Photo Gallery and Blog 1999

Coyote - January 1999

The winter doldrums really settle in after Christmas. The pronghorn, elk, deer, and bighorn have all completed their rut, and are hard to find. We sometimes joke that the park rangers let all the air out of the animals and put them away in their warehouse until tourist season.

But the wily coyote still roams the hills and meadows, searching for a delicious rodent meal. My experience with coyotes in Rocky Mtn NP is they are totally indifferent to cars -- neither scared from nor attracted to them. This particular coyote was trotting along the hillside parallel to the road one morning, quite indifferent to me. It would pause occasionally to stare off at some distant subject, then resume its trek.

This is another case where readiness got me the photo, since I only had a few seconds. I had my camera with the 400mm lens sitting on the passenger seat. I quickly shut off my engine, cranked the window down partway, threw a glove on the top of the glass for padding, and set the front of my lens on the glove. In an impromptu attempt to steady the camera, I wedged my elbow between the seatback and door, and mashed the camera into my face, and shot off a few frames during that brief time when the coyote looked at me just before trotting away. I do have a more functional window mount camera support, but in this case I didn't have time to use it.

Winter Birds - February 1999

House Finch

Dark-eyed Junco

By mid-winter doldrums are in full force and there is not much wildlife to photograph. So we can experiment with songbirds at the birdfeeder.

Taking pictures of birds at a feeder seems like it should be trivially simple. It is simple, but not trivially so. You have to rig up some photogenic branch near the feeder that will be the perch in your photos. The feeder must be positioned so the sun lights the front of the bird. If you use a north-facing window, the sun can shine over the house. The feeder has to be close to the window. I put mine eight feet away, which is the minimum focusing distance for my 400mm lens with an extension tube.

I made a wooden support doodad which rests on the window sill and bolted my ballhead to it. The camera pokes out through a slightly open window, which is mostly closed by some cardboard. The rest of the gap can be closed by a towel. You have to aim upwards to get a clear sky background, instead of the neighbor's house.

Then you wait for some birds to come. You need several birds all at once, so some of them will have to sit on the branch and wait for their turn at the feeder, which is when you photograph them.

Spring Birds - April 1999
Finally, things start to warm up and green up, and we start seeing migratory birds again. Also, it tends to rain a lot in April. After an exceptionally dry winter here in Colorado, we got a bunch of rain that actually put us ahead of the precipitation average. Suddenly the worries of forest fires were replaced by lowland flooding, and there were puddles everywhere.

By now my index finger was itching, so I had to go look for something that needed its picture taken. I have a classic VW Beetle, and I remove the passenger seat and put my tripod there so I can shoot pictures out the side window. This works great--a self propelled photo blind. While cruising county roads, I spotted this little killdeer standing in a roadside puddle. It ignored me in my car, and walked towards as if to pose.

I like the lighting that you get when a bird is standing in water, because sunlight reflects up from the water to light its belly. Another thing to consider is the blue water. The water appears blue because it is reflecting the blue sky. On an overcast day the water will look gray.

Western Grebe - May 1999
Once again my trigger finger was itching, so I was cruising by the local reservoirs, looking for anything that needed its picture taken. In previous years I had seen grebes here and there scattered around various reservoirs, but always much too far away for a decent photo. Luckily, this year there were two grebes were feeding right beside the road. I used my favorite technique of shooting out my car window to get these marvelously close photos of this cooperative grebe.

Grebes are diving birds with ferrocious red eyeballs and strange-looking webbed feet. They dive under the water and swim around for roughly 30 seconds, then pop back up somewhere else. Earlier in the season, they have an elaborate courtship ritual where a pair will alternately bob their necks up and down. Then they simultaneously take off running across the surface of the water, splashing madly, which is quite a sight.

Helpful hint of the month: Don't both trying doing pictures like this on a windy day with waves on the water. For one thing, the subjects will be bouncing up and down on the waves. Secondly, I think the uneven water upsets the peacefulness of the photo. I tried it, and ended up tossing out all those pictures.

Badger - June 1999
June is the month to get pictures of cavity-nesting birds. I was wandering around meadows and aspen groves in Rocky Mtn National Park, prospecting for bird holes. I noticed clumps of dirt flying up in the air, very strange. Soon I could see there was a badger digging vigorously, presumably after a meal of Wyoming ground squirrel.

Once again, this demonstrates the adage that wildlife sightings are inversely proportional to the quantity of camera equipment you are carrying. In this case, I had no camera whatsoever, so I had to run back to my car to get it and run back uphill.

By then, the badger had moved to a slightly different location, but it was still digging, although not with the same enthusiasm as before. It would dig, then stop and look around, then dig, then go down in the hole, then come back up, look all around, then dig some more. I don't understand what it was doing. It stayed there for a while before heading off, never to be seen again.

Northern Flicker - July 1999
I learned of this very convenient flicker nest in a campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. The Northern Flicker is a fairly large woodpecker, which nests in a tree cavity. The bottom side of its wings are a bright salmon color, making it very distinctive in flight. Male flickers have that red cheek patch.

In this case, the parents were very tolerant and would come feed their chicks oblivious to the human activity in the area, which was usually a bunch of people standing around watching. The adult birds feed a chick by regurgitating ants and bugs. This isn't as nasty as it sounds because both the parent and the chick move their heads forward and backward at high speed, so you can't actually see the flow of bug parts. When the chicks were small, the parents would go into the hole to feed, but as the chicks grew, the parents would just stay outside and feed from there. There were three chicks in this nest.

