However, as a practical matter, photos like this are not easy to get. The storm left a generous coating of snow on the road too, and you can't wait for the plow to come. Sunrise was at 5:40AM, after a 40-minute treacherous drive from the park entrance. Then you need some big Sorel boots to wade through the foot of new snow on top of eight feet of old snow. You have to carefully duck under the low-hanging tree branches above the trail, because you will get a snow shower if you don't. But you certainly don't have to worry about other visitors, because there aren't any. The whole landscape is so peaceful and quiet, if you remember to take the time to appreciate it while pondering the exposure for sunlit snow.
You don't want to dawdle too long, because it doesn't last long. The sweet orange light only lasts for ten minutes or so. You can drive to another viewpoint and experiment with compositions and foregrounds. But before long the trees are shedding their snow, aided by the warm sun and wind. The show is pretty much over by 10AM. You have exactly one morning to get your photos. Sure, plenty of snow will remain on the ground, but the frosting will be gone.
As always, mornings were much better than evenings. Morning sunlight is more predictable than evening, plus the number of onlookers was about 10 times larger in the evenings. Having a tolerant subject always helps, but getting good photos was still a challenge. The kits always seemed to strike their best poses behind a clump of weeds. Being little furry balls of energy, they didn't hold still for long. Their nominal 75ft distance and relatively small size still required use of a very long lens which left little room for focusing errors. After an hour of frolicking, they would gather around the tree and soon retire to their den for the day, leaving me to deal with morning rush hour traffic.
I took some photos of the adults sitting on the nest using my portable photo blind. The birds readily accepted the blind with no problem. They would get upset when some dog-walking pedestrian felt the need to investigate the blind.
Then finally the eggs hatched. I tried to photograph the chicks but the adult continued to sit on them, hiding them from view. Occasionally I would see a tiny head peeking out but it just looked like a rock. The next morning before sunrise the chicks were still in the nest, but they were up and running around by the time the sun came up, following the parents towards denser grass. I never got any real photos of the chicks. If only the sun had come up sooner....
Female mountain bluebird
Fledgling mountain bluebird
The cavity faced west so the morning sun was useless, and it was shadowed by other trees in the afternoon. This situation required the use of electronic flashes. In this case, that was two flash units, one on each side of the camera. That way, one flash fills in the shadows created by the other.
There were more opportunities besides photos of the bird right at the cavity opening. The parents liked to perch on nearby currant bushes on the way to and from the nest. They would stop for a few seconds on the way in with a juicy bug, or stop for a few seconds (or minutes) on the way out and preen.
It didn't take long to determine just how tolerant these birds were of my presence. The male didn't seem to care at all whether I was there or not. The female was less confiding, so whenever she would show up with a bug, I would move away and let her feed in peace. I was primarily after photos of the bright blue male because typically it is those photos that people want to see.
One day I got a special treat. Usually you never see the fledglings--one day they are in the hole and the next day they are high in a tree. While I was waiting around, I saw a fledgling peeking from the hole. Before long, it jumped out and fluttered to the ground. It sat there a few minutes, then made a short flight of about one foot high and two feet long while flapping its wings furiously. After a few more minutes, it made another flight, and actually flew up into a nearby bush. Then it made more short flights down to a big rock, up to a tree, and down to the branch near the ground. It sat on that branch in deep shadows for a long time while I was wishing it was in some sun, when a little shaft of sunlight came through the trees and illuminated it. It was about 2/3 as large as an adult, and all gray. The shape of its mouth, downturned at the corners, gave it a profoundly grumpy expression. But I imagine it was really glad to be out of that nest. It can't smell very nice in there.
Most mornings the sky is totally clear, the sun comes up, and you take the picture. Ho-hum. If you are really lucky, you can get two photo opportunities in the same morning. Some puffy clouds floating around in the sky overhead gives you the opportunity for a pre-dawn photo with trees silhouetted against the orange clouds and reflecting in the lake. Then you run (literally) around to the other side of the lake and take the photo of the three mountains, which are Mount Otis, Hallett Peak, and Flattop Mountain. Having a few clouds around the peaks helps too, adding more color to the sky. You just have to keep going back until the clouds cooperate.
Photographing elk is always a test of patience. The bull is always busy circling around his harem, not posing for photos. When he finally does something dramatic, usually there is a cow in the way. Photographing elk in Rocky Mountain National Park is especially tough because they are always backlit. The arrangement of the roads in the meadows relative to the elk's favorite hangouts makes it such that the elk are always backlit. So the best you can do is try for side lighting and hope the subject is positioned just right to catch the light on their side and head. That is assuming the elk even come out in the sun at all. As any aspiring elk photographer knows, elk seem to use any opportunity to avoid direct sun, choosing to stand in any available shadow. They must have very sensitive skin.
The hike is pretty easy. It passes Alberta Falls after 0.6 miles, then follows along Glacier Creek, climbing gently along the way. It begins climbing more steeply after the trail to Mills Lake splits off. Shortly thereafter, this wonderful view develops before your eyes.
Winter was definitely in the air. The surrounding mountains were dusted with snow. The lake had a thin sheet of ice out in the middle with a bit of open water around the shore, which was soon to disappear.