Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Photos from 2013

Yes, it's that time of year again.  Time to reflect upon the adventures we had in 2013 and look through all the photos that take us back to relive those adventures.  It's not easy to narrow down the photo selection to just a few.  In fact, I have given up trying to keep it to a "Top 10".

For us, our photos are about the experience they help us remember.  Our favorites are seldom perfect photos, but to us they represent perfect moments. That's what photography should be all about...capturing those perfect moments and keeping them around forever.

Short-eared Owl, Delevan National Wildlife Refuge
Short-eared Owl

Short-eared owls winter in the Sacramento Valley each year.  We have spotted them before but have never gotten a decent photo.  Last January, on a trip to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, this very cooperative owl posed on a fence post just long enough to get off a few frames from the car.  Seeing an owl is always exciting.  Seeing one close-up in broad daylight is awesome.

Coyote, Point Reyes National Seashore
Coyote at Dawn

It's hard to beat a clear crisp dewy morning at Point Reyes.  Unless of course a fantastic looking coyote happens to trot across the road into the meadow and look back at the crazy photographer guy...

Tule Elk, Point Reyes National Seashore
Tule Elk

We have seen thousands of elk in our travels but there is something infinitely cool about seeing elk at Point Reyes with the coastal fog swirling and the blue Pacific Ocean in the background. 

Pierce Point Ranch, Point Reyes National Seashore
Pierce Point Ranch in Fog

A whole 4 minutes after taking the elk photo, I took our next favorite.  The swirling fog had dissipated over the hills around us and had settled down like a blanket over Pierce Point Ranch.

Western Fence Lizard, Pinnacles National Park
Western Fence Lizard Displaying

Not only can this lizard do more pushups than me, it's slightly more colorful as well.  Of course, it's trying to attract a mate.  I don't think a bright blue belly would help me in that department at all.

San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel, Carrizo Plain National Monument
San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel

We went to Carrizo trying to find the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox.  While we struck out with the foxes, we did have great fun watching these other endangered critters run around foraging for food.

Moose, Lake Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
Moose in Hiding

I spent the first 17 summers of my life at Lake Coeur d'Alene and no one ever spotted moose in this area.  So, imagine my surprise when we saw 4 moose in one night there last June.  Not only is this shot one of our favorites, I can't even claim it as my own. My wife took the picture.

Cinnamon Black Bear, Yellowstone National Park
Cinnamon Black Bear

Green meadow, yellow flowers and a cooperative bear.  It's hard to ask for anything more than that.  Although it would have been nice if I had actually taken the photo.  This one was taken by my wife  from the car window.  She took maybe 10 pictures all year and 2 made it into our favorites list. That's 20%.  I probably took 10,000 pictures this year.  Needless to say my percentage is not as good.

Red Fox, Yellowstone National Park

The story behind this photo is too long to tell.  Suffice it to say, this male fox and his mate recently lost all their kits to a badger.  This photo was taken a few days later when the couple returned to the den to dig out the kit remains and hold what could best be described as a memorial for them.  It was a very emotional event to witness.  The complete story is told here.

Yellow-bellied Marmot, Beartooth Highway, Wyoming
Yellow-bellied Marmot

On our 8th visit to Yellowstone, we finally made the drive along the Beartooth Highway.  Boy, it is one spectacular drive.  While we missed seeing any Mountain Goats, the scenery was fantastic and some marmots were quite curious.

Orphaned Red Fox Kit, Silver Gate Montana
Red Fox Kit Posing

Last, but certainly not least, is our favorite photo.  Not because the photo is of high quality, because it's not (just look at that wood beam).  But, because of the experience surrounding this photo.  We spent over 1/2 hour with this orphaned fox kit watching it dig, pounce, play with bark, and actually catch and eat a worm or two.  This was our first encounter with fox kits and it will be a tough one to beat.  We know at least one kit in this litter of three survived.  So, we hope it grows up to produce a litter of its own some day.

Happy New Year everyone!!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Idaho and Yellowstone - Days 1 to 3

After going to Yellowstone 7 times in 5 years, we took a break to see other parts of the world.  So it has taken us 3 years to return to Yellowstone for our 8th trip.  Needless to say, we were really looking forward to this visit.  We decided to go in June which is later than usual for us because we were hoping to see more babies.  Baby elk, baby pronghorn, baby fox, baby badger, baby moose, baby goats…you get the idea.  But we also knew that the park would be more crowded this time of year so we were prepared for the influx of  “Tourons” (tourist morons).

