Up the Gunflint in early September

September 2, 2016:

Every time we start working on a new Kollath-Stensaas field guide to the North Woods, I get obsessed with the topic at hand. This time it is dragonflies…and I’ve been out multiple times a week since late July (I got a very late start and wish my obsession would have kicked in about May 20th when the first dragonflies are emerging). And so with net and camera stowed, I headed 2 1/2 hours up the North Shore of Lake Superior to Grand Marais and the Gunflint Trail. By leaving at 4:30am I was able to be out shooting by 7:30am. No Moose or Black Bear, but I did hear a Black-backed Woodpecker along the Lima Grade, but my real quarry was odonates (dragonflies & damselflies).

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I spent most of the day along the Lima Grade in the Superior National Forest on the edge of the Boundary Waters in Cook County, Minnesota. Road conditions are fine but you hope you don’t meet too many folks headed in the other direction!

Common Raven South Brule Road Superior National Forest Cook Co MN IMG_7483

An unusually tame Common Raven voices her displeasure at my attention. Normally, northern ravens skidaddle at the first hint that you may even be thinking about tapping the brake of your vehicle. She let me stop and even stick my 400mm lens out the window for a few seconds before flapping off. [South Brule Road, Cook County, Minnesota]IMG_7584

Beaver pond gloriously ringed with Bidens cernua, Nodding Bur-Marigold. This is where I spent a couple hours hanging out and waiting for dragonflies.katydid Oblong-winged Katydid Amblycorypha oblongifolia Lima Grade Superior National Forest Cook Co MN IMG_7624

Insect photography requires quite a bit of discomfort….sometimes from other insects such as mosquitoes, horse flies, deer flies, etc….and sometimes from contorting your body into unnatural positions to get the right angle. To make a creative shot of this Oblong-winged Katydid.IMG_7635

darner Shadow Darner Aeshna umbrosa male Lima Grade Superior National Forest Cook Co MN IMG_7715darner Shadow Darner Aeshna umbrosa male Lima Grade Superior National Forest Cook Co MN IMG_7716IMG_4538

The three photos above are of the Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) that I netted as he patrolled this small roadside pond. They are one of the most handsome of darners, me thinks. Note his wedge-type claspers, straight-edged thoracic stripes that are yellowish on the bottom transitioning to blue-green at the top.darner Variable Darner Aeshna interrupta male Lima Grade Superior National Forest Cook Co MN IMG_7730

The “spotted” form of Variable Darner (Aeshna interrupta) shows two pairs of two spots on its thorax.

darner Variable Darner Aeshna interrupta male Lima Grade Superior National Forest Cook Co MN IMG_7542

Face and multi-faceted eyes of the Variable Darner.darner Zigzag Darner Aeshna sitchensis Lima Mountain Road Superior National Forest Cook Co MN IMG_7807

Late in the afternoon, I finally found one of my target species along a stretch of Lima Mountain Road…A Zigzag Darner (Aeshna sitchensis)…only the second one I’ve ever seen! (The first was years ago at Hartley Park in the city limits of Duluth). This dragonfly of the far north makes its home in boggy areas from Alaska to Labrador, reaching south into the northern Rockies (Idaho, Wyoming, Montana), northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and northern New England. Unlike most darners, these guys prefer to perch on the ground, and once you locate one (usually on a gravel road like the one above). It is easily recognizable by its brown and light blue abdomen, narrow “zigzag” thorax stripes, small size for a darner, and its habit of perching on the ground.

darner Variable Darner Aeshna interrupta striped form green form female Lima Grade Superior National Forest Cook Co MN IMG_7757

Didn’t I just say that Zigzag Darners were partly identified by their habit of perching on the ground? Well, I guess Variable Darners do it too, as I saw TWO green-form females also perching on the surface of gravel roads (both on the Lima Grade).

