Studying the Colorado Prairie
I love the Rocky Mountains in spring! We are blessed with so much wildlife, all busy and visible with their young. From prairies to peak tops, the earth is springing forth with new life and opportunities to photograph and observe their behaviors and antics.
The biggest challenge with wildlife is getting close enough to photograph them adequately. That involves the largest focal-length lens a person can afford. The best lenses are the primes (single focal length) with a fast aperture (the largest aperture possible for adequate shutter speed for moving targets). There are some high end telephoto zooms that also do a nice job. Since I use Nikon equipment, my lens of choice is the 200-400mm f/4 VR zoom. I also have a heavier 500mm f/4, but find it heavy for quick, serendipitous use. The 200-400mm lens is pricey, but there are possibilities out there, like refurbished, or used lenses the lower the price tag a bit.
The other downside for some is the time of activity and visibility of most wildlife. As with the best landscape photography, the magic hours are right around dawn and twilight. The thing is, more of us are up and active at twilight than dawn. I’m sure you can then figure out which time animals prefer…….those early morning hours can be tough, especially in late spring and summer. The rewards are great, however, and opportunities to get animals in lovely light (though I feel like animals prefer to retreat as soon as sunlight hits the earth…..another need for a good, fast lens!) Ends of the day photography makes it a solitary activity for the early riser in most families. It is not generally a group activity at any rate, with the noise of children and uninterested, bored and impatient companions. Better to go with a group of like-minded, or to treat it as your “me” time with your camera.
However you go about it, photographing wildlife is a learning experience that requires researching the animals you photograph, understanding their tolerance and body language, and respecting their space and privacy. Don’t force your presence in an attempt to get “the” shot. You can always go back and try again…..that is what keeps wildlife photography fun, educational, and rewarding.
Autumn in the Gunnison Basin
I love the Gunnison Basin and surrounding country. The wildflowers in summer are supreme, but autumn color here is also superlative. I have the opportunity to visit often since a good friend and fellow photographer welcomes me there often. This past autumn was subtle. While I was there, the color was good, actually very good, but just a bit past prime. There was snow, but only a dusting. Nothing could compare with the incredible snows and color of 2011, but it all areas and elevations seemed to burst with color at once, instead of in stages by altitude. The feeling was nostalgic and evoked those emotions of fall we remember from childhood and good times.
We first drove up Ohio Pass…..one of my favorite areas in the Gunnison, and found some lovely photographic subjects:
Our photographic trip of the weekend was up into the Cimarron Valley towards Silverjack Reservoir and Owl Creek Pass. This is bold, rugged country of the Uncompahgre National Forest in the San Juan Mountains. We were so lucky to see fall color all the way up the valley. It was a wonderful day of photography.
Our final photographic trip was to Kebler Pass…..the place most Coloradoans know for the aspen color found there. We were a week late for peak color at the Pass summit……but on down the road was wonderful. Such beauty to keep in pictures and memories!
Searching for Moose, or, Searching for “The Shot”
That’s not to say the above photo wasn’t a thrill. It truly was. It’s just that I was certainly not satiated by this experience. I went back time-after-time, summer and fall, and never again caught this fellow around this spot. The sign remained, so I assume I was merely unlucky.
Earlier in the summer, a friend and I had planned a trip to the Grand Tetons and a wildlife photographing tour. We were outfitted and ready, and then I was laid off my day job. Would I ever get an opportunity to do the moose photography I’d hoped for?
Since their introduction in the late 1970’s, moose have thrived in Colorado. They are most common near North Park in the north central part of the state, but they have infiltrated their niche in many places throughout Colorado from the northern mountains to the San Juans. They have even crossed the Continental Divide and are found in suitable habitats on the east side of the mountains! I was talking to a wildlife photographer friend last week who mentioned seeing moose in the Indian Peaks during the month of August. I suddenly was determined to see and photograph that elusive bull moose without the outlay of money a trip to more sure opportunities would cost. A friend and I decided to try an evening jaunt where we had heard up to seven moose were seen in the willows near a popular recreational lake. It would be a dream come true! But……it turns out our trip was on the very first day in August the moose failed to appear at this popular watching spot! I couldn’t believe it! I was determined to try early in the morning.