The first part of our vacation was spent in Northern Idaho with family.  It was nice to be back in the home where I spent so many summers growing up.  Lake Coeur D’Alene has always been beautiful and peaceful but it didn’t used to have much wildlife since years of logging and mining in the area had taken its toll on the local fauna.  But nature has a way of making a comeback and that was very evident this trip. During this visit we were amazed at the variety of wildlife that we saw over our two day visit.

Columbian Ground Squirrel:
Columbian Ground Squirrel

 Yellow-pine Chipmunk:
Yellow-pine Chipmunk

Our first Sharp-shinned Hawk in the orchard:

Osprey eyeing us as it returned to its nest:
Osprey Eyeing us Near it's Nest

Ruffed Grouse:
Ruffed Grouse

Osprey that mis-timed its dive:
Swimming Osprey

But, it swam to a log and dried out nicely:
Wet Osprey Drying it's Wings

The biggest surprise of all was seeing not one…not two…but four moose all within a ¼ mile of each other in some of the smaller neighboring lakes.  Seeing one moose here would be rare and four is a down right miracle.  Hopefully, they will stick around for a while.

Resting Moose

Moose in Hiding

We even had a cool summer storm complete with rainbow:
Rainbow Over Lake Coeur D'alene

The 8 hour drive from Northern ID to Yellowstone is very scenic (except for the drive through Butte, Montana), so the time went by pretty quickly.  We arrived in Yellowstone around 5PM and began the drive through to park to Silver Gate and our cabin.  Even though it had been 3 years since our last trip, it didn’t seem like much had changed.  In fact,  it didn’t take long to spot wildlife and our first bear jam of the trip.

Mamma with 1 cinnamon and 1 black yearling cubs:
Black Bear with Two Yearling Cubs

Next, we took a quick detour to Petrified Tree.  As we approached the end of the road, I could see someone with their cell phone taking a picture up the hill.  So, I made the snide comment that it must be tourist season since someone was actually taking a picture of the Petrified Tree.  But, it turns out that I was wrong since just then a good sized black bear bounded down the hill past the petrified tree, ran across the road, and started munching on the green grass next to the road.

 Black Bear

We saw some Bighorn Sheep in the trees at the Yellowstone Picnic Area and the usual Bison and Pronghorn in the Lamar Valley.  But aside from that, the rest of the trip to Silver Gate was uneventful.  We picked up our rental scope and some supplies in Silver Gate and by the time we were done it was close to dark.  So we had our usual late Yellowstone dinner and went to bed.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Yellowstone - Day 4

It was a balmy 46 degrees at 6:30AM when we left the cabin the next morning.  That warmer than usual temperature had the animals out and about already.  We saw a moose at Warm Creek and then saw three more just past Pebble Creek.

Moose at Warm Creek

Multiple Moose (There's three)

We saw a couple coyotes in the Lamar Valley and used our rental scope to check out a Grizzly far away.  

Foraging Coyote

We then headed over Mt Washburn to Yellowstone Lake hoping to see some of the Grizzlies that had been making an appearance around Mary Bay.  But we had no luck with any wildlife at all except for a lone coyote.  

Yellowstone Lake

Next we decided to take the hike to Cascade Lake.  Less than a mile into the hike we turned around.  The temperature had dropped into the 30’s, the wind had picked up and it started to sleet.  Any 2 of those 3 wouldn’t have bothered us but having all 3 made for a cold walk and we decided the warmth of the car was a better option.

We headed back over the mountain towards Tower.  We struck out with Pika and anything else at Hellroaring but did briefly see our fifth moose of the day at Floating Island Lake and we had a lone coyote at the Wrecker pullout.  Back in the Lamar Valley, we got out to scope the area where we thought there was a coyote den.  Turns out we were scoping in the wrong direction after talking to a few folks at the pullout.  When we did locate the den we were able to see all 5 pups out and frolicking around.  There was one adult around and they were all playing.  It was great fun to watch and our first coyote pups ever which made it even better.

After about a ½ hour of watching the pups we headed down to the Hitching Post pullout after hearing that two wolves were out in the area.  The parking lot was just about full but we snuck in at the end and walked back to set up our scope.  Turns out that the wolves had a Mule Deer kill in the willows by the river and folks had been waiting for one or both of them to make an appearance.  Sounds like a good reason to hang around for a while…so we did.  Less than an hour later, a black wolf came trotting out of the willows with a leg bone in its mouth.  It trotted through the meadow, crossed the road a few hundred yards away, and headed up the hill towards the den site.  Unfortunately, it was too far for decent pictures but we got great looks at the wolf through the scope. 

