We photographed another twenty bears and had numerous other encounters.  While we photographed many black bears, the main target in all of YNP was the black sow with two cubs we shot on a daily basis between the Yellowstone Bridge near Roosevelt Junction, and the big curve just below the Calcite Cliffs, a distance of about two miles.  She and her cubs wandered through this narrow band of woods and meadows providing tens of thousands with opportunities to not only see YNP bears, but spend time watching them.  Happily, the cubs spent much of their time in the trees, above the grass, while mom snoozed below or grazed in a nearby meadow.

Black Bear Cubs-3

 

Black Bear Cubs-2

Black Bear-3
Black Bear Cubs-4

While we did see a dozen gray wolves over the trip, the closest encounter we had was one a black wolf suddenly appeared traveling parallel to us while we were just finishing up photographing a group of bison cows and calves.  These animals are just amazing, and this wolf was probably a member of the Junction Butte pack that had its densite just a couple of miles away up Slough Creek.

Wolf-1

Later we saw an encounter between the Mollies Pack and the Lamar Valley Pack, though at pretty great distances.  The howling stand-off eventually led to a brief chase and retreat from the Lamar Valley Pack.  The Mollies are known to take down bison in the main area they roam up the Pelican Creek drainage, and the six wolves we saw were all solid, large adults.

One of the group from Thailand had shown us some owls she had photographed there so on their last day with me we went after the great horned owls that nest in Mammoth Hot Springs.  The nestlings were out on in the pine branches and we caught a rare moment when the female appeared with food and began to feed them.  The next day they were out of range and had fledged onto some of the buildings in Mammoth.

GHO-1

DAY 5 to DAY 8

The weather changed abruptly from cool and somewhat cloudy to warm and clear.  While we still had plenty of photo opportunities in the mornings, the afternoons slowed down under the intense sun and climbing temps (ok, climbing into the 70’s …. not really hot). The folks on the safari changed as well,  as we said goodbye to the Thai’s and welcomed the others shooting with us over the last four days.  Some were friends from past safaris, while others were new to shooting with me.

There were many great encounters, but one of the most interesting was seeing an adult coyote carrying one of its pups to a new densite, about 200 yards off the road in Lamar Valley.  At first we thought it was carrying prey to its puppies, but then it became clear that it was moving this puppy to the new den.  After putting it down at the mouth of the den the puppy ran around for a minute before heading into the den with its siblings.

Coyote-Puppy

Spring births, which start early with the bison in mid-May, are in full swing among all the animals and birds in YNP.  Many of the prey species, like the elk, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer – will give birth closer to the roads (sometimes, thankfully for us) in the hope of repelling some of the many predators that want to eat their babies.

PronghornAntelope

We started shooting more birds in the afternoons, waiting for the cooling late afternoon temps to bring the larger bears and prey animals out to feed.  The osprey nest continued to provide great moments, and we sought out songbirds at Pebble Creek and in Little America.  We also continued looking hard for badgers but the few sightings friends reported back to me were mostly of one second views of them crossing the road.  By the end of the safari my unlucky streak with badgers was run to 18 days in YNP.

Osprey-1

We had great moments with the birds.  This yellow-bellied sapsucker (identifiable by the black border around the red underthroat area) was just one of many that were nesting in the conifers and aspens.  Northern flickers and mountain bluebirds were active nesters in the soft wood of the aspens.

Sapsucker-2

Northern Flicker

Mountain Bluebird

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DAY 9  June 5

My plan was to go after the great gray owls sometime during these 9 days of safaris. I was worried that my Thai group might not enjoy the wet, muddy, and mosquito ridden hike into these meadows to look for the owls (no guarantee, kind of like badgers).  It turned out that Sunday, June 5 was the day for the hike to go forward with myself, Gary Kunkel, and Loi Nguyen.  The safari had ended for the others on Saturday, while one person chose to go out searching alone.  Considering the shoot we found with the great gray owl, that was a mistake.  As we travel around the park searching different areas it’s easy to think that success is completely random.  Of course it is not.  With over 700 days shooting in the park and thousands of wildlife encounters acting as data points, I try to put myself and those on the safaris in the best position at the best times, for particular animals … after that it’s luck.  But being in the wrong spots, at the wrong times, and not knowing what to look for is a quick ticket to a long day of just luck.  I have dozens of friends who give me wildlife location tips via e-mail, texts, and phone calls – and I do the same for them with their safari groups.  The great gray owls were a target just waiting to be plucked, and on Sunday morning we headed in.

It was an early rise for us, but we left Gardiner at about 5am for the hour drive to the meadows the owls had been reportedly photographed in.  My last contact about them said they hadn’t been found in the previous days, though they had been photographed a week earlier.  On our way south through Swan Flats we came upon a large boar grizzly near Indian Creek, an area known for its high grizzly population … and the perennially closed Indian Creek Campground.  It was too early to shoot well in the near dark, and we continued on.

