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Grizzly Bear and Heron - Yellowstone - 1992
For about two weeks in September 1992, a pair of sub-adult grizzly bears were hanging around the north side of Mount Washburn, near the Chittenden Road junction. Naturally this photo opportunity attracted huge numbers of photographers. This area is closed to human entry, so everybody had to stay within a few feet of the road. A park ranger was there, mostly to protect the bears from the people. These two bears were constantly searching for food, wandering randomly around the hills with their noses planted firmly on the ground. We all got to see their brute strength as they tossed melon-sized rocks with just a casual swat of a paw. Some days they were far from the road. Occasionally they would wander up fairly close to the row of tripods. Whenever a bear would raise its head, the clatter of shutters and motor winders was deafening. For some reason, non-photographers find this extremely entertaining.

Over at Norris Meadow, this immature great blue heron was hunting. Most great blue herons stand in water and hunt for fish, but this heron was standing in a dry meadow and hunting for voles. Unlike most herons, it was oblivious to the cluster of photographers. It would stand motionless, waiting and watching, occasionally walking ever so slowly, until it found something. Then its head would slowly extend forward, and suddenly dart down into the grass and snatch another vole. It would hold it briefly in its beak, then swallow it whole with some big gulps. Throughout the course of a day it would catch about a dozen voles. You never know what you're going to find in Yellowstone. You might see an eruption of Steamboat Geyser, the world's largest geyser.

Mountain Goats - Mount Evans, Colorado

Mount Evans is a great place to get mountain goat photos. It is a 14,264 foot mountain located about 30 miles west of Denver, with a paved road all the way to the top. The road is not for the faint of heart, with several sheer drop-offs and no guardrails. Mountain goats were introduced in this area in 1961, and have become very accustomed to people. Sometimes they are standing on the road, or exploring the bathrooms. They go to parked cars and lick the wheel wells for salt. They are very curious, and often explore an unattended camera bag or tripod. If you wait long enough, a goat will go pose on a rocky crag and look majestic. The young kids are great fun to watch as they play, scrambling around on the rocks or climbing on each other. You will discover that even full grown goats are smaller than you expect. The top of a 14,000 ft mountain is not a very hospitable place for people, even in the summertime. It is a major effort to be there at 5:30AM for sunrise, and when you do, the temperature will be near freezing with a stiff wind. At 13-14000 feet, the thin air causes dehydration and leaves you panting with just the slightest exertion. But if it was easy, everybody would do it.

Mountain Bluebirds - Rocky Mountain National Park

I really enjoy photographing mountain bluebirds in the summertime. Bluebirds use existing cavities in trees for their nests. Typically these are in aspen trees, but occasionally one might be in a ponderosa pine with its lovely orange bark. After the eggs hatch, there is lots of activity around a nest. The parents make hundreds of trips to their nest as they bring bugs to feed their hungry brood. Usually they are ridiculously tolerant of a person, e.g. me. I can photograph them from about 20 feet with my 600mm lens, and they come and go without the slightest hesitation. Occasionally one parent will spot a bug on the ground near me, and fly over and grab it. Sometimes they perch on convenient photo equipment. One bluebird discovered the front of a car is a smorgasbord of bugs, albeit flat ones.

There are some subtle things that can make or break a bluebird photo. You will need an extension tube to get a telephoto lens to focus close enough for these small birds. An extension tube needs a surprising amount of exposure compensation, especially considering it is just an empty tube. If the bird is not parallel to you, its tail will be way out of focus. A slight change in the position of the bird's head makes a huge difference. The eyeball highlight is very important. A bright green worm is much more photogenic than a nondescript black bug. Keep these things in mind, but above all, enjoy the "bluebirds of happiness."


Longs Peak and Bear Lake and tourists
One hazard of photographing in national parks is the ubiquitous tourists. A long lens or a tripod is a powerful magnet for curious folks and seems to be interpreted as an open invitation to come and chat. People regularly come up and ask "Whatcha takin' pictures of?" Even when the lens is clearly aimed upwards, they seem so disappointed when it turns out to be a bird. "Just a bird?" they say, and leave. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have patiently explained what I was taking pictures of. I mean, nobody walks up to a table of picknickers and asked "Whatcha eatin'?" but somehow a photographer is different. It goes with the territory.

We are all visitors to the park and most people are considerate during their visit, but in any crowd there are a few thoughtless and obnoxious morons. For example, some folks drive so very slowly, oblivious to the backup of other visitors following along behind them, then stop and block the road just to take a picture. Sometimes they violate park rules by taking dogs on trails or picking wildflowers, or do very dangerous things like leaving unattended food sitting all over a campsite and then complain about the bear that appears.