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My first and last stop of the day was Artist’s Point in Grand Marais where I found a “Jesus Mallard” walking on water.rock signatures Artist's Point Grand Marais MN IMG_7409rock signatures Artist's Point Grand Marais MN IMG_7414

Now that’s graffiti! It speaks to an earlier time when folks had more time to spend on their vandalism…Note that Hilda Brekken (no doubt a Norwegian farmer’s daughter) even pecked her name and hometown into the rock-hard rock in CURSIVE! She likely traveled by train to Duluth from Osakis, Minnesota then took the America (a supply boat) up the North Shore to Grand Marais. There was NO ROAD to this part of Minnesota in 1901 (date of this “pecked petroglyph”). The North Shore road was not constructed until 1920s, and not fully paved until 1933.

Artist's Point Lake Superior Grand Marais MN IMG_7814The quaint harbor of Grand Marais, Minnesota.

[All macro photo taken with Canon 7D, Canon 70-200mm f4 lens with Canon 500D close up lens attachment, handheld]

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado—July 6, 2016

To be honest, at first I was not thrilled about making the side journey to see this national park…but we’d bought the “National Parks Passport” book and so I thought why not get another stamp in our passport. It would also be good to get the kids out of the car for a bit.
But Holy Cow! This place is impressive! Massive dunes tower above the flat valley floor with a backdrop of Rocky Mountain peaks (Sangre de Cristo Range)…a strange sight. Photography-wise, I loved the shapes and silhouettes of the stark landscape and I took many photos (and for the most part kept the sand grains out of my equipment).
The geology of how these dunes came to be is quite complicated and a bit unknown, so I’m not going to try and explain it (not that I understand it anyway) so you’ll have to Google it for yourself. What is fascinating, is that the shape and size of the major dune field has not changed much at all in 140 years! (See historic & modern photo below). North America’s largest dunes cover about 38 square miles and reach heights of 750 feet from the valley floor.
The kids could have cared less about the geology, and they just wanted to play in the giant sand box, along with about 100 other visitors (200?). They had a blast, as you can see from the photos below.

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4269Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4267Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

dunes Great Sand Dunes 1873-2011Amazingly, the shape and size of the major dunes has not changed significantly in the last 140 years! (from the National Park Service website).

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4403Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4309Birk Stensaas at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4308Bjorn Stensaas at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4305Bjorn Stensaas at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4295Bjorn and Birk Stensaas at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4288Bjorn and Birk Stensaas at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4259Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park Colorado IMG_4252Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Northwest Minnesota—Part 2: Norris Camp & Big Bog, June 12-13, 2016

Heading east from Thief Lake WMA I decided to check out Norris Camp, a remote Minnesota DNR station in the Beltrami Island State Forest that I’d heard had a nesting Black-backed Woodpecker. I was pretty sure that I was too late as most woodpeckers had fledged young already. But I was in luck! And I spent a couple hours with this pair of rarely seen boreal woodpeckers.

Black-backed Woodpecker nest Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1467 (1)Black-backed Woodpecker nest at Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest; Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
The folks at the camp pointed out that this was the same mated pair that nested on the grounds last summer. How did they know? Notice the band on the adult’s leg; they actually banded them last year and both the male and female returned to nest only 100 yards from last year’s nest. Woodpeckers NEVER use the same cavity twice but always excavate a new nest; it may be in the same tree but usually not. In this case, the tree they used last year had blown down since last summer. I don’t know much about site fidelity or mate fidelity in woodpeckers but this was a very interesting anecdote that I will for follow up on.
Also note the male’s yellow cap; the female shows only black on the head. He’s feeding a young male who is already sporting his jaunty yellow forehead feathers.

