2018—View from the Top

The  summit of Steptoe Butte in Eastern Washington offers jaw-dropping 360° views of the unique Palouse landscape.  It is 3,612-feet above sea level but the top of the butte is only about 1,000 feet above the surrounding farm lands.  We drove up the corkscrew drive to reach the summit and at the top of the butte there is a small parking lot with cellphone and microwave transmission towers at its edges.   The top of the butte is a rather small area so we had unobstructed views of this incredible landscape whichever direction we turned.

The Palouse grows wheat, barley, lentils and chick peas.  The farmers rotate crops in the Palouse so the colors of the  landscape change with the seasons and the growing stage of the crops.  The green in these photographs is the winter wheat that was planted a few months ago and is lush and green now.  The browns are harvested fields that are being prepared now for spring crops.

This landscape adventure was unique for me because it was almost entirely, with just a couple of exceptions, a telephoto experience.  The only wide angle lens that came out of my bag was a fisheye.    I took these with my 300mm on the D850.  Before I arrived in the Palouse, I thought I would be using  my 24-70 mm lens to show the vastness of the landscape.  I was so wrong.  I know that lens would show the vastness but it would lose the detail that is so unique and speaks volumes about the  Palouse.

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View from Steptoe 2

View from Steptoe 1

2108—Rust and Lichen

Thursday morning, heading south on US195 toward Lewiston, Idaho for breakfast, we passed through Uniontown, WA and pulled over at Artisans at the Dahman Barn.  This cultural facility promotes inspirational and enriching programs in the visual, performing, and culinary arts.  At this early hour of the morning, it was not open but that didn’t matter because we were drawn to the unique fence surrounding the facility, which was created entirely out of rusted, lichen covered wheels from farming equipment.

I started with my fisheye lens but I didn’t like the effect so I switched to my 300mm for detail shots.  The rust and lichen add such interest as do the various ways of connecting the wheels to form the fence, including nuts and bolts and even baling wire.

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rusted lichen wheel palouse

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Rusty Wheel 1

 

 

2018—Just a Little Out of Step

Life isn’t always easy especially when you’re just a little out of step with the rest of your world.   And, when you’re a hybrid Sharp-tailed Grouse/Greater Prairie Chicken, life on the lek can be awkward.  The bird on the right is a hybrid of the two species.  It’s been around a while.  We saw it last year, too.  It hatched with the grouse so it identifies with the grouse but it has much of the appearance of a prairie chicken.  I posted a photograph of this bird a few days ago here facing off with the same purebred grouse, if you will.

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2018—Got A Screw Loose?

Well, I had a screw loose.  Actually I had three screws loose.  And then, they were screws lost because I didn’t know they were loose.

When I got home from Nebraska and removed gear from my camera bag, the lens collar for my 300mm lens fell apart.  Two screws were gone.  Then, I checked the lens collar for the 80-400mm lens, and one of those screws was missing.  Although I clean and examine my gear often, it never occurred to me to check the tightness of screws, especially screws on the inside of a lens collar.  This short-sightedness could easily have resulted in disaster for me.  Had the collar failed while on the tripod, the lens and the camera would have plummeted to the ground.  The missing screws were not in my camera bag nor were they in my “tiny screws” box where I put odd small screws that I find and don’t know where they belong; they’re usually from eyeglasses but I was hopeful.  They were  nowhere to be found.  The screws are so tiny that if they fell out on a trip, I’d never notice one on a carpet or floor of a vehicle or on the ground where we’re shooting.  The head is about 1/8 inch in diameter and the length of the screw is about 1/8 inch with only a couple of threads, obviously the reason they loosened in the first place.

Fortunately, the folks at Really Right Stuff    where I bought the lens collars helped me out.  They don’t carry these tiny screws in inventory but were able to get them from their supplier at a tiny cost to match their size (25cents each) which they passed on to me.  I bought 8 screws, four for each lens collar (they’re different sizes of course) so if I fail to check tightness again and lose another screw, I’ll have extras.  It cost as much to ship the screws to me as it cost me for the screws but $4.00 is a small price to pay to insure that my lenses are safely attached to their collars.

 

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2018—Windmill

This windmill was quite a distance from the blinds where we were photographing Greater Prairie Chickens in Nebraska.  But, my 600mm lens with the 1.4X teleconverter made it look as if it were right outside the door.  We were in Nebraska, but they got their windmill from South Dakota, as the markings on the blade indicate.  The sky was bald and I felt the photograph needed a little more interest so I added a sepia tone with a paper texture from Luminar 2018.

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2018—Surveying the Fire Line

The Stetson wearing fireman at the control burn in Nebraska last week left his truck for a few minutes to survey the fire line with his dog.  He turned the truck around a few moments after I took the first photograph, and the fire flared up so they both ran back to the truck to drive down the hillside to douse the flames before the wind whipped them out of control.  The heat shimmer from the flames is quite pronounced in the upper half of the second photograph, where it is absent from the first.

Surveying the fire line 1

 

Surveying the Fire line 2

2018—The Lady of the Lek

The stag at eve had drunk his fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill

These opening lines of Canto 1 of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake have somehow been etched on my brain since high school when I read this poem.  I always loved the poem’s cadence but apart from those first two lines, I remember little else of it.   The title for this blog post came to mind as  I watched the female Greater Prairie Chickens strut about the lek, haughty and seemingly disdainful of the males.  None of the males appeared to be acceptable by the females and both days we watched, the females left without choosing a mate.