We parked alone around dawn and girded ourselves for the sloshy hike in.  I know these meadows well, having hiked into them dozens of times to photograph the great gray owls – and found success about a third of the time.  There are really five meadows inside this forest area, about 3/4 mile on each side.  It is an area heavily used by grizzlies, and is one of the few areas I get regular reports about run-ins with pine martens in YNP.  I numbered the meadows 1-5 as we travel counter-clockwise from one to the others, and I’ve shot owls in all 5 meadows, though meadows 2 and 4 have been consistently the most productive. These meadows range from large (2 acres) to small (60 feet by 20 feet).

We quietly approached each of the first three meadows looking for owls on the bare branches of fallen logs, a favorite owl hunting spot.  Nothing.  The walk to meadow 4 was about 200 yards, twisting south from the north west corner of the woods, and crossing back into the heavier pine forest.  This meadow, unlike the others, had smaller areas of mixed meadow and pines along its northern edge.  Immediately upon approaching the edge of the meadow I spotted a great gray owl sitting in a pine about eight feet up.  I thought that was odd since they usually hunt from bare branches.

GGO

We maneuvered quietly to the left, trying to get the sun at our backs.  The owl was partially lit by the first rays of sunrise, but as we continued to move the light improved.  After a few minutes the owl coughed up an owl pellet (the remains of its last meal).  The pellet was very small, not unlike those I’ve seen great horned owls cough up.

It flew down the meadow 30 yards and landed in a pine for only a few moments, before heading to a bare branch, sticking straight up from a fallen pine trunk, to hunt from.  Within just a minute or so it launched into an attack about 25 yards away into the northern edge of the meadow, capturing a large vole and swallowing it.  Wow.  Shooting wildlife behavior like this doesn’t happen very often – so when it does you have to take advantage of it and photograph everything.

GGO-Pellet

Over the past 32 years I have probably photographed around 40 great gray owls.  Most of the time the owls was badly positioned for photography in terms of light, in deep forest shadows, or so low to the grass as to be obscured.  There were times I had a few minutes to work the bird a little, but most of the time I never got any behavior images like these.

GGO-6

After swallowing the vole the owl flew back to its perch, then awhile later went on the attack again.  While it didn’t appear to be successful, it did provide us with more flight image opportunities.  With each flight, hunt, and return to its perch we three photographers did some silent fist bumps and high fives.  It was just amazing.  After about two hours we decided to step away and let the owl hunt by itself.  At no time did it seem the least disturbed by our presence, and at no time did it move because of us – it simply continued hunting.  Here are some of the flight images.

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GGH-1

GGH-3

We hiked out of the meadows riding a photographic high.  We changed shoes and socks and settled back into the truck, drained by the awesome experience of photographing this owl in all its splendor.  The rest of the day was kind of a blur – more osprey, black bear, and songbird images.

DAY 10   June 6

More black bears, osprey, and songbirds for our last half day.  We had lunch at Canyon before splitting off from Loi and heading for home.  I’ve been home for a couple of days now and found I shot 13,060 images.  The edit to find the best, followed by hours of image processing, are still to come – but the excitement of a great safari has stayed with me.

Every year is different.  The subjects we get change, the opportunities change, the weather is different, but the grandeur that is Yellowstone remains as impressive as ever.  Even though we were there over the Memorial Day Holiday traffic in the park seemed normal (except entering on May 28), and dining seemed normal as well, crowds but no long waits. Getting out early, covering the best wildlife areas with multiple passes, stopping to photograph some less popular subjects (sandhill cranes, squirrels, marmots, dusky grouse, ducks, songbirds, etc) kept each day fresh and exciting.

2017 Yellowstone Spring Safari: Tuesday, May 30 thru Tuesday, June 6.   Like this year I expect this safari to fill up, so book early for a spot.

Here are a few final images from the safari.

 

Osprey (2)

Black Bears

Posted in Photo Safaris, Stories from the Field | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Process of Amazing Wildlife Photography

The word “process” is defined as: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.  In wildlife photography the particular end we are seeking is capturing amazing moments – with the word “amazing” defined as: causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing.   So we are looking for a process to create astonishing images that evoke surprise and wonder in the viewer, with the main viewer being ourselves.  When I shoot an image that surprises me I realize there has been a long process I have followed to achieve that moment.  While I never want to discount luck for the success of any single image, success on a regular and ongoing basis can only be achieved by the process that is being followed.  It is that process I want to talk about some today.