Black-backed Woodpecker nest Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1380Black-backed Woodpecker nest at Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest; Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

arctic Macoun's Arctic Oeneis macounii near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1427 (1)Macoun’s Arctic (Oenis macounii) at Norris Camp, Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
While waiting and watching at the Black-backed Woodpecker nest, I was treated to a lifer butterfly. Not 20 feet away I noticed an orange butterfly that was repeatedly landing on the same fallen log. I finally took a closer look and lo and behold, a Macoun’s Arctic! This species only flies every other year in the North Woods so I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. They are found in openings in sandy Jack Pine forests, and that is exactly the habitat I was in. Males use the same perch as they wait for females.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 184mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/1250 at f7.1; ISO 320; -0.67ev; hand-held]

arctic Macoun's Arctic Oeneis macounii near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1434 (1)Macoun’s Arctic (Oenis macounii) at Norris Camp, Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
When perched with wings folded, the Macoun’s Arctic is well camouflaged, like just another piece of bark. This species has a fairly limited range in North America extending from the North Shore of Lake Superior west and north to Churchill, Manitoba, British Columbia and just extending north into the Northwest Territories.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 135mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/1600 at f7.1; ISO 320; -0.67ev; hand-held]

blue Silvery Blue Glaucopsyche lygdamus Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1669 (1)Silvery Blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 100mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/1250 at f7.1; ISO 320; -0.67ev; hand-held]

Aquilegia canadensis Wild Columbine Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1347Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Polygala paucifolia Fringed Polygala Gaywings near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1567Fringed Polygala or Gaywings (Polygala paucifolia) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Corydalis sempervirens Pale Corydalis Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1623Pale Corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Cypripedium arietinum Ram's-head Ladyslipper near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1543Ram’s-head Ladyslipper (Cypripedium arietinum) near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
One of my favorite orchids found in the bogs of north central Minnesota, the Ram’s-head Ladyslipper. This small group was past prime as you can tell by the collapsed dorsal sepal on top of the slipper pouch. This may mean that the flower had already been pollinated. It is a very small ladyslipper, maybe 6 inches tall. This group was growing in a Cedar bog.

Cypripedium arietinum Ram's-head Ladyslipper near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1550Ram’s-head Ladyslipper (Cypripedium arietinum) near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 113mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/250 at f8; ISO 250; -0.67ev; tripod]

Cypripedium parviflorum Yellow Ladyslipper Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1709Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Platanthera hookeri Hooker's Orchid near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1607Mosquito on Hooker’s Orchid (Platanthera hookeri) in a Cedar bog near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota

Platanthera hookeri Hooker's Orchid near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1577Hooker’s Orchid (Platanthera hookeri) in a Cedar bog near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 104mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/100 at f6.3; ISO 400; -0.67ev; tripod]

Big Bog sign IMG_3441

My last stop was Big Bog State Recreation Area (SRA) near Waskish, Minnesota on Red Lake. This is the largest patterned peatland in the lower 48, and massive in size. It was once home to Minnesota’s last wild Caribou herd which disappeared in the 1930s and 40s. Their trails can still be seen from the air.
The boardwalks is one mile long and a very pleasant hike. MANY interpretive signs highlight the human and natural history of the Big Bog.

Big Bog Boardwalk IMG_3443A portion of the mile-long Big Bog SRA boardwalk near Waskish, Minnesota.

Tamarack cones IMG_1758Tamarack cones along the bog boardwalk.

fritillary Bog Fritillary boardwalk Big Bog SRA Beltrami Co MN IMG_1779Bog Fritillary (Boloria eunomia) on the Big Bog SRA boardwalk.
This was my lifer Bog Fritillary! Unfortunately I mistook it for a different, more common species, and I didn’t take the time to get a really good photo. Oh well, just a reason to go back!
I was going to camp overnight in the area, but I got a text message on my phone that a Calliope Hummingbird had shown up in Duluth…in breeding plumage! This is a bird of the mountain west that has only been recorded in Minnesota a couple times…and never in its stunning breeding plumage. This was reason enough to head for home.

