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Wildlife Photography in Winter’s Beauty

Pygmy Nuthatch perched in western juniper tree.
Pygmy Nuthatch perched in western juniper tree.

When we moved to our canyon in Grant County, Oregon over 12 years ago, we enthusiastically began to build a portfolio of wildlife photography in winter’s beauty. Our first subjects were winter songbirds visiting our bird feeders. However, wonderful captures of Oregon juncos, several species of nuthatches, chickadees and finches became repetitive, and eventually boring. As artistically pleasing as the juniper branches and rich colored trunks of the ponderosa pine were for backgrounds, the same species of birds were photographed over and over again. Little was new to add to our portfolio, so we slacked off mid-winter photography for a couple of years.

Mallard Ducks: I feel very fortunate that I timed my shutter release as to stop these mallards in flight.
Mallard Ducks: I feel very fortunate that I timed my shutter release as to stop these mallards in flight.

Then as gas prices improved in late 2015, we started to travel out to do photography from our vehicle along remote roads edging the local rivers. Now subjects were farther off and, with constantly changing snowy backgrounds in low light, our rate of successful shots dropped off dramatically. There is a real learning curve in successfully doing photography in snowy conditions. Just before that season, we also experienced nightmares with a new Canon camera that should never have been issued – the 60D. Its focus mechanism was faulty – producing inconsistent good results with lots of blurry subjects in between. Got rid of that camera, and eventually we acquired Canon’s 7MDII and the 5DSR.

Beaver: Typically nocturnal, beavers can be seen on river ice during winter afternoons.
Beaver: Noramlly nocturnal, beavers can be seen on river ice during winter afternoons.

With new cameras, there are learning curves, especially in the area of focus choices. The technology is so advanced in cameras with built-in (default) settings that it has taken quite a while to disable all the bells and whistles and get things under control. Whatever happened to the value of keeping things simple in order to manage the photographer’s quick response to fleeting wildlife? If you’re a high tech person, perhaps this is a non-issue. For someone who isn’t, it takes persistence to stick with it and figure out what will work for you.

Rough-legged Hawk: the only buteo that consistently lights in fine branched willows, brush and trees with small twigs. (Probably male.)
Rough-legged Hawk: the only buteo that consistently lights in fine branched willows, brush and trees with small twigs. (Probably male.)

 

Golden Eagle - lifting up from the rim rock where birds of prey were gathered to feed on a winter kill. (Photo: KSS)
Golden Eagle – lifting up from the rim rock where birds of prey were gathered to feed on a winter kill. (Photo: KSS)
Mule deer bucks in a blizzard of snow made it tricky to catch focus.
Mule deer bucks in a blizzard of snow made it tricky to catch focus.

During this current winter season (2016-2017), we have had the harshest weather we’ve experienced here. It has been a reminder why winter photography had not been a high priority in the past. We truly welcome the snowy backgrounds to frame our winter subjects, but we have dealt with very icy roads, sub-zero temperatures, wind, freeing rain followed by blizzard level snowfalls, and sometimes snow drifts that threaten to close the road behind us. It’s been hard on bare fingers, equipment and especially the wildlife.

Mountain Quail: Secretive and harder to find, family groups of these beautiful birds come down from the high country to forage along the rivers during deep snowy winters. (Photo: KSS)
Mountain Quail: Secretive and harder to find, family groups of these beautiful birds come down from higher country to forage along the rivers during deep snowy winters. (Photo: KSS)

We have posted here half a dozen special images from our recent photo shoots. These are just samples of dozens more images that we have developed into slideshows.

The promised slideshow is in two parts:

Winter Wildlife Photography (Part I) in Grant County, Oregon

Winter Wildlife Photography (Part II) in Grant County, Oregon

Butterflies – Identification and Photography

two-tailed-swallowtail
Two-tailed-swallowtail

The identification and photography of butterflies begins with a lifetime of casual observation. Probably all outdoor people, from hunters to gardeners, are aware that many butterflies are beautiful creatures. As a boy, I didn’t know proper names, so gave them my own names. For example: the fritillaries I saw were “leopard” butterflies, and the swallowtails were “tiger” butterflies.

As an adult, my youngest son and I had a good summer putting together a small butterfly collection. I was forever discouraged from collecting after that time because some variety of carrion beetles got into the wooden boxes containing our specimens and destroyed them.

Learning to photograph butterflies and moths

Terry has shared his introduction to butterfly identification and photography. During the past two years we have experienced a sharp learning curve in lepidoptery – the study of butterflies and moths. There have been some surprises and a lot of lessons in knowing where to find them, how to approach them, and the photography challenges they present to us.

First, here are some generalities we’d like to share:

  • Some butterflies are very limited in their arrival times and existence. “Arrival” itself has multi meanings. It can mean from a migration to the local area, or from wintering over in one of three stages of its life – egg, larva (caterpillar) or pupa (chrysalis). A few hibernate as adults in warmer climates. Most butterflies only live a couple of weeks in the adult stage, others longer – like the Monarch Butterfly. We have seen just a few of those on our property. Some species are with us all season from spring into autumn. Others appear and disappear in the course of a few weeks.
The Monarch Butterfly - famous for its migration from Mexico to Canada.
The Monarch Butterfly – famous for its migration from Mexico to Canada.
  • Their food sources will pretty much determine their presence and their ability to successfully breed and produce. Many larval stages are dependent on specific plants such as specific milkweeds for the Monarch Butterfly larvae.
  • Butterflies have very strong vision – a male is able to spot a distant mate while “hilltopping” along a ridge top while she flitters about in the brush. They are also aware of approaching photographers. We learned to move in close to them on flowering shrubs or ground flowers very, very slowly so not to frighten them off.
  • Butterflies are attracted to more than flowering plants. They seek out moist ground, mud, rotting fruit, flowing sap and even animal scat. They will continue to work an area repeatedly, day after day, and perch near these food sources.
  • Always check hillside seeps, streamsides, ponds, and puddles. It’s not unusual to find many species together.