Within my own career I have considered the word “process” in wildlife photography to describe areas of expertise, that when combined, form the foundation I follow in my photography.  There can be a few others, some slightly redundant and some more personal, but the four I keep coming back to, in no particular order, are (1) camera knowledge, (2) subject knowledge, (3) time commitment, and (4) critique.  These four areas of expertise form my foundation for the process I use in capturing amazing images. Luckily, I don’t have to please anybody but myself with my own photography, but for my skill level to increase to the point where others value it, critique is a much valued step in the process.

A brief moment in time when everything comes together.

A brief moment in time when everything comes together.  Diving Bald Eagle.

CAMERA KNOWLEDGE

No matter the level of equipment you start at, whether it be consumer grade, advanced amateur,  semi-professional, or professional grade cameras and lenses – knowing what your equipment can and can’t do is vital to the process of wildlife photography.  I teach many classes on digital photography, mostly to beginner through intermediate level folks, and I always start with asking everyone to get out their camera manuals.  Why?  Because I don’t know all the nuances of any camera that I don’t actively shoot.  I shoot Nikon, and like Canon shooters, I’m use to the controls and menus being a certain way.  So I can take a Nikon D3100 consumer grade camera body and locate many of the features we talk about in class, but I’m going to struggle some.  Pull out a Canon 6D and I’m going to struggle a bit more because I’m not an expert with the setup and menus of these cameras. You have to learn about your camera, and there is no better way than reading the manual a couple of times, cover-to-cover, with your camera in-hand.  In addition to reading the paper manual, I would encourage you to download the pdf file of your camera manual (sometimes its a smart phone app) onto your phone or i-pad for quick reference.

Some things you have to know at a second’s notice:

a. how to change exposure compensation (eV) without looking away from the viewfinder
b. how to change the ISO setting without looking away from the viewfinder
c. how to change the f-stop without looking away from the viewfinder
d. how to change from auto-focus to manual focus without looking away
(fill in your own blanks for the others you have discovered)
e……
f……

You have to build up a certain level of muscle memory so your fingers and eyes know right where to go to facilitate quick and accurate changes to the running of your camera. Shooting situations can change rapidly in the field, and you have to change settings just as rapidly in order for the equipment to not slow you down.  Muscle memory can only be achieved by hours, maybe hundreds of hours, of actively shooting the camera. Becoming competent with your camera equipment is no different than a typist, cook, a carpenter, a seamstress, a car driver (at any level), an engineer,  or a computer programmer becoming competent with their equipment.

Anna's Hummingbird amid cherry blossoms.

Anna’s Hummingbird amid cherry blossoms.

When I lead photo safaris I try and talk folks through preparing their cameras to be immediately available to shoot.  I talk about the lighting we might be in, a suggested ISO to start out at, an appropriate f-stop, motordrive setting, possibly an exposure compensation setting – or at least upcoming situations where changing the eV might be needed.  Yet, no matter how detailed I am in preparing others I will invariably shoot quicker and more accurately than they do … at least at first.

SUBJECT KNOWLEDGE

Subject knowledge is a product of many variables, but probably the greatest source is your own past experiences with that subject.  In recent years I have become known for the bobcats I photograph, so I’m going to use them as an example.  While I grew up in California, lived in Montana, Colorado, and then 28 years in Utah, I never saw a bobcat before moving back to California in 2008.  It was a cold afternoon, following a morning of rain, just after Easter when my wife and I, and my son Evan and his wife, went for a drive up into Sequoia National Park.  On the switchbacks above the Three Rivers entrance, heading towards the Giant Grove, I spotted a bobcat sitting in the sun warming itself.  I didn’t have my 500mm lens handy, so the images I captured were with a 80-200 f2.8 lens, handheld.

That first bobcat back in April of 2008.

That first bobcat photo back in April of 2008.

From that very first encounter I started learning about bobcats.  Bobcats can be found active mid-day, contrary to written information I had read about bobcats being nocturnal, and thus impossible to photograph.  This particular bobcat was clearly sunning itself and warming up, which taught me that bobcats are temperature sensitive, at least in California’s moderate climate.  This female bobcat did not run away as I began taking photos, and when she walked back into the forest I followed.  To my amazement she jumped to the top of a moss covered boulder and began cleaning herself, in plain view of me, maybe 35 feet away.  Her actions showed me that not all bobcats will run away, and that some bobcats are relatively habituated to people and vehicles and choose to ignore them rather than see them as a danger.  The grass was still wet as I followed her into the thicker forest, but she immediately stopped and began to clean her feet – and this taught me some behavioral aspects of bobcats.  I learned a lot.