Inconsiderate visitors can ruin photo opportunities by scaring off the wildlife. Sometimes it is accidental, but other times I can only shake my head as this visitor sees some wildlife and spontaneously stops in the middle of the road, nearly causing an accident, a bunch of people pile out and slam all the doors, their dog barks, and the poor animal heads for the woods. (Of course, you would never do such a thing, right?) You might think that mountain scenery photos would be safe from disruption, but no, inconsiderate tourists can mess them up too.

This is an evening photo of Longs Peak reflecting in Bear Lake. This is a particularly difficult photo because of all the atmospheric conditions that have to come together. You need some clouds behind the peak but not in front of the sun in the west. You need very calm winds so the lake surface will become mirror smooth and give a nice reflection. It takes a long time for waves to decay on a lake this size. I had attempted this photo several times and always failed due to wind, lack of clouds, or jet contrails.

This particular evening in June showed promise, storm clouds that were breaking up. I went to Bear Lake and walked around to my favorite spot, the sun began shining under the breaking clouds, and there was no wind. The water surface was getting smoother as the waves slowly died out. I took some pictures periodically. Bear Lake is a major attraction of Rocky Mountain National Park, its 200 parking places are filled by 9:30AM, but it is mostly empty by this time of day. Occasionally a few people would pass by, ask "whatcha takin' pictures of?", then look back and see this wonderful view of Longs Peak. All the while the sun is slowly setting, the light getting warmer, and the lake becoming mirror smooth.

About then, a family walked by, asked the standard question, said "Oh what a nice reflection", and continued along the trail. A few seconds later I hear this huge KerSPLASH as they tossed a big rock into the lake. This made huge waves and totally ruined my photos for the rest of the night. What were they thinking? They must have left their brains at home. And so you see, tourists can even ruin a mountain photo.


Burrowing Owls
In late June I had the good fortune to discover a burrowing owl nest. They are pretty hard to find since they are a "species of special concern" in Colorado, which is the first step to becoming an endangered species. I have not been able to get any photos of them since 1992 as described in my previous war story. In previous cases, when I found a nest, the owls were so intolerant that the parents wouldn't come and the chicks stayed down, and I felt like I was messing up their young lives so I gave up on them. But these owls seemed a lot more tolerant.

The nest was way out on the prairie at the end of some bumpy one-lane dirt roads in remote Weld County, Colorado, currently inhabited by lots of prickly pear cactus and an occasional rattlesnake. After securing permission from the kind landowner, I set up my photo blind early one morning out near their nest hole. Not only did I have to carry the blind and my photo equipment, I was strongly encouraged to wear heavy boots and always carry a shovel as insurance against rattlesnakes.

Then the wait began. Getting up really early and then sitting around half awake in an uncomfortably hot blind in the middle of a snake-infested cactus field gives you plenty of time to consider there must be a better way of making a living. But you quickly forget that when a fuzzy round head with two yellow eyes pops up from the ground. Only one chick appeared the first day. It was still quite young, having bits of fuzzy down between the feathers on its head. I left the blind there for quite a few days, weighing it down with an old tire.

The next morning was most excellent. Shortly after I arrived in the blind, one parent flew over to the edge of the hole and the chicks started popping up. At first they all stared intently at the blind, no doubt intrigued by the motor winder sounds, but within a few seconds they were ignoring me. At first there were only two chicks visible, but eventually there were five of them squirming around. Gettting a decent photo of five chicks is very difficult because there is always one screwball with its back to you. Plus there is very little depth of field with an 800mm lens at 35 ft at f11, so if one owl is a few inches in front of another, one will be out of focus. Anyway, the adult owl stood there for about an hour while the five chicks ran around, pecked on each other, watched airplanes fly over, and ignored me. This was all fascinating to watch, although I must say the best photos came in the first minute.

I had varying success on other mornings. Some days the chicks would pop up and be cute and other days nothing would happen. The parents just stood on other nearby prairie dog mounds and snoozed. After the chicks got a little bigger, they would run around on the ground between holes so you could never predict where they would appear. At that point I decided I had enough.

I discovered another wonderful thing about the adult owls--they liked to sit on roadside fenceposts and they would actually stay there and let me take pictures of them from the window of my car. This is my favorite technique of removing the passenger seat and setting a tripod there, then the big lens points out the passenger-side window. (See photo) As things were arranged, I had to approach the fenceposts in reverse. Those owls must really have wondered what was going on when this little VW came over the hill in reverse with this big lens poking out the window. I made several trips out there in the evening when the sky was clear to get photos of the cute little owls on the posts in warm sunlight.

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