As they grew, the chicks began peeking from the hole. At first they had stubby little beaks and I thought they looked like dolphins. In a few more days, the they would sit there constantly in the hole and peek out at the big world. There was always at least one chick sitting in the hole. Sometimes a second one would push its way up to the hole too, and then both would look around for a little while. This lasted for a few seconds until they got tired of sharing the hole, then they would fight and peck on each other. Sounds like other kids. You can only imagine who is standing on whose head inside the hole. Two days after these photos, they all flew away.

Blue Grouse - August 1999
It was a lightly overcast afternoon in early August, perfect for some wildflower photos. I headed to the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park. Wild Basin is another entrance to the park which is about 11 miles south of Estes Park on Hwy 7. After leaving the highway, it is three more miles along a one-and-a-half lane dirt road to the parking area at the trailhead. Even though it is just a few miles from the main park entrance, this area seems to have a different mix of wildflowers.

I gathered my camera equipment and headed off along the trail. There were some nice aspen sunflowers that clearly needed to be photographed, so I obliged. Taking a simple flower photo always takes a long time because the wind always seems to blow at the inopportune moments. Before long, the clouds were breaking up and the sun was shining. Rats. Direct sun is horrible lighting for flower photos. With the clouds rapidly disappearing, I knew the opportunity for flower photos was disappearing too, so I packed up and headed back.

After only a few steps back along the trail, I spotted this blue grouse hen standing on a rock. This would be an easy photo with my 400mm lens, but I only had my 80-200mm lens with me. I tippy-toed up a little closer and she didn't even care. Turns out this grouse was very tame. She wandered from rock to rock, making a faint cooing sound. One rock was a particularly photogenic perch with a nice dark shadowed background. I also discovered she had three little chicks that were running around among the vegetation. Most of the time they were lost under the leaves, but one of the chicks climbed up on a rock and obligingly paused for a couple seconds for a photo. The whole family seemed totally comfortable with my presence, in fact they kept coming towards me. This was one of those rare situations when you have to keep backing up because the darn wildlife is too close.

Bull Elk - September 1999
September is the month when the elk do their rutting activities. The largest bulls collect a harem of cows and defend them from other rival bulls. They tend to be out in open meadow areas in the morning and evenings, and retreat into the woods during midday.

Usually the meadows are covered with brown grass, and after a while the standard photo of "brown elk on brown grass" gets pretty old. Sometimes you can find a nice elk up on a hillside so you get some trees or sky in the background. But if an elk is anywhere near a tree, it will stand in the shadow, further frustrating the photographers.

In late September, we had one of those one-day autumn snowstorms, so I tried photographing them as the snow fell. By the next day the snow was all gone. You can decide if you like it or not, but at least it is a change from the dreaded "brown animal on brown grass" photo.

Ground Squirrels - October 1999
There's more kinds of wildlife than just elk to photograph (at least that's what I say when I can't find any elk). Small animals like these golden-mantled ground squirrels are readily available at roadside turnouts where they have been fed by other visitors.

However, it is still not a trivial matter to get a decent photo of these squirrels even though they are tame. You should be down on their level, not aiming down from above them. Try to get them sitting on a natural rock instead of a railing, with a benign background of trees or a shadow instead of gravel or asphalt. You won't need to feed them. There are plenty of other people to do that. They tend to run around a lot more when they are being fed, besides, a photo of a squirrel holding a Chee-To is not natural. Sometimes they do eat normal food like grass and rose flowers. If you wait around long enough, you might get a photo of two friendly ones.

Mule Deer Buck - November 1999
As the days get shorter and winter approaches, mule deer begin their rutting season. Mule deer bucks do not collect a large group of does in the manner that a bull elk collects a harem of cows. Instead the bucks just wander around the hills, searching for receptive does. Their movements and locations are unpredictable, which makes it a lot harder to find them. Statewide, the number of mule deer bucks is down which prompted the Division of Wildlife to reduce the number of hunting licenses this year.

Their numbers may be down, but you only need one buck for a photo. This cooperative buck was standing right beside the road in Rocky Mountain National Park one morning. When the sun briefly peeked through the gap between two clouds and the buck turned his head the right way, I fired off a few frames at 1/30 at f/4.5 and hoped they would be sharp. The shadowy background and green tree help alleviate the dreaded boredom of another case of a drab "brown animal on brown grass" photo.

Typically I have bad luck trying to photograph mule deer. On the rare occasion when I find a suitable buck in the sun, usually I get photos with grass in his mouth, his tongue hanging out, his ears twisted around at odd angles, or just an overall dopey look. It seems like I only get one decent mule deer photo each year, so when I got this lucky photo in early November, I thought "well that's it for the year, and I might as well stay home." Of course I didn't stay home but I should have, because the deer have been especially scarce for me and it did come to pass that this was my only decent deer photo of the season.

Bighorn Ram - December 1999
Bighorn rams are always impressive and magnificent animals. The rams' huge curled horns grow throughout their lives, and show the scars of their trademark head-butting battles. They are easier to photograph than some other animals because they do occasionally pose majestically on rugged rocky outcroppings (but never often enough, it seems).

Bighorn photos are becoming more difficult since sightings of them seem to be becoming increasingly rare around here. There had been a significant herd of bighorn that were regularly sighted along the north entrance road to Rocky Mountain National Park. Sadly, in 1993 or so a nasty bout of some sort of pneumonia infected the herd, causing pathetic coughing and wheezing fits which eventually killed many of the sheep. The herd has never really recovered since.

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