A few months later I did my first photography seminar in Tulare and one of the guys there, named Allen, mentioned photographing bobcats.  A short time later he and I went looking for bobcats in Yokohl Valley, about 25 miles due east of Tulare in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  On our first trip we spotted a bobcat at about 4pm, belly down near a squirrel hole, patiently hunting on the squirrel to stick his head out of the hole.  When we exited the vehicle to shoot, the cat slithered away into a small creek drainage and vanished.  I learned what bobcats looked like when belly down hunting, the mid-day encounter reinforced to me that bobcats (on cooler days) will hunt during the day, getting out of the vehicle ended the encounter – which meant that while some bobcats can be habituated to cars and people, it depends on where (national parks versus ranch lands), and that bobcats use ravines and creeks to travel to and from favored hunting grounds, thus staying under cover for the most part.  I learned a lot more.

December 14, 2014 was a day I was waiting for.

December 14, 2014 was a day I was waiting for.

Experience after experience taught me where to look (favored habitats), when to look (times of day differ by season and weather), what to look for (squirrel populations and other prey density), how to spot them (by movement, by color, by contrast), when to shoot from my vehicle and when to tripod-up to photograph them (determined by body language and proximity), and what to anticipate next (stalking behavior that could lead to a kill, cleaning behavior, mating season behavior, etc).   Bobcat safaris in 2012 lead to 80 encounters, 94 encounters in 2013, 152 encounters in 2014, and then I stopped counting.

I googled bobcat information and research in California, checked out state government websites for information, and looked at other photographer photos that appeared, and read their encounters.  To say I acted like a sponge for bobcat info would be an understatement.  I talked to ranchers in the areas where I see bobcats whenever the opportunity presented itself, passed out business cards, e-mailed bobcat photos to ranchers who provided me with an e-mail, and generally sought information everywhere.

As the experiences piled up I learned a lot of valuable information about bobcats, information that has served my photography well.  While your hands and eyes gain muscle memory in manipulating your camera, so your eyes gain sight recognition in spotting bobcats, even with only the slightest clues.  For me, the number of bobcat sightings tripled from those early days.  Uncanny is defined as: having or seeming to have a supernatural or inexplicable ability; beyond the ordinary or normal; extraordinary.  I have an extraordinary ability to spot bobcats in the field.  Sometimes its a slight movement (going belly down, ears changing direction), sometimes its mismatched colors (a gray/brown bobcat in a green field), or even mismatched contrast (sharp defined grass and a smooth, furry bobcat) – and sometimes its nothing at all, just a sense that I saw something different that causes me to stop my vehicle and back-up to take a look.  A friend of mine, Gary, says I’m a savant when it comes to finding bobcats.  Savant is defined as: a condition in which a person with a mental disability (me),  demonstrates profound and prodigious capacities or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal.  That’s great, and I’m sure my personal record of 16 separate bobcat encounters in one day is reflected in that description.

Anticipation got me this shot of a fly-by feeding by this Vermilion Flycatcher.

Anticipation got me this shot of a fly-by feeding by this Vermilion Flycatcher.

On March 10, 2016 I was leading a northern pygmy owl safari in the foothills near Sequoia National Park (3 pygmy owls that day).  I was just telling the group about other wildlife we could encounter at anytime, including bobcats, when I drove by a bobcat so obvious that I could not believe I missed it. It was laying on a rock, sun-bathing, on a cool morning not 30 feet off the road in plain sight above the level of the grass.  I backed my truck up and the others got great shots. I’ve concluded that I missed that bobcat because my eyes have been trained to spot the impossibly camouflaged bobcat, not the amazingly obvious ones. It seems there are drawbacks to everything.

How much do you know about the wildlife you photograph?

How much do you know about the wildlife you photograph?  San Joaquin Kit Fox.

TIME COMMITMENT

This is where the rubber meets the road, literally.  I drove 51,000 miles in 2015 on photography safaris around the American West.  Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California…..whew!  In January of 2015 I did 5 days of bobcat safaris, in January of 2016 I did 11 days, just for bobcats.  I have committed a tremendous amount of my time to photographing bobcats.  That commitment has resulted in not just the ordinary (by my standards) bobcat encounters, but the amazing encounters that continue to form the process by which I do my bobcat photography, and lead my bobcat safaris.

I've shot 700 days in Yellowstone to get this mousing red fox.

I’ve shot 700 days in Yellowstone to get this mousing red fox.

Another friend of mine, Bob, likes to tell the story of a friend of his who came to his house and was amazed at all his wildlife photos, framed, hanging on the walls under spot lights. I love photography, stated his friend, and I could take photos like these.  Bob asked him when was the last time he went out to shoot.  I went out for a day about four months ago, he replied.  Without saying it, Bob knew this guy would never take even a single image to rival those on his wall … because the friend wasn’t committed to wildlife photography and the time it required.  He wanted it to come conveniently, and easily.