The very next weekend, another friend and I left here at 4 a.m. to make the two hour trip to try for moose photography. We planned to go hiking in case of a no-show and went with no real expectations. We were lucky! Not seven, but a nice three bull moose were munching on willows around the lake, and we joined about twelve other photographers in the early morning light to get some very nice photographs:
The first moose we encountered were feeding near one another: a younger bull with a beautiful, lighter-colored male, still with velvet on his antlers:
We spent some time photographing these guys from the top of my friend’s mini-van. Moose have very long legs for a reason. The willows they feed on are high, and tough to navigate. Those long legs help in the effort of feeding.
We traveled over to the end of the lake, where most of the photographers were set up, photographing a big guy, whose antlers were huge, and bare of velvet. This rather wary big guy enjoyed keeping his hind end toward us, but keeping a blood-shot eye in our direction:
Eventually, the big guy moved deep into the willows, and we decided to return to the first two moose we had encountered. We knew they would eat only until their stomachs were full, and then they would move from the willows to cross the road to chew their cuds in peace, somewhere deep in the forest. We wanted to be by the roadside when they crossed to see the total immense size of this largest member of the deer family.
We sure did get some close-ups as the moose got close to the road, about to emerge from the willow sea! I stayed on top of the car, but several photographers gathered on the road to watch the moose cross. Had I been alone, I might have been more prone to get close. As weird as that might sound, I feel that a respectful distance kept by a lone photographer has got to be a lot less stress on the wildlife than a group of oglers all crowding too close…..I felt pretty secure on the car and was determined to photograph any “action” the moose might provide on his crossing.
Trail Lessons, Abyss Lake Trail
The trail goes all the way to Abyss Lake; that lake deep in the gorge between Mts. Bierstadt & Evans seen from the Mt. Evans Road. What a compelling place that is! The trail is really long……over 8 miles one way. Most people do it as a backpack. We decided to go as far as the Rosalie Trail Junction. My 14 month old Samoyed puppy, Spirit,went along and got quite a few new wilderness lessons. This time it was stream crossings over pretty big water, on some “interesting excuses” for bridges. It was a lovely day: fairly cool, sunny, with intermittent clouds that were refreshing while panting up the path. The trail was similar to the Three Mile Creek trail, just one valley south of Scott Gomer Creek (named for an early logger in the area). Scott Gomer and Three Mile Creek have similar geology, similar stream (though, luckily, not as many crossings as the Three Mile Creek, for Spirit’s sake!) The valley was broader, and there were large areas of willow growth…….and, piles of dried MOOSE poop, probably from the past fall & winter seasons. We didn’t see any moose, but they sure could have been there, remaining hidden in the willows. John and Spirit, on one of their many side trips off the trail, found a “kill” of some kind…..small……maybe a squirrel killed by a pine marten? Hard to say, but the country at that point was very cougar-looking, open brush on a rocky, cliffy hillside. A perfect place for mountain lions to stalk mule-eared deer. While a squirrel would be just a snack for a cougar, we became a bit nervous in that area. I accidentally left my poles at one point, and had to hike back down a-ways to retrieve them. John, McLorrie & Spirit waited for me at a stream crossing. When I got back, all were safely across, but with a tale to tell…….apparently, while attempting to cross the stream on a jumble of logs placed across it, Spirit slipped off slippery log into the deep part of the creek & went all the way under….twice! Head and all! It took some fishing to retrieve him out, but he finally got across fine…….no need for artificial respiration ; ) However, Spirit was pretty cautious at subsequent crossings. Though he was a bit hesitant at first, he really did well after success at the next crossing, and then he was all confidence again! I took pictures of him on the way down at the “bad” crossing. The only slight problem was with trying to get around Lorrie as they both crossed together (why do dogs always do this??) But, he did it successfully, and Lorrie remained upright. I’ve got it in a sequence shot. Here’s some photos from the hike: Oh, and btw, this one would be a WONDERFUL fall hike……hillsides and hillsides of aspen!! Most of the trail is quite gentle. I would LOVE to go the entire distance someday when the weather is perfect, and I’m in better shape!