Northwest Minnesota—Part 1: Agassiz & Thief Lake WMAs, June 12-13, 2016

My first stop on this mid June excursion was Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in far northwest Minnesota. It was a gloomy, windy, rainy day in the aspen parklands but I had to make the most of a photographically-poor situation. Down a side road on the refuge I found a spot where Forster’s Terns were making pass after pass above a flooded creek/drainage ditch. At first I simply cranked up the ISO and took many shots to freeze these elegant birds in flight. But the gray skies got grayer, and the gloom got gloomier, so I altered my technique; now I switched to Shutter Priority mode and attempted to get some slow panning shots. My favorite Forster’s photos are below.

Forster's Tern Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge NWR Marshall Co MN IMG_9943Forster’s Tern diving for fish in Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.
I used Manual exposure setting as I wanted the image exposed properly for the white bird. And since the background was changing as the bird flew (from light sky to dark green leaves) I couldn’t trust Aperture Priority to get the right exposure.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1000 second at f5.6; ISO 320; panning hand-held]

Forster's Tern Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge NWR Marshall Co MN IMG_0497Forster’s Tern in Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.
I desaturated the background in Aperture for a more dramatic look.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/60 second at f8; ISO 100; panning hand-held]

Forster's Tern Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge NWR Marshall Co MN IMG_0131
EIGHT small fish in ONE DIVE! An amazing feat to accomplish in a head-first plunge that lasts one second max. There must have been very tight schools of fish to be so successful.

pelican IMG_0571American White Pelican at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.

van and tent IMG_3428Camping at Thief Lake WMA (My late great Honda Odyssey that lost in a battle with a rogue White-tailed Deer just weeks later)

Thief Lake WMA landscape IMG_0762Dawn at Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota.
I love this place in late spring/early summer. It is secluded, has tons of bird life, and a very cool “observation mound” from which you can scan the ginormous cattail marsh.

Red-winged Blackbird IMG_0708Red-winged Blackbird at Thief Lake WMA.

Thief Lake WMA observation mound IMG_3430Observation Mound at Thief Lake WMA.
[iPhone panorama]

Black Tern and cattail reflection IMG_1105Black Tern and cattail reflections.
This photo was a real surprise success..and I didn’t realize it until I got home and viewed it on the iMac. I really like the odd “M.C Esher-esque” juxtaposition of the bird and the “upside down” cattails (reflection). It was also a very pleasant surprise that the Black Tern’s wings mimicked the angle of the cattails without overlapping with them.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

ducks and reeds b&w IMG_1103Ducks flying across Thief Lake WMA.
This image was just begging to be converted to black-and-white; the strong shape elements of the graceful reeds and silhouetted ducks don’t need color to enhance.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 second at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

Franklin's Gull Thief Lake WMA Marshall Co MN IMG_1069Franklin’s Gull in flight over Thief Lake WMA.
My number one goal on this leg of the trip was to photograph what I consider to be one of the most beautiful gulls in North America…the Franklin’s Gull. I love the mat black head, white eye-ring and blood red bill. And the fact that they are not a gull I see that often makes them even more special.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 second at f6.3; ISO 250; hand-held (for birds in flight, especially overhead, you almost HAVE to hand-hold your camera…a tripod restricts your movement too much]

Franklin's Gull Thief Lake WMA Marshall Co MN IMG_1199Franklin’s Gull catching flying insect on the wing.
Flocks of Franklin’s Gulls forage in neighboring farm fields during the day. This flock was making repeated flights to catch aerial insects. I did not notice the bug until I got home and viewed this image large. I used Shutter Priority in order to make sure I froze the motion of the flying birds (though, this image is a bit soft due to movement so I should have used 1/2000 or 1/1600 second)
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1250 second at f6.3; ISO 125; hand-held]

Marsh Wren IMG_0816Marsh Wren at Thief Lake WMA.
The Marsh Wren is a rare bird in northeast Minnesota, so I’m always thrilled when I can get a good shot of this cattail dweller. They are feisty little guys!
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/500 second at f6.3; ISO 640; hand-held]

Sharp-tailed Grouse in crop field near Thief Lake WMA Marshall Co MN IMG_1331Sharp-tailed Grouse in soybean field near Minnesota’s Thief Lake WMA.

tractor burnt IMG_0561Burned tractor.
Wish I knew the story behind this “roasted” tractor!