The time commitment wildlife photography requires is a powerful source for those subject experiences that form the basis of your level of wildlife knowledge.  With that time commitment, and the hours in the field it generates, both camera knowledge and subject knowledge rise rapidly – and your ability to produce amazing images increases.  These three concepts of camera knowledge, subject knowledge, and time commitment are inter-related and bound together, clearly synergies of each other.  A synergy is defined as: the interaction or cooperation of two or more … agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.  Hmmmm.

CRITIQUE

There comes a point in your photography labors when the kind words of a unknown stranger about your image, means nearly as much as the efforts you made to capture that image.  There are many different ways to get critique’s of your images, some are accurate and some are not.  Friends and family are not accurate, as they are bent and twisted by personal likes and dislikes for you and photography in general.  For the same reason your general Facebook post replies are not accurate, hey, they are mostly friends and friends of friends.  Many a poorly executed, poorly processed, badly composed, and slightly out-of-focus image is met with a chorus of “great image”, “wow”, “what talent”, “you have a great eye”, “beautiful”, “superb”, etc. etc. etc.

There is no room for exposure and camera mistakes in capturing this image.

There was no room for exposure or camera mistakes in capturing this image.

Critique is defined as: evaluate in a detailed and analytical way.  This can only be done by your photographic peers or betters.  My philosophy on critiquing an image is to find something good, find something bad, clearly state the obvious, then leave it and move on.  When I began my career in photography doing freelance magazine submissions the harsh reality that great quality matters was driven through me like a stake through Dracula’s heart.  With each slide submission rejection I got better.  After a dozen or so submissions  the magazines started retaining images, after a dozen more I started getting an occasional published credit, two dozen submissions after that I started getting regular photo credits.

There are many avenues photographers have for getting good, valid, helpful critiques of their best images.  Critiquing less than the best images is a waste of time, your time and the judges.  I want my best images to get better, not my average images.  I delete average images regularly, they do nothing but clog up my stock library if I were to leave them in.

There is no luck without prepartion.

There is no luck without preparation.  2010 Quad Grizzly Cubs on Swan Flats.

 

There are groups that are dedicated to making you a better photographer through evaluation of your images.  Camera clubs come to mind first.  This is a great way to not only get out to shoot more, but to have your techniques critiqued.  When four or five images get critiqued a certain way, you (I) become very alert to not repeating that particular mistake.  We learn from it, and our depth of photography understanding grows. Everyone needs their images to be critiqued, only the most vain and ego driven photographers think their work is above critique.  A critique is not necessarily criticism and shouldn’t be taken that way.  Criticism is usually unfair and biased, a critique is an evaluation of techniques.  You can shoot with a tripod or not, but slightly blurry images or those not capable of being printed large, or published – should push you towards using tripods and improving the quality of your images.  That’s a critique.  You may feel differently and decide your hand-holding techniques could be improved and that would mitigate some of the quality issues, but regardless, the critique caused you to change and improve some photography technique.

There are also many large organizations like PPA, PSA, NANPA, and others that can provide you with a source for critiquing images.  There are online groups that will also critique (not criticize) your submitted images.  When my images are critiqued I tend to feel a tingle of disdain go down my back – that’s natural for all of us.  But I try and see the point being made, and get a feel for whether the solution offered is truly viable.  Sometimes I explain the reason I did something, or did not do something (especially in processing), and let it go so maybe the other viewers who might agree with the critique will see why I did it. I’ve learned many valuable Photoshop techniques by following through with tips I received from critiques.

CONCLUSION

The photographers out there who produce great images on a regular basis do so through a continually refining process of camera knowledge, subject knowledge, time commitment, and critique.  Many photographers specialize in particular areas of photography, and there are many!  But great wildlife photography is extremely difficult and requires all of its practitioners to hone a set of skills particular to this genre.  The process I describe here covers my perceptions on what leads to better wildlife images.  There are many other nuances not mentioned and many other skills not detailed – but this process will get you started in the right direction.

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.

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My Favorite 25 Wildlife Images of 2015

This is one of my favorite tasks each year, cull through the tens of thousands of images that made it into my stock library from all the photo safaris – and pick my favorites.  If you are a Facebook friend or subscribe to my blog then you have seen most, if not all, of these images so there won’t be too many surprises.  You might pick a different 25 images, everyone see’s the world around us differently, but these are mine.

While I still have bobcat safaris scheduled before the end of the year, I am going to go ahead and pick my own favorite top images from Dec 2014 thru Dec 2015.  And while the choices might seem obvious here, it is also important to know how critical I am of my own images.  Yesterday I got back from my safari to Bosque del Apache NWR with 7500 images – and of all those images I will whittle them down to a few hundred that I consider keepers that improve the visual value of my stock library.