Finding Wildflower Frenzy!
It’s true our Rocky Mountain summer started out hot and dry. Now in August, the dryness has been moderated by seasonal monsoonal thunderstorms and occasional day long drenches, but temperatures are still higher than normal. Wildflowers in the Rockies can be awesome. The displays mimic the current climatic conditions, of course. There are feast and famine years, so typical of the intermountain west. We can have totally different climatic features east and west of the Continental Divide, as well. This year, east of the Divide, we had decent snows until spring, when it turned unseasonably hot. West of the Divide, it has been terribly dry since autumn. As a result, finding mountain wildflower meadows has been a challenge this summer. The blooming season began a full month early, and now, by August, it is suddenly green, but still fall-like in the high country.
We had been amazed and excited to find the flowery fields of Loch Lomand (see my previous entry). As a result, I wanted to hike in the same general area the very next week in early July. We chose a drainage just one over from the Loch Lomand glacial valley: the valley of Chinns, Sherwin and Slater Lakes. Normally, hiking to the highest lake would be a deep snow post-hole experience in early July. Slater Lake, in particular, generally has its best wildflower show fairly late in August. Not this year. The second week of July was peak!
I hiked in with a friend and her son and our Samoyeds. Our goal was to add packing points to our dogs’ working certificates, to photograph the dogs, and to photograph water and wildflowers. The “trail” is actually an old water storage road used to build and maintain the diversion dams on the upper Fall River drainage. 4-wheelers use these roads to get in for fishing and car camping, primarily. As a result, the roads are in terrible shape, only really advisable for high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles. My little Rav4 made it in a ways. When I was sure I’d lose my oil pan, we stopped and parked, and hiked on up the road. We had a couple of miles on loose rock road, until getting to Sherwin Lake, where the trail begins upward to Slater Lake, the true destination of the trip.
The following photos show the details of our journey:
The Lakes of Loch Lomond
On the 4th of July I drove up the Fall River Road from the Fall River exit on I-70, just past Idaho Springs with some favorite hiking companions. The road winds up the river valley and trends right at the junction of Rainbow Road. We turned left onto Alice Road. . . . Alice: …”Gold was found here in the 1880’s in the valley below St. Mary’s glacier. Alice was one of many camps on the Fall River that boomed and died just as quickly. About $50,000 was taken out of the mines in the first few months and by 1889, the town and mines closed. There are still ruins of the cabins scattered among the pines and the area is one of the few where there is enough snow to permit year round skiing. There has been a little activity in the area since the late 1890’s, but not much. “ –http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/co/alice.html. At the end of Alice Road, the pavement ends at Stewart Road. We parked by the pictured trail sign and began our hike 2.3 miles from Loch Lomond.
- USGS Topo Map of the Loch Lomond area with our route highlighted in red. It shows we gained 1189’ in elevation throughout the hike, and we hiked a distance of 6.58 miles from the beginning of Stewart Road to our high point at Ohman Lake.
- With us were two young dogs: “Mollie” the golden retriever, and “Spirit, my year old Samoyed who was on his first long backcountry hike. We enjoy our canine companions in areas where dogs are allowed on the Colorado high country trails. On the Loch Lomond trail, there are no restrictions on dogs and no leash regulations. Still, we tried to be as courteous as possible with our packing companions. On his very first hike, “Spirit” was cautious, and fairly well-behaved. He even posed for pictures among the abundant wildflowers along Stewart Road, and on the Loch Lomond trail, as you see in the attached slide show.
- The wildflower of the day was the fuscia-colored, yellow-centered, Parry primrose. It is one of the showiest of Colorado wildflowers, usually growing in small groups in marshy soils along alpine streams. Obviously, 2012 is a banner year for this species on the Front Range, as they were growing in much larger than “small groups” this season! We found them in abundance both along Stewart 4-WD road as it reached above treeline and met the north fork of the Fall River. Another flower in abundance the summer of 2012 is the Colorado Blue Columbine. This delicate blue and white blossom is a favorite of many, and always a delight to find along the trail.