Photographing butterflies requires attention to some points. With digital imagery, fast shutter speeds are important. Many butterflies engage in a body vibration barely visible to the naked eye as they nectate on blossoms. You have to stop this action for a sharp image. Today’s equipment allows for remarkable captures for those who apply fast settings.

We were often successful in photographing butterflies when we planted ourselves in the middle of their feeding sites. We quietly waited on them to move in on us. Some are quite tolerant under these circumstances. The wariest species would instantly flee if we walked in upon them while they were feeding.

Siva Juniper Hairstreak - only 1/2 to 3/4 inches.
Siva Juniper Hairstreak – only 1/2 to 3/4 inches.

Terry and I always attempt to correctly identify everything we photograph. Be aware that this is often tricky when dealing with butterflies and moths. Primarily, this is a relatively very young science with many unknowns. The guide books have limited ability to include the many variations of a species, and even species themselves are yet to be confirmed. We found several insects in our area that required professional help to identify as they were not previously known to be in our location, or they had markings that were variable. At first we were excited by new discoveries, but we have come to expect there will be many unknowns. We have cataloged our butterfly images based on the founding works of Paul Opler and Andrew Warren, as also used by Kaufman’s “Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.”  Click on this link to our slideshow of butterfly images we have taken on our property and nearby – all Grant County, Oregon: https://www.terrysteelenaturephotography.com/butterflies-oregon/

 

 

Old Barbed Wire Causes Injury and Death to Wildlife

A recent photo shoot in northern Grant County revealed a problem that causes injury and death to wildlife. Miles and miles of old rusty barbed wire is strewn across the countryside from years and years of neglect of abandoned fencing. Downed wire creates death traps for animals – wild and domestic.

Placing blame for this tragic situation is not useful. Abandoned wire is found on both private and public lands. Its use is required where fencing cows is necessary; however the deadly accumulation of old barbed wire will barely be noticed – until something bad happens. Rutting deer (and elk) do battle for available mates. They lower their racks and thrust themselves forward to clash. As they charge to and fro, their antlers can easily become hopelessly entangled in downed barbed wire. As a result, many of these bucks are destined to a long and painful death. They may be unable to eat, drink or protect themselves from predators or the elements.

On this day in early November, a beautiful mule deer buck, dragging barbed wire, pulled his way to the cooling waters of the Middle Fork of the John Day River in Grant County, Oregon. We first spotted him standing in the middle of the river; he was soaking wet and momentarily frozen in a state of exhaustion. Panting hard, he kicked up his back feet as he plunged and swung his head back and forth.

Hopelessly tangled in barbed-wire, the mule deer buck thrashed to free himself.
Hopelessly tangled in barbed-wire, the mule deer buck thrashed to free himself.

Unable to shake the wire free of his antlers and feet, he charged down river again before leaving the river for a panicked dashing run alongside it. 

Mule deer buck struggled to free himself from barbed wire tangled in his antlers. (Photographed on the Middle Fork of the John Day River, Grant County Oregon.)
Mule deer buck struggled to free himself from barbed wire tangled in his antlers. (Photographed on the Middle Fork of the John Day River, Grant County Oregon.) 

He returned to the water again, kicked and leaped his way up the river for a hundred or more yards, and finally took off after a passing doe. The barbed wire was still snagged in his antlers as they disappeared over a high ridge. Short of a miracle, the wire will become hung up somewhere and he will meet an unnecessary fate.

He headed out of the river to follow a doe, still entangle with barb wire.
He headed out of the river to follow a doe. The barbed wire was still snagged in his antlers and around his hind quarters as they disappeared over a high ridge. 

Unbelievably, in less than an hour, about 25 miles away, we witnessed another mule deer buck catch his rear feet in barbed wire as he leaped a partially downed fence.

A mule deer buck leaped a barbed wire fence in disrepair, catching his rear feet on the downside.
A mule deer buck leaped a barbed wire fence in disrepair, catching his rear feet on the downside.

mule-deer-buck-in-fence-gh1a4635-webHe struggled a bit but was able to kick his way free – this time.

A mule deer died crossing a fence near the river.
On the same drive between the buck in the river and the buck jumping the roadside barbed wire fence, we saw a mule deer that had died crossing a fence near the river. Deer regularly leap intact fences or even slip through and under them, unless they misjudge their approach or are panicked by an oncoming vehicle or predator.

There are many problems in our county that are hard to know how to fix. This is not one of those. The problem of abandoned barbed wire is solvable. Ranchers can lead the way – work collaboratively with public agencies to conduct a countywide cleanup. It is recognized that ranching is more than a full time job, but there are possibilities and opportunities to turn this into a win-win situation. Partnership grants can put people, especially our youth, to work removing this hazard. A sense of value and pride for accomplishing this task would be a worthy outcome. Recycle the rolls of discarded wire. The removal of barbed wire risks will benefit horses, cows, hunters, hikers and yes, the wildlife we all cherish.