Colorado Wildlife: June 28-July 7, 2016

For over a week now, I’ve wished I was back in Colorado. We had a wonderful family vacation to the Rockies to visit relatives and see the mountains (a first for my boys, aged 6 & 7). I did manage a bit of photography and will be posting 3 or 4 blogs about the trip. We concentrate on the wildlife unique to the Rockies in this blog post
Moose Calf Rocky Mountain National Park CO IMG_2987
MOOSE CALF in ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK. Got a very close up look at a cow and calf Moose on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The kids even looked up from their activity books!


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iPhone panorama of Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
We started each day with a different hike in the park.

IMG_3154IMG_3145Dusky (Blue) Grouse chick at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

IMG_3148Dusky (Blue) Grouse hen at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
We spotted this western species of grouse along the park drive. While photographing her in the roadside flowers, I saw something small scurry towards her…It was a tiny chick, not more than a few days old. The chick was busy picking insects off the flower stems.

IMG_3776Mule Deer munching

IMG_4042Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris bailey) in Chimney Rock National Monument in SW Colorado.

IMG_4069Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris bailey) in Chimney Rock National Monument in SW Colorado.

IMG_4044Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris bailey) in Chimney Rock National Monument in SW Colorado.

IMG_3974Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris bailey) in Chimney Rock National Monument in SW Colorado.

IMG_4009My LIFER Collared Lizard(s) (Crotaphytus collaris baileyi) …Western subspecies. Found 2 of these most stunning reptiles at Chimney Rock National Monument in SW Colorado. These 8-14 inch long lizards actually run on their hind legs like mini T-Rexs in pursuit of smaller lizards (including Horned Lizards) and insects to eat. They scamper on all fours until they have the speed to run on 2 legs. They resemble iguanas because they are actually closely related to iguanas. The pale one above, with orange markings may be a gravid female. All are beautiful!

IMG_3638Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) near Bayfield, Colorado

IMG_3253 (1)Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) near Bayfield, Colorado
Though these small rodents appear similar to chipmunks (small size, back stripes), they are actually ground squirrels. Note the lack of facial stripes that chipmunks almost always show. Found from lower elevations all the way to above treelike. They hibernate in winter. I think they are among the most beautiful of all ground squirrels.

IMG_3606Abert’s Squirrel (Sciurus aberti) near Bayfield, Colorado.
This funny looking tree squirrel is also known as the “tassel-eared” squirrel, though this one is lacking the ear tufts. Note the white underbelly and rusty patch on the back. Named for 19th century American naturalist John James Abert, it is native to cool Ponderosa Pine forests of the southern Rocky Mountains, especially the Grand Canyon area of Arizona, New Mexico and SW Colorado (where this one was photographed).

IMG_3313Not really sure what this species is but I’m guessing Western Fence Lizard (near Bayfield, Colorado). Any herp experts out there are welcome to correct and educate me!

IMG_2905Western Tanager near Estes Park, Colorado.
A real specialty of the American West, the Western Tanager is one of the birds I look forward to seeing on every summer trip out west.

IMG_2895Mule Deer buck in velvet near Estes Park, Colorado.

IMG_2723Western Yellow-rumped Warbler; Sprague Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Like the Northern Flicker shown below, this species also used to be split into two separate species; the eastern was called “Myrtle Warbler” and the western species called “Audubon’s Warbler.” Note the yellow throat that distinguishes the western “Audubon’s” from our eastern “Myrtle” which has a white throat.

IMG_2554Mountain Bluebird along Alpine Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

IMG_2494Elk bull above treelike in Rocky Mountain National Park.