A car jam at Round Prairie yielded a lone moose out in the river but it was really far away so we pressed on.  Later we found out that this moose had a baby so we were initially disappointed that we didn’t stay, but we ended up seeing the same moose with baby later in the week.

Next it was back to Silver Gate for a normal dinner time, but on the way we wanted to play scope-a-goat at Mt Barronette.  Within 10 minutes we had found 5 goats on the mountain including 1 with a newborn.  We sure got our money’s worth out of the scope that day!

After another quick dinner of soup and bread, we headed back out.  At the NE entrance booth we asked the Ranger (who will forever be known as “Hot Ranger” for obvious reasons) if she knew where the Great Gray Owl was that had been seen around the area. She didn’t know where the owl was hanging out, but the stop and conversation was soooo worth it.  Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah… We headed back into the park to see what would be out after dinner.  We had a scoped bear at Specimen Ridge, lots and lots of Bison pouring into the Lamar Valley, and our one and only beaver sighting of the whole trip at the Confluence.  Nothing too exciting, but it still beats working and the light was great.

Evening reflection

Sunset in Lamar Valley

What a great first day!

Daily Highlights:
  • 9 coyotes (5 pups) 
  • 6 moose
  • 5 Mt Goats (1 baby)
  • 1 Wolf
  • 1 Grizzly
  • 1 Black Bear
  • 1 Beaver

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Yellowstone - Day 5

We were up at 5AM and out by 6:30AM again today but it was 20 degrees colder than yesterday because the skies were clear.  We had no moose at all this morning on the way into the Lamar Valley so our first stop was at the upper pullout to scope the coyote den.  There were 3 adults out but only 1 pup.  The coyotes were calling to each other by yelping and howling which was fun to hear. Next we pressed on to Slough Creek where throngs of people were out with scopes.  There was a kill high up on the mountain and two bears hanging around; a Black Bear and a Grizzly.  It turns out that we had just missed the Grizzly Bear chasing the Black Bear off the kill.  Oh well.  Even with the scope, the carcass was really far away and the Grizzly was not much more than a brown blob so we didn’t stick around too long.

In Little America we ran into our buddy Max who was leading a week long photo workshop.  Check out www.maxwaugh.com for great photos and workshops.

At Hellroaring we struck out with Pikas again despite the sun being out today.  We did find some Yellow-pine Chipmunks that were happy to pose for pictures.

Yellow-pine Chipmunk

I was determined to get some Pika shots and video today so we decided to head to Sheepeaters.  We got all the way past Mammoth to Sheepeaters without seeing anything of note.  To top it off, there were no Pikas at Sheepeaters either although there were Marmots and various Squirrels.

We met a guy there who claimed to have been guiding people in the area for 40 years.  He mentioned that he witnessed some Pine Martens hunting and catching Pika there about a 1 ½ years ago and that he hadn’t seen any Pika since.  That was a disappointing thing to hear and was likely true because everyone we talked with during the week had no luck with Pikas at either Hellroaring or Sheepeaters.

Begging Magpie at Mammoth. "No, I am not giving you any food!":
Black-billed Magpie

After a hot lunch at the Grill in Mammoth (Hmmmm Western Chicken Sandwich…yum!), we headed back toward the Lamar Valley.  On the way, we had a coyote on the road near Lava Creek but nothing else the whole way.  After sitting on our butts all day, we decided to hike up to Trout Lake to look for Otters.  We knew the afternoon wasn’t the best time for this but we needed an excuse to get some exercise.  As expected, there was really no wildlife at all out at the lake or at the nearby Buck lake.  The only excitement at all was Karen slipping and falling hard on her butt.  But even that was short lived as she sprung back up quickly and “walked it off”…

Trout Lake:
Trout Lake

We had gotten a tip about a Great Gray owl being seen in the woods near the NE entrance.  So with little to go on we decided to bushwack it into the back country a bit hoping that the bird would call and give away its hiding position. After crossing bogs, walking up hills and down hills, and vaulting more downed trees than we could count we struck out with the owl.  We did see our first ever White-winged Crossbill so that was cool.

Next we took about a 1 hour drive up the Beartooth highway (our first time ever).  Boy, it is a very pretty drive.  We decided that we needed to spend more time on this drive and reserved a future day for this.  We went to the Log Cabin CafĂ© in Silver Gate for an early dinner which had been good in the past.  It was good again and we recommended it for dinner. Try the trout and moose tracks ice cream (served separately of course).