- As we came to the shores of Loch Lomond we paused, but followed the lake to its far inlet. Loch Lomond is special because of the stream cascading down the slope from the outlet of Reynolds and Stewart Lakes above. Not only is the inlet of the lake spectacular, but the meadows there beside the lake are laden with colorful blossoms that only get more colorful as the season advances. We back-tracked to a trail that led up a side stream flowing into Loch Lomond. The fairly steep and rocky trail traversed meadows of Scarlet Paintbrush, white American Bistort, and blue Greenleaf Chimingbells – flowers fit for a 4th of July celebration! The fairly steep trail climbs between Loch Lomond and Reynold’s Lake, the second in the “paternoster” chain of five glacially-carved lakes in the Loch Lomond basin. These lakes, viewed from the slopes above, are reminiscent of the beads of a rosary, and hence, the name: Paternoster Lakes.
- It was a relief to gain the shore of Reynolds Lake. The lake is a pretty bowl situated at the foot of a ridge off 13,250′ Mt. Bancroft. Just beyond the lake, the trail crosses a cement dam between Reynolds and Stewart Lakes. Many Colorado high country lakes have been enlarged by man-made dams used to impound water for measured use on the dry eastern Colorado plains. The outflow from the dam is the top of the beautiful waterfall that flows into Loch Lomond.
- At Stewart Lake, one of my hiking companions decided to stay for a peaceful rest on a rock at the lake’s shore. We pushed on towards the fourth lake in the chain: Ohman Lake, hiking among the rocks and cliffs between Stewart and Ohman. As we came upon a full meadow of Colorado blue columbine beside the lake, I suspected the name “Ohman” Lake might have been used because of the exclamation made when coming upon it: “Oh MAN!” With those words in mind, we were tempted to make the last steep rock and shelf track to the highest lake, Ice Lake, at 12,000′ and another half mile along the trail. The highest lake beckoned with its refreshing name, and its enviable position high in a glacial cirque between 13er’s, Mt. Bancroft and James Peak. But our companion was waiting back at Stewart Lake, and the day was getting late, so we turned and retraced our steps.
- We re-passed the glorious scenery in reverse, discovered a butterfly moth (white-lined sphinx moth) feeding at a stand of Parry primrose, and took a last look at beautiful Loch Lomond before taking off down the trail. What a great hike! Beautiful streams and abundant wildflowers, four lakes along the trail, with a fifth lake left to explore at another time, all made for a wonderful 4th of July. We were so lucky to have enjoyed every aspect of a spectacular and wonderful backcountry experience.
The Goats of Summer
I love to go up the Mt. Evans road in summer! Besides being the highest paved road (to just shy of 14,264 feet in elevation) in the United States, it is what is found on the mountain’s slopes that make it special. The drive ascends through climate zones much as you would driving north to the arctic. The destination is the alpine tundra, but getting there you traverse switchbacks from the montane at Echo Lake, to the subalpine and timberline at Mt. Goliath, where bristlecone pines grace the slopes. Beyond is the land I love: the high rarified air of the alpine tundra: land above the trees. Here rock gardens bloom with tiny vibrant flowers hugging between the rocky landscape. Also here are well-developed alpine meadows of alpine aven, nodding sky-pilot, green leaf chiming bells and dwarf clovers, all combining to create a colorful scene on the slopes. Here also is the home of my favorite animal species: white-tailed ptarmigan, long-tailed and least weasels, pikas, and marmots. Even more spectacular are the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and Rocky Mountain Goats found going about making their living at elevation, residing on the cliffs, and foraging in the meadows.
In early summer the nannies and ewes stay hidden away with their newborns in nurseries of meadows with protective cliffs above and below. About mid-June, the ewes and nannies appear with their babies, climbing the slopes along the Mt. Evans roadside and to the summit. There they seem to create a social scene for their babies to meet the babies of other nannies, and ewes, and to eat the minerals found in the rocky soil, and perhaps the salt spread on the roads early in the season when road-opening and spring storms sometimes come together. Here they also meet US, and their young become of tolerant of the two-legged gawkers who watch them, photograph, and sometimes interfere with their passage.