IMG_3569Trout at the fish hatchery in Durango Colorado.
I used a very slow shutter speed to create this artsy view of a captive trout.

IMG_3596Preening female “Red-shafted” Flicker near Bayfield, Colorado.

IMG_3280Northern Flicker near Bayfield, Colorado.
When I started birding as a kid in the 1970s, this western woodpecker was known as the “Red-shafted Flicker.” In Minnesota (and the rest of eastern North America) we had the “Yellow-shafted” Flicker. But ornithologists soon discovered that these two “species” freely interbreed in their zone of overlap in South Dakota, North Dakota, Alberta, British Columbia, meaning that they are actually the same species, and hence, we now just have one species, the Northern Flicker. Note in the photo above that the male “Red-shafted” has a red “mustache” while the Yellow-shafted has a black “mustache.” In the top photo of the preening female you can see the red shafts of the wing feathers that gives the western subspecies its old “red-shafted” name.

IMG_2958Bull Elk high up in Rocky Mountain National Park. This big boy already has enormous antlers for this early in the season. He will be thrashing shrubs and brush in August and September to remove the velvet and burnish the antlers.

[PHOTO NOTES: All images taken with Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and Canon 70-200mm f4 lens; handheld (I did not bring a tripod to Colorado due to packing light for airline travel)]

Mornings with Bighorns—Yellowstone April 2016

MORNINGS ON THE “AMERICAN SERENGETI”
For three consecutive mornings, after waking before dawn, cooking up some oatmeal and toasted bagels, and warming our fingers over the car defroster, Ryan and I hiked a half mile (3/4 mile?) in to a valley that was teeming with wildlife. Hundreds of Elk, dozens of Bison, Pronghorn, and Mule Deer grazed the nearly nonexistent grass, moving slowly but surely across the floor of the valley. Despite “bear activity” signs, we felt very safe as we could see for miles in almost all directions.
Here (thanks to a tip from a wildlife photographer friend) we found a “bachelor herd” of Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis).
In our many previous trips, we’d mainly seen bands of Bighorn ewes and lambs scrambling on the very vertical hillsides along the road from Gardiner, MT to Mammoth in the park. A few times we’d seen smaller rams come down to the river to drink, but never a big bachelor herd. But in this Valley of the American Serengeti (our name) we found a couple dozen “big boys” and another dozen young rams. You see Bighorn males and females only intermingle during the late November rut and mating season. After that, they go their own ways. Young males will join the bachelor herd after a year with mom.
Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5951 (1)The Patriarch
Though Bighorns don’t have a single band leader, they do seem to jostle a bit for social status, at least it seemed like that to us. This scarred full-curl ram seemed to be the oldest and the ram with the largest horns. His short muzzle had what appeared to be a scar all the way across the bridge. You can age a ram by its horns due to “growth rings” but I’m not experienced enough to attempt it. Their horns can weigh up to 30 pounds! Rams can live 9-12 years.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f6.3 at 1/1000 second; ISO 200; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5287 (1)Still Life with Bachelors
“Bachelors” is perhaps a misnomer as many of the older healthier rams may mate in the fall, but the all-male bands are called “bachelor herds.” I love the painterly feel to this image…Lots going on in this single frame. Note the young ram leaping over a laying ram. I muted the colors in Aperture.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f5.6 at 1/1250 second; ISO 400; +0.33ev;  tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5989 (1)Two become One
Just a “haccident” (happy accident) when the two rams lined up to form “one head.” Blur your eyes a bit and …Bizarre.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f7.1 at 1/1000 second; ISO 320; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5310 (1)Resting Rams
Bighorns chew their cud. Note the patriarch in the upper right hand corner.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f10 at 1/250 second; ISO 400; +0.33ev; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5211 (1)

[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f8 at 1/200 second; ISO 400; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5981 (1)