Back on the road we saw a lone coyote at what had been described as a 2nd den site in the Lamar Valley.  It sure did look like there was a hole by where the coyote was but we looked here every time we passed for the rest of the trip and never saw another coyote so who knows if it was really another den site or not.  At the YPA we learned we had just missed a badger dart down into the fox den.  We waited for a while but it never came back out.

On the way back towards Silver Gate we stopped to check out a couple of Pronghorn that were lying down in Little America just in case there was a baby with them.  As we were watching them bask in the glow of the setting sun, we heard a wolf howl close by.  No matter how many times we hear it, it’s hard to beat the wonderful sound of a wolf howl.  So, we hung out a bit longer just in case the howling continued.  Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted movement parallel to the road and moving towards us.  It was a Gray Wolf and it was coming closer.  For 10 minutes we were able to watch the wolf ambling slowly along about 50 yards away without anyone else around us.  It was truly magical. 

Gray Wolf:
Gray Wolf

In some interesting animal behavior, the Pronghorn we were watching initially got up and bolted away when the wolf made an appearance.  But then they came back and headed right towards the wolf in full alarm mode which for Pronghorn means flared butt hair! (I am sure there is a scientific name for this but it probably wouldn’t be as funny).  Then some nearby bison also got in alarm mode and headed towards the wolf.  The wolf ignored them all and continued walking slowly until it went up over a small hill and out of sight.

Alarmed Pronghorn and Bison:
Bison and Pronghorn Alert to Wolf's Presence

What an awesome experience!

It was getting dark now so we headed home rather quickly but the day had one more encounter in store for us.  At Warm Creek we saw eye shine along the road. As we got closer we realized it was a Red Fox but it was on the other side of the car from me so I couldn’t attempt a low light picture.  We passed the fox, made a quick U-turn and headed back down the road.  Just as we got up to the fox again it crossed the road…damn no photo op!  OK,  we will just pass the fox again, make a quick U-turn and try again.  So, that is what we did.  But the fox must have anticipated this because the darn thing crossed the road a third time right as we were approaching it.  Due to some cars approaching from behind and not wanted to torment the fox like it was tormenting me we gave up and headed home.

Another great day!

Daily Highlights:
  • 6 coyotes (1 pup)
  • 1 Grizzly
  • 1 Black Bear
  • 1 Wolf
  • 1 Red Fox

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Yellowstone - Day 6

It was 34 degrees when we left at 6:45 the next morning (we slept in a bit) and headed into the Park.  The only plan today was to take a mid-morning Trout Lake hike once it warmed up a bit.  As mentioned before, there were lots of Bison in the Lamar Valley this trip but today there was even more.  They were everywhere and pouring in from Little America.  Others had noticed it too and after discussing it for a bit the theory is that many of the Bison didn’t make the trek to the Hayden Valley and instead were hanging out in the Lamar Valley.  Whatever the reason, it was a great spectacle to watch.

Bison Joining the Herd

At the coyote den we had a lone adult but no pups.  We also had a pair of Pronghorns that decided to race each other.  Boy, it's fun to watch them run!

Pronghorn Race

Once they ran by we turned around just in time to see a small herd of Bison running down the hill:
Bison Race

This Uinta Ground Squirrel didn't seem entertained at all:
Uinta Ground Squirrel Enjoying the Sun

 I'm not sure why everything was in such a hurry, but maybe that meant it was time to press on.

At the Slough Creek carcass there was a Grizzly but once again it was too far away to enjoy that much so we head to the YPA to see if the badger was around at all.  It wasn’t.  But, we did get our one and only Bighorn Sheep closeup of the trip.

Bighorn Sheep

Next we headed back towards Trout Lake but before we got far we encountered our first Baby Pronghorn of the trip.  There were two adults and one baby strolling along in Little America.  They were a bit far for good pictures, but I took some anyway.

Pronghorn with Fawn

We scoped a black bear in the Lamar Valley and had 2 pups out at the den when we passed by.  As we approach the parking lot for Trout Lake it became painfully obvious that we were in the summer tourist season.  Not only were all the parking spots taken at 10AM but all the flat areas around the parking spots were taken as well.  So, there would be no Trout Lake hike for us.  On a whim, we continued on to Pebble Creek and decided to hike the trail there instead.  We parked at the Campground (which was not yet open), loaded up the gear and headed out.  We looked everywhere for the trailhead that is clearly marked on my detailed Yellowstone map but we couldn’t find a way across Pebble Creek and didn’t feel like fording the river. Little did we know that the footbridge from the camp grounds to the trail was gone which explained our issues.  You can only reach the Pebble Creek trail for the turnout East of the Campground now.  Oops…

We were hungry after another failed hike so we hit up the Buns and Beds deli in Cooke City (Hi Jan!) for excellent sandwiches which we ate in our cabin. 