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Lady of the lek 2

2018—More Squabbling

Action on the lek is sporadic as the male Greater Prairie Chickens pair off to try to dominate each other.  The skirmishes never seem to last long although the staring stand-offs can be quite lengthy.  This pair exploded after staring at each other for a while.  Then, they settled down again to glare at each other until one finally walked away in search of another rival to challenge.

 

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2018—Smitten

Male Greater Prairie Chickens put on quite a display to impress a female.  The males pair off and posture against each other with calls, booms, foot thrumming, and jumping attacks.    This demonstration lasts for hours each morning on the lek during a short few weeks during mating season.  The females arrive late at the lek after the males have invested quite a bit of time trying to intimidate the other males.  The females stroll across the lek, seemingly indifferent to the males’ efforts to attract their attention.  As long as the females are there, the males continue their dance.  Often, the females observe for a while, then disappear without choosing a partner.  As the females disappear, the disappointed males quiet down and eventually fly off to feed and get sustenance to continue their efforts tomorrow.

This female perched atop the barbed wire, swaying and wriggling trying to maintain her balance as she looked over the males for a potential mate.  One of the smitten males hopped up to the fence post near where she’d perched after she moved further down. He tried to thrum his feet on the small post, only to lose his balance and stumble. When he regained his balance, she was gone.

female prairie chic on wire

Male prairie chic on post

2018—Feeling the Joy

For me, bird photography is pure joy.  I find it challenging, exhilarating, and I enjoy every moment of it.  When I bought my first Nikon camera eight years ago, I never dreamed I would become so passionate about it.  But during these past several years of learning photography, I’ve come to the realization that while I am not truly a “birder,” I’ve come to love birds and bird photography.

This past week, I’ve been in the Sand Hills of Nebraska  with my friends Moose, Richard, and Eric.   We’re photographing Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse on their leks but Wednesday we left the ranch and drove a couple hours to the Platte River near Gibbon, Nebraska to photograph sunset.

Until Wednesday, I hadn’t realized that the largest migration of Sandhill Cranes stops along an 80 mile stretch of the central Platte River valley on their way to nesting grounds in the north at this time of year.  As they’ve done for centuries and perhaps millennia, about a half million Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes stop here over a few short weeks to fuel up for the remainder of their journey on what is left of corn and grain in the harvested fields along the river.

When we stopped near Gibbon where the highway crosses the Platte, I was stunned to see wave after wave of mostly Lesser Sandhill Cranes flying from their feeding grounds to spend the night in the river.  It was exciting to witness these magnificent birds as they flew in squadrons, silhouetted against clouds burned orange from the setting sun.  We estimated 20,000 cranes flew over our heads during the 30 minutes we watched.  This glorious sunset reaffirmed my feelings of pure joy when I am photographing birds.  As we stood at the edge of the road watching the ancient spectacle as the birds settled into the shallow water in front of the glorious sunset , I was reminded of  how one can find great pleasure and happiness in unexpected places .

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2018—Megatron to the Rescue

On Tuesday afternoon in Nebraska, we were invited to photograph a control burn on the Sand Hills ranch property where we stayed.  These types of burns are used to control invasive species and to revive the prairie grasses on the ranch’s pasture lands.  The operation was scheduled on this day because of the perfect weather conditions and we were allowed access to areas around the perimeter of the burn.  The fire department and ranch fire crews, driving ATVs, pickups, small fire trucks and massive converted surplus military tankers with water, raced up and down the sandy hills igniting the fires in specific areas, watching closely, and watering hot spots to maintain control.  We were intrigued by the three huge tankers, and one in particular that proudly flew a tattered American flag and was driven by a Stetson wearing fireman accompanied by his dog.  That imposing truck, dubbed Megatron, was my favorite.

As we watched through the heat shimmer, Megatron raced down the hillside to keep control of the fire line.  We stood on the burned perimeter for a couple of hours while flames raced across the prairie and Megatron and the others safely and efficiently controlled the massive burn.

We all reeked of smoke but the excitement of this unexpected privilege that took us so close to the flames and let us watch such an expert crew at work made up for it.

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2018—Fish Eye Sunrise at Hopi Point

Fish eye lenses create such distorted views of the world like a fish looking through a fish bowl but when the horizon is placed dead center, it serves as the wide-angle lens it is.  My fish eye lens is a DX 10.5mm lens so when I put it on the D850, the D850 became a crop sensor camera.  I took quite a few shots at Hopi Point in the Grand Canyon one morning trying to get the horizon dead center.    This one of my successful attempts.

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2018—Little Blind on the Prairie

On our first morning in the Sand Hills of Nebraska at the Switzer Ranch, home of Calamus Outfitters where we’re spending the week photographing Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse, we were excited to shoot Greater Prairie Chickens on the lek.     We need to keep our long lenses as unobtrusive as possible, letting them protrude only a few inches out of the blind.  This restricted the usable area behind the cameras so we were a bit cramped.   But once again, the sounds of the birds on the lek coming to life at 6 AM in the dark, surrounding us with their morning calls was enough to get the adrenalin pumping.  And, as the sun brought light to the prairie, we were treated to great views from our little blind on the prairie.

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