[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f7.1 at 1/500 second; ISO 200; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5835 (1)

Blue Bighorn Silhouette
A so-so shot that gets a bit of creative life by reducing the exposure by a few stops and altering the white balance.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 100mm; f8 at 1/125 second; ISO 100; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5194 (1)

Monarch of the Mountains
Head on portrait of a full-curl ram. These boys not only tolerated us (can’t get closer than 25 yards due to Yellowstone’s rules (and common sense) but seemed to go about their business as if we weren’t even there. This is one of the real treats of Yellowstone; you get to witness the everyday lives of animals.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f9 at 1/160 second; ISO 400; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5191 (1)

[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 330mm; f9 at 1/200 second; ISO 400; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5135 (1)

[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 148mm; f5 at 1/640 second; ISO 400; +0.33ev; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_4312 (1)

Peek on the Peak
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f5.6 at 1/2000 second; ISO 160; -0.67ev; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5226 (1)

Not sure if I like this image as a black and white or color version yet.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 148mm; f5 at 1/640 second; ISO 400; +0.33ev; tripod]

Bighorn Gardiner River Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_4299 (1)

Still plenty of snow in the high country of Yellowstone in mid April. These Bighorns are extremely sure-footed and are at home in steep country. One of their main predators is the Mountain Lion, which is also at home in rugged terrain.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f5.6 at 1/2500 second; ISO 160; -0.67ev; tripod]

Early Spring in Yellowstone 1—April 16-19, 2016

rental car hit deer ND IMG_3698 (1)
Ryan Marshik and I decided to make a break for Yellowstone…We’ve been there many times…in May, September, October…but never April. We timed it so we’d arrive the day after some of the roads opened up for spring traffic. During winter, only the road from Gardiner, MT through Mammoth, to Cooke City is open. Now, on April 15, the roads to West Yellowstone, Old Faithful, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Artist’s Point, Lower and Upper Falls) would be open. Granted, one of our favorite routes up the Hayden Valley remained closed, but we could live with that.
So we packed up and left Duluth at 3pm sharp (actually 2:50pm) because we knew we’d arrive 16 hours later at the North Entrance at Gardiner, MT at dawn, ready to shoot. No daylight wasted! Of course, we’d be exhausted, but our modus operandi is to shoot until noon, find a campsite, set up our tents, and take a 2 hour nap, then shoot until dark.
Unfortunately, a kamikaze Mule Deer nearly ruined our perfect plan. Sometime after midnight in western North Dakota a Muley ran out on to I-94, paused and then bolted again, having a fatal encounter with a mid-sized SUV going about 60mph (we’d been doing 80, but slowed a bit before hitting her). Lots of front quarter panel damage, broken headlight covers, high beams taken out, but it was drivable. Thankfully Minnesota law states that all residents renting a vehicle are covered with their own insurance, avoiding the need to purchase rental car agency pricey insurance.

So, we made it just fine, Ryan was even able to bend the bottom of the door a bit so it wouldn’t make a horrible grating sound every time we opened it (and thereby scaring any nearby wildlife). Though a bit cold and windy, it turned out to be a fantastic wildlife-laden trip. I will have 4 blog posts about this trip..Yellowstone 2, Bighorns, Teddy Roosevelt (our usual overnight stop on the way home to Duluth). Enjoy!

Coyote Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_4652 (1)Leaping for Lunch
While there was no snow in the Mammoth area (including our campground), as soon as you got above a certain elevation, there was plenty. Several cars were pulled over along the road to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and we soon saw why…A very oblivious Coyote, going about its search for voles under the snow. I didn’t have time to get my tripod out, but managed to snap a series of shots handheld. He leaped high but was unable to break through the crust of this wind-packed snow. We watched him (her?) for another hour or so and he caught at least 3 voles.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 227mm; f7.1 at 1/4000 second; ISO 200; handheld (no time to get my tripod out!)]