These images will come with a brief story about the subject.  I hope you enjoy them, this has been an amazing year, better than I ever could have hoped for.  Photography in the American West is unparalleled, and California never has been better for wildlife photography

#1  Male Vermilion Flycatcher Feeding His Fledgling On-The-Fly

01-D72_2657-webThis is my favorite image of the past 12 months.  It was taken on my Morongo Valley Bird Safari at the end of April.  High winds kept dad in the air (my guess anyway) as he fed this fledgling (of three) by doing a fly-by feeding, never stopping to land – he just stuffed the insect into the fledglings mouth and continued on.  I have never witnessed this type of behavior before, and I was just amazed by the moment.  Over the next hour or so I shot at least a thousand images – as fast as I could.  These male vermilion flycatchers are just spectacular little birds, the females being a gold color – and both were active in feeding the three fledglings.

#2  Cinnamon Black Bear Cub Resting In A Pine

02-D-57657-webWe had worked our way around the spring meadow following this sow and her three cubs until they finally rested at the base of this pine, in Sequoia National Park.  Another male bear wasn’t far away and after a few minutes she sent two of the cubs up the tree, while she guarded the base, the other cub snoozing by her.  This 2 year old cub changed position a few times until it got comfortable, eventually taking this position, head on its paws, occasionally looking at us.  The cub would look at us at times, but was clearly use to park visitors and far more interested in the threat of other adult bears.

#3  Mother Lynx in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

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If I voted my heart, this would be the image of the year for me.  The last time I saw a Lynx it crossed the road in front of me in Glacier National Park in 1980.  Thirty-five years later this mother lynx and her two kittens of the year also crossed the road in front of my safari group, about 8 miles south of Telluride, Colorado.  For 5-6 minutes she cajoled the kittens, trying to get them to cross the road, one did and one didn’t.  Her guttural cries were eerie to hear, and the kittens answered right back.  While this is just a typical portrait type image without any action, I am drawn to the rare and unique encounter with one of the three animals I thought I would never photograph in the American West … the other two?   A Wolverine and Pacific Fisher – oh, and there are fishers in Sequoia National Park.  I’m still waiting for that encounter.

#4  We Called Him The “Bull” Pika

04-D72_7022-webAfter photographing Pika in the rocks the day earlier in less than ideal light, my safari group was amazed when this guy came down into the grass near our feet and began to eat grass and wildflowers. Overcast skies added this beautiful soft light to our images.  This dandelion went down quickly, but the images we shot, taken on the May-June Yellowstone Wildlife Safari, will last forever.

#5  Bobcat Descending A Fallen Oak Limb

05-D-54508-webPhotographed in December 2014, this bobcat image was taken after I published my Favorite Images of 2014 – so it is included here.  I had driven by this amazingly gnarled fallen oak a hundred times, always thinking that one day there would be a bobcat climbing on it eventually … and my patience was paid off.  The bobcat began in the grass and climbed up the branch, going behind the stump and out-of-sight.  Minutes later it reappeared and retraced it’s steps back down the branch … wow.  I was speechless.

#6  Black Bear Cub Having A Dream At Nap Time

06-D72_4402-webThis cub, its sibling and mother, took a noon time siesta on this pine log along the edge of a meadow in Sequoia National Park.  Moving off the trail and into a better shooting position, my bear safari group got amazing images for an extended period of time.  The cub was very animated as he was asleep dreaming, moving his paws around, acting like a little person having a nightmare – making me feel how similar this type of moment was for both people and bears.

#7  Cherry Blossoms And Anna’s Hummingbird

07-D-56896-webThis image, and the others that followed, came as a complete surprise to me.  This was taken on one of my Southern California (SoCal) bird safaris.  After we had got through at Bolsa Chica and had traveled the short distance to the Library/Park Complex in Huntington Beach, where we were initially after the Orange Bishop (songbird), the cherry trees were in full blossom … and they were being worked by many hummingbirds.  Getting sharp focus on these active little birds, within the blossoms, was no easy thing but the reward where images of great texture, color, and energy.

#8  Mule Deer Buck Framed By A Sequoia Window

08-D72_4747-webHiking with my safari group back into a couple of popular bear meadows in Sequoia National Park, we startled up a couple of mule deer bucks which ran away, but stopped here – framed by this burned out window in a giant Sequoia tree.  The buck’s antlers stand out from the burned bark and another buck is nearly invisible at the bottom left of the image.  I was only able to get five images before the bucks moved away, but the colors, texture, and layering of the image really appeal to me.

#9  Black Bear Cub Wet From The Morning Dew

09-D-61037-webAfter moving towards us the black bear sow and her cubs stopped only 40 feet away, next to a small pine, amid a carpet of soft ferns.  The cubs, like all cubs, wouldn’t stay put and moved around in the ferns giving my safari group moments for clear images.  Of all the images I took of this moment, the expression on the cubs face in this image was what got my attention, and propelled it into my favorite’s group.