After lunch we headed back into the park not expecting to see much because the temperatures had started to climb (It was 70 degrees that afternoon).  But, we didn’t have to wait long for a great photo opportunity with a beautiful cinnamon black bear that was grazing alongside the road. Since I was driving, Karen took this shot.

Cinnamon Black Bear

At Pebble Creek (where we had just been a hour or so earlier) a jam of people had formed along the road.  We pulled off in the Campground parking lot, pulled out the scope and joined them.  The moose with baby that we had sort of seen two days ago was back and closer.  Through the scope we were able to see the baby moose walk around and nurse from mamma.  Our first baby moose! 
We next took our daily drive down Slough Creek in hopes of seeing badger.  No badger was seen but we did have a lone coyote.

We didn’t have any further excitement until we reached Elk Creek and saw a huge car jam.  We knew that multiple black bears with cubs had been seen in the area so we found a pullout along the road, grabbed our gear, and headed towards the people.  Just as we arrived, the Ranger doing crowd control said that we missed the bear nursing the cubs and the whole family was asleep behind a tree now.  They weren’t likely to be out for a few hours so we could do what we wanted.  With that, the Ranger left and so did most of the people.

We decided to stay and stake out the bear family. After all it was a mother with two restless cinnamon yearling cubs. How long could they stay sleeping behind the tree?   Actually, the answer was 3 hours, that’s how long.  We know this because we stood around the whole time waiting.  The time actually went by quickly because we chatted with fellow photographers.  During the 3 hours, the bears played with our hopes many times by getting up, stretching, looking around, and then laying back down to sleep more.  They would tease us with a glimpse of heads and bodies and the occasional stretching paw.  Eventually, they did get up.  But, instead of walking down the hill and into good light the headed up the hill away from us an out of sight.

Black Bear with two Cinnamon Cubs

During the “great bear stakeout” we heard from others that another black bear was out up the road a bit and she had one cub of the year.  So we headed up that way and got a glimpse of the mother bear and the cub climbing a dead tree.  There were no spots left to park so we decided to head back to YPA to see if the badger would make an appearance.

We arrived in Yellowstone a few days too late to see the fox kits at the Yellowstone Picnic Area (YPA) and too late to see the drama that happened with the badger that ended up killing the fox kits.  We knew that the badger had been seen in the area but weren't expecting to see what we saw next.

We pulled into the YPA to see the male fox at the 2nd den site digging furiously.  He would dig for a few seconds then stop and look off to his left:


After doing this five or six times, he finally disappeared into the den.  He reappeared with something in his mouth, moved a few yards away and dropped it.  He then went back to the den and repeated this a few more times:


It quickly became obviously looking through the lens that he was pulling out the remains of the fox kits.  The scene was enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Once he was done, he went over to the spots where he had dropped the remains, rolled around, and sniffed the area:


He then walked up the hill a bit and greeted the female fox that we didn't even know was there.  She had been laying down in the scrub hidden from view.  They rubbed against each other a bit and then the female proceeded to head down the hill. She walked over to the to the 2nd den site and the area where the remains were to sniff around just like the male did:



She then walked back up to the male and they rubbed against each other again.  It was incredibly touching:


After a few more minutes of this, the male got a burst of energy and started to hop around and run back and forth, but the female didn't join him and instead just watched:


After a a minute or so of this, the male went back over to the female and greeted her again.  Then they both walked up the hill and disappeared...

It was such an emotional experience for us as we watched this unfold because we knew that we had just witnessed the foxes holding their version of a memorial service for their lost kits.

It is so hard not to humanize animals when you witness something like this that seemingly had so much human emotion to it.  At the end, it even appeared as if the male fox was trying to cheer up the female fox which is such a human thing to do.  It was a somber evening for us but an amazing piece of animal behavior to witness in person.

We never saw these foxes again the rest of the trip.  We wish them well and hope to see them successfully raise a new family next year.

On the way home we had one adult coyote at the den site but not much else except this great panoramic view of the Lamar Valley and the hundreds of Bison that had moved in.  

Lamar Valley Bison Herd

We didn’t get back to the cabin until close to 9:30 so it was another light late dinner and bed for us. 

Daily Highlights:
  • 7 Black Bear (3 cubs)
  • 4 coyotes (2 pups)
  • 2 Moose (1 baby)
  • 2 Red Fox
  • 1 Grizzly Bear
  • 1 Pronghorn fawn
  • 1 Bighorn Sheep