Wildlife photography is renowned on Mt. Evans. Nearly any day of the week photographers toting huge lenses, tripods and cameras search out the alpine wildlife to photograph. Because of their long lenses, they can hold their distance from the animals, and do not disturb their movements and their habits. However, I have been dismayed and sometimes annoyed by people with pocket cameras and cell phones trying to get close up photos of the sheep and goats. Both species are extremely tolerant of humans, but they are not tame pets. They don’t beg for food, and they prefer respect in the form of the distance humans keep. They prefer a quiet group who makes no sudden movements, and quiet sounds. They will continue their normal behaviors and display immensely satisfying antics, if not crowded. In more remote places on the mountain, I have been able to sit on the ground where the goats and sheep will actually approach me. Sitting is not as threatening, and the animals’ innate curiosity will often allow a close encounter. I’ve often hiked to the goats and sheep, and I’ve had wonderful opportunities to observe and photograph the intimate moments of their lives. If you don’t own a telephoto lens, do be content to include the environmental surroundings of the animal as a highlight to the landscape. Enjoy the animals with respect, and you will be rewarded with some amazing moments!
Photo Reconnaissance….Finding Treasures
Did you ever go somewhere to photograph something (in my case bears and coyotes) that someone told you was ALWAYS in a particular spot? I was in my local hardware store the other day, and heard a contractor talking about building a screen for a patron’s dogs…….to keep them from barking so much at the coyotes and bears…..my ears pricked up! I had to break in……”and where would THAT be????” Of course I had to set out the very next early morning to find said coyotes and bears. Well, it was a beautiful morning after a lot of stormy weather: usually a great time to find wildlife. But, nada. However, I did enjoy the morning, searched out a new (to me) county open space park (Pine Valley Ranch), and drove up through incredible Sphinx Park (at the wrong time of day, though for photos……that is an evening kind of place). The historic Elk Creek valley is full of incredible vintage Rocky Mountain stick architecture, and the whole area SHOULD have been teeming with wildlife. Oh well. I’ll just have to make some repeat visits!
The Kits Grow Up
Fox kit time is so much fun, but this year there were all sorts of interruptions and differences. The first difference was the number of unleashed dogs in my neighborhood. As a result, the kits were kept away, rotated in small groups, and now only one, or maybe a couple, reside under my deck. The second difference was my own unavailability due to losing my job and needing to network and apply for jobs rather than spending my time photographing wildlife after school.
On the bright side, I had a recent amazing weekend with all six kits in residence. Even better, it was over the Memorial Day holiday, and I had photographer friends visiting who got to share in the fun of observing and photographing the fox family.
That weekend was so much fun that we spent very little time enjoying the out-of-doors on my backyard deck. Instead, we were holed up at the windows in a sort of blind situation, watching the coming and going of babysitter yearlings, Mama, Papa, and lots of puppy personalities.
I hope you enjoy the photos of our “Kit Enkounters”!
The kits are nearly as big as their babysitter, yearling sister, “Sadie”.
Yearling sister, “Goldie,” babysitting from a distance.
Our favorite kit quickly became the small, but brave littlest girl. She was very tame, like her mother, “Foxie,” and she could tell off those kits much bigger than she.
Playing “tug-o-war” with a magpie that was brought for food, and as a play-toy. Kind of gross to our eyes, but well within the realm of “being a fox”.
The little girl, and one of the much bigger kits sitting side-by-side on the rock wall. This is the “kit left behind”, and I thank Foxie and Papa every day for allowing me to see and enjoy this one kit at my window!
The kit who seems to have stayed behind , perhaps alone, or perhaps with another of the shyer of the group. The rest of the litter was taken to other hideouts around the neighborhood. This boy/girl is sweet, and I am so glad he’s still here……but I hope the entire brood has one time together under my deck before the summer is over.