Yellowstone landscape IMG_5834 (1)Mountain Vista Yellowstone
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 100mm; f8 at 1/200 second; ISO 100; tripod]

Sparky Yellowstone IMG_5387 (1)Sparky scanning for….Anything!

Red Fox Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5554 (1)Red Fox Hunting
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f7.1 at 1/1000 second; ISO 100; -0.33ev; handheld]

Red Fox Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5536 (1)Red Fox with Vole
We got to watch this “famous” Red Fox hunt near the Yellowstone Picnic Area for over an hour. She’s been a regular here for a couple years. I guess she even lost some of last year’s pups (or kits or cubs…all equally correct names for baby fox) to a marauding Badger. She was sleeping when we got to the picnic area (only alerted to her presence by local photographer Steve Hinch…Thanks Steve!). Eventually she hopped up and started hunting,paying no mind to the growing long-lens laden crowd. Here she is about to end the brief life of an oh-so-cute Meadow Vole, the staple food of many North American predators.

Red Fox and Bison Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5509 (2)Buddies? Not Really
My 5-year old son, Bjorn, had me print this photo so he could take it to school and show his music teacher. Perplexed, I asked, “Why?” He told me that they were learning a song about “unlikely animal buddies.” How cute is that!

Mountain Bluebird female Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5440 (1)Lady Mountain Bluebird
This was just a “grab and go” shot out the window of the car, but when I got home and saw it on the screen, I liked it! Not as gaudy as the males, the females still have their own beauty.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f5.6 at 1/1250 second; ISO 320; -0.67ev; handheld, braced on car door window frame]

Mountain Bluebird Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_4466 (1)Bluebird tipped Sage
Whoever came up with the saying that the bluebird “carries the sky on its back” must have been talking about the Mountain Bluebird, as our Eastern Bluebird back home in Minnesota, is a much darker blue. I think the Mountain Bluebirds had just returned to the Yellowstone area and insects at this time of year are a bit scarce.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f6.3 at 1/2000 second; ISO 200; handheld]

Mountain Bluebird Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_4505 (1)Blue Sky Bluebird
I stalked this foraging Mountain Bluebird along the Old Yellowstone Road. He was busy moving from perch to perch, nabbing insects on the ground. After about 10 minutes, he landed on this rock and I laid down on the prickly and dung-covered ground (mostly dried elk dung) so I could shoot up and get the blue sky as the background. It would have been a bit better shot if he was facing away and looking over his shoulder at me, but I’ll take it.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f6.3 at 1/2500 second; ISO 200; handheld]

Coyote Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5708 (1)Coyote on the Run
It’s funny…every Coyote we see in Yellowstone seems to have its own personality. Some head for the hills when they see a human; some are methodical and slow listen-and-leap hunters; and some, like this little girl (who knows?) are speed hunters! She hunted while moving at a veritable sprint…more of a fast trot. But the technique worked, and we saw her catch 3 voles in the three miles or so that we followed her. And she often hunted right along the main park road. I panned at 1/40 of a second and picked this image as the best of the series…the eye is very sharp! But the composition is a bit tight on the bottom.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f14 at 1/40 second; ISO 100; panning handheld (a bit slow and therefore riskier panning shot…better might have been 1/60 second)]

Coyote Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_5688 (1)Yellow-line Coyote
Same “Speedy Gonzalez” Coyote as I talked about in the photo above. I laid down in the middle of the road to get this “below-eye-level” shot. A unique perspective but not a great shot.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 400mm; f6.3 at 1/500 second; ISO 160; handheld while laying on ground]

Mule Deer rim light IMG_4266 (1)The Rock has Ears!
Mule Deer backlit on the “American Serengeti” of Yellowstone National Park.
[Canon 7D with Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens at 300mm; f5 at 1/640 second; ISO 160; -1ev; tripod]

 

….More to come! Three more blog posts about this trip coming (Yellowstone 2, Bighorns, Teddy Roosevelt)