This was a stellar year for photographing black bears in Sequoia National Park with a number of black and cinnamon sows with cubs – many of them represented in the images here.  About 60 different photographers joined me on seventeen bear safaris – and except for one slow day, came away with amazing images.

#10 A Grizzly Coy (cub-of-the-year) Creates A Moment

10-D72_8710-webYellowstone National Park never ceases to amaze me.  In my Favorites of 2015 the park is represented by the Pika image already show, as well as this grizzly cub, a harlequin duck, mule deer doe – and about two dozen others that nearly made the cut.  This image was taken on the Fall Wildlife Safari.  This cub was fattening up along with it’s mother on a hillside near the road along Yellowstone Lake.  The plants were deep and tall, not giving us many good angles until the cub climbed and perched on this log to have a look at the large group of photographers maneuvering for a shot.  That was the moment

#11  Great Gray Owl Fly-By

11-D72_0378-webPhotographed a few miles outside of Yellowstone in Island Park, Idaho – this set of images of this great gray owl came after my spring Yellowstone safaris had ended and I was headed to a cabin for a family reunion.  This great hunter was two hundred yards from the cabin on a solitary perch in the middle of a vibrant green meadow, just begging to be photographed.  After fifteen minutes it finally took off and gave me a great series of flight shots – this being my favorite.

#12  Northern Shoveler Crash Landing

12-BRP_0654-webWe, or at least I, always think of wild animals and birds as being in complete control of their movements, graceful and powerful, yet delicate and determined.  Not so here.  This drake northern shoveler (commonly known as a spoonie) came in to this pond with about a dozen others, some landing close by, others circling for a second pass before landing. When this guy came in he crashed into the back of a hen (the splash), and as shown here with full flaps extended (tail feathers), tried to regain his balance before hitting with a belly flop worthy of the largest kid at the city pool.  This image shows him just a split second before hitting the water, his left wing just beginning to dip in.

#13  Cinnamon Cub Just Hanging Out

13-D72_8147-webThis cub is one of the siblings of the cub in image #2.  While that cub went and stretched out on those branches, this cub found a comfortable seat amid the branches and just watched the nearby meadow and the other bears.  For a time I thought this was the better image, but image #2 won a photo contest with California’s Watchable Wildlife (May-June 2015 Contest) and I’ve had more positive remarks about it – but that doesn’t lessen (much) the impact of this image.  I love the eye contact, the unobstructed view of the cub, as well as the claws being out front, and the seeming comfort and ease the cub was showing at being thirty feet up this pine, other bears in view, and mom below.

#14  Mule Deer Doe Fighting For Her Life

14-D-56304-webI was touched by this severe moment in the balance of life and death in Yellowstone National Park.  On my winter wildlife safari this past February we came upon this mule deer doe in distress.  Two nearby coyotes had clearly attacked her, driving her into the Lamar River (near the confluence with Soda Butte Creek) on a frigid, sub-zero winter afternoon. She was covered in ice, clearly freezing to death – but momentarily safe from the coyotes who were nearby rolling in the snow trying to dry their own fur.  It is a struggle that is played out every day, in every part of Yellowstone … and while a difficult moment to photograph, it is nonetheless a privilege to see how strong and vital these prey animals are as they fight to survive against odds we would feel are insurmountable.  Her courage displayed here got this doe into my favorite images of 2015.

#15  Barn Owl Exiting The Old Grain Silo

15-BRP_1127-webI have to thank my safari folks for helping me capture this shot.  Taken at Antelope Island State Park in Utah, I got set up on the silo, prefocused on the silo wall, and then a well placed rap with a rock on the silo wall (done by a park ranger the first time) got me this shot.  There were a couple of owls in the silo and they would scatter when alerted, rising up from below to exit this storage bin opening.  When I saw them start to fly up inside I would hit the motordrive and rip off a dozen or more frames as they exited.  The owls would do a few fly-bys around the silo before going back in as quietly as they had left.

#16  A Le Hardy Rapids Harlequin Drake

16-D72_1531-webEveryone (well, almost everyone) who comes to Yellowstone in the spring has opportunities to photograph the harlequin ducks that come to these rapids on the Yellowstone River.  I have shot them many times, normally in lousy dim light.  The light was the same in this image, but I knew if I shot enough long exposure images the duck would have to be sharp in at least a couple.  This image was shot at f16 to give me a shutter speed of 1/20 second at ISO 100.  The slow shutter speed emphasized the motion of the water, while the f-stop provided the depth-of-field for a sharp rock and duck.  Some of my favorite all-time images combine blur with sharp subjects.

#17  Cinnamon Black Bear Up Close And Personal

17-D72_2201-webYes, another Sequoia cinnamon black bear.  This was truly the year of the black bear.  This male bear and I agreed to disagree about how close I should be as he browsed his way across one of the many meadows located a few hundred yards off the park roads.  This was one of the few times I have had a bear click his teeth at me – kind of a vocal warning not to get any closer, and I didn’t.  Though his mouth is partially blocked by the plant, I think the teeth make his point clearly.

#18  Belly Down Bobcat

18-D72_0735-webI photographed this bobcat just two weeks ago on a bobcat safari, at the beginning of December. Like most bobcats do when a close encounter is imminent, she went belly down in very little grass, hoping I would drive by without even seeing her.  Not only did I see her, but I maneuvered around the slight hill she was on to get a clear shot with no grass or weeds across her face.  Thirty seconds later she casually walked away, leaving me with some great bobcat face shots and a great moment to remember.

#19  Male Allen’s Hummingbird Sipping Nectar

19-D72_0130-webThe hummingbird safaris that I do in March and April never fail to produce great images, and this particular image of the male Allen’s Hummingbird is one of my favorites.  I have to thank my fellow photographer Steve for allowing me to bring safari groups to his avocado ranch in Santa Paula to photograph the dozens and dozens of hummers that come to feed on his property.

#20  Drake/Hen Northern Shovelers Mirror Each Other In Flight

20-BRP_0903-webThe light was difficult (dull) at the San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge in Irvine when my safari group showed up.  Ducks and other birds filled the sky and the ponds, but it was difficult shooting these fast moving birds.  Panning with flying birds is an art that I have to spend hours practicing (lots of blurry images) in order to get just a few quality images.  I like the dynamic nature of these two ducks in this mirror image – and besides the harlequin in the Yellowstone River (image #16) – this was my favorite duck image of 2015.

#21  Snow Goose As Art Form

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It was only two days ago (December 11) that I shot this image of a snow goose coming into land at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.  This image came at probably the most intense hour of photography I have ever done.  The wind changed directions and was coming from behind me, which means the snow geese were landing directly into me and the camera lens.  Not a few geese, but thousands were coming down to land over an hour in which I’m sure I shot 3000 images.  My fingers were cramped, my shoulders and back ached, my feet were sore … but my cards were full of these graceful geese putting on an aerodynamics show.

#22  Black Bear Cub Portrait

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Another shot of the black bear cub (see Image 9) encounter in the ferns near the trail in Sequoia National Park.  The morning dew gives evidence that this sow and her two cubs had spent the morning working the nearby meadow for breakfast.  This image is not cropped, it is just an intimate view into the world of these little bears.  Only about half the cubs survive their first year, even under the best conditions, and giving me even these few seconds just seemed special.  The little bits of grass, the little drops of dew, and the intent look made this image a favorite of mine.

#23  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Fluttering

23-D72_4241-webI selected this image because its a moment of action that appears quiet and still.  These little Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are beautiful birds that are exceedingly difficult to photograph.  They flit among the bushes and trees and only rarely come to any kind of stop.  If they are more than 25 feet away you don’t even see them, they have to be close to be seen at all.  I shot this image on my southern Utah (May) safari at the base of Pine Valley Mountain, along Leeds Creek.

#24  Cinnamon Sow And Her Cubs On A Sequoia Log

24-D-60542-webI was lucky to catch this moment.  While the two little cubs strolled back and forth along the fallen sequoia log after climbing up, I was surprised to see the sow suddenly hoist herself up as well.  The sheer strength of the sow was remarkable.  The sequoia log was about ten feet to the top and she climbed up the side easily, joining her cubs, before climbing down the far side and vanishing into the forest in Sequoia National Park.  This image has color, texture, action, and interactions – all valuable ingredients in a great image.  This is my last bear image … I promise.

#25  Mule Deer Buck in Velvet In The Sequoia Forest

25-D72_0460-webThis is just a very clean portrait of this mule deer buck in Sequoia National Park.  Subtle morning light was filtering down through the canopy of the forest, and with no distracting bushes around, this portrait head shot just demanded to be taken.  This could be the same mule deer buck in Image #8 as the racks are very similar, though the images were taken several weeks apart, and in different areas.  In my former life when I spent a great deal of time shooting wildlife portraits with the thought of magazine covers on my mind, I shot images like this far more often.  Today, I look for combinations of different elements in my shots.  This image has great fur texture, eye shine, a nice rack of antlers, and a colorful background of sequoia trees … and as a vertical image has a chance (a better chance if it was bigger) at a cover.

Check out my Favorite 25 from 2014 (LINK) to compare the years.

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I hope you have enjoyed this visual summary of what I feel are 25 of my best images taken from Dec 2014 to today, Dec 2015.  Every year the subjects differ, the moments of action contrast to the straight portrait shots, but I think the wildness comes through.  Clearly, I shot a lot of black bears up in Sequoia this year, as well as the usual bobcat images – but overall it was a great mix of moments, and many moments I won’t forget.  BRP

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